Chelsea and Manchester United clash in a titanic all-English Champions League quarter final on Wednesday night while Barcelona host Shakhtar Donetsk at the Camp Nou writes BackPageFootball contributor Ger McCarthy.
Quarter Final – First Leg
Stamford Bridge, London
Chelsea vs. Manchester United
The most anticipated tie of the 2011 UEFA Champions League tournament takes place in Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night between age old English Premier League rivals Chelsea and Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson takes a Man United squad currently sitting top of the table to London to face the club they defeated on penalties in the 2008 Champions League decider in Moscow.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side recorded a 2-1 league win over United at the same venue earlier in the season thanks to David Luiz and Frank Lampard strikes. Form is certain to be thrown out the window when the sides take to the pitch on Wednesday night however with a place in the last four of Europe’s most prestigious football tournament at stake likely to ensure a classic encounter.
How they qualified
Manchester United cruised through the opening phase of the competition to top the Group C table with an unbeaten record of four wins and two draws, conceding a paltry 1 goal. Valencia, Rangers and Bursaspor were easily dispatched without United ever hitting top gear to set up a first knockout round tie with Marseille. A dreadful 0-0 draw ensued at the Velodrome and in truth turned out to be one of the worst games in the competition this season. United turned things around in the second leg with a superb all round team performance to triumph 2-1 thanks to a Javier Hernandez brace at Old Trafford.
The Mexican international remains United’s top scorer with a meagre 3 strikes in the tournament but the imminent return of Rio Ferdinand could not come at a better time for a side still in the hunt for the Premier League and FA Cup trophies.
Chelsea has reserved their best performances in 2011 for the Champions League. The Londoners early season domestic struggles looks to have scuppered any hope of winning the Premier League this term but the shock additions of David Luiz and Fernando Torres has further strengthened a squad bulging with international talent. Carlo Ancelotti’s side blew away the collective challenges of Marseille, Spartak Moscow and MSK Zilina to top Group F in the opening phase with 5 wins out of 6. FC Copenhagen were the opposition in the Round of 16 and despite a gutsy display the Danish Champions were defeated 2-0 at home in the opening leg thanks to two clinical strikes from Nicolas Anelka.
The second leg at Stamford Bridge proved to be an entertaining affair despite failing to produce a goal and Chelsea progressed to the quarter finals with the minimum of fuss. Anelka has weighed in with an impressive 7 goals in the competition thus far with Daniel Sturridge and Branislav Ivanovic adding 2 apiece. All eyes will be on Fernando Torres to see if the Spanish international can score his debut goal for his new club following a record January transfer from Liverpool.
Wayne Rooney reinforced his credentials as the driving force behind United’s title push with a second half hat-trick at Upton Park this past weekend. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side came from 2-0 down to win 4-2 thanks to Rooney’s stellar second half display. The England international may yet face an FA charge for swearing into a TV camera but make no mistake about it, in this form Rooney will lead United to a 19th title.
On the same afternoon Chelsea could only draw with Stoke 1-1 at the Britannia Stadium. The Pensioners title reign looks all but over despite an impressive display from Didier Drogba who scored and also rattled the Stoke crossbar late on. The Champions League remains the holy grail of trophy’s for Chelsea’s owner Abramovich and the fact United look set to claim the Premier League crown leaves the Champions League as Chelsea’s only hope of glory this term.
It is because of this reason that I feel Chelsea will overcome United’s challenge at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night and do just enough to squeeze through in the second leg at Old Trafford. It won’t be pretty but I’m tipping Chelsea to go through.
Quarter Final – First Leg
Camp Nou, Barcelona
Barcelona vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
One of the favourites for the 2011 Champions League crown, Barcelona, welcome one of the rank outsiders, Shakhtar Donetsk, to the Camp Nou for the first-leg of their eagerly anticipated quarter final on Wednesday night.
How they qualified
The Catalans breezed through Group D in the opening phase to comfortably top the table with 4 wins and 2 draws from their 6 matches. Barcelona finished ahead of FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos to reserve a spot in the Round of 16. Premier League side Arsenal stood in Barca’s way of a spot in the last eight and the Gunners produced a dazzling display to inflict a 2-1 first league defeat on the La Liga pacesetters courtesy of Robin Van Persie and Andrei Arshavin strikes.
David Villa had struck early for the visitors and the second leg at the Camp Nou turned into an instant classic with Barcelona edging through 4-3 on aggregate. Lionel Messi broke the deadlock in first half injury time but an own goal from Busquets offered Arsenal a lifeline. The tie remained delicately poised until the dismissal of Van Persie allowing Barcelona to score twice late on through Xavi and Messi once again to secure a quarter final berth.
Shakhtar caused a major shock in the opening phase of the competition by finishing top of Group H, 3 points ahead of he much fancied Arsenal and also-rans Braga and Partizan Belgrade. Dontesk’s only loss was a 5-1 hammering by the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium on Matchday 3 but other than that lone defeat Shakhtar remained unbeaten by recording 5 wins to top the group. A famous 2-1 victory over Arsenal in November cemented the Ukrainian side’s passage into the Round of 16 where they were drawn against AS Roma.
The opening leg of that last 16 tie in the Stadio Olimpico was the night Shakhtar finally announced their arrival at the top table of European football. Goals from Jadson, Douglas Costa and Luiz Adriano sealed a famous 3-2 win for Micrea Lucescu’s side. A comfortable 3-0 victory in the send onleg in front of a packed Donbass Arena sealed Donetsk’s first ever Champions League quarter final appearance and Bareclona know they will need to be at their best to overcome the challenge of a Ukrainian side with nothing to lose.
The goals have been evenly spread amongst Shakhtar’s Brazilian contingent and former Arsenal and current Croatian striker Eduardo. Luiz Adriano and Eduardo have 4 goals each with Jadson, Douglas Costa and Willian chipping with 2 apiece.
Barcelona’s 1-0 win away to Villarreal at the weekend coupled with Real Madrid’s capitulation at home to Sporting Gijon has all but secured the La Liga title for the Catalans. Champions League glory beckons for Pep Guardiola’s side if they can overcome the surprise package of the 2011 Champions League in Shakthar Donetsk so expect the experienced Messi and Co. to book a last four berth over the two legs.