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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Champions League Semifinal Matchups: No Distractions for Bayern

By this point in the season, the elite soccer teams of Europe often have their positions in their domestic leagues locked up, allowing them to give the season’s biggest prize, the Champions League, undivided attention.
That is not the case this year. Three Champions League semifinalists — Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid and Manchester City — will have one eye on other matters as they play the first legs of their semifinal matchups on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The title race in Spain, which Barcelona once had locked up, is suddenly wide open. Atlético is tied for first and Real is within a point of both teams with three games to play. In England, Manchester City is hanging on to a top-four place (and the
Champions League spot it earns for next season), but its rival Manchester United is close behind.
Only Bayern Munich, which has a comfortable lead as it bids for a fourth straight title in Germany, can devote 100 percent of its resources to the semifinals. If Bayern can leverage that advantage into a Champions League title, it will be a sweet farewell present for Coach Pep Guardiola, who is leaving the club this summer.
Manchester City has been a goliath in English soccer since being bought by Middle Eastern interests in 2008. But until this season, the team had only two round-of-16 appearances in the Champions League. Now in the rarefied air of the last four, City will be eager to deliver the title it has long sought, especially given its disappointing finish in the Premier League.
Manchester City will be missing the injured midfielder Yaya Touré, but it has tremendous depth. Still, it may be the longest shot of the four remaining teams given its history, and it faces a tall order in Real Madrid, which has reached the semifinals for the sixth year in a row and has won nine straight in the Spanish league, scoring 3.7 goals a game in those matches.
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has 16 goals in the Champions League this season, double his nearest pursuer and one shy of the record Ronaldo set two seasons ago. Ronaldo missed Real’s weekend league game with a thigh injury, however, and he remains doubtful for Tuesday’s first leg. But with the likes of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez available in attack, Real remains — justifiably — the favorite.
Atlético, the surprise 2014 Spanish champion, has roared back to the top this year, jumping into the league race and eliminating Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals by overcoming a one-goal deficit with a 2-0 victory in the second leg.
Both goals were scored by the French striker Antoine Griezmann, who may not be Ronaldo or Benzema (or Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi or Neymar for that matter) but has more than held his own in league and European play this season.
But while Real and Barcelona have each scored more than 100 goals in the league this season, Atlético has managed only 59. It has nevertheless limited opponents to a mind-bogglingly low total of 16 in 35 games.
Still, it is hard to see a Spanish team other than Real or Barcelona as an interloper at this stage, and Bayern will be favored.
The two men most charged with breaking down Atlético’s stern defense will be strikers Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller, and they are more than capable of doing it, ranking first and third in Bundesliga scoring this season.
Coach Pep Guardiola concludes his three-year stay in Munich this spring. He arrived just after the team won the 2013 Champions League final, and he will want to go out with a title of his own. It is the one trophy Bayern expected from him when it lured him away from Barcelona, and it is the only one he has yet failed to deliver.
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