By J Hutcherson (Apr 17, 2018) US Soccer Players - It's an off week for the Champions League and Europa League while we wait for the semifinals in both of Europe's club tournaments. With eight clubs still in position to lift a trophy, it's worth remembering what happened last season. Though Real Madrid kept their Champions League streak alive at the expense of Juventus, it was the Europa League presenting a new scenario.
Manchester United took advantage of UEFA's decision to put the Europa League winner in next season's Champions League group stage. Setting aside their Premier League place, United went all in on the Europa. It worked, turning that competition into more than just the second-tier to Europe's big show.
That's now the scenario for Arsenal and Atletico Madrid, meeting in the big club half of the bracket in the Europa League. Both rightly face criticism for even being in the Europa League. Arsenal's issues competing in the Champions League normally mean at least disappointing in the knockout rounds. Atletico lost the Champions League final in 2014 and 2016. Arsenal's hopes of qualifying to the Champions League by finishing in the top four of the Premier League are dwindling, but Atletico is in 2nd-place in La Liga.
Right now, it's Arsenal with the most to lose in their matchup with Atletico simply because they don't have another route into next season's Champions League. Then again, Arsenal faces a familiar issue. For their fans pressing for a change in manager, winning the Europa League is enough validation for a season. Atletico's bigger fight is finishing ahead of Real Madrid in La Liga. Combine that with the Europa League, and it sends a half-finished statement in the city that could end up with two teams parading their trophies.
On the other side of the bracket, Marseilles plays Red Bull Salzburg with both teams more than happy to still be playing European soccer. Marseilles' run through the knockout rounds has impressed, especially when they took out Athletic in the Round of 16. They denied Europe the mock outrage of two Red Bull teams playing each other by beating RB Leipzig in the quarterfinals. That series got a little loose in the second-leg, with Marseille scoring five goals to wipe out Leipzig's 2-0 lead from the opening leg and take the series 5-3 on aggregate. Red Bull Salzburg has kept it close on their way to the semifinals, 4-3 over Real Sociedad, 2-1 over Borussia Dortmund, and 6-5 over Lazio. It's no knock against Salzburg that they could've slipped in any of those series.
For the Europa League, the feeling is that the winner will come from the Arsenal vs Atletico series with Atletico the favorite. Does that make them the team with the most to lose? Only if they slip in La Liga. Big picture, Arsenal needs something to show that they belong among the super clubs. Following Manchester United's example, they can do that by lifting a trophy and taking a Champions League spot that would otherwise be out of their reach.
A league up, Real Madrid is trying admirably to stress the difficulty of a tournament that they've dominated. Going for three in a row is only a surprise because old pals Barcelona is already out of the way. Real Madrid almost fell victim to their own upset, but it's worth remembering that their questionable late penalty avoided extra time and an additional opportunity to stop Juventus. Real Madrid giving up three goals at home before that penalty is a big question mark, but there's an argument that there's not a team left in the Champions League capable of playing them like Juventus did in that second-leg.
Bayern Munich already has the Bundesliga title, so there's no issues there. The expectation that they'll add the Champions League title lasted about as long as UEFA announcing the draw. When dealing with super clubs, it's tough to talk about underdogs. That's Bayern Munich here, even if they're the best team in the Bundesliga and Real Madrid is in 3rd-place in La Liga. Bayern advancing is an upset. Real doing that is close to an expectation.
Liverpool vs Roma is the Champions League version of Marseilles vs Salzburg. It's tough to consider either of them favorites or in the same category as what waits on the other side of the bracket. That's almost insulting considering what both of those teams did to get here. Liverpool won both legs of their series with newly-crowned Premier League champions Manchester City. Roma knocked out Barcelona, the La Liga leaders. It's easy to say that both of them have already won their version of a championship, but that's silly. One will make it to the final well aware of what has happened to the underdog in the last few editions.
In no small way, that shifts the pressure where it belongs. Real Madrid replaces Barcelona as the favorite in the Champions League. They're the ones with the most to lose, trying for a three-peat where they might have already played their toughest games.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Graphic courtesy of UEFA communications