Our European guru educates and enlightens
As that vastly underrated football pundit Lenny Kravitz used to say, it ain’t over till it’s over. But, after the first legs of last night’s UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, it is very nearly over for two teams and Barcelona and Manchester United seem destined to clash in the semi-finals.
The key word is still seem. Teams have come back from greater deficits than Roma. In 1986, Barcelona reached the final on penalties after losing the first leg of their semi-final against IFK Gothenburg 3- 0. (You can read about this – and 10 other great knock-out ties in the latest issue of Champions, available now at all good newsagents and quite possibly a few dodgy ones.) But Manchester United have now won 10 home games in a row in the Champions League, a feat only equalled by Juventus.
The Red Devils have only been beaten on their own turf five times in the entire history of the tournament: by Borussia Dortmund, Fenerbahce and Juventus (all in 1996/97), Deportivo la Coruna (in 2000/01) and Milan (in 2004/05). None of these teams conquered United by the two-goal margin Luciano Spalletti’s men need to earn a penalty shoot-out. In other words, the giallorossi will need a result even more remarkable result than their 7-1 defeat at Old Trafford to book a place in the last four.
Crespo nets for AC Milan in 2005 - United's last home defeat
Cometh the hour, cometh Francesco Totti? Roma fans would like to think so and the great Mario Kempes did once say: “Two-nil is the most dangerous score in football. One goal can change everything.” But it is a big ask.
Roma’s stylish possession football has not been well served by the draw. Facing Real Madrid and United in consecutive knockout rounds is spectacularly unlucky, especially when you consider that Barcelona have almost reached the last four after facing two out-of-sorts teams (Stuttgart and Lyon) two Scottish clubs (Rangers and Celtic) and a Schalke side whose main striker, the gifted yet unpredictable Kevin Kuranyi is in such poor form it’s hard to believe he was the same player who drove England’s defence to distraction in the recent friendly.
The home team’s late flurry – in which, as Frank Rijkaard said, the Catalans got sucked into the Bundesliga side’s aerial game – might offer United more encouragement than it does Schalke.
For all the discontent, speculation and rumour mongering emanating from Camp Nou this season, Barcelona have won all four home games in the Champions League and their recent record in the tournament is: Played 29, W19, D6, L3. Only Chelsea and Liverpool have knocked them out of the Champions League since 2003. So Schalke’s need of a miracle is probably even greater than Roma’s.
Any United fan watching some of Barcelona’s antics in La Liga this season may be already dreaming of Moscow. But in Europe, without ever looking as convincing as when they won the trophy in 2006, Barça have usually gone about their business with a determined focus sometimes lacking in La Liga where their defence has been as porous as Real Madrid’s. A semi-final against Manchester United might be the perfect tonic for some of Barça’s wayward, sulky stars. Sometimes, big game players need big games to motivate themselves. Sir Alex Ferguson knows his team are now favourites. But he will remember that they were tipped in 1997 and 2001 before bowing out to Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen in the semis. And they had one foot in the final last year before being demolished in the San Siro by Milan.
Blown away at San Siro after winning first-leg 3-2
Winning the Champions League again would, for Ferguson, place the modern United among the game’s all-time greats. He has been surprised and disappointed by his club’s strange inability to repeat the feat of 1999 and may never get a better chance to reconquer Europe. But he won’t take victory against Rijkaard’s team for granted. And nor should the fans.
Great post. It might not be as big an ask for Roma now that both Ferdinand and Vidic are out. Vucinic should have an easier time against less stellar defending. It should be an exciting finish.
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