Unexpectedly, all four of this week’s Champions League ties are still in the balance.
It could be a dramatic week in Europe, with the all-Spanish clash tomorrow being the pick of four intriguing matches.
“It’s going to be one of the games of the year,” predicted Madrid sports paper Marca of the second leg between Atletico and Barcelona. For once the hyperbole may be justified. The match last week had almost everything – drama, controversy, brilliant attacking play, tremendous defending.
Barcelona could have been two down at half-time but then might have scored four in 12 minutes as they pinned back Atletico’s 10 men.
Luis Suarez should not have been on the pitch but his two second-half goals proved he is the best finisher around. The goalscorers were the two number 9s, but the outcome was decided by Barcelona’s width. This time, with Torres suspended, Atletico may play with two wingers up front.
Barcelona are now under pressure from Atletico in the league as well, having lost to Real Sociedad on Saturday in the absence of Suarez and thanks to the heroics of Geronimo Rulli in goal. Barcelona seemed jaded, with Lionel Messi and particularly Neymar below their best.
Atletico’s Calderon stadium will definitely be like a cauldron tomorrow night. Cool heads will be required. Atletico are on a mission, while both Barca’s hottest heads – Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano – are one booking away from a ban.
* We were overdue a refereeing controversy in this season’s tournament and it duly arrived in the first leg at Camp Nou after Fernando Torres collected his second yellow from German official Felix Brych. Not that Brych was wrong to send off Torres. The question was why Barcelona weren’t already down to 10 men after Luis Suarez kicked Juanfran.
In Spain – in Madrid anyway – a lot has been made of Barcelona’s history with referees, with opponents regularly sent off. Both these sides have their theatrical moments and probably with this in mind Uefa have given the match to Nicola Rizzoli, who has handled big matches involving both clubs previously as well as the last World Cup final.
The Italian has had his share of controversy. Last week he was in the news after denying he had been headbutted by Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci – “he didn’t touch me, I pushed him” – and he has a history of gaffes, though mostly as a goal-line judge not as a referee.
Hopefully that experience will help on this occasion, as this is one of the last Champions League games before goal-line technology is introduced.
* Wolfsburg pulled off the shock of the round last week by beating Real Madrid, although they did benefit from a questionable penalty awarded by another Italian referee, Gianluca Rocchi – and Madrid could have had a penalty of their own.
Madrid were also exceptionally wasteful in the first leg – 21 shots, but only three on target. The question is whether Wolfsburg, like Schalke last season, have the nerve to take on Madrid in their own stadium.
Schalke began that game 2-0 down, Wolfsburg have a 2-0 lead. Both Sergio Ramos and Marcelo have something to prove, but this match will probably turn on which version of Cristiano Ronaldo is playing.
Ronaldo gave a tremendous unselfish all-round performance when Madrid took three points in Barcelona 10 days ago, scoring a great late winner just after Ramos was sent off and all seemed lost. Two minutes into the first leg in Wolfsburg he had a goal ruled out for offside and for the rest of the match his contribution was sporadic, at best.
Ronaldo and Gareth Bale together can still pull off that rare feat of winning from two goals down but Wolfsburg have just the sort of quick attaching players in Julian Draxler and Andre Schurrle who can upset the Spanish defence.
Madrid presumably will now be prepared for Bruno Henrique, who ambushed them in the first leg, but the away goals rule means that they will need to score four if Wolfsburg can get one on the break.
* Benfica face a similar problem in that they need to stop Bayern Munich scoring to have a realistic chance.
Locked in a head-to-head battle with their Lisbon rivals Sporting in the league, this match could almost seem like a diversion, and they might already be out but for their goalkeeper Ederson. The young, almost unknown Brazilian also caused Bayern a tactical headache in Munich with his kicking.
Playing the ball long is not what Portuguese sides are known for, and Benfica have their quota of technically gifted attackers, but sometimes the most simple of tactics can work.
Guardiola’s high defensive line usually has opponents in trouble, but the accuracy as well as the length of Ederson’s clearances meant Bayern had to defend deeper than usual.
Bayern are clear favourites to go through, but injuries continue to cause concern.
Javi Martinez is back, after spending most of his time at the club on the sidelines, but three of their central defenders are still unfit and in attack both Arjen Robben and Kingsley Coman are in doubt.
* Tonight Manchester City enjoy an advantage against PSG which ought to carry them through to their first semi-final. They have two away goals, but more importantly PSG are missing key players.
For the past couple of seasons PSG’s strength has been their quality and bite in midfield. But now both Blaise Matuidi and David Luiz are suspended. Thiago Motta, as he showed in Italy’s recent 4-0 defeat in Germany, no longer can hold a midfield together on his own.
So PSG are left hoping that their best midfielder Marco Verratti can overcome the intermittent groin problem he’s had for the past six months.
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