Nine thoughts following the Champions League quarterfinals:
1. Champions League pedigree. We can't really complain about the quality of the four semifinalists. Ask anyone to rank their top five European clubs and, odds are, three of them will be Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid (though not necessarily in that order. The fourth, of course, is Chelsea and, while this hasn't been the best of seasons, there is plenty of pedigree, star power and box office oomph.
2. Minnows surprise. APOEL held the most expensively assembled team in history goalless for 74 minutes in the first leg and then scored twice at the Santiago Bernabeu. The Cypriot's club place in history is assured. Let it serve as a reminder that this sport is not just about big spending and high wages. Hard work, creative scouting and tactical nous can take you far as well.
3. Kaka on the way back? Public opinion enjoys few things more than tearing down the icons it creates. And Kaka, who -- it's fair to say -- has been a bust since moving to Real Madrid in 2009 has been torn down more than most. But he scored a peach of a goal against APOEL and has showed glimpses of the form that made him one of the best in the world not that long ago. Jose Mourinho deserves credit for the rehabilitation of Kaka -- physically and mentally -- and for believing he could contribute to the side at a time when much of the local media had written him off.
4. Mind games. Speaking of Mourinho, his thoughts on Barcelona are as predictable as they are transparent. It's classic psychological warfare, aimed not at Barca per se, but at the poor soul who gets to officiate their clash with Chelsea or, if they advance, the final, which will possibly be against Real. This way, whatever happens, he has an alibi if and when Real Madrid lose to Barcelona. It's pure Machiavelli, but, by now, most of us are used to it.
5. Controversial penalty. Milan was furious for that second penalty awarded by referee Bjorn Kuipers, when Alessandro Nesta pulled Sergio Busquets' shirt. Now shirt-pulling is obviously a foul and Nesta continued pulling Busquets shirt once t he ball was in play. No argument there. But there are two issues with Kuipers' handling of the incident. First, this is the classic infraction which is often tolerated to some degree and was tolerated by Kupers' himself earlier in the game. There's an issue of consistency -- or lack thereof -- in his decision. What's more, most referees -- and Kuipers himself -- when they see the infraction before the ball is in play deal with it by issuing a verbal warning. It's pretty obvious that this is what Nesta, a guy with 20 years' experience at the highest level, was expecting. Second, Kuipers failed to take into account the dynamic of the play. Carles Puyol was going to block Nesta as soon as play restarted, obstructing him from chasing Busquets. It's obvious from the video, it had happened earlier in the game, and it's what actually transpired. That's why Nesta grabbed Busquets' shirt. The thinking was that either Kuipers comes over and warns the players, thereby discouraging Puyol from the block or Kuipers does nothing in which case Nesta gets blocked but Busquets doesn't get away because Nesta has his shirt. So there was an obvious logic to it. It's just that, unfortunately for Milan, Kuipers chose that moment in time to apply the Laws of the Game, the very same ones he and his colleagues had previously largely ignored.
6. Tactical shift. The most fascinating aspect of Pep Guardiola is his willingness to fiddle and tinker. That virtual 3-3-4 formation, with Isaac Cuenca and Dani Alves wide and Leo Messi and Cesc Fabregas dropping off was wonderfully unorthodox. It shows tremendous creativity on Guardiola's part and is a testament to the players' tactical versatility and belief in their manager's methods. Yet you wonder if sometimes it can be a bit much. The fact of the matter is that Barcelona have better players than most opponents and, sometimes, forcing the opposition to adjust to you -- rather than adjusting your game to the opposition -- can be even more effective.
7. Schweinsteiger's status. Bayern brushed Marseille aside with ease, which is what you'd expect against an opponent who has lost nine of its last 10 games. With a fearsome attacking potential (Arjen Robben -- when fit, as he is now -- Franck Ribéry, Tomas Muller and Mario Gomez) plus a shutdown goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer Bayern are rightfully considered a dark horse, not least because the final is at the AllianzArena. You can't help but feel though that its chances would be greater with a fit and productive Bastian Schweinsteiger shielding a back four which has blown hot and cold. Schweinsteiger hasn't started a game since Feb. 8 and, since returning from injury has had a handful of substitute appearances. If you're a Bayern fan you'll be hoping that it's a case of being 100 percent certain he's ready to go rather than some lingering aftereffect of his injury.
8. Chelsea shaky. Roberto Di Matteo will want to review his team's 90 minutes against Benfica very closely. There is no excuse for not closing out a game when you play most of it against 10 men, at home and against an opponent with no fewer than four central defenders out. Di Matteo has not been shy about making changes since taking over from Andre Villas-Boas, both in terms of system and personnel. Against Benfica though something was clearly lacking. If Chelsea play like this again in the semifinal against Barcelona, they won't get away with it.
9. Benfica put up a good fight. Final word on Benfica, who go out of this competition with their heads held high. Late in the first half, after Maxi Pereira's red card and with the referee seemingly happy to book everyone in sight, you felt as if things were going to unravel, especially given the fact that they had a left-back (Emerson) and a midfielder (Javi Garcia) in central defense. Instead, Benfica showed tremendous character in clawing its way back, thanks also to substitutes Nelson Oliveira and Yannick Djalo. It's that kind of gutsy attitude that Benfica needs in the stretch run for the Portuguese title.
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