With the first legs of Champions and Europa League semifinals to be played this week, La Liga stands on the cusp of an unprecedented achievement: providing all four teams in Europe's two soccer showcase finals. Spain is guaranteed a representative in the showpiece match of Europe's also-rans competition, with Atlético and Valencia facing each other in the last four. Athletic Bilbao will hope to be on the other side of the halfway line in Bucharest on May 9 and plays Sporting Lisbon in a reverse of last season's semifinals when Villarreal stood alone among a Portuguese troika.
It is the Champions League, though, and particularly the "European clásico," upon which most of the continent's eyes will alight. Bayern Munich hosts Real Madrid on Tuesday (8.45pm, TVE1) in one Europe's most glamorous, enduring and ill-tempered rivalries. The sides have met 18 times in all, including four European Cup or Champions League semifinals. Only once, in the 1999-00 season, has Real progressed to the final. Furthermore, Bayern has never been beaten at home by Madrid, winning eight with one tie, in 2004. In the last meeting between the two in the 2007 first knockout round, Bayern advanced on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate score line.
In fact, Real has won only once in 22 attempts on German soil: a 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the 2000-01 season. Only Deportivo de la Coruña has scored a win for Spain against Bayern in Munich in 18 attempts by Liga clubs. However, Bayern is not at its marauding best at the moment, having all but surrendered the Bundesliga title after an insipid goalless tie at Mainz compounded a 1-0 loss a week ago to Borussia Dortmund, which now holds an eight-point lead over Jupp Heynckes' side. But as Bayern's top scorer in the competition, Mario Gómez, noted: "The Champions League is completely different." Both Heynckes, sacked after ending Real's 32-year European drought in 1998, and Arjen Robben, just sacked, have axes to grind.
José Mourinho has experience of beating Bayern — he did so with Inter in 2010 to win the competition — but the weight of expectation at Real, obsessed with its long-coveted 10th European Cup, adds an extra dimension of pressure for his players.
Athletic’s big bow?
Athletic Bilbao has been saving its most dashing performances for the business end of the Europa League, thrashing Manchester United over two games and pummeling Schalke sufficiently in Gelsenkirchen to practically assure quarterfinals victory in the course of the first leg.
As a result, Marcelo Bielsa's small squad has suffered in the league. Athletic was a point away from the top four a little over a month ago but now finds itself six adrift of the Champions League places, largely as a result of losses to Osasuna and Valencia in the wake of those two matches against Alex Ferguson's Premier League leaders. However, Athletic is already assured a Europa League place next season, win or lose in the King's Cup final against Barcelona, and a first European trophy is a glittering prospect for a side that has not appeared in a continental final since 1977.
Its opponent, Sporting Lisbon, was runner-up in 2005.
Atlético won the inaugural Europa League in 2010 and, like Athletic, has seen its chances of qualifying for anything sexier next season diminished through recent losses to Real, Levante and Zaragoza. Valencia, still in the Champions League chase in La Liga, last won the competition in 2004.
Barcelona, conversely, does not have such excess baggage to carry on its trip to London to face Chelsea (8.45pm, Wednesday), the team it defeated in dramatic fashion in 2009 on its way to victory in Pep Guardiola's inaugural treble-winning season. It is that feat that Barcelona is attempting to repeat this year. The advantage it holds over its rivals — Chelsea has never won the competition, Real last did so in 2002 and Bayern last lifted old Big Ears a year earlier — is that failure to do so will not be greeted as such.
Three wins in six years have made the current Barcelona team immune from criticism within its own support base. A King's Cup triumph and denying Real the Liga will suffice even if Chelsea's extraordinary revival under Roberto di Matteo precipitate a great European upset.
Chelsea is still smarting from that encounter, when Andrés Iniesta's injury-time strike proved sufficient for Barça to advance on away goals (1-1). However, even the most convinced Catalan fan would find it difficult to argue that at least one penalty should have been awarded to the side then coached by Mourinho, if not more. Gerard Piqué and Samuel Eto'o handled in the area and a couple of challenges were certainly borderline. That match was the germ of Mourinho's conspiracy theories about Barça and Uefa.
Were Roman Abramovich allowed to officiate he would be unlikely to stop Leo Messi. The Argentinean dynamo has scored 14 goals in the Champions League this season and seems on a personal mission to deliver Europe's greatest prize to Camp Nou single-handed.