Real Madrid have begun celebrations for the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League. Los Blancos clinched a third successive Champions League title, a fourth in five years, with a 3-1 win over Liverpool in Kiev, and have already declared themselves as champions next season as well.

‘We know we are the best team in the Champions League, so it’s fair we announce to the rest that we’ve already won next season’s competition’ said midfielder Casemiro. ‘We’re putting this announcement out there to give one of the others the honour of losing to us in the final. Maybe it’ll be Atletico Madrid, whose stadium is hosting the final, and can complete an honourable treble of final defeats to us’.

‘We plan to begin the season is inconsistent form…’ added captain Sergio Ramos, ‘…to make things interesting. We’ll lose to Monaco in the group stage in October, even suffer a defeat in one of our knockout second legs, to make seem it like we have vulnerabilities, while our opponents- presumably Manchester City this time- gain plaudits for working their socks and coming up with 57 shots on target’.

Manager Zinedine Zidane was asked about such claims from his players, but declined to comment, all while hiding next season’s kit with the message ‘A Por La 14’ on it.

***Note: This particularly news item is in no way real.

 

 

Published in International Watch

'Madrid play well, they beat you. They play average, they beat you. They play badly, they beat you'. Those were the words of ESPN's Sid Lowe when asked to give a prediction on the Champions League final, between Real Madrid and Liverpool, highlighting Real Madrid’s ability to win in Europe even when little is going well.

The Champions League releases special powers, midfielder Toni Kroos had said, and it had looked it, these powers drove them past Juventus in the last eight, and Bayern Munich in the semis, both by the skin of their teeth. Since 2013, Los Blancos have only been knocked out from the Champions League once, against Juve in 2015 (which was even at the hands of their own boy Alvaro Morata).

Liverpool were no slouches themselves, were no strangers to upsetting the ones with more European pedigree (yes, Istanbul), and, thanks in huge part to Mohammed Salah, were the top scorers in this season's competition.

Real weren't far behind, so the expectation ahead of the game was chaos, anarchy, borderline bedlam of a football match.

But when has football ever followed the script? The first half was lacking in real attacking verve, Liverpool had most of the ball early on but didn't quite test Keylor Navas- bar a shot from Trent Alexander-Arnold- while Real seemed a bit too sloppy in possession.

So the talking point from the opening half was Salah leaving the pitch in tears, having hurt his shoulder following a challenge from Sergio Ramos, while Dani Carvajal followed suit with a knee problem, just like he exited in 2016. In terms of playing, Karim Benzema had the ball in the net, but the flag denied him; goalless at the break. 

Six minutes into the second half, and three after Isco hit the bar for Real, the opening goal arrived. From Lars Ricken, Dejan Savicevic, Real manager Zinedine Zidane himself, Mario Mandzukic last year, the showpiece game of Europe's most prestigious club competition has seen some grand finishes; here it would see its most fortuitous.

Kroos' overhit pass was too much for Benzema, easy catch for Loris Karius, but Karius decided on rolling the ball out immediately, Benzema stuck out a leg, the ball rolled into the net, and just like the semi-final second leg, the Frenchman's opportunism had given Real an advantage.

But that would last just six minutes. From a James Milner corner, Virgil van Dijk went up, and Sadio Mane went in, stabbing home from close range. Parity restored, and Jurgen Klopp went berserk.

The German had lost five successive finals prior to this game, so imagine his relief and joy at his side's leveller. Then imagine his disappointment in the 64th minute, yet you'd have forgiven him if he had applauded.

Two minutes earlier Gareth Bale, had replaced Isco, and then, from Marcelo's cross, etched himself alongside Mandzukic and his manager in the hall of jaw-dropping Champions League final overhead kicks.

Zidane touched his head in astonishment, like the last eight, when something similar was done by Cristiano Ronaldo, who smiled as he looked up, while Bale and Marcelo went berserk.

Liverpool had to score again to avoid defeat; Mane hit the post, but that was all they could muster.  And when Bale's rather speculative effort from way out was fumbled in by Karius, Real’s treble was sealed. Bale has been under constant speculation over his future at the club, here only a tackle from Alexander-Arnold prevented him from scoring a hatrick. Ronaldo himself couldn't quite find the net on this occasion, he came close late on, denied by a fan running onto the pitch.

Little matter. Milorad Maziç blew his whistle, Liverpool sunk to their knees in despair, Real knelt in jubilation again. Their insatiable Champions League appetite just can't be beaten.

 

Published in International Watch

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.

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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

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