United, Barcelona through to semis
Manchester United and Barcelona sauntered into the semifinals of the Champions League tonight with convincing wins against Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk. Both teams await the winners of tomorrow's matches, but United are expected to face Schalke, who hold a 5-2 lead and five away goals on defending champions Inter Milan; while Barcelona seem set to face arch rivals Real Madrid, who carry a 4-0 lead into Tottenham.
Love 'em or hate 'em, Manchester United deserve to be respected after yet another clinical performance that saw them see off Chelsea at Old Trafford 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate.) Goals for Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Park Ji-Sung carried the Red Devils past a visiting side that looked superior for long stretches of the match, but at the end fell victim to the poaching and counterattacks that have made United so hard to beat.
Coming out with a modified 4-3-3 that deployed Frank Lampard in front of Florent Malouda, with Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres matched as strike partners, Chelsea gambled that they could replicate the success they enjoyed against United in the league last month. Indeed, for much of the first half hour, Chelsea were by far the more incisive side. United keeper Edwin van der Sar was forced into making a series of critical stops including one wild play that saw the Dutch keeper come out of his area and tackle the ball away from Anelka.
The fire served as camouflage: Only Lampard was able to get a shot on frame, and while both Torres and Anelka saw near misses, Chelsea faded badly as time wore on, perhaps weighed down by that "obsession" that Sir Alex Ferguson had taunted the club about.
United's breakthrough was almost stereotypical for a club that has spent a great deal of this season playing rope-a-dope. With two minutes left in the first half, Chelsea failed to completely clear a free kick, allowing John O'Shea to settle the ball and spy Ryan Giggs shaking free of Anelka on the right flank. Giggs, who has now recorded assists on each of the club's last four Champions League goals, darted to the area and punched a hard shot across the face of Petr Cech's goal. Chicharito couldn't miss.
After the break, manager Carlo Ancelotti finally pulled Torres's plug, dispatching the January acquisition in favor of the man who should have started the game: Didier Drogba. The muscular Ivorian gave Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic trouble right off the bat, but he wouldn't have a full impact on the game until all seemed lost for the Blues.
Ramires, who until this point had had a solid night, committed a clumsy challenge from behind on Nani, giving Olegario Benquerenca little choice but to pull out the book. Ramires had already taken a card in the first half; his night was thus over, and with his departure, so seemed Chelsea's hopes.
But no: Drogba snatched one back seven minutes later, latching onto a searching ball from Michael Essien, taking it down with his chest, then blasting a right footed shot across van der Sar to momentarily reignite Chelsea's hopes.
Then, the dagger. Almost off the restart, Wayne Rooney collected down the far flank, fed the ball to - who else? - Giggs, who neatly slipped Park free on the far left. Cech was stranded, and just like that, the far corner of the net was billowed.
Much rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth will occur tonight in London over the inclusion of Torres in Chelsea's starting lineup. He remains scoreless in a blue shirt. He was already the most expensive winter transfer signing in history; he is now arguably the biggest mistake ever made by a major club. Torres once again looked solid for five minutes and then faded into irrelevance. Bluntly, his career is in tatters.
For United, it was more evidence that they are a team of unmatched belief. They will not have an easy time against a Schalke or Inter Milan, but as unlikely as it once seemed this season, they remain on course for the treble.
At Donbass Arena, Barcelona strolled to an easy win despite playing for a good twenty minutes as if under the influence of a strong hypnotic. But Shakhtar's wasteful nature - and admitted wide gap in caliber - was too much for the Ukranians to overcome.
While Douglas Costa and Henrik Mkhitaryan stung Victor Valdes' gloves and Willian remained a handful all night long, once Barcelona decided that they really should win the game, they did. Lionel Messi was again the recipient, notching his 10th Champions League goal of the year after a bout of sustained pressure on an increasingly panicked Andiry Pyatov in the Shakhtar nets.
Put through by Dani Alves, Messi danced through two defenders and then gave Pyatov no chance with a low smack to the corner. That was all they needed, and the match finished 1-0 (6-1 on aggregate.) The goal set a club record for Messi; he now has 48 across all competitions this season for Barcelona.
It was just Shakhtar's second ever loss at the Donbass - and their second in a week after dropping a rare league game - but they cannot fail to take heart. They got beaten by the best team in the world. No one in their right mind is looking forward to playing this collection - save perhaps Jose Mourinho.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.