03 April, 2008

Champions League Round 3 – First Leg

8 teams, 1 cup. 4 English, 1 Spanish, 1 German, 1 Italian, 1 Turkish, and by the end of May the question of European superiority will be settled again for another year. Having reached the quarter-finals, all teams still involved will certainly fancy their chances of winning it, and this is definitely the round to start sending a message to your competition.

And Manchester United did exactly that, romping away 2 – 0 winners away at in-form Roma, who for all their possession, really failed to trouble Edwin van der Sar between the United posts much during the 90 minutes. The Italians started brightly, as you’d expect from a side buoyed by an ongoing rivalry with the Premier League leaders over the last couple of years, but without the talismanic Totti, they seemed to lack that extra bit of invention in the final third necessary to crack United’s miserly defence. Similarly the trio of Mancini, Vucinic and Aquilani, all so impressive in the previous round against Real Madrid, never really got going despite seeing plenty of the ball early on. Ronaldo and Rooney were kept quiet by the Roma defence however, and until Ronaldo broke the deadlock with a towering header shortly before half-time, they didn’t particularly threaten much either.

The second-half however was a classy display by the whole team, with Ferdinand at the back excellent all night, and the midfield bolstered by Hargreaves’ introduction no end. The ball started to stick for United and as they started to control much of the play, it was only Roma keeper Doni who was keeping them in the tie; a sharp save down low to his right from a Ronaldo drive is particularly worthy of mention. Rooney added a somewhat scrappy second after the hour-mark, latching onto a superb header from Park Ji-Sung back into the danger area, but even the Italians cannot argue that it hadn’t been coming. Bagging his 36th goal in all competitions, it’s hard to deny many people’s claims that Ronaldo is the best player in the world at the moment, with this performance silencing any criticism (from myself included) that he maybe doesn’t always do it in the big European games. Roma are fuming over his perceived disrespect and show-boating, but the reality is that on the night they simply couldn’t compete with his strength and pace. Surely the semi-final place is now booked, with Roma needing a heroic three goals at Old Trafford next week to win out-right, a feat that no team has achieved since a Big Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid in 2003.

Should they finish the job, United will face the winners of Schalke and Barcelona, with the Catalan giants going into next week’s home leg in Spain with a vital away goal in their pocket. Make no mistakes about it though, Barce are not the same team that blew the competition away in 2006, and if anything, were very lucky to not get turned over on Tuesday in Germany. An early goal from teenage prodigy Bojan relaxed the Spanish nerves, but from then on they created very little, and with the likes of Henry and Eto’O unwilling to track back to defend, found themselves up against it for much of the second half especially. Midfielders Pander and Ernst were excellent for the German side, but it was quality in front of goal that cost them this week, with free-headers failing to hit the back of the net from Larson and Bordon. They perhaps should’ve had a penalty when Westerman was dragged back by Abidal, and a lovely little dink from Altintop over Valdes unfortunately landed just the wrong side of the post. Although Schalke played well you can’t but feel that at home in the Nou Camp, Barce will be an altogether more dangerous prospect. As has been the way all season, Iniesta was the star for Barce, his passing and touch superb, but with Messi and Ronaldinho still likely to be missing for a few more weeks, one wonders if they’ll have enough to even make Manchester United break sweat. Assuming they get past Schalke next week that is.

We head first to Turkey then for Wednesday’s games and what many people are describing as an upset with Chelsea going down 2 – 1 away at Fenerbahce thanks to a late wonder-goal from STT favourite Deivid de Souza. Sure Cheslea are still expected to win this tie, but Fenerbahce can actually play so it certainly won’t be as easy as many are making out. With former Brazilian star Zico at the helm they also have the tactical nouse often thought to be lacking at Chelsea under Avram Grant, but sooner or later the buck has to stop with the Blues players and not their patsy of a manager. The power and athleticism that defines Cheslea these days shone through in a first-half they dominated, with their opener coming from an attempted clearance by Deivid that flew into his own net. Essien also hit the bar, but with Drogba lacking anything approaching the sharpness he showed against Arsenal two weeks ago, chances went begging, and half-time came with the margin still just a goal. As the infamous hostility in the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium grew however, so did Fenerbahce, with Alex de Souza and ex-Chelsea man Mateja Kezman coming close early on. The equalizer eventually came just after the hour, from the unlikely source of ex-Bury, Brighton and Sheffield United forward Colin Kazim-Richards, who many might know better as the ‘Coca-Cola Kid’ after his transfer fee to Brighton was won through a competition with the aforementioned soft-drink. Honours seemed destined to be shared as the clock wound down but with less than 10 minutes to go, Deivid was able to atone for his earlier error by scoring down the right end this time. And what a goal to win a match with too; a 30-yard screamer that hit the top corner of Cudicini’s net before the Italian could really get anywhere near it. Simply for the intolerable amount of whinging that took place from clueless Chelsea fans on 606 last night, endlessly just chiming ‘Grant out,’ STT thoroughly hopes that Fenerbahce are able to do hold out next week in London.

And finally to the Emirates then, and the first in a week-long trilogy of games between old rivals Arsenal and Liverpool. For the neutral this was about as engaging as it gets, but looking around at the faces of Gunners and Scousers in the pub, you could tell how tense and almost unenjoyable the whole match was for them. The tie started ferociously, and for much of the first-half it was commendably open, with both sides eager to attack. The early sustained pressure was understandably Arsenal’s though, with van Persie looking bright as he forced a great save from Reina, and fired over from a quite beautiful chipped pass from Flamini. Alongside Fabregas, the Frenchman was again outstanding, but with both players sitting a bit deeper than they would usually do against inferior sides, Arsenal on the whole didn’t actually create as many chances as usual. The breakthrough came around twenty minutes in however, with Adebayor rising unmarked to nod in van Persie’s dangerous cross. From then the Gunners looked certain to press on and win the game, but Liverpool’s equalizer came just four minutes later to silence the jubilant crowd and make things that bit more interesting. Gerrard burst into the Arsenal box with a great turn of pace and crossed expertly for Dirk Kuyt to bundle in for his sixth goal in the competition this year (he’s got only 4 Premier League goals this season bizarrely). Arsenal turned the screw in the second half though and 45 minutes of virtually uninterrupted pressure followed to test Liverpool’s resolve. They stood firm however to frustrate an Arsenal side who, for not the first time this year, simply didn’t hit the target frequently enough despite their passing and possession. Woolcott looked bright after being introduced but was soon moved over to the right to accommodate further substitute Nikolas Bendtner, and proved considerably less effective.

The two major talking points came in quick succession around the hour-mark, with Hleb first being hauled down in the penalty area by Kuyt, in front of the referee, but only a corner was awarded. The Arsenal man perhaps went to ground a touch easily, however Arsene Wenger is rightly fuming that a spot-kick wasn’t awarded. His frustration multiplied several minutes later though when inexplicably a scrambled Fabregas shot was actually blocked on the line by Bendtner, who tried to jump out of the way but got his legs tangled up somehow and ended up diverting the ball wide. On reflection, 1 – 1 was ultimately a fair result, because as hard as Asrsenal pushed forward, Liverpool were resolute, disciplined and incredibly hard-working. Torres up top saw little of the ball but was always a willing runner, Skrytl was sublime in defence, and Kuyt was tireless in his defensive duties, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Javier Mascherano, or ‘Mad Masch’ as he’s affectionately known now around Anfield. The young Argentine responded to plenty of recent criticism with a performance that had everything; at times there even seemed like there were three or four guys with Mascherano on their shirt, such was the ground he covered. We can argue all we want about what could/should have been, but at the end of the day, at Anfield next Wednesday it is game well and truly ON.