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Another guest writer, John Burn-Murdoch, throws his hat into the ring with a fabulously detailed review of this year’s UEFA Champions League, which has produced thrills, heart-break and some delicious football.
Last night the 2010/11 edition of the UEFA Champions League came to a close. A thrilling 90 minutes of football saw Barcelona crowned thoroughly worthy winners, but theirs is not the only great Champions League story to have played out this past year…
On June 30th2010 the current iteration of the tournament got underway when Montenegrin champions FK Rudar Pljevlja beat San Marino’s Tre Fiori 3-0. Rudar won the second leg 4-1 in front of a crowd of roughly 400 partisan supporters and thus progressed to the second qualifying round in this, their first ever season in European competition, giving the 2010/11 Champions League its first great night.
Other great sagas began before we reached the tournament proper, and among these was that of provincial Portuguese side, Braga. Making their Champions League debut after a wonderful second place finish in the league, Braga made their way past first Celtic, and then Spanish heavyweights Sevilla, as they won a place in the group stage. After a hard-fought 1-0 win at their rock-hewn stadium, Braga travelled to the ancient Spanish capital and pulled of a staggering 4-3 win, thanks largely to a poacher’s hat-trick from Brazilian forward Lima.
The group stages threw up a number of wonderfully entertaining clashes of their own, beginning in group A where Champions League novices Tottenham were drawn alongside reigning champions Inter Milan. A superb performance from Gareth Bale – albeit for the losing side – at the San Siro precipitated media hyperbole of all new proportions, but will live long in the memories of any and all who were watching. A 100% home record for Spurs, including a hard fought victory over the champions at White Hart Lane, saw them finish top of their group and set in motion a memorable – if brief – European journey for all associated with the club.
Elsewhere, Braga’s adventure continued, and among the biggest talking points of the round was their humbling defeat of English powerhouses Arsenal. With Shakhtar Donetsk breathing down their necks, Arsene Wenger’s side needed a win to ensure that they remained on course for top spot in the group, but despite fielding a relatively strong side they were caught by surprise, and having thoroughly demolished Braga in the reverse fixture slumped to a 2-0 loss. While the Portuguese club bowed out at this stage of the tournament, they had given an excellent account of themselves during their short time at Europe’s top table and went on to round off a wonderful season by reaching the final of the Europa League, seeing off the likes of Liverpool along the way.
Moving into the knockout stages, the round of sixteen provided plenty of talking points, with two of the biggest involving North London clubs. Having slipped to second place in Group H, Arsenal knew they would be drawn against a club who had won their group. Nevertheless, Wenger and co would certainly have hoped not to be drawn against Barcelona. Billed by the media as an exhibition of footballing artistry, the first leg provided one of the most thrilling five minute segments of football on offer in this season’s Champions League. Goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin turned the match on its head and had the oft-subdued Emirates transformed into a cauldron of noise when the Russian fired past Victor Valdes. The second leg will be equally memorable for Arsenal fans, but for contrasting reasons. Having just about held their own for almost an hour, the controversial dismissal of van Persie turned what was already a difficult task into an impossibility, and the Catalans went on to seal a relatively comfortable victory. This match was also notable for Lionel Messi’s first goal, surely the goal of this season’s tournament – yes, I personally rate it above that goal in the first Clasico. Demonstrating levels of technique staggering even for the little genius himself, Messi collected Andres Iniesta’s perfectly timed through ball and deftly clipped the ball over the advancing form of Manuel Almunia, leaving himself the simple task of firing into an empty net.
Neighbours Tottenham had already humbled one Milan side and were given the opportunity to complete something of a clean sweep when they were drawn against the rossoneri. A fiery first leg saw Spurs move ahead through Peter Crouch’s late goal, but was arguably notable more for the verbal – and ultimately physical – exchanges between Milan’s snarling midfielder Gennaro Gattuso and Harry Redknapp’s assistant manager Joe Jordan. A disciplined performance back in London saw Tottenham complete an historic victory and thus reach the last eight, out-lasting arch rivals Arsenal in doing so, much to the delight of their supporters.
Another epic in the last sixteen took place in Munich, where Leonardo’s Inter Milan overturned a 1-0 deficit from the home leg, securing their place in the quarter-finals through a last minute winner at the Allianz Arena. Having trailed 2-1 for much of the game and watched as Bayern spurned chance after chance to extend their lead, Inter equalised through Wesley Sneijder and then snatched the victory in the dying minutes when Samuel Eto’o played in Goran Pandev, the Macedonian firing emphatically past Thomas Kraft before racing away in delirious celebration.
The quarter-finals were dominated by the shattering of dreams. Tottenham’s escapades were cut short by a far superior Real Madrid side, much fancied Shakhtar were outclassed by Barcelona, Chelsea’s domestic tribulations caught up with their European form, and deluded Inter Milan fans saw their side unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament by Germany’s sole remaining representatives Schalke.
Tottenham fans were delighted to have drawn Madrid and having seen off one-time European giants Milan, were confident of causing another upset. Jose Mourinho had other ideas; however, and to make matters worse an ex-Arsenal man was the chief protagonist in the first leg.
Shakhtar’s fearless attacking football, and Brazilian-heavy line-up were attracting a lot of fans – myself included – and some were even going as far as to tip them to cause the upset to end all upsets and dump out Pep Guardiola’s team of footballing deities. Any such ideas were quickly laid to rest at the Camp Nou in the first leg; though, as the Catalans tore through the Ukrainian champions, opening the scoring inside two minutes and running out 5-1 winners on the night. There wasn’t even the consolation of a home result for Shakhtar, a Messi goal enough to give Barcelona a 1-0 win at the Donbass Arena.
Coming, as it did, relatively soon after Chelsea’s victory over United in the league, the first leg of the all-English tie took place with fans of the Blues optimistic that Ancelotti’s side were on their way back to something bearing a resemblance to their early season form. Unfortunately, such notions proved short-lived. Chelsea were undone by the excellence of Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney, and despite their best efforts thereafter, succumbed to a home defeat. Their task was always going to be difficult at Old Trafford, but after Didier Drogba levelled proceedings at one apiece their fans once again dared to dream. Ji-Sung Park was the destroyer on this occasion, the Korean securing United’s passage to the last four and piling on the misery in an already disappointing campaign for the Blues.
Ever since their group matches against Tottenham, Inter’s defending had come in for criticism, but no-one was expecting quite the demolition that took place at the San Siro. In front of their own fans Leonardo’s side shipped a staggering five goals and left the pitch at full time to jeers having contrived to lose 5-2 despite twice taking the lead. The one positive for Interistas was Dejan Stakovic’s sublime 45 yard volley which soared into the net after Manuel Neuer had raced off his line to intercept a through ball. The second leg offered little by way of consolation, though at least Julio Cesar only had to pick the ball out of the net on two occasions.
The semi-finals were dominated by the Clasicos which made up part of the now infamous series of fixtures between the two arch rivals who met four times over eighteen days. The first leg will be recalled as an example of what football should not be about, and was marked by play-acting posturing and – ok, I’m stretching it for the sake of alliteration and tricolon – pugilism. The negative narratives born out of the disrespect and ill-discipline shown by both sets of players throughout the match and by Mourinho in his post-match comments have scarred the fixture and for years to come it will be all too easy for critics of Barcelona to hark back to “that night in Madrid”. Messi scored a goal that was glorious in its intricacy and yet also breathtaking in its simplicity – guiding the ball past the obstacles in his path and slipping it beyond a final obstruction on its way into the back of the net. On another occasion this would have been the iconic image associated with the 2010/11 Champions League, but the other eighty-nine-and-a-half minutes put paid to that. While the second leg was played out in a less heated atmosphere and showcased two highly talented sides playing attacking football, there was never any hope that it could eclipse what had gone before, and the 1-1 result at the Camp Nou will soon be consigned to the history books – that is if it is not already forgotten.
The other semi-final passed without much fuss, with the headlines largely devoted to the excellence of Schalke’s stopper Manuel Neuer, and more specifically his heroics in the first leg. It has widely been written that United’s performance in Gelsenkirchen was their best of this season, and the fact that they were limited to only two goals pays tribute in itself to Neuer’s magnificence. The second leg was less enjoyable from his perspective as United ran out 4-1 winners on the night. One of the more lasting narratives from these ties concerned neither United or Schalke, this being the assertion that Schalke’s dominance over Inter and subsequent inferiority to United showed how far Serie A has fallen away from its competitor leagues of late, and more specifically how far Inter have fallen since winning the competition twelve months ago.
And then we have the final. While I am not anti-Manchester United, there was something satisfying, something right, about the way the match played out. Having watched a wonderful Barcelona side fall to Mourinho’s negative – albeit superbly well drilled and tactically exquisite – Inter side last season, for such a beautiful footballing outfit not to receive the honour it so thoroughly deserved yet again would have been a travesty of aesthetic justice. I found the opening ten minutes, when United gave as good as they got and looked in fact to be on top, just as enthralling as the eighty that followed, but to see such a brilliant group of players playing to the best of their ability and receiving the rewards that they so richly deserved appealed to me above all else. Pedro giving Van der Sar ‘the eyes’ for his goal, Rooney’s composed and unerring finish, Messi’s Ronaldinho-esque footwork in the lead up to Villa’s strike, Xavi’s metronomic conducting of proceedings from the middle of the park. Tonight was one of those rare occasions in football where everything happens as it is meant to happen.