And then there were four! After some controversy and a lot of surprises, the Champions League semifinalists have been decided. Real Madrid will attempt to capture their third title in a row, and their 13th overall. Liverpool and Bayern Munich are both looking for their sixth. And plucky little Roma are looking to add to the 1960-61 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. (They beat Birmingham City in the final. How strange a place the past was.)
All are very good teams that have done very impressive things to reach this stage. But you don’t care about that. All you care about is the big question: who is going to win? And why? Well, as a special favour to you, here are four answers to that second question. Here is why each team will win the competition.
Liverpool will win the Champions League because they score goals, and they score lots of them. They score them here, and they score them there. They score them in a house, and they score them with a mouse. They score them in a box, and they score them with a fox. They score — well, you get the idea. It’s a useful habit to have, particularly in two-legged European games where away goals are mysterious and powerful.
It can feel kind of simplistic, just saying “they score goals”. But that is the point of the whole business, after all, and nobody left in the competition has scored more. And while none of their front three can come close to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 15, between them Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane have scored 23. And three people are three times as hard to mark as one, which makes Liverpool ... counts on fingers ... 450 percent more dangerous than Real Madrid. Can’t argue with the stats, people.
Real Madrid will win the Champions League because they might just be one of the greatest cup teams of all time. This is not the same thing as being one of the greatest teams of all time: that’s a far more exacting standard, and they’re currently the fourth best team in Spain. But two Champions Leagues in a row is quite the thing, and they’re still — just about — in contention for their third.
The mark of a great cup team isn’t consistency: it’s timing. Great teams are brilliant week in, week out, with occasional moments of luck to smooth the way. Great cup teams are brilliant, lucky, or both at precisely the most useful moments. They break hearts and break games. And no player embodies this more than Cristiano Ronaldo, who against Juventus managed — via a push from Mehdi Benatia, a squeal from Lucas Vazquez, a whistle from Michael Oliver and a meltdown from Gianluigi Buffon — to set himself up for a 96th minute winner.
Throughout the first leg of the quarterfinal, Madrid showed the world that they can be ruthless. Throughout the second leg of the quarterfinal, Juventus showed the world that Madrid can be very ordinary indeed. But then Madrid won anyway. That’s what they do. Some teams, the arc of history just bends towards them.
We haven’t checked the highlights, but we’re assuming that both Bayern Munich and Sevilla agreed to skip the second leg in favour of watching Madrid-Juventus. This was the right call, and well done to all involved.
More generally, Bayern’s passage to the semifinals has been relatively serene. The fact that Sevilla and Besiktas caused them a few problems must be set against the suspicion that Bayern progressed without ever needing to get out of third gear. PSG beat them in the group stage in Paris, but Bayern won in Munich, so we can call that even. In a competition where everybody else is digging deep, defying the odds, and shocking the world, Bayern are just turning over smoothly. It’s kind of admirable, even if it’s not great television.
And that’s why they’re going to win. Not because they’ve got great players, strength in depth, and precisely the right manager for a club with a justified superiority complex. But because Liverpool vibrate at a dangerously high frequency, Madrid nearly stuffed up a three-goal lead at home, and Roma are the romantic outsiders. Bayern are sensible. Bayern make sense. And this competition has already had more nonsense than seems safe.
Or perhaps the nonsense so far is only the signifier of greater nonsense to come, the warning tremors before a seismic outcome. A victory for Daniele De Rossi’s beard. For Edin Dzeko’s secret status as the world’s best target man. For that gorgeous kit. For that badge. For services to making Barcelona look silly. For Radja Nainggolan’s continuing excellence in the field of being Radja Nainggolan. For the surprise and the glee and the cartel-busting hell of it.
The other three teams have won this competition 22 times between them. Roma will win it because they never have, because it would be really interesting if they did, and because the world is coming untethered from its moorings.