Thursday, February 24, 2005

Last night Barcelona beat Chelsea, leader of England's Premier League, 2-1 in a fine second-half comeback in Champions' League play. I caught part of the game while I was translating for the Spain Herald.

Barcelona came out swinging and Chelsea played exclusively on the defensive, with eight or nine men back, looking for the fast break and trying to break Barcelona's on-side trap line. In the first half Chelsea scored on a rather lucky on-goal by Belletti while he was trying to head away a center into the area in the 32nd minute. Barcelona sort of fell apart for the rest of the first half, but after halftime they came out strong again.

Drogba, Chelsea's star forward, got himself kicked out of the game in minute 55 for generally being a dick. The proximate cause of his expulsion on a second yellow card was a charge into Barcelona goalie Valdés. Albertini started instead of Oleguer, who is mildly injured and needs some rest. Márquez moved back to Oleguer's place next to Puyol in the middle of the defense, and Albertini took Márquez's defensive midfielder spot, and he wasn't very good. Rijkaard's standard first-man-off-the-bench Iniesta replaced him in minute 56, right after Drogba's expulsion, and then Giuly, who wasn't terrific, either, went out for Maxi López, whom Rijkaard had been saving for Chelsea. López was excellent. He's big and strong and smart; I just might try starting him at center-forward and moving Etoo over to the right in place of Giuly, or putting him on the left of the attack, Ronaldinho in the center, and Etoo on the right.

López and Etoo combined for two quick goals, Lopez in the 65th and Etoo in the 73rd, and Barcelona continued to play well, with several more chances at goal. Chelsea stayed back, playing defense only, and after the second Barça goal it was pretty obvious they'd given up. If Barça had converted even one of those, this two-game matchup would be almost over. The game ended 2-1, though, and all Chelsea needs to do is beat Barca 1-0 at home and they go through to the next round.

It was another rough game; Puyol, Márquez, Belletti, and Albertini, Barça's thug squad, beat the crap out of Chelsea's forwards and the ref let them get away with it. Deco took a blatant dive in the area early in the match and he got away with that too. All this pissed Drogba off so much he acted like a dope and bought himself two yellow cards. Tiago, Cole, and Makelele were probably the best Chelsea players. I'd say Etoo, Deco, Xavi, Puyol, Márquez, Iniesta, and López were standouts for Barça.

Etoo is a horse and Puyol is a bull. Sticking with the metaphor, Márquez, Xavi, and Deco would be hard-charging rams, and Iniesta is a two-year-old thoroughbred. Ronaldinho had a pretty good game. He's a horse too, but he's like Seabiscuit--when he's good he's great but when he's not he's only OK. He's in just a bit of a slump, but he's still better than just about anyone else out there, and he's going to keep improving. A slump for Ronaldinho means a merely above-average performance. Ronaldinho hasn't hit his peak years yet. Etoo hasn't hit his peak, either, and he's playing like Secretariat this year.

Other Champions' League results, from the first leg: On Wednesday, Oporto 1-Inter Milan 1, Manchester United 0-AC Milan 1, and Werder Bremen 0-Olympique Lyon 3. Lyon is obviously through to the next round, while the rest of the series are wide open for the second leg. AC Milan, Barcelona, and Inter Milan are likely, in that order, to advance.

On Tuesday night, it was Real Madrid 1-Juventus 0, Liverpool 3-Bayer Leverkusen 1, PSV Eindhoven 1-Monaco 0, and Bayern Munich 3-Arsenal 1. Liverpool and Bayern ought to go through, and the other two are still undecided. Madrid and PSV would both obviously be favored to advance, though if I were going to pick one team of eight to turn the series around it would be Juventus.

So, assume Barça goes through along with Lyon, Milan, Inter, Madrid, Liverpool, PSV, and Bayern. Tough group. I would bet on Barça, Inter, Milan, and Bayern to be the final four. Lyon is the upset special. They have a lot of good French and African players, and they could knock out anybody, which PSV, Liverpool, and Madrid probably couldn't. If Juventus comes back and knocks Madrid out in this round, which is quite possible, they'd also have to be one of the favorites. There you have some completely awful predictions. Come back on March 8 and 9 for the second leg and you can either all laugh at how wrong I was or marvel at how brilliant I am.

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