The UEFA Champions League semi-final line-up this year is truly special—four teams from four different nations. I can’t remember the last time that happened. A team each from Spain, Germany, France and Italy—a perfect European battle.
Even though English clubs have poured in millions to make star-studded teams, not one English team has made it to the semis. The one Spanish team in the fray has been built painstakingly with local players and talented youngsters who have risen through the Barcelona academy.
It’s heartening to see that money can’t always buy success. In the last three Champions League seasons, English teams made up three of the four semi-finalists. This year, there are none. Many people say the recession has forced English teams to curb their spending, but I don’t think so. Teams all around Europe were hit by the recession as well.
I think it’s just the nature of the game. Some of the English teams, such as Manchester United, were plain unlucky, and some failed to capitalize at key moments. If you can’t grab your chance, you won’t succeed, it’s as simple as that.
Barcelona is by far the best team in the mix. Though their semi-final against Inter Milan will be closely fought, I have no doubt that Barcelona will win—not just the semis, but the tournament itself.
(Left) Messi magic: He is the highest scorer in this year’s Champions League so far. (Right) Fists of fury: Lyon’s Hugo Lloris makes yet another save in the quarter-final against Bordeaux on 30 March. AP
Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho is probably the most strategic coach in the game today, but no matter how much you plan, it’s difficult to get an upper hand against a team as complete as Barcelona. They are an extremely well-oiled unit, and they have the world’s best individual talent.
It’s the kind of combination that is rare and comes once in a decade or two for even the best teams in the world. Of course, Lionel Messi is the best footballer in the world right now, and it’s not often you can say that about an individual with such conviction. No one can stop him from scoring. His spatial awareness and ball skills are unparalleled. He’s being compared with Maradona, and that’s perfectly justified.
But unlike Maradona’s 1986 World Cup winning team, Messi’s colleagues in Barcelona are all brilliant players. Their defence is perfect, they have the best midfield pair in the world in Xavi and Iniesta. Really, no praise is enough for this team.
Inter Milan’s best strategy against Barcelona would be to play their naturally stifling game. Don’t worry about Barca’s possession, don’t get nervous and desperate, soak up the pressure and hit them on the counter-attack. But even though Mourinho made miracles happen with FC Porto, taking them from relative obscurity to European champions in 2004, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for him to emulate that kind of magic against Barcelona.
Lyon have been riding on their luck throughout the tournament. They got really lucky that Bordeaux missed so many chances in the second leg of their quarter-final encounter. This kind of luck never lasts, and Bayern Munich will not let go of their chances.
Lyon’s Argentine striker Lisandro will be back for the semi-final after a one-match ban, and that’s fabulous news for the team. But it will be difficult to contain Bayern, which has been getting better with each match. Bayern’s playing style is similar to Barcelona’s as well, and I hope to see them battle it out in the final.
Barcelona vs Inter Milan
1st leg: 20 April (San Siro, Milan)
2nd leg: 27 April (Nou Camp, Barcelona)
Lionel Messi (striker)—8 goals in 9 Champions League (CL) matches
Xavi (midfielder) —1 goal, 2 assists in 9 CL matches
Wesley Sneijder (striker) —2 goals, 4 assists in 9 CL matches
Samuel Eto’o (striker) —2 goals, 1 assist in 10 CL matches
FCC Lyon vs Bayern Munich
1st leg: 21 April (Fußball Arena München, Munich)
2nd leg: 28 April (Stade de Gerland, Lyon)
Miralem Pjanic (striker)—4 goals, 4 assists in 10 CL matches
Hugo Lloris (goalkeeper)—36 saves in 10 CL matches
Arjen Robben (midfielder)—3 goals in 7 CL matches
Ivica Olic (striker) —4 goals, 1 assist in 7 CL matches
Bhaichung Bhutia is the captain of the Indian football team, and the leading goal scorer in Indian football.
As told to Rudraneil Sengupta.
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