Halfway through the quarterfinal phase of European soccer’s elite competition, one Spanish team is a cert to reach the final four, another has a more than sporting chance, but Portugal’s last representative has an English mountain to climb if it wants to surprise the world and continue.
Anyone who thought that Real Madrid had been handed an easy draw in landing Apoel Nicosia in the last eight was surely being harsh on the Cypriot team, whose mean defense and excellent “balance” in the words of Real coach José Mourinho had seen it embarrass several illustrious clubs, including Olympique Lyonnais in the previous round.
But the Spanish pretender to Barcelona’s Liga and European crowns did make it look easy in Tuesday night’s away leg, taking its time while keeping virtually all the possession and finally striking deep when the gaps appeared in Apoel’s defensive shield.
Real’s first-half thrusts were almost all accounted for by Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese forward’s hunger for goals and glory showing itself to be undimmed three-quarters of the way through the season and with an obstinate mass of defenders in his way. Ronaldo came close to scoring from a couple of what were barely half-chances before Karim Benzema missed from point-blank range to give the home supporters a sense of job half done at the break.
It was the introduction of two stellar substitutes that finally shredded the Cypriot resistance: the Brazilian duo of Kaká and Marcelo made a mess of the home defense’s right side. First Kaká centered perfectly for Benzema to head home, before a dazzling Marcelo run and the left back’s admirable lack of interest in earning a penalty saw him provide a gift-wrapped chance for Kaká to double Real’s lead. The outrageously deft left boot of Mesut Özil, who had not enjoyed his best night beforehand, set up Benzema for a third that means Real can enjoy a carefree party in the Bernabéu next week.
Not so for Barcelona. The visit of AC Milan for the return leg at Camp Nou next Tuesday is fraught with danger after this week’s 0-0 tie in San Siro. Barça did plenty to deserve a win, but a combination of some good goalkeeping by Christian Abbiati and timid refereeing, which saw the home side get away with blatant penalties on Alexis Sánchez and Carles Puyol, frustrated the champ. Barcelona’s stout captain, however, stuck to the club’s official policy (though not always observed of late by coach Pep Guardiola) of not criticizing officials. “We mustn’t look for excuses. We have to play. Refereeing is very difficult. We played a great game but just lacked a goal.”
Having failed to score an away goal, Barcelona is obligated to win the second leg. But on the strength of Wednesday’s performance, the champion should be confident it can roll over an ageing Milan team.
Benfica, meanwhile, let Chelsea get away from Lisbon with a priceless lead in the contest, Salomon Kalou finishing after a decent bit of work by a perky-again Fernando Torres for the only goal of the night. Advantage Chelsea then, the English club now likely to face the winner of Barcelona-Milan in one of the semifinals. In the other, Bayern Munich has almost as sure a foot in the door as Real, the German team having come away from Marseille with a 2-0 advantage.