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Britain v Spain (sort of)

Europe was promised an interesting two nights, and it certainly got them.

From a Spanish point of view, it was win, lose and draw - with Barcelona, Madrid and Villarreal managing to give shape to a fully-rounded script of Hispano-British ties.

Pride of place should go to Barça, who despite playing the tie in London against ten men for two-thirds of the game, nevertheless left the Stamford Bridge crowd in little doubt as to the difference between strolling around the Premiership parks and coming up against a side that really knows its football. And all this after 49 home games undefeated.

Then again it's hard to say just how things might have turned out had Chelsea's only Spaniard, Asier Del Horno, refrained from attempting to kick Messi out into the Fulham Road.

The full-back's surname translates as 'From the Oven', but he really should have cooled down before he came out. Barça would then not have faced a tiring Chelsea side, attempting to cover up the extra space as the trident from your worst nightmares, Ronaldinho, Messi and Eto'o, descended gleefully upon them.

Justice was most likely done, since the fact that Messi had been running Del Horno ragged was the reason why the Basque full-back flipped and charged into him in the first place. Messi overdid the writhing, but there you go. The tackle certainly merited a sending-off.

In the second half, Ferriera actually did a better job on Messi, but in Barça's 400th European tie one thing became very clear - that the baby-faced Argentine is the hottest new thing on the football planet.

Ronaldinho commented to 4-4-2 magazine last month that it was ludicrous to call him the best in the world. 'I'm not even the best in Barça,' he said.

And he meant it. Messi is so fast, so strong on the ball, so intelligent in his distribution and his running that Barça's whole game has suddenly switched from getting it to Ronaldinho to getting it to Messi. Something always happens. The outrageous left-footed chip that left Cech standing and bounced off the bar was just the icing on the cake.

Chelsea, with possibly the best defence in Europe, simply couldn't cope with him.

In the second half, Barça were a bit too wise to allow Chelsea's counter-attack approach to really pay dividends, although for the first twenty minutes of the second half the Londoners surprised the visitors by pushing Robben further forward to join Drogba and risking the game by going for Barça's throat. It almost paid off, but they tired in the end - running out of steam as they chased a Barça side who are always happiest when in possession of the ball. At the back, Marquez played wonderfully, and Puyol was his usual solid self.

They hate Mourinho in Spain, taking him for arrogant and misunderstanding his irony. There wasn't much irony in his post-match complaints about Messi, but Spain will be happy now to see him rattled, although they forget that he learned his trade at the Camp Nou.

But because of the inevitable controversy surrounding the sending-off, Chelsea will be extra motivated.

It might be unwise therefore to write them off for the second leg, since they too have plenty of arguments on the counter-attack side, but when Barça have all their major pieces on the board, and all of them are up and running, it's hard to see how anyone can beat them.

Deco, Ronaldinho, Messi and Eto'o simply never allow the opposition's midfield to settle and create its own game. On Wednesday night, Lampard was so overstretched in defensive duties that he had little influence on the game. Chelsea's most creative player was Gudjohnsen, but he didn't quite have that extra touch of quality required to turn such a game. But it's not over yet.

Neither is the Arsenal-Madrid encounter. What an extraordinary result in the Bernabeu, and what a limp performance from the hosts!

Their lethargic and bland display was only marginally less annoying than the irritating tendency of all English commentators to pronounce Real Madrid's ground 'Berna-bow'. Quite how they have managed to invent this diphthong from the ending 'eu' is anyone's guess, but the sound has been spreading like wildfire through the British media for the last few years, and appears to be there to stay.

I watched the game zapping from English to Spanish, and was also interested as to the identity of the player 'Cassius' - constantly cited by the ITV commentator. After half an hour I realised he meant 'Casillas', but anyway. The Spanish commentator had no such problems with English names, since the only English guy on the pitch was Sir David, 'Woody' having retired after nine minutes clutching that problem thigh of his.

The game was like some sort of symbol of globalisation, with Arsenal fielding Reyes and Cesc from the beginning - Real Madrid only boasting one more Spaniard than that, and the only two Englishmen on the field.

Arsenal now hold the distinction of being the first English side to win a competitive game at the Berna-bow, but without an Englishmen in their ranks. Is that significant? Probably not.

The most significant chap in the visitors' line-up was Monsieur Henry, a player long desired by the Berna-bow minions, fed up as they are with Ronaldo's goofy witterings to the press about how the fans don't love him - a phrase used the very day before the game and an indiscretion unlikely to be forgiven now.

The Madridistas have never been convinced by Ronaldo's luke-warm commitment to the cause, and they would rather see the back of him now. Henry is the guy they want, but this very week sees further rumours of the Frenchman being tempted by Barcelona to spend the next four seasons there. It's not clear what Et'oo thinks about that, but Henry, intelligent chap as he appears to be, will need to think very carefully about his choice.

Is the tie over? Well of course not.

Madrid were simply beaten by a tactical sucker-punch they didn't seem to be expecting. Arsenal's young and usually jittery defence were handed the favour of Hleb's man-marking job on Zidane and Silva's tracking of Guti - so that the engine-room spluttered and died from the very beginning.

Spanish sides don't do this to Real Madrid. It seems to be some sort of unwritten law. If they tread on the Berna-bow and 'park the bus' - to quote a memorable phrase used to describe Javier Clemente's stifling tactics one year in Madrid - they are torn limb from limb by the press. So in general, they try to play their way out of the arena.

Arsenal, on the other hand, simply sat back and waited for the balls to appear in midfield, courtesy of Guti and Zidane's inaccuracies, and feed the ball quickly to Reyes and Henry. It worked like a dream, with the Catalan Cesc Fabregas gorging on the space and time afforded to him by Madrid's line-up.

In the Premiership, Cesc is used to being bullied into submission every week. Here, given the space and time to do as he liked, he ran the game. Madrid may not be so naïve in the second leg, but they'll have to wake up. When they're bad, they're really bad.

Last but not least, Villarreal, who appeared to play Rangers off the park, but that may have been the impression created by the highlights. Certainly, they seemed to have two perfectly legal goals disallowed, and Ranger's equaliser came courtesy of an outrageous deflection.

The Yellow Submarine seems to be surfacing and taking on some fresh supplies, after two months in the murky depths. Riquelme's back to feed Forlan, and Rangers may struggle to pull off a result in Spain.

The Madrileño press reckons that Cassius has kept them in the tie and that they can still win through at Highbury, giving Spain three representatives in the quarter-finals. That would be interesting indeed, but nothing is decided yet.

The three return legs still look pretty juicy to me. Can't wait.


  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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