It’s England vs. Iberia today in the European Champions League quarterfinals. And while so much is made of the English teams’ dominance — their wealth, their primacy in European club soccer — it would be foolish to discount the possibility that Villarreal of Spain or F.C. Porto of Portugal could tackle Arsenal or Manchester United from behind, metaphorically speaking.
Here are three questions to consider ahead of today’s first-leg quarterfinal matches:
Which Manchester United team will take the field at Old Trafford against F.C. Porto?
Should fans expect the Manchester United team that went for more than 1,300 minutes of soccer without giving up a goal in the Premier League? Or should fans expect the maddeningly inconsistent United that faltered disastrously against Liverpool, against Fulham and had to depend on a last-minute wonder-strike from a little-known Italian teenager against Aston Villa over the weekend?
“The first thing Cristiano Ronaldo said to me when the draw was made was that this was a difficult game,” said Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of the Porto clash. “They’re like Lyon – when a team wins their domestic championship every season, they play with great confidence and that’s exactly what we’re going to face.”
United is never a team short on confidence, but will recent domestic performances carry over to European play?
“It would be stupid for us to think that this tie was going to be easy,” added Ferguson.
Oliver Kay, the Times of London football correspondent, says the win over Villa will give the Red Devils a boost, but their suspect defense the past four weeks will be a concern.
Will Villarreal midfielder Robert Pires remind the Arsenal fans what they’re missing?
Pires is not the the player he was when he so stylishly ruled the left flank for Arsene Wenger’s unbeatable Gunners. And while it may be an emotional return to London for the yellow-clad Frenchman, it is likely to tug at the heart strings of the Arsenal supporters as well.
As a key part of the Arsenal team that strung together a 49-match unbeaten streak from May 2003 to Oct. 2004, Pires epitomizes the patient passing and possession-dominating strategy of Wenger’s Arsenal. The team didn’t lose a single match on the way to the 2003-04 title, and Arsenal did so playing attractive soccer, not the negative, cynical defensive game one might expect. Pires then helped Arsenal win the 2005 FA Cup in penalties over Manchester United, but the club hasn’t won a trophy since he left for Spain after the 2005-06 season.
Fans expected more from Arsenal than they did from the 30-something Pires after his exit from the team. “After leaving Arsenal many people felt this was my footballing farewell and maybe my adventure in Spain was about money and holidays,” said Pires.
That was hardly the case: after rupturing knee ligaments, he returned to action and had a renaissance on the field, replacing Juan Roman Riquelme as the creative heart of the Villarreal midfield, as the Guardian notes. That impressed his former boss, Wenger.
“I am surprised at his good form because I didn’t expect him to last as long as that,” Wenger told the Guardian. “But I believe that with his technical quality, his intelligence and his vision … he has taken advantage of a different style in Spain. It’s less physical.
“What I’d also say, and I noticed this when Robert was at Arsenal, is that he is a fantastic trainer. You give him the ball and you say we start at eight o’clock and we finish at two o’clock in the afternoon, and he is happy. Because he loves to practice, he loves to play. He has a serious life.”
Pires said he wants to show Wenger and the Arsenal fans just how serious he is: “I want to demonstrate in this tie that these people have been mistaken. My challenge is to play my best games of the season.”
Does anyone really miss the Italian teams?
The English dominate, with four teams in the final eight. There are two Spanish sides, a Portuguese club and the Germans have reclaimed a top spot in Europe thanks to Bayern Munich. While the Italians lament their teams’ misfortune (no Juve, no Inter, a disappointed Roma), does anyone else in Europe (or fans of European soccer around the world) miss the Italian teams in the later stages of the Champions League?
Inter played occasionally interesting soccer, with Jose Mourinho trying to get the most out of a team with a superstar and some rising young talent, but that disguised a lackluster midfield that played with huge gaps.
Roma, struggling at home, lost a close one to Arsenal in the round of 16, but can anyone say the Giallorossi are playing the sort of soccer fans want to see in the Champions League?
Juventus, who is still reeling from the 2006 match-fixing scandal, can’t seem to find traction in Europe while it tries desperately to reclaim a top spot in Italian Serie A. Claudio Ranieri, the manager, is doing all he can with a new crop of solid players and an aging stable of loyal stars (Del Piero, Nedved). That they refuse to fade away quietly is impressive, but is Juve really a top European team in the modern game?