It was quite the spectacle at Anfield on Tuesday night, as Liverpool broke into a five-goal lead in the semi-final first leg, but had to make do with a 5-2 win after conceding two late goals against Roma. But the Italian side's defending was less than impressive and Roy Keane, in typical Roy Keane fashion, hasn't held back his thoughts. 

'They gave up after about an hour and downed tools', said the former Manchester United captain. If I played like some of their defenders did I would consider retiring from football. We can slag Roma off but Liverpool had to take advantage of that'.

Speaking to ITV, Keane believes Roma will improve in the return leg at home, but says Liverpool 'could have scored ten'.

Roma host the Reds in the return leg in Rome, needing three goals to win, the same margin before that miraculous comeback against Barcelona, but Keano doesn't see a way back for the Giallorossi.

Not like you could blame him, no one did against Barca either.

Published in International Watch

Stoppage time. Loris Karius holds on to the ball. Ragnar Klavan waits to come on for Roberto Firmino, as an edgy Anfield crowd now tries to roar the team over the finish line. The clock is ticking, and the home side are nervously looking at it, willing it to move. But… hang on. Liverpool are 5-2 up! In stoppage time!!

That seems like the new in these days, when among the things that occupy a brown box with a sticker labelled ‘fragile’, a three-goal lead is now one of them. Roma overturned that sort of deficit against Barcelona in the previous round, where Liverpool faced a second-leg scare against Manchester City with such position of advantage, and Juventus recovered from such a dead and buried position at Real Madrid only to eventually go out. Even in the Europa League, CSKA Moscow gave Arsenal something to worry about before succumbing, while Red Bull Salzburg were 5-2 down on aggregate in the second half of the second leg of their triumph over Lazio. Yes, three-goal advantages are no longer safe, just ask Liverpool themselves.

It was a shaky start to proceedings at Anfield on Tuesday night, and in more ways than one. Assistant referee Stefan Lupp’s flag was haywire, preventing him from properly flagging Firmino for offside, and had to be amended twice; on the pitch Liverpool were a tad uncomfortable, Roma were suffocating the spaces, and unfazed by the famous Anfield atmosphere, Kevin Strootman firing a shot that was easy for Karius, who then had to look in relief as his uncertain touch pushed Aleksandar Kolarov’s effort onto the bar.

But the Reds would always find their stride, they didn’t have the best 10 minutes here in the previous round against Man City, and yet blew them away, and it started to look similar after the first 20 minutes against the Italians, Sadio Mane spurning two chances as the home crowd got on song. One man who doesn’t spurn chances these days, though, is Mohammed Salah, the mercurial Egyptian Liverpool signed from Rome. There were expectations that he wouldn’t celebrate his goal on the night, that’s how certain everyone was that he would find the net, and 10 minutes before the break he did find it, via the crossbar, from his left foot, in the most brilliant of ways. He held his hands up in a mooted celebration, and that gesture would repeat itself on the cusp of halftime, as the PFA Player of the Year got in behind the Roma defence, and cheekily lobbed one over Alisson for his 43rd goal of an extraordinary season.

At 2-0, Roma were still very much in with a shout, but on the pitch they could barely whisper. They might have suffered a 4-1 loss at Barcelona, but that performance still had positives in it. Here, following that opening 20 minutes, they were abject, could barely string passes today, and kept up their ineffectual high line; so when Mane added a third for Liverpool in the 56th minute, they could hardly complain. Five minutes after that Firmino added a fourth, seven minutes after that Firmino added a fifth, from a corner which Roma could have handed to them gift-wrapped and with a Christmas card. That summed up the Giallorossi’s night, and that was the tie.

Or so we thought. With nine minutes left, Edin Dzeko chested down Radja Nainggolan’s pass, and became the first opposition player to score at Anfield in the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League.  5-1; academic? Not if the reaction of the away fans, the away players, and their manager was anything to go by. Suddenly they believed; even at being so far behind, they believed. And that belief doubled when James Milner handled in the Liverpool box, and Diego Perotti slotted home the resulting penalty. 5-2.

Then Anfield got edgy. Then Jurgen Klopp sent on Klavan, with the look of tense discomfort palpable in his face. Roma pushed and pushed. A third goal might even seem like a winner. But it never came. Liverpool held on for a 5-2 win, which is just about the most bewildering place to use the term ‘held on’. Now Roma need exactly what they needed against Barcelona. There’s no guarantee that they would get it this time, no guarantee that Liverpool would look so attackingly forlorn in Rome as Barca did. But it’s remarkable that even after such a dominant day for Liverpool, in the performance and the score-line, somehow, this argument is far from settled.

Elsewhere

  • Toni Kroos said the Champions League releases ‘special powers’ for Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane said he’s like a guiding for this team in Europe, and on evidence of this, who would argue. Even after they spent so much time on the back foot, even after they came under such pressure at the Allianz Arena, you could tell that they wouldn’t budge, that they would always have their way. This time, there was even no need for Cristiano Ronaldo to be on the scoresheet. Just like last season, Bayern Munich find themselves in the same position of bother after the first leg against Los Blancos.
  • In a competition graced over time by the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Clarence Seedorf, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Ryan Giggs, Lionel Messi, even Ronaldo and Zidane, who’d have thought the record for most assists in a single season would be held by James Milner?

Results

Liverpool 5-2 Roma

Bayern Munich 1-2 Real Madrid

Published in International Watch

 

Manchester City vs Manchester United, April the 7th 2018. City one win away from the title, as their neighbours come to the Etihad. A dominant first half sees City go into the break with a two-goal lead, which would have been more had Raheem Sterling finished off the three chances he had. United rally in the second half, score three times in 16 minutes, leave with the points and reign on City’s parade.

Then a raging Facebook post from a raging (football, not quite City) fan over Sterling and his profligacy costing City, cursing him and his ‘waddling gait’. As always, cue response from the social media crowd, especially with those who know he’s not a City fan, and the question is whether or not Sterling’s wastefulness and City’s defeat were a betting coupon-buster, or, for danger of not sounding too hip, ‘did he spoil your ticket?’ In response, astonished fan with Facebook post wonders if it always has to be about betting, wonders what happened to pure emotion in the game.

Which poses the question, is betting in the game starting to overshadow pure emotion? Is it now a case worrying about the effect of what a game does to your financial gamble, rather than feeling the game itself. So much has been said about the need to clamp down betting in football (and other sports), one of the reasons is that it clads the game too much these days, and which one of the ripple effects is this, there’s little room and/or consideration for raw emotion. I once saw a FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2013, where Iraq and South Korea traded late goals in an epic 3-3 quarter-final, and I remember going crazy after the Koreans bagged the sixth goal of the game in stoppage time in extra-time, the pure loss of head that football can bring. Do that now, especially where people are, and it’s just about a case of ‘wow, you must have really placed a huge quid on this one’.

In truth, it’s not just the betting that’s doing its bit. There’s no arguing the brilliance of how the world is in the 21st century, but its provision of virtual management and social media is perhaps another stick in the game’s crawl. Now, many don’t really take too much account the impact of a watching their side lose a game does, but rather the social media ridicule that’s bound to follow. Every impending is almost now about hiding from the banter that will follow. And there is, of course, the virtual worlds. The fantasy leagues, which at times, makes you root for an opposition player against your own side. You don’t place too much meaning on what happens on the pitch, not much thought goes into, say, Watford suffering 6-2 defeat at home to Newcastle, as long as your fantasy darling Troy Deeney gets both goals for the Hornets.

Sure, this could well be over the top. Fantasy leagues et al do bring people closer to the game (sometimes, at least), the world is a fast-paced moving trend of getting involved, football being no different; and the ultimate goal of football is to win. So be it on the pitch, on a financial risk basis, the virtual world or the social media wars, victory tastes good. But no one really fell in love with the game because of the rewards/chastening on social media, or the virtual triumphs, or the betting benefits (probably).

Love for the beautiful game came about through moments of pure emotion. Through moments like watching Sergio Aguero snatch the league title for City in 2012, and subconsciously going nuts, before realising what you’re doing. Through moments like seeing Kostas Manolas find the bottom corner to cap off Roma’s incredible comeback against Barcelona, and staring in complete disbelief. Through moments like seeing Leicester City win the Premier League, and believing in the impossible once again. Like watching a young Cristiano Ronaldo in tears because his side have just been beaten by the Greeks in a home final in 2004, and feeling a gush of sympathy. In a world of stats, algorithms, numbers, and figures, among others, you can’t measure those feelings. Of unadulterated passion, unbridled euphoria, or inconsolable agony.

So the question is; when you look back at the Barcelona v PSG moment of March 2017 some 50 years on, do you remember your Champions League Fantasy side, the social media pleasure you had that night, the financial plus you got, or the indescribable feeling that’s bound to last an eternity?

Published in International Watch

It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if you even know the game at all, yet it leaves you speechless and remembering why you fell in love with it in the first place. Surely something of this sort, even by football’s ludicrous track record, wasn’t plausible. Just over a year ago, Barcelona had pulled off the seemingly impossible, coming back from a 4-0 first leg loss, thanks to three goals in the dying embers of the game, but that looked like a one-time thing, and when, this year, Luis Suarez was strolling off in celebration for the Catalans, his first Champions League goal since that astonishing comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, in the first leg to cap off a 4-1 win, they seemed uncatchable. It meant Roma had to score three times without reply, surely that wouldn’t happen.

Even when they got off to the perfect start, when Edin Dzeko got in behind Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique to put the ball past Marc-Andre Ter-Stegen and put Roma in front on the night after six minutes, even then it surely wouldn’t happen. But the Giallorossi wouldn’t be deterred by the stature of their opponents, nor the scale of the mountainous task that lay ahead. Even if we lost the first leg, we were confident with the way we had played and it showed tonight’, said skipper Daniele De Rossi. And you couldn’t argue with that statement, on evidence of the performance, Roma pushed Barcelona back, made them create very little, and were rather unlucky to only have had one goal to their name at halftime, Patrick Schick sent a header wide, while Dzeko’s was tipped over by Ter-Stegen.

The second period took the same form as the first, Roma on the front foot, with Barcelona creating next to nothing. But the visitors have been in positions like this more than once this season, where it looks like they’re almost incapable of fashioning out any opportunity, but then spring up with something out of nothing, and perhaps that was why there was little cause for alarm, on both the part of the players, fans and the manager, they have weathered many a storm this season, and not long ago, they pulled a rabbit out of the hat with two late goals in a league game against Sevilla.

But their patience became anxiety midway through the second half, when Pique brought down Dzeko in the box, and was booked for his trouble. Up stepped De Rossi, who had the misfortune of opening the scoring for Barcelona via an own goal in the first leg, and he made no mistake at the right end. Now it was 2-0 on the night, 3-4 on aggregate, Roma needed just one more. Dare they believe? Could they pull this off? On came Cengiz Under in place off Schick, as they sensed memorable night. And with nine minutes left, the moment came. From a corner, Kostas Manolas, another who had an own goal to his name in the first leg, peeled off to the near post, and his header found the bottom corner.

Cue disbelief, from Manolas’ face, to the rest of his teammates, down to his manager Eusebio Di Francesco, and the fans, both sets of them. Now Barcelona had to do something, astonishingly, they hadn’t done all day; attack. On they poured forward, but there would be no saving grace, not from Lionel Messi, who always found them a way to get them out of jail. Not from Luis Suarez, who was frustrated. Not from Pique, who came forward from defence. Nor from Ousmane Dembele, who was thrown on in a fit bearing semblance to desperation.

Barcelona had managed to escape from the claws of defeat on a number of occasions this season, but there would be no feat of escapology here. They had wriggled past Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and Atletico Madrid this season without losing. It would be against Roma that they faltered, that they threw a Hail Mary but there would be no catch. Who writes these scripts?

Thriller at the Bernabeu

'...as Real Madrid close the book on Juventus once more'. Events at the Santiago Bernabeu would render that first leg headline from this writer on this tie rather daft. Juve had a three-goal deficit to overturn, Gazzetta Della Sport's headline before the game was 'Mission Impossible', with the 'possible' in the second part of the second word highlighted, while Marca ran 1429 simulations, with 1405 seeing Real progress. The odd 24 looked on, when by halftime they were two to the good, Mario Mandzukic with two headers. It became three-nil to the Bianconeri on the night, and three-all on aggregate, when Keylor Navas spilled Douglas Costa's cross, and Blaise Matuidi was on hand to poke it in. Then with the game on a knife edge, and extra time seemingly on the cards, Cristiano Ronaldo laid on a header towards Lucas Vazquez. A challenge from Mehdi Benatia later, Real had a penalty, Gigi Buffon was sent off for a push on the ref, and some five minutes were exhausted in an ensuing kerfuffle. Not that it mattered to Ronaldo, who buried the resulting spot kick with aplomb. For the eighth season in row, Los Blancos will be in a Champions League semi, while as Buffon walked off late on, one had to wonder: was that his Zinedine Zidane circa 2006 moment?

Elsewhere

  • For a moment it seemed plausible, Fernandinho pounced on Virgil van Dijk’s loose ball, then the ball fell to Gabriel Jesus via the boot of Raheem Sterling, and Manchester City were a goal up inside two minutes. One third of the way to the comeback, and for the entire first half, they had Liverpool pinned in their own half, Bernardo Silva hit the post, Leroy Sane was denied by the linesman’s flag, Pep Guardiola was sent to the stands, but it would be only 1-0 on the night at halftime. And there was always the worry for City over Liverpool’s potent attack, and their rather meek defence, and when Ederson’s parry from Sadio Mane’s feet fell to Mohammed Salah, the game was up. A lob over Nicolas Otamendi, and into the top corner, and City’s task became too Herculean. Liverpool still had enough time to rub salt on City wounds, Roberto Firmino pouncing on yet another Otamendi error this week. 5-1 on aggregate, Liverpool coasted through to the last four, and on the evidence of this quarter-final- and the season at large- no one would be keen to face them.

Results

Roma 3 (4)-(4) 0 Barcelona

Roma progress on away goals

Manchester City 1 (1)-(5) 2 Liverpool

Bayern Munich 0 (2)-(1) 1 Sevilla

Real Madrid 1 (4)-(3) 3 Juventus

Published in International Watch

Pardon if the eulogy seems a bit like drooling. 65 minutes gone, Ronaldo moves to the corner at the left end of the Juventus stadium, raises his hands in a gesture that could well say ‘crown me king’ and the entire stadium obliges, with applause rendering from all ends of it. He had just put Real Madrid two up at the home of Juve, the home of the side who rarely knows what it feels like to lose at home (once in 73 games before this), let alone lose so convincingly.

It was Ronaldo who bagged a double in Real’s 4-1 humbling of this same side in last season’s final, the campaign when he began his evolution towards being a pure goal-getting centre-forward, and he’s showing little signs of letting up in that department. Between kick-off and the time Ronaldo added that second goal, aside from substitute Lucas Vazquez, he had touched the ball the least of all players, yet no one would be ready to point out such stat on a man who had 36 goals in 35 games in all competitions prior to this game, and two minutes into it, 37 in 36.

Isco found space on the left, and his low cross was poked home by the Portuguese skipper (thanks in no small part to Karim Benzema, it should be said), the 10th successive UEFA Champions League game that he had scored in, and Los Blancos had the perfect start. It wasn’t just that they had found the net early in Turin, it was that they bossed the opening minutes in Turin, pressing the home side and denying them any room, moving the ball around with authority, and, but for the crossbar, would have gone two up through Toni Kroos.

Juventus knew they had to react and get on the front foot, and after a while, they did manage to, pushing Real back, causing a threat with their quick one-two passes around the edge of the area and the movement of their full-backs, and they did come mighty close when Keylor Navas had to react quickly to deny Gonzalo Higuain. By halftime, it was 1-0, Sergio Ramos had denied Andrea Barzagli what seemed like a certain equaliser, Higuain had made a few runs in behind to create openings, and Paulo Dybala had been booked for simulation.

Juve’s start to the second half was much more comfortable then they did the first, the home fans were founding their voice, and when Ramos got booked for a foul on Dybala, ruling out of the second leg, the crowd started believing they could get past Real, especially when the resulting free-kick was deflected just past Navas’ goal. Then came the 65th minute.

From a long ball forward, some miscommunication between Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini, almost unheard of, gave Ronaldo a semblance of a chance; he pulled back to Vazquez, whose shot was saved by Buffon and the danger seemed to have been averted. Except it wasn’t; Daniel Carvajal dinked a cross, and Ronaldo tried an overhead kick, which he brilliantly pulled off, and then came the moments that signified that act of genius. From the crowd applauding, to his manager Zinedine Zidane marvelling at the sight of what he just witnessed, but perhaps the most striking was the ball itself. As it found its way into the bottom corner, with a helpless Buffon watching, the ball decided against bouncing, didn’t even move as it hit the net, it just stayed in that bottom corner, almost like it had been decreed by Ronaldo to stay put. As legendary Real Madrid goal scorers Raul and Emilio Butragueno looked on, they’d be forgiven if they were discussing the man who’s broken all the records they set.

Not that the game was over, though. There was still time for Dybala to be sent off for a reckless high-boot challenge, still time for Marcelo to add a third, created by Ronaldo of course, time for Mateo Kovacic to also rattle Buffon’s bar, and time for Ronaldo to miss two chances as he searched for a hatrick. As the clock ticked down Juve poured forward in search of a glimmer of hope, but like in Cardiff, it was both academic and non-forthcoming.

The deed was done, and Ronaldo had left his mark. Doesn’t he always.

Elsewhere

  • Jurgen Klopp couldn’t even channel his usually hyper-active self, as there was probably a bit of disbelief in his eyes. It’s not uncommon that Liverpool would race into a 3-0 lead after 31 minutes at Anfield, particularly with their front three; that they were doing it against Manchester City, top of the Premier League by a landslide, and probably the best team in Europe right now was something else. Mohammed Salah was among the scorers, as usual, and Reds fans will hope his injury that saw him get taken off isn’t lasting one, although he did return to the bench later. More importantly, Liverpool have a foot and a half into their first Champions League semi-final for 10 years.
  • And as for Bayern Munich and Barcelona, why bother to score when the opposition can just do it for you?

Results

Juventus 0-3 Real Madrid

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City

Sevilla 1-2 Bayern Munich

Barcelona 4-1 Roma

Published in International Watch

And so they meet again. By the end of the second week of April, Real Madrid and Juventus would have met seven times in the past five years, such is the pedigree between this sides in this competition. 14 meetings in 22 years between both sides, trophies have been decided, and prestigious managers and players previously turned up for both teams, quite an illustrious past.

More importantly, by the end of the second week of April, one of Real Madrid or Juventus would be out of the Champions League, would be left stewing and ousted from a competition that has come to define them, and watch as the other sets off to be 180 minutes away from the final. 10 months on from that show-piece in Cardiff, when Real ruthlessly outclassed Juve to a 4-1 win, both sides jostle for a slot in the last four. ‘The Cardiff match was a very important lesson to grow and improve’ said Juve manager Max Allegri. ‘We could have managed the ball better in the second half and we have to be faster and deal with it in a more serene way’.

It’s no question that that loss in the Welsh capital has served as a bit of a lesson for the Old Lady, whose drop off in that game was so obvious and costly. Now it’s about maintaining focus and concentration, a trait that has served them so well in the past. ‘We have to be focused, concentrated and committed because every player on the field in great’ Allegri added. ‘We really need to be in the match psychologically as well’.

And psychologically, what would the game do for Juve? Giorgio Chiellini has said the focus is not on revenge, while goalkeeper and captain Gigi Buffon has talked about how facing Real ‘again doesn’t fill us with joy’. He may have pointed that he was referring to the quality in the side, as well that of the likes of other quarter-finalists in Manchester City and Bayern Munich among others, but you can be forgiven for thinking whether his mind was cast back to the past once again. And the past is always going to be reflected in a game of such teams, whose paths have been crossed often. Aside from that final last season, they met a round earlier in 2015, when Alvaro Morata, sold to Juve by Real, ousted his boyhood club.

They have had group stage meetings as well- Real won one and drew the other in 2013, while Juve did the double over them five years before- but their stories have been in the knockout stages, the extra-time win by Juventus in 2005, where Ronaldo (the other one) got sent off for Real and Marcelo Zalayeta grabbed the winner, Juve’s progress to the final at the hands of Los Blancos two years before, with Buffon saving a Luis Figo penalty, Predrag Mijatovic grabbing the winner for Real in the final in Amsterdam in 1998, and Juve knocking the Spaniards out on their way to glory in 1996. Not that either side seems to be placing too much thought to previous events.

Buffon has talked about how he doesn’t reflect on the previous meetings, while Zinedine Zidane, Real’s manager, who played for both sides, believes it’s ‘a completely different situation’ from last year. It might well be true, but the need from both sides is barely any different. Neither is the reality that one of them will fall at the end.

 

Fixtures

Juventus v Real Madrid

Liverpool v Manchester City

Barcelona v Roma

Sevilla v Bayern Munich

Published in International Watch

 

 

 

There was a bit of awe and reverence in Andy Gray’s voice, when the co-commentator said back in February 2006 that ‘I get the feeling when he learns the game a bit more he’ll be unplayable at times’. With 18 minutes left at Stamford Bridge, Gray had just seen an 18-year-old Lionel Messi curl an effort against the woodwork. Messi was the star of that game in West London, and, coupled with his role in the controversial dismissal of Asier Del Horno, the Argentine started to embody the features of Barcelona: style, swagger, elegance, hatred from Chelsea.

Not that it’s easy to hate Leo though. 12 years on from that night, he has become unplayable almost all the time, and is talked about in the breaths of the greatest players of all time. But once thing he couldn’t quite manage, as daft and irrelevant as it seems (and is, in truth) was score against Chelsea. He’s had brushes with the Blues since that fateful game, the return leg of that tie saw him hobble off injured, the following season they met again, as did in 2009, and, more recently, in 2012, when Messi belted that penalty onto the bar in the semi-final, and is said to have cried in the dressing room after Barca got knocked out.

So, you would excuse the Argentine captain if he felt a little desperate to exorcise some ghosts in the latest chapter of the Chelsea-Barcelona story, as they met this week for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie. But if there was any sense of desperation felt, Messi certainly didn’t show it, the calm and elegance he oozed on the ball was second to none, and key to Barcelona’s chances.

And it was just as well that there was calm in the Catalan ranks, as Chelsea pushed them to the tethers of patience, gave them little room to fashion out, put in an impressive show of fortitude, and hit the post twice before the end of the first half, both from Willian. Antonio Conte watched as his side impressive shackled Barcelona, made them content with pedestrian possession, and hit a shaky Barca defence on the break. And the visitors barely knew what hit them just after the hour mark, as after a short Chelsea saw the ball fall to the feet of Willian, the Brazilian was third time lucky as his shot rolled past Marc Andre Ter-Stegen and into the net, much to Conte and the crowd’s delirium; for the seventh UEFA Champions League Barcelona had played at the Bridge, they had failed to keep a clean sheet.

Ernesto Valverde’s side looked bereft of ideas, drops of the shoulder from Messi became necessary as spaces were snuffed out. But it would be Chelsea who would aid and abet Barca’s route back into the game; Andreas Christensen’s wayward pass meant should Andres Iniesta get to the ball before Cesar Azpilicueta, room would open up, and so it proved, Iniesta got there first, a pull-back later and Messi slotted the ball past Thibaut Courtois, his first ever goal against Chelsea (which joins goals against Gigi Buffon and goals English on the list of inconsequential stats he has banished).

Much of Barcelona’s games this season have seen them not necessarily play well but get results, and here it was no different, despite a leggy and rather jaded showing, they still go to the second leg with a tiny advantage.

Credit to Chelsea, though, for making Barcelona look commonplace and jaded. They might not have gotten the desired advantage from the first leg, but they did enough to make sure the result isn’t quite seen as a disadvantage.

Elsewhere:

  • Once again, Manchester United were in a game thanks to the brilliance of David de Gea in goal. With less than three minutes left before half time in Seville, the Spanish goalkeeper pulled off top drawer saves to deny Steven Nzonzi and Luis Muriel, as the first leg of this tie finished goalless. On one hand, Vincenzo Montella will no doubt see belief in his side ahead of the return leg in Manchester as a result of their display; on the other, they’re not likely to get as many chances as they did at home, and might end up ruing what might have been for the second year running.
  • In the most overlooked tie of the last 16, it was an entertaining encounter between Shakhtar Donetsk and Roma in Ukraine. It was the Italians who led an end-to-end first half, thanks to a goal from the in-form Cengiz Under, but after sitting rather deep in the second period and inviting Shakhtar on, they paid the price, as the Miners turned the game around, thanks to a well-taken goal by Facundo Ferreyra and a brilliantly taken free-kick from Fred. Advantage Paulo Fonseca and his team, in a game where it wasn’t the best in which to be an unused substitute.
  • Besiktas defend well and attack threateningly at Bayern Munich. Besiktas get reduced to 10 men midway through the first half; then concede a deflating goal on the cusp of halftime. In the end it was a stroll for Bayern, a 5-0 win, and a run, for Robert Lewandowski, of 16 goals in 16 Champions League games. Stupendous.

Results

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona

Sevilla 0-0 Manchester United

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 Roma

Bayern Munich 5-0 Besiktas

 

Published in International Watch

Chelsea vs Barcelona: Who will go through?

Tuesday, 20 February 2018 20:12

Dot the I’s. Cross the T’s, ask the fans to root for the teams.

With Chelsea against Barcelona in the Champions League not far away, fans give their views on who’s going to the next round, and who gets better luck next year:

Fans Say...

Even a blind man knows Barcelona are the favourites to win the game but both teams recent form hasn't been too good... But i hope the best team wins.

Olujoe Joseph

Chelsea to win the first leg and draw the second leg Olivier Giroud with the second half goal.

Olukotun Victor

Barcelona will go through. Because they have a better team chemistry.

Abisuga Oreoluwa

 

Chelsea will go through because there will always be upset in this stage of the competition and it is only Chelsea that can prove bookmakers wrong.

There is history between the two clubs in this competition and no one is a victor until after 180 minutes of dramatic football.

I believe Eden Hazard, Olivier Giroud, Cesar Azpilicueta and an erroneous Barca defence will make the difference.

Alesh

Being a Chelsea fan, I’ll definitely say Chelsea will go through.

I believe Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata and Andreas Christensen will be the deciding players. 

Richard

Published in International Watch

It doesn’t really seem like Chelsea’s thing to be straightforward, does it? The constant case of managerial bickering, supposed squad unrest, either winning the league with a bang or surrendering it with a whimper, the Blues just can’t do things quietly.

And this season is barely any different, as despite sitting in the top four in the Premier League, all hasn’t been anywhere close to well at Stamford Bridge, from Antonio Conte’s unceasing complaints over players, as well as assurances on his own future, to the horror start to 2018. The Blues only won one game under 90 minutes in January (Newcastle in the FA Cup Fourth Round), a month which they ended with that jaw-dropping defeat at home to Bournemouth, before entering February with another heavy loss, this time at Watford. Form has improved since, two straight wins, scoring seven times without reply, but that doesn’t prevent them from being overwhelming outsiders in their Champions League knockout tie.

Upcoming European opponents Barcelona have equalled their La Liga record of playing 31 games unbeaten, have lost just once since August (in the Spanish Cup, and they even won the return leg in that one), and have only conceded once in six European games this season. From talk of a seemingly unavoidable crisis at the start of the season, Ernesto Valverde’s side are competing on all fronts, and perhaps are favourites on all fronts. ‘On one hand you know this team is one of the best in the world- maybe they are favourites to win this competition’ says Conte. But Chelsea are accustomed to games where the odds have seemed against them, where they’ve been billed as underdogs, yet managed to triumph, the victory against Barcelona in this competition in 2012 a huge case in point. ‘On the other hand we must be excited because we have a great opportunity to play a massive game against a really strong team and to show which is our level’ Conte adds.

Conte is under no illusions of the difficulty with which his side are faced, the Italian recognises a strong side with arguably the best player in the world, and has said his team will need a ‘perfect game’ to stand a chance against Barcelona. But the former Juventus boss, who also has managerial previous in triumphing against the odds, believes the Blaugrana are not infallible, and those back-to-back domestic wins will have put them in good stead. ‘Hopefully we can give a good image of what we can do and do a good performance’ says Blues midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who had a three-year spell at Barcelona. Fabregas and Pedro are currently Chelsea players who were members of the Barca side knocked out by Chelsea in 2012, and the latter says images of that loss still haunt the Catalans, something the Blues might be hoping gives them an advantage, even much of that squad from six years ago are no longer around.

Over the years the likes of Bayern Munich, Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain have joined Barca in witnessing the sting of a Chelsea fightback, and another might just be brewing. Once again, the odds are stacked against the Blues; almost how they like it.

Fixtures

Chelsea v Barcelona

Bayern Munich v Besiktas

Sevilla v Manchester United

Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma

Published in International Watch

10 Memorable UEFA Champions League Last 16 Ties

Thursday, 08 February 2018 17:02

Claps hands Tony Stark style circa ending of Iron Man 3 (Just go with it, okay!), it’s February. Yup, the second month of the year, when we enter crunch time in the football season. When managers who haven’t been sacked announce that they’ll leave at the end of the season, and when UEFA Champions League football returns.

The time when, as ITV commentator Clive Tydesley said, ‘the Champions League becomes the European Cup again’, as the knockout football takes centre stage. And there have been some rather tasty ties in the first knockout round over the years, so, with one eye on next week’s resumption, here’s 10 of the classic match-ups in this round:

Porto v Manchester United (2004)

Rather fitting that we begin with the tie in which Tydesley gives his ‘European cup’ quote, as Manchester United, having toped their group with little fuss, met in the last 16, a Porto team that narrowly escaped the group phase, and their up and coming manager Jose Mourinho (the good old days then) had a chance to pit his wits against the mighty Red Devils and Sir Alex Ferguson.

It was no gain saying United were favourites, and midway through the first period Quinton Fortune would give them the lead. But two goals from Fortune’s fellow South African Benni McCarthy, one in the first period, and the other in the second, meant Porto would take a 2-1 lead to Old Trafford in a fortnight, a game where United would be without captain Roy Keane, who was sent off at the Dragao, much to Fergie’s incandescence.

United were still favourites to go through nevertheless, and in the first half of the second leg, Paul Scholes would give them the lead, and the midfielder was unlucky to see the offside wrongly deny him a second. It stayed at 1-0 for most of the game, United as it stood would go through on away goals, until the last minute, when Dmitry Alenichev was fouled just outside the United box. McCarthy’s free-kick was pushed away by Tim Howard, but Costinha was on hand to turn home the equaliser, sparking Mourinho’s famous touchline run at Old Trafford. Porto would go on to win the tournament, and some 14 years later, Mourinho is now the home manager at the Theatre of Dreams.

Chelsea v Barcelona (2005)

Well, Mourinho again. Clive Tydesley again. After his European triumph (or triumphs) with Porto, Jose left for Chelsea, where he got tagged the ‘Special One’. The Blues were top of the Premiership and flying, while Barcelona were also ahead of the rest in La Liga when both sides clashed at the Camp Nou in the first leg. Chelsea took the lead through a Juliano Belletti own goal, an advantage they would take to halftime. But things took a big swing in the second period, when Didier Drogba was sent off for his lunge on Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes. The hosts pressed home their numerical advantage, as two goals in five from Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o meant they would go into the second leg ahead.

But the Blaugrana would be caught unawares and left shell-shocked after 19 minutes of the return leg, as Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damien Duff all got on the score sheet to give Chelsea a three-goal lead on the night (4-2 on aggregate). Barcelona were left reeling, and in need of a lifeline, which they got after Paulo Ferreira’s handball in the Chelsea box enabled Ronaldinho to score a penalty, one which Petr Cech came close to saving. But Cech could do nothing about what happened just before halftime, as an outrageous Ronaldinho toe-poke from the edge of the box put the scoreline at 3-2, and Barcelona ahead on away goals. Chances would fly at both ends in the second half, Eto’o guilty of missing one, while Joe Cole also fluffed his lines for Chelsea. But the Blues would get back in the aggregate lead with 12 minutes left, John Terry heading home Lampard’s corner to put them within touching distance of the last eight. Barcelona sought another reply, but found none, and for the first time since the competition was renamed, no Spanish side would be in the quarter finals. For Chelsea, it was delight, as Mourinho joined the players’ celebrations after the final whistle, as Clive Tydesley declared that who could stop the Blues from European glory. The answer came in semi-finals, in the form of a familiar face in Liverpool.

Werder Bremen v Juventus (2006)

Werder Bremen had made history in the group stages, as they became the first side to lose their first three games and still qualify for the knockout phase, and in this round of 16 tie they struck first, Christian Schulz giving them the lead at home Juventus. But the Old Lady turned things around, and goals from Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet had them leading with eight minutes left. Bremen, though, showed the resolve they demonstrated in their group, and late strikes from Tim Borowski and Johan Micoud gave them a first leg advantage.

That advantage was doubled 13 minutes into the second leg, Micoud again the scorer, as Bremen started to dream of the last eight. Trezeguet grabbed an equaliser in the 65th minute, but Fabio Capello’s side needed one more to go through. It didn’t seem forthcoming, Juve seemed stuck and on the verge of elimination, until Bremen’s goalie Tim Wiese caught a corner in the 88th minute, and his histrionic roll led to the ball slipping out of his hands and into the path of a grateful Emerson, who rolled the ball into an unguarded net, and rolled the Bianconeri into the next round, much to Wiese’s horror.

Real Madrid v Bayern Munich (2007)

It was the resumption of the international rivalry between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, as they were pitted together for the fourth time in seven years. Real had triumphed in two of the previous three, and were in mood to lay off here, Raul giving Los Blancos the lead after just 10 minutes. That lasted only 13 minutes, however, as Lucio’s header pulled Bayern Munich level, but Real would take a 3-1 lead into halftime, Raul adding his second before Ruud van Nistelrooy got on the score sheet himself. Bayern looked in real trouble in the tie, but gave themselves a huge lifeline with two minutes left, Mark van Bommel’s shot handing the Bavarians two away goals in a one-goal loss.

And they took advantage quite literally as the second leg begun, an error from Roberto Carlos led to Roy Makaay scoring the fastest ever Champions League goal, and Real were chasing the game from the off. Bayern added another not long after the hour mark, Lucio repeating his first leg trick to give Los Blancos a mountain to climb. Van Nistelrooy would pull one back from the penalty spot in the 83rd minute, but they would have a goal disallowed after, Sergio Ramos the guilty party, as they bowed out of the competition at this stage for the third year running.

Fenerbahce v Sevilla (2008)

It was uncharted territory for Fenerbahce in 2008, as Sari Kanaryalar, under Brazilian manager Zico, negotiated a group involving Inter Milan, PSV and CSKA Moscow for a berth in the last 16. The Turks had been making an impression in the competition, and against Sevilla, backed by a raucous Sukru Sarakoglu crowd, took a 17th-minute lead through Mateja Kezman. Sevilla had also been impressive themselves, beating Arsenal to top spot in Group H, and levelled just six minutes after through Edu Dracena’s own goal. Fenerbahce went again and retook the lead, Diego Lugano’s thumping header just before the hour mark sending the home crowd to cacophony once again, but once again Sevilla wouldn’t lie down, and Julien Escude dragged them level again, 10 minutes after Lugano’s moment. The hosts, though, ensured they would finish with a first leg advantage, as substitute Semih Senturk grabbed a winner three minutes from time.

The second leg was just as action-packed, and less than 10 minutes had been played when Sevilla scored twice, a brilliant Dani Alves free-kick and a Seydou Keita thunderbolt put them on course for the last eight, then Frederic Kanoute added a third for the hosts, after Deivid pulled one back for Fenerbahce. But Fenerbahce and Deivid weren’t about to throw in the towel, and the Brazilian scored his and his side’s second with 10 minutes left, to force extra-time.

No goals came in the extra half-hour of football, which meant the tie would be decided by penalties. The first kicks of both sides- Kanoute and Wederson- were successful, but next weren’t, as Escude and Edu both missed. Ivica Dragutinovic and Mehmet Aurelio both scored to make it 2-2 in the shootout with three played each, but Sevilla’s next takers would fail, as Enzo Maresca and Alves were both denied by Volkan Demirel, either side of Kezman scoring, to send the Turks into their first ever Champions League quarter-final.

Real Madrid v Liverpool (2009)

Real Madrid had lost in four successive last 16 ties coming into this, they hadn’t had the best season so far, already dismissing Bernd Schuster and hired Juande Ramos, and for some reason, signed Julien Faubert on loan from West Ham (old, but still shockingly gold). Liverpool, meanwhile, had reached at least the semis in three of the last four seasons, and were locked in a title race in the Premier League. The Reds took a deserved 1-0 win in the first leg, thanks to a late header from Yossi Benayoun, and were in the driving as Real came to Anfield for the return.

Back in Merseyside, Liverpool went guns blazing, and by halftime they were two up (three on aggregate), Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard (from the penalty spot) putting them within touching distance of the next round. Gerrard added another with a lovely side-foot finish just a minute after the break, before Andrea Dossena put the gloss on the win. 4-0 on the night, 5-0 on aggregate, yet it was proof of how much more it could have been to recognise that Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas had a very good game.

Milan v Barcelona (2013)

When the draw for this tie was made, it looked a no-brainer, Milan had been less than impressive all season, and had the deficiency of Zenit St. Petersburg to thank for making it this far, while Barcelona had lost just twice all season before this first leg. But the Rossoneri produced a performance worthy of the tales of Catenaccio, defending superbly and took the lead just after halftime through Kevin Prince Boateng, and that lead was doubled late on by Sulley Muntari to give Milan a first leg advantage.

Barcelona knew they had a job on their hands in the second leg, no team had ever lost a first leg by two goals without scoring and qualified. But they got off to the perfect start at the Camp Nou, thanks to none other Lionel Messi, and the deficit was halved after four minutes. Barcelona rode their luck towards the end of the half, as M’baye Niang broke free one-on-one with Victor Valdes, only to hit the post, and right away, straight down the other end, Messi added a second, and the scores were level on aggregate with three-quarters of the tie played. Barcelona began the second period as they did the first, and David Villa made it 3-0 on the night, and 3-2 on aggregate, before Jordi Alba added a fourth in stoppage time to seal the tie. History was made, and a precedent was sent for some four years later.

Sevilla v Leicester (2017)

Leicester had defied football logic to win the Premier League in 2016, and transferred their fairy-tale powers to Europe, to advance to the first knockout phase of this competition last season. Opponents Sevilla were seeking a first quarter-final appearance and dominated the first leg, Pablo Sarabia and Joaquin Correa scoring to put them in control. But the Rojilblancos had missed a penalty much earlier in the game, and late on Jamie Vardy pulled one back for Leicester, an away goal to take back to the King Power.

By the second leg three weeks after, Leicester were lining up with a new manager, Claudio Ranieri had been sacked after the first leg loss, and was replaced by assistant Craig Shakespeare. The Foxes had won their first two domestic games under the new manager, and took the lead here through skipper Wes Morgan. Leicester were now level in the tie, and ahead on away goals, but they would take an outright lead in the second half, through Marc Albrighton. Sevilla, despite being reduced to 10 men after Samir Nasri saw red, had a chance to level on aggregate after Franco Vazquez was fouled in the box by Kasper Schmeichel, but, like the first leg, the penalty was spurned, Steven Nzonzi the guilty party this time, his week effort saved by Schmeichel, and Leicester held on for a heroic win, and a place in the Champions League quarter finals, less than 10 years playing in the English Third Division.

Manchester City v Monaco (2017)

There weren’t many ties as anticipated as this one when the draw was made back in December 2016, as it pitted Manchester City, a side with a manager that prides on attacking football, against Monaco, a youthful storming through the French first division and had amassed 100 goals by February 2017.  It was City who made the early inroads in the tie, and took the lead through Raheem Sterling, but goals from Radamel Falcao and teenage forward Kylian Mbappe ensured Monaco would go into the break in the lead. Falcao missed a penalty at the start of the second half, but made amends with an impudent chip, not long after Sergio Aguero had pulled City level. Aguero would restore parity once more with a well-taken volley, before goals from John Stones and Leroy Sane gave City a 5-3 first leg win.

Prior to the second leg, city manager Pep Guardiola had emphasised Monaco’s attacking prowess, and therefore the need for his side to score at Stade Louis II, and so named an attacking line-up. It didn’t quite work out for the visitors though, and by the half-hour they were deservedly two down, Mbappe and Fabinho with the goals that put Monaco ahead in the tie. City improved in the second half, and with 20 minutes left, Sane pounced on Danijel Subasic’s save from Sterling to make 2-1 to Monaco on the night, but 6-5 to City on aggregate. City were back in the driving seat, but Monaco weren’t done yet, and from Thomas Lemar’s free-kick, Tiemoue Bakayoko got in front of Aleksandar Kolarov to guide in the header. There would be no more goals, as Monaco went through on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate scoreline, on their way to an impressive semi-final achievement.

PSG v Barcelona (2017)

Of course. Perhaps the greatest ever Champions League last 16 tie, one that’s still fresh in the mind, and will live long in the memory. Both sides had been having under-par campaigns, and were on course to relinquish their domestic titles, but PSG were in a more questionable state, and Barcelona were still regarded as favourites for the European title. On the evidence of the first leg though, it was nothing like that, Le Parisiens had a night to remember on Valentine’s, outplaying, outthinking and outmuscling Barcelona, by halftime goals from Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler had them 2-0 up. They would add two more after the break, Di Maria getting his second, and Edinson Cavani wrapping things up. Surely the tie was over.

There was still a second leg to be played, but Barcelona had a lot of ground to make up, and no team had ever erased a four-goal first leg deficit. But they got off to a flyer, Luis Suarez pouncing on some uncertainty from PSG goalie Kevin Trapp to put Barca ahead on the night, and by halftime they were halfway to the comeback, Layvin Kurzawa’s own goal making it 2-0 on the night. Luis Enrique’s side began the second half as they did the first, and following a Thomas Meunier ‘foul’ on Neymar (yes, this column is still bitter and thinks it wasn’t one), Lionel Messi stepped up to make it 4-3 on aggregate. Barcelona had the wind in their sails, but things would take a different shape soon after, as Cavani made it 3-1 on the night, 5-3 on aggregate, and had Barca needing three more goals. The home crowd were deflated, and only some profligacy from Di Maria and Cavani prevented PSG adding more goals, the tie seemed over. But in the 88th minute, Neymar curled home a free-kick, then Luis Suarez was supposedly fouled by Marquinhos (again, still bitter), and Neymar converted the penalty in stoppage time. Now it was 5-5 on aggregate, but PSG were ahead on away goals, until the last minute, when Neymar’s cross into the box was turned home by Sergi Roberto, sparking mayhem across the pitch, the dugout, stands, commentary boxes and broadcast studios as well. Barcelona had done the impossible and erased a four-goal deficit. It was the kind of turnaround that makes one think their names were already written on the title for 2017, not to be knocked out in the next round by Juventus, although it was the latter that happened. 

Published in International Watch

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