In what is widely being dubbed as the ‘week of comebacks’, this week’s European clashes certainly threw up some drama and excitement in what were threatening to be a number of dead rubber second-leg games.
Of course in an absolute classic invocation of Sod’s Law (which for the uninitiated is defined as: the humorous or facetious precept stating that if something can go wrong or turn out inconveniently it will), Mrs Football Nerd and I opted to tune into the Manchester City – Liverpool Champions League Quarter Final second leg with the vague anticipation that Pep Guardiola’s men might get an early goal and make things interesting. Of course this meant we missed the real excitement of events in Italy.
City did indeed score the early goal when former Anfield favourite but now object of ire, Raheem Sterling, ‘outmuscled’ £75 million defender Virgil Van Dijk and teed up Gabriel Jesus in the second minute. However despite wave after wave of sky blue attack, City, unlike their opponents at Anfield the previous week, were unable to make it truly count. Perhaps if Sane’s goal hadn’t been ruled out on the stroke of half-time, wrongly as it turned out, the match may have developed differently.
Credit must however go to Liverpool who hung on through the anticipated attacking maelstrom and ultimately settled the tie, catching City with a sucker-punch ten minutes into the second half when Mo Salah, (who else?) seized upon a loose ball in the City penalty area and calmly floated his 39th goal of the season past Ederson. Any lingering doubt over the outcome was removed when Firmino took advantage of further uncertainty in City’s three man defence and made it 5-1 on aggregate with less than quarter of an hour to go.
Meanwhile in Rome, in the game we had opted not to watch, something of a minor footballing miracle was taking place. 4-1 down from the first leg to the if not quite superhuman then certainly still formidable Barcelona, AS Roma pulled off a result that was dubbed by the Spanish press as ‘fracasos sin excusas’ (failure without excuses). Only twice before had a team recovered from a three goal first leg deficit to progress in the Champions League, to add to the irony the most recent team to do it were Roma’s victims themselves Barcelona who had come back from a four goal deficit to eliminate PSG a little over 12 months previously.
According to reports, Dzeko’s opening goal after six minutes provided the spark for Roma to believe that they had a chance of pulling off the seemingly impossible. They created a number of chances and when De Rossi brought them to within one goal from the penalty spot early in the second half this started Barcelona wobbling. Then eight minutes from time Manolas’ near post header sparked wild celebrations around the Stadio Olimpico and Barcelona were left contemplating the harsh truth that for a third consecutive season the quarter final was the end of the Champions League road for them.
Barcelona’s eternal despised rivals Real Madrid very nearly contrived to usurp the Catalans’ ‘historic humiliation’ the following evening. Real were also facing Italian opposition and carrying a three goal lead, but crucially they were at home in the intimidating Santiago Bernabéu, surely lightning couldn’t strike twice…could it?
When Mario Mandžukić nodded in at the far post after less than two minutes and then repeated the trick late in the first half, those of us who still believe in footballing fairy-tales crept closer to the edge of our seats.
On the hour mark Blaise Matuidi scrambled the ball home and Juventus were level and on course for what felt like almost certain extra time and possibly penalties, but cometh the hour cometh the self-avowed saviour of Real Madrid,Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the last minute Vázquez went over in the box, referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot, Gianluigi Buffon’s European club career ended with him being dismissed for his protestations, Ronaldo fired home the spot-kick and then invited the millions watching to worship at the feet of his preening greatness. Real had escaped by the skin of their teeth.
Seasoned Arsenal followers know only too well that if anyone is capable of throwing away a three goal lead then Arsène Wenger’s men are usually a fairly safe bet, especially away from home. What was needed from the Gunners’ trip to Moscow was a solid, boring, functional performance; however what would be the fun in that?
Instead Arsenal ‘treated’ their beleaguered fans to a first half in which you wondered if they may have been the latest victims in a Russian poisoning conspiracy. When, inevitably, CSKA scored and then scored again you could just see the headlines being written. However through the unlikely driving force of Elneny who first setup Welbeck and then Ramsey, Arsenal salvaged a draw, saved embarrassment and secured passage through to their first European semi-final for nine years.
For once the overtly money-driven UEFA competitions had served up some drama, unlikely triumph and no small measure of heartache with compelling storylines and a shake up to the normal order of things, we can only hope it continues into the semi-finals.