Right, here we go then! The first blows have been exchanged. The first right hooks have landed. It’s been a tense, absorbing slog and the fighters are still desperately clinging to one another, still raring to go. There’ve been twists and turns aplenty, ups and downs, highs and lows for each of our contenders. But the bell has sounded on the first round and the scores are in…
That was going to be my opener. Somewhat naively, I wrote that at 7.40pm on Tuesday evening, in anticipation of an extraordinarily tight, dramatic 24 hours of football that was surely to follow.
Things didn’t quite work out the way I’d thought, so scratch those first few lines and allow me start again. Ahem…
For some frustratingly inexplicable reason, I can’t help but think that, after the raw, tenaciously end-to-end excitement of the last few days’ football, each of the quarter final ties’ respective return legs may end up resembling something of an inevitable formality.
With one tenuous exception, I imagine even those who think UEFA is a brand of biscuit will be able to second-guess this season’s semi-final line up. Based on my own predictions a week or two ago, it looks likely that I was three-quarters right myself (some achievement for a guy without the best of luck at the local bookies in recent times). Nonetheless, I’m left feeling a bit empty at the outcome of this week’s games, (not because of any vested interests, of course), but simply due to next week, in all likelihood, having become a bit of a non-event…
Real Madrid 4 Tottenham Hotspurs 0: I know I said Real would win this game, to set them up in a commanding position come kick-off at the Lane, but I never anticipated this rout. And I maintain that it would never have been so, had Stretch Legstrong not gone missing. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, unlike many of his teammates, Crouch has plenty of experience at the top level of club European football, having made a significant number of appearances for Liverpool. That only makes his reckless challenges all the more baffling, but had he remained on the pitch for the full 90, holding up play and allowing the likes of Bale to make regular runs down the channels, Spurs may well have had a fighting chance. As it is, game over.
I’m going to up the ante with my predictions this week and try to call the next scores. In this case, I can see Harry’s men looking to wave goodbye to Europe with a bang. They’ve been a revelation to the competition this year, playing attractive, swashbuckling football in their maiden Champions League season. Reaching the quarters was always going to be a bonus, and while Real will likely pick off the English side on the break, the men in white will refuse to be beaten on their own patch.
Prediction: 2-1 Spurs
Internazionale 2 Schalke 5: What was I saying about the pragmatic Italians’ quality in defence??? After Stankovic’s wonder goal in the opening 30 seconds as well, this result was just inexplicable. I’d like to apologise to Leonardo for putting the hoodoo on his men last week, having openly divulged my admiration for the job he’s done in Milan since taking over from Benitez… since then Inter have also lost 3-0 to great rivals AC in their domestic league. Meanwhile, Schalke look like being this season’s surprise package and with an in-form Raul leading the line, still as goal-hungry as ever, they’ll fancy their chances against the elite in the latter stages. However, I fancy Inter gaining a bit of revenge in the 2nd leg against a potentially complacent German outfit.
Prediction: 2-1 Inter
Chelsea 0 Manchester United 1: This is my ‘one tenuous exception’. Despite United pocketing a clear advantage to take back to Old Trafford, this tie is still in the balance. Even if Fergie’s team score first, it doesn’t change the fact that Chelsea must score twice to advance to the semis, (unless they want to take it to another penalty shootout with the Red Devils). Going into the game a goal down could strangely relieve any tension in Ancelotti’s dressing room and as the manager has already pointed out, a repeat of last season’s vital 2-1 success at the Theatre of Dreams in the league would see his side through on away goals. That said, as I’ve mentioned before, United are a formidable proposition at home and with Wayne Rooney sitting out this weekend’s game against Fulham, due to his suspension, the star man will be fresh and champing at the bit to finish off the job. Chelsea must not and will not be as sloppy as they were at the Bridge, so this is going to be nip and tuck, but the Reds should be first across the line.
Barcelona 5 Shakhtar Donetsk 1: When the opposing team’s captain says that you’ll win Europe’s elite club competition, ‘for sure’, and declares you ‘the best team in football history’, you know you’ve got some good moves. And that’s all Shakhtar’s Darijo Srna could muster after his team’s plucky efforts at Camp Nou. Another imperious performance from Lionel Messi and five goals contributed by five different players seems all in a night’s work for the Catalans. Can anyone realistically dream of halting their progression to a third European title in six years? Mourinho will probably think he can.
Prediction: 3-1 Barca
So, once the furore of the quarters finally dies down, here’s hoping for some rather closer contests in the next stage, before the all-important Wembley showpiece. And you know what, come next week, I’ll still be holding out for a couple of sensational comebacks up and down the continent. It ain’t over until the final bell!
Munch on that UEFA.