Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Champion's League quarterfinals

Tuesday and Wednesday are the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. Tuesday featured the two marquee matchups: English leaders Chelsea faced German leaders Bayern M√ľnchen, while Milan played hometown rivals Inter. Chelsea reinforced their position as the top team in the world, by dispatching Bayern 6-5 on aggregate, a score that should have been 6-3 had Chelsea not conceded two injury time goals. Though the final scoreline looked close, for everyone closely observing the match, it was effectively over when Ivorian striker Didier Drogba headed home Chelsea's 6th aggregate goal with only 20 minutes remaining. It wasn't a dominant performance, but Chelsea showed themselves to be the superior team, and staked their claim as the team to beat. They have performed quite well on the road in the latter stages of the Champs league, which bodes well for the semifinals.

For the latter matchup, imagine the Red Sox being only slightly less successful than the Yankees, then imagine the Yanks and Sox being based in the same city, and then imagine them sharing a home stadium. That gives a pretty good idea of the Milan rivalry. Unfortunately, the ugly side of the rivalry emerged on Tuesday when Inter fans rained flares and bottles down on the pitch following the disallowing of a goal by referee Markus Merk. One of the flares struck Milan's star goalkeeper Dida, and the pitch was cleared. Merk tried to restart the match 10 minutes later, but more flares came down, causing the match to be abandoned with Milan winning 3-0 on aggregate. Here are the pics. First of all, that Italian fans are allowed to carry flares into stadiums--which the Bush administration would consider deployment of WMDs--speaks to the vast difference in intensity between European soccer and every sport played in America. Even with Pistons/Pacers, American fans are tame compared to these psychos. Secondly, the debacle obscured the recent dominance of Milan over their rivals. Inter has only lost 3 times in the past 40 or so matches--all 3 times to Milan. Milan is the most consistent and the most balanced team left in the tournament, and should be favored to win in spite of Chelsea's good showings against Barcelona and Bayern. One caveat is that Milan's all-world striker Andriy Shevchenko could face suspension if UEFA reviews his headbutt during the match, which went unseen by officials. Though Milan's other strikers are skilled, Shevchenko is one of the few strikers in the world who can conjure a goal out of thin air, and would be a valuable asset against a strong defensive side like Chelsea.

No use in writing about Milan v. Chelsea yet, because Wednesday's matches have yet to be played. Liverpool heads to Turin up 2-1 on Juventus, but don't expect them to go through. Juventus has a defense as stout as Milan and Chelsea, and Liverpool will be without star striker Fernando Morientes and midfielder Steven Gerrard. Scoring even a single goal at Juve would be a coup for Liverpool. However, their squad is too depleted to expect victory. I predict Juve to go through on a 2-0 result, 3-2 aggregate. The winner of this tie plays Chelsea. The other Wednesday match is Olympique Lyon at PSV Eindhoven. PSV is the Cinderella of the tournament, and despite being outclassed in Lyon, managed to come away from the first leg with a 1-1 draw. I'm pulling for PSV, mostly because American winger DaMarcus Beasley is on the squad and has played very well (unlike Landon Donovan, who bombed out of Bayer Leverkusen). I wouldn't be surprised if PSV rode the wave of their fervent supporters and upset Lyon to make it to the semis against Milan. Then again, it wouldn't be shocking to see Lyon's prolific strikers score 2 or 3 quick goals and extinguish the match prematurely. My guess is that it will fall somewhere in the middle, with Lyon going through on away goals thanks to a 2-2 draw in this match.

Hmm...baseball blog this is not, at least so far. No matter--the Champions League is arguably the most difficult tournament to win in all sports, and undoubtedly has the highest quality of play. Personally, I have found that the drama level matches even the baseball playoffs. It deserves more attention in the States, but probably will not get it unless the US National Team places in at least the semis of World Cup 2006.

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