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By ESPN Staff
Apr 17, 2008

Beauty and the beast on show in Europe

Sir Alex Ferguson, in his introspective moments, will tell you that the Manchester United side he has managed since 1986, should really have won the UEFA Champions League more than just the once under his stewardship.

The waning moments of the 1999 final in Barcelona saw United equal, then surpass Bayern Munich, providing the most dramatic of big-match denouements. Ferguson and his players return to the Camp Nou on Wednesday for the first leg of their semi-final tie, well aware that they'll never have a better chance of again being crowned continental kings.

The United boss believes the current squad to be his strongest ever. It's hard to disagree. Cristiano Ronaldo is the leading candidate to win all the prestigious individual awards. The supporting cast - Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand - is ridiculously rich in ability.

Meanwhile, who needs to worry about injuries and suspensions piling up when the likes of Anderson, Park Ji-Sung and Nani are waiting in the wings? Not that United have too many personnel problems anyway, save for Nemanja Vidic's minor knee injury.

Ferguson is more conscious than most of the importance of history in football.

A Champions League success this year for the Scot would come 25 years after his first European triumph with unfashionable Aberdeen, in the 1983 Cup Winners Cup. Poignantly, 2008 also happens to be half a century on from the Munich disaster, that saw eight United players perish when a team flight crashed on a slush-covered West German runway.

Taking form considerations into account, it's well-nigh impossible to make a proper case for Barcelona. Their play in La Liga has been downright abject at times, and the dressing room is a series of cliques mistrustful of each other. Ronaldinho would normally be counted on in a semi-final against Manchester United. However, the former World Player of the Year (officially out injured for the rest of the season) will play no part.

Still, it would be folly to write off Barca's chances completely. With the collective quality in their ranks - Xavi, Iniesta, Eto'o and especially a fit again Leo Messi - it's only fair to hypothesise that all could come good against United. But it might not be wise to put too much money on that happening. Barca have yet to be adequately tested in the Champions League this term and may have met their match.

There will likely be goals aplenty in this two-legged tie and United should have too much firepower for the ailing blaugrana.

The other semi-final kicks off 24 hours earlier, on Tuesday at Anfield. Liverpool and Chelsea will cross paths for the third time in the last four years of this competition. In between the two semi-final ties, they've also squeezed in a couple of group stage encounters.

These games are usually tense, but devoid of great football - and goals. Six Champions League meetings of the two Premier League clubs have produced a paltry total of three goals. Many claim to this day that Luis Garcia's goal that decided the 2005 semi in Liverpool's favour, didn't in fact cross the line.

It would be no surprise if the cancelling out process holds sway again. Liverpool's biggest priority in the home leg will surely be to keep a clean sheet. Rafa Benitez wouldn't have it any other way. Chelsea, unlike Arsenal in the quarter-finals, are unlikely to offer a contrasting expansive approach. Everything points to a war of attrition, rather then a feast of football.

Yet it will be griping in the extreme. Liverpool rightly go in as slight favourites based on European nous and know-how. There would something strange about the much-maligned Chelsea incumbent, Avram Grant, doing what the celebrated Jose Mourinho failed to do: put one over Benitez and Liverpool in Europe.

It can't be ruled out, despite the fact that several Chelsea players currently wear the look of discontented footballers. Didier Drogba for instance, clearly wants to be somewhere else. He'll likely get his wish in May but before that, the onus is on him and his teammates to give their professional best and try to propel Chelsea to Moscow, venue for the Champions League final on 21 May.

My own feeling is that the Russian capital will take on the feel of England's North West next month. A final contested by Liverpool and Manchester United would be rather surreal in such a far-flung venue.

However, the intrinsic beauty of this wonderful competition is that nothing is certain. It could just as easily be Chelsea v Barcelona.

We'll be a lot wiser on Thursday morning after the first legs are over. This will be a football week not to be missed.


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