The knockout phase of the 2017-2018 UEFA Champions League is down to four teams, with the semifinals getting underway Tuesday, April 24. Even casual sports fans have likely heard the phrase “Champions League,” but the Football Across Europe blog is here to break it down a bit further for the non-football (soccer) fan. The first thing to note is that the Champions League is not a league at all, per se, but a tournament. It is comprised of professional club teams from UEFA member nations (UEFA is the governing body of the European confederation of international soccer). Qualification is based on performance in the previous season’s domestic leagues in each respective nations.
After domestic league play wraps up across in Europe in late spring into early summer, the early stages of the ensuing Champions League competition begin within weeks that same summer, with teams from the lowest-ranked UEFA member nations forced to play through a myriad of qualification rounds.
By late summer into early fall, the qualification rounds are over and the surviving smaller clubs are joined by teams from the powerhouse nations to form a 32-team group stage, a familiar format to anyone who’s watched a FIFA World Cup. The 8 group winners and 8 runners up advance to the knockout phase – or Round of 16 – where the play in a home and home two-legged format against whatever opponent they’re drawn against.
Winners are re-drawn and play in this format all the way through the semifinals, whereupon the winners meet in a one-match final, considered by most to be the highest prize in world club football and the most-watched annual sporting event in the world. It is also financially rewarding, with the prize for a Final victory in excess of €15 million, or over $18 million. Overall, with all rounds’ prize money combined, winning clubs can take home in excess of €50 million ($61m).
Real Madrid from Spain are the two-time defending Champions League winners and also have the most wins overall in the competition with twelve. A.C. Milan of Italy have won it seven times, with Germany’s Bayern Munich, Spain’s Barcelona, and England’s Liverpool all boasting five trophies. The last four have all been won by either Real Madrid or Barcelona and the last English club to win it was Chelsea in 2012, their only win.
We’re breaking down every match through the duration of the tournament, and we’ll continue with this week’s thrilling semifinal matchups.
Liverpool vs. AS Roma
Where They’re From: Liverpool hail from the city of Liverpool in the northwest of England. Though the 21st century has not been as fruitful as the previous, they are one of English football’s true giants. Only Manchester United have won more domestic championships (20) than Liverpool’s 18, though the Reds last won the league in 1989-90, before the current Premier League was formed. They remain the most decorated English club in European play. They play their home matches at Anfield and currently sit third in the Premier League. As for AS Roma, they’ve remained one of the more popular teams from Italy’s Serie A despite entering their 10th straight season without a trophy. A true Italian giant from yesteryear, they caught everyone’s attention with their quarterfinal comeback victory over Spanish and European giants Barcelona.
How They Got Here: Roma narrowly missed on an elusive Serie A title last season, but earned easy qualification into the UCL group stage and reigned supreme in a tough group containing Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. A tough-nosed affair over two legs with Shakhtar Donetsk in the knockout stage saw Roma get through 2-2 on away goals. They then came back from a 1-4 first leg deficit to beat Barcelona 3-0 and go through to the semis on the away goal tie-breaker. Liverpool finished fourth in the Premier League last season. They had to survive a play-off round to earn passage to the group stage. They defeated German side Hoffenheim 6-3 on aggregate to advance before being drawn in and winning a group with Sevilla, Spartak Moscow, and Slovenian side Maribor. It was a fairly easy affair with FC Porto in the Round of 16 for the Reds before drawing English champions Man City, who they handled 5-1 on aggregate to charge into the semis.
What to Watch For: With only four teams left in the UCL, it’s fair to say they are all riding high and with momentum. Liverpool, however, are positively buzzing, having dumped out new English champions Manchester City in the quarterfinals, 5-1 on aggregate. They are coming off a disappointing 2-2 draw with relegation-bound West Brom on Saturday, a match in which Jürgen Klopp gave many of his regular XI a rest with an eye for this match.
The main man in attack is Mohamed Salah, the brand new PFA Player of the Year (and former Roma player), though the addition of Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino is what makes Liverpool so dangerous. Captain Jordan Henderson returns from suspension to anchor the Liverpool midfield, ahead of a defensive unit that has shown vast improvement since the January import of Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk.
For Roma, this is their first European semifinal in 27 years. That year, they won and faced Liverpool in the final. Roma manager Eusebio di Francesco – as well as multiple Roma players – have expressed the utmost respect for Liverpool and their recent form. But they are unlikely to be wide-eyed, having played one of the true giants in the game in the quarterfinals to get here.
Down 1-4 to Barcelona after the first leg at Camp Nou, Roma returned home to the Stadio Olimpico needing to make up a three goal deficit without conceding. That is precisely what they did, with Greece international center back Kostas Manolas heading home a corner at 82 minutes before helping to fend off Barca’s attack until the final whistle.
Roma has scored five goals and conceded once in Serie A since that monumental win, going 2-1-0. They are also familiar with Liverpool man Mo Salah, who left the club for Liverpool just last summer. They will no doubt look to key on him and force other Reds attackers to beat them.