Surprise Beginning and Ending in First Legs of Champions League

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Surprise Beginning and Ending in First Legs of Champions League
Few goals were scored in the first legs of the Champions League semifinals, but there was still plenty of drama on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Let’s begin with Tuesday’s matchup in Anfield between Liverpool and Chelsea.

The match met everyone’s expectations, that is there was little soccer to marvel at and most of the play was contained in the mid-field.

Still, both teams had their chances.

Liverpool’s first good look came in the 30th minute when Fernando Torres got free in the box and had a one-on-one against Chelsea keeper Petr Cech.  Surprisingly, the prolific striker failed to convert as he put the ball wide left of the mark.

Dirk Kuyt soon made Liverpool fans forget that failed attempt.  Just before the half, Kuyt slid to tap the ball through Cech’s legs and net the first goal of the match. 

Play in the second half was similar to that of the first, leading everyone to hold little doubt that the score line would be anything but a slim 1-0 Liverpool victory.

But in stoppage time that doubt crept in.

In the 95th minute Chelsea’s substitute Salomon Kalou sent a cross into the box.  Under pressure from Nicolas Anelka, Liverpool’s own sub John Arne Riise dove to head the ball away from danger.

The only problem, Riise headed that ball right into his own goal.

When the final whistle blew, Liverpool players and fans were speechless and the expressions of dejection were all too evident on their faces.

After the ending to Tuesday’s match, Wednesday’s game had a tough act to follow.  But players from both Barcelona and Manchester United were anxious to take the field.

As if they wanted their audience to completely forget about the prior game’s ending, the clubs began the match in dramatic fashion.

Off of a Man U corner in the 3rd minute, Barcelona defender Gabriel Milito was called for a handball inside his own box.  That set up a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty kick.

Seeing keeper Víctor Valdés dive to his right, Ronaldo went the other way, but got under the ball and blasted it high and wide of the post.

After dodging a bullet in the opening minutes, Barcelona controlled possession the rest of the game, not allowing United to have any other threatening looks.

Barcelona had over 60% of possession in the match, but failed to convert any of their attempts.  In the first half, they had plenty of looks with Lionel Messi creating several opportunities.

Some of the Barcelona players were too unselfish, passing up on shots that they should have had a go at.  They tested Edwin Van der Sar, but should have gone after him more, rather than looking for the perfect shot.

When Thierry Henry came on late in the second half he looked intent on hurting his old English rivals once again.  Henry had two different attempts on goal from far off, one of which forced Van der Sar to make an impressive save.

With the first legs complete, both home teams have to be a bit disappointed.

Liverpool played an impressive match, not allowing Chelsea many good looks, while converting on one of the few that they had.  But that own goal in stoppage time killed the club’s momentum heading away from home next week.

Rather than having a 1-0 lead on aggregate, they will be tied with Chelsea and, more importantly, now must score in Stamford Bridge after having conceded the deadly away goal.

Likewise, Barcelona were impressive at home.  Aside from the penalty kick, Manchester United never really threatened.  Barcelona had obvious control of possession, never allowing United to keep the ball for a significant stretch of time.

But Barcelona hurt themselves by their inability to finish in the danger area.  They had good looks, but Samuel Eto’o and company passed up some shots that they probably should have let fly.

The good news for the Catalonians heading into next week’s second leg is that Messi looks to be returning to form.  After missing much play due to injury, Messi looked as solid and threatening as ever against United.

He only played an hour, but it was a productive one.  If Messi can give his club that same level of play for an hour at Old Trafford next week then Barcelona will be a threat to steal an away goal in England.

Another plus for the Spanish side is drawing 0-0 at home.  Not conceding an away goal to Manchester United is a huge victory for Barcelona’s defense.  United have been an aggressive club all season, so Barcelona should be confident in its defense heading into the second leg.

Granted, Man U held its players back and played passively, but the English side did have Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, and Cristiano Ronaldo all on the field at the same time.  As a result, Barcelona’s defensive effort is not only important concerning aggregate, but it is also a moral victory for the Spanish club.

After what the first legs had to offer and with each club knowing what they must do in order to move onto Moscow, next week should offer some wonderful European soccer.  The play will be intense, the players will be anxious, and no doubt the soccer will be phenomenal.
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