With the Champions League quarterfinals a thing of the past, here are eight things I noticed from the last eight.
So, here we are again. Three English teams and Barcelona square off for the Champions League semis for the second consecutive year. No doubt Michel Platini will have already dusted off his Panini stickers and erected a Barcelona shine in his ‘salon.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s created a Lionel Messi deity of out pillows.
Despite proving the awesome might of the Premier League once again, it’s Barca who’ve come out of these engrossing quarter finals with their fear factor unblemished. With 29 goals in Europe already this season, they are certainly the neutrals’ choice, despite the ongoing steam roller of Les Roast Beef. However, they’ve probably had the easiest ride of the lot. Bayern may have looked like a tough tie on paper, but their defense was never of a high enough standard to stop the Fantastic Four.
The English teams, and United in particular (when on form) have more than enough in their locker to stop them. Chelsea will be the first proper gauge of how good they really are. If they push them aside like they did Bayern, then the rest should be worried. I’ve got a feeling they won’t.
Slowly but surely, Manchester United are remembering who they are. There were more than enough nervy moments where they seemed to slip back into the disorganized mulch that almost proved so costly in the first leg, but at least they’re getting there. Centrally, a few free headers aside, they were superb. Ferdinand and Vidic, when on form, are the best defensive partnership in Europe, no question. Out wide however, which is where their problems have really been in the last month, they looked far from water tight. Going forward they were better than recently, but at the beginning of the season they were creating a pot load of chances and only converting a couple. They now seem to be creating only a hand full and converting nearly all of them. Not that the goal two days ago was even a chance… unless you’re Ronaldo that is.
Not since John Travolta & Nicholas Cage decided to camp it up among John Woo’s slow motion flying Pigeons have I had as much fun watching two people trade places (well, maybe ‘Trading Places,’ but Eddie Murphy’s early genius is forever tarnished for me by…. well, almost everything he does now!).
Ronaldo up front was superb. His link up play is always good when he’s up there and he seems to hold on to it less when he’s not given the freedom of the wing. The biggest asset it brings is that his ability in the air is made the most of. His leap can be so devastating at times that even Ferdinand and Vidic would have trouble with him. Similarly, Rooney on the right wing was more effective than Ronaldo has been in the last month. He’s probably slightly better on the left where he can cut inside, but yesterday he again displayed his innate ability to play anywhere. Jack of all trades and master of all as well by the looks of it!
The Gods of football have a twisted sense of humor. On the 50th anniversary of Munich it was Manchester City who crashed United’s party (if you could call it that). On the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough it’s Manchester United who steal the headlines from Liverpool. On both occasions, possibly the least appropriate thing to happen. Football, bloody hell.
We all (probably) know the story. Roman Abramovich came to watch Manchester United take on Real Madrid in the European Cup quarter finals back in 2003, and after witnessing an enthralling 4-3 encounter full of silky football and attacking verve, fell in love with the game. He decided right then and there, so legend goes, to buy a team. A team full of similar verve and dynamism. A team he could transform into world beaters. A team who he could watch dismantle others with fantasy football from up high on his throne in the director’s box.
Unfortunately for him, none of those teams wanted to sell, so he ended up with Chelsea. After sacking their most successful ever manager for not transforming them into Brazil circa 1970, and his successor for looking like an angry toad, it looked like he’d finally found his miracle worker in an out of work Gene Hackman look-a-like. However, things soon went wrong and he was shown the door with much the same ruthlessness as his predecessors. On April 14th 2009, after installing the man who also runs his national team and cleans his pool as a temporary manager, Czar Abramovich finally got his wish. Still sporting the tramp-chic only the stupendously rich can pull off, he oversaw a game of football to finally surpass the one that instigated his dream. And who says money can’t buy you love…. eventually.
There’s been much talk about the PFA nominees, and the one name that’s always brought up as a glaring omission is Fat (TM Ronaldo De Lima) Frank Lampard. While he’s taken an awful lot of stick in the past few years, this year he has clearly been good. In fact not just good, very good. In fact not just very good, but better than Gerrard very good. I realize that Gerrard’s nomination has a lot to do with Liverpool’s form this season, but with all the focus on the battle between the Reds people may have over looked that Chelsea are hot on the heels of Liverpool in the league, have knocked them out of the CL and are still in the FA Cup. With Drogba sulking and Anelka playing erratically despite scoring for fun, Chelsea’s form this season has a damned lot to do with Frank Lampard. In the second half on Tuesday he was the difference. Most of the stick he gets is because of the feeling he’s slightly over-rated. Now he’s starting to play like the player he was hyped to be, and perversely, he’s not getting recognition for it. It’s a funny old world.
After booing their team only a couple of months back, Arsenal fans are quite rightly keeping their gobs shut about Wenger now. L’Arsenal are coming into form at the right time. If Van Persie and Walcott can stay clear of injury then they’ll be a much tougher test for United in the semis (and the league) than was previously thought. Arsenal versus United matches are almost always feisty. It’s 10 years since the FA semi in 99, possibly the greatest match I’ve witnessed. If it’s anything like that, our eyes, if not our blood pressure, are in for a treat.
Manchester United have never faced an English side in a two legged European cup tie. All the other English combatants have, and while this is not particularly significant in any way it’ll be an interesting sensation for United fans. Arsenal are the form side but United know this competition like the back of their hand (Ferguson has now reached the CL semi-finals more than any other manager).
Barcelona are the favorites, but I believe they’ve flattered to deceive this year. Chelsea will be a real test for them. That said, with their six point lead in La Liga they’ll have the added bonus of not having to go full throttle domestically, a luxury Chelsea and United don’t have. Arsenal have more breathing space since Villa’s disintegration, and their squad will be more stretched than Barca’s, but with a lot of players coming back from injury they should have a good deal of fresh legs.
Whatever happens, if these games are anything to go by, it won’t be dull. Hold onto your butts!