A “dream” semi-final was setup yesterday when both Manchester United and Barcelona advanced to the semi-finals on the back of 1-0 home wins. Much has been made of the fact that United fielded a “B” team last night as Sir Alex Ferguson gave Cristiano Ronaldo the evening off and restricted Wayne Rooney to a 16-minute cameo. Patrice Evra was also absent as Mikael Silvestre was given a start at left-back after seven months out through injury. Owen Hargreaves gave his usual high-energy performance and his strong running and accurate cross led to Carlos Tevez putting away a nice diving header to seal the tie for United.
The turning point in the second leg came in the 30th minute when United defender Wes Brown was called for a foul inside his own penalty area resulting in a Roma penalty kick. Daniele De Rossi ballooned the penalty kick high over the crossbar and with it Roma’s chances went sailing off as well.
Barcelona were less impressive in making their way to the semis. In their second-leg match, Barca were put under severe pressure in the opening half hour and should have scored but Schalke were undone just before halftime as the Catalans were gifted a goal after a series of mishaps in the German side’s defence. Yaya Toure scored his first ever Champions League goal when he scuffed the ball in from close range in the 43rd minute after a Bojan Krkic cross from the right had ballooned off the foot of a defender and was then headed off the line. That goal seemed to steady the Barca ship and they saw the rest of the match out content to sit on their 2 goal lead.
Looking ahead, many view this as a “dream” semi-final as both Barcelona and Manchester United are well known for their adherence to an attacking style of game. However, this year’s edition of the Barca side are not being driven along by the samba beat and genius of Ronaldinho and we have not seen Barca impose their tempo and style on their opponents. Conversely, Manchester United has only looked the slightest bit shaky against Olympique Lyonnais but even then managed to cruise through by a 2-0 margin. Their only dropped points during the group stage were in a 1-1 draw with their eventual quarter-final opponents Roma.
The way the two squads have performed and considering the depth of the United bench at the moment, I’d have to say the early betting is likely to favour the Red Devils. However, there are just over two weeks before the first leg kicks off and I am not going to attempt any predictions at the moment.
Injuries and suspensions always play a part and looking at that area, though I’ll be doing a full preview closer to the Matchday, Barca will have to manage without defender Carles Puyol for the first leg against United after he picked up a booking for a foul on Gerald Asamoah but they hope to have the electric pace and trickery or Lionel Messi back in the lineup. United expect to have key defender Nejmana Vidic back in time for the first leg but it is still a bit early to know for certain.
In the days to come, we’ll be examining in more detail the current hot topic of the English Premier League dominance in the Champions League as well as profiling some of the key players involved in the semi-final matchups.