By Paul Gardner
Delicately poised -- there's a nice soccer cliche for you, but one that certainly applies to the four Champions League quarterfinals. The return games next week are intriguing for a variety of reasons. Will Inter’s thin 1-0 lead stand up on the plastic field in wintry Moscow? Can Manchester United, without the injured Wayne Rooney, get the goals it needs to oust the now surely confident Bayern Munich? Barcelona looks to be in a relatively strong position against Arsenal, after banking two away goals in the 2-2 draw at the Emirates, but this one may have some surprises -- Arsenal will be without Cesc Fabregas (another apparently bad injury) -- but Barcelona will have both their center backs Gerard Piquet and Carles Puyol suspended.
The team that looks to have the easiest passage is Lyon, which travels to Bordeaux with a 3-1 lead. But that scoreline, too, is deceptive, as that all-important third goal came from a highly dubious call from German referee Felix Brych, who gave a penalty kick to Lyon after a handball by Bordeaux defender Matthieu Chalme -- but a handball that was surely not intentional and should therefore not have been punished.
The good news about the injuries is that none of them was the result of violent play. But they nevertheless give cause for concern. The three most serious were those of Arsenal’s William Gallas and Cesc Fabregas, and that of ManU’s Wayne Rooney. All three play in the English Premier League. Is that a coincidence? Or is it that the heavy EPL schedule -- particularly of the top clubs -- invites injuries late in the season, at the very moment when the games get most intense?
It is rather surprising that Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger decided to take the risk of using Gallas and Fabregas, for their fitness was suspect. Wenger’s statements after the game merely add to the surprise: “I couldn’t change anybody, I had to leave him on even though I wanted to take him off. In any case, he wanted to stay on ... You have to trust how the player feels.”
Admittedly, Wenger had used all of his subs, but surely -- in the interests of protecting Fabregas’ fitness -- it would have been better to remove him and play with 10 men for the remaining eight minutes? As for going with what the player feels, that is an extraordinary remark -- there’s just too much evidence (from Ferenc Puskas in the 1954 World Cup final down to David Beckham with the 2007 Los Angeles Galaxy) to show how unreliable that course is.
And of course, the sight of both Fabregas and Rooney on crutches leaves you wondering -- who’s next? The obvious candidate is Lionel Messi. Each time I watch him, I marvel at his ability to dodge tackles, while also wondering how much longer his almost charmed life of gliding effortlessly past lunging bodies and swinging legs and menacing cleats can last.
All four of the games had something to offer. Goals, for a start, 12 of them -- 3 per game, which may not sound a lot but is actually remarkably good these days. Some excellent goals, too. The top ones, for me, were both Latin American productions: Brazilian Bastos’ ferocious drive for Lyon’s second goal, and Argentine Diego Milito’s quite remarkable shot for Inter’s goal -- a shot from the edge of the area when it appeared that Milito was being crowded off the ball, with no time or space for a wind up -- yet the ball was hit low, with tremendous force, and barely left the ground as it rocketed into the net.
That was another fascinating point about these “European” games -- of the eight teams involved, seven featured Brazilian players, while five included Argentines. Arsenal, once again, did not include a single English player in its starting lineup -- though when Theo Walcott was brought on late in the second half, he was arguably Arsenal’s liveliest player. Inter found room for only one Italian, Marco Materazzi.
And so to a couple of trivia points: CSKA included the identical twin bothers, Vasili and Aleksei Berezutski; while the Argentine Milito brothers could find themselves in direct opposition in the next round, should both Diego’s Inter and Gabriel’s Barca advance.
The best soccer came from Barcelona in the first half of its game, but the encouraging thing was that all eight teams managed to play an attacking game, and all eight produced periods, or at least assorted moments, of attractive soccer.
Next week’s return games, then, really have something to offer, with all eight teams still very much in contention, and none of them likely to play a defensive game. Inter might be the exception -- Jose Mourinho’s cautious approach against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last month is what got his team into the quarterfinal. But that one-goal lead looks a fragile advantage to rely on, maybe a little too delicately poised.