Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Champions League Semi-Final: Manchester United 1-0 Barcelona (1-0 agg)


And so Manchester United are through to the final in Moscow. But what a nerve-wracking way to get there, riding a slim one-goal advantage for most of the game. Considering these two teams' attacking pedigree, you might have expected more of a goal-fest, but United were more focused on not making a mistake at the back, while Barcelona seemed to be allergic to scoring. Nevertheless, it was a riveting game even if you were a neutral; I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see if United would scrape through.

With Nemanja Vidic out (I assume he was concussed on Saturday, because he's too much of a bad-ass for a mere busted lip to keep him on the sidelines), United had a jury-rigged back line: Wes Brown alongside Rio Ferdinand in the centre and Owen Hargreaves deputising at right-back. Wayne Rooney was also still injured, so it was Carlos Tevez up front, supported by Cristiano Ronaldo, with Nani and Ji-Sung Park on the wings.

Barcelona had the better of the early play, including a free kick for Messi conceded by Paul Scholes just outside the box. But even from the outset, United weren't playing quite the same over-cautious game as they had in Barcelona; yes, defending was still the top priority, but they were pressing higher up the field rather than sitting back too much and watching Barça pass the ball around in front of them.

The key moment came in the 14th minute, as Cristiano Ronaldo ran at the Barcelona defence. Gianluca Zambrotta's attempted clearance went straight to Scholes about 30 yards out, and he hit a glorious shot that arrowed past Victor Valdes into the top corner. It was only his second goal of the season, but what a time to score. (And by the way, I'd say that he's virtually guaranteed to start in Moscow now, to make up for his suspension in 1999.)

The goal seemed knock the stuffing out of Barcelona while it boosted United's confidence, and they controlled more of the play as the first half went on. Messi still looked dangerous every time he got on the ball, but Patrice Evra dealt with him well enough, and Brown and Ferdinand kept Samuel Eto'o pretty quiet.

The second half was more of the same, but with the tension ratcheted up. United had a decent spell of pressure, with Tevez and Park (who I think is the South Korean version of Dirk Kuyt) working their socks off to hold the ball up and close down defenders, while Nani caused Barcelona problems with his pace -- although he kept choosing the wrong option with his final ball once again. As for Ronaldo, I think he lost out in terms of an individual competition with Messi, who was skipping past players at will (if only his teammates had bothered to help him out!) but he didn't vanish like he's supposed to do in big games either. There may not have been any outstanding moments of brilliance, and yes he did his share of falling down and whining to the ref, but he put in a disciplined performance to match the rest of his team, and was always willing to get on the ball and try to create something.

Barça continued to have more possession (it ended up 58% in their favour), but just like in the first leg, they couldn't translate that into too many real chances on goal. Rio Ferdinand kept his back line well marshalled, with Wes Brown in particular stepping up his game (apart from whacking his goalkeeper in the head a couple of times; oops) and Michael Carrick making a few crucial interceptions in front of the defence. Barcelona did have a few shots that fizzed just wide -- including a couple from Deco -- but Edwin van der Sar was equal to anything that came at him.

As they moved into the last quarter of the game, Barcelona started to turn the screw while United dropped deeper -- realizing that every minute meant United got closer to winning, but also the more dangerous it would be if Barça were to score. Thierry Henry came on for Andres Iniesta, but he's clearly not the player he was at Arsenal, as his best chance was a header that went straight into Van der Sar's arms. Then it was Bojan Krkic for Eto'o, while United responded by replacing Nani and Scholes with Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher as they tried to hold onto the ball and slow the game down.

Barcelona were throwing everyone forward as the clocked ticked towards the 90th minute -- I think at one point Carles Puyol, of all people, was the farthest player forward -- and into the three minutes of stoppage time. That was extended after Evra took a boot to the face in a collision with Deco and Ronaldo and had to be stretchered off, just to increase the tension even more (cue Sir Alex looking pointedly at his watch). It was the 96th minute when Barcelona won a free kick outside the box on the right, with Valdes even coming up for the kick, but United had every single player back defending and managed to clear their lines just before the referee blew for full time.

And then we all tried to catch our breath again.

(Incidentally, don't ask me what I'm going to do if Liverpool win today too. I have absolutely no idea. Other than just flailing a lot, probably.)

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