English football against Spanish futbol, Manchester City against Real Madrid on Tuesday and Liverpool against Villarreal on Wednesday: two Anglo-Spanish shocks in the semi-finals of the Champions League will allow to establish a first European hierarchy before the return matches and the designation of the finalists who will face in Paris.
Victorious in eight of the last ten editions of the Champions League, Spain and England have confirmed their hold on the continent, which is reflected in their dominance in the UEFA index of the best European championships.
Admittedly, there’s a surprise guest there, Villarreal, a modest club from a city of 50,000 in the Valencia region who in turn tamed Juventus Turin in the round of 16 (1-1, 3-0) and then Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals (1-0, 1-1), reaching the last four after 2006 for the second time in its history.
For the rest, we could well relive an Anglo-English final, such as in 2021 (Chelsea-City) or in 2019 (Liverpool-Tottenham). Or, why not, a Spanish-Spanish poster, like 2014 or 2016 (both times Real-Atlético Madrid).
“I want to congratulate Villarreal and Unai (Emery) for causing a sensation,” said Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti. “I think few people thought that Spanish football would send two teams to the semi-finals of the Champions League at the start of the season.”
“We are going to suffer,” Guardiola . warns
La Liga has lost some of its luster due to the deep crisis that has shaken one of the Spanish giants, FC Barcelona, and the successive departures of the most stars of the championship, Neymar in 2017, Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 and Lionel Messi in 2021.
But the great Real remains the record holder for trophies in the European queen event (13) and dreams of another final, four years after his last coronation. Ancelotti’s team will have to cast a spell for 2021 finalist Manchester City, who are looking to win a first-time coronation in the C1, the goal of wealthy Emirati owners.
“We’re going to face the kings of this league, so whatever it is, we’re going to suffer,” admitted City coach Pep Guardiola, Real’s long-time favorite when he coached Barca (2008-2012).
Benzema, candidate for the Ballon d’Or
City have for him his spinning passing game, carried by his little templates Riyad Mahrez, Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden or Bernardo Silva. But the Madrid giant, who dreams of playing another final at the Stade de France after beating Valencia (3-0) in 2000, counts on his unparalleled European culture and on his striker, a Karim Benzema in a state of grace.
Author of seven goals in his last three European nights to knock out Paris SG and then Chelsea, the Frenchman is applying for the Ballon d’Or more than ever.
But Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane, on the side of Liverpool, plan to challenge him for the status of the best player of the season: the two attackers want to lead the Reds to another coronation, as in 2019, the seventh of the mighty club of the north of England.
Klopp is wary
Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, however, is wary of Villarreal, which has a well-oiled collective in the absence of stars. His counterpart Unai Emery has won the Europa League four times (with Sevilla and then Villarreal) and knows better than anyone how to prepare for a double continental showdown.
“Anyone who knocks out Juve and then Bayern deserves to be in the semi-finals,” Jurgen Klopp warned. “They are very good and have an extremely experienced coach who is the king of these cups, it is amazing what Unai is doing.”
Spain or England? The Stade de France awaits the designation of hosts for the final on May 28.