English domination in Europe snuffed out

The Premier League may be the best league on the planet, but tonight that will come as cold comfort – England’s best are out of the Champions League. 

For the first time since 2003-04, an English club will not compete in the finals.

Following on the heels of Arsenal yesterday at the hands of Lionel Messi and Barcelona, Manchester United was ousted by Bayern Munich despite winning 3-2 at Old Trafford. The Germans advanced on their two away goals following a 4-4 aggregate draw, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to complete an amazing turn of fortune.

Arjen Robben scored the critical goal in the 74th minute in magnificent fashion, with a left-footed full volley off a corner kick by Franck Ribery.

Bayern will be competing in their first semifinals in nine years against French side Lyon, which edged Bordeaux 3-2 on aggregate after a 1-0 loss at Stade Chlaban-Delmas.

With these results, the semifinal round of the Champions League is set. Barcelona will meet Inter Milan in the other pairing in two weeks time, as the road to May’s final at the Bernabeu in Spain no longer passes through England.

Sir Alex Ferguson took a big gamble tonight, starting an injured Wayne Rooney in a contest that United needed to win. And for 45 blistering minutes, the gamble seemed to pay off.

In a dynamic Old Trafford first half, four goals were scored, United seizing what was to prove a quite ephemeral advantage. The second half saw all that crumble, with the 50th minute ejection of young defender Rafael the moment many will see as the turning point in what will go down as a memorable Champions League match.

Others will argue that the slack final minute of the first half, when United defended so badly that Ivica Olic was able to poach a life-saving Bayern goal is really the moment that things started to unravel.

Yet Rafael’s second card surely tilted a delicate balance, for had United been able to see out the game with a full complement, things might well have been different.

Bayern were unable to deal with United’s 4-3-3 as Michael Carrick, Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher pressed constantly, relieving the Germans of possession early and often. Early on Rafael and Namanja Vidic marked Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, respectively, out of the game, forcing Thomas Mueller and Bastian Schweinsteiger to handle much more of the ball, to ill-effect.

But Rafael’s needless challenge on Ribery five minutes into the second half saw ref Nicola Rizzoli give him his second yellow. United fans were furious with Ribery, who gestured wildly to the ref to give the card, but there is no doubt that it was not only a foul, but a foolish one at that.

Without the 19-year-old hanging all over him, Ribery was liberated, and began to carve up United, ultimately winning the corner kick that would deliver the opportunity for Robben’s remarkable strike.

The decision to play Rooney had paid off immediately when Gibson gave United a shock lead only three minutes in. He latched on to a Rooney through ball and blasted a right-footed shot past ‘keeper Hans-Joerg Butt. Butt should have saved the strike, but didn’t appear to decide whether to watch Rooney for a return ball or keep his eye on the shooter.

Four minutes later, United doubled their advantage, and in spectacular fashion. Valencia, given far too much space by Holger Badstuber, whipped a ball into Nani, inexplicably left alone by three defenders. Peeling between Daniel van Buyten and Philipp Lahm, Nani back-heeled the ball, back to goal, into the far corner, well-beating Butt on the stretch. Once again, one might ask whether the presence of Rooney had something to with Bayern’s failure to mark the scorer.

Rafael should have made it 3-0 in the 35th when he blitzed the Bayern area alone, only to miss the net. Valencia would exploited Badstuber again in the 41st, taking a throw-in from Rafael deep, then crossing to a waiting Nani alone at the top of the box. It was 3-0 United, and it seemed the homers were on cruise control.

Perhaps they were, for that lackadaisical play just two minutes later would ultimately cost United dearly. With only their second legitimate attack of the game a Bayern cross-field ball from Schweinsteiger was headed on by Thomas Mueller to Ivica Olic, who beat Carrick badly to get a tightly-angled shot off on Edwin van der Sar.

Rooney, who had been kicked twice on his weak ankle, was forced out in the 55th minute, with John O’Shea replacing him. Without Rooney, United lost much of their bite, and were forced into absorbing and countering. Van der Sar made a series of heroic saves, including stopping one rocket from Ribery, while at the other end, Nani continued to test Butt, coming closest just past the hour mark when he nearly beat the keeper from close range.

The winner, however, was coming for Bayern, and it was delivered by the same man who had saved his team in the previous round against Fiorentina. Off a high, hanging corner from Ribery, Robben pounded the ball out of the air with a ferocious left-footed volley that cleanly beat van der Sar at the far post.

It was a goal for the highlight reels, and despite the introductions of Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov, Sir Alex had no further response.

He will, however, be asked both to defend his decision to risk Rooney and why, with a game so clearly under their control, his polished team could not maintain its composure.

It was a far limper affair in France, where it took much of the first half for the Girondins to get the goal which brought the second leg to life. Unable to apply real pressure early, Bordeaux finally began to make an impression when they stretched the Lyon eight-man cordon out wide and began to ask questions of the reliable Cris in the middle.

Alou Diarra, whose first game absence because of suspension had been a problem for Bordeaux, nearly got the break-through in the 44th minute when he struck the crossbar with a long-range attempt that beat Hugo Lloris, but not the woodwork.

That was a signal, however, that the Bordeaux ability to bring defenders forward in the inside channels was causing real problems for the visitors. And a minute later it cost Lyon a goal.

The move began on the left touchline with Jussie taking on, then beating his marker. After turning the corner, he slid a pass into the path of Benoit Tremoulinas, who played it on into the center. Jarolslav Plasil seemed to just nudge it forward before Marouane Chamakh popped up to provide the finish that sent his team into the break at 1-0.

The goal was no more than Bordeaux deserved. Lyon had made some attacking gestures, but Batefembi Gomis — in for the suspended Lisandro – did not have the necessary support to be really troublesome in the first 45. They did not buckle after the interval, however, electing to take more of the game into the Bordeaux end rather than try to defend what the held. It was a move that paid full dividends.

The problem for Bordeaux was that its midfield could not grip the game. The long, dribbling runs from deep positions faced a stack of retreating defenders which kept crosses to a minimum and blanketed the top of the home attack. When the few chances came, Bordeaux could not collect.

Lyon’s Hugo Lloris made the necessary save of the night when he got two hands behind a powerful Wendel header that would have gone under the bar. He was not required to that active on the night, but earned his paycheck at that moment.

It is Lyon’s first semifinal appearance, proof that the team from Eastern France which has been a dominant force at home for nearly a decade has now taken the next, important step toward being included among the European elite.

They’ll have Lisandro back for the semifinals to add his power and precision to their approach. The rest of the pieces of a very solid side were on display this evening and they completed their task with just a little bit of bravado in the end.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.