Wednesday, February 25, 2009

United and Arsenal impressive but not clinical; Pool and Chelsea's turn

So, last night's ball first and though there weren't many goals, there was plenty to mull over. As predicted, Inter-United was goalless, though United were utterly dominant for large spells and really ought to have grabbed a goal or two at least to kill the tie. Arsenal were more like the Arsenal we expect, Roma were more like the Roma who tend to come to England and lack any sort of moral courage. Lyon had a real go at Barca and threatend to run them over at times, but Barca clung on and nicked an away goal. All these games have a meaningful second leg, something to savour.

At a rocking San Siro, the imperious United showed up. They kept the ball expertly, probed down both sides of the field and really tore Inter to shreds, especially first half, with their movement and technical abilities. Sometimes you step outside your usual zones to get the full picture and assessing the media of the european side does that. The Italian papers were full of praise for United's dominance and Carrick - who looks to be growing into a real midfielder of note - especially. He was at the hub of everything and used the ball brilliantly. Fletcher took responsibility for the hounding and ballwinning. Ronaldo was a serious threat everytime he got on the ball - two headers, a couple of freekicks, two lovely crosses that created chances - and was unlucky not to have a goal by the end.

RTE'S analysis was again disappointing. They spent most the night talking about the decision not to play Rooney, Tevez or Scholes when some plain research, knowledge and reasoning would have told them some facts. Tevez was never going to start. Scholes was very unlikely to start, with Ferguson not quite trusting his legs away from home in the big games - remember he's been badly exposed at Chelsea, Liverpool and other games this season. Rooney's only just back from a long lay-off so is rusty. We noted here yesterday that the midfield would be Carrick/Fletcher/Giggs/Park and though we half-expected Berbatov to be sacrificed, that it was Rooney was understandable. RTE also neglected to mention that this three-man midfield system was responsible for United's dominance, that they always had an extra man in there to pop the ball to and keep possession while Inter chased shadows. United's only fault was not getting a lead, though we expect this composed performance to be rewarded at Old Trafford.

At the Emirates, from the highlights, it seems Arsenal were totally in charge themselves. Roma again came away from home and went into their shells, Totti was anonymous. Arsenal looked slick and sharp but might rue the missed chances - especially that man Eboue, who decided to take 10 seconds to try and walk the ball into the net instead of taking it first time like any normal footballer would have. Bendtner also, rather unbelievably, looks a man short of confidence in front of goal.

Barcelona got a fair whipping in a humdinger of a first half in Lyon, a wicked Juninho free-kick catching Valdes out early on and Benzema caused fierce problems with his power and running. Lyon missed at least two great chances to get a second, but quality like Barca were always going to push on. In the end, Henry nodded in a corner for an equaliser and it seems that they settled for a draw from there on. Idealism would suggest that maybe Barca/ Man Utd could have gone for the jugular and away wins; realism would suggest that away draws at decent, if not wonderful, top European sides are not to be sniffed at.

Tonight's action
If Jose v Fergie was last night's selling point, then Rafa going to Madrid is tonight's off-the-field story (see Sid Lowe's portrait of a Madridista at heart). Real are in decent form in La Liga, thumping Betis 6-1 at the weekend and have been rejuvenated by Juande Ramos. They're reliant on an unreliable in Arjen Robben though, and for all the qualities of Gago and Higuain, they're ordinary enough in lots of positions, lack real pace, have a lot of guys low on confidence and Raul is an imitation of the Raul of six or seven years ago. I'd expect Pool to dig in, make it pretty stop-start, press Real in possession and try to force mistakes. This is really hard to call, cos Pool are in horrid form but it's the sort of game that might suit them. Maybe a 0-0 or 1-0 here either way.

It's hard to know how good Juve can be when they're a shot behind such an average Inter side in Serie A and they're still calling on names like Nedved, Del Piero and the continually overrated Trezeguet/Camoranesi for inspiration. But there's a bit of pace and energy about them when the mood takes them - they've ripped apart Milan and Real this season already - and if the youngsters in the group get a run, they could be awkward. Chelsea, if Hiddink can work his magic, might be too strong though. Maybe a 2-0 for the home side here.

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