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Apr 8, 2010

Bayern end English ambitions, Messi magic

For the past three years, the semi-finals of the Champions League have read like a glance at the top of the Premier League. Three English teams have repeatedly made it to that last-four of Europe's elite competition during that time, while it has been seven years since there was no side from the Premier League involved.

Manchester United 3-2 Bayern Munich
Ferguson blames 'typical Germans'
• Forum: English clubs: Blip or decline?
• Forum: Who will win Champions League?

This year, the semis have a distinctly retro feel to it as four different nations are represented: Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Sadly for England, their last hope of success went out with a bad taste as Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson accused the 'typical Germans' of getting one of his players sent off to turn the tie. Selective memory loss may affect Fergie these days (has it really been that long since Andy D'Urso was hounded by United players?), but over the two legs in each tie, English teams have not cut the mustard.

Yet as much as the focus could be on United's failings, Wayne Rooney's ankle or Rafael's sending off, it should be on Bayern's revival. This is a team who had to undergo some radical rebuilding after failing to get into the Champions League in 2006-07 and spent vast sums of money on the likes of Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez in order to reassert their dominance.

The failings of Felix Magath, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Jurgen Klinsmann and Jupp Heynckes in Europe's elite competition has now seen them turn to Dutchman Louis van Gaal and the decision has delivered their first European semi-final since 2001, while also exorcising some demons still floating around from their last-gasp defeat to United in the final in 1999.

A major factor in their recent success has been Robben. A player who has always had enormous potential - if a questionable injury record - the winger has been dogged by criticism since failing to fulfil it at either Chelsea or Real Madrid, but now appears to be making the most of his time in Germany.

Before the game, Ferguson was scathing in his words about Bayern's other gem - Franck Ribery - claiming that even veteran Gary Neville could outpace him (something we never got to find out, even with Rafael's dismissal), but ignored Robben. United's defence appeared to do the same from a 74th minute corner and were left to rue the result. While Bayern showed their resilience in escaping from the jaws of defeat to win, another of Europe's forgotten teams booked their place in the last-four: Lyon.

For a side who have dominated their domestic game so much over the last decade, it is incredible to think that their defeat of French rivals Bordeaux is the first time they have reached the semi-final stage in their history. Perennial quarter-finalists, Lyon are another side who have had to rebuild after the loss of Karim Benzema, Juninho and Florent Malouda in recent years, but have done so with aplomb and the acquisition of Lisandro Lopez (who netted twice in the first leg to give them a telling advantage) can be seen as a tremendous piece of business.

Domestically, Bordeaux have taken the spotlight over the last two seasons as Lyon last won the title in 2007-08, so the result will do as much in the psychology of the French game as it will at the Stade Gerland. They will have good knowledge of how to play against the 'typical' Germans as they clashed in the group stages of 2008-09, but one feels that Bayern will have the most momentum going into the tie.


It has been hard to avoid the impact of Lionel Messi upon the Champions League. With eight goals in his nine games - four of them coming in his single-handed demolition of Arsenal in the quarter-finals - Messi can rightly claim to be the finest player in the world, but will face a fresh challenge in the form of Jose Mourinho in the semi-finals.

Messi's Barcelona clashed with Mourinho's Inter Milan in a group stage in which neither of the two favourites impressed, and a glimpse into how the Portuguese boss may look to deal with the threat of the world's best player has already been seen.

Known to favour the art of defending, Mourinho gave some insightful quotes before the CSKA quarter-final when he claimed there were two ways to win the tie: either you park the bus and stop the other side from scoring, or you go on the attack and try to get the advantage.

As it happened, Wesley Sneijder's early free-kick stopped Mourinho from having to make that decision against the Russians, but the game against Barcelona in September (even though Inter were at home) showed the Italians' ability to stop the European champions from playing their natural game.

For all the criticism it received, it worked, as Messi was as ineffective as he could be, and Mourinho will certainly take heed from Arsenal's attempts to play attacking football against the Catalans, which didn't. Messi, however, is a different player compared to six months ago with confidence flowing through his veins and Inter could do worse than to formulate a plan to man-mark him.

Taking Messi completely out of the game by asking the likes of Esteban Cambiasso to track his every move - effectively making the game 10 vs. 10 - may fly in the face of everything good about the beautiful game, but don't think for a moment that Mourinho wouldn't adopt such tactics if it ensured his side progressed. He will be forced to stop the man branded ''unstoppable'' somehow and that may just be the best way of doing it.

Of course Messi is not the only player who makes the Barcelona side tick. Mourinho will have to engineer plans to stop Xavi and Andres Iniesta as well, but one battle may take priority above all others. The Champions League often throws up interesting clashes and, after the disappointment of their group games, Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Samuel Eto'o should take centre stage again.

Both players have much to prove to their former managers who did not consider them to be as important as they may have thought they were. Neither has settled completely in their new surroundings and their desire to prove a point, coupled with that of reaching the final in Madrid, should be strong. However, both players will be hindered by the burden of responsibility and they will be playing against teams who will know them inside out.

Ultimately, it would surprise few if Messi, once more, took the plaudits and made yet more headlines on his way to the final. Jose's job (at least at the end of the season) will almost certainly hinge on preventing that from happening.

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