The Champions League semifinal draw on Friday gave us romance on one side and a clash of titans on the other. It’s a mix that injects fresh life into a competition that had been criticized for becoming too predictable while maintaining a marquee matchup.
Few experts expected Liverpool and Roma to be in the last four of this competition but having fought so impressively past Manchester City and Barcelona, respectively, they will meet each other in an encounter that immediately recalls the 1984 European Cup final, which the English team won in a penalty shootout at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
There is an air of nostalgia about the fixtures — the ’80s were a glorious period for both clubs, with Roma winning one of its three Serie A titles in 1983 and reaching its only European Cup final the following season. Liverpool’s triumph in ’84 was its fourth in eight seasons but it had been a decade since the Merseyside club reached this stage of the competition.
A further twist is that both clubs are owned by Bostonians: John W. Henry’s Fenway Sports Group is the parent company of Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox while Roma’s James Pallotta has also a minority share of the Boston Celtics.
On top of that, the tie creates a fascinating reunion, with Liverpool’s Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah, who has scored 39 goals in all competitions this season, up against the club he left for Anfield in the summer.
And how each team got to this point has energized the competition. Liverpool stunned Premier League leader Manchester City with a 3-0 first-leg victory at Anfield, followed up by an impressive 2-1 win at City’s Etihad Stadium on Tuesday as its manager, Juergen Klopp, again got the better of Pep Guardiola.
Roma’s quarterfinal achievement was even more impressive. After being somewhat unfortunate to be on the receiving end of a 4-1 result in Barcelona, the Italians pulled off one of the biggest surprises the competition has ever seen with a 3-0 win at an ecstatic Olimpico, an outcome that led Pallotta to jump in a fountain at Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, earning himself a fine of 450 euros (about $550).
While Liverpool, with its devastating and speedy attack, will likely start as the favorite, Klopp said Roma’s win over Barca speaks for itself.
“If anybody think this is the easiest draw then I cannot help this person; they obviously didn’t see both games against Barcelona,” he said.
“The second leg was outstanding, it was outstanding what they did. They should have probably won four- or five-nil. I was really impressed,” he said.
It is no surprise for either Bayern and Real to be in the last four — anything less would have been measured a failure for clubs that will meet for 25th and 26th times in Europe, making it the most-played UEFA competition tie.
While Bayern got past Sevilla in their quarterfinal without too much stress, Real was moments away from a shock exit to Juventus. Having won the first leg in Turin 3-0, the Spaniards conceded three goals at home on Wednesday before a late Cristiano Ronaldo penalty kept their campaign alive.
Real is looking to become the first club to win three straight European Cup titles since Bayern’s hat trick between 1974 and 1976. The pair are level on 11 wins each from their previous encounters, including the Spanish club’s 5-0 aggregate win in the 2014 semifinals. They also met in last season’s quarterfinals, when Real triumphed, 6-3, on aggregate.
Real badly needs European success this year to compensate for its disappointing campaign in La Liga, where it sits in fourth place, a full 15 points behind leader and archrival Barcelona.
On the other side, Bayern can focus on its tie without much distraction, having wrapped up its sixth straight Bundesliga title last week. It also has an emotional boost: The German club announced on Friday that former player Croatian Niko Kovac will take over as coach next season from 72-year-old Jupp Heynckes, who is stepping down.
It could be an emotional end to the season for Heynckes, who led Real to the 1998 Champions League title but was nonetheless fired at the end of that season, then came back to win the trophy in 2013 with Bayern. With Real looking vulnerable despite Ronaldo’s extraordinary performances, Bayern has a chance to provide their coach with the perfect send-off — and even provide a little bit more romance.
Simon Evans is a Reuters soccer correspondent based in Northern England.
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