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Thursday, March 06, 2008

A monumental 48hrs of Champions League football

The knock-out stages of the Champions League 2007-08. Group winners and runner-ups' settling the dust for the showdowns. And we have now taken in the demise of the campaign for four teams with home advantage in FC Porto, Sevilla, Real Madrid and the current holders in AC Milan.

No British team has played AC Milan at the San Siro and won. Now that has been broken. Arsenal went into the cauldron of Italy with having missed chance after chance at The Emirates, having not scored at all and yet having not conceded. AC held the home advantage, the crowd numbers, a formidable record against teams from this side of Europe, but one thing they did do and then relinquished was their hold on Arsenal. Both sides enjoyed periods of possession that reaped concern and openings on their oppositions' goal but for some eighty plus minutes neither could break the deadlock. Until Cesc Fabregas took on the challenge with space in front of him and went for broke.

The away goal, the single goal, put big pressure on the Italian side in their own garden. I didn't see the match but Sky Sports swapped from the Man Utd v Lyon game as it finished straight to the San Siro to catch the last moments, and soon enough Theo Walcott took on the ball played down the right, making contact and skipping it past one challenge and keeping balance to then flash a low cross for Emmanuel Adebayor to finish off the Rozzoneri.

Attention turned from the San Siro to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium of Sevilla, who looked to overturn the 3-2 advantage Fenerbahce held on them. Two poor goalkeeping moments from the Turkish side's Volkan Demirel allowed shots from Dani Alves and Seydou Keita to beat him, though Brazilian Deivid de Souza picked up a corner ball to hit through a crowded Sevilla box to reduce the deficit. Sevilla made it 3-1 (5-4) when on forty minutes Freddie Kanoute chested then shot in a deflected effort. I felt Fenerbahce were to be buried yet they still came forward.

I jumped into this game from the Old Trafford one from time to time and got the feeling this was an end-to-end match. Sevilla appeared content to go forward on the counter, as if they felt confident they had the second tie in control but there was no accounting for Fenerbahce's tenacity to not give up and relentlessly they made a major breakthrough through their Brazilian again. Another set-piece, a freekick, found Deivid at the far post and his first effort came off the post and teed up for him to snap the rebound home. Five-all on aggregate and extra time brought penalties. The hero was the original 'villain' in Volkan, with three saves that brought Fenerbahce into the quarter-finals for the first time in the club's history, one more step away from matching that achieved by rivals Galatasaray in the competition.

Another night of Champions League football, another collapse of two more prominent clubs. The Bernabeu displayed Real Madrid's efforts to recover from the 2-1 defeat at AS Roma. I watched this game fully and it was another end-to-end match. Shots from both Julio Baptista and Alberto Aquilani brought high tension in the beginning stages, with Aquilani's effort being a consecutive double making Iker Casillas drop well to his left to deny, and both sides seem to fashion good attack modes and efforts towards the respective goals. I did feel that to pick one side to score was extremely difficult, nonetheless if pushed I predicted Roma would open the scoring first with Real equalising, therefore the game drawing with Roma's qualification.

But I didn't make any account of a dismissal, arguably the turning and talking point of the game. Real's central defender Pepe, who had already picked up a booking for an unwarranted challenge much earlier on, was rounded by the quick movement of Mirko Vucinic on the cusp of the touchline meeting the penalty box and then turned to impede the Montenegrin. A deliberate offence brought a second booking. It may have also brought Roma's opportunity as Real defended poorly as Max Tonetto sublimely crossed for the quick thinking and moving Rodrigo Taddei to jump ahead and nod in an equally sublime header that left virtually no chance for Casillas.

Real hit back almost instantly as Robinho and Guti combined well to feed in Rual, who turned and slotted in with precision, despite the fact he was clearly offside when he received the ball. But that sparked nothing more from Real other than possession yet no breakthrough. They had already brought on Royston Drenthe and Miguel Torres for Mahammadou Diarra and Michel Salgado respectively before the sending-off, and then Baptiste came off with five minutes remaining for Roberto Soldado, making a 3-4-2. But defensively Real didn't keep shape and two minutes into injury time Roma sealed the qualification as yet another superb cross, this time from sub Christian Panucci, met the head of another sub in Vucinic for the killing goal.

To have seen that was great entertainment for neutrals particularly, yet to then hear that Porto at the Estadio do Drag√£o were being held on aggregate by Schalke 04 into extra-time just begged for more viewing. From the highlights it emerged the Schalke keeper Manuel Neuer looked nervy but maintained composure to deny Porto at almost every opportunity. Jose Bosingwa tested the keeper with Lisandro Lopez ('Licha') following up as Neuer spilled the ball, Licha and Tarik Sektioui fashioned two successive efforts to further engage the German keeper and then Ricardo Quaresma's shot caught Neuer out before the ball was cleared by the defence.

Neuer was inexplicably on hand to deny Porto yet again as Sektioui was dead certain to score a yard or two from goal with a header but the keeper stood up and then opened to block with his left leg. Porto keeper Helton Arruda clearly handled outside the area when caught out but it went unnoticed, however Porto eventually suffered a setback as a dismissal did happen with Jorge Fucile red-carded for a tackle on Levan Kobiashvili. It didn't deter them, Luis Oscar Gonzalez ('Lucho') chipped into the box for Licha to gather and then turn swiftly to deposit a sweet effort over Neuer into the top corner.

Quaresma curled a freekick just wide with the outside of his right foot but then had a gilt-edge opportunity in extra-time to end matters being one-on-one with Neuer, only for the keeper to again spread himself and block. I sensed Porto would regret not finishing their chances, another home side going out in front of their fans. Penalties followed and Neuer produced two saves, the second a great right-hand claw as he dived to his left to deny Licha.

Four strong sides in the competition eliminated at home, where you would expect they would progress with the home advantage, particularly AC Milan and Real Madrid. For AC, they followed other previous winners since 2004 in winning the cup and then bowing out at this stage the following season. Porto, Liverpool and Barcelona experienced the same fate. For Real, it is their fourth consecutive season of elimination from the competition at the knock-out stage.

For their conquerors, Arsenal made history and again disposed of a strong side, arguably the best in Europe all round, the current holders and seven-times winners. This could be their final, recalling their battle with Real Madrid in 2006 that signified their quarter-final spot. For Fenerbahce, their first outing amongst the last eight, well earned. For AS Roma, a chance of revenge perhaps if they were to meet Manchester United again, for they now carry the Italian interest into the quarter-finals. And Schalke 04, sixth in the Bundesliga currently, holding out the 2004 winners, the club that Jose 'The Special One' Mourinho built up, to qualify for the last eight for the first time ever.



Blogger T said...

Superb commentary Redsman!

I want to write about the Arsenal match in a separate post but will see if time permits. Will say now that it was a classic Arsenal performance - made all the more special in that it was done on a great stage against a team of big-time performers. I watched the game throughout Redsman and this was a game where Arsenal dominated the possession after an early good start by Milan. You could see that the players got into the zone individually and collectively and were thriving in showing Italy what their football was all about. Great goal by Cesc and great celebration too - he is growing into an all-time Arsenal great.

I didn't get to see any other champs league action aside from Sevilla departing from the competition on pens. They won the Uefa Cup final on this method but such is the nature of penalites that was no guide to the pen shoot out against Fenerbache. Congratulations to the Turkish club - they spelled out their inentions in the comp early by defeating Inter at home by scoring couple of fantastic team goals. They should not be underestimated in the quarters.

3/06/2008 10:23 pm

Anonymous Striker said...

Excellent commentary, as usual!

Could not see what the fuss is all about because Real Madrid dropped out of Champions. If you leave aside the emotion, the big glamour names & the press hype, Real Madrid has not a European Cup winning squad, in fact they have not played at the level needed to win the ECup all season. They were dismissed because they are an inferior squad, to their competitors. If they do win the Spanish League its because its level has dipped compared to others.

Keep up the great work. Only real serious Football blog on the web!

3/07/2008 10:23 pm

Blogger T said...

Thanks Striker.

Yes, there has been talk here that maybe the Spanish league has dipped. Valencia have fallen from last year, so has Depor(looking back a few years there), and Barcelona are not at the level they reached a couple of years ago. I'm surprised Real don't appear to have a replacement for Van Nistelrooy - and their central midfield doesn't appear that strong. However they are able to iron out results in the Spanish league and that has to be respected.

3/09/2008 3:14 pm


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