UEFA Champions League 


Tom Oldfield


When the Champions League returns at the end of the month, the semi-finals have a lot to live up to. After some pulsating, nerve-racking action, the field has been whittled down to four and, again, the Premier League has three representatives. But what lies in store? Having seen Liverpool and Chelsea, usually so cagey and tactical, smash in 12 goals in two games, predictions are a dangerous business.

Make no mistake, the final four – Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United – are all powerhouses of the modern game and there is little to choose between any of them, even if the English bookmakers make Barcelona slight favourites to lift the trophy in Rome. One prediction that can be made without hesitation, is that there will be a Premier League side in the final. This, of course, is automatic as Arsenal and United square off in semi-final 1.

So, as the dates with destiny loom large on the horizon, it is time to analyse the match-ups, pick out the key men and tentatively nail colours to the mast, all the time aware that the Champions League’s greatest strength is its ability to conjure the magical and the unexpected.


Manchester UnitedManchester United v ArsenalArsenal

First leg: Old Trafford, 29th April 29; Second leg: The Emirates Stadium, 5th May


Route to the last four: Won Group E, beat Inter Milan (2-0), beat Porto (3-2)


In Cristiano Ronaldo, United have a talisman who can change the course of a game – just look at his strike in Portugal in the last round. Whether he plays on the right, the left or through the middle, his all-round game makes him lethal and Arsenal will know all about that.

The other obvious strength is the back four. Shaken by Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard back in March, United’s rearguard were rock solid away to Porto. So long as Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are together at the heart of the defence, expect Arsenal to find openings hard to come by.


The lack of a midfield ball-winner has not hurt United too badly this season but it is a definite weakness. Liverpool enjoyed success at Old Trafford with Gerrard floating between the champions’ midfield and defence and, with Owen Hargreaves still sidelined, Cesc Fabregas can expect plenty of time to pick his passes.

Wastefulness is another slight issue with United. At The Emirates earlier in the season, Sir Alex Ferguson watched his side fall to a 2-1 defeat but knew it could have been different if Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney had taken gilt-edged chances. United are accustomed to plenty of possession but too often this season they have failed to turn this into goals – a charge that has been thrown at Arsenal too.

Key Men

Patrice Evra will have a big role to play as he will be responsible for staying with Theo Walcott, which is obviously no easy task. If he keeps the young Englishman in check, United will have blunted one of Arsenal’s biggest threats on the counter attack. But Evra could also be a factor at the other end. Walcott is not known for his defensive skills and the full-back might find some joy with his rampaging, overlapping runs.

Ronaldo – for the obvious reason that he is considered the best footballer in the world and, despite a patchy season, remains capable of anything.

Whoever Ferguson picks in midfield, because they must stop Fabregas running the show. It is debatable as to whether Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick have the tenacity to fulfil this task so expect to see Anderson given the nod to ruffle the Spaniard’s feathers.

Manchester Utd 2001/02 Centenary Double-Layer Shirt

Manchester Utd 01/02 centenary double layer shirt


Route to the last four: Second in Group G, beat Roma (1-1, 7-6 on pens), beat Villarreal (4-1)


The most obvious advantage for the Gunners is that their attacking players are returning at the right time. Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott will have topped up their match fitness in time for the two legs against United and their energy will spearhead Arsenal’s surge.

Fabregas’ range of passing is another huge plus. Everything good runs through the Spaniard in midfield and his calm, assured touches show Arsenal at their creative best.

The youthfulness and pace in the Gunners side could also be critical. United are hardly an aging outfit but, particularly in midfield, they can be got at. If Arsenal use the midfield areas to their advantage, they will create enough chances to progress to the final.


The injury list in defence looks to be the biggest Achilles heel for Arsenal. A goalkeeping blunder from Lukasz Fabianski, deputising for the injured Manuel Almunia, in the FA Cup semi-final combined with injuries to Gallas, Gael Clichy and Johan Djourou have given Arsene Wenger a real headache. He will be praying several on this list return for the first leg but, in reality, at least in part the defence will be patched up – never a good thing with Ronaldo and Rooney lurking.

There will be no surprise factor either for the Gunners. Against Roma and Villarreal, Arsenal were clearly quicker and had better movement than their opponents. United will know what to expect and this may prevent the frenzied starts that the Gunners used to progress in the past two rounds.

Lastly, Fabregas’ role in the Arsenal midfield has been highlighted already as a strength but can also be a weakness. Arsenal are so dependent on their captain’s play-making ability that shutting down the Spaniard – as Chelsea did effectively at Wembley – can throw the Gunners’ rhythm out of sync.

Key Men

Fabregas has the ability to take control in midfield against any opponents and if he keeps things ticking over and Arsenal enjoy a decent share of possession, he will craft openings for Adebayor and Robin van Persie.

Kolo Toure is one of the few certainties in the Gunners back four currently and for that reason he has a huge role to play. Heads will have dropped after the defeat to Chelsea and, if injury weakens the defence, Toure must help the likes of Kieran Gibbs through what will be the biggest matches of their fledgling careers.

Samir Nasri could also be a big factor. He tore United to shreds earlier in the season and the champions have not settled on a regular right-back. Ferguson must choose between John O’Shea, Gary Neville and Rafael Da Silva but all three will struggle to contain the Frenchman’s pace and dribbling skills.

Prediction – Manchester United to scrape through, possibly on penalties

Arsenal 2008/09 Away Shirt Long-Sleeve

Arsenal 08/09 away shirt long/sleeve

BarcelonaBarcelona v ChelseaChelsea

First leg: Nou Camp, 28th April 28; Second leg: Stamford Bridge, 6th May



Route to the last four: Won Group C, beat Lyon (6-3), beat Bayern Munich (5-1)



Where to begin? Pep Guardiola’s side are clear at the top of La Liga and have been playing the type of enterprising football that takes your breath away in recent months. Lionel Messi presents the biggest threat going forward but it is the attacking trio of Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o as a unit that gives Barcelona their clinical edge. Pace and movement going forward is the trademark of this side.

Midfield passing is another major strength. Xavi and Andres Iniesta are canny operators, rarely wasting a pass. Their composure, vision and understanding are the keys to maximising the collective brilliance of the front three. In truth, though, attacking threat comes from all over the pitch.


Having beaten Bayern Munich 4-0 in the quarter-final first leg, it is difficult to pick too many faults. But clearly the great emphasis on attack leaves Barcelona more open at the back. While Yaya Toure forms a solid screen, opponents will create chances. Similarly, Daniel Alves at right-back loves to bomb forward. This gives Barcelona a great outlet but the space behind Alves is promising territory for counter-attacking. If Chelsea are able to break out and use the channels, they will find yards of space down the left.

Barcelona’s lack of physicality in midfield should also give Chelsea hope. While Xavi and Iniesta are great passers, they will not win many headers and shrug too many people off the ball. Powerful midfield enforcers like Michael Essien – and to a lesser degree Frank Lampard – may be able to exploit this weakness.

Key Men

Lionel Messi is in stunning form at present and, like Ronaldo, can change a game in an instant. His mesmerising dribbling and clever movement make him a nightmare for defenders and, with Ashley Cole suspended for the first leg, he could run riot at the Camp Nou.

Xavi’s midfield probing makes him an essential cog in the Barcelona machine. He makes them tick and, if given time on the ball, he will pick the Blues apart.

Rafael Marquez – or whoever marks Didier Drogba. Drogba’s power was ultimately too much for Liverpool in the last round and Arsenal at the weekend. He is in a rich vein of form and Marquez must match him aerially to keep Chelsea on the back foot.

*Rare* Barcelona 1992/93 Home ‘Champions of Europe’

Barcelona 92/93 home shirt 'Champions of Europe'


Route to the last four: Second in Group A, beat Juventus (3-2), beat Liverpool (7-5)


The Hiddink factor has revitalised a disgruntled squad and this belief has given Chelsea an outside shot at the Treble. There is a feeling of invincibility growing again within the Blues’ dressing room, similar to the one that existed under Jose Mourinho, and this gave them the edge in the last round. Hiddink has settled the players down and helped several key players raise their game.

Midfield bite is a big Chelsea strength. Michael Essien’s return from injury has certainly been timely and he gives the Blues a more rugged look in the middle of the park. Lampard and Ballack are also fine tacklers, with the German particularly dominant in the air. Chelsea must utilise this strength to bully the Barcelona midfield.

Thirdly, an on-song Drogba is an unstoppable weapon and the way he has been leading the line lately gives Chelsea a brilliant target up front. His power is crucial to the Blues’ style and he has scored numerous vital goals in the past two months.


Petr Cech’s recent fragility will have been noted by Barcelona. Cech has looked nervous dealing with crosses and was embarrassed against Liverpool by Fabio Aurelio’s inventive free-kick. With Messi and company in devastating form, the big goalkeeper will be punished if he does not recover his poise.

And problems with set-pieces are also troubling for Hiddink. Some of this stems from Cech’s uncertainty but their general standard of defending from corners and free-kicks has been very un-Chelsea like this season and, on such a huge stage, this could be exposed again by the likes of Marquez and Carlos Puyol, even though Barcelona are not the biggest of sides.

Also, Cole’s suspension for the first leg is a big blow. The full-back’s form has been patchy but Chelsea were relying on him to counter the threat of Messi. The booking he picked up against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge keeps Cole out of the trip to the Camp Nou and whoever fills in will have a massive job on their hands against the little Argentine.

Key Men

Drogba’s performances in the two legs could well determine the outcome of the tie. Barcelona are good defensively but certainly not great and the Ivorian has the pace and power to exploit that, so long as he receives decent service.

Essien will also be massively important in winning possession against Barcelona’s classy midfield passers and providing cover to help subdue Messi. His energy levels, alongside the tireless Lampard, make Chelsea’s midfield extremely combative and the Ghanaian could be the midfield spoiler to hurt the Spaniards’ chances.

Florent Malouda has looked a new man under Hiddink, putting some average displays under Luiz Felipe Scolari behind him. His assist for Drogba’s goal at Anfield and his equaliser at Wembley will have only increased his confidence and he will have a vital role against Barcelona, tracking Alves’ forward bursts and recovering to exploit the space that the Brazilian vacates down the flank.

Prediction – Barcelona to win by a one-goal margin


Chelsea 1997/98 Home Shirt

Chelsea 1997/98 home shirt