DAVID SHONFIELD: Champions League plots thicken with whiff of sulphur in the air

There is enough intrigue as well as quality in the Champions League semi-finals this week to have any football fan salivating, writes David Shonfield.

Granted, the lack of English Premier League interest, unless you count Martin Atkinson and his team in Turin this evening, there are plots and subplots galore.

Carlo Ancelotti returns to the city where the fans treated him like a country bumpkin. “A pig can’t manage” read one notorious banner, which Carlo characteristically described as “an unbearable insult to pigs”.

There’s no love lost on either side.

“I didn’t like Turin,” he says. “It’s too sad, light years away from my approach to life. Juventus are a club I never liked and probably never will. For me they have always been rivals.”

Max Allegri, the current incumbent, was scarcely more popular when he arrived last summer. He taunted the Juve fans when he guided Milan to the title, and he has replaced Antonio Conte, one of their favourite sons. Even now, after winning the title at the first attempt, Allegri only has grudging acceptance from some Juve diehards.

Tonight’s match also pits Andrea Pirlo against Ancelotti, his former mentor, who converted him from the Number 10 role to withdrawn playmaker. When Allegri took over at Milan, Pirlo was allowed to leave on a free transfer – since when he has led Juventus to four consecutive titles.

Wednesday’s clash between Barcelona and Bayern also has an edge to it.

Champions League plots thicken with whiff of sulphur in the air

Pep Guardiola’s rule at Camp Nou was never seriously challenged, but his legacy was flawed. The unfortunate Tito Vilanova was in charge two years ago when Barcelona were taken apart, losing 7-0 to Bayern over the two legs, but it was still Guardiola’s team and style of play.

Since his move to Munich, he has modified his approach. Bayern’s version of possession play has been more direct, partly because it was hard for even Guardiola to ignore criticism from a club legend like Franz Beckenbauer.

Bayern have walked away with the Bundesliga and seemed to be cruising towards another treble until a disastrous penalty shoot-out against Borussia Dortmund in the semi-final of the cup a week ago.

Now Pep is up against a former Barcelona team-mate and coaching colleague, and for all the talk of friendship the two men were not always on good terms at the club.

For Barca manager Luis Enrique, Guardiola’s extraordinary period of success has obviously been a problem.

The history of the club is dominated by two dream teams, the original one created by Johan Cruyff and the re-incarnation that won everything.

At the start of the season when he took over it seemed that history might haunt him, and even more so when there were reports of a fallout with Lionel Messi, and Luis Suarez failed to reproduce his Liverpool strike rate after returning from suspension.

But that spectacular attack of Messi, Suarez and Neymar has clicked and Barcelona go into this tie as favourites, particularly because of the injuries that have continued to plague Bayern all season. Guardiola has had a quarter of his squad unavailable during the season and several key players are out, or carrying injuries, among them Robert Lewandowski.

Bayern do, however, have Guardiola’s totem Thiago Alcantara, the midfielder who graduated from Barcelona B, where he was coached by Luis Enrique, and who the club then allowed to depart.

“It’s him or no one,” said Guardiola before Thiago arrived in Munich at the cost of €25m. Since then the player has been out injured for more than a year, but he showed against Porto why his manager insisted on signing him.

Like tonight’s tie, the second semi-final could hand on the form of the two goalkeepers. Turin is the veterans mach, with Iker Casillas seeking to purge that sense of fallibility that has haunted him for two years.

In Barcelona, it is a duel between two young Germans, Marc-André ter Stegen and Manuel Neuer. Neuer against Barcelona’s stellar attack should be worth watching.


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