London calling for second-leg heroics
Chelsea and Arsenal are both promising a more exciting and effective performance in the second leg of the Champions' League semi-finals this week. It should not be difficult. Television viewers around the world could hardly have expected a repeat of the 4-4 extravaganzas in which both London sides had been involved against Liverpool recently, but the manner in which they set out to frustrate rather than create in their away legs was deeply disappointing.
They were at least denied the satisfaction of an away goal, which is a principal reason why Barcelona and Manchester United remain favourites to progress to what would be a popular final in Rome on 27 May. A year ago, of course, that pair were thrown together in the semi-final and United achieved what Chelsea must now hope for: holding on for a goalless draw in the Nou Camp after being outplayed, then scraping through at home.
Chelsea's interim manager, Guus Hiddink, says that "as a football-lover" he likes to watch Barcelona and Lionel Messi. Well aware of Roman Abramovich's demands, he even insists that he would not want to win the Champions' League playing the type of anti-football his team stand accused of producing in Catalonia.
"If we had the concept and attitude of playing defensively, I'd not be very happy with that, even winning," he said. "It's always good for a big club to have the modern concept of trying to play attacking, as we did against Liverpool and Juve, home and away. We try to play attractive, but sometimes you're forced to play different."
Barcelona, he accepts, are "as a unit, the best side in the competition", which is why he admits that, having failed to score the away goal, "it will be tight". Questioned about Chelsea's physical and negative approach in the first leg, Hiddink defended as resolutely as his players; but it was disappointing nevertheless to see the more xenophobic sections of the British press resorting to insults about "Bleating Barça... world-class whingers... don't like it up 'em!" (Daily Mail). The facts were that Chelsea committed three times as many fouls; that Michael Ballack should have had two yellow cards, and that Thierry Henry was denied a legitimate penalty. But foreigners "whinge", Brits merely speak out.
It is only Barcelona, however, who have a player suspended, in the veteran Carles Puyol. With another centre-half, Rafael Marquez, injured, Eric Abidal may move into the middle, offering an opportunity to the almost forgotten Sylvinho, an Arsenal stalwart before the days of Ashley Cole, Gaël Clichy and Kieran Gibbs. Arsène Wenger can certainly spot a left-back. On Tuesday, he will have to rely on the teenaged Gibbs, who stood up well with little help against Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney as his team escaped from Old Trafford with nothing worse than a 1-0 defeat.
Kolo Touré, whose dream is to play against brother Yaya in the final, conceded, "It's always a difficult situation to lose 1-0 away from home", while his defensive partner Mikaël Silvestre admitted: "It felt like Fort Alamo."
Davy Crockett's boys were not allowed the luxury of second legs. Arsenal are fortunate to be granted one and, like Chelsea, will do exceptionally well to come through it.
Champions' League semi-finals
Tuesday: Arsenal v Manchester United (7.45pm, ITV1)
Having made so much of the importance of an away goal, Arsène Wenger must be far more concerned than he is letting on about not having secured one – or even come close. Once United score, it is hard to see Arsenal without Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie getting three.
Wednesday: Chelsea v Barcelona (7.45pm, Sky Sports 2)
Although dominant in the first leg, Barça will be aware of having a poor record against English clubs: two wins in the last nine meetings, during which Lionel Messi has not scored. But Chelsea's luck surely cannot hold if the Catalans have as much possession again.
Odds to win trophy: 13-8 Manchester United; 15-8 Barcelona; 100-30 Chelsea; 11-2 Arsenal.
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