Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Champions League Semi-Final Previews

My apologies for the long hiatus...it's been a very busy time. I felt I should share some of my thoughts on the upcoming Champions League semi-finals.

After some of the great football from the last round, there is abundant optimism for the next stage. Being used to rubbish (or in Jorge Valdano's words, "shit on a stick") from any Liverpool-Chelsea encounter, we were instead treated to a 7-5 aggregate tie between the two. Bayern Munich, the great Teutonic hope, were victims to a 45min flurry of goals in Barcelona which the Catalan club's president Joan Laporta deemed to be the best in the club's history.

Tuesday, 28 April
Barcelona v Chelsea

This one will be a treat. We should consider ourselves privileged to see this 2009 Barcelona side under Pep Guardiola the same way contemporaries were privileged to see the great Brazil side of 1970. I fell in love with Barca under the Dutchman Louis van Gaal (who, incidentally, won the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar last week) and Pep Guardiola's side has made me renew my vows. Daniel Alves may be less adventurous as against Almeria and Valladolid, for example, so expect Iniesta and Xavi to be more decisive, trying to find space just in front of Chelsea's makeshift back four.

Guus Hiddink, both a gentleman and master tactician (van Gaal is only one of these) threatens to rain on the Barca parade. Master of upsetting the bookies, you have to imagine that Chelsea will find some way of getting through a weak Catalan central defence. Watch out for the central midfield battle - it's all about how Essien and Lampard gel, and how Barcelona position their midfield trio to contain them. Will they play Keita? Busquets? Either way, Hiddink has plenty of answers.

Barcelona have been rampant but chased by a Real Madrid side who have won 18 of their last 19 games (in rather ugly fashion, too), and all eyes are on the decisive Clasico derby this weekend. At least one of Pep's eyes too, one would imagine. "We haven't won anything yet", is the weekly line from Guardiola, but the problem lies in deciding what to win and how.

Prediction: I think a 1-1 draw is on the cards, and don't be surprised if Chelsea make it to the final.

Wednesday, 29 April
Manchester United v Arsenal

This one has 'classic' written all over it. Keane, Vieira, van Nistelrooy and Keown may be gone, but the hunger remains.

For a neutral, to see the sensational Andriy Arshavin cup-tied for this game is a major turn-off, but this game should be a very entertaining affair. Arsenal are unbeaten in the league for over half the season and there is an aura of solidity around the side. Still, consistency has been hard to acheive and a blip is always a distinct possibility. One would favour United in the midfield battle but Fabregas's new advanced role could be tactically problematic for United. Alexandre Song, lying deep in midfield, has been a revelation this season. Watch for a tense first half dominated by the battle in the middle of the park.

United's lineups this season have been rather erratic, so who knows whether Berbatov or Tevez will get the nod? Cristiano Ronaldo is hitting form and Ryan Giggs is fresh off a PFA award win. Sir Alex Ferguson will undoubtedly have an eye on the weekend derby with Manchester City, but watch for a full-strength side. Sorry Nani, no action for you. Fabregas will exploit the space between the back four and midfield, so you may see a strange combination of United midfielders (Anderson + Fletcher, maybe) deployed to counter this threat.

Prediction: I have this one down as a 2-1 win for Arsenal against the old enemy. The game at Old Trafford the following week is probably the most unpredictable game of the season. Another Chelsea-United final may be on the cards, but don't be surprised to see Arsenal knock the prospective English champions out.

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