After the draw for Champions League quarter and semi finals, Martin Scanlon maps out Man Utd’s path to the final.
THE DRAW FOR the remaining stages of the Champions League has thrown up many interesting encounters, some being repeats of memorable clashes of the near past. Again, the English teams have reasserted their dominance with all four remaining in the quarter finals. However, the seemingly annual tussle between Chelsea and Liverpool means at least one will depart before the semi-finals.
Little has separated these teams in European competition over the last five years; a solitary Luis Garcia goal and penalty shootout wins for Liverpool and a last minute John Arne Riise own goal which helped propel a nervy Chelsea to the final last year. This year will prove no different. José Mourinho failed to get the upper hand over Rafa Benitez during his reign, before Avram Grant had more luck last season.
Now it’s Guus Hiddick’s turn to attempt to outscheme Benitez, who has been dumbfounding in the way his Liverpool team have outperformed the majority of Europe’s big guns in recent years.
However, Benitez’s record owes as much to the inspirational performances of his captain, Steven Gerrard and their efficient defence as it does to any magical touch he supposedly has. In Europe, Benitez rarely makes the puzzling selections that he does in the Premier League, but otherwise his tactics are nothing out of the ordinary.
His 4-4-1-1 formation works well in controlling the ball in midfield, especially with Xabi Alonso who has more time to spray the ball than he would usually have in the high tempo English game. His passing ability is the foundation stone from which the vast majority of Liverpool attacks develop. Bar Alonso, the team relies heavily on the partnership between Torres and Gerrard which, when both are fully fit, must be the most potent and destructive in world football.
This dependence on three irreplaceable players could be Liverpool’s downfall against Chelsea in the case of injury. However, Hiddink a former winner of the tournament with PSV Eindhoven in 1988, has at his disposal something very few managers can claim, a player with the energy to match Gerrard in Michael Essien.
His energy has the potential to disrupt Liverpool’s passing game and force Gerrard to track back, thus lessening his effect in the final third and isolating Torres. Throughout the rest of the field, Chelsea have the players of a higher quality and spurred on by memories of last season’s agonising final defeat should have enough talent to derail Liverpool’s challenge.
Reigning champions, Manchester United face old foes FC Porto. Recent domestic troubles will add an anxiety to the games, which would not normally be present for United. However, having been reasonably untroubled by Mourinho’s Inter Milan, United should dispense with one of his past charges.
Porto’s success has been founded on the goals of Lisandro and United’s accomplished defence should easily deal with the threat he poses. The quintuple quest and its draining physical and mental consequences is the only real hazard for Ferguson’s men.
With the first leg at Old Trafford, it provides United the opportunity to establish a substantial lead before the return in Oporto. Alex Ferguson would bite your hand off at the offer of the repeat of the 4-0 demolition that occurred in the first leg in 1997. So a focused first leg, coupled with an avoidance of unnecessary suspensions, will see United happily stroll into the semi-final stage for the third year running.
Who they will meet there is much more complicated affair. Arsenal verses Villarreal could end up a battle between young and experience. Villarreal will be seeking revenge for their semi-final elimination in 2006 due to Jens Lehmann’s penalty save. Although not a big club, their El Madrigal stadium can be a fortress; they have been undefeated in last four home encounters with English teams.
Arsenal will look to attack and the promised return of Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky will add firepower to a midfield that has lost a lot of its creativity and verve in their absence. Fabregas will also be seeking to usurp Marcos Senna and establish himself as a regular starter in the Spanish midfield. If the tie is tight, much will depend on who scores the first goal, but if match opens up, Arsenal’s greater energy and striking talent will carry them through to meet United.
The final tie matches two of Europe’s heavyweights, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Munich’s awesome 12-1 aggregate destruction of Sporting will have re-awaked Europe to their potential after a few years in the doldrums.
Bayern do possess players of some renown but their creative pivot is Franck Ribery. Barca, on the other hand, have creativity flowing throughout their side, whatever eleven they choose. If their defence can remain resolute and Lionel Messi, above all others, remains injury free, they may find themselves as the sole continental representative in the final four.
Historically, the quarter finals do tend to be more open affairs than the semi-finals where nerves and fear have a much more negative influence over teams attacking instincts. Whatever happens, the action promises to be compelling.