Champions League, Crème de la crème

news: Champions League, Crème de la crème

Following the winter break, Europe’s top teams were back in action in the First Leg encounters of the last 16 knockout round. Glamour ties abounded and predicting the results with any confidence was almost as hard as picking the right numbers in the National Lottery.

An injury-plagued Liverpool, additionally bereft of the services of Steven Gerrard through suspension, faced the daunting task of achieving some sort of result against high-flying and free-scoring Bayer Leverkusen at Anfield. Squad player, Igor Biscan, far from being overwhelmed by the occasion, readily accepted the challenge and carved out the perfect opening opportunity for Luís Garcia after only 15 minutes. The Croatian international conjured up a perfectly weighted pass out for a congested midfield, that allowed Garcia to bury his shot beneath the despairing Butt in the German goal. A glaring Berbator miss later, John Arne Riise stepped up to double the advantage with a pinpoint curled free-kick that left the Bayern ‘keeper rooted to the spot. After the break, Liverpool poured forward and were duly rewarded with a third goal, Dieter Hamann this time demonstrating his adeptness on the dead ball. The only blot on Rafael Benitez’s copybook occurred deep in injury time, when the accident-prone Jerzy Dudek failed to hold a tame shot, allowing Franca to tap in for a crucial away goal.

If anyone is guilty of xenophobia, it is Arsenal. Despite fielding yet another side made up entirely of imports, they simply hate to travel abroad. An inept display against a no-more than average Bayern Munich side never even hinted at last season’s imperious domestic form. A long clearance from Kahn, only four minutes into the tie, bounced off Kolo Toure’s head for Claudio Pizarro to slot home .The Peruvian striker again got the better of Toure just after half-time, heading in a Mehmet Scholl free kick to put Bayer 2-0 up. By this time, Jens Lehmann had lost hope of putting one over his fierce German rival, Oliver Kahn, in the Bayern goal and unconvincingly palmed away a Frings cross to allow Salihamidzic to make it three on the night. The only glimmer of hope for the Gunners was a partial atonement by Toure, who gave his team a valuable away goal two minutes from the end.

The other two games on the first match day resulted in 1-0 home wins. Real Madrid left their lacklustre league form behind to completely dominate Juventus at the Brenabeu, but ended up only goal to the good – Ivan Helguera headed in a glorious David Beckham free kick. PSV Eindhoven also take a slender lead to Monaco next week, Brazilian defender, Alex, having scored the only goal of a very tactical encounter after only eight minutes.

Two of the most dominant clubs in Europe at the moment clashed on match day two. Barcelona received Chelsea following some ill-tempered verbal sparring between managers Frank Rijkaard and José Mourinho in the press during the days preceding the game. Mourinho took the unusual step of naming his team 24 hours before kick-off, having gone public with boastful jibes relating to his counterpart’s relative inexperience and the fact that he had never lost two games in a row.

Barcelona came out onto the pitch suitably motivated, but were surprised to find Damien Duff, who had been declared unfit to play facing them. It was Duff who delivered the perfect cross after 33 minutes that forced Barcelona defender, Juliano Belletti, to steer the ball past his own goalkeeper. Drogba should have scored a few minutes later to put Chelsea on the path to a famous victory, but the 32 million euro target man dragged his shot inexplicably wide. Eleven minutes into the second half, Swedish referee Andres Frisk sent Drogba off for a 50-50 challenge on keeper Valdes and the game changed its complexion. Maxi Lopez, who had so nearly signed for Benfica, came off the substitutes bench and punished the 10 man Blues. First, the quick Argentinean finished off a move involving Ronaldinho and Eto’o to equalise, and the miscued shot at goal, which Eto’o was sharp enough to divert beyond the helpless Czech. Mourinho felt hard done by and promptly launched an official complaint to UEFA about Frisk’s half-time chat with Rijkaard, something forbidden by the rules.

A player who did not make it at Stamford Bridge, Hernan Crespo, gave Sir Alex Ferguson a major headache at Old Trafford. AC Milan’s defence had stood firm in the face of an early United onslaught, with both Paul Scholes and Quinton Fortune coming close to scoring. Milan had more of the game in the second period, but a draw seemed the likely outcome until Roy Carroll spilled a shot from Seedorf that Crespo could not miss. Manchester now have a mountain to climb at the San Siro.

Elsewhere, defending champions, Porto, fell behind to an early Obafemi Martins strike, but managed to peg back Inter Milan when Ricardo Costa found the net in the second half. The game at the Estádio do Dragão ended 1-1 thanks to the heroics of veteran goalkeeper Vítor Baia, who excelled himself in keeping out successive efforts from Materazzi, Veron, Adriano, Combiasso and Martins. Another such performance will be needed if the Portuguese club is to survive in Italy.

Lastly, French league leaders Lyon look to be virtually assured a quarter-final berth after an impressive 3-0 away win against German champions Bremen. Intelligent counter-attacking football brought goals from Wiltord, Diarra and Juninho without reply.