It’s crunch time in the UEFA Champions League, as the quarterfinal matchups begin this week. Yesterday, nine-time European cup winners Real Madrid defeated Tottenham 4-0, and although the second leg is still to come, this tie looks all but wrapped up. In a more surprising result, defending champion Inter Milan were soundly defeated at home by Schalke. Inter will need to pull out a miracle in the second leg in order to move onto the semifinals, as Schalke already have 5 away goals in their backpocket.
Today, favorite Barcelona faceoff against Ukranian side Shakhtar Donetsk. But, in what surely is the headline matchup of the quarterfinals, English powerhouses Chelsea and Manchester United will clash at Stamford Bridge in London. These two sides have dominated English soccer over the past seven years, and they faced off against each other in the final of the 2008 Champions League, with the Red Devils beating the Blues 6-5 in penalties.
Much has changed for Manchester United since that rainy night in Moscow, as star players Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez have moved onto “greener” pastures. On the Chelsea front, although there have been numerous coaching changes and signings brought in since May 2008, the spine of the team still remains the same with Petr Cech, John Terry, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba.
It is important to note that the first leg of this matchup is at Stamford Bridge, where Manchester United has not won since 2003. This, along with the fact that Chelsea defeated Manchester United in a thrilling come from behind victory in early March, should give the Blues a slight mental edge in tonight’s matchup. Here, I am going to outline some of the key battles that could decide this tie:
Although Fernando Torres has not scored a goal since his January arrival to Chelsea, he has a history of making Vidic, considered one of the finest defenders in the world, look like a schoolboy. Torres scored against the Red Devils in both games last year, while he was with Liverpool. Additionally, Torres’ movement on the pitch has greatly improved over the past few games, and if he can create space, he may be able to net his first goal in Chelsea blue. Torres is one of the finest strikers in the world at making diagonal runs, and these runs command attention from multiple defenders, leaving space in the middle of the park. If Torres is up for it and makes these runs, it could open up space for Frank Lampard, who is clinical from the edge of the box.
Chelsea midfield v. Manchester United midfield:
Ultimately, this matchup is going to be decided in the midfield, as whoever controls possession and the pace of play will be the likely winner. After long layoff from injury, Frank Lampard is starting to regain his old, impeccable form. His precise movement and ability to defend make the Chelsea engine run. As a whole, the Chelsea midfield of Lampard, Essien, and Ramires has improved drastically since midseason. Ramires is finally starting to understand the nuances of the EPL, and his speed and technique are making him a challenge for opposing defenses on the right side of the pitch. Darren Fletcher, a great all-around talent, will surely have the duty of marking Lampard and Ramires, along with distributing the ball. If Ramires is fully energized and begins to win balls, it may be a long night for Fletcher, leaving him too tired to make clean passes to the United attack force. Moreover, Frank Lampard may be there to pick up the pieces and distribute the ball to Torres and co. It will be interesting to see how Sir Alex decides to line-up in the midfield. If he chooses to pack the center of the pitch, it may be difficult for the Chelsea midfield to breakthrough Fletcher, Carrick, and co. However, Ramires’ speed will be the key and if he makes runs deep into the pitch, then Essien and Lampard will have the space to make charges into the box, which is what they are best at.
Rooney scored a superb goal against Chelsea in early March. However, other than that he has not had much success against the Blues. His speed and vision will force Terry to keep an eye on him at all times, especially since new star David Luiz is not there to help him mark Rooney. Branislav Ivanovic is not a bad second choice either, and together, they will need to fill in any gaps so that Rooney does not get through to goal. Rooney will be up for this game, especially on the heels of his hatrick this past weekend. Terry will be extra-focused, as well, looking to avenge his penalty miss in Moscow. I think Terry and Ivanovic will do a good job of neutralizing Rooney; however, they need to be mindful of United’s other skilled strikers: Berbatov and Hernandez. It will be interesting to see what role SAF will ask Rooney to play tonight, attacker or facilitator, and accordingly, Terry and co. will have to adapt.
This quarterfinal is going to be a tight affair, as both teams know each other very well. I expect Chelsea to come away with a 1-0 victory, leaving it all to play for in the second leg at Old Trafford. Man. U will be cautious and try to attack Chelsea on the counter, especially with their speedy wingers. As a result, Chelsea will have a tough time breaking them down through the center of the park. Expect Chelsea to knick a goal off either a set piece or a Torres run, that leaves space for Lampard and Drogba to pounce. With that being said: GO BLUES!