Only 180 minutes separate the Champions League semifinalists from a final in Kiev, Ukraine. What makes these matchups in the semis even more enticing are the storylines.
The major theme surrounds Mohamed Salah facing Roma for the first time since his transfer to Liverpool in the summer. Then there is Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, who have a number of players who have represented both sides. Jupp Heynckes, now the coach of Bayern, also won the Champions League with Madrid back in 1998.
With so much riding on these semifinals, here is a crash course on each matchup.
Liverpool vs. Roma
Potential Liverpool XI (4-3-3): Karius; Alexander-Arnold, Lovren, Van Dijk, Robertson; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Henderson, Milner; Salah, Firmino, Mane.
Potential Roma XI (3-4-1-2): Alisson; Manolas, Fazio, Jesus; Florenzi, Strootman, De Rossi, Kolarov; Nainggolan; Schick, Dzeko.
Where the games could be won or lost
Liverpool’s front three is the clear area of focus for Roma. Manager Eusebio Di Francesco will likely deploy a back three again, just like the Barcelona and Lazio games recently. That will help the Giallorossi press Liverpool in the wide areas. It also allows the defence to cover more ground and thus restricting space for the Reds trio.
In order for Liverpool to circumvent those tactics from Roma, it needs Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make those driving runs forward in midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain was very active off the ball versus Manchester City in the quarterfinals, which helped the Merseyside club overwhelm City. Roberto Firmino will be crucial as well because the Brazilian likes to drop deep to provide link-up play and he never stops pressing the opponent.
Considering Roma’s midfield faced very little resistance from Barcelona in the second leg of the quarterfinals, it will be intriguing to see how the midfielders respond to that intense pressure.
Roma’s key player to watch: Daniele De Rossi. The 34-year-old turned back the clock and delivered a man-of-the-match performance at the Stadio Olimpico against Barca on April 10. As brilliant as he was, De Rossi also had plenty of time to pick out passes and dictate the tempo of that game. Now the captain has to replicate that showing against a ferocious Liverpool side. Will he have the legs to do it again?
Liverpool’s key player to watch: Virgil van Dijk. Everyone is well aware of Salah, Mane and Firmino, which is why the potential difference-maker will be van Dijk. The Dutch centre-back has been nothing short of solid since arriving from Southampton in January. But he has a stern test with Edin Dzeko, who tormented Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti a couple of weeks ago. Dzeko is deceptively fast and strong in the air, so this should be a fun individual battle.
Prediction: Liverpool defeats Roma 3-1 on aggregate. Liverpool has not conceded once in its last four Champions League matches at Anfield, while Roma has failed to score in its previous three away games. A potentially decisive first-leg victory should be enough for the Reds.
Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
Bayern Munich potential XI (4-3-3): Ulreich; Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Alaba; Rodriguez, Martinez, Thiago; Muller, Lewandowski, Ribery.
Real Madrid potential XI (4-4-2): Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Isco; Benzema, Ronaldo.
Where the games could be won or lost
Most matches are usually determined by the superior midfield. There will be plenty of individual quality on display for both sides which should make this a very fluid and entertaining pair of games.
Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are usually technically superior to the opposition midfield duo but this is not the case against Bayern Munich. Thiago and James Rodriguez are two elite passers who can easily out-pace the Madrid partnership. Thiago is also a very underrated defender. He’s adept at recovering possession off an opposing player and orchestrating the game.
This adds even more responsibility onto the shoulders of Javi Martinez and Casemiro. The midfield anchors will be tasked with snuffing out any runs into the final third by the opposing midfield and circulating the ball forward for any potential counter-attacks. With the full-backs likely pushed up high, that means there will be even more space to exploit.
Bayern Munich’s key player to watch: Thomas Muller. The German international bagged a hat-trick last Wednesday in Bayern’s 6-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB Pokal semifinals. He also added a goal and an assist in the Bundesliga victory versus Hannover four days later. Look for Muller to drift inside behind Robert Lewandowski to make up the numbers against Madrid’s midfield quartet as well.
Real Madrid’s key player to watch: Isco. The Spaniard was sensational in the 3-0 victory over Juventus in the first leg of the quarterfinals. He did not misplace a single pass and assisted Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener. The 26-year-old is devastating on the break, so Bayern will have to be wary of his influence on the ball.
Prediction: Real Madrid defeats Bayern Munich 4-3 on aggregate. There is little separating these two sides, but Cristiano Ronaldo is unstoppable these days and could decide this matchup on his own. Ronaldo has scored in 12 consecutive matches with a total of 22 goals in that span. Not even Juventus and Atletico Madrid – two of the best defences in Europe – could shut down the Portuguese star. Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels aren’t the most agile defenders, either, which might be the determining factor.