Review: Romance, redemption & Didier Drogba

For a tournament often pilloried as a giant money-making machine, the UEFA Champions League delivered enough old-time romance this week to satisfy purists raised on the early glorious days of the European Cup.

The 4-4 at Stamford Bridge was worthy of the Benfica vs Real Madrid 5-3 final in 1962, and Cesc Fabregas’s brilliant back heel to create Arsenal’s opener against Villarreal would have inspired the goal of the week if it hadn’t been for Cristiano Ronaldo’s rocket against Porto.


Ronaldo lets rip 

With 28 goals in eight quarter-final matches, the 2008/09 goals per game average now stands at 2.66, higher than in the last five World Cups.

Didier Drogba, destroyer of Juventus, ripped through Liverpool’s defence like a tank in the second half.

On form and motivated, he is the greatest centre-forward in the world today. In an era when the old-style striker is an endangered species - for reasons Jonathan Wilson explores in the latest issue of Champions – Drogba proved that a great No.9 can still turn a game.

In this vein, the Ivorian may yet redeem himself for the red card in Moscow.

I enjoyed his post-match press conference too, although it was a shame no one asked him if the second syllable of his surname really is pronounced - as ITV’s irrepressible commentator Clyde Tyldesley would have it - like the “Bah!” in Scrooge’s cry of “Bah! Humbug!”

The Blues must now overcome Barcelona, who represent the Rest of Europe.

When Hiddink watches Barca’s 1-1 draw in Munich, he will be encouraged by how much trouble Franck Ribery gave Daniel Alves and Carlos Puyol.

Barca’s triumph was not the cakewalk the 5-1 aggregate scoreline suggests. With Luca Toni sharper, and the penalty they deserved in the second leg, Bayern might have made Pep Guardiola’s team sweat.

Certainly Bayern coach Jurgen Klinsmann deserved better than to be crucified on a German newspaper front page.

As for Toni, quoted as tipping Roberto Mancini to replace Klinsi, he should consider the old adage about players doing their talking on the pitch. If he doesn’t buck up, he could become the first striker in the history of football to have effectively ended his career by wearing a silly moustache.

The tactical dilemma facing Barcelona’s opponents is simple: how can you score if you can’t get the ball? Barca have enjoyed 62 percent of the possession on average in the tournament this season – more than any other side. But this may suit Chelsea who have been lethal on the counter in Hiddink’s 4-3-3.

It will be intriguing to see how Hiddink marks Messi. Does he, as Martin Lipton suggests in the Mirror sacrifice Michael Essien to stop 'The Flea' biting?


Can Chelsea swat The Flea? 

That runs the risk of repeating the famous mistake Helmut Schoen made in the 1966 World Cup final when he sacrificed Franz Beckenbauer’s threat by telling the Kaiser to mark Bobby Charlton.

Guardiola’s Barcelona have often looked awesome but have not seriously been tested in this tournament. Their group draw (pitting them against Basle, Shakhtar and Sporting) was easy and they have faced two transitional sides in the knock-out stages.

Their dominance of this season’s la Liga is no great indicator of quality. With Barca the only Spanish side to reach the last four of either European club competition, the Spanish top flight isn’t the force it was.

Watching Villarreal, missing their Senna-Cazorla midfield axis, lose 3-0 to Arsenal only reinforced that view.

Apart from Robert Pires, hailed with heartfelt choruses of “Superbob” from Gooners, Villarreal (fifth in la Liga) looked overawed. Watching Pires’s valiant effort, I was reminded of Raymond Kopa’s lament about the pain of playing with team-mates who aren’t as good as you.

At one point, Pires shaped to hit the ball right and forward down the flank for a team-mate to run onto. But the run was never made and the ball pootled harmlessly into touch. That mis-read pass summed up Villarreal’s performance.

Arsenal look bright, creative and confident. But they would have lost the first leg if Villarreal had been ruthless upfront. Which makes Arsenal vs United as impossible to call as Liverpool vs Chelsea.

The key for United isn’t the artistry of Cristiano Ronaldo but the fitness and focus of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

Porto’s heroism against United was embarrassing for Jose Mourinho’s Inter. The Nerazzurri and Celtic are the only sides United have beaten at Old Trafford in the tournament this season.

Jesualdo Ferreira’s Dragons paid for not making their supremacy count on the scoresheet. But Porto’s trickery, guts, pace and technique suggested their gung-ho approach might be a better strategy for away sides at Old Trafford than stifling the game by packing midfield.

Of the four coaches left, Ferguson and Hiddink have won this trophy before, Guardiola has won it as a player and Wenger has never won it – or any other European trophy.

Guardiola is the most inexperienced coach and faces, in Hiddink, one of the great touchline improvisers.

But, as Bobby Robson notes in his memoirs, Guardiola was effectively the manager in the dressing room when Barcelona ended their European Cup hoodoo in 1992.


Pep (third right) triumphs in '92 

The odds slightly favour Ferguson being able, on May 28 in Rome, to say “Veni, vidi, vici.”

But Chelsea, on the principle that - like every winner since Milan in 2002/03 - they have knocked out the team that knocked out Real Madrid, must fancy their chances.

This is anyone’s tournament now...

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