14 April 2005

Champions League: Semi-finals set

Four teams left: Chelsea, Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, and AC Milan.

OK... technically, AC Milan are not yet through; that depends on a decision by the UEFA decision on the result of Tuesday's abandoned match. It is possible that UEFA could order the teams to play the last 17 minutes of the match, or even to play the entire thing again. But either outcome would be a reward to Inter, so it's difficult to see UEFA making that decision. More likely, they will award AC Milan the victory (probably by a score of 3-0, for what that's worth).

The two games yesterday were pretty darn good too. Liverpool played Juventus to a 0-0 draw in Turin, advancing to the semi-finals through their 2-1 victory at Anfield. This was the kind of game that shows that 0-0 draws are not all dour and boring. A single goal from Juventus would see them through, so Liverpool played a cagey game, defending in depth and picking their attacks carefully. All credit to the Reds, they played tremendously, and really earned their trip to the semi-finals.

The other game was even closer. PSV Eindhoven and Lyon finished regular time knotted at 1-1 (2-2 on aggregate) and didn't see any scoring in extra time... resulting in the dreaded penalty shoot-out. PSV came out victorious, winning 4-2 on penalties. The game was a tense, back-and-forth affair; two teams couldn't be more evenly matched. Lyon went ahead on a tenth-minute goal from ex-Gunner Sylvain Wiltord. PSV had several chances coming the other way, and finally equalised early in the second half on a shot from Alex. Both teams had chances in the remainder of the game, but no joy was found for either side. Ultimately penalties decided the match, with Eindhoven keeper Gomes guessing correctly and saving from Essien and Abidal.

Thus, the semi-finals are set. Chelsea and Liverpool face each other, starting at Stamford Bridge. It's unfortunate to see two English teams playing each other, but there's not much alternative at this stage. At the least, we're guaranteed one Premiership team in the finals. In three games, Liverpool haven't beaten Chelsea this year, but the games have been competitive. Both the league losses have been 1-0 affairs. The Carling cup final was a famously tight game, 1-1 at the end of regular time, and 3-2 to Chelsea through extra time. But Liverpool's form has peaked in recent weeks, while Chelsea, though still strong, have shown hints of weakness. This could be an exciting tie.

Assuming UEFA doesn't screw over AC Milan, they'll face PSV Eindhoven. AC will be the deserved favorite, based on their solid handling of a difficult Inter side. But AC are still fighting tooth and nail for the Serie A title, while PSV have all but wrapped up the Eredivisie. Last year we saw teams from smaller leagues -- Portugal and Greece -- win through to the finals over stronger teams from more competitive leagues. Can Eindhoven ride a simliar route through to the finals? Or will Milan demonstrate the dominance of Italian football? My head tells me that AC Milan will comfortably handle PSV, but my heart sees a gritty Eindhoven side making it a close thing.

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