We now know the first of the teams to go in to the hat for the quarter final draw of this year’s UEFA Champions League. With a surprise included, and another possible, as well as a feast of goals and one player scoring 5 goals in a match, we have our main talking points. Let’s get started.
Arsenal, 3-AC Milan, 0.
Arsenal faced the second leg of their difficult tie, especially after what happened in Milan, with a message of hope. They knew it was almost impossible but clung to possibility of an heroic comeback. They began with a 1-4-2-3-1 system with the defensive line always high and with Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield, where he has played in the youth teams and it is a position he played well. At this point it is hard to know if it was Milan being too relaxed or on the other hand whether it was Arsenal imposing their rhythm on the game that was the key to the first half. Or both equally having an effect. What is certain is that the Gunners had control of the ball, had good build up play and above all were direct in their attacking. Starting with the goalkeeper and finishing with the striker, they had good tempo as we said.
Rosicky, possibly man of the match, had a great first half between lines and the half-time score (3-0) was a wake-up call for the Italians who, could see the tie slipping away after having it in the bag after the first leg in Milan.
Arsenal were first to everything and went past Milan’s players who even had problems dropping off quickly when they lost the ball which happened a lot.
In the second half, Arsenal dropped their frenetic tempo. Or maybe they could not maintain it or Milan simply raised theirs. What is certain is that the away team had more control of the game and were more dangerous especially in counter attacks.
If Van Persie hadn’t found Abbiati getting his hand in the way when he tried to take advantage of a loose ball in the 6 yard box to make it 4-0, I’m sure that we would have seen a diiferent outcome and an heroic night for the Londoners. But you could argue the same thing or something similar for Milan if Nocerino had taken advantage of an excellent cross from the right by Aquilani which found him with only the goalie to beat but which he incredibly put straight at Szczesny.
As for Milan, with a system of 1-4-3-1-2, they knew that a goal for them would finish the tie and relied on their forwards to get it. But over-confidence put them in a difficult situation in the 43rd minute of the first half when Van Persie put away a penalty making it 3-0 with the whole of the second half to go and a more than worrying prospect for the Italians. In the first half, as we said, they neither defended well nor passed well nor exploited the space behind a high Arsenal defence. They realised their problems and reacted in the second half, coming out on the counter attack better, with more movement behind the Londoners defence and with more of a threat when they had the ball. In the end, they went through with a sigh of relief but they are there and if they can get the injured players back, they will always be a team with the potential to beat anyone.
Benfica, 2-Zenit St Petersburg, 0.
Benfica had a shape of 1-4-4-2 for their return leg with the Russian team, changing in the second half to 1-4-2-3-1. Although they didn’t have a lot of possession (45%) they did have control of the game. What stood out was the work rate to balance the team by their centre midfield, Javi Garcia and Witsel, both covering well and in the latter’s case especially, his decisions to join in the attack. They also had generally a good tempo and good pace coming out with the ball. The players of the second line (Bruno Cesar, Gaitan, Witsel…) joined well from deep. They wanted to penetrate wide, especially on the right with Bruno Cesar who is left footed.
As for Zenit St Petersburg they began with 1-4-5-1. They tried quick attacking with good movement in counter attacks, yet even though they had more possession they didn’t control the game. Their players weren’t co-ordinated in defence, especially in the wide areas, and at times there was too much of a gap between lines. Finally they could not react quick enough at the end when they most needed it.
Barcelona, 7-Bayer Leverkusen, 1.
Barca started with their usual system (1-4-3-3) and the interchange of positions of their forwards: Messi, Pedro, Fabregas and Iniesta. Also as usual, they had most of the possession (up to 68%), and as you would expect with Leverkusen compact and trying to counter if possible, Pep Guardiola’s side moved the ball patiently looking for the gaps and gradually creating chances. However, the way Leverkusen were playing (more of this later) and Messi’s flair for grabbing the headlines, gave us a game with an individual record for the man from Rosario in the number of goals scored in a Champions League match (5). In addition, 2 goals from Tello on his debut and a good consolation goal from Bellarabi for Leverkusen in the last minute finished off the scoring.
Just when it looked like Barcelona were finding it difficult to break down the Germans, a quick counter attack, with a ball behind the high defence of Bayer, allowed Messi to lift the ball over the goalkeeper to make it 1-0. With the first leg score of 1-3 and Leverkusen’s lack of belief, we had a clear favourite in the match.
Barcelona kept up their possession game moving the ball from one side to the other and looking for the final pass. However, the second goal came from another regain and counter attack. The away defence tried to reorganise quickly but Messi, between the lines and under no pressure, came inside and shot low to the right of the goalkeeper for his second goal.
The third one was much like the first. Not just because Messi scored it but because it was another ball behind the defence and again the Argentinian lobbed the keeper who was coming out.
The demoralised German defence committed more errors than normal and Tello scored twice rounding off Messi’s performance, taking advantage of a ball left by the goalkeeper and getting the fifth of the night with a shot from outside the box again to the keeper’s right.
To sum up, a good tempo to the game and Barcelona superiority in both legs with their usual style based on possession. Nothing new there.
As for Leverkusen, they began with a 1-4-4-2, organised and disciplined, and later tried to change things as they tried to weather the storm. From the start, their game plan was to play direct and look for the second ball, trying to use set pieces and pressing to stop Barcelona playing out. At first it looked as though they could manage this but they seemed to have little belief. When Barcelona avoided the pressing, the defence was high and leaving spaces, allowing Barcelona to counter attack which they used thanks to an inspired Messi.
Choosing to play Bender and Renato Augusto wide and not in their normal positions showed the respect Bayer had for Barca even before the start of the game and this hindered their build up in wide areas.
As we said, Bellarabi’s excellent goal at the end salvaged some pride for the Germans.
Apoel Nicosia, 1-Olympique Lyon, 0.
If Apoel fans were delighted to be in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, it easy to imagine how they feel now after their historic two matches against Olympique Lyon. You could see from the start the crowd’s role, their support of the team never stopping encouraging them throughout the game and extra time. With this atmosphere, the Cypriot team ran a lot, and I mean a lot, and this is what took them through to make history. It would be unfair though to only concentrate on this simplistic analysis of their passion. So, we should look more closely at what they did well on all levels, which was a lot over the 120 minutes of the match.
The home team were dropping off to the edge of their area and defending with a lot of players behind the ball. Always helping each other and always with intensity. Their players were fighting for 50-50 balls, and normally won them, coming out on the counter quickly, sometimes, it must be said, without much precision in their passing. But they always had determination, and that is what is important with clear ideas of what they had to do. If Ailton had been more clinical in the final third, they would have scored on several occasions when they had equal numbers or even superiority against the French defenders. They tie would have been over sooner.
Their other chances to score were at set plays, the most significant of which was a header against his own crossbar by Lyon’s Cissokho from a wide free kick.
When they had the ball, they also showed some quality, although they are more comfortable on the counter attack. But generally they worked hard as a team with belief and clear ideas. They applied themselves in defence with intensity, support, regains and looking for the strikers running behind the full backs and quickly supporting them to take advantage of these counter attacks. When they had to defend deep, they did it with patiently and marked effectively.
Then came extra time and in the penalti shoot out, Chiotis, their goalkeeper, who had already shown his carácter during the game, put his team in the next round with a couple of saves and unleashed more madness from the fans who had supported them from the start.
As for Olympique Lyon, they knew how hard the task was and even more so when Manduca levelled the tie on 9 minutes with an early goal. However, they gave you the feeling that they were confident they would score and go on to win, but it didn’t work out like that. Gomis started on the bench with Lisandro forward, and although they had more possession, they were never comfortable in the game. They did not have many chances. A good cross from the left finished with a header over the bar in the first half, a header by Lisandro in the 71st minute, a shot from distance by Gomis later on but not much else. But in general you felt they could not impose themselves on opponents who fought for every ball, all over the pitch, as though it was the last game of their lives. When they really pressed, they had a couple of dangerous chances but the Cypriot team defended to the last to prevent a goal and they managed it.
Gomis came off the bench top lay initially behind Lisandro and later as the striker, but it wasn’t enough to improve things against a concentrated defence who, as I said, constantly helped each other whenever there was danger.
A good refereeing performance by the Spanish referee Undiano Mallenco who, in a game of such intensity and challenges, made a lot of correct decisions and that wasn’t easy to do in some circumstances. Penalties took Apoel through and started the fans partying. Congratulations to Apoel for the hard work it has taken to get through and we wish you success. Football throws up epics now and again to make it even more appealing.