01 May, 2008

Champions League Semi-Finals: Second Leg

Having been threatened for the last couple of years, we now have on our hands an all-English final of the Champions League for the first time in history. Manchester United vs Chelsea in Moscow in three weeks time might not be the most enticing prospect for the neutral, but who can really argue that both sides don’t deserve it? Over the two legs, it was strangely Liverpool and Chelsea who provided the most entertainment, with two thrilling encounters that completely banish negative thoughts from years past of clashes between the two. Manchester United though were forced to adapt their naturally attacking instincts, and across the games showed a great maturity to snuff out Barcelona, who seemed bizarrely content to pretty much just play keep-ball for 180 minutes.

It’s at Old Trafford we start, and a deafening atmosphere that proved just how much getting to their first final in nine years meant to the United faithful. Having barely had a kick last week in the Nou Camp, and chasing shadows for much of the defeat to Chelsea at the weekend, the word was that United might be there for the taking should Barce score first. Again the Spanish giants dominated most of the possession, but still they failed to really carve out any clear-cut chances as the English champions mounted an epic 11-man rearguard stand. With Rooney and Vidic missing through injury, the team was not at full strength, but still Ferguson started with plenty of attacking options in Park, Nani, Ronaldo and Tevez, eager to make his intent known to the Catalans. The Reds almost made a nightmare start though when Scholes tripped Lionel Messi just inches outside the area, but thankfully German ref Herbert Fandel got the call right, awarding a free-kick, and resisting the temptation to gift Barce a dream opportunity from the penalty spot. United nerves were settled minutes later however, when Paul Scholes crashed a thunderous long-range strike past Victor Valdes in the 14th minute. Only his second goal of the season, the timing could not have been better for Scholes, who many will remember was robbed of an appearance nine years ago in United’s 1999 winning final due to suspension.

As in the Nou Camp, Messi was the real danger man for Barce throughout, darting around with such pose and intent, but once again, Evra played him with aplomb, and United keeper Edwin van der Sar was on fine form to deny his several pokes at goal. Deco too was excellent for the Spanish side, but twice he dragged decent shooting opportunities just wide as it started to look like another one of those nights for Barce. United created chances of their own though, with Park Ji-Sung sliding a precise effort just wide, and Nani, preferred to Ryan Giggs, wasting a chance to double their lead just three minutes before the interval when he glanced Park's cross. Perhaps the best chance of the game however fell to substitute Thierry Henry just after the hour-mark, who fluffed a point-blank header from Xavi's corner tamely straight at van der Sar. As ironies go, an Henry header at Old Trafford would’ve been almost too much to take for United, but thankfully the ex-Arsenal man failed to get any real power on the ball. Barcelona continued to play around United in the closing stages, showing delightful one-touch passing and movement, but ultimately they just could not break down the stern defence. Ferdinand and Brown were superb at the heart of that defence, but the most kudos have to go to Carlos Tevez who covered so much ground, both going forward and tracking back, that he must still be knackered today. And Ronaldo? Well, he was more of a team-player, but as last week in Spain, was pretty blunt as an attacking option. So, round one to Messi; let’s hope for football’s sake though that this isn’t the last time the two prodigal talents face off in this kind of arena.

We move to Stamford Bridge then, and with Chelsea gifted a 95th minute equaliser last week at Anfield, the momentum was certainly with the home side. Never write off Liverpool in Europe though; when this competition reaches the business stages of the quarter-finals onwards, experience and history is worth so much. Liverpool undoubtedly played their part in what was an incredibly exciting rollercoaster of a game, with control lurching from one team to the other, but overall Chelsea just had too much for the Scousers, who have now been denied their third final in four years. From the outset, Chelsea were powerful and dangerous going forward, with Ballack dominating the midfield, and Drogba causing problems for the Liverpool back-line once again. The first chance fell to Fernando Torres however, who drove into the box and shot low after ten minutes, only to find Cech quickly out to smother the shot wide. Having been criticised by Rafa Benitez in the build-up to the game for his theatrics, of course the opening goal had to come from Didier Drogba, who finished off a great passage of play for the Blues just after the half-hour-mark. Lampard slid a delightful pass through to Soloman Kalou, and on a night where the young winger actually performed, he drove into the box with confidence and arced a shot towards Pepe Reina’s top left-hand corner. The effort was excellently parried by Reina, but it landed straight at the feet of the Ivory Coast international to hammer home, and the striker predictably celebrated by diving as a middle finger to Benitez and his other critics. Ballack then almost rounded off the half with a superb 25 yard free-kick that flew inches wide, but after the hairdryer treatment from Bentiez, Liverpool re-appeared a different side after the break.

They almost made a perfect start too, with Dirk Kuyt forcing a crucial save from Cech just minutes into the second half. Gerrard finally started to get a foot in the game, having broken the shackles of Claude Makelele somewhat after an anonymous first-half, and his passing opened the game up with Chelsea content to sit back. It’s always a dangerous game to play against a side such as Liverpool, and the Blues paid the price with twenty minutes to go when Yossi Benayoun (sledged throughout the game by a certain member of the STT editorial team) ghosted infield past three players to slide a ball into Torres on the edge of the box for the Spanish striker to fire past Petr Cech. Remarkably it was Liverpool's first goal at Stamford Bridge in nine matches (841 minutes to be precise), and meant that the game was destined for extra-time, with few chances as normal time panned out.

Having been on the rack for almost 45 minutes straight, the full-time whistle was exactly what Chelsea needed, and throughout extra time both sides were crackling at their best. Both periods were bathed in controversy, and after less than five minutes, Chelsea thought they had got a vital goal lead when Essien drilled a shot past Reina, only for it to be ruled out for offside. It was the right call too, with substitute Anelka standing literally right in front of the Liverpool keeper, but any protests were muted a minute later when Sami Hyypia, on for much of the game for the injured Skyrtl, tripped Ballack in the box and a penalty was awarded. On his return to the side just six days after the death of his mother, Frank Lampard put the ball down, and as if there was ever any doubt, he lashed the ball into the back of the net to spark an emotional celebration. Lampard on the whole was more involved than I remember him in the last year or so, buoyed on the desire to dedicate at least one trophy this season to his mother’s memory, and for once he is worthy of the praise heaped on him by today’s press. Minutes later, just before the half-time break, Drogba doubled Chelsea’s lead as well as his own tally for the game, latching onto a pass after some decent work by Anelka down the right. He understandably went spastic as Stamford Bridge finally started to believe, but there was more to come in this game. Just after the break, Hyypia himself was probing in the Chelsea box to make amends for his earlier error, and having been tripped by Drogba after some nice footwork, he rightly appealed for a penalty. Italian ref Roberto Rosetti was having none of it though, despite looking like he initially pointed to the spot, and the game continued at a frantic pace. The decision to turn down Liverpool’s penalty was put into starker light just minutes later though when Ryan Babel unleashed a 35 yard wonder-strike past Cech to put the Scousers within touching distance of a remarkable equaliser, but it wasn’t to be. Over the two games Chelsea showed enough attacking intent to deserve the win, and are now in with a chance of becoming the first London club to lift Europe's most sought-after prize. Maybe then the Blues’ supporters will finally admit that Avram Grant isn’t a complete clown, but don’t bet on it.

We’ll see you in Moscow on May 21st for the titanic showdown.


Anonymous said...

Nice writeups, though you didn't mention that Kalou was offside on Chelsea's first goal.

Anonymous said...

Nice writeups, though you didn't mention that Kalou was offside on Chelsea's first goal.