Thursday, March 02, 2006

Champions League Round of 16 roundup

Last week, the Champions League round of 16 got underway with the first leg of matches. Let’s recap all 8 and look ahead to the second leg. Remember that if the two legs finish tied, the team that has scored the most away goals wins. If the tie still is not broken, the 2nd leg then goes to 30 minutes of extra time (not sudden death), and then penalty shootout. Home team in the first leg is listed first.

Real Madrid 0-1Arsenal
One of the big surprises of the round, although back in December I picked Arsenal to win. That was before they went in the tank in the Premiership, so most people thought the injury-wracked Gunners would get trashed in the Bernabeu. Instead, Arsenal dominated from the start, and probably should have won 0-2 or 0-3, which would have virtually sealed the tie. As it was, their only goal came on a sublime piece of individual skill from Thierry Henry, who jinked past four defenders before a cool finish. One match report described the sequence as “shimmering” and I won’t argue. Real Madrid fans should shudder at the sight of TH14, because he could very well end up on arch-rivals Barcelona next year.

As dominant as Arsenal was, they only have the slimmest of margins. Their main task will be to prevent Madrid from scoring more than one goal, as it is a seemingly safe bet that Arsenal can manage at least one goal in Highbury. These days, Madrid is in chaos, both in the front office and on the pitch, and I think Arsenal will take care of business 2-1, winning the tie 3-1 on aggregate.

Benfica 1-0 Liverpool
Another surprise outcome, although the actual play during the game followed the same script it has all season long for Liverpool–dominating possession, utterly inept finishing. It wasn’t so much that the strikers (in this game, Fernando Morientes and Robbie Fowler) screwed up easy chances, it’s more that they were incapable of creating anything for themselves. If strikers are completely reliant on creativity from the midfield, it takes midfielders of a special class to have a consistent attack. And with Steven Gerrard on the bench, Liverpool had to rely on Luis Garcia, who is really more of a second striker than a midfield creator. After 85 minutes of drudgery, Benfica pulled a goal out of nowhere on a free kick to nip a somewhat undeserved victory.

Though Liverpool are down a goal, chances are good that they will hold Benfica scoreless at Anfield. Can they score two goals at home? I say yes, but it will take them extra time to do it. Stork-like striker Peter Crouch will be brimming with confidence after his goal in the latest England match, and I expect him to do the job again. I’ll wager Gerrard get’s the eventual winner, squeaking Liverpool through.

Bayern Munich 1-1 AC Milan
An expected result, although not entirely deserved. Milan couldn’t muster much in attack, and Bayern probably should have scored two. The Germans’ one goal came on a masterful shot from national team captain Michael Ballack, who half-volleyed on his second touch, sending a screwball into the side netting. It was certainly the goal of the round, and illustrates why Ballack is in such high demand from Chelsea, Inter, and Madrid. Milan’s goal came on a questionable penalty decision, and Andriy Shevchenko made no mistake, giving Milan a vital away goal.

Bayern now faces the unenviable task of beating Milan at the San Siro. I return to my December post, in which I commented that Bayern’s lack of a world-class striker would hurt them. I’m sticking by that argument. Ballack might score again, but he probably won’t, and Milan’s strikers are of too much quality to be shut out at home. Milan wins 2-0 and takes the tie 3-1.

PSV Eindhoven 0-1 Lyon
Much like in the Madrid/Arsenal match, this one turned on a piece of individual skill from Lyon’s Juninho, whose swerving 2nd half free kick crossed up PSV’s Brazilian keeper Gomez, to give Lyon a deserved road victory. Lyon never really looked in danger, and I’m actually surprised they didn’t look more threatening. PSV was a nice story last year, but having lost 4 starters from last year’s side that went to semifinals, they were clearly out-classed by the French side.

I can’t see things getting any better for PSV, who inexplicably left DaMarcus Beasley on the bench. He might give Lyon’s back four some problems, but it won’t be enough. Lyon will score 3 at home, and take the tie 4-1.

Ajax 2-2 Inter
A rather shocking result from Amsterdam, where Ajax probably have 1/5th of the talent Inter puts on the pitch. The Dutch club benefitted from 5 dizzying minutes in the first half that saw one fluky goal and one well-taken goal send them to a flying start. Inter showed great character to claw back and score twice in the second half, giving them the advantage going into the second leg. Inter seemed to have been taken by surprise in Amsterdam, but that won’t happen back in Milan. The nerazzuri will win 3-1 and take the tie 5-3.

Rangers 2-2 Villareal
Rangers are neck and neck with Ajax as the worst sides left in the competition, so this was also a somewhat surprising result, especially after Villareal’s stellar defensive record in the group stages. Rangers are in the awkward situation of having a lame duck manager and being completely out of contention in their domestic league, yet they realistically have a shot at making it to the quarterfinals of Champions League! Still, I can’t see Villareal conceding at home, and even if they do, a 1-1 draw would still put them through. I see their playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme, doing one better, with Villareal winning 2-0 and taking the tie 4-2.

Werder Bremen 3-2 Juventus
An unexpected stumble for Juve, who until this game looked to stand out above the rest of the field. They still retain status in my mind as the most complete team in the world, but all the credit in this match goes to Werder Bremen, who improbably collected two goals in the final five minutes to snatch a shocking victory away. Bremen took the initial lead, but Juve restored order with goals from Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet, putting them up 2-1 with nine minutes to play. Nine times out of ten (and perhaps even more), that would mean automatic victory for Juve and a commanding lead in the tie. Not on this night. Bremen, desperate, threw their men forward, and two moments of chaos in the Juve box resulted in the goals, with Johan Micoud capitalizing on a lucky bounce to knock in the winner.

The stunning turn of events give Bremen a slim advantage, but the away goals rule rears its ugly head here, as Juve will know they only need win 1-0 to advance. Bremen knows it can’t sit on its lead, so I expect them to attack early on. I’m going to go on the record now and say that this will be a classic match, with Juve winning 2-1, and taking the tie 4-4 on away goals.

Chelsea 1-2 Barcelona
The most glamorous matchup of the round lived up to its considerable hype, giving fans a fair share of controversy, drama, and breathtaking skill. Simply put, these teams don’t like each other, dating back to last year’s matchup in the exact same stage of Champs League. Chelsea won that tie 5-4 on a controversial goal, after having been down 2-1 after the first leg. Managers Jose Mourinho and Frank Rijkaard sniped constantly last year, and got underway this year before the games even began, with Rijkaard understandably complaining about the mud pit that passes for a pitch at Stamford Bridge. So, understandably, tensions were simmering as the game kicked off.

The game got off to a nervous start, but Barca clearly had play slanting in their direction. They consistently threatened, although never dangerously so. Ronaldinho wasn’t attacking with his usual abandon, but still dominated the ball. The game didn’t really gain any character, however, until the 35th minute, when Chelsea left back Asier Del Horno was sent off for a careless tackle against Argentinian phenom Lionel Messi. The decision sent shockwaves through the stadium, and is still being discussed almost a week later. My initial reaction was disbelief–Del Horno essentially hip checked Messi to the ground, but it was clearly not violent, merely careless. To make matters worse, Messi clearly feigned injury to attract the referee’s attention. I spent the rest of the game thinking Chelsea had been wronged. It was only after the game that I remembered that Del Horno had earlier made a much more dangerous studs-up tackle on Messi, a tackle that should have drawn a yellow card. So now I’ve realized it was karma coming back to get Del Horno.

After the sending off, the game immediately became an exercise in inevitability–when would Barca score? And how many? That’s what made the first 15 minutes of the first half so special for Chelsea. After the interval, Mourinho withdrew the slightly injured striker Hernan Crespo and subbed on Didier Drogba, a player of lesser skill, but a greater physical presence. The move made sense to me–Chelsea needed to play a defensive game now that they were down a man, and Drogba allows them to retain possession more easily than Crespo. Yet, inexplicably, Chelsea attacked! Arjen Robben and Eidur Gudjohnsen were the catalysts, and Chelsea’s daring tactics paid off, when a Frank Lampard free kick dangerously swerved toward the far post, only to be headed in for an own goal by Thiago Motta. Stamford Bridge was in ecstasy.

But there were still 30 minutes to go, and Chelsea had just expended all their energy to produce the goal. Almost immediately after the goal was scored, Messi took charge again, tearing down the right wing and squaring a perfect pass that whistled through the box with no striker there to latch on to it. That was the warning shot. Another one came from a Ronaldinho cross, with substitute Henrik Larsson heading over the bar. By this point, the field appeared to be tipped all the way toward Chelsea’s end. Barca attacked relentlessly, and were rewarded with a free kick in a dangerous position after Larsson drew a foul. Incredibly, the exact same thing happened on this free kick–a dangerous ball into the box that was accidentally knocked in for an own goal–this time by skipper John Terry, though his courageous defending throughout the night made the own goal seem especially harsh on him. From there, it was only a matter of time until Barca scored again, and they did so on a perfect display of passing–Ronaldinho squared for Larsson, who cleverly dinked to Rafael Marquez, who then sent a soaring cross toward striker Samuel Eto’o, who hammered a header into the top corner. It was a moment of true beauty, and Chelsea’s world class defenders might as well have not been there. After the ugliness from earlier in the match, it was a welcome reminder of why soccer is the beautiful game.

All of this sets up for what will surely be an even better game at the Nou Camp next Tuesday. Chelsea will have no choice but to attack, and since that is Barca’s M.O., I expect end to end action for sustained periods during the game. I will stick by my previous prediction. Barca will win 3-2 in an absolute thriller, and take the tie 5-3.

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