Following the midweek first legs of the UEFA Champions League semifinals, Real Madrid and Juventus have all but booked their places in the final. Madrid overcame yet another Champions League derby, beating Atletico 3-0 courtesy a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. Juve arguably got an even better result at Monaco, winning 2-0 thanks to a Gonzalo Higuain brace.
And so barring lightning striking twice in the same competition in two successive days, it should be a Real-Juve final in Cardiff, on June 3. The odds would be slashed by the fact that supernatural thunder has already aided Barcelona in overcoming the biggest deficit in Champions League history in this season’s quarter-finals stage against Paris Saint Germaine.
Atletico, having already come at the wrong end of defeats in Champions League finals against Real, might have run out of the motivational levels needed to turn a 3-0 deficit against the reigning champions. Their losses against Real following extra-time (2014) and penalties (2016) would be fresh in the memories, and one fears another defeat against their more illustrious neighbours might dent the ambitious Atletico project that has seen them make two Champions League finals and winning La Liga (2014) during the ‘age’ of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Monaco, meanwhile, would already be perfectly happy with making the semifinals of Europe’s top competition. They look set to win Ligue 1 and are maintaining their name as among the best clubs on the continent, overtaking Paris Saint Germaine as the team to beat in France. And so the odds of their turning a 2-0 deficit in Turin remain slender as well.
A Real-Juve final would set up quite a few intriguing matchups, starting from up top. After a slow start to the UCL this season, Ronaldo has now netted eight goals in the past three games in the competition — five across the two quarter-final legs against Bayern Munich and the hat-trick on Tuesday, which made him the first player to score back-to-back trebles in the Champions League knockout stages. He is now one behind Lionel Messi in the race for this season’s UCL top-scorer, and considering that he should have two full games in the competition, he looks likely to at least equal the Argentinean’s tally, if not better it.
Higuan’s two goals on Wednesday took his goals to five in the Champions League this season. The Juve striker is of course a former Real Madrid star, having played for the Spanish club from 2006 to 2013, before moving to Italy and carving out another success story beginning with the three-year spell at Napoli. Higuain, who was Madrid’s top-scorer in La Liga in the 2009-10 season — outdoing Ronaldo and being second only to compatriot Messi — will absolutely be up for a strong show against his former club.
Along with Higuain, Sami Khedira will also reunite with his old team-mates. And like the Juve duo, Real manager Zinedine Zidane would also be taking on his former club. Zidane had five successful years at Juve between 1996 and 2001, during which he won two Serie A titles and the Intercontinental Cup, finishing runners-up in back to back Champions League finals in 1997 and 1998. Zidane’s World Player of the Year Award, in 1998, also came during his time at Juventus.
The Madrid manager is among the many coaching graduates who have been moulded by Marcello Lippi and are succeeding across Europe as we speak. Zidane would have to undo the club where he learned the tricks of the managerial trade, from the Grand Master, if he is to add a second successive UCL crown as a manager.
While there are intriguing matchups across the pitch, and indeed the dugout as well along with the respective board rooms, one that might not garner many headlines is between two full-backs. Compatriots Marcelo and Dani Alves, playing on the left and right for Real and Juve respectively, have carried forward the Brazilian tradition of redefining the wingback position for a good part of a decade. While Ronaldo and Higuain made headlines, both Marcelo and Dani Alves were instrumental in their side’s win — the latter dishing up assists for both Juve goals.
“Did you see him? Did you see his assists? That’s what a central playmaker does…” Juve boss Max Allegri said of Alves who, along with Marcelo and others, is directly responsible for furthering the evolution of the position he plays in. The fullback is no longer a defender in the traditional sense, and is a hybrid between the orthodox right back and an old-school winger, leaning more towards the latter.
What would make the Real-Juve final a truly grand occasion is the fact that they are arguably the two strongest sides in Europe right now. Juve have all but sealed an unprecedented sixth successive Serie A title and have also reached the Coppa Italia final against Lazio.
While the Italian Champions are chasing a treble, Real are also aiming for glory on two fronts with Barcelona hot on their heels in the league after winning El Classico a couple of weeks ago. Real are also looking to become the first side in Champions League history to retain the trophy, since the tournament evolved from the European Cup. And so, should Real win the league and Juve do their double before next month’s final, it would truly be a contest to decide who Europe’s best side is right now.
Juve knocked Real out in the 2015 semis before losing to Barca in the final in Berlin. They have lost four finals in the two decades since their last Champions League win in 1996 under Lippi. The Old Lady would be as motivated as ever to put an end to that particular wait.