Poisoned Chalice

LAST WEEK, Europe was awash with high-profile domestic cup action. In Portugal, the last 14 (Beira-Mar received a bye) produced a tie worthy of the final itself, with Benfica taking on Sporting at the new Stadium of Light. The full house was treated to fireworks right from the start and remained glued to their seats for an incredible 130 minutes of rollercoaster emotions. It only took four minutes for Geovanni to put Benfica ahead. 10 minutes later, Hugo Viana equalised and shortly afterwards, Liedson shot Sporting into the lead. Still in the first period of play, it was again Geovanni who achieved parity for the home side, sending the teams into the interval with the score tied at 2-2.

Quite naturally, the game lost some of its furious pace in the second half and although Benfica looked more enterprising, no more goals followed. And thus the game went into extra time. With 102 minutes on the clock, Viana saw red, reducing Sporting to 10 men, a fact that did not prevent Paíto from scoring what looked like the winner eight minutes later. But it was not to be – not long before the final whistle, it was a Simão shot that eluded Tiago in the Sporting goal to level the score at 3-3. Inevitably, penalties had to resolve the stalemate. There were no misses, no heroic saves, the first six marksmen on either side finding the target. Alcides then hammered the ball against the underside of the bar, the rebound fortuitously crossing the goal-line. Benfica were 7-6 up and the ‘winners’ after Sporting’s, Miguel Garcia, failed with his subsequent attempt. The football God had smiled upon the Eagles, the Lions were vanquished.

In the other games, Boavista required extra time to edge out Nacional 4-3 in Madeira, Setúbal beat Guimarães 3-1, Marítimo beat Académica 2-1 and Belenenses beat Third Division Pinhalnovense by the same score. Fellow amateurs, Oliveira do Hospital, fought valiantly against the SuperLiga’s Sporting de Braga but eventually went down 1-0. The only team outside the top flight left in the competition are Estrela da Amadora, who beat Penafiel 1-0. The quarter finals will be played on Wednesday, March 2.

In England, the two Carling Cup finalists travelling to Cardiff on February 27 are already known. Liverpool left some indifferent form behind, a Gerrard goal sufficing to eliminate Watford 2-0 on aggregate. More spectacular was Chelsea’s Old Trafford clash with Manchester United, the first leg having finished goal-less at Stamford Bridge. At this stage of the competition, both clubs fielded their strongest teams, motivated by José Mourinho’s quest to fill the trophy cabinet and Sir Alex Ferguson’s need to lay his hands on at least one piece of silver this season. The encounter also pitted the sublime if somewhat erratic skills of Cristiano Ronaldo, against the outstanding talent of Arjen Robben. In the event, the young Dutchman, who has attracted comparisons with the brilliant Johan Cruyff, opened up the game with telling runs and accurate passing, ultimately preparing the way for a Chelsea victory. Lampard and Duff gave warning of Chelsea’s deadly intent, firing wide after some excellent early work. Gary Neville replied for United after 25 minutes but his shot from the edge of the area failed to carry conviction. Shortly afterwards, Robben burst through the middle, fed Drogba, who passed inside for Lampard to slide the ball home for the lead. United came out after the break looking for the equaliser and it was Giggs, applying a delightful touch to a Gary Neville pass, who supplied it. The ball looped over Cech and into the net. Great opportunities went begging at both ends thereafter with the game seemingly heading for extra time.

But up stepped Damien Duff with a floated free-kick from the right wing. The ball sailed over several players in the box and caught the hapless Tim Howard in the United goal napping, adding to the American keeper’s string of embarrassing howlers. Mourinho celebrated his 42nd birthday in style and Chelsea’s quadruple hopes are still very much alive.

In Spain, the quarter final, first-leg between Numancia and Atletico Madrid fell victim to ice and snow! The remaining three fixtures did go ahead, with Third Division Gramenet causing a sensation by holding Real Betis to a 2-2 draw. Seville beat Osasuna 2-1 and Athletic Bilbao take a slender 3-2 advantage into the return match at Second Division Real Valladolid.

The same stage has been reached in the Italian Cup where Milan could only draw 2-2 at home with Udinese. Fiorentina lost 1-0 in Rome, Cagliari beat Sampdoria 2-0 and Inter Milan scored an important 1-0 victory away to Atalanta.

In Holland, the last 16 faced each other with big guns PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord winning 4-0 and 3-1 respectively. Ajax could only draw 0-0 with Herenveen in Amsterdam and fellow top division side, Waalwijk, were upset by Second Division Top Oss. Ado Haia caused a further surprise by coming out on top against fancied FC Twente.

The top cup tie in Greece between AEK Athens and Panathinaikos finished in a 1-1 draw.


ARGENTINEAN FORWARD, Maxi Lopez, eagerly awaited at Benfica, has chosen to join Barcelona instead. Once the Spanish League leader’s interest became known, the Lisbon club could no longer compete in terms of money or status. Barcelona have also landed Italian midfielder, Albertini, who will reinforce their push for honours.

In France, Paris St. Germain have signed CSKA Moscow’s Semak, and Marseille reached an agreement with Japanese midfielder Koji Nakata.

German club, Stuttgart, have completed the transfer of Brazilian attacking midfielder Elson from Palmeiras.

In the Premiership, Spurs have taken on Dutch forward El Hamdaoui who has put his name to a three-and-a-half-year contract. The exciting U21 player joined from Excelsior Rotterdam for 700,000 euros. Also new at White Hart Lane is controversial Egyptian striker, Mido, who has arrived on an 18-month loan deal from AS Roma. This is the fractious player’s sixth club in as many years, in what is turning out to be a transfer window spending spree. Manager, Martin Jol, has further secured the services of Finland midfielder Teemu Tainio, the player, who was also sought after by Manchester City, Newcastle, Rangers, Monaco and Werder Bremen, will join from Auxerre in July.

Once again on the way out is Nicolas Anelka at Manchester City. Having failed to settle anywhere since his abrupt departure from Arsenal at the height of his game, the notorious sulk is heading for the final resting place of failed footballers – Turkey.

Craig Bellamy, banished by Graeme Souness at Newcastle, has signed for Birmingham in an eight million euro, four-year deal.