As Mourinho so delicately suggested after last month’s draw, one can almost sniff the trophy once reaching the quarter final stage. Well he, Fergie, Guardiola and Schalke’s Ralf Rangnick must now be salivating over the famous Big Ears and all their exuding glory, as a European showdown at Wembley beckons for their four teams.
After the pain and relief of the quarters (and I’m choosing to brush over my unlucky fortunes in last week’s predictions) the semi-finals loom large on the horizon, as the sun begins to set on another topsy turvy season…
Tottenham Hotspurs 0 Real Madrid 1 (agg: 0-5): It’s not the prettiest of aggregate scorelines for the Spurs faithful, but Harry Redknapp’s team can take pride in their performance on Wednesday night, particularly in the first half when I thought they played the best football I’ve seen at the Lane all season, (in itself some feat). Had they been awarded one of their early penalty claims, who knows? As it was, at least Gomes’ mistake wasn’t so vital and didn’t leave him on the brink of being physically thrown out the stadium by 30,000 seething North Londoners. Of course, the fear that’s beginning to spread from some dark, dingy corners on Bill Nicholson Way concerns whether those players, now having realised their dreams playing amongst Europe’s elite, may have their heads turned if they fail to qualify again next season. And it is a genuine concern for Harry. Having spent the last couple of years building up a team from the dregs of that threatened by relegation, to one capable of challenging the Premier League’s big guns, he won’t want to crunch into reverse gear. It’s one thing finishing in the top four, but another altogether staying there. As for Real, a first semi-final since 2003 to look forward to – the Special One is working that magic again.
Schalke 2 Internazionale 1 (agg: 7-3): And the magician’s influence is blatantly obvious when you consider this year’s Inter team; a shadow of the side that he left behind as Treble winners in the summer. So the champions are out. No club has ever retained the European title since the inception of the Champions League, which means that record will stretch on for at least another year. Schalke are a well organised, dangerous team and I hold my hands up for thinking that they were out of their depth when the draw was made. They have every chance of reaching the Final to claim the German club’s first ever European Cup.
Manchester United 2 Chelsea 1 (agg: 3-1): You really have to wonder whether that was the last chance for this Chelsea team. For me, it’s summed up in the fact that Chelsea going out, (rather than United going through), is the story of the tie. The Blues’ core has remained intact since the days of Mourinho; John Terry leading the line from the back, Frank Lampard marshalling the midfield, Didier Drogba spearheading the attack. There is of course an argument that this stability in the squad balances out the circus surrounding the managerial role at the Bridge. This is in no doubt true, but there must come a time when even these battle-hardened stars can no longer carry the club further. To his credit, Carlo Ancelotti foresaw this last summer, when he decided to place his faith in upcoming youngsters Josh McEachran, Jeffrey Bruma and the like. Apparently though, they weren’t ready and Chelsea’s subsequent lack of investment in senior players in 2010 has seemingly cost them this season. They’re in a period of transition West London way and the club must either stand by its youngsters, or spend big again this transfer window. Whether Ancelotti is the man to decide which policy is best seems in the hands of Mr Abramovich…
Back up the M6 and everything’s looking peachy at Old Trafford. It’s not one of United’s vintage teams of recent years, but nonetheless, it’s mid-April and the Treble is still on. And who’s to be credited, but the Old Cap’n at the helm, steering his ship through its own transitional season, red-and-white-striped tie fluttering in the wind of the oncoming storm…
Shakhtar Donetsk 0 Barcelona 1 (agg: 1-6): The Spanish outfit truly are amazing aren’t they? Not wanting to sound monotonous, let me just point out one stat that epitomises this team. Barca enjoyed nearly two thirds of possession of the football, against a team that has never lost on their home ground in European competition. Amazing. Not that I want to sound monotonous. And a special mention for Mr Messi, who scored the winner and his 48th goal so far this season. That’s two shy of what the entire fourth-placed Manchester City squad have managed in the Premier League this season. And that squad cost Sheikh Mansour a few bob too. Nuf’ said.
And what of the semis themselves??? Well, I’ll stick with the Final I originally predicted, but believe me, that in no way means it’s a given. United have traditionally struggled against German opposition, particularly away from home, making the first leg at Veltins-Arena all the more crucial for Sir Al’s men. At least one away goal may be needed.
As for El Classico, sit back, crack open a can of something nice and enjoy. Barcelona are… well, Barcelona, but you just cannot rule out the Mourinho factor. After all, the man’s done it before with his ten men of Inter. So with eleven Galacticos on the field, it’s game on!
Good luck to all four teams and just remember: I’ve heard those Ears taste as good as they smell too.