Real Madrid dreams to end vs. Atletico, Juventus too shrewd for Monaco
Friday's Champions League semifinal draw saw Real Madrid placed against rivals Atletico Madrid, while Ligue 1 leaders Monaco face Serie A champions Juventus. Here, Nick Ames looks at the meetings and predicts which sides will reach the final in Cardiff on June 3.
Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid
There was an inevitability about this tie being drawn out: the pair have contested two finals and a quarterfinal in the past three seasons, so perhaps it was about time this gap was filled. At least it will make for some variety in the Cardiff showpiece and Atletico will hope it is their turn, after losing all of the recent matchups, to hold sway in a Madrid derby. They can feel encouraged by the 1-1 draw they eked out at the Bernabeu in a La Liga match two weekends ago, Antoine Griezmann equalising late on, even if a 3-0 home reverse in November augurs rather less well. Can Atleti coach Diego Simeone vault a hurdle that has proved just too high so far?
It would be a fantastic story and just reward for the progress of a side that develops year on year while retaining the doggedness that is Simeone's hallmark. Atletico have a chance against the champions and 11-time winners: clean sheets are currently rare commodities at the Bernabeu and Real have not kept a single one in the Champions League all season. Zinedine Zidane's side have rode their luck at times, never more so than in a quarterfinal second leg against Bayern Munich that saw them on the rack before controversial red card and offside decisions swing the tie in their favour.
Real, with Cristiano Ronaldo as predatory as ever even some of the old explosiveness has gone, will capitalise on the smallest advantage so the key for Atletico will be discipline. If they can avoid falling into too many of the niggly pitfalls that derby days harbour, their city rivals are vulnerable -- and the tie could end up being finely poised.
Either way, it will be loaded with emotion. Atletico's Estadio Vicente Calderon will now host one last derby, the penultimate game Atletico play there before leaving at the end of this season, and it is a chance to sign off on perhaps the most positive note of all. Assuming Atletico are firmly in the tie after the first leg, the atmosphere at their home stadium will be electric -- and whoever masters it most effectively may well go through.
Prediction: This time Atletico get it right, riding the wave of emotion and expectation to capitalise on Real's defensive shakiness and edge through.
Monaco vs. Juventus
It can convincingly be argued that this is the more mouthwatering of the two ties -- both for its relative novelty value and the contrast and styles and expertise it presents.
These two actually faced each other in the knockout phase only two seasons ago, Juventus winning a quarterfinal 1-0 on aggregate, but it was one of only two ties they have ever contested -- the other being a semifinal in 1998 that the Italians also won. The change, particularly in Monaco's case, since 2014-15 has been extraordinary: back in 2015 they could be tough to watch even with Anthony Martial and one of this season's stars, Bernardo Silva, coming through.
This time around they are probably the freshest, most exciting side in Europe -- attacking at lightning speed through Kylian Mbappe and their exhilarating full-backs, Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe. Leonardo Jardim has been given time to develop a team that will be many neutrals' favourites for the competition, particularly with the risk of big bids for many of their young stars coming in during the summer.
Can they pull it off? Monaco should be a threat to anybody but they are faced with what is probably the ultimate European test. While the Ligue 1 side were throwing men forward as usual to defeat Borussia Dortmund, Juventus were providing a now-familiar masterclass in defensive discipline and application to keep Barcelona out at the Camp Nou and hold on to their 3-0 first-leg lead.
Massimiliano Allegri's side has purred along in its Champions League campaign so far and its record is remarkable -- they have conceded just twice in their 10 games. And even if Monaco can, as they will expect to, make a dent in that record, the Italian champions are more than capable of cutting loose further up the pitch. Gonzalo Higuain has 29 goals this season; Paulo Dybala, who scored twice against Barcelona, has 16, and a supply line that includes Miralem Pjanic and Juan Cuadrado should find gaps in a Monaco team that, according to Jardim, will not compromise on its beliefs in the last four.
It is a tantalising clash of thrilling young talent and practised, battleworn heads: Monaco will hope to get their first semifinal since 2004, when they went on to finish as runners-up, off to a good start in the home leg, but Juventus -- seeking their first Champions League triumph since 1996 -- may feel confident of keeping them at arm's length.
Prediction: Juventus are the most complete team left in the Champions League and, while Monaco will doubtless stretch them, it will be the Italians who go through -- perhaps by a two-goal margin.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.