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Dublin: 19 °C Sunday 21 July, 2019

Pep's homecoming and the return of the Old Lady - Champions League talking points

The first of this season’s semi-finals takes place tonight with Real Madrid facing Juventus in Turin.

AS THE SEASON begins to wind down, the Champions League has reached the semi-final stage with two mouth-watering games taking place this week.

Here’s three talking points to digest before the action…

The return of the Old Lady

Italy Soccer Serie A Juventus sealed the Serie A title at the weekend and now they have their eyes on European glory Source: AP/Press Association Images

Juventus coasted to the Serie A title at the weekend, their fourth straight crown, but this season has marked the Old Lady’s return to the top table of European football. It’s their first appearance in the last four since 2003 – they went onto lose the final on penalities to AC Milan that year.

Since then, the Italian giants have floundered in the European wilderness as they struggled to transfer their domestic domination but this season has been different. After edging through to the knock-out stages behind Atletico Madrid in Group A, Massimiliano Allegri’s side convincingly swept Borussia Dortmund aside before accounting for Monaco in the last round.

Not many will expect them to be in Berlin at the end of this month, purely because they’re up against Real Madrid, but that may just suit Juve. You get the feeling if they are to have a chance of prevailing, they need to get a positive result in tonight’s first leg in Turin.

Andrea Pirlo, who remains central to their chances, admitted it would be a dream come true if he could help Juventus to their third European crown. Having kept six clean sheets in the competition this far, it’s clear where Juventus’ strengths lie but the absence of Paul Pogba is a setback.

Juve have already exceeded expectations by getting to this stage of the competition and a place in the Coppa Italia final also suggests an upturn in their fortunes. The Scuddeto champions have cup pedigree and they’ve nothing to lose over the next 180 minutes.

Hernandez’s time to shine

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Quarter Final - Second Leg - Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - Santiago Bernabeu Chicharito scored his first Champions League goal for Real in the quarter-final Source: Adam Davy

No team has ever retained the Champions League trophy but Real Madrid are three games away from making history twelve months after claiming La Décima. In truth, it’s been a funny season at the Bernabeu.

Since the defeat to Barcelona in March, Carlo Ancelotti’s side have gone nine games unbeaten and currently find themselves just two points adrift of their bitter rivals with three La Liga games remaining.

Yet, the future of Ancelotti in the Spanish capital is a constant subject of debate after seeing his sides’ form dip since the turn of the year. Before that, they won 22 consecutive games towards the back end of 2014.

That said, they remain firmly in the hunt at home and on the continent and the impact of Javier Hernandez during the absence of Karim Benzema has been a boost.

Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Benzema could all miss out but it affords the quarter-final hero another opportunity to stake his claim. Hernandez’s future remains uncertain but the Mexican has endeared himself to the Bernabeu faithful with a couple of decisive strikes of late.

The onus will be on Real to break down one of the competition’s meanest defences and Hernandez will have the chance to be the hero again.

What sort of reception will Pep get on Camp Nou return?

Germany Soccer Cup Will it be a happy return to Barcelona for Pep Guardiola on Wednesday? Source: Matthias Schrader

After a trophy-laden tenure at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola makes his first return to the Camp Nou on Wednesday. Having served the club with such distinction both on the pitch and in the dugout, it will be fascinating to see what sort of reception he receives from the Catalan supporters.

With so much at stake for both clubs, there will be little room for sentiment as two of Europe’s footballing powerhouses go head-to-head for a place in the Champions League final.

Despite clinching the Bundesliga title at the weekend, Bayern Munich go into Wednesday’s first leg as underdogs and Guardiola finds himself under close scrutiny. The Bavarians have been far from their best over the past few months and face an uphill task to subdue a rampant Barcelona side who are coming off the back of an 8-0 victory on Saturday.

This tie is undoubtedly the biggest test of Guardiola’s reign at the Allianz Arena and with key players such as Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Holger Badstuber and David Alaba all injured, the odds are stacked against the visitors.

Having masterminded Barcelona’s 4-0 demolition of Bayern in 2009, the tables have now turned and Guardiola is planning the downfall of his former club. It would make a sweet return if he could pull it off.

Originally published at 07.00

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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