European Soccer: The Champions League

The soccer world has been dynamic and interesting since the publication of my last article. All European leagues are now unpredictable at best, and unlike a few months ago, there are no clear favorites in any of the three major leagues. In addition, we have just had another round of qualifiers for the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa in the summer of 2010.

I would like to start my review of these qualifiers with Group 8 in Europe, where my beloved home country, Bulgaria, is fighting for a place in the finals against Italy, the current world champions, and Ireland. Although it seems that Italy is the unquestioned favorite, the Azzuri have been heavily criticized by their fans who expected much more from the team. Ireland also has aspirations for the top spot in the group but their recent 1:1 draw with Bulgaria in Dublin has only increased the Bulgarians’ chances of advancing because a win against Ireland in Bulgaria will almost certainly see Bulgaria earn second place. Elsewhere, England has finally found the form their fans expect to see and the English are enjoying revenge over old rivals, Croatia. France, on the other hand, is struggling in its group, currently in third place, while Serbia has produced some really fantastic performances to lead the group. Finally, Spain and the Netherlands, the other big names, seem to have almost certainly secured their places in the finals after some convincing wins.

This week I would like to pay special attention to some of the best of the remaining teams in the Champions League. Beginning first with the most impressive club in the last month, Liverpool. The Reds have produced an amazing streak of wins over some daunting opponents. Firstly, they crushed Real Madrid in the Round of Last 16 of the Champions League. After that, in the biggest game of the season in the English Premier League, they destroyed Manchester United 4:1 at Old Trafford. Their win was due in large part to immaculate play from Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Seven days later they won yet another game, 5:0, versus the very ambitious side of Aston Villa, who is still fighting with Arsenal for the fourth spot in the Premier League. As a result, Liverpool is now just one point behind United in the title race and is in a great position for yet another go at the Champions League title. As usual, they will play Chelsea in the quarterfinals, a most intriguing clash that is sure to provide great entertainment.

The other big quarterfinal features Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The German side has struggled throughout the year but has recently started playing at a very high level. They just broke the Champions League record for the biggest win in the elimination stage. They beat Sporting 5:0 in Lisbon and then 7:1 in Munich for a total of 12:1, a most emphatic victory that reminded everyone that Bayern is still a great club capable of surprising anyone. The team’s executive director Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a great German player from the ’80s, recently announced that Bayern is no match for the winning machine from Spain but isn’t this just a trick to lull his opponents? After all, everybody knows that Bayern is the one team that should never be underestimated.

Bayern has a really tough opponent, though. Barcelona, after a shaky couple of games in March, has started to look impressive again. Their most recent 6:0 demolition of Malaga comes to show just how determined and motivated they are to win. In the Round of 16 in the Champions League they beat Olympic Lyon, 7:2 on aggregate, and disappointed all the French fans, who had been hoping their side would finally impress in the Champions League after dominating opponents in their native French league. In La Liga, Barca is enjoying a good 6-point lead over Real, and it now seems as if the title race has been settled in Barca’s favor.

The last major team in the Champions League is Manchester United. The Red Devils, after several great months in which they won the World Club Championship and Carling Cup, are now in a big slump after two consecutive defeats by Liverpool, 4:1, and Fulham, 2:0. Add to that the suspensions of Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic and Paul Scholes and the injuries of Dimitar Berbatov, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand, and we see that coach Sir Alex Ferguson has a very difficult task in front of himself if he wants his team to keep its chances of an unprecedented quadruple alive. They got lucky in the Champions League because they will play Porto in the quarterfinals and, if they win, the winner of Arsenal-Villareal in the semifinals. This means they will have some time to regain their strength before the clashes with the major rivals.

So, with the business end of the season fast approaching, we are guaranteed some top class soccer. Be sure to reserve your Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons because they are bound to offer some exceptional games and great entertainment.