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