La Liga in the Champions League: Sevilla Stumbles While Barcelona Bedazzles

A forlorn Manolo Jiménez rues his side's inability to capture the moment against CSKA Moskva.

With the advantage of the away goal, Sevilla looked in prime position to advance to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League.  Unfortunately, Manolo Jiménez’s team played as though they were already in the next round.  A 0-0 score line would have sent Sevilla through, and even though Diego Perotti declared that they could not be confident in their advantage or rely on the fact that they were playing at home, there was little impetus from Los Nervionenses in their attack.

CSKA Moskva also played this cat-and-mouse game, knowing that they did not need to push forward and leave themselves open to a swift counter-attack.  When Tomáš Necid scored in the 39th minute from a seemingly harmless throw-in deep in the Sevilla half, Sevilla woke up from their slumber and immediately responded with a goal of their own two minutes later.

The CSKA defense allowed a long ball from an Andrés Palop free kick to bounce near the penalty area, and Jesús Navas capitalized on this good fortune by gathering the ball and squaring the ball to Diego Perotti, who coolly finished with aplomb from seven yards to equalize at 1-1.

Jiménez substituted Diego Capel to start the second half in favor of Frédéric Kanouté to have another out-and-out striker with Luís Fabiano, but play reverted to the opening thirty-eight minutes of the match.  Sevilla went into hibernation again, and it cost them in the 55th minute, when Palop palmed Keisuke Honda’s free kick into his own net.  Although Honda fiercely struck the ball, Palop got himself into perfect position to catch it or deflect it away.  Palop rightly decided to push the ball away instead of attempting to snatch it in the air, but he somehow managed to deflect it into his own goal in one of the worst blunders in this year’s Champions League.

Galvanization did not repeat itself after Sevilla fell behind a second time, and they timidly fell out of the competition 1-2 in the match and 2-3 on aggregate.  The ineffective performances ran rampant across the Sevilla squad.  Renato failed to muster any extended possession in midfield, Luís Fabiano became a ghost as he could not be seen through most of the match, and Andrés Palop made the mistake that forced Sevilla to score twice without conceding in the final thirty-five minutes.

It would be easy to say that without Palop’s error, the match would have gone into extra time, but with all of these “what if” scenarios, any single event in a football match is not mutually exclusive.  Assuming that the rest of the match would have gone as it ended up without CSKA’s second goal would be fallacious.  CSKA had the slight upper hand throughout the match, and they were the more likely team to score anyway, whether it occurred with a goalkeeping error or by CSKA’s own brilliant play.

Sevilla deserved to be knocked out of the Champions League, and they face a fight from multiple angles to qualify for the Champions League next year.  Deportivo La Coruña, Mallorca, and Athletic Bilbao are all within three points of Sevilla for the fourth Champions League spot, and while these teams do not possess the talent and the European experience like Sevilla, the Andalucians cannot take for granted that they will finish in the top four.  If they finish the La Liga season in the same nonchalant fashion and attitude as they played against CSKA, the Europa League beckons.

The "Best Player in the World" debate should be tabled for the time being.

Someone forgot to tell Stuttgart that there was a crucial Champions League match this evening.  As confident and daring as they were at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in the first leg, Die Roten were timid and meek at the Camp Nou.  Obviously needing at least one goal in order to have any legitimate chance of brushing the defending champions away, they only had two shots all night, and neither of those shots were on target.

The match, however, told more about Barcelona’s dominance than Stuttgart’s quiescence.  Pep Guardiola made the bold move of leaving Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench in favor of Thierry Henry, a man who has only scored three goals in La Liga and has found it difficult to break into the starting eleven.  His revealing performance in the second half against Valencia on Sunday gave Guardiola the confidence to employ him as the central striker against Stuttgart.

A thigh injury ruled Xavi Hernández out of the Stuttgart match, and with Seydou Keita not fully fit to start, Touré Yaya became the choice for Guardiola, although there was little alternative.  Mainly used as a defensive midfielder, he patrolled the left side of midfield as though he were a tricky winger.  Numerous counter-attacks saw him bomb down the left flank with astonishing ease, and he directly contributed to Pedro Rodríguez’s opening goal with an unselfish squared ball across the penalty area that he could have easily shot himself.  Another player that has been stuck on the substitutes’ bench for most of the year, Guardiola shows the ability to inspire even the most disgruntled of players.

Then there is that man again.  Without waxing poetic to the point of veneration, Lionel Messi continues to befuddle the opposition while involving his teammates in many of the attacks in which he is involved.  Lately, due to the inconsistencies of Ibrahimovic, Pedro, and Henry, Messi had to shoulder more of the scoring load, and he looks to take a crack at goal more often than at any other time in his career.

Messi always possessed the skill and the guile to be one of the best players in the world, but in the last couple of seasons and especially in the last few months, his clinical finishing ascended to world-class level.  When Messi scored the first goal in the 14th minute, the Stuttgart defense decided to back off him instead of closing down his space in fear that he would make one move and slice them in half.  With this clearing, Messi popped a top left corner laser that Jens Lehmann had no chance of saving, and the rout commenced.

On Barça’s second goal, Messi played the provider, as he floated a ball over the top of the Stuttgart defense to Touré Yaya, and he squared the ball to Pedro, who delivered it into the back of the net.  Messi would score another goal in tandem with Dani Alves later in the match, but the damage was done, and Barcelona marched on into the quarterfinals, where no one would want to draw them on Friday afternoon, when the matchups for the rest of the competition will be sorted out.

Bordeaux’s talisman Yoann Gourcuff already declared that his team would like to face anyone but Barcelona in the quarterfinals, and every other team left might have this same request.  Now that Olympique Lyonnais eliminated Real Madrid and CSKA Moskva bounced Sevilla from the Champions League, Barcelona represents the only Spanish team remaining in the competition, and they are peaking at the right time of the season.  They wrote this script last campaign, and they won the treble.  Why deviate now?

My nieces, in blue, combining to nullify the opposition attack.

Apologies to those who expected the usual Monday column that recaps the latest round in La Liga.  I did not watch a single La Liga match this past weekend because I attended my twin nieces’ soccer tournament.  Although classified as U-9, their team played in the U-10 group, and they won the championship, proudly accepting the winners’ medals with an everlasting gleam in their wondrous eyes.

The older U-10 team that my nieces’ team faced held a 2-1 lead with seconds remaining, but a late equalizer forced extra time.  After two scoreless periods in extra time, both of these teams would encounter the cruel ending that is penalty kicks for the first time in their lives.

My precocious nieces feel the nervousness when they perform penalties on FIFA 09, and now, they were selected to be two of the penalty takers in the shootout.  They invoked the power of prayer as a vehicle for their jangling nerves while they watched their teammates take their penalties and awaited their own.  They both made their penalties, but after each team took their five penalties, both teams were still tied.  The sixth penalty proved pivotal as my nieces’ team converted their penalty and the opposition missed theirs.  Even at such a young age, the famous Jim McKay line “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” felt appropriate because while my nieces’ team celebrated, their opposition could not hold back their tears.

The most telling difference between watching professionals in various European leagues and watching children in this U-10 tournament was the willingness of the children to adapt to their surroundings versus the paid football players.  A torrent of rain surged through the city hosting this tournament the night before the competition started, and when my nieces’ first match kicked off at 12:30 PM the next day, they trudged through a mushy pitch that bore little grass with which to begin because the last vestiges of winter still reigned even though spring temperatures had sprung up sporadically.

Bad bounces, balls halting to a complete stop while dribbling, and frequent slips that these children endured would discourage many professionals.  The chronic carping and lamenting of the surface would have been endless from the professionals, but the children continued to play their football as though the pitch compared to the old Wembley Stadium.

Covering professionals for a living can jade the most optimistic of journalists, but if they need a break from the constant petulance and complaining of grown men who earn millions of Euros, attend a match or competition involving young children.  They just want to play.  Although you get the occasional parent who goes overboard, the purity of the sport lies here in these children.

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