Interesting fare in the offing

The European Cup, which has reached the semifinal stage, is getting transformed into a rich boys’ club, where usually only the elite and big-spending teams always find a way to have the final say. An analysis by Ayon Sengupta.

Growing up has never ever been easy. With increasing age comes equally increasing cynicism and we, sadly, lose the power to be surprised. Even surprise birthday parties, which were ever so magical a decade (or two) ago, are only forced and contrived now.

How one can do without the fake pleasantries and the even faker smiles, just get rid of those party crashers and sit and sulk about the increasing number of grey hairs, the poorly-paid job and 100 other issues…

Surprises, the pleasant ones, wretchedly, are hard to come by, as we add up the years. Sport, in most cases football (the most popular sport in the world) — even if we are not playing — can act as a soothing balm here. The unpredictability and the David slaying Goliath story can help us repose our faith in the underdog.

The European Cup over the years has provided us with a rich supply of surprises, the classic giant-killing acts. But like everything else, recently, it is getting transformed into a rich boys’ club, where usually only the elite and big-spending football teams always find a way to have the final say.

Six of the eight quarterfinalists in this year’s competition had expensively-assembled squads and the combined financial clout of the lot is enough to wipe off the pangs of hunger from the face of the earth.

Big spenders Bayern Munich and Chelsea knocked out equally heavy moneybags Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain. And Borussia Dortmund, twice German League champion in recent years — despite having only one-third of the budget of Bayern — came close but failed to bump out the biggest-spending Real Madrid. Trying to overturn a 3-0 first-leg deficit, the Jurgen Klopp-managed side pressed Real back at Signal Iduna Park, hardly allowing it any space in the middle and rattled its shaky defence to carve out a 2-0 win. Alas! Another goal didn’t come by and the host failed to take the tie to extra-time, and give itself a chance to follow up on its incredible 4-3 semifinal victory over the same opponent last year.

However, to keep matters interesting, the poor team from Madrid — Atletico — downed Barcelona 2-1 over the two legs to put up an underdog’s reservation for the semifinals. Playing without its prolific centre-forward, Diego Costa, Atletico won 1-0 at home at the Vicente Caldron after playing out a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou earlier. It now takes on the 2012 Champions League winner, Chelsea, and will clearly be the neutrals’ favourite.

The side will hope to keep up its good Cup form and stay on course to add to its recent tally of Europa League, the Copa del Rey and the European Super Cup — all won over the last three seasons. Atletico, this term, has even managed to keep pace in the more gruelling La Liga battle and leads the points chart, ahead of both city-rival Real and Barcelona.

Former Argentine skipper, Diego Simeone, has brought in the doggedness of his playing career to the manager’s table too, and his side, though thin on replacements, has soldiered on bravely, rarely looking out of breath and every player fighting for the other.

The team has preferred a counterattacking style of play, sitting deep and drawing out rivals before suddenly breaking free from its ranks, to move the ball up with great alacrity and exploit the space left by the overlapping opposition. Extremely compact even when out of possession, the side has seen the manager extract defensive duties from his strikers Costa and David Villa — the duo diligently falling back to hold court against the opposing holding midfielders. Chelsea, also a counterattacking team under the tactically shrewd Jose Mourinho — the manager has made it to eight Champions League semifinals in the last 10 seasons — will find it difficult to work out space behind the Atletico backline. Eden Hazard’s possible exclusion for the first-leg because of injury will further hamper the prospects of the English-side while Atletico is now free to play goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, currently on loan from Chelsea.

UEFA has ruled out the implementation of a private clause between the two clubs that suggests an astronomical payment — GBP 4.95 million, an impossible sum for the debt-ridden Spanish club — due to Chelsea, if Courtois plays.

The marquee clash between Bayern and Real, a newfangled, transnational enmity, will pit the astute Pep Guardiola against the experienced Carlo Ancelloti, both twice winners of the Champions League as managers.

Bayern, smarting from an inconsequential yet humiliating 3-0 home defeat in the Bundesliga to Dortmund, has often been plagued with inadequacies in the back. The Bavarian side, in the quarterfinal second-leg against Manchester United, was seen playing with a back two — Dante and Jerome Boateng — and the two wing-backs, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, moving higher up but in the middle, almost flanking Toni Kroos. This unusual formation by Guardiola (though he is not known to repeat mistakes) can absolutely be undone by a Real side studded with the two outstanding wide players, Cristiano Ronaldo (though doubtful for the first-leg with a hamstring injury) and Gareth Bale. But the duo, often guilty of not falling back when the team is out of possession, puts extra pressure on the full backs — an opening, Guardiola is sure to exploit with his own great strengths on the wings in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. The ability of all four wide players to cut in from the wide will test each defence. The edginess of the Real central-backs Pepe and Sergio Ramos will be an added concern.

While Bayern will rely on possession, Real, under Ancelloti, will be more patient and wait for the perfect moments to unleash the twin threats of Ronaldo and Bale, ably supported by an equally excellent Angel di Maria, in a 4-3-3 system where Xabi Alonso plays deeper in the midfield as the anchor, with Luka Modric playing as the central midfielder.

But whatever the result here the world can do with another surprise winner, come the final on May 24 at the Estadio Da Luiz in Lisbon.

THE RESULTS April 1: Barcelona 1 (Neymar 71) drew with Atletico Madrid 1 (Diego 56); April 9: Atletico 1 (Koke 5) beat Barcelona 0. Aggregate score - Atletico 2, Barcelona 1. April 1: Manchester United 1 (Vidic 58) drew with Bayern Munich 1 (Schweinsteiger 67); April 9: Bayern 3 (Mandzukic 50, Muller 68, Robben 76) beat Manchester United 1 (Evra 67). Aggregate score - Bayern 4, Man U 2. April 2: Paris Saint-Germain 3 (Lavezzi 4, David Luiz o.g.-61, Pastore 90) beat Chelsea 1 (Hazard pen-27); April 8: Chelsea 2 (Schurrle 32, Ba 87) beat PSG 0. Aggregate score - Chelsea 3, PSG 3 (Chelsea win on away goal). April 2: Real Madrid 3 (Bale 3, Isco 27, Ronaldo 57) beat Borussia Dortmund 0; April 8: Borussia 2 (Reus 24, 37) beat Real 0. Aggregate score - Real 3, Borussia 2.