Champions League Leaders Emerge

Unlike the previous knock-out round in which almost none of the first legs decided a clash, this week’s Champions League quarterfinals only left one question mark for the rematches in six days. In fact, Chelsea and Manchester United are the only pair that is separated by less than three goals after the first legs.

Tuesday witnessed two of the most uneven quarterfinal matches in recent history. In the first match, Real Madrid virtually destroyed Tottenham Hotspur by beating them 4-0 and making the second leg just a formality. It must be acknowledged that Spurs star Aaron Lennon had to be withdrawn just minutes before kick-off due to illness and that forward Peter Crouch was sent off in the 15′ because of two reckless and unnecessary challenges in Madrid’s half. To make matters worse, the Spanish side managed to open the scoring in the 5′ with their first shot on goal. In the end, even though Spurs were very well defensively organized and did not concede again in the first half, they ran out of steam halfway through the second and were crushed by Real’s incessant pressure.

Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp prom­ised that his team will give all they have at White Hart Lane in a week, but it seems very likely that this will be the end to what has been a very suc­cessful Champions League debut for the London side. Having been at the bottom of the English Premier League only a year-and-a-half ago when Redknapp took over, Spurs have managed a fantastic recovery that saw them finish fourth last year, and they are still well-positioned for a Champions League spot next year as well.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, are still looking very solid and determined. Although their style is not quite as impressive as rival Barcelona’s, they have not lost in the Cham­pions League this year and have finally broken an eight-year-long streak of losses in the first knock-out round. Having won this tournament nine times, more than any other European club, they are clearly one of the big favorites this year, second only to Barca.

Also on Tuesday, defending champions In­ter Milan were crushed by Schalke at San Siro in Milan. Even though Inter lost at home in the previous round as well before pulling off a spec­tacular win against Bayern Munich in Germany, the 2-5 deficit gives them little hope for the sec­ond leg. Legendary forward Raul, who is playing his last competitive years for Schalke, managed to score yet again in this tournament, taking his tally to 72 in all international competitions and opening a two-goal lead in front of injured Italian Filippo Inzaghi.

On Wednesday, big favorites Barcelona once again showed why everyone is so afraid of their offensive might. Scoring five goals has become second nature for Leo Messi, who astonishingly did not score this time, and his teammates at the front of Barca’s attack. Their latest victim was Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk, and the score was 5-1. The Ukrainians had played several im­pressive games thus far in the tournament, includ­ing two wins over Roma in the previous round, but were just unable to deal with Barcelona’s total domination in all parts of the field.

Now, we are only one week away from con­firming what all soccer fans around the world have been hoping for – namely a semifinal between Barcelona and Real Madrid. What is more, the two sides will play soon in the Spanish La Liga as well, so we will be able to witness the El Classico three times in less than a month. Only time will tell who will be victorious, but given that Madrid are already eight points behind in La Liga, it seems likely that they will make the Champions League, coach Jose Mourinho’s favorite tournament and one that he is aiming to win with three different teams. That is definitely their highest priority with the La Liga title likely out of reach.

The last semi-final spot was contested between the two biggest English teams in recent history, Chelsea and Manchester United. Even though neither team is in their best shape, the fans at Stamford Bridge saw very high-quality and fast-paced soccer with numerous chances and a good deal of drama. As usual for the Red Devils of late, they assumed a defensive position very early on in the game and were counting on Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs’ speed to make the difference on counter-attacks. Again, as usual, it worked beauti­fully when Giggs received a brilliantly measured long ball from Michael Carrick, made a run in Chelsea’s 20-yard box and passed back to Rooney who finished the attack perfectly with a clinical strike that bounced off Peter Cech’s left post.

The Blues reacted immediately and missed multiple chances of their own, in­cluding a Frank Lampard shot that hit United’s post, but were in the end unable to convert anything. They also had several penalty shots caused by reckless tackles by Patrice Evra in the box, but the Spanish referee, perhaps influ­enced by the all-English clash, decided to judge like an English referee and let some harsh tackles go unpunished. Thus, though United left with a promising 1-0 lead and an away goal, this match is still in the balance because no English side have ever been known to care whether they play at home or away.

All in all, the quarterfinals have been rather disappointing in terms of drama so far; it seems that there is a big difference between the Spanish and the top two English teams and the rest. Apart from the second leg of the English clash next week, I am already looking forward to the semifinals and to Mourinho’s response to the 5-0 defeat that his side suffered in El Classico in the fall. Schalke also have a decent team that is capable of big wins, but I just do not see them winning against any of the two powerhouse of the Premier League when they meet at the stage of the Last Four