Words By Jason Horitllas, B.L. Lauvray
History was made this week in the first batch of second leg match-ups in the Champions League. While superstars like Leo Messi accomplished the unimaginable and teams like Arsenal and Zenit were a few plays shy of advancing to the next stage, an unlikely club like Apoel rose to prominence in the feel-good story of the year in world football. Let’s break down one of the most exciting weeks ever in the UCL:
To be certain, Arsenal lost this game, and the series, back in Milan on February 15. I’m not lobbed up on goofballs, I saw the game, and yeah, 3-0 keeps the momentum for the Premmie, but short of “an infinity jar of miracles,” Arsenal wasn’t getting that 4th goal to send the match (and series) to overtime, and if need be, a shootout. Yes, there was Christian Abbiati’s miraculous bear paw deflecting RVP’s chipshot attempt off the rebound. Still, 4-0 on February 15. That’s the insurmountable. That’s the Everest Arsenal knew they were facing.
Yet the magic in that first half yesterday was real. Out of necessity, Arsene Wenger sent out four strikers and my wasn’t that unpleasant for ACM to contend with? Rosicky’s goal? ROSICKY’S GOAL! The baby bull, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, mowing turf, blasting through and around would-be defenders? Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain bending time and space in the open field? Robin Van Persie’s penalty after Ox was taken down? This is the Arsenal that Arsenal fans dream of. This is the mad science of Wegner at its absolute best.
To their credit AC Milan came out and played the game with one strategy in mind, “Arsenal needs too many goals. We have this won already.” And they were right, Zlatan Ibrahimovic continually was attacking (playing a bit more deeply than he normally does in the second half) to try and notch that golden road goal…just in case Arsenal did get the fourth goal. Three goals is, of course, too many for any squad to surrender in any match, but the nature of Champions League, Milan already had a four goal lead and just needed to cling to it. Sure Arsenal “caused the Gods to know fear,” but advancement is the nature of the Champions League game and that’s what AC Milan did.
For Arsenal? Run with the three goals, run with the momentum of curb-stomping Tottenham’s hopes and dreams, run with the fortunate win at Anfield and focus on locking down fourth in the Premiership. — B.L. Lauvray
Benfica Lisbon 2, Zenit St. Petersburg 0 (Agg. 4,3 – Benfica)
Russian club Zenit came into the second leg ahead by one goal against Benfica but with the Portuguese holding two away goals in their last encounter, it was anybody’s game. Benfica were the aggressors on both ends of the pitch, while Zenit’s game was non-existant in the first half. Benfica scored before the half via a rebounded back heel pass by Alex Witsel to Maxi Pereira (“45 +1).
Now equal on total goals, the Portuguese squad’s away goal total would help them advance to the next round, as long as they did not concede to St. Petersburg. Zenit’s form improved in the second half yet were apprehensive to take chances and clearly didn’t show any indication of a true threat. Multiple attempts at goal by the home team paid off in injury time as Bruno Caesar’s through ball to Nelson Oliveira (90+3) gave Benifica the death blow, sending Zenit home in defeat. — Jason Hortillas
FC Barcelona 7, Bayern Leverkusen 1 (Agg. 10, 2 – Barcelona)
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola rested Leo Messi last game to ensure his star was fully fit to finish off Bayern Leverkusen. After the eventual five goals from the Argentine striker that decision proved to be ingenious. Messi started the goal-fest first with a chip shot (“25) that froze the Leverkusen keeper as it dropped into the net. In the 43rd minute Messi blasted another goal after another rapid dash in the box.
Ahead by two goals at the half and a 5-1 aggregate lead, Barcelona was on cruise control in the second. Messi completed the hat trick with an identical chip shot (“49) which prompted the soccer equivalent of “gar-bage time” subbing out mainstay midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Instead of sitting in defensive mode, the merciless Catalonians added two more goals from sub Tello (“55, “62) as well as two more from Messi (“58, “84). A beautiful give and go goal from Leverkusen’s Karim Bellarabi in injury time (90+1) saved what little respect Leverkusen had left, if that, but Barcelona easily moves on to the quarterfinals on a historic note. Messi’s five goals is a feat never before accomplished in the Champions League and raised his all-time hat-trick count to 17. — Jason Hortillas
Apoel Nicosia 1, Olympique Lyonnais 0 (4-3 pens, agg. 1-1)
While the Barcelona v Leverkusen result was decided early on, Apoel Nicosia and Olympique Lyonnais would be full of drama until the last whistle. The return leg had a lot of upside for Apoel, being only down one goal and having home field. The underdogs from Cyprus immediately took advantage when going level in the 9th minute when Gustavo Manduca received a low cross to bring it home. Now level early, you would expect more goals to come but as the clock ran down all opportunities were unsuccessful leading toward a dramatic finish in extra time.
Nervy in extras, Apoel Manduca gets sent off in the 115th minute after his second yellow as his team luckily holds off Lyon to send it to penalty kicks. Three consecutive goals by both sides, first leg hero for Lyon Alexandre Lacazette gets denied by Dionisis Chiotis and follows with another great save against Michel Bastos to earn Apoel their first trip to the UCL quarterfinals. Not only was the accomplishment a first for the club but for any team in the island nation of Cyprus, a story that will be buzzing all over Europe. — Jason Hortillas