Lyon rolled on tonight to the Champions League quarterfinals, sending the final’s hosts Real Madrid crashing out in ugly fashion with a 1-1 draw (2-1 aggregate) while Manchester United cruised to an easy 4-0 win (7-2 agg) over an outclassed AC Milan side.
Miralem Pjanic scored Lyon’s winner to lead Olympique to another famous victory, while it was all Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford.
The question after tonight in Spain will be not if, but when manager Manuel Pellegrini is shown the exit. Despite a massive payroll and the presence of international stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, the result remains the same – Real Madrid has now failed to get past the knockout stage for seven seasons.
It’s not Pellegrini’s fault — after all, he didn’t miss a wide-open net as Gonzalo Higuain did, nor did he completely collapse after Lyon’s equalizer. But the lack of discipline in this Madrid side, sadly encapsulated in Raul’s late meltdown after a challenge, has to be called into account. A quarter of a billion dollars were spent on this side, and they still cannot get it done.
If that seems unfair to Lyon, well, it is. After all, Lyon has only exited the Champions League these past two seasons at the hands of the eventual winners. Bulwarked by Jeremy Toulalan, they do not concede easy goals and have the clarity and presence of mind to bull through allegedly tougher teams.
Perhaps after this display, Lyon will get the respect it deserves, for despite the glitter of a side like Real Madrid, it’s “little” Lyon that seems to know what it takes to win these big games.
What led Lyon to the aggregate win was patience. Real were clearly frustrated by their inability to crack Lyon’s back four and as the match wore on, and the French side seemed to grow in confidence.
Pjanic’s 75th minute goal — brilliantly set up by Delgado and Lisandro — was a left-footed shot that beat Iker Casillas cleanly. How big was it? It silenced an entire stadium and Real’s heads drooped in the quiet gloom of faiure. Their thoughts were easy to read: “Not again.”
Arguably, it shouldn’t have been this way. The truth is that Real were profligate, and cracked. For the homers started well and were unlucky not to come away with a three-goal lead at the break. Cristiano Ronaldo got them ahead only six minutes into the game, blasting home a left-footed shot through Hugo Lloris’ legs. The goal seemed to signal the start of a rout, with Guti serving up a fine ball out of the back to spring the former United man past Cris.
And yet, after watching a parade of near misses in the first half, Madrid fans seemed to sense that this might be another night of disappointment. For despite some rock-solid play at both ends of the pitch, Madrid missed two golden chances that should have sealed the game.
Most egregious was the chance flubbed by Higuain in the 25th minute. After the Argentine dribbled around Lloris to gain himself a shot on an open net, he instead found the near post, the rebound bouncing harmlessly back into the field of play. Lloris would redeem himself shortly thereafter, making an excellent stop on Higuain to keep the French club in the match.
Sergio Ramos was a key factor in the early going for Real, blunting the attacks of Cesar Delgado and Pjanic while Ezeqiuel Garay struggled against Sidney Govou. Running up and down the near sideline, Ramos was involved early and often, and was instrumental in disrupting much of Lyon’s midfield play. Opposite him, Alvaro Alberoa tried to draw Anthony Reveillere away from Lloris’ area to free up space for Ronaldo, but often found himself butting up against Govou and Pjanic.
But all the fine work early dissolved after the break when Madrid failed to come out and press the advantage, allowing Lyon to absorb, counter, and ultimately frustrate.
There was a big banner that read: "Welcome Home Becks." It was a rude welcome, for Old Trafford is now Wayne Rooney’s house.
The striker who regularly terrorizes PL defenders needed under the quarter-hour to make certain Manchester United would march on Wednesday night leaving only one question unanswered: what exactly was it that AC Milan defenders had been practicing the past three weeks?
Rooney had scored twice on headers in the first leg as the Red Devils worked for their 3-2 first leg lead so one can only wonder what the boss, Leonardo, was thinking when the little man so easily beat Daniele Bonera to a Gary Neville feed in the 13th minute. With all kinds of options available, Rooney decided he’d nod down to the keeper’s right-hand post, leaving Abbiati no chance to keep his team in the tie.
Two minutes into the second half Rooney did it again, piercing the central defense with a run that met a clever cross from Nani. He was again flattered by the choices in front of him, so this time he side-footed one past the unfortunate Milan ‘keeper.
Game, set and match to United before 50 minutes of the second leg had been played.
Rooney had a seat on the bench with 25 minutes remaining, Ji-Sung Park having made it 3-0 by then and Sir Alex Ferguson clearly thinking about Prem challenges ahead. Captain Neville joined Rooney in getting an early rest on what turned out to be just another easy night for the Red Devils’ express.
The final Fletcher header against a tired, stretched Milan did not actually flatter United. A 4-0 win, 7-2 on aggregate might not have looked possible when Milan played well in the first leg, but Wednesday they were ultimately outclassed.
Not that Milan didn’t make an effort. Ronaldinho and Mathieu Flamini showed early and Pirlo tested Edwin Van der Sar, but it was all so predictable. The visitors were given time and space on the ball only because United seemed to know it could go forward at speed whenever needed. It was another case of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side showing the character and versatility that makes them favorites to arrive in Spain next May 22.
For the record, Beckham didn’t start, but appeared as a 63rd-minute sub. He got an ovation and even brought a good save out of Van der Sar, but this was a night when Rooney once again showed how he has become Europe’s most dangerous attacker.
Having adjusted to life without Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney now seems completely at home at the top of an attacking line that feasts on the balls that continually come through from United’s tireless midfield runners. It’s almost a case of him saying "send it through and I’ll find it" – under such threat Milan could never look confident when they tried to build from the back.
United will go into the quarterfinal draw as the side no one will want to meet. This AC Milan side won’t be remembered among the greats who have worn the red-and-black, but they are more than merely workmanlike. It was to Manchester United’s credit that this tie was ultimately so comprehensively won.
And give the Italians credit for arriving in style, dressed for the occasion.
Black, after all, is the color for funerals.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.