In just under a month, two giants of European club football will go head to head in a winner-takes-all encounter, the prize; to be crowned Champions’ League winners for 2011/12. Europe’s elite club competition is approaching its climax and this week saw the first-legs of this year’s semi-finals take place. Four of Europe’s most illustrious clubs are still on-route to Munich, however, only two of these world-renowned outfits will arrive at the Allianz Arena in Bayern for the final showdown on May 19th; who they will be is hitherto undecided. Here is a brief summary of the semi-final, first-leg, action.
Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid made the trip to Munich, to take on F.C. Bayern, on Tuesday night. The German side, who will enjoy home advantage in the final, should they reach it, had met the Spanish league leaders nine times at home, prior to Tueday’s game, and never lost. Moreover, this is the fifth time that the clubs have been drawn to face each other at the Champions’ League semi-final stage, with Los Blancos only once emerging victorious.
So history was against Real and Jose Mourinho, although, the latter was quick to dismiss talk of Bayern’s excellent record prior to kick-off. Rightly so, some might have thought, given Los Merengues fantastic season to date, including the 100+ goals scored by the Real front three: Higuain, Benzema and Ronaldo. Bayern’s patchy form of late and their distinct lack of pace at the back, would also have warmed the heart of the Portuguese tactician going into the game, with many expecting the Spanish juggernaut to keep on rolling all the way to the final.
It was the visitors who settled the quicker, Karim Benzema testing Neuer early on. As you might expect, Real were seeing a lot of the ball in the opening stages, however, Ribery felt that he, and Bayern, should have had a penalty (15); Howard Webb waved away the appeals. Two minutes later and the hosts were in front; Ribery on hand to finish from twelve yards, after Sergio Ramos failed to clear Kroos’s corner. Madrid were rattled and Bayern began to see more of the ball; the home side almost doubled their lead, Mario Gomez foiled by a good save from Cassillas, following a quick counter-attack.
Real regained a little composure as the half drew to a close, Karim Benzema with good work on the right, but his shot was poor and Neuer easily dealt with it. After the break Los Blancos continued to up the ante on their German opponents and, on 53 minutes, they got their just dessserts. A quick break-away saw Ronaldo go one-on-one with Neuer; his effort was straight at the keeper, who parried it clear. Madrid retained possession, however, and Benzema’s low cross found the Portuguese beyond the back post; his excellent cut-back to Oezil, left the German international an unmissable opportunity which he duly took.
After scoring that vital away goal, Real shot themselves in the foot somewhat. Instead of looking for the second, killer goal, they sat off their hosts, and invited Bayern on. This would prove folly, as the Germans redoubled their efforts and took the game to their opponents. The irrepressible Mario Gomez was becoming more and more involved: firstly, he reacted quickest to a ball dropping in the area; but could only send his effort over the bar, then a flash header at pace; which also cleared the bar and, with time running down, the striker was convinced he should have had a penalty; Webb wasn’t convinced. Then, with just seconds of normal time to play, some good work down the right by Philip Lahm and some poor defending by Coentrao, allowed the full back to fire in a low cross, which Gomez bundled home from six yards, to cap a memorable night for Bayern.
2-1 the final score at the Allianz Arena and the tie is nicely poised for the return-leg. Real Madrid will be the favourites to progress, especially with the benefit of an away goal, however Bayern Munich are formidable opponents and, as they’ve shown already, they have history on their side.
Wednesday night’s game saw the Catalan colossus that is F.C. Barcelona travel to London to take on the Blues of Chelsea. Nobody really gave the London club a chance against their mind-boggling opponents, who have been dubbed “the best team in the world” by many, for a number of seasons now. However, Chelsea are enjoying a new lease of life under interim boss Roberto di Matteo, himself involved along with Pep Guardiola when the two teams met in 2000, and have shown in recent weeks that they can mix it with the best once again.
The recent history between these two clubs in the Champions’ League is interesting. Although the club from Cataluña have emerged as victors in the biggest games between the two, Champions’ League semi-final 2009 for example, Chelsea have actually had the better of Barcelona more often than not, winning three of the nine games, compared to two for their opponents.
Barcelona, true to form, began the game in their usual style, dominating possession and passing the ball around with speed and precision. It wasn’t long before they began to create openings; Alexis Sanchez very unfortunate to see his 8th minute lob come back off the crossbar. Not long afterwards, some fantastic work from Messi set up Andres Iniesta; Cech pushed his effort away, straight to Fabregas, but the former Arsenal man got his shot all wrong and Chelsea could breathe again.
The visitors continued to make magical patterns with their approach play, leaving Chelsea chasing shadows at times, however, that finishing touch was proving illusive, Messi the next to misfire by heading straight at Cech. As half-time approached, Messi found Fabregas with a cutting throughball; this time Cesc lifted the ball over Cech, however, Ashley Cole was able to clear off the line, keeping the score at 0-0.
On the stroke of half time, Chelsea, who’d barely had a sniff of the visitors penalty area in 44 previous minutes, unbelievably, took the lead. Lampard robbed Messi and fed Ramires; the Brazilian’s first touch was superb and he advanced into the penalty area, produced a decent low cross, which allowed Didier Drogba, who’d spent most of the first period auditioning for the role of “dying swan”, to sweep the ball past Valdes and into the net.
The second-half played out very similarly to the first. Barcelona dominated possession, almost entirely, and created several presentable chances, which, as in the opening half, they failed to convert. Cech saved from Adriano before Alexis was unable to sort out his feet to finish from a delightful flick-pass by Fabregas and, as the game drew to a conclusion, Puyol watched as his glancing header was clawed away at the last by the Czech stopper. The Catalan club almost snatched an equaliser right at the death but Pedro’s late effort came back off the post, with Busquets getting the rebound horribly wrong.
1-0 the final score at Stamford Bridge and, as with the other tie, this one is finely balanced for the return fixture. Barcelona are, undoubtedly, the favourites to progress, with their almost perfect home record this, 27 wins and 3 draws from 30 games played. However, nobody fancied Chelsea to beat them at the Bridge and, with Lionel Messi now goal-less in seven games against the Blues, the London club might just fancy their chances of causing an upset.
Allianz Arena image by RG1033. Trophy Pic by Rafael Alvez