Spending hundreds of millions of euros on players provides no guaranty for success. Champions League glory continues to elude Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid and Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, correctly so. Their elimination courtesy of Olimpique Lyon and Internazionale Milano demonstrated that team unity, determination, tactical concentration and good chance are priceless. Sevilla was also surprisingly eliminated, while Fiorentina was edged out on goal differential by Bayern Munich. Manchester Utd, Arsenal and Barcelona coasted through with surprising ease, while Bordeaux left it late to seal its place in the last eight.
Real Madrid was flying so high when Lyon came into Madrid for the second leg of their tie that it would not have been surprising to see the match killed in the first half hour. Madrid had just taken the La Liga lead in dramatic fashion, overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the final half hour and winning against Sevilla on Rafael Van der Vaart’s injury time goal. With the confidence level sky high and visible hunger, Lyon seemed to be just an obstacle for a team that had unleashed its killer instinct in 2010. And it could have been at least 2-0 or 3-0 at halftime. But Real took only a 1-0 lead into the second half and then two things happened. Lyon, driven by a great performance from Marcelo Delgado, began pushing out and creating a few chances. When the goal came it was not against the run of play. Suddenly, with 15 minutes to salvage everything, the pressure fully on and the spaces closed, the two goal mountain was too steep to climb. It was Lyon that should have won the match, but for Lisandro Lopez’s silly waste near the end.
The Galacticos have returned to earth after this defeat. The only thing to play for now is La Liga, humbly and with undivided concentration. Teamwork was called into question within Real’s house, with some players pointing the finger at others for individualistic play, particularly Gonzalo Higuain, Madrid’s leading scorer. After spending so much on Cristiano, Benzema, Kaka, Xabi Alonso, etc., winning everything in play was expected. In the Lyon episode, Madrid got a perfect lesson in teamwork, determination and consistency over the two games.
Fiorentina’s exit from the Champions League is ever more painful since it was largely due to Bayern’s invalid goal in Munich. Arjen Robben struck again for Bayern, who sneaked into this stage of the competition of the final day of group stage and now has a good chance to go further. Fiorentina’s coach Prandelli prepared a great match and the plan could not have been implemented better. Up 2-0 and 3-1 on a miserably cold and windy night, it appeared that progress would be possible. Even after Robben’s goal, Fiorentina pressed and pressed against the wind, but their luck ran out. The Italians bowed out of the competition with their heads held high, while Bayern looks very dangerous at this stage.
Arsenal tormented a feeble Porto in a game marked by great performances by Arshavin, a creative genius, and Samir Nasri’s bombastic goal. But Porto really surprised in its limitations. The scoreline was harsher than reality, but still. Same can be said about Manchester United’s trouncing of a Milan side that seemed always a pace behind the play. Not much to comment here, Rooney put Berlusconi’s team out of its misery by continuing his sensational form. Barcelona fought hard to earn a first leg draw in Stuttgart, but the second time around the irrepressible Leo Messi settled matters with two more goals, after scoring three against Valencia a few days earlier. Barca’s beautiful game was on full display against Stuttgart. Everyone played well for the Catalans. Henry and Iniesta opened spaces wonderfully, while Messi is simply unstoppable at the moment, performing at another level. Stuttgart bowed out respectfully.
Inter’s win at Chelsea, previously analyzed, was a spectacular encounter that seemed like a 15-round boxing match. It was a physical affair with as much grabbing and fighting and pulling as the players could get away with. It was a match of shifting momenta, with Inter on the ropes in the first half before definitively taking control in the second half. Wesley Snejder’s performance was simply exceptional and it made the difference, while Lampard and Ballack did not provide enough. The subdued Chelsea crowd was often drowned out by the Inter traveling contingent in the last half hour of the match, which is saying a lot.
Not all of Roman Abramovich’s teams are out of the Champions league. CSKA Moscow produced a huge surprise, largely with the collaboration of the Sevilla goal-keeper Palop. Generally excellent, Palop misjudged a free kick taken by Japanese international Honda and allowed it to squeeze through early in the second half with the score tied 1-1 and the overall even. From there, the two goals necessary proved to be too great of a challenge. With Alvaro Negredo and Freddy Kanoute watching from the bench, Sevilla struggled to hit back and one of the most exciting teams in Europe is now free to concentrate on La Liga. CSKA will savour this glorious victory and play without pressure in the quarterfinals.
Finally, an emphatic Marouane Chamakh header near the end gave Bordeaux a deserved victory against a tough Olympiakos side that played its chances well. The Moroccan international rose high above a Greek defender, borderline committing an infraction, then heading in a floating cross with tremendous power. Surprisingly, two French teams are in the last eight, alongside two English teams and one each from Russia, Italy, Spain and Germany.