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Champions League semifinals rest on four one-on-one battles

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Two of Europe’s great names will face off in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal in Turin on Tuesday, and both Juventus and Real Madrid will be coming into the contest on a real high.

While Juventus were beating Sampdoria to win their fourth straight Serie A title on Saturday, Real Madrid held off the determined challenge of Sevilla to stay within touching distance of Barcelona at the top of La Liga.

Madrid’s win at a venue where the hosts had not lost in 14 months came thanks to a hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo to take his tally to 53 for the season. His third goal arrived courtesy of a cross from Gareth Bale, just three minutes after the Welshman had made his return off the bench. And the most expensive player in history is now set to come back into the starting lineup after overcoming injury. It means manager Carlo Ancelotti is likely to alter a team that edged past Atlético Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal before impressively winning three straight Liga matches. Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, scorer of the decisive goal against Atlético, could now miss out, although Ancelotti may instead opt to adjust his midfield with Isco potentially being sacrificed.

Whatever the case, the defending European champions will continue to be without the services of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, with the loss of the Croatian set to be particularly keenly felt. It was Modric’s return from injury that did much to correct a mid-season slump and keep Real Madrid on course to land a first La Liga title in three years as well as becoming the first club ever to win back-to-back Champions League titles. Without the work of Modric to knit a top-heavy team together, Ancelotti is likely to once again go for Sergio Ramos in an unfamiliar midfield role.

It will be some relief then for the Spanish giants that their opponents’ midfield will also be missing arguably its leading light. Paul Pogba has been linked to almost every big club in Europe, including Real Madrid, on the back of his continued emergence into one of the world’s most dominant all-round midfielders. But a hamstring injury means he’ll be prevented from helping his current side on Tuesday, although he still retains hope of returning for the second leg next week.

Even without the France international, Juventus still have plenty of quality in the center of the pitch. Arturo Vidal, although still trying to get back to the heights of last season, scored the only goal against Sampdoria at the weekend, while Claudio Marchisio has also impressed of late. And then, of course, there is Andrea Pirlo. Now aged 35, the World Cup winner has hinted that lifting the Champions League this season could persuade him to walk away from Juventus.

A victory in Berlin next month would be Pirlo’s third in the competition, with the first two coming under the guidance of the man who will now be charged with stemming his influence on Tuesday. Ancelotti not only won two Champions League crowns with Pirlo at Milan in 2003 and 2007, but he also coached Juventus for two years, before the announcement of his sacking infamously arrived halfway through the final league game of the 2000-2001 season.

If Ancelotti has particular reason for wanting to prevail, the same is true regarding Juventus striker Alvaro Morata. Having come through the youth system at the Bernabeu, the Spain international endured a frustrating campaign under Ancelotti last season, failing to ever garner a run in the first team despite his obvious potential. Determined to play regularly, Morata joined Juventus last summer and has already played a major part in the club’s run to the Champions League semifinals, scoring in both legs of their victory over former finalists Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 16.

Juventus went onto squeak past Monaco 1-0 on aggregate in the quarterfinals to reach the last four for the first time since losing to Ancelotti’s Milan in the final in 2003. That already represents a huge personal triumph for manager Massimiliano Allegri. A widely unpopular choice when he took over following the sudden departure of three-title winning coach and club legend Antonio Conte last summer, Allegri has answered his critics by not only maintaining Juventus’ domestic dominance but achieving the desperately sought continental success. It was telling that the celebrations after clinching the title on Saturday were muted. For the two-time European Cup winners, the focus is on Real Madrid.

The two quarterfinals between these sides featured only two goals over four matches, and it could be a similar story in this matchup. Juventus have conceded just five goals in 10 Champions League games this season and they are sure to try and play to those defensive strengths against the attacking might of Real Madrid, even at home in Turin. Allegri is a shrewd tactician and Juventus had the benefit of resting players at the weekend while Real Madrid were involved in a full-throttle battle. Juventus will also feel that Morata and Carlos Tevez can hurt Real Madrid, although their ability to shut out Ronaldo and co and prevent an away goal could be key to the tie.

Tags: juventus | Juventus and Real Madrid | soccer | UEFA Champions League

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