With the European wheat finally separated from the chaff late last year, the draw for this first knockout round was understandably met with mild excitement to say the least. Well, the wait is finally over, as this week saw the second stage of the Champions League finally kick off, with all the big guns who started the tournament through to the sharp end of the competition to show the world just who in fact is carrying the biggest length in between their legs. Streamlined to just four games a night now, STT was able to enjoy a whistle-stop tour of Europe in a private Apache to enjoy exactly 23 minutes of each game this week, and can comprehensively say that Glasgow is home to the hottest women, the most-fried food and strongest beer.
We start then at Anfield with the result of the night, as an underwhelming Liverpool side scored twice late on to give the Serie A leader Inter Milan a real mountain to climb in the return leg in three weeks time. While this was never going to be a particularly open game, both managers are too tactically astute to allow it, any attacking threat from the visitors was quashed in the first half with the sending off of central defender Marco Materazzi for two nothing challenges on Fernando Torres. It was clear from this moment on that Inter were happy with 0 – 0, rarely giving lone striker Zlatan Imbrahimovic any support going forward, and to be honest for 85 minutes, the plan was working fine as Liverpool struggled to really get anything going in the final third. Despite a lot of hard work and running from the midfield, very few genuine chances were created by the Reds, and with five minutes to go it looked to be another one of those games for Rafa Benitez’s men. However, in a rare lapse of concentration from the Inter defence, Dirk Kuyt was able to steal in at the back post to fire a deflected shot past Julio Cesar to make The Kop erupt for the first time since the pre-game chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Amazingly, Liverpool got a bonus just five minutes later when the inspirational Steven Gerrard found space outside the penalty area and fired in a perfectly placed missle past Cesar into the far corner, recalling that famous strike to win the FA Cup two years ago against West Ham. Despite not playing well, their position is now such that just one goal away in the San Siro, and Inter will have to score four to go through.
And so to Athens then, the site of last year’s final, and the birthplace of democracy. Perhaps the weakest side still in the competition, Olympiakos, actually looked the better team against a workmanlike Chelsea team who to be perfectly honest, could not possibly have been any more uninspiring. Even Avram Grant agrees, and described their performance last night as the worst since he’s been with the club. At the end of the day though they’ll fancy their chances on the night at Stamford Bridge, and having left Lampard and Terry out last night with Sunday’s Carling Cup final in mind, it’s not the worst result imaginable. The much-anticipated first glimpse of Anelka and Drogba playing alongside each other was lobotomy-inducing to say the least however.
Across to Gelsenkirchen in Germany then, and continuing the theme, this was the site of the 2004 final, which stattos amongst you will know was the year that Jose Mourinho carried Porto to this illustrious crown. In a game full of plenty of bluster but few incisive chances, an early goal from Kevin Kuranyi was enough to give Schalke the 1 – 0 victory over the former champions, as Porto failed to really conjure up anything going forward. The Ronaldo-esque Ricardo Queresma was unusually quiet, but with just 10 minutes left found himself in a perfect crossing position to pick out frontman Lisandro Lopez, who then somehow managed to sky the finish from literally four yards out, leaving Porto plenty of work to do in a fortnight’s time.
Finally we stopped off in Rome for the remainder of the night and luxuriated in two great European superpowers trading blows at the famous Olympic Stadium. In-form Real Madrid took a shock lead through, who else, Raul after just 8 minutes, latching onto a deflected Guti shot after Robben had done some good work down the flank. Chilean international Pizarro then equalized for Roma 15 minutes late, as the rest of the first half played out competitively with periods of pressure for both sides. Totti finally got his foot in the game in the second half however, and after robbing Heinze with a great piece of control, slid a perfectly weighted ball into Brazilian trickmeister Mancini to coolly round Casillas and bag what would be the deciding goal of the night. I’m sure Real would’ve taken this scoreline with a return leg at The Bernabeu to come, and having scored the only away goal of the night, are still in a pretty good position to make it very difficult for Roma.
First stop on this considerably more entertaining night was the Emirates, where defending champions AC Milan held Arsenal 0 – 0 in a tense game that the Gunners will be kicking themselves for not winning. As expected Milan came to London will little ambition other than to not lose, while a rejuvenated Arsenal side swept forward looking for any advantage to take to the San Siro in a fortnight’s time. Good chances fell to Eboue and Eduardo, while the former was also perhaps unlucky to not get a penalty after being bundled over in the second half. A last minute gift was however handed to Emmaunel Adebayor by Theo Woolcott, planting a ball square on the Togolese man’s head, only for him to rattle the crossbar and maintain his record of never scoring in the Champions League. With no English team ever having beaten AC in the San Siro, Arsenal know they have their work cut out, especially with Kolo Toure expected to be sidelined for a month after injuring a calf last night.
Without doubt the game of the round took place up at Celtic Park, with 2006 champions Barcelona finally looking like the side we all remember after an indifferent season to say the least. Celtic twice took the lead with headers; first through Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, but only for it to be cancelled out by a beautiful Messi strike just three minutes later; and secondly through Barry Robson, who beat Valdes with a looping header to send the Scots into halftime with an unexpected lead. I doubt any other team in the competition would play three strikers from the start away from home, but it goes without saying that Barce are no normal side. With seven minutes on the clock in the second half, Henry drifted in from the left wing to score an absolute classic Henry goal, effortlessly whipping the ball into the far top corner with his right foot as we all watched him do for years at Arsenal. As pressure built and the substitute Samuel Eto’o started to get dangerously involved, Celtic still stood firm, but with just 11 minutes left, the prodigal Messi tricked Gary Caldwell with a sublime drag-back to slide the winner past a stranded Boruc. For the first time since Henry joined in the summer, the so-called fantastic four of him, Messi, Eto’o and Ronaldinho are all finally fit for the Catalan giants; too large a problem for Celtic, but seriously ominous for the rest of the competition too.
France was our next stop, and while Lyon certainly aren’t the side they were a couple of years ago, they still proved more than a match for Manchester United, who left it late not for the first time this year to snatch a goal to cancel out Karim Benzema’s opener just before the hour mark. United seemed frustrated in a scrappy first half that saw only really Juninho get started for either team, but Rooney still had a chance, one-on-one with keeper Coupet, but the Frenchman was just fast enough to smother the striker’s shot. Rising superstar Benzema bagged his 24th goal of the year ten minutes into the second half, firing a lethal early shot past van der Sar from what looked like no-man’s-land on the edge of a crowded penalty area. In an impressive show of intent however, Ferguson did not wilt, but instead threw Nani and Carlos Tevez on in the place of Giggs (celebrating his 100th European appearance) and Scholes to try to bag a vital away goal. As the clock ticked down, Juninho smashed a freekick just wide, while at the other end Ronaldo too missed just narrowly from a similar position. From the ensuing corner, Lyon failed to clear, and as the ball deflected off Fred, Tevez was on hand to smash the ball home and put United in a great position to progress when the tie is reversed at Old Trafford in two weeks time.
There’s always an ‘other’ game, and this week it took place in Turkey, where two tournament dark horses in Fenerbahce and Sevilla shared a high-scoring tie, with Fenerbahce emerging victorious 3 – 2 with a Semih Senturk strike in the 88th minute. Both sides lacked the fluency they showed in the group stage, with big players on either side failed to stamp their authority on the game. A huge performance by Turkish keeper Volkan Demirel however proved to be the deciding factor, as he kept Freddie Kanoute, Luis Fabiano and Seydou Keita at bay with outstanding saves. While they’ll be disappointed Kanoute failed to convert a last second chance to square the game, two vital away goals for Sevilla will still leave them feeling confident going into the return tie the week after next.