The second legs of the Champions League semi-finals are looming large. With hectic preparations on in every camp, it will be interesting to see who is piped to the post. With Barcelona taking on Manchester United at Old Trafford and Liverpool traveling to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the finalists of the coveted cup will be decided very soon as football lovers watch in terse anticipation.
The weekend was dominated by a very high-octane “clash for the title” at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea played Manchester United in what was being billed as the game that would either seal the Premiership for the Red Devils, or give a tentative ray of hope to the Blues to cling onto. And, it went in the home side’s favour. Chelsea have been criticised for not playing “attractive” football this season and the manager, Avram Grant, seems to be stranded in a morass. His tactics have been questioned on many occasions and his ability to coax the best performances from his star players has been under intense scrutiny. Frank Lampard was among the absentees due to the death of his mother, Pat Lampard, and he had been granted leave on “compassionate grounds”. Sir Alex Ferguson also decided to rest several players to keep them fresh ahead of the midweek European clash. ‘Twinkletoes’ Ronaldo and the wily Carlos Tevez were left on the bench as well as the incisive-minded Owen Hargreaves, with Rooney starting upfront as the lone striker. Chelsea deservedly took the lead through a powerful Michael Ballack header at the stroke of half-time. But, United equalised soon after, when centreback Ricardo Carvalho made a rare mistake, his backpass handing the ball to Rooney who guided it into the net. It looked like it would be another stalemate but that was not to be. The Blues were awarded a penalty in the 85th minute of the game, which even the commentator called “an outrageous decision”. Michael Carrick was accused of handling the ball in the box and referee Alan Wiley pointed to the spot. Ballack proved to be the hero as he kept his cool and slotted home the winner. United must have felt that the game had been snatched away from them, rather unfortunately. However the Blues created more chances, and by far, better ones, as they pushed forward to get that winner.
In another match on the same day, Liverpool were held to a 2-2 draw at relegation-threatened Birmingham City. However, the Merseysiders did manage to secure fourth place in the League and can now concentrate on the semi-final against Chelsea. Jermaine Pennant was an inspiring figure as he led a comeback in the second half. Earlier, superb strikes from Mikael Forssell and Sebastian Larsson had put the visitors ahead. However, Peter Crouch scored his 11th goal of the season and an own-goal from Raidi Jaidi led to a draw, which was pretty insipid in the first-half. In the La Liga, Barcelona all but handed the title to Real Madrid as they were beaten 2-0 at Deportivo La Coruna. Coach Frank Rijkaard omitted forwards Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o, midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, defender Gabriel Milito and goalkeeper Victor Valdes with a view to the Champions League semifinal return leg at Old Trafford. The visitors also lacked the injured Ronaldinho, who is sidelined for the rest of the season. With such a depleted squad, Barcelona created few chances at attack and were quite poor defensively as they left spaces for the home players to exploit. Juan Rodriguez and Pablo Amo scored second-half goals and ensured that Barcelona haven’t won been winless in their five previous matches, which is their worst streak since 2002-03.
So what happens in the midweek will either upturn every prediction that has been made, or, prove all of them to be accurate. Chelsea will carry a well-found confidence into the game against Liverpool having beaten leaders Manchester United and preventing them from easily winning the league without a fight. Liverpool will also go into the match with a sense of confidence, having secured fourth place and knowing they can break records when it comes to Europe. Barcelona will play the Red Devils at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, having been shattered in the league time and again, while United will look to undo their previous Champions league history that has seen them fall in the semi-finals. I would like to see an all-English final, five-time champions Liverpool squaring off against arch-rivals Manchester United at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on May 21. But, it could turn out to be Chelsea making it to their first ever Champions League final. Well, we will wait and watch.
[Image courtesy: http://whatagoal.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/start-of-2nd-half.jpg]