Thursday, April 24, 2008

Champions League Semi-Finals - First Leg

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
Gah. Liverpool were so close. Agonizingly close. Maybe 10 seconds away from winning the game when John Arne Riise had a massive brain-fart and put the ball into his own net (I believe in technical terms this is known as "pulling a Djimi Traore"), gifting Chelsea a thoroughly undeserved equalizer.

What makes it worse is that things had been going pretty well up to that point. Chelsea started the game more strongly, but Liverpool stayed organized at the back and got into the match gradually. They were the better team from about the 30-minute mark onward, starting with a great chance for Fernando Torres when Steven Gerrard played him in on goal, only to take one touch too many and scuff his shot.

The increased Liverpool pressure paid off just before halftime, as Xabi Alonso took a quick free kick, releasing Dirk Kuyt down the wing with the Chelsea defenders switched off. The ball pinged around and eventually fell to Javier Mascherano, whose attempted shot ballooned up over Claude Makelele's attempted interception and fell to Kuyt, who slotted it past Petr Cech.

The goal also highlighted the main difference between the teams, which is that Liverpool's midfield was bossing the play; I thought that Xabi was especially good, whereas on the other side, Frank Lampard was clearly off his game (understandably so, since his mother was deathly ill, and in fact has just died). That continued in the second half, too, with Chelsea reduced to just hoofing the ball up to Didier Drogba and waiting for him to fall down. The annoying thing was that Drogba got most of the calls in his favour, whereas Torres was fouled constantly and got nothing.

The key moment may have been with half an hour left, when Fabio Aurelio went down with a groin injury and had to be substituted. Meanwhile, Chelsea brought on Salomon Kalou in place of Joe Cole, and it was Kalou who provided the cross that led to their goal. They started to put more pressure on Liverpool from about 75 minutes on, although Liverpool still had chances to put the game away, including a great shot from Gerrard in the 84th minute, which Petr Cech just tipped over the top corner, and a point-blank shot from Torres in stoppage time. (Cech made some good saves, but Torres wasn't quite on; 90% of the time he'd have put at least one of those away.)

And then, in the fifth minute of extra time, disaster: A cross from the left wing, Nicolas Anelka coming in at the back post, a misguided attempt at a clearance, and the ball is headed into the Liverpool net. RIISE, YOU BRAINLESS GINGER BUFFOON. THIS IS WHY FOOTBALLERS ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE TWO FEET. I mean, he practically had to get down on his knees to reach the ball; just use your right leg, for fuck's sake. It was an absolutely devastating way to end the game: a massive boost for Chelsea, and demoralizing for Liverpool.

They went from a one-goal lead and a vital clean sheet to a draw, which means that now they need to score (possibly more than once) at Stamford Bridge, which is something they've never done before under Rafa Benitez. But looking on the bright side, Liverpool were certainly the better team here, and there's no reason why they can't reproduce that next week. (Riise's undoubtedly going to be the scapegoat if they do get eliminated, but to be fair I should point out that Liverpool also really should've scored more than just the one goal.) Plus, Chelsea are now the favourites, and Liverpool do seem to like being the underdogs. They tend to pull out their best performances when they've got their backs up against the wall.

Barcelona 0-0 Manchester United

Ahem. Sorry, I am yelly this week. But it's incredibly frustrating to see a chance like that thrown away. Manchester United get awarded a penalty right at the beginning of the game, after a handball in the box, and rather than firing the ball low and hard into the side netting like he's been doing all season, Ronaldo decides to try and chip it into the top corner -- and instead sends it wide. I believe this is a lesson in the dangers of over-confidence (not that I really expect it to have much impact on Ronniecakes' phenomenal arrogance, but anyway).

And that ended up being one of the few goal-scoring chances that United had all game. Barcelona pulled their heads out of their asses for this game and decided to actually play like they cared. They thoroughly dominated the game -- it was almost like they were playing keep-away with United -- but despite all their possession and shots on goal, Barca lacked much of a cutting edge; Edwin van der Sar barely had any real saves to make.

United played like...well, like Liverpool, actually, with just about everybody back behind the ball defending. You'd think a lineup that included all three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez would have been more attacking, but Rooney was basically playing as a midfielder, and in fact I think Ronaldo and Tevez were too. I wonder what difference it would have made if Ronaldo had scored that penalty: if United would have been even more paranoid and defensive, or if they would have taken confidence from that and gone forward more. (Of course, this would depend on them actually being able to get the ball away from Leo Messi & co.)

I think Nemanja Vidic's absence also had an impact on their strategy, because it meant Wes Brown shifting to centre-back and Owen Hargreaves to right-back, which both weakened the defence a bit and also deprived them of a real ball-winner in midfield. Anyway, this one is finely balanced going into the second leg, although United just about have the edge, thanks to that clean sheet, although Ronaldo should still be kicking himself over that penalty miss. (Actually, United should've had a second penalty, for a foul on Ronaldo by Rafa Marquez, but they were never going to get it. And Barcelona could have had one as well, after Rio Ferdinand brought down Samuel Eto'o.) Anyway, I am just hoping that next week's game is a bit more interesting, because really, who would have thought that Liverpool v. Chelsea would be the more exciting match-up?

Finally: Thumbs down to the ESPN half-time and post-game analysis. Which is basically four guys in a studio, with not enough time to really say anything, and nothing insightful to say even if they did have time. (Shaka Hyslop is just as bland as his Guardian columns. And Tommy Smyth? Bothers me even more when I have to look at his smarmy little face.)

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