Barcelona bested, Real Madrid outmanoeuvred: Clasico control over European game proven premature

Many expected the two Spanish giants to lock horns in the final of the Champions League this year, but neither managed to book their ticket for the showpiece in Munich
By Stefan Coerts

At the start of the 2011-12 campaign, the general consensus was that there were two clear favourites to reach the Champions League final: holders Barcelona and their Spanish rivals Real Madrid. The Catalans were aiming to become the first team since AC Milan in 1990 to successfully defend their European crown, while Los Blancos had set their sights on their elusive 10th Champions League trophy.

Both sides lived up to their stratospheric expectations in the group stages of the competition as Madrid qualified for the knockout rounds with a perfect record, while the Blaugrana only dropped two points against Milan.

The round of 16 didn't pose any problems either for the Primera Division sides, and an all-Spanish final seemed to be on the cards when - unlike last year - both teams were kept apart in the draw for the quarter and semi-finals.

However, the two behemoths ran head-first into unexpected obstacles in their last-four ties as Barcelona lost the first leg 1-0 at Chelsea, while Bayern edged out Real Madrid 2-1 in Germany. Despite the setbacks, there was still little doubt amongst the experts that both would overcome the deficit to make the finale in Munich on May 19.

The experts were wrong.

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On Tuesday, Chelsea fought back valiantly to end Barcelona's Champions League ambitions despite being reduced to 10 men and falling two goals behind at Camp Nou. One day later, Bayern shocked Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu as they kept their cool in a breathtaking penalty shoot-out, after seemingly looking set for an early trip to the airport when the Blancos also sailed into a two-goal advantage on the night.

The stunning elimination of the two red-hot favourites came as a huge surprise to most football fans, yet will be met with approval by a large majority of neutrals.

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With five out of the eight semi-finalists in the Champions League and Europa League hailing from La Liga, Spain seemed to have extended their domination from international to club level. However, this week's results proved that the other big leagues on the continent still have plenty to offer, and that football remains one of the most unpredictable, suspenseful sports.

Closing the gap in the Champions League has been one of Uefa president Michel Platini's top priorities ever since taking charge of European football's governing body in 2007, yet the dominance of Barcelona and the recent resurrection of Real seemed to complicate matters for the French supremo. But the turn of events over the last two days should please Platini.

Both semi-finals could have gone either way, but the fact that it was Chelsea and Bayern who went on to book their tickets for the final rather than a Clasico blockbuster in Munich proved that the Spanish representatives are not as far ahead of their European rivals as it would appear on paper. 

Although a Clasico final would have been the true 'Match of the Century' in the opinion of many football fans, Barca and Madrid's unexpected elimination shows that the Champions League is still a competitive tournament, and not just another avenue for Spain's two fiercest enemies to extend their rivalry. And that can only be good for the game.   

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