Main contenders for the English Premiership and finalists of UEFA Champions League. The title & crown of “Kings the 2007-08 season”, both domestically and in Europe, has come down to two clubs: Manchester United and Chelsea.
The former, defeating Spanish giants Barcelona after a 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp and a Scholes-painted 1-0 victory at Old Trafford, will be looking to repeat the glory from their 1999 treble year and win over Bayern Munich. The latter, victors of rivals Liverpool after a 1-1 tie at Anfield and an excitement-laden 3-2 extra time triumph at Stamford Bridge, have qualified for the tournament final for the first time in the club’s history. No doubt they will be looking to improve that record very soon.
On May 21, as Red Devils and Blues face each other in Moscow, venue of the big tournament final deciding this year’s winner of the “Cup with the Big Ears”, the Premier League will be a completed affair. The big question is: will it be a glorious double or a sweet revenge?
33 years of age and match-winner for Manchester United in the return leg of the UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals vs. Barcelona. Paul Scholes the gladiator. Paul Scholes the veteran. Paul Scholes the long-range specialist: his 14th minute strike from 25 yards (after a messy clearance by Zambrotta) was the only goal of the night, as the Red Devils advance to Moscow for the first ever fully Premiership-coloured Champions League final in the tournament’s history.
Sir Alex Ferguson may have been criticized for his overly defensive tactics in Europe, but in the end, who can blame him for his achievements? His team has conceded only 1 goal in the entire knock-out round of the competion (the 1-1 away match to Lyon), and has qualified for the tournament final. People have often criticized Italian clubs for playing defensive football, but it works. As AC Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti once said: “If you want entertainment, go to the cinema“. ‘Nuff said.
Tactically, Sir Alex Ferguson was dealing with two very big problems at the start of tonight’s match: no Nemanja Vidic, but more importantly no Wayne Rooney. With the young striker picking up a muscle strain in the match vs. Chelsea last week-end, the United manager was forced to change his tactics a bit and field a 4-4-2 formation, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez lone strikers and Owen Hargreaves once again in the right-back position. On the other end, Barça coach Frank Rijkaard stuck to his original plan: no Thierry Henry (benched), striking trio formed by Andres Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi, just like in the first leg.
To be perfectly honest, as the match started the first few minutes of weren’t exactly promising. Tension and anticipation were big for this one, but much like the first leg at the Nou Camp both teams were “afraid” of pushing forward too much, in particular the Red Devils who had to avoid the dreaded “away goal” at all costs. However amidst all the prudence, there was one player who seemed to be saying: “Screw this, I came here to play some attacking football” and that player was Lionel Messi: his constant runs and accelerations gave considerable trouble to the United defense initially, until minute 14 struck.
Recovering the ball on Barcelona’s right wing, Gianluca Zambrotta felt pressured and attempted to clear towards the center. His low pass was however intercepted by Paul Scholes about 30 yards from goal, and the former England international took little time to think where he was going to put it. Slamming shot and whammo, into the top corner with Victor Valdés helpless. 1-0 Man Utd and exactly what Sir Alex was looking for: an early goal.
Scholes’s tally certainly did its part in “waking” the game up, both on the pitch and on the stands, where the 70,000+ Red Devils fans started chanting at the top of their lungs. Galvanized by the crowd and the momentum gathered from scoring, the United players continued to push forward and came very close to extending their lead (through Nani and Ji-Sung Park notably). By the end of the half however, the Blaugrana had taken the upper hand and were keeping Edwin Van der Sar occupied: the runs of Eto’o and Messi, coupled with technique of Deco came dangerously close in giving the catalans the equalizer, especially through the long shots of the Brazilian-turned-Portuguese midfielder (narrowly wide of the post). Despite Barcelona’s best efforts however, the match went to break with Man Utd in the lead.
In the second period a somewhat invisible Cristiano Ronaldo decided to wake up a little, and get a little bit more involved in the Red Devils’ offensives. The real thorn in the Barça side was however his Portuguese colleague Nani, constantly provoking his markers with fakes, dribbles and accelerations (much like Ronaldo should have been doing but couldn’t, due to the close man-marking presence of the two catalan center-backs).
At the hour mark, with Barcelona still unable to muster any significant scoring chance, Rijkaard finally decided to play the Thierry Henry card (on for Iniesta), shortly followed by that of Bojan Krkic (on for an unimpressive Eto’o). Ferguson replied by removing Nani and Scholes and inserting Darren Fletcher and veteran Ryan Giggs. As the clock was getting closer and closer to the 90th minute mark, the tension on the pitch proportionally increased. The two Barcelona substitutes tried their best to justify their insertion on the field, but with little luck. Even the added presence of Eidur Gudjohnsen (on for Yaya Touré) in the final minutes was insufficient, as the Blaugrana were still helplessly unable to pierce through the United defense.
Eventually the referee called full time and the entire Old Trafford stadium erupted with joy, as their team will be travelling to Moscow final on May 21. It will be the first ever UEFA Champions League final opposing two English clubs, and the first final for the Red Devils since their 1999 triumph vs. Bayern Munich. For Barcelona, tonight’s elimination marks a decidedly failed season for Frank Rijkaard, whose tenure as club manager is now likely damaged beyond repair.
“Third time’s the charm” for the Blues. They couldn’t do it in 2005 when a Luis Garcia goal crushed their hopes at Anfield, nor could they do it in 2007 due to the cruel lottery of penalty kicks. Yet 2008 may prove to be a magical year for Roman Abramovich’s team: in the 3rd semi-final in 4 years opposing the two Premiership sides, Chelsea have finally overcome Liverpool thanks to the power of Didier Drogba and the nerves of steel of Frank Lampard, and will be contending the “cup with the big ears” to Manchester United in Moscow.
In all honesty, Chelsea have come a long way to this achievement. After José Mourinho’s sacking in September, many people had predicted that his surly replacement, former Israel coach Avram Grant, would not even last till the end of the season. Believe what you want now naysayers, the Israeli manager may not be popular, he may not have a witty repartee like his Portuguese predecessor, and he may even be hated by some of his players, but he achieved what Mourinho could not do in his 3 years at Chelsea: lead the Blues to the first UEFA Champions League final of the club’s history.
Tactically, both managers could count on a somewhat complete roster, aside from the expected absences of Paulo Ferreira for Chelsea and Fabio Aurelio for Liverpool. While the replacement of the latter wasn’t exactly worry-free for Rafael Benitez (we all know what John Arne Riise did in the first leg), Avram Grant was much more confident in that regard, given the return of the much-needed Michael Essien from suspension. These two notes aside, both teams’ formations were an exact photocopy of the first leg: 4-3-3 for Chelsea (with Solomon Kalou replacing Malouda on the left wing) and 4-2-3-1 for Liverpool (Yossi Benayoun replacing Babel).
Much like one would expect from a Stamford Bridge match, the first 45 minutes were an almost exclusive affair of the home team. Confident and energetic, Avram Grant’s side adopted without any inhibition the role of favorites, especially because a 0-0 draw would have granted them a guaranteed qualification to the tournament final. To make matters worse for Liverpool, the visitors’ in-form Slovakian center-back, Martin Å krtel, picked up a knock in the 23rd and had to be substituted. His replacement (Finnish veteran Sami HyypiÃ¤) did not prove to be quite as reliable, as we shall see later.
More sooner than later actually, as coincidentally Å krtel was also the man responsible for the marking of Didier Drogba. In minute 33, the Ivorian striker was faster than anyone to pick up Solomon’s Kalou rebound (spilled by Pepe Reina, after a narrowly offside pass from Lampard) and beat the Reds keeper on his first post. 1-0 Chelsea.
Drogba’s goal was merely the tip of the iceberg of a Chelsea-dominated first half. Just before opening the score, the Blues striker had squandered a very good chance in front of the net, exploiting yet another pass by Frank Lampard (attending the match almost at the last minute, still shaken from the loss of his mother earlier last week), and before the half ended Michael Ballack came very close to making it 2-0, as his good free-kick effort grazed Pepe Reina’s post. After 45 minutes, the score was 1-0 for Chelsea.
In the second period, the half-time speech of Rafael Benitez must have done something for Liverpool, because his boys came out of the tunnel with guns blazing. A short-range blast from Dirk Kuyt almost gave the Reds a dream start, had Petr Cech’s great reflexes not been quite as reliable. It was however a precursor of things to come because the visitors slowly built up their confidence, upped the tempo and pressure, and eventually grabbed the equalizer in the 64th. A great dribbling run by Yossi Benayoun was followed by a great through pass for Fernando Torres, right on the edge of the box, and the Spanish striker left very little chance to Cech as he slid the ball into the bottom-right corner. 1-1, and Liverpool’s first goal at Stamford Bridge in 841 minutes of playing time (aka 9 matches).
With the scored tied 1-1, it looked more and more obvious that this game was headed for extra time, especially because neither team was willing to take too many risks on account of the unofficial (but often a reality) “whoever scores first now wins” rule. Chelsea had to be extra careful of course, because any goal conceded at this point would have to be answered with two of their own. Nevertheless, the last “big chance” of the 90 minutes was to the benefit of the home team, as Michael Essien advanced from his right-back position, breaking through inside the box, and shot on the outside part of the goal mesh.
In extra time, there was drama and entertainment aplenty and ironically, many more scoring opportunities (and goals scored) than in the previous 90 minutes. It all started with HyypiÃ¤’s narrowly wide header following a corner-kick, and continued through to Essien’s disallowed goal in the 95th: as it turned out, there were over four Blues players in the offside position but more importantly, Drogba was obstructing the view of Pepe Reina. Good call from the Italian refereeing trio, lead by the expert Roberto Rosetti.
The Blues’ screams of complaint however turned into screams of joy a few minutes later, when a HyypiÃ¤ foul on Michael Ballack inside the box gave Chelsea a chance to regain their lead. Much like Riise’s own goal in the first leg this was a big mistake by the Finnish center-back, and allowed Frank Lampard to emotionally dedicate the spot-kick goal to his deceased mother. 2-1 Chelsea.
2-1 became 3-1 just before the first half ended, as a newly-substituted Nicolas Anelka gave his contribution to the match, assisting Didier Drogba with his second goal of the night. 3-1 Chelsea and game effectively over.
Over? Not quite? In minute 117, a mistake by Petr Cech on Ryan Babel’s long-range piledriver gave the Reds an excuse to push everything forward in the final minutes, but even at 3-2 it was too little too late. To quote BBC Sport: “It was a frantic end to an astonishing match, but Chelsea saw it out to send the home fans into raptures and put themselves in with a chance of becoming the first London club to lift Europe’s most sought-after prize.”
Marco Pantanella features on the Editing team of Soccerlens and is the Author & Chief Editor of the mCalcio blog.