Champions League round-up – They came, they saw, they conquered

So there we have it then – England 3 Italy 0. The superpowers from the Premier League all faced their Italian jobs and didn’t so much ‘blow Serie A’s doors off’ as steamroller it entirely.

Where does that leave the Italian teams? Well with a lot of thinking to do obviously, but things could have been different if they’d just believed in themselves a bit more. Inter looked like a beaten side from Cristiano Ronaldo’s first step-over in the San Siro, Juventus didn’t attack Chelsea when they were vulnerable and Roma had Arsenal on the run at the Stadio Olimpico, but couldn’t press home the advantage.

Juventus 2 Chelsea 2 (Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate)

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Football, as those of us who are fond of re-hashing tired old clichés will tell you, is a game of fine margins, where the line between success and failure is often blurred. For example, had things gone slightly differently in Turin the other night then Claudio Ranieri would today be a Champions League quarter-finalist; having tasted an undoubtedly sweet victory over his former club. The fact that this isn’t the case probably boils down to three key moments from what turned out to be a surprisingly open game.

First was Pavel Nedved’s two falls and submission inside 12 minutes, replaced by Hasan Salihamidzic, who has many admirable qualities as a footballer, but the loss of the Czech playmaker so early was a massive blow to Ranieri.

Second came Michael Essien’s strike in first half stoppage time. After Juve had levelled the tie through Vicenzo Iaquinta’s superb goal, stunning in its simplicity – there only looked to be one winner. However, Chelsea, whether they be marshalled by Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant or Guus Hiddink, have always had the qualities required to score crucial goals at crucial times. Essien’s follow-up as Frank Lampard’s deflected effort bounced back off the bar changed the entire dynamic of the tie – the Blues had hardly been in the Juve half.

Juve now needed two goals, a prospect that effectively disappeared along with Giorgio Chiellini twenty minutes from time – the third key reason behind Ranieri’s woes. Chiellini did go in strongly on Didier Drogba, but played the ball, and it’s hard not to view the Ivorian’s over-eager displays of ‘pain’ as an attempt to get the defender sent off.

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Ten minutes later, Drogba was sprinting around the Stadio Olimpico to hail the goal that finally killed off the Bianconeri hopes – an equaliser on the night after Alessandro Del Piero’s penalty had briefly raised the spirits of the ten men.
Overall, Ranieri has to view this as a missed opportunity. His insistence that the tie was lost at Stamford Bridge seems a hollow one, it was only a one-goal deficit after all, and the Bianconeri had Chelsea rocking after Iaquinta’s opener in Turin. But until Juve learn how to turn those decisive match-turning factors in their favour they’ll go on underachieving in Europe.

Manchester United 2 Inter Milan 0 (Manchester United win 2-0 on aggregate)

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For all of the Special One’s bravado and bluster, his cocksure confidence and enormous ego – indeed, his romp towards the Serie A title, he still won’t deliver the one thing that Inter crave above all else.

Defeat to Liverpool at this stage of the competition last season was the final nail in Roberto Mancini’s coffin, and while it’s too early to say the same about Mourinho this time around, this disappointing display won’t help matters and will leave the Portuguese with several uncomfortable questions to answer today.

Questions such as why was no-one guarding the back post when Ryan Giggs swung in the corner from which Nemanja Vidic effortlessly headed United into the lead? Was Walter Samuel really fit enough to start? Why substitute Mario Balotelli when he looked like the only player capable of causing problems? And why dos Zlatan Ibrahimovic continue to go missing on the big nights in Europe? In fairness to Ibrahimovic, he didn’t hide at Old Trafford, but, as so often when he comes up against opposition above an average standard, there was a lethargy to his play that rendered Mourinho’s declaration of his forward being the best player on the planet look simply ridiculous.

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Sure Inter were unfortunate when the Swede hit the bar and Adriano the post, although quite how Ibrahimovic managed to miss from that position is another matter. Sympathisers will suggest that they were unlucky to meet Manchester United at this stage, given that Alex Ferguson’s side are probably the form team in Europe, but the fact is that United didn’t have to play all that well to win the game.

The English side’s extraordinary defensive record this season meant that the tie was given its last rites once Cristiano Ronaldo headed in the second – a goal that leaves Mourinho with just Serie A glory left to chase. Quite a consolation prize of course, but not exactly the ‘special’ season the Nerazzurri were hoping for when appointing Mourinho last summer.

Roma 1 Arsenal 0 AET (1-1 on aggregate; Arsenal win 7-6 on penalties)

It would have been whispered amongst Roma fans when Juan gave their side an early lead. It would have been relayed up and down the Curva Sud when the game went into extra time and it would have been bellowed by thousands during the nail biting drama of penalty kicks. Destiny.

For Roma, their destiny was to reach this year’s final, held at their very own Stadio Olimpico. Twenty-five years after the heartbreak of losing the Final to Liverpool in front of their own fans, the dream of a glorious night in the capital, their capital, has died. Once more at the hands of an English team and again on the heartbreak of penalties.

Roma began like a side who knew that they were lucky to still be in with a chance after the first leg. Arsenal should have battered them at the Emirates, but the Romans swarmed all over them now, with Juan poking in Francesco Totti’s cross to underline the dominance.

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It was a brief cameo from the Brazilian defender, whose injury forced the arrival of Julio Baptista – perhaps a bigger hate figure amongst the Giallorossi faithful than Paulo Di Canio these days, and forced a reshuffle that saw John Arne Riise pressed into service as a surprisingly excellent centre half.

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The North Londoners didn’t function as an attacking force, largely down to Riise and the excellent Marco Motta, and had Baptista taken a golden chance late on then Roman hearts wouldn’t have ended up shattered. That they did was down to a combination of bad luck and a lack of belief. The woeful penalties from Mirko Vucinic and Max Tonetto, coupled with a seemingly paralysed Doni’s failure to look like saving anything after Eduardo’s first kick, hinted that Roma simply didn’t think they were good enough to win. The fact is that they were, and they should have done it during normal time.

So there will be no dream May night in the Coliseum for i Lupi, or indeed any Italian team, after a night of regrets. If this was their destiny, then the Roman Gods were being particularly cruel.

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