27 April 2009
With the Champions League semi-finals starting tomorrow, what are some of the storylines I'll be following over the two legs between Barcelona v Chelsea and Manchester United v Arsenal? Let's take a look.
Barcelona v Chelsea
1) Which Chelsea players mark what Barcalona players? We've already been told that Jose Bosingwa will move into the suspended Ashley Cole's left back role. Bosingwa v Messi has every possibility of a major mis-match. According to my research, the only other time Bosingwa has been at left back (other than last Saturday), was back in September of 2007 when he was put there in national team duty. It's obviously a pace mismatch and Bosingwa will primarily be told to keep chipping away at Messi in hopes of taking him off his game. That won't work.
The other battles I'm expecting is Essien v Iniesta and Ballack v Toure. It's going to be up to Essien to keep the balls from spraying into the attack and Ballack's strong frame will be expected to bully Toure out of the game. However, Iniesta is no Steven Gerrard (he's just a TAD bit better...FIFA Player of the Year candidate better) and Toure's pace should be no problem for the aging Ballack.
2) The Defensive Trio. The two center backs and goal keepers for both sides are going to be in for very different battles. Alex, John Terry, and Petr Cech better be prepared to see more shots than they see in five Premier League games at the Nou Camp. Cech's confidence, penalty save aside at the weekend, is not that high right now. His positioning over the last month has been severely suspect. With Carvalho out, Chelsea's center backs will have to defend deeper as Alex or Terry do not have the pace to track back.
Puyol, Marquez and Valdes have their own issues, but are a much stronger trio than their Chelsea counterparts. If there is anyone that can be exploited defensively for Barcelona, it's Marquez. His pace and strength can let him down. Puyol's positioning is simply superb and helps him make up for his lack of pace. Their set piece defense is pretty awful and is something Chelsea should be looking to exploit. They should also look to exploit Puyol having to defend the space Alves loves to abandon when trying to get into the attack.
3) Can Chelsea avoid the red card? The last two times Chelsea played Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the knockout stages, they have seen a person sent off. Playing eleven v eleven will be tough enough as it is. Should Chelsea lose a man, it will be an open invitation for Barcelona to name their own scoreline. With Wolfgang Stark scheduled to be the man in the middle, Chelsea better not let their hot heads cost them stupid bookings.
4) Experienced Manager v First Year in the Big Time. Frankly this shouldn't even be a talking point, but I've heard too many people bring it up to not discuss it. Sure Guus Hiddink has been through the battles before, but people have over hyped the adjustments he has made in game. They haven't made as big an impact as those in the English media will want to claim. Simply stated, it will take a masterplan the likes Hiddink had in Russia's defeat of Holland to beat Barcelona over two legs.
Pep Guardiola simply has the best collection of talent in the world at present. So far this season, unless it's been after an international, this team has clicked on all cylinders. As long as he continues to manage as he has all season long (and there is no doubt in my mind he will), he will be just fine.
Manchester United v Arsenal
1) The Injury Front. Arsenal are a bit of a walking wounded at the moment. No Van Persie, no Clichy (at least until the second leg) and Silvestre is a major injury doubt. One big boost for Wenger is that Almunia returned against Middlesbrough and had a comfortable game between the sticks.
Manchester United are relatively healthy with Wes Brown coming back. Gary Neville will miss at least the first leg.
2) Who does Fergie Start? What I mean by this is who plays in the midfield and up front? I would expect Anderson and Giggs to start in the midfield and Rooney and Tevez to play up front. The rest of this Manchester United line up sets itself. I think with Giggs in the midfield, he will be the link between the back and the attack and act as a calming influence for the team overall.
I see Berbatov and Scholes being used off the bench in both games to give an added dimension.
3) Can Arsenal's back line hold? This is the key for me in this tie. Between the injuries and players returning from injuries, it's going to be vital for the Gunners to keep their shape.
4) The Crowd Atmosphere. Old Trafford in European competitions has not been loud while the Emirates has come round on European nights. The added crowd volume could be the extra motivation needed to decide this tie.
Barcelona I don't think will have any problem disposing of Chelsea. I see it 3-1 at the Nou Camp and 2-1 to Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Barcelona 5 Chelsea 2
As for the all-English affair, I'm going to go with my gut. I see a 1-1 at Old Trafford and a 1-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates. Arsenal 2 Manchester United 1
What are your thoughts on the Champions League semi-finals? Let us know by leaving a comment below.