The Reuters global sports blog
Manchester United fans, players and manager Alex Ferguson will no doubt be fuming for a few more days about the controversial nature of their Champions League defeat by Real Madrid before the club’s attention turns to Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
But even the referee’s decision to send off Nani when a booking seemed sufficient could not overshadow the graceful manner in which Cristiano Ronaldo handled the occasion of knocking out his former club at a ground where he is apparently still adored.
“Viva Ronaldo,” United supporters sang before, during and after the 1-1 first leg in Madrid and the ode to the Portuguese forward also reverberated around Old Trafford during Real’s 2-1 win as he barely held back the tears after delivering the killer blow that saw his present club advance into the last eight 3-2 on aggregate.
Ronaldo refrained from celebrating either his headed equaliser at the Bernabeu or the deft finish which swung the tie Real’s way in the return leg and there was nothing pathetic or patronising in the gesture of a player often slated for theatrics while he played in the Premier League.
Shakhtar Donetsk romped into the Champions League last 16 with a match to spare following their 5-2 win at Danish rivals Nordsjaelland, but only after their Brazilian striker Luiz Adriano scored a goal which outraged much of the football world as he broke what UEFA called “principles of conduct”.
With the Ukrainian champions 1-0 down and chasing the win they needed to progress into the knockout stage of the competition, Luiz Adriano latched on to a ball which his team mate and compatriot Willian played in an attempt to pass it back to the opposition after the game was halted to treat a Nordsjaelland player for injury.
If the rip-roaring action from Matchday One in the Europa League is anything to go by, proposals to scrap the continent’s second-tier competition in order to expand the money-spinning Champions League to 64 teams would be an ill-judged decision.
Allowing as many as six teams from Europe’s top leagues to enter the Champions League would devalue the competition’s name as much as it would dilute its quality, with too many nondescripts trying to punch above their weight.
Frank Lampard said he never doubted Chelsea would win the penalty shootout against Bayern Munich in Saturday’s enthralling 2012 Champions League final, although they trailed in the spot kicks after Juan Mata’s early miss, while the hero of their astonishing victory Didier Drogba firmly believes it was Chelsea’s destiny to cover themselves in glory.
And rightly so one might add, having suffered an exact reverse four years ago on a rainy night in Moscow, which ended in agony for Chelsea after they were ahead in the penalty shootout against Manchester United only to see the elusive trophy snatched away by their Premier League rivals after John Terry’s barely believable miss.
Barcelona rounded off a rollercoaster week with a 7-0 drubbing of Rayo Vallecano – out of Europe and with the league already conceded by Pep Guardiola, the pressure lifted and Barcelona were able to enjoy themselves once again. The Copa Del Rey final on May 25 will mark Guardiola’s final competitive game in charge at the Camp Nou, bringing down the curtain on a four-year reign that has yielded a ton of trophies. Announcing his decision not to extend his contract at an emotional press conference, Guardiola weariness with football was apparent, but almost immediately speculation began as to when he would comeback – and possibly more importantly, where. If his career as a coach continues to mirror his time as a player, there are some rocky times ahead. This is the second time Guardiola has left Barcelona; after a glittering career as part of Johan Cruyff’s “dream team”, when he departed as club captain in 2001 he did so empty-handed, as Barca failed to win a trophy in his final season. In what seemed an odd move at the time, he moved to Brescia in Italy before stints in Qatar and Mexico, but the twilight years of his club career never came close to echoing the success he enjoyed at the Catalan club that raised him. Six years after his departure as a player, he returned to the Camp Nou to coach the reserve team and he became a winner once again, winning promotion with the Barcelona B team before taking over from Frank Rijkaard. Guardiola has already been linked with London club Chelsea, and no doubt he will be linked to every top job that becomes vacant this coming summer. But the 41-year-old will need to be very careful about the next job he takes on – despite all he has achieved to date, his methods are not guaranteed to succeed elsewhere. Everything he has achieved as both a player and a coach has been done surrounded by Barcelona players, and has been steeped in the traditions of the club. Many of those who won promotion with him with the Barca reserves went on to become loyal servants in the first team. Others, like Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, were schooled at Barcelona before leaving for England and then returning – despite their Barca heritage, both players had to work hard to adjust to Guardiola’s game plan. And if players raised at the club have these difficulties, what chance does a whole new dressing room adapting to his methods? Immensely intelligent with an obsessive attention to detail, Guardiola’s basic tactics have remained true to Barcelona’s heritage, and his tactical tinkering has amounted to moving players around within the system, rather than trying to change it. It is hard to imagine him suddenly sending out a team to play 4-4-2, or ordering his side to start playing long balls in desperation. It might also be difficult for him to inherit players who simply don’t understand his way of seeing the game, or those who cannot adapt to it. There are few other clubs in the world who can offer the embarrassment of playing riches that he had at Barcelona. A decent outside bet might be for Guardiola to take over from Vicente del Bosque as manager of the Spanish national side. Taking on that job would give him breathing room at the same time as keeping him involved in football. He would be out of the pressure-cooker atmosphere the Camp Nou but still operating at the highest level. Added to that, he would still have contact with players and a tactical structure that will be familiar to him from his time at Barcelona. As Barcelona’s performance at Vallecano this weekend showed, the shackles are now off and the possibilities are many. Probably the only one that can be ruled out at this stage is him taking over from Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid – other than that, anything can happen. PHOTO: Barcelona’s coach Pep Guardiola (R) and his assistant coach Tito Vilanova talk before their Spanish first division soccer match against Rayo Vallecano at Vallecas stadium in Madrid April 29, 2012. Guardiola will leave Spanish soccer giants at the end of this season and will be replaced by Vilanova. REUTERS/Sergio Perez
The inspiration for a team widely considered one of the best to grace the game, a thorn in the side of bitter rivals Real Madrid and a symbol of Catalan nationalism, Pep Guardiola has been all these things and more as a player and coach for Barcelona.
The spectacularly successful 41-year-old, who announced on Friday he was quitting at the end of the season, led Barca to a club-record 13 trophies in his four seasons in charge including two Champions League crowns and three straight La Liga titles.
On two nights when every football cliché went out the window, one remained true – in the end the only statistic that matters is the scoreline.
On Tuesday It didn’t matter that Barcelona owned the ball, or that they completed hundreds of passes over the two legs. When Chelsea got hold of it, they used it effectively – if we are to look at one stat other than the score, Chelsea’s four shots on goal and three goals in the tie tell their own story.
So Chelsea pulled off an amazing coup to dethrone Barcelona and reach the final. Real Madrid meet Bayern Munich on Wednesday for the right to meet Jose Mourinho’s former club on May 19.
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A mouth-watering clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona in this season’s Champions League final in Munich appeared to be on the cards when the two Spanish giants were kept apart in the draw, but the prospect of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi watching the showpiece on television instead of taking centre stage on May 19 now looks just as likely.
While Barcelona missed a hatful of chances in their 1-0 defeat by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a pulsating first leg of their semi, Real were maybe fortunate to escape with only a 2-1 defeat at Bayern after they were undone by a stoppage-time winner from Mario Gomez.
By Phil O’Connor
Unheralded and unpopular when he took over at Newcastle United, Alan Pardew has led them into the upper reaches of the English Premier League, and within touching distance of a Champions League place.
The question is whether he can beat Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Redknapp to fourth spot and the last Premier League place in football’s top club competition – and make himself a contender for the England manager’s job at the same time.