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Champions League

by Rob Dore | April 6, 2011

The commentator’s commended Spurs for their stoic defending last night, particularly in the second half, a half when they conceded three goals. Of which only Angel di Maria’s fantastic strike couldn’t be directly put down to poor defending. Defending well except on those three occassions when they didn’t and Real Madrid scored, isn’t exactly defending well is it? Peter Crouch’s senseless sending off certainly had a big effect on the game but we’ve seen more heroic ten man performances. Spurs weren’t quite as bad as the scoreline suggests nor Real as good but the Londoners weren’t great and certainly weren’t heroic…or all that stoic.

Inter’s backline was less stoic still and their success in this competition last season stands as a testament to the managerial abilities of the current Real Madrid manager. Schalke’s bold approach, assuming they’re all but in to the semi-finals, makes them an uncomfortable proposition for whoever triumphs in the all Premier League quarter-final.

So who will triumph between the remaining two Premier League representatives? I know Spurs are technically still in it but it’s hardly being dismissive to presume upon their coming exit. Anyway, back to tonight’s game. Man-on-man there can be few arguments that Chelsea have the stronger team, particularly in the midfield where Alex Ferguson has been working wonders this season with fading stars, inconsistent primadonnas (really just Nani), some admirable workhorses and substandard filler. Success this season, more than any other, will stand as a testament to Ferguson’s managerial genius. The problem for Ancelotti is that he has been unable to consistently get the best out of his players during this season of all round inconsistency. As insistent as some from his camp may be that they are still very much in the Premier League title race, at this point it is United’s to lose. This isn’t really an issue though. The Italian was brought to the club for one reason and that is to guide Chelsea to their first Champions League trophy. During his seven and a half seasons at AC Milan the Rossoneri went to the Champions League final three times, winning twice, with the one loss being Liverpool’s ‘Miracle in Istanbul’, yet they picked up just one Scudetto title. Abramovich knew exactly what he wanted when he hired him and Ancelotti’s mission is clear.

Playing the first leg at home, particularly at this stage, is no advantage. United will come to Stamford Bridge looking to keep a clean sheet, maybe nick a goal but at the very least avoid returning to Old Trafford with anything more than a one goal deficit. It has been almost nine years to the day since they last tasted victory at the Bridge and Fergie would be none too displeased with a draw at 9/4, if it’s a score draw, 1-1 at 5/1 or 2-2 at 14/1, he’ll be especially smug in the post-match interviews. Reports suggest that Rio Ferdinand is ready to start and with Rafael and Evans also available, United’s ever-changing backline may have a more reliable look to it. There is some risk rushing back Rio and if he isn’t quite up to speed, Chelsea could take advantage. Big games call for big players so you have to believe that if he’s close, Fergie will take that risk. In the midfield the one-trick pony that is Darren Gibson will be dropped as should Michael Carrick. The more talented but equally unreliable Anderson is available but it’s difficult to say whether he’ll get the nod. The same goes for Giggs after he played the full 90 minutes against West Ham. Nani and Valencia should be certain starters and their pace and width will be crucial, with United likely to defend a little deeper than normal and look to stretch Chelsea on the counter-attack. Frank Lampard claimed to be worried about how Rooney is going to react to the furore over his burst of on-field Tourettes but it’s another one which is tricky to predict. He hasn’t responded well to previous pressures this season and the worry is that this latest incident could hamper his improving form. If he reacts positively then he’s a great bet to score first at 6/1, if not, then he’s an even better bet to be the first player to be shown a red card at 11/1. Given the type of game it’s going to be, I’d personally plump for the harder working Hernandez but Berbatov’s ability to produce a moment of magic may see him get the nod if the manager goes for two up front.

For Chelsea, David Luiz’ absence is a big loss. The cup-tied defender was Chelsea’s star performer when they beat United in the league at the Bridge and with Alex unlikely to be deemed ready to start, they’ll lack the advantage of a centre half who can carry the ball comfortably into the midfield. Something which can help to commit opposing midfielders and create valuable gaps in a side which is looking to keep things tight between their midfield and defensive lines. Instead the onus will fall on the Chelsea midfield to create and with Essien nowhere near his best, Ramires not known for his attacking prowess and Malouda and Lampard failing to maintain any consistency of form, we may see the fit again Benayoun at some point. The tactic may be to simply outmuscle United rather than pass through them. Up front surely Drogba will get the nod. Torres has looked far from his best all season and has seemed to struggle with the added pressure of his move to Chelsea. If United do sit back then Drogba’s physicality and Anelka’s link-up play will be of greater value. The Ivorian shares top billing with the Spaniard in the first goalscorer market but the 11/2 on him looks a much better bet. Lampard as the penalty taker is another one to consider at 7/1 to score first.

If asked, Alex Fergsuon would undoubtedly claim that he’ll be sending his team out to attack but the reality is that he’ll be looking for defensive solidity with a sprinkle of counter-attacking football. I expect Chelsea to have the greater amount of possession but struggle to do anything with it unless Ferdinand has been rushed back too soon, in which case United could be in trouble. We’d all love to see an open free-flowing game but it’s more likely to be a tight, war of attrition. Chelsea are a decent bet at 6/5 to win but if they do it won’t be by much and Fergie will be happy enough with that.

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