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Champions League: All-English final or Spain to reign in semi-finals?

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It is the Premier League against La Liga as the Champions League begins a blockbuster semi-final stage this week.

In England’s corner are domestic title rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, who face Spain’s Villarreal and Real Madrid respectively.

Will we see another all-English final? Can Villarreal upset the odds? Is Carlo Ancelotti going to claim his fourth European Cup? BBC Sport looks at the major narratives at play in the final four of Europe’s premier club competition.

An all-English final? A double? A quadruple?!
The Premier League is represented by its top two, a pair who have largely swept aside all they have faced this campaign as they go toe-to-toe for every trophy on the table.

City and Liverpool are favourites to win their respective semi-finals and continue England’s recent dominance of the Champions League.

After being absent from the final for five seasons between 2013 and 2017, the Premier League has provided five of the past eight finalists, with two of the past three showdowns being all-English affairs.
For Liverpool, this is familiar territory. They are bidding for a third final in five seasons, having lost to Real Madrid in 2018 before beating Tottenham to lift the trophy 12 months later – their sixth time overall.

They are also hoping the Champions League will be part of a historic quadruple this season. They already have the Carabao Cup in their possession, are through to the FA Cup final and trail City by a single point with five Premier League games remaining.

City are looking for a double themselves while desperately hoping to follow a similar trajectory to the Reds in Europe as they bid to make amends for their agonising 1-0 defeat by Chelsea in last year’s final.

They have been wildly successful domestically, but the Champions League has become something of an obsession for big-spending City under Guardiola, who has won it twice before as boss of Barcelona.
If all you knew of Unai Emery was his disappointing spell as Arsenal boss from 2018 to 2019 or his European struggles at Paris St-Germain prior to that, you might wonder what all the fuss was about.

But the 50-year-old has a stellar reputation in his native Spain, courtesy of his fine work with Valencia, Sevilla and now Villarreal.

It was with the second of those three that he truly earned his ‘cup king’ tag, leading them to three successive Europa League titles between 2014 and 2016. He added a fourth victory in the competition with his current club last season to earn them a Champions League spot.

“The right man at the right place – he is doing a great job,” was European football correspondent Kristof Terreur summary on the BBC’s Euro Leagues podcast. “He is an ideal manager for an underdog side. You won’t name star players at Villarreal but he builds teams.

“People laugh at him because of what happens at PSG and Arsenal but maybe he just didn’t get time. He is a brilliant coach.”

This season under him, the ‘Yellow Submarine’ are responsible for ruthlessly and efficiently sinking two of Europe’s giants, beating two-time European champions Juventus in the last 16 and, even more impressively, six-time winners Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.

Liverpool are the latest European giant in their sights.

European football expert Guillem Balague said: “Villarreal are from a village of 50,000 people but have the fourth biggest wage in Spain. We shouldn’t be surprised they are succeeding.

“But it is the semi – you don’t get there by chance. Yes, Villarreal have a chance.”
Between 2015-16 and 2017-18, Real Madrid were invincible in Europe, winning three successive Champions Leagues under Zinedine Zidane with a squad packed with players at the top of their game.

The current side, managed by Carlo Ancelotti, are not of the same calibre, but do still have some of the stars of that era and certainly know how to win games of football, as their 15-point lead in La Liga attests.

In each of the past two rounds, Real have looked down and out only for one of their superstars to summon something from nowhere and turn their fortunes around.

In the last 16 it was Karim Benzema’s second-half hat-trick in the second leg to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win. In the quarters, Chelsea led them 4-3 on aggregate with 10 minutes of the tie left, only for Luka Modric to pull out a wonder pass and set up Rodrygo to level, before Benzema got the winner in extra time.
Despite beating the French champions and current Champions League holders, the jury remains out on the degree of positive influence Ancelotti has had on Real’s run to the last four.

“If you keep talking about magic nights, miracles and huge turnarounds it is because your gameplan didn’t work,” said Balague.

“Real Madrid perform those miracles because they have a lot of quality. It is despite Ancelotti.”

Ancelotti, on the other hand, is one of only three managers to have won the European Cup/Champions League three times and has won 74% of his 35 games in charge of Real in the Champions League – the best win percentage of any manager with at least 20 games for a single club in the competition.

This will be a record 31st Champions League semi-final for the club, and they are going for an unmatched 17th victory.

“I don’t think you can reach the semi-finals so many times and get told there is no logic to it,” said Italian football journalist Mina Rzouki.

“Madrid are a team who know how to chase wins. It is a collective effort, everyone who wins deserves to win.

“It is the tactical adjustments that were made when they were dead in the water. It is not despite Ancelotti. The difference between this year and last is Ancelotti.”
(BBC)

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