The first knock-out round of the UEFA Champions League finally proved why everyone gets so excited about this tournament. After a fairly boring and uneventful group stage that had no surprises and not too many interesting matches, the four games on Tuesday and Wednesday brought the necessary quality and suspense that everyone was waiting for.
On Tuesday, Milan hosted Tottenham Hotspur in what was a classic Anglo-Italian encounter of the opposites. Struggling to hold on to their fourth position in the English Premier League, Spurs were considered to be the underdogs before the game at San Siro. However, their attitude right from the start was that of a team that had a very offensive game plan and was going to stick to it firmly. Throughout most of the first half, the ball was mainly in the hosts’ half and it was Tottenham who had more clear chances on goal. Still, the Milan defense, masterly conducted by Alessandro Nesta, was holding firm and managed to cope with Spurs’ predictable crosses towards towering Peter Crouch. Yet, some flashes of brilliance from Rafael van Der Vaart surely made the Italian supporters cry in horror as the ball flew close to the posts on several occasions.
The second half was a completely different story, however, as the home side was increasing the pressure on Tottenham but was also unable to get past a very impressive Heurelho Gomes in Spurs’ goal. The Italian players were getting ever more frustrated with the Englishmen’s resilience and were playing rather aggressively, with captain Gennaro Gattuso contesting all referee decisions that went against Milan’s way and even getting in a small fight with one of Spurs’ coaches. However, just when it seemed that the Tottenham defense would finally give in, Aaron Lennon and Peter Crouch managed to pull through the Italian defense and Crouch finished off the lovely attack by putting the ball in the botton right-hand corner of Milan’s goal. The hosts tried to come back in the game and keep their chances for the second leg alive but their late pressure only led to a disallowed goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Elsewhere, the great Raul Gonzales scored his 71st goal in European club competitions, thus just beating Milan legend Filippo Inzaghi’s record of 70. Gonzalez’s goal meant that his new team Schalke 04 got a very valuable away draw at Valencia and will feel much more confident before the second leg in Germany.
Wednesday night offered even more excitement and surprises. The most-awaited first-round clash between Arsenal and Barcelona proved to be every bit as interesting as it had promised to be. In what was probably the fastest game played so far this season, both teams squandered numerous scoring opportunities until finally David Villa scored in the 26th minute after a wonderful through ball by Messi. After the goal, Barcelona had a slight advantage that lasted until the end of the first half as Arsenal was struggling to get out of their own half and cope with the immense pressure from the Catalans. The second 45 minutes, however, were probably one of the few times this year that Barcelona were outplayed and, more importantly, outscored. Arsenal’s attacks were getting more and more dangerous until finally Robin Van Persie scored from a very beautiful and difficult volley to even the score. Later on, coach Arsene Wenger put Russian Andrey Arshavin into play in an attempt to earn a first win against Barcelona, and the winger did not fail him. Shortly after the equalizer, Gunners were already in the lead thanks to another marvelous strike, this time by Arshavin. Of course, it would not have been Barca if they had not put up a final attempt to equalize, but their efforts were futile; and now Arsenal is in a very good position to get revenge for their loss to Barcelona at the same stage last year.
Finally, Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk managed the biggest upset of the week after beating Roma 3-2 at the Olimpico in Rome. Shakhtar’s Brazilian stars Luiz Adriano and Jadson drove the Italian defense crazy and played a crucial role in this historic win for the Ukrainian side, who will surely be feeling very confident in front of their home crowd three weeks from now.
The remaining four clashes of the first round will be played next week as title holders Inter Milan take on Bayern Munich in a repeat of last year’s final while Manchester United will play at Olympique Marseille in yet another very promising battle of the giants.
All in all, the first week of the Champions League’s knock-out stage was extremely entertaining. Yet again, English sides proved their class by beating the Italian and Spanish leaders, respectively. Following a rather disappointing season last year when neither of the Big Four Premier League teams made it to the semifinals, they are now surely hungry for success and have all the qualities to achieve it. Even though Barca only needs a one-goal win in order to beat Arsenal on aggregate, Gunners might just manage to defeat what some now dub the “Greatest Team of All Time.”