AS IT stands, UEFA could be looking at Real Madrid v Juventus and Manchester United v Ajax Amsterdam for their two finals in 2016-17. On paper, this looks like two fantastic ties featuring some of the continent’s top names. Admittedly, United v Ajax is not what it might have been 20 or 30 years ago, but you couldn’t get four bigger clubs with a greater European pedigree. Let’s look at this week’s semi-final second legs.
Juventus v Monaco After winning 2-0 in the principality, Juventus must be red-hot favourites to reach their second final in three years. But Monaco remain on target to win Ligue 1 and will travel to Turin needing four points from three games to unseat Paris St.Germain as French champions. Juve are also on the brink of securing their domestic title and require one win from three games to secure the scudetto for the sixth consecutive season. Juve have slipped up just once since mid-January, losing to Napoli in the Coppa Italia, and their last league defeat was on January 15 in Florence. They are unbeaten at home in Serie A and overall, have conceded just 23 goals. Defence has been at the heart of Juve’s success this season and they have not yielded a single goal in the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League. Monaco have lost just three times in Ligue 1 this season and have defied the sceptics who thought they would eventually be overtaken by PSG. Monaco’s exciting young team has scored 98 goals in 35 games and conceded just 29. Their last league defeat was in December at the hands of Marseille. Although it looks likely they will win Ligue 1, it is difficult to see them overturn a two-goal deficit in Turin.
Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid Atletico just cannot get one over on their city rivals. If, as expected after their 3-0 first leg win, Real go through to their third final in four seasons, it will be four consecutive years in which Atletico have been knocked-out by Ronaldo and his team-mates. There has been talk of Ronaldo departing from the Bernabeu in the summer, but the controversial CR7 has produced two hat-tricks in the last two Champions League ties to prove he is the man for the big occasion. Equally, there is a growing feeling that Atleti manager Diego Simeone may leave the club. Certainly, the Argentinian must wonder what he has to do to outgun Real after two UEFA Champions League final defeats in three years at the hands of the Blancos. Atletico are in third place in La Liga, but 10 points behind the leaders Barcelona and Real (who are level but Real have a game in hand). Real gave Barca a lifeline when they lost the Clasico at the Bernabeu on April 22, but they bounced back with 15 goals in four games. It is difficult to see anything but another Real win, and that 3-0 win in the first leg will surely be enough to take them through to the final once more.
Manchester United v Celta Vigo Jose Mourinho has made it clear that he wants another trophy and United are well placed to edge past the Spaniards with a 1-0 first leg lead. Despite having a good away record, Celta will find it tough against a United team that has won all of its home games in Europe this season. Furthermore, United have never lost a European tie after winning away from home in the first leg. United did lose two of their three away games in the group stage, so they have their weak spots.
Lyon v Ajax Ajax might have expected a more difficult game in the first leg, but won 4-1 against a Lyon side that is currently in fourth place in Ligue 1. Ajax will have an important week, for they travel to Willem II on Sunday, May 14 just one point behind leaders Feyenoord in the final round of Eredivisie games. Ajax haven’t lost in the league since December and they are unbeaten in 15 games. That 4-1 lead is a mountain that Lyon will struggle to climb.
Whatever the outcome of the four semi-finals, and there’s still time for an upset somewhere, let’s have a couple of decent finals. The Champions League invariably disappoints, it would be good to see a rip-roaring finale to the season in Cardiff on June 3. Game of the People, meanwhile, will be in Stockholm to cover the UEFA Europa League final on May 24.