Champions' League quarter-finals: United happy to slip under the radar as hope springs eternal
Sunday 16 March 2008
If Arsenal's double-header with Liverpool in the Champions' League quarter-final has dominated the headlines and bulletins so far, Manchester United and Chelsea will be perfectly happy with that. After being beaten in the season's two other cup competitions by Tottenham and Barnsley, and demanding more respect from the media, Chelsea's Avram Grant would like nothing more than a period out of the spotlight, and he must be delighted to have drawn the rank outsiders Fenerbahce.
Not that he is allowed to say so. Nor would Sir Alex Ferguson be drawn into any whoops of pleasure, confining himself to surprise at facing a sixth match against AS Roma within a year. For United, however, there has been nothing in the previous four to bring the sort of fear that some of their supporters experienced in being confronted by the more thuggish of the Italian club's ultras in the Eternal City.
Hope springs eternal for United, even after disappointment in the competition every year bar the one that is now almost a decade in the past. Beggars cannot be choosers at this level, but there have been seasons in which a third European Cup would have been particularly appropriate; notably in 2002, when defeat by the unfancied Bayer Leverkusen cost Ferguson an emotional Glasgow final; and the following year, when the venue for the final was Old Trafford but Real Madrid saw off United. So to the 50th anniversary season of the Munich air disaster, with romantics outside London and Merseyside hoping this might be the time.
Once again, Roma are second to Internazionale in Serie A, without much hope of catching them, so unless Inter collapse in the wake of two defeats by Liverpool, the one advantage United's opponents will have is a clearer focus. Roma faced Ferguson's side earlier in the season, when United were struggling to score. Bizarrely, the 1-0 victory over Roma at Old Trafford in October was United's sixth by that margin in seven first-team games. "It's a disease, I'm trying to get a vaccine for it," Ferguson smiled at the time, adding: "The goals will come."
Even the manager may have been surprised how quickly and comprehensively his confidence was justified, with 22 goals in the next five games. Wayne Rooney, who only got off the mark for the season in the Roma match, was suddenly in full flow and Cristiano Ronaldo, also making a slow start, has since found the net with the regularity of a star centre-forward.
"Thirty goals from a winger, that's unbelievable," his team-mate Rio Ferdinand said in the wake of the one that beat Lyon in the last Champions' League game. "Not since John Barnes at Liverpool in his heyday has any winger got near that amount." Barnes never matched it and, because of Liverpool's European ban, never came close to European Cup success. Ronaldo and United are on the scent again.
Match-by-match guide, by Steve Tongue
Arsenal v Liverpool (2, 8 April) Statistics and style suggest that this ought to be an improvement on the grim Chelsea-Liverpool ties. Even if Arsène Wenger's men are smothered at home by the Rafael Benitez blanket, they will remember Milan and remain confident.
F enerbahce v Chelsea (2, 8 April) Chelsea's 5-0 win away to Galatasaray in 1999 was a rare comfortable trip to Turkey for any British club. They cannot expect a repeat and should be happy with an away goal and a draw from the first leg.
Roma v Manchester Utd (1, 9 April) Only one win in the past year's four meetings for Roma, which was 2-1 at home after Paul Scholes had been sent off. This season's group games (0-1 and 1-1) were tighter. But take United to progress.
Schalke v Barcelona (1, 9 April) The bookmakers' decision to drop Barcelona to second favourites comes after a lapse or two in the Spanish league, but they should see off the Germans, who were fortunate to squeeze past Porto on penalties.
Latest odds (supplied by William Hill) 3-1 Manchester Utd, 100-30 Barcelona, 7-2 Chelsea, 5-1 Arsenal, 7-1 Liverpool, 14-1 Roma, 33-1 Schalke, 40-1 Fenerbahce.
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