So there has been no soccer discussion this whole season, but I know I'm not the only one following the run-in on some exciting races everywhere but in Germany. Who are the picks to advance to the Champions League final this week and win the tournament?
I like Real to win it. I begrudgingly like Chelsea to advance to the final, which scares me because they are the only club of the four that I would really hate to see win. But I think Real will be too good for them. And despite Atletico being on track to win La Liga, I still rate Real ahead of them in a single leg game at a neutral venue. Atletico won at Real early in the season, but the three matches in 2014 have been a 2-2 draw at Atletico and a 5-0 aggregate victory for Real in the Copa Del Rey. The loss to Barcelona in March and the shocking loss to Sevilla in the following match have damaged their La Liga hopes, because they need Atletico to drop points twice in their three remaining games. But overall, Real have been unstoppable since the new year. Bayern, on the other hand, have looked rather timid in their recent Champions League games. It's easy to suggest it has to do with their winning the Bundesliga so early, and it certainly seemed to coincide with the dip in form. But who knows.
Anyway, I have never picked Bayern to win this simply because of the fact that no team has done it in the Champions League era, and none of the other great teams have managed it for one single fact: It's a damn hard thing to do. Much harder than in the old European Cup format. It means two consecutive seasons of a fairly big number of games - the European Super Cup and two matches at the Club World Cup in addition to the seven knock-out stage ties, with almost all of those games against high-quality opposition. And most of these players were playing regularly in World Cup qualifiers throughout the year as well. I think they're getting tired, Real are getting hungry, and I say Real wins in Munich on Tuesday night.
In England, I was sure until this weekend that Stephen Gerrard and Liverpool were on track to win a title that would undoubtably be an emotional thing for everyone watching. I was sure they would get at least a draw home to Chelsea. Man City play at Everton this weekend, and Everton will be just as desperate for a win as City will be. They could drop points there. But if not, it's tough to see them dropping points at home to Villa and West Ham. Everton need to do their crosstown rivals a huge favor. For now, my guess is that Everton grant that favor, and Liverpool win out to take advantage of the reprieve.
This has been an up and down season as an Arsenal supporter. They are on the cusp of their first trophy in forever and they put in a good showing in the Champions League - qualifying from their group was no easy feat. And they have had a tough road to the FA Cup final as well - everyone thought Wigan did them a huge favor, but Arsenal had to beat Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham to get to Wembley. I don't know what the hardest run to an FA Cup win is, but if Arsenal do beat Hull in the final then four Premier League teams, three of them in the top six, has to be up there. But it's hard not to feel like the loss of Theo Walcott, Ozil, and especially Aaron Ramsey derailed a season that would have ended quite a bit differently otherwise. Ramsey's immediate impact upon returning to the starting 11 was exciting but also bittersweet. But that's exactly why people doubted they could win the title in the first place: Their lack of depth meant no backup in the case of injuries, and also made injuries more likely as players were forced to play more. I really believe though that the Ozil signing was a statement from Wenger and that there will be some new quality talent arriving. But maybe I'm a sucker, because I'm pretty sure I've thought that for like three seasons running. Winning the FA Cup and staying in the Champions League will make for a good season, provided he then improves upon it next year. Another positive from this year is that they beat Tottenham three times - that's fun.
Anyway, I've gone on long enough. What's caught your eye this season?
Atletico is the story of the year for me. They're going to ride 1-0 victories to La Liga and probably the Champions League final. I would lay money on a 0-0 draw at the Calderon, going to penalties, but one away goal from Atletico will seal the deal. Their defense is a locked door when they're in sync. If Simeone doesn't run away with Coach of the Year regardless there is no justice in this world. That squad has no business competing at the level they are. I mean, who had Atletico in the CL semifinal final? The fact that the probable La Liga champions basically have a done deal to sell their best player to the 3rd place team in England, and their second-best player is a loanee, shows how much they're punching above their weight. I think Real ultimately win la Decima this year, but Atletico takes the league. Liverpool is a nice story, but not having to play European football and getting knocked out of the cups is what's given them a chance. Their squad is way too thin for a club that's fighting on four fronts. They'll play 43 games this season. City will play 57. Chelsea'll play 58 or 59. If Liverpool had Europa League games, they'd be fighting for fourth. Italy has been pretty boring too, with Juve, Roma, and Napoli steadily driving down their 1,2, and 3 lanes since Christmas. With only three CL spots, there's not a whole lot else to play for. Tevez has had a nice rejuvination (call him up Sabella!) though, and I'm hoping he wins Europa League. That (+ the Scudetto) would make him the only player ever to win two national leagues and two continental leagues on two different continents, and would also see him having won every major competition he's ever entered. Still, Italy's in trouble. The Scudetto winner should be a destination for top players, but instead they're buys are of undervalued veterans like Tevez and Pirlo and Llorente, and it's a question mark if they can hang on to their young stars like Pogba.
I have to disagree about Liverpool. If not playing in Europe were such an advantage, then why has no team won the Premier League without playing in Europe that same season since the Champions League expanded? I can't even off the top of my head remember any team coming close to doing so before Liverpool this year. Playing in Europe brings a bloated schedule, but also makes a club a more desirable destination for top talent. There are arguments to be made on both sides, but one thing that's for certain for me is that City or Chelsea fans whining about Liverpool's fewer fixtures can cry me a river when their teams' philosophies involve buying up as many talented players as they possibly can. Chelsea in particular seem to have an entire team out on loan that would be very competitive in the Premier League, it's ridiculous.