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Champions League Semifinal Winners and Losers, Part 2

Liverpool and Real Madrid barely avoid catastrophic defeats, strikers are old news, and more from this week’s games

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It all played out just as we expected before the season began. Real Madrid are one match away from their third Champions League title in a row, and the only team that can stop them is Barc- … wait, does that say … Liverpool? While Jürgen Klopp and Co. likely won’t finish any higher than third in the Premier League, they’re 90 minutes from delivering the club its sixth European Cup. And although both Liverpool and Madrid came into the second legs of their semifinal matchups as sizable favorites, they both shot themselves in the feet multiple times and just barely limped into the final. Here are the winners and losers from the second legs.

Loser: History

At some point in the future, it won’t matter that Real Madrid lack any defining aesthetic qualities. And I’m not sure anyone will care that they got outshot by Bayern Munich 39 to 16 over two legs or that they got pummeled in the underlying stats battle, conceding 6.9 expected goals, while creating chances that are historically worth just 2.8. Zinedine Zidane’s team won’t send tactical ripples throughout the future generation, and they shouldn’t: “Buy the best players in the world, and let them be brilliant” isn’t an option to anyone else. Yet, while their influence might never be felt beyond the walls of the Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid are already the defining team of this era.

In 2014, they won the Champions League. In 2015, they lost in the semis. In 2016, they won. In 2017, they won again. And now, they’re one more win away from becoming the first team to ever win it three times in a row.

The setup of Champions League (a quick group stage and knockout round) is supposed to create chaos, but Madrid has remained ever-present. Since before the last World Cup, they have been about as dominant as we could ever reasonably expect a soccer team to be. And this year’s run mirrors it all. They were drawn into the toughest group, with Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham. Then they drew PSG, the toughest possible Round of 16 opponent. Then they drew Juventus, last year’s runner-up, in the quarters, and followed that up with Bayern Munich, arguably the best team in the world, in the semis. Running through that gantlet unscathed should eliminate any questions about their overall quality, as should the three European titles in four years and the looming possibility of four in five. Except, it still doesn’t feel that way.

In his match report for The Guardian after Tuesday’s 2-2 draw, Sid Lowe wrote, “Real Madrid always find a way, they say, and somehow they did.” A roster that’s worth nearly a billion dollars isn’t supposed to be scrappy, but even the fans have bought into the idea: After the ball slid through Sven Ulreich’s legs at the beginning of the second half and his unforced error presented Karim Benzema with an empty-net tap-in to put his side up 2-1, the Madrid faithful started chanting, “That’s how Real win!”

Scoreboard journalism was supposed to be a dead a long time ago, but with Madrid, there’s really no other way to approach their success— otherwise you become the old man yelling at the cloud. Regression might eventually come, but who cares if it’s after four more trophies? Maybe Real’s defining quality is that they’ve validated all of our cliches and our aphorisms. As Lowe wrote, “Real win because, well, Real win. Even when they don’t actually win.” They should be better, and yet no one has ever been this good.

Winner: Liverpool’s Essence

What’s that? Liverpool fixed their defense? Liverpool learned how to sit back and absorb pressure? You missed the old Liverpool, when every lead was The Worst Lead in Soccer, when the fireworks would light up the sky for 45 minutes, only to come raining back down to earth in some kind of self-inflicted meteor shower? Well, they’re back:

You get a heart attack, and you get a heart attack, and you, and you, and you:

Of course, four games is just four games, and two of those came with starters being rested in the Premier League, while the other two were matches in which the club could afford to allow the late onslaught from the opposition. Since January, Liverpool have been one of the best teams in the world— both because of the goals they could pump in on the attacking end and a newfound ability to limit quality chances on their own goal. But as the squad has thinned out due to a mounting injury list in midfield (along with the departure of Philippe Coutinho) and various players have racked up more minutes than ever before in their careers, things have started to get hairy in the waning moments of matches. Especially after a 1-1 draw against Everton in December, Klopp came under criticism when he started rotating the team over the winter— as of late February, he’d made more changes to his lineup than any other manager in the league—  but if he hadn’t, they likely wouldn’t be in the Champions League final. But thanks to seven goals (and some questionable refereeing decisions), they are, and now Klopp’s side has more than three weeks to make sure the new Liverpool, and not the old one, shows up in Kiev.

Winner: The Bayern Munich Curse

Franz Beckenbauer, the German and Bayern Munich legend, recently said, “I fear we have a complex with Madrid.” And …

… uh …

… well …

… can you really argue with him? I don’t know if Beckenbauer purposefully left out the royal modifier, but the hex isn’t limited to just Real:

Remember the Champions League final in 2013? Bayern’s 2-1 win against Dortmund was supposed to usher in a new era of German dominance … and neither team has been back to the final since. But Bayern’s run of high-profile failure, of course, wouldn’t be possible if the team wasn’t consistently getting itself into high-profile positions from which to fail. In 2014, they got their doors blown off by Madrid, before Lionel Messi embalmed Jérôme Boateng on the field in 2015. The following season was the “dominant loss” to Atlético, and last year’s Champions League ended in an extra-time loss to Real in the quarters.

Some of that— a lot of that, even— is bad luck, but maybe it also comes down to this: Despite raking in the fourth-highest revenue in the world last year, the club still hasn’t spent more than €41.5 million on a single player. That hasn’t hurt the roster depth; in fact, Bayern probably have the deepest squad in Europe. But while transfer spending doesn’t translate to winning in the same way that wages do, since they’re not shopping at the top of the market, Bayern are missing out on the kinds of players who can create the decisive moments the club has been lacking since it last lifted the European Cup.

Loser: Strikers

At a coaching conference in Rio De Janeiro back in 2003, Carlos Alberto Parreira, the manager of the Brazil team that won the 1994 World Cup, predicted that the 4-6-0 formation would define the future of the sport. The striker would die, and be replaced with, as former UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh put it in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, “six players in midfield, all of whom could rotate, attack, and defend.” A few years later, it seemed like Parreira’s prediction had come true. Around 2006, Roma experienced some Champions League success with Francesco Totti, an attacking midfielder, playing as their lone striker— or what came to be known as a “false nine.” In 2008, Manchester United won the Champions League with a rotating front four of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, and Ryan Giggs. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona would often play Messi as a false nine, and the coup de grâce of the approach came when Spain won Euro 2012 with a version of Parreira’s 4-6-0.

While we’ve yet to see another team reach the same heights without a goal scorer at the top of its formation, we did see a battle of strikerless soccer during the past two weeks:

At this point in their careers, Robert Lewandowski and Ronaldo don’t do much more when they’re on the ball than fire off shots and score goals. And when they’re not doing either of those things—the pair combined for four attempts on target over two legs—it’s easy to see the wisdom in Parreira’s prediction. Strikers haven’t gone away—and I’m not sure they ever will—because goal-scoring will always be the game’s most important skill. As such, these players occupy the one position in which one- or two-dimensional players can still thrive. But positional flexibility is sweeping through the sports landscape—pitchers are designated hitters, power forwards are point guards, and running backs are wide receivers—and it’s coming for soccer: Of the top 10 goal scorers in Europe, half of them have at least six assists, too.

Winner: Edin Dzeko

But if you’re gonna be a striker, do it like Dzeko did. Sure, his numbers are inflated by playing against a team that came into the match with a three-goal lead, but Dzeko is the reason Liverpool couldn’t get comfortable until the final whistle. He ended the game with nine shots—eight from inside the box, and incredibly three with his head, three with his right foot, and three with his left—in addition to two chances created. Liverpool completed only eight passes into Roma’s box in 90 minutes; Dzeko alone completed five in the opposition penalty area.

After being cast off by Manchester City and then disappointing in his first season in Rome, Dzeko scored 29 goals and recorded nine assists last season in Serie A. (His underlying numbers—32 expected goals—were somehow even better.) This year, he’s cooled off a bit, with 16 goals and three assists in league play, but the guy is soccer’s best red zone threat: Few strikers in the world control a ball in the air and create their own space as well as Dzeko does. I’m sure this imaginary designation of victory will make up for his employer’s real-life defeat.

Loser: The Scoreboard Operator at the Olympic National Sports Complex

As Michael Caley wrote for The Washington Post earlier in the week: “[Real Madrid] has conceded 16.4 expected goals, including 26 clear scoring chances, in 10 matches against Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Tottenham Hotspur, and now Bayern Munich.” They managed to prevent Bayern from creating any clear chances in the second leg, but were inundated with 4.2 shots worth of expected goals. Meanwhile, Liverpool, uh, you know, nearly blew a 5-2 lead, a 6-2 lead, and a 7-3 lead all in a single game. Both teams have conceded 37 goals in domestic play this year, which puts Real fifth in La Liga and Liverpool sixth in the Premier League. Both fine numbers, but not the kind of fortification that’ll slow down a world-class attack.

Yeah, about that: Sadio Mané’s goal gave him, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino 29 goals, the most ever scored by a trio in a single Champions League campaign. That, however, is one more than the 28 scored by Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo four seasons ago … for Real Madrid.

Among the 10 best teams in the world, these might be the two most volatile and top-heavy. I have no idea who’s gonna win—FiveThirtyEight gives Madrid a 54-to-46-percent edge, which is a difference in probability almost imperceptible to the human mind—but whatever the line for total goals is, it isn’t high enough. Bet the over.

Winner: Superstitious Liverpool Fans

Who’s to argue with this logic?

The royal wedding comes exactly a week before the Champions League final. It’s on at 4 a.m. in Los Angeles, so I might as well watch. After all, it’s not like I’ll be able to sleep until May 27.