In the aftermath of Leicester’s glorious victory over Sevilla, there was a peculiar trend among English football writers to make excuses for the failure of other English teams, rather than to praise the success of Jamie Vardy & co. This may be a reluctance to jinx the Leicester fairy tale, or possibly an acceptance that it simply falls outside of the Laws of Nature, Physics, and, quite frankly, Reason.
Instead, many articles were written and barrels were scraped to explain why no other English teams had progressed. Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham’s failures were blamed, in part, on the vicious English scheduling, which consistently draws ire from players and managers alike. The argument goes that a combination of two domestic cup competitions, a twenty team league and lack of a winter break leaves the English representatives exhausted when they come to face their continental rivals.
There is also a suggestion that the English game is unsuited to European football. There is no clear reason why this is the case, but a general feeling that Johnny Foreigner manages to get one over on the plucky Brit through no fault of his own. For example, the idea of a ‘European foul’, i.e. a soft foul that would never have been given in the Premier League by our proper referees. Maybe Jamie Vardy was offering a satirical exploration of this idea when he simulated being bulldozed (rather than brushed) by Samir Nasri’s head, resulting in a red card for the Frenchman. Or perhaps he just really wanted to win. Either is possible.
While few would want English teams copying Vardy’s play-acting en masse, English teams could do with taking a leaf from Leicester’s defensive textbook. They held solid after Mark Albrighton scored early, and a team currently third in La Liga were left with over an hour to fruitlessly attack Leicester’s goal. Their defensive strength secured the tie for Craig Shakespeare’s men, just as it had during their title run in last season under Claudio Ranieri.
It was a stark contrast to Manchester City’s defensive performance. While Leicester’s script is seemingly un-writable, most Sit-Com writers could easily have created City’s. Needing simply to avoid a two-goal defeat to progress, Pep Guardiola found himself 2-0 down within half an hour as his cunning plan to field five attackers in front of a shaky defence came crashing down around him. City were as hapless as Monaco were dangerous and Fernandinho was left attempting to put out a series of forest fires with a water pistol. Becoming the first side to score five in a Champions League first leg and then be eliminated speaks volumes of this current City team.
Despite impressively keeping five clean sheets in eight games in this year’s Champions League, it is not Leicester who are the favourites to lift the trophy. Before Friday’s draw, statisticians at fivethirtyeight.com named Barcelona and Bayern Munich as favourites, way out in front of the other quarter finalists. This is not surprising.
Both clubs are footballing royalty, unnervingly dominant in their domestic leagues and stuffed through with icons of the game. Of the last eight league campaigns, Barcelona have been victorious six times, and Bayern five. They are habitual winners who delight in signing their rivals’ best players in the manor of a schoolyard bully, extracting dinner money from the weaker kids.
It may seem inevitable then, that the big boys will win again. Although as Jose Mourinho sulks through the Europa League, Leicester City should take confidence from his success with Porto. Winning the Champions League in 2004 put Mourinho on the map, and showed that a well-organised, hard-working team can beat even the most illustrious of opponents. More recently, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund have upset the odds to reach the final in much the same circumstances.
“Well-organised” and “hard-working”. If Leicester’s domestic success last season and their current continental success were described, it would surely be done using these terms. Leicester certainly have a chance of continuing their success when they face Atletico in April, and in doing so they can provide a template for the rest of English football.
Whether or not the Foxes do advance to the semi-finals they have already shown that by concentrating on the basics and defending properly they can outperform any English team, first in the league, and now in Europe.
Gareth Bale’s red-hot Real Madrid form should scare Liverpool
The Welshman has scored 11 goals in his last 15 appearances.
In Real Madrid’s final league match of this season on Saturday, Gareth Bale swept home a lovely right-footed finish to open the scoring against Villarreal.
That goal marked the Welshman’s 11th goal in his last 15 appearances for club and country; a remarkably prolific run of form that should scare Liverpool ahead of next weekend’s Champions League final.
Injury problems have marred much of Bale’s time at the Bernabeu, and he suffered a lengthy two-month absence from the first team this fall.
Yet, after returning from his injury lay-off, the former world-record signing has hit full form in the last two months.
In that time period, the winger has scored a hat-trick for Wales, braces against Las Palmas and Celta Vigo, and a crucial goal versus Barcelona.
This spring resurgence presents a worrying prospect for Liverpool’s defence, who already will have their hands full trying to keep Cristiano Ronaldo in check in Kiev.
Add in Gareth Bale hitting full form, and suddenly the task at hand for Jurgen Klopp’s men appears far more difficult.
The 28-year-old also has quite the decorated history for los Blancos in cup finals. In his debut season for Real, Bale scored sensational winning goals in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals.
The following season in the European Cup final, the Welshman assisted Real Madrid’s sole goal and scored his penalty in the ensuing shoot-out; his cup final record is simply superb.
Combined with Bale’s recent tremendous goalscoring form, the prospect of facing up against the powerful winger might strike fear in the Liverpool backline.
But the Reds have proven adept in stifling some of the best attacks in Europe this season.
Liverpool famously restricted high-scoring Manchester City to just one goal over 180 minutes in the quarterfinals and the Reds will have to conjure up that heroic rearguard performance in order to stop the on-form Gareth Bale next weekend.
Liverpool should pursue a swap deal with Emre Can for Sami Khedira
The Juventus midfielder could be tempted to the Premier League this summer.
The German international is coming to the end of his third season with the Serie A outfit after joining from Real Madrid on a free transfer in 2015, with just a year left on his contract.
With the Serie A outfit’s midfield options already at full strength and the likely addition of Can, this summer could lead to a few clear-outs in the middle of the park for Juventus.
This should prompt Jurgen Klopp to pursue his fellow countryman Khedira, who is said to be interested in a move to the Premier League.
Reports from The Sun suggest Liverpool have been ‘alerted’ to Khedira’s availability this summer during negotiations with Juventus over Can.
The 24-year-old midfielder’s deal expires at the end of the season and Liverpool face the serious prospect of losing him on a free.
A move for Khedira would make perfect sense for Jurgen Klopp’s side, who are needing to strengthen a midfield that has endured so many injuries throughout the current campaign.
With the addition of Naby Keita, Khedira could prove to be the established central defensive midfielder who allows the Reds midfield three to tick, similar to the role Sergio Busquets plays at Barcelona.
The World Cup-winning midfielder spoke of his fondness for the Premier League in an interview with Bild, saying: “The Premier League has always fascinated me. Winning the title there would complete my collection.”
Liverpool have been breathtaking in Europe this season and Khedira’s experience of winning four-domestic titles in his career could be the addition the Reds need to compete with the dominance of Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.
The German international, who has nine goals and seven assists this season, has one year remaining on his Juventus contract and may be allowed to leave to join the Reds if he desires, with Can likely to join as his ready-made replacement.
Massimiliano Allegri has always possessed a knack for quickly replacing players who have decided they want to leave Juventus, with Fernando Llorente, Carlos Teves, and Paul Pogba all leaving the Italian side in recent years.
Therefore, the likely arrival of Can could be a link to Khedira’s desires to pursue new challenges elsewhere. If so, Liverpool would be the perfect destination for the Juventus midfielder.
The Reds’ high-pressing, all-out, attacking style of play could appeal to the former Real Madrid star, who would undoubtedly be excited by the prospect of joining up with compatriot, Jurgen Klopp, on Merseyside.
Ranking Liverpool’s possible Champions League semi-final opponents
The draw for the semi-final stage takes place on Friday 13th April.
The draw to determine who they will play in the last four occurs on Friday, and here are Liverpool’s possible opponents ranked in terms of difficulty.
Fresh off a superb 3-0 second leg win over Barcelona, the Serie A side are certainly high on confidence and feel as if they can beat any team in the world.
Nonetheless, the Reds will be hoping they are rewarded with a matchup against the Italian side, as they are the most inexperienced team left in the competition.
The farthest Roma have ever made it in the UEFA Champions League were back-to-back quarterfinal appearances in 2006/07 and 2007/08; the semifinals mark uncharted territory for the Italians in the modern era.
Roma are also in poor league form, having recently lost to Fiorentina and drawing with Bologna, and currently sit 21 points off the pace in Serie A.
Liverpool would love to play the only remaining Italian side in the semifinals, as it would pit them against an inexperienced European club.
2. Bayern Munich
One of the world’s best clubs and boasting a superstar collection of top players, the Bundesliga champions are a team to fear.
They have cantered to their sixth-straight league title this spring, winning the title in customary fashion with over a month still to play.
But although it has been all smooth sailing at home, they have shown signs of imperfection in the Champions League. They failed to muster a goal in their second-leg 0-0 draw with Sevilla, and were also thrashed 3-0 by Paris Saint Germain in the group stage.
Although the Bavarian giants are still a force to be reckoned with, they have shown signs of cracking this year; a fact that Liverpool can take heart from.
3. Real Madrid
The back-to-back defending European champions would be the last club Liverpool want to face for a spot in the final.
Real Madrid possess the most dangerous player in Champions League history in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, gifting Los Blancos the ability to win a match out of nowhere.
Ronaldo’s uncanny scoring skills were on display in the quarterfinal battle against Juventus, where he scored three goals, including an outrageous overhead kick and a stoppage-time penalty to send Real through.
Madrid simply don’t get knocked out in Europe; the Reds should be praying they avoid the Spanish side in the semifinal draw.