Looking ahead to midweek’s action in the UEFA Champions League…..
The following are the views of the author and not necessarily of Goal.com.
Expectations are sky high for the mid week Champions league clashes. This is surprising, because, on paper, two teams almost seem to have one foot in the semifinals, and the other two have the combined advantage of away goals as well as the comfort of home surroundings.
Yet, the talk is different. I read the phrase ‘Istanbul 2005’ multiple times across websites, newspapers and also found Liverpool’s thrashing of Manchester United, of Real Madrid, of Aston Villa and even Blackburn Rovers mentioned everywhere. Even Bolton Wanderer’s heroic three times unlocking of the Chelsea defence, in eight minutes, is being discussed too.
So extreme is it getting that Bayern Munich’s demolition of Wolfsburg ten days ago is also making the rounds. You almost get the feeling that UEFA has got some slick marketing men, working overtime and convincing us, that we are about to witness two of the most heroic, once in a lifetime, comeback matches.
I checked on the markets, and apart from Arsenal thrashing Villarreal, the odds are very close on all the other six teams for the return leg games. Chelsea are marginally favourites over Liverpool to win on the night, ditto Barcelona over Bayern Munich and ditto Manchester United over FC Porto. The last round of CL matches, 6 days ago, was closest to being the best in football, you could see. Eight world class teams squared up to pump in 14 goals in four matches (average 3.5 goals per game) and six of them were away goals (that’s a dangerous 1.5 away goals per game)!
But last week will really be a tough act to follow. And with a gruelling season still ahead, I actually expect an anti-climax over the two match days. Liverpool will start brightly. Javier Mascherano will make a big difference on the pitch (compared to what Lucas did the other night), El Nino will torment the Blues defence and Steven Gerrard will be more visible than last time. Liverpool will score first too … but the match will fizz out soon after that and Chelsea defence will re-assure home fans, by the time the final whistle blows. A tame draw at Stamford Bridge, 1-1.
Barcelona are playing, what I call, ‘champagne soccer’ – its better than the best; Yes its much more than just ‘Messi’-merizing – its completely from another planet. They reduced Bayern Munich from a dangerous team to just another opponent within twenty minutes. It will take a massive performance from some team to beat Barcelona over two legs. On the night, though, they will do no more than holding the ball. I also suspect, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, who have been heavily criticized, will be just satisfied with avoiding another embarrassing loss at home. Stalemate number three in the offering, 1-1 or even 2-2.
FC Porto are a tad more aggressive away, than at home – and have been unbeaten there, since ages. This is surprising, cause they keep making too many defensive errors from time to time, for the comfort of a team at this level – ask Wayne Rooney or Diego Forlan. All the more reason for Manchester United to come out attacking and stay interested till the final whistle.
On the other hand, one look at United’s games now, and you realize how consistent and solid they were during Oct – Feb, and no more now. Cristiano Ronaldo is hardly making any positive headlines, and even worse is his tendency to stand pouting after losing possession easily. Sir Alex’s boys are connoisseurs of playing their best, with their backs to the wall.
But Porto will also realize, looking at their potential semi-final opponents and their current state, that they are well placed to repeat their 2004 feat – or at least reach Rome for the final. Manchester United will score early, and that will please the neutrals and give us a hell of a game.
I expect a thrilling 1-1 draw, which will keep us all on the edge till the last minute. FC Porto will repeat history over Manchester United, and without Jose.
Villarreal lost Santi Cazorla prior to the first leg and now lost Marcos Senna prior to return leg. All signs (and the betting odds) point towards an Arsenal win, who are peaking at the right time, boosted by return of key players. Villarreal will have to come out and score, and that should suit the Gunners at home. Arsenal to take this tie with a 3-1 home win.