Blues lack a striker as prolific as rivals
By David Shonfield
Champions League semi-finals have been decided by phantom goals, crazed officials, injuries, moments of brilliance and even by one team being better than the other.
This season they could well turn on the performance of three record-breaking strikers, but there are also possible suspensions hanging over key players that could seriously affect the balance of the ties.
The strikers are of course the Terrors of La Liga, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, plus Mario Gomez of Bayern Munich, who has been having a similar impact on German defences. Between them, they’ve plundered 155 goals this season.
Messi and Ronaldo are fighting it out for the Golden Boot in Spain, both on a record 41 league goals and vying week by week to set new scoring standards.
The latest record to go was last Wednesday, when Ronaldo scored his seventh hat-trick of the season. Even legends like Di Stefano and Puskas never achieved that.
Messi is closing in on a seemingly impossible target of 70 goals in all matches — after 52 games he now has 63, 10 more than Ronaldo, mainly thanks to his record 14 in the Champions League.
Gomez, the German son of a Spanish father, has only managed a modest 39 (25 in the league) but they have come in 45 matches, 12 of them in the Champions League. The Bundesliga’s top scorer last season he needs just one more to break his own personal record.
Firepower of this sort has never previously been paraded at the semi-final stage: you have to go back 40 years to Gerd Muller to find one striker of similar stature, and his 67-goal haul is likely to be surpassed by Messi this season.
Gomez has faltered over the past five games — just two goals, against a struggling Augsburg — and so have Bayern’s fortunes in the title race. Beaten by Dortmund in what was billed as the decider, and then goal-less against Mainz on Saturday, Bayern are now eight points behind and seemingly resigned to second place.
Messi by contrast is on an astonishing run. He last failed to score against Milan in the San Siro and has 34 goals since the turn of the year. He has either scored or set up 55 of Barcelona’s 96 league goals this season. Ronaldo has been involved in 52 of Madrid’s record 107, scoring 27 since the start of January.
Last week, when his team were under pressure, he took the Madrid derby by storm with his running from midfield and with two spectacular swerving strikes from distance. The third was a penalty — number 11 this season — and his success rate from the spot is significantly better than Messi’s.
That could be significant in ties which seem slightly more evenly balanced than they did when the draw was initially made.
Chelsea are the clear outsiders, not least because they lack a striker with anything like the form of the other three contenders. What they do have now is a bit of momentum, as Spain’s main sports paper Marca warned Barcelona yesterday: “This may not be the best version of the Blues, but they’ve achieved their best form at the most decisive stage of the season.”
Madrid are best-placed in one important respect: not one of their team is in danger of being suspended for the second leg. No fewer than five Bayern players are one card away from a ban, including two of their young attackers, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller. Referee Howard Webb may have to watch out for some Spanish gamesmanship this evening.
In the other tie, Chelsea risk having three players suspended for the return, with Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic both walking the tightrope. Barcelona have two under threat, and they also are important defenders: Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol. With Eric Abidal already missing, they will need to be careful at Stamford Bridge.Home