Rafael Benitez

Superior Chelsea are certain favourites

Rafael Benitez

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The first legs of the quarter-finals of this year's Champions League have now been concluded and no home team came out as winners.

There was one draw, which featured AC Milan against Barcelona, and which, since the draw was made, appeared to be the most evenly-matched tie, while the others were more predictable in this round and they gave Chelsea a win in Lisbon, Bayern a win at Marseille and Real Madrid a win in Nicosia. While purists may disagree, with the exception of the evenly contested game in Lombardy, you could say that the rest of the results were predictable.

But as we have done for every round of this exciting competition, we will look at the games as we saw them.

APOEL 0-3 Real Madrid

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Real Madrid eventually won emphatically in Cyprus. But they had to be patient against a willing home team. The goals only came in the latter part of the game, but the tie, as indeed was expected, is virtually decided.The two sides began with a similar 1-4-2-3-1 system, although the Cypriots had a much more defensive shape with their wide men deep, making it virtually a cautious 1-4-4-1-1.

APOEL, unsurprisingly, came out to frustrate an opponent with the stature and the substance of Real Madrid, trying to take advantage of any mistake if it presented itself. The Nicosia team are used to controlling the tempo of the game, relying mainly on the experience of their players and, at the same time, working hard to give the required cover and defensive support they have to provide each other.

They had little possession and showed poor ball circulation. Like they had done before, but this time with little success, they tried to come out fast on the counter attack after regaining the ball. Of those who stood out, Ailton showed some skill, with a lot of ability, but the home team could do little against a considerably better Real Madrid.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid were also caught up in the low tempo set by APOEL. The team in white were much better, had most of the possession and knew it was a matter of time before they got the first goal. And after the first, more would come. As usual, they were looking to overload in the wide areas, especially on the left, and move between the lines. But they were not precise approaching the goal thanks, it is fair to say, to the great defensive work by the Cypriots.

In the second half, especially after the substitutions of Marcelo and Kaka, Real Madrid improved markedly and had good movement, becoming more decisive and more effective in front of goal.

The first goal affected APOEL psychologically and then came the other two goals finishing the tie and making the second game in the Santiago Bernabeu next week a mere formality.

Benfica 0-1 Chelsea

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Benfica-Chelsea

Tuesday also provided us with the second of the victories by the away team. Chelsea won by the narrowest scoreline at Benfica's Estadio da Luz and put the tie in their favour but it will have to be decided in London.

Roberto Di Matteo put out a significantly different team in Lisbon: a 1-4-2-3-1 system but with several changes in the starting line-up that may have surprised almost everyone. Ramires and Salomon Kalou on the flanks could have been a gamble , both in attack and defence, but in the end it came out just perfect. John Obi Mikel in the middle with Raul Meireles provided a protective central barrier, while the great work by David Luiz stood out alongside the experience of John Terry. Paulo Ferreira as full-back, after not playing many games, was another surprise and the selection of Fernando Torres as a lone striker instead of Didier Drogba to take advantage of the spaces behind the defence paid off when the Spaniard left behind his marker and gave a measured pass to Kalou to score which puts Chelsea with one foot in the semi-finals.

Perhaps Juan Mata appeared less dynamic than usual, maybe due to the number of matches played within in a few days.

Meanwhile, Benfica, also with a 1-4-2-3-1, were waiting for more space to take advantage of counter-attacks, but Chelsea did not allow them and generally they did not create too much of a threat. Maxi Pereira was getting forward to give width, but Oscar Cardozo looked a bit isolated due to poor support from the second line. Pablo Aimar, who always leaves his unique stamp, showed something, and there was dribbling on the wings by Bruno Cesar and Nicolas Gaitan, but not as much as usual thanks to Chelsea's defensive cover which made the Portuguese side lose some of the offensive potential they have shown in other games.

The truth is they showed periods of good intensity, but with little defence-attack balance as they showed in the goal they conceded, the only one of the game, when leaving plenty of space behind the defence.

In short, Chelsea, did well defensively and tried to get out quickly on the counter, and got a good result for the second leg. But above all, which is most important, they gave a sense of superiority over Benfica and, therefore, are still favourites.

Marseille 0-2 Bayern Munich

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The prophecy was also fulfilled in Marseille's Stade Velodrome. As we said, most people thought Bayern Munich would be too good for Olympique and to be honest we must admit that it was exactly like that. From the very first minute of the tie they controlled the game and their opponents. Marseille were quite ordered defensively and dropped off quickly, so it was not easy to create a lot of chances. But you could see that Bayern were the team that really could score first.

Just talking of the two systems used, we can say that there was a similarity, albeit with nuances. In this case, the two sides went with a 1-4-2-3-1.

As for the development of the match, there were some timid counterattacks by Marseille and the lone threat of Loic Remy, as Mathieu Valbuena dropped deeper to link with the two midfielders who are more defensive, was all they could offer in attack. In addition, there was some sense of a threat at set pieces but little else.

The fact of the matter is Bayern's defence did not have too many problems. A second ball following a corner, which Remy should have used better, and a mistake by Jerome Boateng, which could have ended up in the back of the German net if Manuel Neuer had not had a good stop, were the most interesting pieces of action. Not much more stood out for Marseille. Didier Deschamps's offensive changes had no influence on the game, because the second goal scored by Arjen Robben was a big blow to French interests.

By way of contrast, Bayern found it more comfortable as the game wore on. The first goal by Mario Gomez before half-time meant that Marseille had to attack and spaces were left for the skilled German attackers to take advantage of - especially Robben who, with his pace and ability, got the second goal after a pass from Thomas Mueller that finished off the game. From then until the end, Bayern had even more control and the tie is almost decided.

Milan 0-0 Barcelona

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The most even of the matches, the one most in the balance and, ultimately, the one with the most uncertainties. Everything hangs on the second leg at the Camp Nou because yesterday neither team was able to score. So they will both have to fight on.

From the start, it must be said that both teams used their usual systems. AC Milan with a classic 1-4-3-1-2 and FC Barcelona with their usual 1-4-3-3. At first, the Rossoneri pressed the Catalans high with the option that, if they could not regain the ball, they had to drop off quickly to help the defence.

With the number of men in the middle, they hindered the ball circulation of Barcelona and, as Andres Iniesta came inside, they had no width on that side. On the right, as always, Dani Alves gives width and allows Alexis Sanchez to move inside and behind the defence.

Milan created a good chance for Robinho, who has mobility in attack. It was at the start of the game and before another clear chance for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was faced with Victor Valdes to prevent him scoring. There was not much more. Their game was based on looking for the space created behind Alves or finding Ibrahimovic to challenge with Javier Mascherano to win the first ball. And from there try to win the second ball. Barcelona, who had more possession and control, lacked the inspiration of Lionel Messi, heavily guarded by the Milan players. Also Christian Abiatti made sure they did not get an away goal in a Champions League match for the first time in 30 games. And this was despite their 17 shots on goal.

On another subject: there were shouts for two penalties that I would like comment on. The first, following Abbiati's contact with Alexis, there was contact with the raised arm which usually gives away a penalty when the goalkeeper dives at the striker's feet. But Alexis exaggerated it a bit and it was not given. But what is the fifth or sixth official for? Or rather, what should he be doing? For sure he saw the contact as much as Alexis exaggerated his fall.

The other penalty was a shirt pull on Carles Puyol. You could see on television the clear grip on his shirt and the position of the fifth or sixth official and the same issue. Both on the line, both nearby and facing the play, but no whistle for the penalty. Is it a problem of number of officials or a question of decision making? I also want to emphasise again, because they communicate using signals and now microphones: why are they not on the other side, away from the linesman on that side and then they would have a different view, closer to the other side of the box. Amongst the six, yes six, they would be able to cover the whole pitch from all angles.

Okay, to get back to purely football, Pep Guardiola in the second half looked for a higher tempo and greater width to convert the possession in to chances, bringing on Pedro and Cristian Tello. They did manage to, but they could not make anything happen through a mistake or creativity thanks to Abiatti. Now, with the score 0-0, everything hinges on the game back in Camp Nou and it promises to be very interesting.

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