Champions League Play Nears the End

Radoslav Ivanov

The Champions League has finally approached the stage where only true contenders remain. The two much anticipated semifinal clashes promise a wonderful display of top-class soccer, dominated by the three offensive minded British teams remaining.

The first match is an all-English game between old rivals Chelsea and Liverpool. These teams met in two of the last three seasons in the final stages of the tournament, with Liverpool managing to overcome Chelsea in both contests. This year, however, there has been a major change: Chelsea’s manager Jose Mournho has been replaced by Avram Grant. This was a risky move by Chelsea’s benefactor Roman Abramovich that might turn out to be successful depending on the team’s performance in the following two weeks. Chelsea has the potential to win both the Champions League and the English Premier League. Many critics wrote off Chelsea due to this coaching transition. However, any underestimation of the Blues’ abilities will lead to disaster because the Londoners are anything but a weak team.

Chelsea and Liverpool’s performances have been unexpectedly different so far. Chelsea has yet to play a big team in the elimination stages and has not been impressive thus far. People say, however, that good teams show their best form whenever they meet somebody at their level.

Liverpool, on the other hand, played some really marvelous games, including a spectacular 2:0 win against Inter Milan at San Siro. In the quarterfinals, the Merseyside produced the most impressive game in this year’s Champions League, when they defeated Arsenal 4:2 in a game that was going the Gunners’ way just five minutes before the end.

The first leg between Chelsea and Liverpool, played at Anfield Road on Tuesday, ended 1:1 thus giving the Blues a slight advantage before the second game at Stanford Bridge next week. It was a very interesting and even game in which neither team played well defensively and the scoring opportunities were abundant. It was the home side, however, that dominated the game to some extent and missed more chances to take the lead. Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt led the Liverpool charge, however both failed to capitalize on opportunities. Chelsea had their chance in the 21st minute, but Joe Cole’s shot was too weak. The inevitable happened in the 43rd minute when Kuyt finally managed to get the ball past Peter Cech and put Liverpool in the lead at halftime.

The second half continued very much like the first. However, Chelsea began putting more pressure on their opponents’ defense. Florent Malouda missed an excellent opportunity for the Blues after a beautiful individual raid. On the other side of the ball, Steven Gerard made a fantastic volley shot that was well saved by Cech. Chelsea scored the ever-so-important equalizer in the final seconds of the added time after a very unlucky own goal by Norwegian John Arne Riise.

The second semifinal features Manchester United and 2006 winner Barcelona. The Red Devils have excelled in controlling the pace of play this year. They defeated all their rivals in the English Premier League, including a 4:0 win against Arsenal and a 3:0 win against Liverpool. United’s biggest star, Christiano Ronaldo is considered to be the best player in the world after beating legend George Best’s record of 34 goals in a single season. However, United has still not won anything this year, so their motivation will surely be at a top level come the most important games of the season.

Barca, on the other hand, is having a terrible season and has no chance whatsoever of winning the Spanish championship. Ronaldinho’s injury and his lack of motivation has contributed to the team’s downfall, while constant talks about head coach Frank Rijkard’s dismissal are only worsening the situation. It has to be said, though, that Barcelona has a very young team and some really impressive players, such as Leo Messi and rising star Bojan Krkic.

The two teams’ performances so far in the Champions League have been more than impressive. Manchester United have not lost a single game in the whole tournament while Barca have won all five of their home matches. One of these streaks inevitably came to an end after the first leg in Spain.

The game, played with breath-taking speed and sharpness, ended 0:0. Manchester United had an early chance when defender Gabriel Milito stopped Ronaldo’s header with his hands and a penalty was given to the away side. However, the Portuguese striker hit the left post and squandered the best opportunity in the game. After that, Barca took complete control of the game. Possession at halftime was 66 to 34 percent in the Spanish side’s favor. Messi was simply unstoppable down the right wing while Eto’o was constantly searching for a position in the box and just missed the ball on several occasions. Despite their domination of possession however, Barca could not create many scoring chances because United’s stellar defensive play.

After a great 35 minutes, Barcelona slowed down a bit and allowed the Britons to get out of their half and try a few attacks on their own. Nothing interesting happened in the last ten minutes of the first period and both teams went for a well-deserved break. The second half started as thunderously as the first. Samuel Eto’o missed an excellent opportunity after a nice raid down the left flank while Michael Carrick did the same thing in front of the opposite goal. After these frantic minutes, however, the two sides seemed to relax a little and decided to save their efforts for the second leg.

So, after two great first legs, both semifinals are in the balance and it would not be surprising if they both culminate in penalties. Therefore, make sure you are free next Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons because you do not want to miss the show these teams will produce.