The final quarter-final matches of Europe’s favourite and most captivating soap opera played out this week and as sure as sunrise and taxes, it served up some fantastic matches across the two matchdays.
The Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund was the stage for an almost historic comeback as Dortmund pushed a Madrid side that had a three-goal advantage all the way while across the peninsula in London, Jose Mourinho once more underlined his European pedigree by masterminding a comeback victory over a PSG side that was missing their star player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
David Moyes and Gerardo Martino were in the same boat but sailing in different shores as Manchester United and Barcelona both travelled to face daunting tasks in Munich and Madrid respectively after drawing their home legs. Here is what we learned...
1. There is only one team in Madrid at the moment, and it is not Real
The Spanish capital is witnessing the greatest battle of supremacy for as long as I can remember. Real Madrid have always had the bragging rights in the city by virtue of being way more illustrious than their crosstown rivals but the funny thing with football is that tides do turn and at the moment, it is firmly with the red and white.
Atletico’s upsurge coincided with the arrival of the brilliant Diego Simeone as coach and it has been relentless since. The mercurial Argentinian, who had a stellar playing career, is now making tsunami-sized moves in the coaching world. He has built on the foundations at the club and transformed Atleti into an efficient and ruthless counter-attacking monster.
While their rivals were strapping on for managerial merry-go-rounds and splashing ridiculous amounts on players who more than half the time failed to sparkle, Atleti were doing the exact opposite. They stuck with their man, sold when it was required and rebuilt smartly and quietly.
Torres left to be replaced by Forlan and Sergio Aguero, both of whom followed suit for big money to be replaced by a certain Colombian who immediately picked up the goal scoring mantle and absolutely went on a rampage. Inevitably even he had to move on but only after Simeone had identified a replacement and ensured they had made a tidy profit from money-bags Monaco.
Atleti sit top of La Liga, four points ahead of their bitter domestic rivals and with a superior head-to-head record. They beat Madrid in the Copa del Rey final last season and again at the Bernabeu in this campaign while a late leveller from Ronaldo denied them a comeback victory at the Vicente Calderon. Real were paired with an injury-hit and severely depleted Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-finals of the Champions League while Atleti were handed a date with Catalan giants Barcelona.
Madrid strolled to a 3-0 victory while Atleti battled to a commendable 1-1 draw at Camp Nou, despite losing their star forward, Diego Costa to injury. Diego Simeone’s men went toe to toe with Barca, leaving with an away goal and their unbeaten record against their hosts still intact. It is in the second legs, however, that the power shift really came to the fore.
Real were capitulating at Dortmund while Atleti were ripping Barca to shreds at home. The woodwork was struck thrice and a half-dozen opportunities spurned as Simeone’s men ran riot. Barcelona were harassed, hassled and pressed into submission by the hard-working and high tempo style of Atletico and the only shocking thing about the result was that only one goal was scored by the home side.
Contrastingly, Real without Ronaldo were left to hang on and thank the wood-work and some wayward finishing for their place in the last four of the competition. Dortmund, hampered by injury, went within a goal of forcing extra-time and will be left to rue all those missed opportunities.
Atleti were as imperious as Real were spluttering. It would be interesting if they were paired together in the semi-final draw…then Atletico would have the chance to underline their current supremacy and stamp themselves as the big dog in the city at the moment.
2. Jose Mourinho is still the ‘Special One’…in Europe at least
The Portuguese holds a peerless record in the continental competition, having won it twice and featuring in the semi-finals eight times is phenomenal and unmatched. His second coming at Chelsea had been littered with highs and lows and a never-ending condemnation of his mis-firing strikers.
The season started promisingly but started to splutter along the way as Chelsea
exited both domestic cup competitions to Sunderland and Manchester City erstwhile being the first and only side to beat rampant City at the Etihad while stopping them from scoring. It was unfolding as a cocktail widely un-anticipated among Blues faithful who expected Jose, the ‘Special One’, especially in the absence of the retired nemesis Sir Alex Ferguson, to completely dominate the league.
As it stands, Chelsea lie second in the title race but only just. Two group stage defeats to lowly Swiss side FC Basel did little to calm the nerves and brought with them some criticism and, albeit on a murmured level, discontented questioning from some fans and pundits alike. However, Chelsea navigated through to the quarter-finals and were paired with an uncanny mirror image of themselves in PSG.
It was deemed as the battle of the money-bags and sugar-daddies by some while to others it was supposed to be a display of the contrast in their respective striking departments. A 3-1 defeat and a blank drawn by a forlorn Fernando Torres later and it seemed like once more Chelsea’s front-line frailties were to be their Achilles heel. However, circumstances like these are what stir up the juices in this particular Portuguese.
Mourinho spent the aftermath of the first-leg calling on the Blues faithful to create the perfect atmosphere as Chelsea looked to overturn the two-goal deficit. Mourinho criticised his players after the loss and challenged them in equal measure to step up to the plate when the Paris side came to town, calling on the elder statesmen, Terry, Cech and Lampard, to lead from the
front. You could sense that Mou believed in his team, his supports but more-so, in himself. As it turns out, Jose once more laid down a marker of his credentials in this competition.
An injury to Eden Hazard led to some groans from the Stamford Bridge faithful but his replacement turned out to be the silver lining as Andre Schurrle, once described by his manager as ‘cold blooded’, struck with a nerveless finish from a seemingly harmless throw in livened up the crowd and galvanised Chelsea.
PSG, it has to be said, proved to be convenient adversaries as they ceded possession too easily and really made no effort to go forward. Laurent Blanc’s men were overrun in midfield and as ironic as it is, it is they who looked to be the ones suffering from striker problems in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Edinson Cvanai, presented with an opportunity to prove himself centrally allowed the game to pass him by and wasted two gilt edged opportunities on the counter.
After the ‘Miracle of Munich’, Chelsea are the one team that has recently reaped big from the combination of good luck and blinding belief. The Blues poured forward in numbers, and peppered PSG’s goalmouth with wave after wave of attacks. For a period it looked like it may not be their night as they struck the woodwork twice, from Oscar’s free-kick and a sweetly struck shot from Schurrle.
However cometh the hour, cometh the man and in stepped Jose. He threw on first, Fernando Torres and later Demba Ba and instructed his team to start playing direct football over trying to pass their way around their opponents. The effect was clear as Thiago Silva and Alex struggled to deal with the long balls aimed at the powerful Demba Ba.
Chelsea went for broke and instead of PSG punishing them on the break, they retreated, with Blanc sending on defender Marquinhos for the speedy Lucas. Mourinho sensed blood and so did his team. The least trusted of his forwards latched on to a scuffed shot to bundle home and send Jose wheeling down the touchline in delirium. The scenes were similar to those witnessed at Old Trafford when Porto knocked out United in 2004, the first time the world took notice of this enigmatic persona. Hats off.
3. Moyes deserved credit and Bayern are losing steam
It seems rather poetic that David Moyes, during his tumultuous and woeful maiden season in charge of Manchester United, has found solace in the Champions League. For all of their hapless and inconsistent performances in the Premier League, United have fared much better at the big dogs playground and credit has to go to the manager. He has been able to bring out the best in his players in continental competition on a regular basis and it was most evident against Bayern.
Most people, including this writer, expected Bayern to steamroll United, and have the tie wrapped up in the first leg. However, it s anything but a procession and United did have a genuine shot at making the semis and arguably causing the biggest upset of the round. Twice they took the lead against the Bavarians, continental and world champions, but were ultimately undone by lapses in concentration at the back.
United gave Bayern a run for their money and you cannot help but think that with marginally better players, a fully fit Wayne Rooney for the second leg and being more clinical with the opportunities they created, United would have gotten the better of Pep Guardiola’s men. Moyes will almost certainly not be in the competition next season but on the evidence of this campaign, United fans will feel a little more re-assured that when he returns, probably with a new look United, he just may be able to go one better than the quarter-finals.
Bayern had been touted by many as the unstoppable force, and rightly so. They were defending champions of Germany, Europe and of the world and had just wrapped up a successive Bundesliga title in record time. Jupp Heynckes' men had totally destroyed Barcelona in the semis of last season’s competition after a 7-0 aggregate win and with Pep Guardiola now in charge, they seemed to have stepped up a notch this season, going 53 matches unbeaten and winning their league in record time.
There were no illusions whatsoever as to who the top dog in Europe is at the moment but in recent weeks, the Bayern juggernaut is losing steam. A draw and a loss back-to-back were warning signs and despite eventually winning against United, the Bavarians struggled for long periods and one wonders what could have been had United kept their cool after Evra’s goal.
Pep brushed off suggestions that the weight of expectation was bogging down his side and that maybe the hunger just is not there as the season is culminating as much as it was at the beginning. They still remain firm favourites to win it and make history by defending their crown but all the other sides left in the competition will take heart from United’s display and the Bavarian monster does not look as scary as it was.
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