The Limey
Friday April 17th, 2009

Three English teams clinched the semifinals of the European Champions League this week, representing the Premier League's finest hour since ... well, since last season, when three English teams achieved the same feat. As they did the season before that. Indeed, only a much-fancied Barcelona side can prevent a second all-England final. With Team Limey all cock-a-hoop with jingoistic cockiness, we look back at those quarterfinal second legs, starting with the thriller at Stamford Bridge.

Thanks to Chelsea's 3-1 first-leg win at Liverpool, the second leg was seemingly a foregone conclusion for the in-form London giants. Pre-match references to the "spirit of Istanbul" -- that miracle Liverpool comeback from three goals down to win the 2005 Champions League final -- seemed to be clutching at the thinnest of drought-hit straws, ones that disintegrated when injury forced Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard to watch the game from the owner's box.

And still, the drama of the night rivaled even that famous Istanbul final. Epic, classic, thriller and sensational were a few of the superlatives used to describe the game. U.K. tabloid The Sun even hyperbolically termed the 4-4 draw the "gr8test game ever" -- it certainly had good reason.

Liverpool made two remarkable comebacks, first in scoring two first-half goals to level the match 3-3 on aggregate by halftime. Despite needing to score again due to the away-goals rule, Liverpool was firmly in the driver's seat. Xabi Alonso dominated the midfield, and Chelsea keeper Petr Cech looked decidedly shaky, directly at fault for Fábio Aurélio's 19th-minute free kick.

The game turned on its head after halftime -- a rollicking from Guus Hiddink having the desired effect. Another goalkeeping error -- Pepe Reina knocking in Didier Drogba's cross -- and a thunderbolt free kick from Alex made it 2-2 on the night and 5-3 to Chelsea on aggregate. Liverpool was shell-shocked and, in the 76th minute, Frank Lampard put what appeared to be the final nail in the coffin, scoring from close range to put Liverpool three goals out of reach. Rafa Benítez concurred, and looked to be waving the white flag as he subbed out Fernando Torres in the 80th minute.

Amazingly, Liverpool wasn't finished, and came back again. Goals in the 81st and 82nd minutes from Lucas and Dirk Kuyt, respectively, meant that, at 6-5 to Chelsea on aggregate, a now hungry, confident and re-energized Liverpool needed just one more goal to progress. However, with Liverpool pouring forward pushing for that decisive goal, Lampard found space in the 89th minute to settle the matter. Maybe through habit, maybe through some faint hope of achieving the requisite two goals, Liverpool continued to press -- an attitude applauded by all.

Chelsea's prize is a semifinal against European superpower Barcelona, the tournament favorite. Despite the bookies' assessment, a resurgent Chelsea, with Hiddink's tactical know-how, should fancy its chances against a Barça side that is stuttering (by its own high standards) in La Liga. That said, the suspension of left back Ashley Cole is a huge worry for the Blues, especially given that the sale of Wayne Bridge to Manchester City leaves no obvious replacement to contain the mesmerizing Lionel Messi.

Following its 2-2 first-leg draw at Old Trafford, FC Porto's progress to the semifinals hinged on Manchester United being the first English club to win in Porto and being the first team to beat the Portuguese-league leaders since Nov. 2. Still, Man. United's own Portugal international, winger Nani, was undaunted. "Why am I confident?" he told The Sun before the match. "Simple, because we have the best players in the world." However, while Cristiano Ronaldo's decisive 40-yard power-driver in the sixth minute on Wednesday substantiated that argument, and Rio Ferdinand's return certainly solidified the defense, the main catalyst behind United's 1-0 win was a wily 67-year-old Scottish strategist with a penchant for chewing gum.

Shaken by the result at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson's team-talk and tactics ensured that United was resolute defensively. The midfield predominantly protected the back four admirably and was aware of the magnitude of the situation; players who had looked tired in recent weeks were that much quicker to the ball.

Playing Wayne Rooney on the right wing excellently covered John O'Shea at right back, while Michael Carrick, though somewhat shy in the tackle, covered a lot of ground in front of center backs Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Only on the left flank during the second half was United exposed. At age 35, Ryan Giggs doesn't have the legs to cover for Patrice Evra, who frustratingly often gets caught upfield. Fortunately for United, Vidic was typically quick across.

Offensively, United was neat and controlled. Never at full flow, it didn't need to be. The Red Devils' off-the-ball movement ensured a consistent threat on Porto. Anderson probed, Ronaldo teased, Rooney powered and Giggs tantalized, and with Dimitar Berbatov offering focus and some deft touches, Porto was made to defend in depth, in turn limiting its attacking potency. Bruno Alves, Hulk and Lisandro López all failed to convert on major chances. Even in the dying minutes, Porto rarely gathered the momentum of a team needing a goal.

When Porto dispatched United in '04, it went on to lift the European Cup. United, at 5-to-2 odds, looks like good value to reverse the feat. On top of the EPL, and now through to the semifinals of both the FA Cup and the Champions League, with the Carling Cup already lifted, an unprecedented quadruple (quintuple if we count the Club World Cup trophy) is still possible. If achieved, Ferguson would be the first manager since the legendary Brian Clough in 1980 to retain the European Cup. Would that be his final bow?

Arsenal is the first stumbling block in the way of Ferguson's European feat. The Gunners were favorites going into their second leg against Spanish side Villarreal, thanks to Emmanuel Adebayor's spectacular scissor kick against the run of play in the first leg at El Madrigal, which gave the Gunners a crucial away goal. Arsène Wenger was bold in his choice of formation, pairing Adebayor and Robin van Persie in attack. However, defense was the main area of concern, with Manuel Almunia, Gaël Clichy, William Gallas and Bacary Sagna all missing from the first leg.

Thankfully for Arsenal, the Yellow Submarine rarely threatened to sonar Arsenal's goal -- let alone unleash any torpedoes -- largely as a result of the Gunners' attacking dominance. England youngster Theo Walcott looks back to his best, following a spell out with injury. Walcott tore into the Spaniards' defense, running at them at every opportunity, and was rewarded after only 10 minutes when he scored with an audacious chip over keeper Diego López.

Arsenal continued to dominate the game, and Adebayor's clever finish in the 60th minute put the tie beyond lackluster Villarreal, and even moved usually reserved Wenger to do a rather awkward looking celebratory jig. Later, a penalty awarded to Arsenal riled Sebastián Eguren sufficiently to earn himself a second yellow card, and when van Persie converted, the death knell sounded for Villarreal's European campaign.

Murana Sesay of Freetown, Sierra Leone, asks why the English teams are so dominant in the Champions League. We put it down to the traditional full English breakfast: bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, black pudding, mushrooms, toast and tea -- an unbeatable combination. Have you ever tried winning the Champions League on a flimsy croissant or a crusty roll and an espresso?

Deliver any other lighthearted ideas for the English dominance of the Champions League to thelimey@hotmail.co.uk.

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