Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Champions League: Manchester United, Barcelona Brace for Semifinal Clash

The English papers are aglow this morning with the possibilities of an all-England Champions League final. Manchester United hosts Barcelona today with the ghosts of last week's penalty miss in Spain still haunting United. Cristiano Ronaldo has promised to atone, but United need look only as far as Liverpool and John Arne Riise to see how quickly it can all slip away.

Sir Alex Ferguson is steadfast that United has not hit a late-season wall, especially in the wake of the team's loss at Chelsea on Saturday. The setback put United and Chelsea level on points in the Premiership, and cast the very real possibility that United could come away sans silverware this season.

Sir Alex pontificates in the Times of London:
“No, I'm not concerned the season is beginning to affect the team. We should be sitting here now as champions of this league. Decisions have gone against us, bad decisions. But when we started out in the league in August, our goal was to win it. We signed up to play 38 league matches and we are going to play 38 league matches. And if it means we have to win the last two games to win the league, then so be it.

“Where we are now is, with two games left - it doesn't matter if we've had 50 penalty kicks turned down or 50 given to us, or terrible performances or great performances. We are sitting here with two league games left: a home game against West Ham on Saturday and a game against Wigan away, as well as a semi-final against Barcelona. Disaster!”
Ferguson clearly wants the big-eared cup, and proved it on Saturday by sitting Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, Patrice Evra and Paul Scholes against the Blues. Will his arrogance catch up to him. Clearly, West Ham and Wigan don't scare Ferguson, who was willing to sacrifice at least two points to Chelsea on Saturday; it's doubtful a loss was on his drawing board.

Barcelona, meanwhile, has to rue its slate of missed opportunities at home last week against United. Going into impenetrable Old Trafford and securing such an important result is a tall order. Manager Frank Rijkaard, many believe, is a dead-man-walking. Yet, he is resolute that his team impose its will on United and reach the final, the second of his tenure.
"Against Manchester United we have to play strong. To defend is not the correct course of action in this case. We have to play with aggression and put them under pressure."
I'm not buying it. I think the first 15 minutes should be amazing to watch. The longer Barca stays in the game, the tighter the noose gets on United. Barca isn't expected to win, and the away goal is most precious--and it's theirs to get. Not being a supporter of either side, I'm rooting for the bigger storyline here, the better game, and that's clearly a Manchester United-Liverpool final. Right now, those are the two underdogs, yet each has something in its favor: United being at home, Liverpool chasing an away goal.

Football and sport is fascinating for these types of scenarios. It's something to cherish.

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