06 March, 2008

Champions League Stage 2 – Second Leg

With most games fairly nicely poised from the first legs a fortnight ago, all remaining 16 teams certainly fancied their chances at advancing into the last 8 of the most prestigious club tournament in the world. With Liverpool’s return match against Inter Milan postponed until next week (to save the pitch in the San Siro hosting two games back to back) four English teams strutted their stuff against the very best Europe has to offer, and despite Celtic losing to 2006 champions Barcelona, all four can be very proud of their week’s work.

Having now said goodbye to defending champions AC Milan, as well as historical powerhouses Real Madrid, the door is wide open for any of the remaining sides to show us just what they’ve got. Let’s try to avoid a repeat of last year’s semi-finals though; watching three English essentially all capitulate against Milan was pretty dull to say the least, but with the likes of Barcelona and Roma looking ominously back to their best, the rest of the competition should be very interesting indeed…

As ever, for goals and extended highlights check out our good friends over at 101 Great Goals.


We start of course in Milan, and a historic win for Arsenal which made them the first English team to ever beat AC in this competition on their own ground. After a tense first game in London that the Gunners will feel they should have won, the stage seemed set for Milan to kill off the under-strength Arsenal side and ease to victory. Cesc Fabregas however had other plans, and through a basically perfect all-round performance, he inspired them from the first whistle, dictating the game under the nose of Pirlo, Ambrosini and Gattuso. Flamini also deserves a mention as his steel behind Fabregas in the midfield was crucial to shutting down Milan’s major offensive threat, a guy named Kaka’ who you might have heard of. In spells the World Player of the Year sparkled, driving into the heart of the Arsenal defence several times, but that final telling pass or inch-perfect shot just alluded him on the night. Elsewhere Milan looked almost too relaxed and self-assure, never really pressing the tempo or offering sustained pressure. Saying Milan are over-the-hill or a shadow of their old selves is not to do Arsenal a disservice however, as very few teams in history have still ever dominated Milan the way they did. The opening goal eventually came just 6 minutes before the final whistle, with Fabregas firing a rocket of a drive past Kalac from 25 yards to essentially seal the tie, but the cherry on top was a last minute tap-in for Adebayor to finally give him his first Champions League goal in 15 attempts.

Buoyed by the last minute equalizer in France two weeks ago, Manchester United had to be feeling pretty confident at kick-off this week, knowing that one goal would more than likely be enough be see off Lyon. And one goal it was, scored by (who else) Cristiano Ronaldo just before half time, capitalizing on some disorganized Lyon defending to fire past Coupet with his left foot from 6 yards. The rest of the game was a tense affair, with few chances falling to either side in all honesty. Rooney found himself in a couple of glorious positions late on in the second half but failed to convert to make a score that would’ve somewhat flattered United on the night. Big prospect Benzema was kept unusually quiet and it was Keita who came closest for the visitors, beating van der Sar around the hour mark only to see the ball crash into the base of the post. Playmaker Juninho was kept under lock and key by the excellent Anderson, and United concentrated their attacks down both flanks through Ronaldo and Nani. The pace and guile of both Portuguese widemen caused constant problems for the Lyon wing-backs, considerably more used to attacking than defending in their national league.

Having lost 3 – 2 at home in the round’s first leg, Celtic were always going to need a miracle to turn over Barcelona in the Nou Camp. To make matters worse, Xavi scored after just 2 minutes for the Spanish side and to be honest everyone knew then that it was game over. Celtic put up a fight as you’d expect, but aside from a speculative Nakamura shot in the second half, never really looked like scoring unfortunately. Barce meanwhile were very much in second gear, happy to conserve energy and let the game play out as long as they still had the aggregate lead. Ronaldinho, Puyol and Deco came close, but solid saves from Boruc kept the scoreline more than respectable. It’s unfortunate for Celtic to once again face such tough opposition straight away after battling through the group stage, but over the season they’ve performed admirably against statistically two of the greatest all-time sides in Europe, Barcelona and AC Milan, so heads should be held high in Glasgow.

In perhaps the surprise Game of the Round, Seville crashed out of the competition to rank outsiders Fenerbahce in what was once again an absolute thriller of a game. Neither side waste any time with that defending rubbish so there were always going to be goals in this return leg, but I don’t think anyone expected the drama that unfolded. With a 3 – 2 deficit to overcome from the first leg, back-to-back UEFA Cup champions Sevilla had some work to do, but got plenty of help early on from some decidedly dodgy goalkeeping as Volkan Demirel let shots from Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita through his hands with less than 10 minutes on the clock. Brazilian star and former Obscure South American Deivid pulled one back for the Turkish champions, before Freddie Kanoute pounced at the other end to restore Sevilla’s two goal cushion. A last gasp Deivid poke leveled the tie 5 – 5 on aggregate, and after a fruitless extra time, it all came down to penalties where Demirel atoned for his earlier errors with three fantastic saves to send Zico’s all-star team through to the last 8.


Chelsea and Olympiakos always looked like a bit of a mismatch on paper, and having ground out a goalless draw a fortnight ago in Greece, a victory for the Blues was never in doubt at Stamford Bridge last night. The gulf in class between the two teams was huge, and unsurprisingly the match was over at 3 – 0 well before the hour mark. Ballack was instrumental in both first half goals, converting a dinked Lampard cross with a powerful header after just 6 minutes, and then smashing a powerful shot on target which was parried to Lampard for a tap-in just before the half hour mark. Kalou added some shine just 3 minutes into the second half, but overall Olympiakos were woefully disappointing, not once calling Chelsea keeper Carlo Cudicini into serious action.

To the famous Bernabeu then, where nine-time winners Real Madrid faced an impressive Roma side who had come out 2 – 1 winners on their home soil two weeks previously. From kick-off Roma were on top, dominating possession and creating serious problems down both Madrid flanks while the illustrious likes of Raul struggled to get a touch of the ball. Rising star Alberto Aquilani was phenomenal throughout for the Italians, peppering Casillas’ goal with shot after shot as Roma looked to kill the tie off early. Madrid held on, and while Baptista and Robinho looked promising, the absence through injury of both Robben and van Nistelrooy was telling. With twenty minutes to go, Madrid man a sending off. Almost instantly Taddei then scored for the visitors, but rather than accept defeat, Madrid went straight down the other end and equalized through Raul, although on closer look he was lucky to not be given offside. The final fifteen minutes were tense, with Chicano nearly scoring a catastrophic own goal, but the Spanish giants’ fate was sealed in the 92nd minute when Vucinic rounded off a perfect 25 minute guest appearance by heading home a delightful Mancini cross.

Without doubt the least exciting tie of the round on paper, Porto and Schalke certainly both had a real go in Portugal, with the 2004 Champions needing to score at least one to level the 1 – 0 deficit from the first leg. The Portuguese side attacked with flair and intent, but found in their way a goalkeeper who was on absolutely top form. Manuel Neuer was called on almost every other minute, and produced one of the best saves you will see this year to acrobatically block a point blank Tarik Sektioui header just before the hour mark. As the clock ticked down Schalke had chances too, but seemed content that it was going to end in the stalemate which would be enough to send them through to the unchartered territory of the quarter-finals. Just 7 minutes from the end though, Argentinian star Lisandro Lopes picked up the ball on the edge of the Schalke box, turned sharply, and unleashed a wonder-strike into the far top right corner of Neuer’s net to send the game into extra-time. 10 man Porto (Jorge Fucile was red carded for a groin-high slide tackle in the 80th minute) looked shattered, but continued to press, with Neuer forced into another fantastic save in the 102nd minute when Queresma found himself one-on-one with the young German keeper. Asamoah came closest for the visitors when he fired a curling shot just over in the second period of extra-time, but the inevitability of penalties could not be shaken. As a German team, Schalke were obviously successful, with Neuer once again the hero as he defied physics to keep out Lopes’ deciding spotkick.

So who’s your money on to win now then? This is how the experts (and by that I mean Bet365.com) see it:

Manchester United – 10/3

Barcelona – 10/3

Chelsea – 5/1

Arsenal – 5/1

Liverpool – 9/1

Roma – 10/1

Inter Milan – 16/1

Schalke – 25/1

Fenerbahce – 33/1

You can’t help but feel that an English winner is more than likely this year, especially if Liverpool can see off Inter Milan next week. Looking at the remaining sides, the dream final for the neutral has to be a replay of 2006’s epic Barcelona vs Arsenal match, and if that happens it would be a brave man to not bet that a certain Mr. Henry might well have the last laugh against his former employers…