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Thursday, March 09, 2006

UK Champions' League Round-Up

And then there was one......

Well, what started as a potentially enthralling week of European League football for the UK has turned rather like the weather. Out of three English teams, four British ones, only one remains going into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. So with the Middlesbrough vs. Roma UEFA Cup tie tonight aside, our hopes now hang on one team.

Villarreal 1 vs. Rangers 1 (3-3 on agg., Villarreal through on away goals)

I watched Villarreal vs. Rangers. While there had been something of 18,000 Rangers fans in attendance at the El Madrigal Stadium, allegedly a number of them attacked Villarreal's team bus causing criminal damage, as it went en route to the ground. Some were said to have rocked it as it arrived, which questions the security arrangements of the police and in-house security if true. But Rangers gave an excellent account of themselves on the pitch and took a shock lead when Barry Ferguson's shot was not gathered by Sebastian Viera and Peter Lovrenkrands tucked away. The Spanish side's Juan Roman Riquelme is a quiet yet astute playmaker and his ability to send out passes pushed the home side further on attack. Villarreal have yet to lose a match in the competition, they seem to have an uncanny knack of pulling a goal from nowhere. Diego Forlan made progress tot he line to square, the ball went through to acting skipper Rodolfo Arruabarrena to side foot home. Rangers came close to scoring but luck wasn't allowing another goal and sadly they made an exit from being that close of going through. Big hearts played out there but the cutting edge wasn't sharp enough.

Barcelona 1 vs. Chelsea 1 (3-2 on agg.)

There doesn't seem to be much more to add to Barcelona vs. Chelsea that hasn't been said, perhaps with more analysis on the match itself. The welcome given to particularly Jose Mourinho was unsavoury though a natural reaction to his comments after the 1st leg. Both sides are current respective domestic champions and as such have excellent players. Chelsea had more the strength, Barcelona the flair and the English side came at Barca with great passing movement and chances on goal. Unsurprisingly, then, that it took until the 78th minute for someone to score, who had to be Ronaldinho, as he collected the ball outside the box, came at the Chelsea defence, bounced off John Terry and fired a fierce low drive past Petr Cech. Chelsea's persistent attacks brought Terry into the box and Giovanni Van Bronckhurst's challenge gave away a penalty in dying injury time. Rightly or wrongly, it was academic as Frank Lampard sent Victor Valdes the wrong way.

Mourinho's attitude and that of his players have led to a FA charge from the West Brom match, the least serious is the lateness in coming out for the second half, the more serious one of when the players went up to ref Mark Halsey when Ronnie Wallwork went in on Claude Makelele and when Arjen Robben was dismissed. If the side go on to win titles and trophies, it won't matter financially or otherwise, unless action taken meant players would be suspended from playing. But after this match, Mourinho diverted attention away from the match and onto the dismissal of Asier Del Horno as a focal point why Chelsea went out. I disagree. Chelsea still could have won this match, as they did last season, and it is partly their sharpness in front of goal that led to their exit. Having conceded twice at home, the pressure was on them to impress and it could have been too much.

Liverpool 0 vs. Benfica 2 (0-3 on agg.)

Speaking of sharpness, Liverpool have raised their game in the Premiership to reach third, temporarily second, but it is on borrowed time now. Whereas we were making the performances to warrant winning and did so by the single goal, we are now playing well but not scoring at all as well as enough A Liverpool side in such form and not regularly scoring is very bewildering indeed. Consider we have Fernando Morientes with an established form record from Spain and France, particularly in the Champions League, Djibril Cisse touted to be of Thierry Henry pace and an eye for goal from Marseille, Peter Crouch with height advantage and some good ball control to lay off and pass through, and Robbie Fowler with his experience and coming to appropriate fitness. Add to that the attacking of Steven Gerrard and John Arne Riise, the playability of Xabi Alonso, the sturdiness and composure offered by Dietmar Hamann and Mohammed Sissoko, and the partnership of Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher, and Liverpool are very much capable of achieving greater football and greater results.

This is an excellent Liverpool side that is not pushing its qualities further than it should be. Pepe Reina looks a great keeper and for his first season he is party to impressively cleaning clean sheets. Daniel Agger looks a great addition in an area where cover is needed and hopefully Gabriel Paletta can come through in the same mold all the way from South America to Merseyside. But we are not scoring, and when we do it is not enough. That kind of form from the talents of those above is a big worry and it has cost us our Champions League place. Losing some stability when Hyypia then Riise pulled out was an instant worry, which increased when Djimi Traore was one replacement. We came at Benfica with all the determination to overturn their advantage, chance after chance, and then allowed a shot from Sambrosa Simao from outside the box take off and watched it go in, rather than close him down. Great effort that cleanly went over Reina. The same in the second half, and then we were caught on the counter and still failed to shut down on the sub Fabrizio Miccoli scissor-kicked the killing blow.

I don't blame the defenders last night, our attacking prowess lacks sharpness to finish, as simple as that. We need finishing in the box or outside of it with more accuracy, more foresight to keep the ball on target. A number of players were below par some way into the second half. Morientes' touch and positioning let him down, Cisse was once again on the wing instead of upfront and became predictable in going for the by-line when looking to cross. Luis Garcia was key for me but his touches were lacking on occasion. In general, in the second half, we created the type of balls that Benfica were well positioned to defend or lacked the quality of being of the right pace or accuracy, with hardly a shot on target to trouble keeper Moretto de Souza, with the exception of Alonso's effort. I think it turned somewhat desperate for us as the time ticked but at the end it was thoroughly accepted it wasn't to be.

Arsenal 0 vs. Real Madrid 0 (1-0 on agg.)

Incredibly, this tie seemed over from when Henry scored in the Bernabeu. While Arsenal emptied guns on a Fulham side with a 4-blast entourage, Madrid just about gained their win against Athletico Madrid by tumbling the ball into the net in their first time under the new president Fernando Martin. Last night, as Madrid played forward they looked a struggling side on the counter or attack. Arsenal have come back to better form, their movement and passing clearly up in class as they almost stunned their guests. Madrid took to desperate tackling, jumping in from almost behind as Arsenal played around them, and in Zinedine Zidane, a player now plays with less pace and less thought in his movements. Thomas Gravesen gave the ball away on occasion, the back four seemed so doubtful in getting the ball forward that Arsenal aimed to capitalise on it by shutting them down early. Henry was the lone striker but sometimes midfielders pushed up to snap at any hesitancy. Impressive for me was Alexander Hleb, who ran and pinpointed passes to keep the pressure on Real.

Arsenal seemed to show they could go on to raise their game to match Real's and in the second half they had to when Raul went close with an effort of the post and David Beckham was denied by some emergency defending. The main thing was Arsenal did what they had to do in shutting out Real, while Real failed to do what should have done, which was to play with sharpness. I've used that word often as it describes well what is missing when teams attack well but fail to score. Something is troubling Ronaldo and he is either not fit nor not focused and I'm surprised he remained until full-time, when the introduction of someone like Robinho much earlier could have made better progress for Real. Nonetheless they are not playing as the champions of Europe they once were, and at their expense we have a British side in the quarter-finals. Well done the Gunners.

For the quarter-finals, my guess is:

Inter Milan/Ajax vs. AC Milan
Barcelona vs. Villarreal
Benfica vs. Arsenal
Juventus vs. Lyon



Blogger BlindJak said...

Re Chelsea’s display at the Camp Nou, basically Jose got it wrong. To use the (IMO) erroneous red of Del Horno as the sole factor for out exit is disingenuous. Yes it was a factor but we have another 90 mins to set things right and his team selection/formation was wrong. Add to this any lack of urgency to our play and players underperforming and you just have to hold you hands up and say the better team won.

Well done the Arsenal it’s at least good to see one English representative in the QF.

3/09/2006 11:31 am

Blogger T said...

Good commentary Redsman, and thanks to you and Blindjak for kind words re Arsenal advance, it sure was good to watch!

Re Chelsea- it may be getting to the stage that Mourinho's tactic of grabbing all the attention to himself is starting to backfire. Chelsea seems to have gone even further backwards in the public relations stakes recently, and it may be that it is getting to the players who look increasinly agitated on the pitch.

I thought their performance against Barca was quite stale and disjointed, and I don't quite know whether it was Barcelona skill, Mourinho antics, or just a bad night at the office that explains why this was the case.

I didn't see the Liverpool match Redsman, but from the highlights it sure looked like you created loads of chances and should have been ahead before Simao's killer away goal. Liverpool do have a good squad and have made big strides this season so I would not get too downhearted about the defeat.

3/09/2006 1:04 pm

Anonymous Anonymous said...

inter vs milan again? Barca vs Villareal?? Intresting...was that an attempt to kick out 1 of the spanish and italian teams out for sure? :)...haha...i hope that doesnt happen...was hoping more for something like this...

Barcelona vs Arsenal
(Arsene Wenger always claims when ever Arsenal looses that the opposition were to physical and didnt let them play football. So lets see what sort of football his team can play when they go up againts Barca :) )

Ac Milan vs Villareal
(Milan always struggle againts smaller teams but turn the tempo up when they play a bigger team. It should be an intresting match)

Juventus vs Lyon
(A strong defensive italian based side againts an attacking Lyon side. This could be a mini Chelsea vs Barca)

Inter vs Benfica
(Luis Figo returns to Portugal..should be an exciting one)

Semis prediction..

Ac Milan vs Lyon
Inter vs Barca...

I hope they avoid the boring old teams from the same country playing each other crap! We had enough of Ac vs Inter...


3/09/2006 1:59 pm

Blogger BlindJak said...

T, IMO the Barca performance was a mix of bad tacticks from Jose and a bad day at the office from the players that were picked. I would have stick with the tried and tested 4-3-3 which they players are familer with rather than chosing such a match to try out a new formation. Once the decision was made why play Robben in the hole rather than Guddy who would suit the role better?

Saying that we had more than enough talent on display to at least make a game of it and the formation can not account for the large number of stray passes and inability to retain possesion for mor than a minute a time.

Ahh well. There’s always next year.

3/09/2006 2:33 pm

Blogger RedsMan said...

Anon (1.59PM), I want to hold you to those predicted ties! The impressive side for me is Villarreal, having not conceded defeat yet, I think Barcelona is another, but Villarreal, as I said, seem to pull a goal from nowhere. Lyon are attackingly impressive and I sense their goals against is very minor. AC Milan's breakage came around the 2nd leg against PSV last season, and yet so far they are maintaining an even course for the finals again.

I hear Blindjak about Chelsea's performance, but for me I feel Liverpool are lacking confidence in key moments when they should do better, and if they feel that and see they are not, it's damaging. It will take someone feeling stronger and fitter to move, making an extra push to be ahead, that will make things count and start the goals rolling. Like not having the confidence to face a bully and then one day having had enough, you knuckle down and get stuck in because you are fed up of turning the other way. This is also why yesterday's defeat was coming, as a wake-up call. Number of times the Benfica players got to the ball ahead of us and cleared. We need to want the ball in the same way, and equally want to score.


3/09/2006 11:12 pm

Blogger T said...

BJ, the points about the Chelsea tactics is really interesting. Mourinho's tactical awareness is a strong point, so he must have been sure that Robben in the hole would work... but I agree with you that Gudjohnsen is tailor made for such role and surely was the better option. Also, I'm disappointed that SWP didn't get in the action.. he provides pure attacking threat!

I wonder whether Chelsea will fire again tomorrow against Spurs...?

As for the Champs league draw. Okay, its pure guess work... but my hunch is that Arsenal will get Ronaldinho and Barcelona... nope, maybe actually Pat and Juventus.... nope, I can see us playing Shev and AC Milan.... yikes my overall hunch is that we are going to get a big test! Time to brace myself!!

3/10/2006 10:30 am

Anonymous Anonymous said...

So we all got it wong...

28/29 March - 4/5 April





But im happy. Kind of liked the draw..No country vs country which could mean there could be up to 3 italian teams in the semis (a repeat of 2003) or 2 spanish teams in the semies. A lot of preety exciting matches.

Arsenal vs Juve

(Cracking match..Vieira returns to Highbury. A great match in prospect. Can the gunners finally reach the semis of the champs league for the first time in their history or will Vieira and co come back to haunt them. I wonder what would happen if Vieira scores and decides the match. Cracking match in prospect.)

Milan Vs Lyon
(Another cracking match. The clash of the Free Kick kings..Juninho vs Pirlo..:) Milan have already played the champions of Turkey, Holland and they face the champions of France. )

Inter/Ajax vs Villareal

( Well ill wait to see who Villareal faces before making any comments on this match)

Benfica vs Barca..
(hmmm many ppl have said Barca are going trough without a probe. Well many people said that about Porto in 2004 and Liverpool in 2005 but they went all the way. Could Benfica be the suprise package of the champs league this year? After all they have already knocked out Man Utd and Liverpool. It would be a match that would take Barca legend Koemen back to Barca as well as Simao. Barca will be without Xavi, Messi and Puyol...Barca should win this but i wouldnt rule out Benfica's chances..)

Cracking stuff! I cant wait..:)

ps: Sorry redman..i know you wanted the italian and spanish teams to play each other to eliminate each other but that didnt happen and im happy :)


3/10/2006 4:26 pm

Blogger T said...

Thanx Sid, enjoyed your summary of the draw. Respect the mention for Juninho's free-kick expertise... definitely better than Beckham!

As for Pat coming back to Highbury... any believer in fate and destiny would not have been surprised to see this draw. It's a tough draw with Juventus losing only one league match all season, but as a Gunner I'm not overawed by the prospect.

3/10/2006 5:45 pm

Blogger RedsMan said...

Yep, thanks sid, but look on the realistic side of my predictions. They were not so because I wanted the Italian and Spanish teams to face each other and eliminate one from Italy and Spain, and had it occurred that way I would be receiving kudos. It was a possibility as it was last season with the two Milan sides. I haven't anything against any team in the competition or otherwise but perhaps it's because you strongly feel for those sides why you felt I wanted them eliminated.

Many would have guessed it in informal conversations but the likelihood of Vieira coming back to Highbury so soon was too much of a risk to wager on. Providing the midfielder is fit on the day, it will make for the QF tie of them all. Henry also faces his former side and last time it was 3-1 to Arsenal at Highbury and 1-0 to Juve in Turin. Ironically Wenger and Benitez meet on Sunday and post-match may talk on any intelligence.

Arsenal have an historic advantage over Italian sides, with 8 wins, 8 draws and 3 defeats, and against Juve it's 2 wins, 1 draw, 1 defeat. It makes for an Arsenal side that seem strongly tipped to enter into the semi-final for the first time. Add to that Juve were fortunate for Werder Bremen's Tim Wiese's howler that gifted their winning goal, I can sense Juventus going out.

That all seems premature, I wish to analyse further on the prospects of the teams nearer the time and particularly with knowledge of any updates on any unavailable players.


3/10/2006 11:41 pm

Blogger RedsMan said...

Oh, and a little taster:

3/11/2006 2:08 am

Anonymous Nturtle said...

Great summary fellas.

3/11/2006 4:16 am

Blogger Abdul said...

Thanks for the round-up Redsman. Solid as usual.

I thnik this draw could work out nicely for Arsenal. If they can beat Juventus - which I think they can - I cant see Inter/Ajax or Villareal stopping Arsenal gettung to Paris. Exciting times for Gunners!

3/13/2006 10:08 am


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