Champions League - Rafael Benitez: Chelsea never had total control
The second day of second legs in the quarter-finals of the Champions League turned out to be similar to the first.
You could say that Wednesday also met expectations in that the two teams that had controlled their respective first legs eventually qualified. But as always there are nuances of difference. Because the end can be the same but the means can be very different, you have to analyse it objectively.
Anyway, however much time and space is devoted to analysis, what is clear is that it is now confirmed that Real Madrid will face Bayern Munich for a place in the final and Chelsea will be Barcelona's opponents. Now for the matches and the debate.
Chelsea 2-1 Benfica
Few could have expected a game like Wednesday's at Stamford Bridge, especially after what we had seen in the first leg and after what happened in the first few minutes of the match in London. Let's take it step by step. Both teams started the match with a similar system, a 1-4-2-3-1, but in both it was also clear that one of the two centre midfield players was higher than the other: Frank Lampard for Chelsea and Axel Witsel for Benfica, with John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic more defensive according to the situation.
Benfica began the match without any fear, without any complex and looked to get at Petr Cech's goal. They tried to play football and Pablo Aimar's mobility between the lines, reminiscent of his best moments in Valencia, made it extremely difficult to mark him and he was constantly available for his team-mates to look for him.
The first half saw both teams dropping off quickly, but without much intensity in defence, until after 19 minutes there was a move that produced the penalty that would define the match. John Terry found Ashley Cole behind the Portuguese defence, because of poor defending by Maxi Pereira and Bruno Cesar, allowing the Chelsea full-back to get into the area. Javi Garcia, a central midfielder having to play as a centre-back due to circumstances, gave away a penalty that ultimately was instrumental in the outcome of the match and the tie.
Lampard, despite a good attempt by Artur who guessed the right direction but could not stop it going in, made it 1-0 and it seemed at the time that the tie was heading towards a Chelsea win. However, Chelsea did not have control of the game.
Witsel was the most creative midfielder for the visitors and he tried to be involved in the build-up, supporting Aimar. They were reaching the box, but lacked precision with the final pass. Chelsea, meanwhile, were not moving the ball easily. When they tried to play out from the back, even light pressure from the two Benfica forwards made Cech play long. They were more incisive on the left with Ramires and Salomon Kalou swapping positions at times during the first half. The truth is that the match was quite open, but in the 39th minute Pereira was sent off for a second yellow. At 1-0 down, with only 10 players on the field, the challenge of turning the tie seemed like mission impossible for the Portuguese.
One final thing about the first half: the referee, Damir Skomina, showed seven yellow cards in the first half and it was not a dirty game.
In the second half, Benfica came out with Witsel as a full back in a 1-4-3-1-1. It looked a good decision, because it maintained the attacking options and tried to maintain balance defensively at the same time. There was still fluency in attack and when Aimar got involved round the box you could sense danger. Aimar, Oscar Cardozo and Nicolas Gaitan combined with each other for Cardozo to shoot and produce a Cech save. A little later, Aimar himself gave another warning on 48 minutes.
Meanwhile, Chelsea were taking advantage of the defensive frailties on the right, where Witsel was trying to control Kalou, who latched on to his mistake to put in a ball that amazingly Ramires failed to convert.
There were still chances for both teams: Cardozo tried to surprise Cech from a long way out, then first Juan Mata and then Fernando Torres almost got the second goal for Chelsea, but Fernando did not have time to adjust his body to control his shot.
When the London side found Mata between the lines, it was their main threat. But Benfica felt they had a chance and continued to be dangerous.
Gary Cahill came on for Terry and a bit later Raul Meireles for Mata. However, this didn't solve the home team's defensive problems and, after a chance which Cech put out for a corner, from the following set-piece Javi Garcia was completely free to head in, which the goalkeeper did not anticipate.
With the score at 1-1, anxiety crept in on and off the pitch. After a chance for Nelson Oliveira in the 87th minute, Di Matteo substituted Torres for Drogba, stopping the game and playing for time. But Benfica kept going. A couple of Joan Capdevila crosses and the pressure was still on the Cech goal until a rebound was got to first by Meireles, with his foot a bit high against Aimar, and he mounted a counter-attack which he himself finished with a great shot giving the goalkeeper no chance.
There was no time for any more, 2-1, through to the semis and relief for the Chelsea fans who were anxious in the last few minutes but in the end could sing about their win and look forward to an intense and interesting tie against FC Barcelona.
Real Madrid 5-2 APOEL
Both teams started with a 1-4-2-3-1, although the Madrid side were camped in the APOEL half. It was an excellent chance to give some players time on the pitch as they come to the end of the season and Raphael Varane at centre-back, Nuri Sahin and Esteban Granero in midfield as well as Hamit Altintop on the right will benefit greatly from their selection.
The Santiago Bernabeu team, as is becoming their way, mostly attacked on the left due to the quality and combination play of Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo, although on occasions Kaka also joined in on the left and they were a constant threat for the Spanish-Belgian goalkeeper, Urko Pardo.
As for APOEL, they got numbers behind the ball and worked hard in defence but without much of a counter-attack, stopping the home side's attacks but with more intensity than success in the opening stages.
Sahin made himself available and Granero, a bit higher, linked with him and Kaka to give continuity to the play with short passing. But both he and Granero have the ability to switch play long and find strikers or wide players unmarked.
On 25 minutes, the first goal came for Ronaldo. He came inside and Marcelo overlapped to give width and crossed for the Portuguese player to latch onto the ball in the box and put it in the back of the net from close range.
The game was not high tempo because Madrid didn't need it to be, the whites having most of the possession (79 per cent). You can appreciate the different options they have, with midfield players that can play short or long, with strikers who can get free and penetrate whatever happens. Moreover, they have finishers who can score at any time. Ultimately, the squad has many different options that have made the team stronger in ability and variety.
On 36 minutes it was 2-0: a great Kaka goal with a shot from outside the box. The match became even more comfortable for Real Madrid than it was already and had been before the start. In the second half, Marcelo came off and Jose Maria Callejon came on to play wide on the right, moving Altintop to left back.
The game was being played out in the APOEL half and Jose Mourinho took the chance to give Angel Di Maria a run out, coming on for Gonzalo Higuain on 54 minutes, with Ronaldo going to central striker and Callejon on the left. On 74 minutes Raul Albiol came on for Granero, playing in centre midfield alongside Sahin. On 76 minutes, a good move in midfield by APOEL finished with a pass behind the Madrid defence and Gustavo Manduca, surprisingly, scored the first goal for his team.
APOEL were encouraged to move up the pitch and create a threat to make the game more exciting but Madrid's third goal came immediately after through Ronaldo, who scored from a free kick from the left. Callejon got the fourth for Madrid in the 79th minute from a cross shot and straight after, Altintop gave away a penalty by tripping Aldo Adorno and Esteban Solari put it away coolly, making it 4-2. Shortly after, Di Maria finished the scoring with another good goal, putting the ball over the keeper who was a bit too far out.
It was a good performance by Real Madrid, who were superior from start to finish, and they look forward to an interesting clash with Bayern who also appear to be in form.
Bayern Munich 2-0 Marseille
The first thing to say is that the German team were much better than the French side andafter the result of the first leg were almost through. The 2-0 scoreline in both legs made it possibly an easier tie than had been expected as it turned out comfortable enough for Bayern.
To start with, in Tuesday's game, both teams started with a 1-4-2-3-1 system on the pitch. Though, as is usually the case, there were some substantial differences. For example, Marseille had four very attacking players in their lines of attack to try to overcome the 2-0 deficit of the first leg. But it was not enough. Bayern Munich settled for using their usual system with the security of knowing that Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez were ready on the bench.
Bayern scored the first goal. Franck Ribery controlled the ball on the edge of the area, began to dribble drawing the defenders, leaving Ivica Olic free and he scored after a pass from the French player. That just started the German show and Marseille practically ran out of options to gain a foothold in the match. However, there was a reaction. And, at 17 minutes we saw a great stop by Manuel Neuer from a shot by Stephane Mbia, which served to confirm the qualities and potential of the young goalkeeper, who has just arrived this season from Schalke.
The second goal was on 36 minutes and following a good counter-attack by Ribery. There was an excellent run by David Alaba and a measured pass in to the six-yard box, where Olic put it in the net. It was the second and final goal of the match and also his second. The game was over and the tie too, especially since Marseille failed to show many signs of life after this.
And so to the second period, and a tactical point to start with, although it did not affect the final result. Morgan Amalfitano, who played as a midfielder, came on for Jeremy Morel and Cesar Azpilicueta went to left-back, with Rod Fanni going on the right and Mbia to centre back. It was a restructuring which tried to get them back in the game and the tie: an almost impossible task.
Marseille started to show signs of life with a Brandao header as the striker found himself completely free after 65 minutes, but the game petered out.
In short, it was a comfortable match for Bayern, especially following first goal after which Marseille knew that it was mission impossible, despite their good intentions at the start. And, little by little, their lack of conviction was reflected in their play. Bayern were the rightful winners as they were always far superior in every way to Marseille.
Barcelona 3-1 AC Milan
Barca also ended up being better than their opponents and confirming their place in the semi-finals. But it was a match which was more difficult than Bayern's against Marseille. Pep Guardiola had announced pre-match that the opponents would score and they did so to level the match and put the tie in their favour by virtue of the away goal. After that, at 1-1, Barcelona had to work hard to resolve the situation.
But let's take it step by step. Let's look first at how Milan lined up on the pitch. They used their normal 1-4-3-1-2 system, with three midfielders in zones (Massimo Ambrosini, Clarence Seedorf and Antonio Nocerino) defending close together and close to the first line of defence and their own area. Kevin-Prince Boateng was just in front, trying to prevent the development of the game in the zone where Sergio Busquets was, and allowing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho to do the attacking.
I started with Milan's system because Barca went with their usual system, but their movements are not fixed and that changes the picture. Dani Alves, as we see in the picture, does not stay alongside Javier Mascherano in the defensive line and he actually spent the first half as a winger, dropping back to help defend only once. Between him on the right and Isaac Cuenca on the left, they give width to the pitch to try to create spaces in the centre to be exploited by Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas in particular.
Guardiola has repeatedly sought to play three at the back since the arrival of Fabregas and not always with very good results. But the truth is that Cesc is an important player for this system, because he gets goals coming from deep and that takes some responsibility for scoring off Messi. Meanwhile, the Argentinian is free to move about in attack and therefore he is more difficult for the centre-back and opposing defences to mark.
Anyway, as usual, the important things about Barcelona's game are the players and their own style of play rather than the system itself, so we will discuss more of those actions.
Circulation of the ball and pressing after losing it are the characteristics of this Barcelona team, who usually produce very high possession figures. For AC Milan, who in Italy are used to having the ball, this again posed a real problem. So we saw seven or even eight players sat on the edge of Milan box, defending close together to close the spaces in between, where often Pep's players play millimetre perfect passes.
There were constant switches of play between Alves and Cuenca which were necessary to open up the defence and take advantage of numerical superiority in the middle created by Messi and Fabregas, a vital area for any team.
For those who do not look closely at set pieces, we saw how the movement and blocking by Barca won a penalty and produced other dangerous situations for the Italians. That is the problem of marking man-to-man at corner kicks, it concedes penalties and it is much easier to block a defender and leave an attacker free. Although that is obvious, it is worth noting that all types of marking have their problems.
On the other hand, I will not waste time on whether or not they were penalties, because in the first leg there were also some claims, and more than one was not given, though not much was said about it.
As for Milan, they were looking to upset Barcelona's defensive balance with the mobility of their two forwards and trying to take advantage of their second-line men arriving to support, as we saw in the Nocerino goal that exploited the space outside the position of Carles Puyol. They also got men back behind the ball ready to use the counter-attack whenever they could.
Barca started the second half with Alves deeper. The Italians decided to squeeze out a bit more and try to have the ball, but Barcelona regained the ball relatively quickly and their players found more space in attack.
In the 53rd minute, after a corner for Milan, Messi found himself on the edge of the area with Alessandro Nesta out of position and Nocerino tracking Fabregas in to the area. His shot was deflected by Philippe Mexes and fell to the foot of Iniesta, who scored the third goal with the exceptional quality we are so used to seeing.
This just shows how difficult it is to play against Barca and I am reminded of 'the theory of the short blanket'. With a short blanket, if you cover your feet, you get cold at the top and if you cover the top, you get cold feet. That is to say, if you attack Barcelona, you find yourself short in defence and if you only defend, you do not create any threat.
But let's continue analysing the game. Cuenca was still playing on the right from the start of the second half and Dni Alves was getting forward, but less so to lend a hand in defence.
In the 60th minute, Alberto Aquilani came on for Seedorf to give more dynamism to the game of Milan and in the 62nd minute Xavi came off with Thiago taking his place. And it is at this stage of the season where sharing game time is important if you want to maintain the quality on the pitch - in this case it was by using the son of Mazinho.
In the 65th minute, Mascherano got a yellow card reminiscent of his time in the Premier League which shows that he never relaxes, never, not even with a favourable scoreline such as they had.
In the 68th minute, Fabregas, who was deeper in the second half after the introduction of Thiago, passed to Messi who put the Spanish-Brazilian through against the keeper. His shot went just wide.
The data told the story: after 70 minutes Barcelona had had 19 shots on goal against Milan's three. In a last ditch attempt to save the game, Alexandre Pato came on for Boateng.
Gerard Pique's injury a few minutes later made Guardiola change his back four, moving Puyol to the centre and putting Adriano at full-back, then Seydou Keita immediately replaced Fabregas, to bring on fresh legs and have more defensive intensity in the latter stages of the game.
Then Maxi Lopez came on for Pato, which indicated another injury for the Brazilian, and he went straight in to a forward position.
The last few minutes brought another Messi chance which Christian Abbiati dealt with well, a shot from Adriano, who found himself free but tight with the keeper, and a good save from Victor Valdes, as well as yellow cards for Milan players frustrated with the score.
Barcelona concentrated on controlling the game using their possession and thinking about the semi-final which will be their fifth consecutive one, a record few will match.