Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Champions League contenders flex their muscles

This week provided all the tension and drama you would expect from the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but also a remarkably high number of goals. Here's my take on the action.

Rooney gives laboured Chelsea the blues

Rooney's clinical 24th minute strike has put United in the driving seat

When the Champions League quarter final draw was made, it was predicted that this contest between England's two most successful teams of the past decade would be the closest to call.

And so it proved. In a week of high-scoring matches and apparently decisive first leg results, only Wayne Rooney's away goal midway through the first half separates Chelsea and Manchester United heading into next Tuesday's return at Old Trafford. But what a crucial goal it could prove to be, and what a time for United to record their first victory at Stamford Bridge since 2002.

As a spectacle it was at once uninspiring and yet absorbing, offering more in the way of drama than entertainment. This was perhaps to be expected, given the fact that both teams involved tend to overwhelm their opponents through sheer pressure rather than sheer invention.

Also unsurprising is that in such circumstances, it was a rare piece of invention which ultimately provided the only difference between the two sides. 

A pinpoint diagonal pass from a seemingly-rejuvenated Michael Carrick found the evergreen Ryan Giggs, whose unerring control and awareness allowed  everyone's  favourite foul-mouth Wayne Rooney the chance to once again demonstrate the electrifying talent which goes hand-in-hand with the idiocy he displayed at the weekend, and which makes his occasionally mindless aggression all the more frustrating.

It was a ruthlessly efficient away performance from United. Sir Alex Ferguson's players adhered to his gameplan to the letter, defending in numbers, pressuring high up the pitch and counter-attacking with the pace of Rooney and Hernandez. Testament to its success is the fact that, despite creating the fewer chances, the visitors consistently looked the more dangerous side going forward.

United's cause, however, was helped significantly by a turgid Chelsea display. The chronic lack of width, creativity and, most importantly, urgency in the hosts' attacking play meant they were unable to exert the kind of sustained pressure on the Red Devils' defence which sparked a stirring second half comeback when these two met in the Premier League last month.

David Luiz, both the hero and the villain of that encounter, was sorely missed in the Chelsea defence, especially since his presence would have enabled Branislav Ivanovic rather than Jose Bosingwa to fill in on the right flank - and one suspects the more defensively-minded Serb would not have let Giggs escape his attentions so easily for Rooney's winner.

Up front, the performances of Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres provided more ammunition for the argument that the two are at best incapable of playing together, and at worst unwilling to even try and make it work.

Both were bitterly disappointing on the night, but it was nevertheless surprising to see Drogba rather than Torres hauled off midway through the second half, given the big Ivorian still appeared to represent the Blues' best chance of an equaliser.

In spite of their struggles, Carlo Ancelotti's side could, and perhaps should, have scored, with Evra clearing off the line from Lampard and Van Der Sar denying Torres the first goal he desperately needs with an outstanding fingertip save. They will also feel rightly aggrieved to be denied what appeared a stonewall penalty in the last minute, as Evra hauled down Ramires in the box.

But such hardships cannot conceal a performance not worthy of a side which supposedly harbours genuine ambitions of being crowned kings of Europe.

The tie is far from over, but the Blues now face a massive task if their pursuit of owner Roman Abramovich's "Holy Grail" is not to end in failure once more. United will surely fancy their chances of seeing off the West Londoners at home next week and keeping alive their dreams of Sir Alex's third Champions League triumph.

Whatever the outcome at Old Trafford next week, the victor will most likely meet Schalke in the semi-finals after a quite astonishing night of football at the San Siro on Tuesday.

Schalke stun ragged Inter

Raul's 54th minute strike proved the turning point in a wonderful match

In one of the most entertaining Champions League matches of recent years, mid-table Bundesliga outfit Schalke proved they are not in the quarter finals simply to make up the numbers with an emphatic humiliation of defending champions Inter in their own back yard.

Such an outcome couldn't have looked less likely 20 seconds in, with Inter midfielder Dejan Stankovic catching Manuel Neuer off his line from all of 45 yards with a technically sublime volley to give the hosts the lead.

However, this piece of brilliance was eventually overshadowed by a brave and inspired performance from the German visitors, as they ruthlessly exploited glaring weaknesses in the Inter defence to score five away goals and all but book their place in the semi-finals for the first time in their history.

Just as Barcelona were commonly regarded as the "team to avoid" in the quarter-final draw, Schalke were the team everybody wanted to draw - largely because of their lack of star names and indifferent league form,  the latter of which recently cost Felix Magath his job.

But new boss Ralf Rangnick has galvanised the Bundesliga  underachievers in a few short days, bringing back players ostracised by Magath into the fold and seemingly getting the players to enjoy their football once more. And enjoy it they did on Tuesday, thanks in no small part to some truly criminal Inter defending.

The Serie A champions can rightly point to the fact that Christian Chivu & Andrea Ranocchia are not their first choice centre-back pairing, but rather one forced upon coach Leonardo by the absences of Lucio and Walter Samuel.

Nevertheless, conceding five goals at home is unacceptable in any circumstances, and now only the mother of all comebacks in Gelsenkirchen this Wednesday can preserve the Italians' hopes of becoming the first team to defend their title in the Champions League era.

Of course, any team which can boast the likes of Eto'o, Milito and Sneijder in it's offensive ranks cannot be completely written off. That said, under Rafa Benitez and now Leonardo, Inter have proven time and again this season that they are now the European champions in name only.

This is not the same team as the one which swept all before it under Mourinho last year - even if it does contain many of the same personnel - and also appears to be one which is in fairly urgent need of a freshening up.

Whether Leonardo will be the man given the time to undertake that task is no longer certain, with the Schalke humiliation following hot on the heels of a potentially decisive mauling in the Milan derby last weekend.

For Schalke, the immediate future looks somewhat brighter.

They have taken a big step towards the semi-finals of Europe's premier club competition for the first time in their history and, in Raul, they have a Champions League predator of the highest quality.

His well taken goal in the San Siro extends his lead at the top of the competition's all-time scoring charts to 14, and only the brave or the foolish would bet against him adding to his overall tally of 70 before this campaign is over.

If Schalke do make it into the last four, the Premier League's finest will write them off at their peril.

Spurs' dream becomes nightmare in Madrid

Crouch's 15th minute sending off left Tottenham helpless at the Bernabeu

Tottenham's maiden Champions League campaign has been going like a dream, but it took only 15 minutes to turn into a nightmare at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night.

Many observers had predicted the naivety of Harry Redknapp's side at elite European level might prove their undoing towards the business end of this tournament, and it was clear early on that this would be the occasion of Spurs' undoing.

Redknapp's gameplan would surely have been to sit deep, frustrate Real and attempt to use the pace of Bale and Lennon on the counter-attack to provide the service which would make good use of lone striker Peter Crouch's aerial prowess.

Such a plan was undermined from the very start - first by Aaron Lennon's late withdrawal from the match squad through illness, and then five minutes in when slack marking from a corner allowed Emmanuel Adebayor, so often the scourge of Tottenham with Arsenal, to power  a header over the line through the legs of Luka Modric.

Then came the naive mistake which did most to undermine the North Londoners' chances against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid - and ironically, it came from one of the few members of the team who can boast significant Champions league experience.

Peter Crouch's two silly lunges on Sergio Ramos and Marcelo earned a deserved sending off, leaving Spurs a goal down and a man down with well over an hour to play against one of the most fearsome attacking teams in world football, and facing an impossible task.

Redknapp sought to defend and limit the damage, but Mourinho was determined to make the most of this opportunity, and his team's relentless pressure wore Spurs down. Adebayor's second header - making it 10 in 13 games against Tottenham - killed the game, and further strikes from Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo killed of the tie.

It is to Spurs' great credit that they have been no respecters of big names and big reputations in the Champions League this year, but overcoming a four goal deficit against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid looks too much of an ask for Harry Redknapp's talented team.

Such a comeback would surely be the greatest of all the great European nights at White Hart Lane, but it is inconceivable that a more defensively-minded Mourinho team would be so accomodating. The job looks done for Real, and a Clasico semi-final appears to be on the horizon.

"Below par" Barca crush Shakhtar

Dani Alves latched onto a fabulous Iniesta pass to double Barca's advantage

In the aftermath of Wednesday's clash at the Nou Camp, Pep Guardiola described himself as disappointed with what he called a 'below par' Barcelona performance.

His comments say more about the perfectionism which dominates the mindset of the Catalan club than the result, as an occasionally unconvincing Barca side nevertheless destroyed Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 to pretty much book their place in the Champions League semi-final.

An arduous journey to Eastern Europe was thought to represent the biggest threat posed by the Ukrainian champions to Barcelona's chances of progress but, as some of us predicted might happen, the Spanish giants managed to kill off this 180 minute tie inside the opening 90 - and all without the steadying presence of Carles Puyol in defence or fit-again Lionel Messi ever reaching his inspired best.

Make no mistake: this was not the most convincing Barcelona home performance of the season. The Catalans looked defensively vulnerable with Sergio Busquets deputising at centre-back, and the worrying number of clear chances created by the visitors will prompt Guardiola to hope Puyol's return to action is a swift one.

Going forward, the deadly duo of Messi and Villa failed to ignite, but their manager will certainly be encouraged by further evidence of the depth of match-winning talent at his disposal.

With Barca's usual suspects enduring a rare quiet night, Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves stepped up in spectacular fashion.

Spain's World Cup winner gave his side the lead with a dead-eye finish two minutes in, and followed it up with an exceptional lofted pass through to Alves who, having broken the offside trap, rounded the keeper and finished with aplomb.

Second half goals from Pique, Keita and Xavi mean that despite Rakitskiy's goal for the visitors, Barca carry an unassailable lead to the Ukraine. Guardiola should be able to rest some of his big guns, safe in the knowledge that even a continuation of Shakhtar's formidable home record will not be enough to turn the tide.

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