The Champions’ League semi-finals were played to a close this week, as the second-legs of this year’s last four match-ups took place in Barcelona and Madrid respectively. Many had predicted, right from the start of this year’s tournament, that we would end up witnessing a Real Madrid vs Barcelona final in Munich on May 19th, a re-run of one of last season’s semis and, with both these giants of European football needing only to overturn slender first-leg deficits, it seemed likely that that would indeed be the case. Football is a strange game, however, and ,with the stage set for the top two teams in La Liga to confirm their European dominance, both teams would go on to fluff their lines.
Barcelona welcomed Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea to the Camp Nou on Tuesday evening, needing to overturn a 0-1 away defeat from the previous match. As I mentioned in my article on the first-leg, Barcelona had had the better of Chelsea in their only previous Champions’ League semi-final meeting (2000), however Chelsea had registered more wins than their opponents in head to head meetings over the years.
Chelsea’s game-plan was simple, defend, defend, defend! The London club had shut Guardiola’s men out at the Bridge and they were hoping to do so again. As with the first-leg, the pattern of play was set and it only took three minutes for Lionel Messi to blast into the side netting, following good combination play with Alexis. Cahill had to be replaced by Bosingwa for the Blues after just 12 minutes; it looked like being a long night for their defensive line.
Cech denied Messi with his legs before Fabregas hit the side netting again for the Catalans; Javier Mascherano, next to try his luck, almost scored an unlikely opener but his long-range effort flew just over. In this time Chelsea had managed just one meaningful effort, Didier Drogba shooting just wide. Dani Alves, having been brought on for Pique; who was struggling with a knock to the head, began the move that led to Barcelona’s opener. The Brazilian played in Cuenca down the left and, with the Chelsea back five drawn to the ball, his cutback found Busquets who was all alone to tap in from eight yards (35).
Six minutes later, John Terry, while trying to mark Alexis from a free-kick, decided that a good old-fashioned piece of thuggery was called for. Instead of marking his man, the former England captain, a man of questionable character, brought his knee up firmly into the back of Sanchez’s thigh, off the ball, sending the Chilean to the deck. The referee missed it but, fortunately, one of the extra-officials saw it and proved his worth by informing the man in the middle, who duly produced the red card. Terry initially tried to deny it, claiming that any contact was accidental, however, when faced with damning video evidence, he reluctantly admitted the referee had been correct to dismiss him, although he still tried to fudge his way around the incident.
Two minutes later, a trademark Messi mazy panicked the Chelsea defence and, when the Argentine found Andres Iniesta, the Spanish international made it 2-0. To all intents and purposes the Londoners looked beaten and, having been reduced to ten men, it seemed as if they would be ripped apart by the Catalan club. However, right on the stroke of half-time, the game hit a massive turning point. A moment of slackness in the Barcelona back four allowed a hopeful ball by Lampard to be picked up by Ramires; the Brazilian hesitated for a split second, perhaps believing that he was offside, however, he continued his run, got to the ball first and lifted a sublime lob over Victor Valdes, into the back of the net.
After the break, Messi had the chance to put his team very much in the box seat. However, the little magician has never scored against Chelsea in seven previous encounters and, perhaps, that was playing on his mind as he lifted his spot-kick onto the crossbar (49), much to the relief of Petr Cech. The award had been soft, an alleged trip by Drogba on Fabregas, but nobody in the Camp Nou had expected Messi to miss.
The luck seemed to be shining down on di Matteo’s Blues; Alexis squandered a good opportunity, as did Busquet,s before Cech saved from Cuenca. However, the Catalans would have won it ten minutes from time had Cech not produced one of the saves of this season’s competition, getting down low to fingertip a rifled shot by Messi on to the base of the post, at full stretch.
That was Barcelona’s last meaningful chance and, as the clock struck 90, they were finished off by a final sucker punch. Fernando Torres, having entered the field just a few minutes earlier, continued his fantastic scoring record against Barcelona. Latching onto a ball out of defence by Ashley Cole, the former Liverpool man had the entire opposition half to run into; taking his time, he calmly rounded Valdes and side-footed home to cap a memorable and deserved result for Chelsea, possibly the biggest in their history, certainly in European Competition. Final score 2-2 on the night, Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate; the Allianz Arena awaits!
To Madrid and, having seen his side’s fiercest rivals humbled the previous evening, ruling out the possibility of another El Clasico in the final, Jose Mourinho must have been relishing the prospect of facing his former club in Munich. However, as I mentioned in my first-leg report, los Blancos haven’t had the best of times when coming up against Bayern Munich in the Champions’ League semi-finals, emerging victorious just once in four previous attempts.
The hosts got off to a flier in this one, as they looked to make short work of overturning the 1-2 first-leg score-line. Khedira had a great chance after just three minutes but the German international failed to convert Di Maria’s cutback. Just three minutes later, Di Maria was involved again, this time winning a penalty; his thumping volley, though off-target, struck David Alaba’s hand. Ronaldo stepped up, sent Neuer the wrong way, and the ball nestled in the back of the visitors’ net.
Ronaldo doubled Real’s lead in the 14th minute; receiving the ball from Oezil, after a block tackle by Tony Kroos had deflected it to the former’s feet, the Portuguese slid a delicious finish low into the right-hand corner of Neuer’s goal. Los Merengues were not having things all their own way, however, Robben and Ribery had both had chances to restore parity before Ronaldo’s second of the evening and, in the 27th minute, the Germans got one back. Pepe clumsily hauled down Mario Gomez in the area and the referee pointed to the spot. Arjen Robben took responsibility against his former employers and, despite Casillas getting a strong hand to it, the penalty found the back of the net.
The first-half continued at break-neck pace with Benzema the next to go close; a fine curled effort after 32 minutes. Mario Gomez was as alive and alert as ever and almost added to his twelve Champions’ League goals this season, however, twice he was foiled by Casillas, with the Spanish number one having to save from Robben before the interval too.
The second-half was a much cagier affair; both teams began to fear what they could lose rather than visualising what they could win. There were a couple of chances: an early header from Gomez; which flew just wide, a powerful cross shot from Benzema; which Neuer dealt with. However, undoubtedly the best chance of the half fell to Mario Gomez, just four minutes from time. Having been picked out by Robben, the momentarily unmarked striker failed to dispatch a first time shot, electing instead to take a touch and, in the blink of an eye, the chance was gone.
Extra-time ensued, a particularly chance-free half-hour! With both sides desperate not to lose it at the last minute, a penalty shoot-out became inevitable and so, it came to pass. Alaba scored first for Bayern, however, Neuer saved from Ronaldo before Gomez made it 0-2 for the visitors. Neuer then saved from Kaka, to put the Germans in a really strong position.
Kroos then hit a weak effort which Casillas saved and Xavi Alonso reduced the arrears for the Spaniards. Lahm then missed, uncharacteristically; Casillas with the save, which gave Ramos the chance to level things up. The defender missed woefully though, sending the ball into orbit. The final penalty lay at the feet of Sebastien Schweinsteiger and the Bayern club captain made no mistake, sending Casillas the wrong way as he stroked the ball home, booking Bayern a ticket back to Munich for the final in the process. Final score Real 2-1 Bayern on the night, 3-3 on aggregate, Bayern win 1-3 on penalties; the Allianz Arena anticipates!
So the perceived Spanish domination of Europe turns out to be just that, as England and Germany send teams to the final of Europe’s elite club competition. Who would have predicted the outcome of these ties two weeks ago? Very few people indeed I would venture to say. It just goes to show you though, that just when you think you’ve got this game all figured out, it can still find ways in which to surprise and excite.
Tickets Image by Probek. CFC Image by mfprado1073.