Chelsea have vengeance in mind for CL clash against Man United
The Champions League quarterfinals roll on today with an all-England clash at Stamford Bridge, and the consensus world’s-best club hosting the Ukrainian upstarts. Every Champions league match is presented in HD across the Fox family of networks.
CHELSEA vs. MANCHESTER UNITED (2.30PM EDT: Fox Soccer)
Arguably, whichever team survives this tie can make it to the finals at Wembley. Neither has been playing world-class football, but both have to feel they make a strong claim in a true toss-up quarterfinal.
Manchester United have shown that even when they cannot summon up their best football, they still have the hearts of champions. On the weekend, Wayne Rooney answered his critics with a team-saving hat-trick to down a very stubborn West Ham side and put the Red Devils firmly in the driver’s seat for another Premier League title. It was an audacious performance - spoiled by Rooney’s foul-mouthed tirade at a TV camera that is going to earn him a two-game ban - and reflective of how this bunch continues to ride its experience when the legs fail.
Chicharito has been a revelation, perhaps finally burying the saw about Mexicans being unable to play at the highest levels of the game in the process. Dimitar Berbatov is enduring a fallow spell, but it was his invention that carried the team to where they are now. Nani’s petulance may be wearing thin, but there’s no questioning his crosses or his ability. And there’s not enough that can be said about the importance of Nemanja Vidic, who has to be considered the defender of the year; nor the still magic Edwin van der Sar in the nets.
The best thing about United is that they can win all sorts of contests. Rough them up, and they just shove you back. Try to outpass them, and they clog up the lanes. Get in a run-and-gun game with this lot and you find out quickly that their counter is deadlier. What they lack at present is a completely healthy team; Rio Ferdinand is battling to return from a calf injury; Rafael has shown rashness and brilliance in equal measure but has a hamstring problem; Darren Fletcher and John O’Shea are unlikely to play. But getting Park Ji-Sung back is massive; Antonio Valencia offers them speed and width.
Chelsea are finally coming back to life after a deep slump and some hasty - perhaps even ill-advised - January transfer moves. Fernando Torres has yet to score in a blue shirt and clearly unsettled fellow striker Didier Drogba, who finally broke his own barren spell in the weekend’s 1-1 draw with Stoke. That result likely ended Chelsea’s already long-shot bid to retain the Premier League crown and manager Carlo Ancelloti may still be shown the exit after the club’s worst season since 2003-04.
However, things are vastly improved from just six weeks ago when the Blues looked as if they might fall out of European contention altogether and were getting beaten by the likes of Wolverhampton. What turned it around? A big win on March 1st over United, sparked by a man who is ineligible (cup-tied) for Wednesday night’s match, David Luiz.
Chelsea have the advantage of playing at home and the motivation to boot: they are looking to avenge their defeat in the 2008 final in a penalty shoot-out. Key for them is the performance of Bransilav Ivanovic, who will get the thankless job of guarding Rooney. Ivanovic has been on the outs since Luiz’ arrival, so the Serb has a lot to prove on the night. Chelsea have no new major injury concerns: Michael Essien has looked exhausted, but John Terry has rebounded after a very poor start to the season. Common sense says that Drogba has to get the run out ahead of the punchless Torres; Nicolas Anelka is likely to pair alongside with Ramires and Florent Malouda behind.
BARCELONA vs. SHAKHTAR DONETSK (2.30PM EDT: Fox Soccer Plus)
On paper, this is an epic mismatch: one of the best clubs of the decade - perhaps ever - against a Ukrainian side stocked with Brazilian imports.
Barcelona has the best midfield in the game and two of the most fearsome attackers. They are solid on defense, rarely make mistakes, and at their most exquisite, don’t even let their opponents touch the ball. They can slice you apart, they can wear you down, and they can change their shape and tactics on the fly.
Much ink has been spilled about why this is, and a great deal of credit does have to go to the invention of Lionel Messi. The reigning world player of the year rarely suffers a bad day and never takes a play off. Perhaps stung by accusations that other members of the Barcelona squad - Xavi or Andres Iniesta - deserved the accolades more, he has turned up the dial on what was already a legendary game, scoring seemingly at will.
That’s not to downplay the contributions of the visionary Iniesta, a man who can kick a soccer ball through a porthole from a pier; or of Xavi, who provides so many options that at times he seems to be in three places at once. It’s just that the numbers don’t lie: Messi has found the net 45 times for Barcelona already this season, is tied atop La Liga’s golden boot race with Cristiano Ronaldo at 27, and has a good chance of scoring an unheard of 60 goals for his club this season.
The only nagging concern for Barcelona might be that the grind is finally catching up with them. David Villa has been a bit off form, going six games without scoring, and Messi is in what, for him, passes for a slump - he’s scoreless in three matches. Against a Shakhtar team that can go forward but looks tragic at the back, the Spaniards should be able to take a comfy lead to the second leg at Donbass Arena. Barcelona will be missing Carlos Puyol (knee) and Eric Abidal (liver tumor surgery) but otherwise have no major concerns.
The Ukrainians are not pushovers, however. They are unbeaten at home since they opened up Donbass and gave Roma a real lesson in the knockout stage of 16, emasculating the Italians 6-2. Former Arsenal man Eduardo has been deadly for them, pairing with Luiz Adriano in the heart of the field and running off Douglas Costa and Jadson. Willian is a Chelsea target, and it’s easy to see why: the young Brazilian’s double led Shakhtar to the quarters and his skilled passing and off-the-ball movement signals that he may be the next star striker.
But Shakhtar relies too much on a combo of young defenders and creaky oldsters - fine for the Ukrainian league; not so much against the most fluid team on the planet. Expect 'keeper Andiry Pyatov to get a real peppering as Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Dmitro Chygrynskiy are pulled across the field.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.