The 2010/2011 Champions League has been as enthralling and pulsating as always, with highs and lows, upsets and an inevitable final as Manchester United take on Barcelona at Wembley on May 28th. With the tournament coming to an end it is fitting to look back at the major events and ups and downs of Europe’s top club competition this season.
This season’s Champions League has thrown up some unexpected upsets and massive overachievement by the less fancied sides, with Schalke and Tottenham doing better than the clubs’ fans could have hoped for.
The German side excelled in Europe this campaign to the detriment of their domestic chances, and made it through to the semi finals against the odds. The side from the Gelschenkirchen topped Group B ahead of Lyon and Benfica, winning four games out of six, and were drawn against Valencia in the last 16. Unai Emery’s side went into the tie as favourites but after a 1-1 draw at the Mestalla, a Jefferson Farfan inspired performance and a 3-1 home win side saw the Germans progress.
Reigning Champions Inter were next up for Ralk Ragnick’s side, where the adventure was supposed to end for the Westphalian club, but a magnificent 5-2 victory in Italy set up a comprehensive 7-3 aggregate victory for Schalke. Die Schwaben were outclassed by Manchester United in the semis, but the side must be applauded for a fantastic run in the competition. Veteran Spanish striker Raul and Germany number 1 Manuel Neuer were the star performers for the side, but a team effort was the main reason the club made it to the latter stages.
Tottenham also exceeded the White Hart Lane faithful’s expectations with a roller-coaster ride through to the semi-finals, made all the more exciting by the fact that the side were almost eliminated in the qualifying round. Harry Redknapp’s men found themselves 3-0 down after 28 minutes against Swiss side Young Boys in the preamble to the group stages, but fought back doggedly to get a 6-3 aggregate win and make the group stages for the first time since the tournament’s inception.
Gareth Bale inspired performances against Inter Milan saw the London side run the holders close in Italy in a 4-3 defeat and beat them with ease 3-1, whilst other strong performances saw Spurs top Group A. AC Milan were overconfident and defeated 1-0 over two tense legs to get the Spurs fans dreaming of glory, but they were brought back down to earth with a thump as Real Madrid and the Santiago Bernabeu proved to be a bridge to far.
Nevertheless a wonderful first showing by Tottenham; the competition will miss both the English side and Schalke next season. Special mention must also go out to FC Copenhagen who became the first Scandinavian side to make the knockout stages of the tournament by finishing runners up in Group D before being knocked out by Chelsea in the last 16, and Shakhtar Donetsk who enthralled with attacking play and made to the last eight at Roma’s expense, beating the Giallorossi in both legs of the last 16.
With England and Spain’s top sides excelling in the competition this season and one from each country making the final, the other historical superpower of European club football faded away in the form of Italy. The Italian sides held much promise this season, as on paper their teams glittered with international superstars but the reality was that Milan, Roma and current champions Inter lacked incisiveness and looked devoid of ideas when faced with some of the competitions better sides.
Milan have since clinched the Serie A title back from rivals Inter, but in Europe were massively disappointing. I Rossoneri finished second in Group G, winning only two matches (both against Auxerre) and just limping through to the knockout stages. Massimiliano Allegri’s side were beaten 1-0 at the San Siro by Tottenham and then failed to score or even create any gilt-edged chances at White Hart Lane to be eliminated and bring a dismal European display to an end.
Inter went into this season’s tournament with every ambition of retaining their European crown but proved to be toothless, unorganised and uninspired without ‘The Special One’. The Nerazzurri finished runners up to Spurs in Group A, losing 3-0 to Werder Bremen in the last game, and despite coming back from behind to eliminate Bayern Munich in the last 16, showed a lack of defensive co-ordination to capitulate against Schalke in the quarters, with a hefty home defeat shaking any confidence in coach Leonardo.
‘Good’ probably isn’t a stellar enough compliment to describe tournament favourites Barcelona and top scorer Lionel Messi; the Catalan side have been breathtaking. From an undefeated group stage to coming back from a first leg defeat and conquering Arsenal, followed by the 6-1 destruction of Shakhtar to the El Clasico victory at the Bernabeu and ‘that goal’ by the Argentinian whizkid, Spain’s champions have been scintillating to watch. The style and manner of their victories and ability to keep the ball has been a revelation, and Pep Guardiola’s side have given all comers a lesson in total football this season.
The war of words in the build up to the El Clasico semi-final, Pepe and Jose Pinto’s red cards and the ultimate reprimands distributed to Jose Mourinho and the Spanish sides by UEFA have marred this year’s competition, and have certainly not been a good advertisement for the game. The manner in which the sides coaches conducted themselves before the game and the pettiness at times of the players during the first leg made a mockery of the beautiful game and need to be stamped out of the sport; play fair and with a sporting spirit.
Barcelona look all but unstoppable when they get into their stride, but if anyone can beat them it will be Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will need to call upon their collective experience as a side and unite as a team to get a result against the Spaniards, not to mention figure out a way to subdue Senor Messi. Lets hope the final encapsulates the quality of this season’s tournament, is a spectacle for all to enjoy and the side’s act like advocates for the tournament and the sport.
Gareth McKnight is a columnist for the football blog Soccerlens.com. You can follow Soccerlens on Twitter here.