24 April, 2008

Champions League – Semi-Finals 1st Leg

It was expected to be a week of heroes, but bizarrely it will more likely be remembered for two men characterized as villains: John Arne Riise for tragically netting an own goal deep into injury time at Anfield, and Cristiano Ronaldo for missing a penalty after less than three minutes at the Nou Camp.

Starting then at Anfield with what many neutrals were actually dreading a little after a collection of tepid-to-say-the-least encounters between the two sides in recent memory. If anything the game was less cagey than last night’s supposedly free-flowing affair in Spain, and Chelsea genuinely demonstrated some attacking intent throughout the first-half despite struggling to carve out any clear-cut chances. Joe Cole wasted Chelsea's best opportunity of the match when he was found delightfully in the area by Lampard around the half-hour mark, but he failed to realise the amount of time and space he had, and the chance was snuffed out. Steven Gerrard signalled the Reds’ attacking intent after just seven minutes, but his ultimately tame shot was straight at Cech, before Kuyt's control let him down just after, having been put clear by Xabi Alonso. The Spanaird, alongside the fantastic Javier Mascherano dictated the midfield all game, with Lampard doing his usual invisible man impersonation (admittedly though, probably his mind was elsewhere with his sick mother, R.I.P.), and Ballack clearly lacking match-fitness. As the half reached its climax, Torres was put through with a class through-ball from Gerrard, but unusually El Nino failed to find the net, taking perhaps a touch too many to allow Cech to brilliantly smother the danger. The humanoid brick-wall was powerless to stop Liverpool taking the lead three mintues before the interval however, as Chelsea were caught out by Alonso's quick free-kick. Lampard failed spectacularly to clear on the edge of his own box, and Kuyt stole inbetween Makalele and Cole to latch on to Mascherano's sliced pass to coolly steer through Cech’s legs.

The goal understandably gave Liverpool a further injection of confidence, and they dominated most of the second half, with the impressive Ryan Babel fizzing a 25-yard shot just wide just before the hour mark. Chelsea grew into the game again during the second half though, with Malouda and Kalou almost contributing for the first time this year with probing runs at the Liverpool full-backs. Still though they failed to create much, with Drogba more concerned with pouting and shrugging his shoulders rather than making any decent runs. With less than ten minutes left on the clock, Liverpool were resurgent again, and Cech needed to produce two world-class saves, firstly to turn Gerrard's vicious volley over the bar, and then to block an injury-time strike from Torres after the Blues failed to clear a corner. In the 95th minute, the unthinkable happened though and Chelsea got that vital away-goal. Kalou's whipped cross from the left sparked uncertainty in the Scouse defense and Riise, under pressure with Anelka behind him, sent a spectacular diving header into the top corner in front of the Kop. Critics might suggest that a confident two-footed player might have dealt with it with his weaker right foot, but I guess that’s irrelevant now. Bentiez refused to blame Riise afterwards, only directing this at the match officials: “You can’t blame the referee for the own-goal. But the time? One minute in the first half, four in the second. It’s difficult to explain.”

Across to Spain and one of the world’s greatest stadiums then, itself the stage of Manchester United’s glorious victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions Legaue final. We billed it yesterday as the meeting of the world’s two best players, and in some ways it failed to really excite in any way at all. Before we talk about Messi and Ronaldo though, the story of the game is that Barcelona enjoyed more than 70% possession, yet still struggled to really create many prime chances. Manchester United were gifted the perfect start with Gabriel Melito handled Ronaldo’s goal-bound header, but the Portuguese star proved he is human by slotting the spot-kick high and wide of Victor Valdes’ goal. This spurred Barce on, and as the game progressed they became more and more camped in United’s half, dominating our Champions in a way that they certainly are not used to in the Premier League. Yaya Toure and the excellent Xavi bossed the midfield with ease, leaving the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes barely even passengers as the match unfolded. The choice openings fell predominantly to Eto’o, and the best chance saw him firing just wide after a stunning interchange between the Cameroon international, Deco and Messi put him through on goal. Kudos must go to the Catalans’ forward for staying on his feet in the second half when Rio Ferdinand recklessly crunched him from behind though, but in keeping his stride and not going for the penalty, the chance was essentially lost. Henry too looked bright when introduced, drifting in from the left to find the target in trademark style, and hitting a free-kick that was ultimately bread and butter to van der Sar.

So to the big face-off, and like we said yesterday, a chance for Ronaldo and Messi to prove if they can really do it on the grandest stage of them all. Big things are rightly expected of big players, and as has often been the criticism in the past, Ronaldo lacked anything approaching the penetration expected of him. He has to learn to do the simple things well, and realise that there is a time for back heels, and a time for straight-forward passes to feet. Looking at the truly great players of the past, Zidane for example never felt the need to do the spectacular in every match, but you could bet your mother’s life on him slotting away from the penalty spot yesterday, rather than trying to find the top corner for the cameras. Messi on the other hand was breath-taking, and despite not playing for several months, was instrumental in every attacking move Barce put together. His movement, footwork and passing were sublime, and it took a top-class performance from Patrice Evra to keep him even remotely shackled. Without Vidic, the United defence looked suspect centrally, and it was this space between midfield and back-four that Messi thrived in, zipping the ball about with so much time and space. Put simply, United must employ Hargreaves in this gap at Old Trafford to snuff out any danger of an away goal, and in Anderson they have a gifted ball carrier who will also provide the necessary steel to upset the Barce play-makers.

Ultimately, it is United and Chelsea who will be happiest going into the return legs next week, with homefield advantage, and without any deficit to surmount. However, Liverpool and Barcelona undoubtedly have the European pedigree, and will not be phased in their playing style of the prospect of an away fixture. It might not have been the most exciting brace of games but everything is very nicely poised for next week’s return deciding legs…

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