Champions League lessons learned
All four of the Champions League's quarterfinal first legs were thrilling affairs
Barcelona's vicious attacking trio put on a clinic in a 4-0 rout of Bayern Munich
Rafa Benítez was outcoached by Guus Hiddink; has Arsenal been underrated?
Halfway through the Champions League quarterfinals and the neutral fans can only be pleased. We've seen far better games than in the first legs of the Round of 16, we yet could have a major upset and, along the way, we've learned at least 10 things:
1. Barcelona's front three may be the most devastating we've seen in a long, long time. Take a bow, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o. I know numbers can lie, but these guys are off the charts. Between them, they've scored 85 goals this season (in 115 combined appearances). Those are PlayStation-type numbers, plain and simple. And when you think that many wrote off Henry as "finished" and still more (including one Pep Guardiola) suggested Eto'o was surplus to requirements, it only goes to show how wrong people can be.
2. Playing two games in three days is a really, really bad idea. On Sunday, Manchester United faced Aston Villa. Less than 50 hours after the final whistle, Sir Alex Ferguson's crew was back on the pitch to take on Porto. That alone may not explain why United was so terrible on Tuesday, but two games in three days certainly didn't help -- especially because it was totally unnecessary.
3. On his night, Guus Hiddink can outthink Rafa Benítez. Which is no mean feat. The Spaniard may be the best manager in the world over two legs (and, to be fair, he has another 90 minutes to remedy the 3-1 deficit). But at Anfield, Hiddink had the tactical upper hand. He stuck Michael Essien in front of the back four, which helped nullify Steven Gerrard and allowed Alex and John Terry to deal with Fernando Torres' speed. He kept Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda out wide and up the pitch, pinning Liverpool's fullbacks in their own half. And he put his faith in Branislav Ivanovic at right back. The Serb responded by taking Albert Riera out of the game and scoring two headed goals. It's Hiddink's second victory in the Champions League from the quarterfinal stage onward and, like the other one (a 3-2 win over AC Milan in 2004-05), it was fully deserved.
4. Too much, too soon for Jürgen Klinsmann. Thinking that a great player, however intelligent, seamlessly can take over a huge club is a massive mistake. Sometimes it works; more often than not, it doesn't. Klinsmann got the Bayern job on the back of his reputation as a player and the two years he spent with the German national team, which he took to third place at the '06 World Cup. That means little -- running a club is a very different job. Bayern is fourth in the Bundesliga and has conceded nine goals in its last two outings (against Barcelona and Wolfsburg). And this is despite spending big over the past two years. Time for a rethink.
5. If Lucho González played in another league, he'd be hailed as one of the world's best midfielders. I don't really want to single him out, because Porto's draw at Old Trafford really was a team effort. But the guy deserves a lot of credit -- he combines quality and work rate like few other players in the world. On Tuesday, it was his self-belief that propelled Porto.
6. You need a "Plan B." Which is exactly what Liverpool didn't have against Chelsea. Liverpool's 4-2-3-1 system works frightfully well, but sometimes it's worth going for the jugular. And the fact that there was no reliable striker on the bench (David N'Gog is a kid) robbed Benítez of a valuable option once Liverpool fell behind.
7. Fitness matters. For 45 minutes, Villarreal ran circles around Arsenal on Tuesday. Manuel Pellegrini's men passed the ball brilliantly and, crucially, they pressed the Gunners in every area of the pitch, but particularly in midfield, where Cesc Fàbregas was hurried and harassed every time Villarreal lost possession. But Villarreal simply couldn't keep it up, despite the best efforts of Sebastián Eguren and Marcos Senna. In the second half, Arsenal found the space and time it needed -- witness Fàbregas' pass to set up Emmanuel Adebayor's goal.
8. Judging a player on work rate can be a mistake. Some guys just don't look busy. Take Adebayor. He basically did nothing for most of the game, hardly breaking a sweat. Then, all of a sudden, he drifted away from the defenders, controlled Fàbregas' pinpoint pass and conjured up the kind of overhead kick that is bound to be a staple of highlight reels for years to come. The Togo striker obviously has his flaws, but the reason he's so highly paid is for moments like these.
9. Gamesmanship is alive and well. Anyone see Rafa Márquez getting booked for time-wasting late in the Barça game, with his team ahead 4-0? The yellow means he'll miss the nearly meaningless return game against Bayern but will go into the semis with a blank slate.
10. It's worth looking at the big picture. For much of the year, Arsenal was criticized for slipping out of the top four in the English Premier League and being distinctly unimpressive in the Champions League. But when you consider that for longs spells of the season, the Gunners were without their best player (Fàbregas), most prolific striker (Adebayor) and most promising winger (Theo Walcott), you might just wonder what they might have achieved if those guys had been fit all year long.