10 April, 2008

Champions League Round 3 – Second Leg

And then there were four. We knew not all of the British teams could make the cut, but could we manage three semi-finalists for a second consecutive year? The answer for those of you with their heads underground the past couple of days is yes, however some victories were certainly more convincing than others.

As ever we start on Tuesday night then, and at Stamford Bridge where Chelsea had something of a point to prove after the unexpected loss to Fenerbahce away in Turkey last week. Once more the Blues were far from impressive however, making heavy work of what was a somewhat underwhelming Fenerbahce side, even after taking the early lead they needed to make their away goal from last week count for something. The opener itself came from a set-piece, delivered by Frank Lampard after some bustling forward play from Drogba drew the foul. As he has been all year, Michael Ballack was the main threat in the opposition’s penalty area, and the German captain connected beautifully to send the ball in the top corner.

Those expecting Chelsea to push on and finish the game clearly haven’t realized Avram Grant’s promises of free-flowing attacking football were mere lip-service, and as the game went on, and Chelsea missed chances to double their lead, the Turkish champions seemed to notice that if they could pinch a goal, the tie was theirs. Brazilian string-puller and STT favourite Alex started to run the midfield for Fenerbahce, carving open chances for those around him, but twice late on substitute goalkeeper Henrique Hilario (on for Carlo Cudicini for pulled a thigh muscle on a goal-kick) was equal to it. With Gonul’s shot kept out, and Kazim-Richards denied another dramatic goal, Chelsea pretty much went down the other end and scored; Essien found space and played in Lampard for a late tap-in that even he struggled to miss.

Avram Grant has the chance then to do what Jose Mourinho failed to do on two occasions: beat Liverpool in a Champions League semi-final and take his side to the final. If he managed that do you think the dissenting ranks of Chelsea fans will finally get off his back and acknowledge him as a decent coach in his own right? Don’t bet on it.

They face Liverpool in a fortnight’s time after one of the games of the season saw Rafa Benitez’s men triumph 4 – 2 over an Arsenal team that came out of the blocks with frightening intent. Understandably irked after the previous two games this past 7 days, where Arsene Wenger saw two certain penalties denied to his side, Arsenal scored early at Anfield to silence the masses. Abou Diaby hit an absolute stormer of a drive from close range into Pepe Reina’s nearpost as Arsenal dominated the early quarter of the game. As with last week’s first leg at the Emirates, Liverpool didn’t have to wait long for the reply however, and this time it was the towering Fin Sami Hyypia who broke free from Philip Senderos to meet a perfect Gerrard corner to level things out 1 – 1, and for the only time in the game, penalties were on the cards. After Matthieu Flamini was carried off with an ankle injury, Liverpool took their chance to control the midfield, and for the final hour of the game, Alonso and Mascherano ran the show for not their first time in a Liverpool shirt.

Crouch had a early snap-shot saved in the second half and in all honesty Arsenal seemed to be shrinking from the challenge, with Fabregas about as anonymous as you’ll have ever seen him. The first big twist came just after the hour, as (who else) Fernando Torres created something out of nothing. The sublime Spaniard latched onto what was essentially a long ball to spin Senderos and fire home a blistering shot into Almunia’s top corner. Anfield went crazy and saluted its latest hero, with Torres’ beaming grin saying it all. Wenger responded instantly however, introducing an injured Robin van Persie and Theo Woolcott, so important to the victory in Milan in the previous round. Almost straight away Emmanuel Adebayor had a chance to equal the score on the night, but somehow missed what looked like an easy chance from 11 yards out, underlining once again the difference between a world-class striker like Torres and a flash-in-the-pan such as Adebayor. It was the young English prodigy however who provided the impact required for the Gunners, despite not having a kick in his first ten minutes on the field. Recalling the mesmeric run of Michael Owen in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina, Woolcott sprinted literally box to box, somehow riding about five attempts from Liverpool players to scythe him in half, before squaring to Adebayor to silence the Kop and momentarily crush Liverpool dreams of a third semi-final in four years. However before heads could even really drop, substitute Ryan Babel was adjudged to have been fouled by Kolo Toure in the Arsenal penalty area and a spot-kick was awarded. As with those decisions from the previous two encounters between the sides in this last week, this was contentious to say the least. In my eyes, Toure got the wrong side of Babel and did drag the Liverpool man down, but saying that, it was no more of a penalty than those aforementioned not awarded to Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas. If we’re talking about pressure then Steven Gerrard’s middle name must be ‘ice-man’ because the Liverpool captain, despite having what he referred to as his worst ever performance in a Red shirt, stepped up to hammer the ball into the top corner to one again put Liverpool’s name into the last four. Babel added some shine in injury time, breaking free past Fabregas to coolly add a fourth, but Wenger and his team were already inconsolable.

For the third season then (baring a miracle that earns them the Premier League crown) Arsenal are trophy-less, despite some world-class players and an admiral ethos to play beautiful football. Unfortunately for Wenger he must acknowledge in the closed season that in this country, that just isn’t enough to succeed. Nor is it enough to buy unproven young talent to nurture rather than perhaps over-spending on successful big names. Senderos has to go after being at fault for the first two Liverpool goals showed once again he’s out of his depth; a more orthodox wide man is needed after Hleb and Rosicky have failed to fill the gulfs still gaping from Pires and Ljundberg’s transfers; another attacking midfielder has to help out Fabregas; crucially though, a proper striker is urgently required as, without van Persie and Eduardo, Bendtner and Adebayor alone have simply not been good enough.

Before kick-off on Wednesday, Old Trafford was perhaps unreasonably expectant of another romp over Roma to equal their 7 – 1 demolition of the Italian side last season. Ferguson didn’t start with Ronaldo or Rooney, mindful of their clash with Arsenal this coming Sunday, and a defence featuring Mikel Silvestre and Gerald Pique didn’t exactly scream that they were taking Roma’s attacking threat seriously. Despite a marauding opening from United, which saw Owen Hargreaves enjoying all kinds of time and space down the right hand side, they failed to kill the tie of early after Doni between the Roma sticks produced several world-class saves from Giggs, Anderson and Hargreaves himself. Roma should have taken the lead before the half-hour though from the penalty spot, after a tackle from Wes Brown felled Mancini, but Italian World Cup winner Daniele de Rossi smashed the ball well over the crossbar. Mirko Vucinic continued to look threatening, but as a whole Roma still seemed to miss Totti as a real focal point up front to hold the ball for advancing midfielders to link with.

They showed great spirit however, and after missing the penalty seemed to become even more determined to make a game of it. Their dominant possession continued into the second half, with Marco Cassetti just failing to pounce on a rebound, Mikael Silvestre blocking from Rodrigo Taddei, and van der Sar saving a Juan header that the Brazilian defender probably should’ve done better with. The Italians couldn’t keep this pressure sustained however, and after the hour-mark, the game slowed considerably and United were able to feel comfortable again. Tevez’s lovely headed goal with twenty minutes left on the clock sealed it, but in reality this was Manchester United playing well within themselves. An early Roma goal would’ve made things interesting, but as it was, the game was rather flat, despite a brisk end-to-end first-half that should’ve brought goals for both sides. Roma, and de Rossi especially, will be ruing what could’ve been, but over the two legs undoubtedly the best team won.

Standing in between Manchester United and their first Champions league final in almost ten years are 2006 winners Barcelona, who booked their place in the semi-finals after another unconvincing display. They won 1 – 0 once again to take the aggregate score to 2 – 0 over German outfit Schalke, who will generally feel like they missed a trick after dominating both legs against the Catalan giants. Barca withstood huge early pressure at the Nou Camp, with Victor Valdes saving from Halil Altintop, Kevin Kuranyi heading wide and Jermaine Jones firing just off target as Schalke carved out chance after chance. Barce started quite brightly actually, and Eto’o and Xavi forced decent saves from the excellent Schalke keeper Manuel Neuer, but from then on the German side looked the prestigious European heavyweights, not the rank outsiders.

The killer blow came just before half time though as Bojan’s deflected cross fell at Yaya Toure’s feet for the Ivory Coast international to slot home. Young Bojan Krkic’s performance was once again the main highlight for the restless Barcelona faithful, and his substitution was met with a cacophony of boos from the home fans reveling in the pint-sized Spaniard’s talent. Even though in the end Frank Rijkaard's side went through fairly comfortably, the Catalan fans are really looking for much more from their beloved team, as indifferent performances in La Liga have seen them lose touch with main rivals Real Madrid in the title race, while also suffering embarrassing draws and defeats to significantly lesser opposition. The spark is still there on occasion though, as demonstrated in flashes in a second-half where they were given a bit more space to play in. Bojan teed up Thierry Henry to blaze over, Eto’o looked much more like his old self when employed centrally, and finally the excellent Andres Iniesta forced a world-class save from the once-again-impressive Neuer.

With the game all but over three-quarters of the way through, any attacking intent eventually fizzled out, but Barce will need something truly inspirational to even make Manchester United break sweat looking at both teams’ current form. Obviously any team in the world would miss players of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi’s quality, but overall Barcelona should have enough to keep playing the style of football they are accustomed to. Dissention in the dressing room and too many egos to juggle might finally have overcome Rikjaard, but if he wants to avoid a further nail in his coffin, he’s going to have to draw something pretty special out of his side in a fortnight’s time. It looks certain that we’ll be facing an all English final in Moscow come May, but it would be a brave man to write Barce off completely. Let’s just hope for two exciting semi-finals that live up to their potential, sit back, and enjoy it play out.

Current Odds to Win the Tournament:

Manchester United – 7/4

Chelsea – 3/1

Barcelona – 3/1

Liverpool – 10/3

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