Thursday, May 28, 2009

Imperious Xavi runs the show in Rome

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Xavi
Xavi Hernández was left to reflect on a "wonderful" feeling after inspiring FC Barcelona to victory in the UEFA Champions League final with yet another midfield masterclass.

Year to remember
The 29-year-old crowned a memorable 12 months in Rome by setting up Barça's second goal for Lionel Messi in the 2-0 win against Manchester United FC and was selected as the man of the match by the UEFA Technical Study Group, yet another personal accolade for the midfielder who was also named the player of the tournament at UEFA EURO 2008™. "I'm very happy, especially for the team and for my personal prize – we're very content," he said. "This is historic, for Barcelona and the squad."

Homegrown heroes
Xavi, one of seven homegrown players in the Catalan side's starting lineup produced by the famed academy at La Masia, encapsulates the club's philosophy and has no doubts the Blaugrana's family spirit had been a crucial factor. "I feel very comfortable; I've said for a long time that it is wonderful with these team-mates around me. We worked hard and pressured United by attacking so they wouldn't feel comfortable. Apart for the first ten minutes, we dominated most of the game."

'Best title'
That has been the story of Barça's season, with 42 of their 61 matches ending in victory and the Spanish Liga and Copa del Rey titles already secured – although Xavi has no doubts which trophy means the most, saying simply: "This one, it's clear. It's the club's third European Cup and without doubt this is the best title." Asked where his side might rank among the great teams of the past, he added: "I don't know, I'll leave that for other people to say. I can only say it's a privilege to be considered in that debate. I don't know if we are the best team, but this treble is historic so we have to enjoy it."

'Midfield motor'
"Xavi was outstanding, he epitomised the outstanding Barcelona midfield performance; the passing of the ball, the movement," Technical Study Group member Roy Hodgson told uefa.com. "There were a lot of other candidates, but Xavi was the midfield motor, ran the match and dictated the tempo. United started really well but the first goal is so important at this level. When Barcelona got that their confidence rose, Manchester United had to take more risks getting forward and that played into Barcelona's hands, especially as skilful as they are. Their defending was also very good; they quickly got back into shape and when the back four was called upon they did very well."

'Suck you in'
Hodgson reserved most praise for Barça's fluidity, explaining: "Most important of all is the tempo of their passing and their ability to change that. If you pressurise them they're very good at playing it first time and they've always got lots of players around the ball willing to receive it. But if you don't get around them they hold the ball and suck you in and the moment you come forward they pass it. They work very hard and it looks simple, but the front players and the midfielders do an awful lot of running to create space. There's so much movement from wide positions coming infield with the full-backs getting forward, and it's not easy to find an antidote to that."

Guardiola salutes his treble winners

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Josep Guardiola
Josep Guardiola could barely contain his delight as he was applauded both in and out of the news conference that followed FC Barcelona's 2-0 defeat of Manchester United FC in the UEFA Champions League final. "We're not the best team in Barça history but we've had the best season," he said of his treble winners. Although Sir Alex Ferguson "expected better" from the holders, he paid tribute to the victors' stylish football and admitted "the better team won".

Josep Guardiola, Barcelona coach
I'm leaving [the job] straight away tomorrow – I can't do anything to top this ... We're very happy, delirious. We're aware that we've done something magnificent. I'd like to congratulate the whole club and the fans. We're not the best team in Barça history but we've had the best season. We've won three trophies but it's also about how we've won them. As a player it was great to win this trophy for the first time. Now we have three which isn't as many as other clubs but we're getting closer to a select group of mythical teams. I've said many times that we're fortunate to have the legacy of Johan Cruyff and Charlie Rexach. They were the fathers and we've followed them.

At the beginning of the game we didn't expect Manchester United to press so high. They caused us problems and we have to admit they had a great chance to score from Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick [in the second minute]. We scored with our first chance and then tried to move the ball inside. In the semi-final last year we noticed Messi had problems with Evra so we decided to move Leo from out wide to have one more player in midfield. He's the best right now and has written his name on the Ballon d'Or. Messi has a real talent and will never hide – when the going gets tough he really gets going.

I have to process my emotions now as we've done something wonderful. We're not a tall side and have defended without a few regular players but we attacked and defended well against the best team in the world. Give me a few days to rest and then I'll tell you how I'm going to tackle next year. I just want to play well and be back here again. You can play badly and still win, but if you are daring and attack you have a better chance of winning – there's nothing more dangerous than not taking a risk. You can enjoy a victory but with time you enjoy it even more. Tomorrow we will celebrate with Catalonia.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager
There's disappointment at the performance, and some individuals will feel that themselves. Our best performances this season have been when we've defended very well and tonight it was shoddy – the first goal in particular which gave them a great boost. We didn't plan to concede a goal as early as that. You have to give credit to a very good Barcelona team – the better team won. When they get in front of you they keep the ball, and after the opening goal all the midfielders closed in and kept possession, making it very difficult to get it back.

We've done well to get to a final but had to win it to change the pattern of teams defending the trophy. It was a big opportunity for us and with our players I expected better, but we couldn't recover from losing the first goal. We knew before the game what a good footballing team they are. Last year we had no difficulty defending against them, tonight we did after the first goal as Messi dropped into midfield and made it difficult for us. They have to be one of the best teams we've played, at what they do. They have fantastic possession of the ball and credit to them as they pursue their philosophy and don't change.

I've been quite pleased with the maturity of the team. Tonight the disappointment was the use of the ball when we had possession. We had to wait minutes to get it back and when we did we weren't good enough. It could be an off night, or could be that we found the mountain too big to climb after being a goal down. It's a great achievement in [Guardiola's] first year as coach so well done ... fantastic. All his players want to play, keep the ball, and enjoy their football, so all credit to him.

Rio - We didn't deserve it

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Rio Ferdinand
Manchester United defensive stalwarts Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic conceded that they did not deserve to win the UEFA Champions League final.

Barcelona triumphed 2-0 in Rome with a goal in each half from Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi.

United boss Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to admit that Barca deserved to win, and both Ferdinand and Vidic echoed those thoughts.

"We didn't come here and give a good account of ourselves," Ferdinand told Sky Sports News.

"We have played better 99 per cent of the time this season, but saying that we created four or five good opportunities to score, but they scored two goals at crucial times and two bad goals on our part.

"But we have no arguments, they were the better team on the day, you have got to do it on the day - if we played better or played to our strengths it would have been a different game, but if you don't do it on the day you don't deserve to win."

Vidic agreed, adding: "We didn't play well.

"They had a good game and scored at the right time - then we chased the game and they had space to counter attack us, they deserved to win."

Left-back Patrice Evra was equally disappointed.

"You can have a lot of excuses, but I am disappointed as we didn't see Manchester United playing quick - we were slow and we didn't press enough and you didn't see the character of Manchester United tonight," he concluded.

Barca claim European crown

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Barcelona kings of Europe
Manchester United failed to retain their UEFA Champions League crown as Barcelona claimed Europe's top club prize with a 2-0 win in Rome's Stadio Olimpico.

United started the final brightly but were stunned on 10 minutes when Samuel Eto'o skipped into the box and poked the ball past Edwin van der Sar.

Barca almost doubled their lead just after the break when Xavi smashed his free-kick of Van der Sar's post - but the Catalan giants did not have long to wait for their second.

Brilliant work from Xavi on the right saw him pick out Lionel Messi with a sublime cross and the Argentine superstar rose unmarked to head home from eight-yards - his first ever goal against English opposition.

The defending champions were left shell-shocked as Barca played out time in the Eternal City and sealed their third European title.

The shape of the contest might have been so different had Park Ji-sung been

able to snaffle the rebound after Victor Valdes had failed to hold a stinging Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick. Instead, former United man Gerard Pique shot across to block what proved to be his old club's best opportunity of that opening period.

Like his team, Ronaldo was clearly in the ascendancy in his personal duel with

Messi.
Eto'o opener

How rapidly things changed. In the twinkling of an eye Andres Iniesta, one of the brightest starts in the Barcelona firmament, slipped a pass to Eto'o.

The Cameroon striker cut inside Nemanja Vidic, then held off Michael Carrick as he prodded the ball goalward with enough strength to take it past Van der Sar.

Suddenly the strategy of containment and hitting at pace on the counter-attack suggested by the inclusion of Park and the exclusion of Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov did not look such a good idea.

Ferguson's team shot across the pitch, able to do little more than firefight as Messi, Iniesta and Xavi lit bonfires all around.

Had a Messi flick found Eto'o in the area, it would have probably brought Barcelona's second. Rio Ferdinand's agility saved his team. Xavi curled a free-kick just wide, Vidic pumped the ball away after Van der Sar had failed to hold a cross shot, the slick passing wearing United down all the while.

The arrival of Tevez at half-time had to come, and with it a more overtly

offensive approach.

Yet in taking such bold action, Ferguson knew he was playing right into

Barcelona's hands. Xavi picked out Thierry Henry with a brilliant pass. The former Arsenal star cut inside Ferdinand with ease but could not find the finish, a similar mistake to the one that proved so costly for Arsenal in Paris three years ago.

When Xavi saw his free-kick come thumping back off a post, memories of 1999 and the mauling United nearly took at the hands of Bayern Munich sprang to mind.

Yet this was different. Ferguson's team were poor until the unforgettable ending. This time they were simply ripped apart by the only team on the planet who can match them.

The introduction of Berbatov midway through the second half was effectively Ferguson throwing his book of tactics out of the window and not worry about the consequences if it all went wrong.

All over

Sadly it did. Quite quickly as Xavi's curling cross dropped perfectly for Messi, who guided his header over Van der Sar.

Ronaldo's world player of the year crown was slipping and Valdes managed to get in the way of a close-range effort that would have given United some hope, as would the volley from Berbatov that followed.

Berbatov had another chance too, although by then Carles Puyol had seen two efforts saved by Van der Sar.

In truth, the Dutchman was his side's best player, which just about says it all.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ronaldo focused on glory

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Cristiano Ronaldo is desperate to help Manchester United become the first team to successfully defend the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday against Barcelona.

The Red Devils are the reigning champions following their penalty shoot-out success over Chelsea last year and find themselves back in the final after seeing off Arsenal in the semis.

Much has been made of Ronaldo's long-term future at Old Trafford, but nothing will take the Portugal international's focus away from helping United retain their crown in Rome.

The 24-year-old capped a fine 2008 by claiming the European Footballer of the Year award, although it is the Champions League trophy that the former Sporting ace has set his eyes on.
Focused

"It's normal that people speak about me but I am 100 per cent focused on this game," explained Ronaldo.

"I try to help my team 100 per cent, score a goal and win the game. That's it.

"I don't care about the Ballon d'Or. What I want more is to win the Champions League.

"I just want to be the first team in history to win it twice."

Soft spot

Ronaldo has long been linked with a move to Spanish giants Real Madrid and the fans' favourite has conceded he has a soft spot for La Liga.

The Portugal international has acknowledged Barca will be a tough nut to crack in Rome, although he believes United are better and will emerge triumphant.

"I like the Spanish league," explained Ronaldo. "I feel well in England in the Premier League, it is the strongest league.

"Barcelona have a great team which deserves respect but I believe we are better than them and we will show it.

"I respect Barcelona profoundly. Messi is playing marvellously well. I want to be sincere. I have to play well for the team and the supporters. I look forward to it and I think it will be really special."

Messi: I’d pay to watch Ron dazzle

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Messi
Lionel Messi has admitted that he would pay out of his own wallet to watch Cristiano Ronaldo rip apart defences at Old Trafford.

Messi takes on Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome, to what should be the climax to an exciting season.

The Argentine maestro has admitted that Sir Alex Ferguson's men have class written all over them, but Ronaldo is the gem that shine the most.

While Messi believes that it is important to shackle Ronaldo at the Stadio Olimpico, he knows that it will be vital to slow down Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez.

"Manchester United have quality everywhere," Messi told the Daily Mail. "So many good players. But if I had to pick one out it would be Ronaldo."

"He is a player I would pay to watch."

"He and I are very different players but he is unbelievable, very special, and it will not be easy to stop him," added the Argentine international. "But we must not pay all attention to him and forget about Berbatov, Rooney and Carlos Tevez."

"Manchester United have players all over the pitch who can punish you in the same way we have."

Messi then reiterated his allegiance to La Blaugrana stressing he wants to retire a Catalan.

The youngster has been the subject of an unbelievable move to Primera Liga rivals Real Madrid, but he has not even thought about leaving the Nou Camp.

"I have said so many times that I am so happy at Barcelona, and I have no desire to ever leave," he continued. "I owe them so much. I want to repay them for the rest of my career. I am loyal to Barcelona."

"The doctors at home in Argentina told my parents I would never grow past 4ft 5in."

"The medical bills were very high. My father took on other jobs but even then it was not enough for the other bills," said Messi. "Nobody else was prepared to take a chance on me apart from Barcelona and if it was not for them I would not even be a professional football player."

Meanwhile, the midfield wizard is hoping that Andres Iniesta and Thierry Henry will be fit for the end-of-season extravaganza.

"Iniesta has had a spectacular season and it's the same with Henry, who has scored a lot of goals. It will be a lot easier if they are there," he told Sport. "I hope that both can be in the final, they are very important and deserve to play in a game like this. It would be very good."

Platini wants 'beautiful' final

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Platini
Michel Platini has reassured Man United and Barcelona fans that security for the final in Rome are under control.

More than 67,000 fans are expected Tuesday in the Italian capital, while 5000 police officers will be on hand to make sure things run smoothly in the Eternal City paving the way for a "beautiful game".

UEFA president Platini, speaking at Rome´s Tor Vergata University where he was honoured with the Ethic award for sport, said: "All is under control, we don´t have any security concerns.

"The Stadio Olimpico is beautiful and now let´s pray (that all goes well)."

Platini expects a great final between two sides that have made headlines this season.

Barcelona go into the game having won the Primera Liga title and the Copa del Rey, while reigning champions Manchester United recently celebrated winning the Premier League.

Assessing the match Platini said: "It´s useless to make any predictions.

"Football is unpredictable and then Barcelona and Manchester United are two very strong teams.

"Without a doubt it´s going to be a beautiful game."

Cruyff : Fergie is an old fox

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Fergie
Jordi Cruyff is convinced Sir Alex Ferguson has a surprise up his sleeve for the Champions League final against Barcelona.

The former Manchester United forward, who progressed through the ranks at Barca, spent four years at Old Trafford, where Ferguson's cunning impressed him.

And he has warned the Primera Division champions to expect the unexpected.

"Like the old fox that he is, he will have a surprise prepared to beat Barca," Cruyff told RAC1. "In my time at Old Trafford he used to make incredible decisions and if he used an unexpected player he would usually get it right.

"He is unpredictable, but his gambles almost always work out."

Much has been made of the so-called 'dream final' with Barca seeking an unprecedented treble, while United are looking to become the first team to retain the Champions League.

Seydou Keita believes that while there might not be a favourite, Barca will have the backing of most of the world and he has urged his team-mates to do their best to cap an incredible season.

"The season has been very good," he told El Mundo. "But there's still a small step remaining,

"We have to win. Spain, Catalunya, Barcelona, the whole world, will be very happy if we achieve it."

Uefa Champions League final : Barcelona v Manchester United

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The battle ground is set for the new kings of Europe when the two best teams in Europe (world ) fight for the ultimate prize tomorrow . Is their any better match than this I doubt so .Manchester United the newly crowned Champions of England and the current Champions of Europe and World takes on Barcelona the newly crowned Champions of Spain. Two teams who are the last words in attacking football.

United reached the final by sending Arsenal home but Barcelona reached final in controversial manner thanks to the referee. United first club since Valencia CF (2000 and 2001) to reach successive Champions League finals; victory will see them becoming the first club to win two successive Champions League titles.

Battles are expected to be drawn all over the ground but much of the publicity is gained by Ronaldo and Messi two of the best players on the planet . But United nad Barcelona have got match winners all over the ground .

Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand is likely to play having come through training at the weekend.The defender, 30, has been out for three weeks with a calf injury and also missed the 1-0 win at Hull on Sunday.He has called his fitness battle the "toughest of his career", but boss Sir Alex Ferguson says he should be "OK".

Barcelona's Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta appear to have overcome their injuries and trained on Monday.Striker Henry, who played against Barca on the losing Arsenal team in the 2006 final, has had a ligament problem since beating Real Madrid 6-2 on 2 May, while midfielder Iniesta has been struggling with a thigh injury.

Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez is optimistic the two players will take part in Rome."The overall impression is good, as much for the players as us knowing we can have them," he said.Barca have won the Spanish league and cup titles and reached the Champions League final in coach Pep Guardiola's first campaign at the Nou Camp.Henry and Iniesta will travel with the squad, along with young defenders Alberto Botia and Marc Muniesa, the 17-year-old who was sent off on his Barca debut in Saturday's 1-0 home defeat by Osasuna.

It was also announced on Monday that Switzerland's Massimo Busacca will be the referee for the Champions League final.The 40-year-old refereed the all-Spanish Uefa Cup title match between Sevilla and Espanyol in 2007, as well as the United and Barcelona Champions League semi-final last season.

Ferdinand will be delighted to be on the mend, having not played since the Champions League semi-final second-leg win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on 5 May.
Jonny Evans, impressive at the back for United throughout the season, is on stand-by to partner Nemanja Vidic in case Ferdinand fails to recover.

Despite Barcelona boasting the creativity of the likes of Hernandez, Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi, United's Patrice Evra believes his team can use last year's semi-final win against their Spanish opposition as inspiration.

The French left-back said: "I was confident before the games because I train every day against players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. You have a lot of quality there."

Ferguson has just steered the Old Trafford club to its 11th Premier League title in 17 seasons.

The 67-year-old Scot added: "We both have players who can express themselves in the best possible way.

"The profile of the final is good and I hope it lives up to that profile."

His counterpart Guardiola, the 38-year-old former Barca midfielder, said: "You either play with ambition or you have no chance."

"We will go to Rome with the aim of showing the world what we have done all year."

Monday, May 25, 2009

UEFA pick Swiss referee for final

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Swiss referee Massimo Busacca
Swiss referee Massimo Busacca will take charge of the UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona.

According to uefa.com, Busacca has been handpicked by the UEFA Referees Committee to be the referee for Europe's showpiece club competition at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Wednesday.

The Swiss will be a familiar face for both United and Barca as he also officiated both teams in the Champions League Semi-Final, first leg match at Camp Nou last year.

Assistant referees Matthias Arnet and Francesco Buragina also hail from Switzerland as well as the fourth official, Claudio Circhetta.

Busacca, who has been an international referee since 1999, has officiated 77 UEFA matches.

He has taken charge of 32 UEFA Champions League matches, six this season.

Among others, he officiated at the quarter-final return leg between FC Porto and Manchester United in Porto and the knockout round return leg between Panathinaikos FC and Villarreal CF in Athens.

Busacca stats:

- He is a company director and keen skier

- Refereed various top national-team matches, including the EURO 2008 semi-final between Germany and Turkey

- Also officiated the 2006 World Cup Round of 16 match between Argentina and Mexico.
- He also refereed the 2006/07 UEFA Cup final in Glasgow between Espanyol and Sevilla.

Pique will use inside knowledge

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Gerrard Pique
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique believes he has the inside track on how to stop Manchester United danger man Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Spanish champions meet the English Premier League winners in the Champions League final in Rome next week with former United man Pique, 22, determined to seal European glory for his home town club.

The performance of Portuguese star Ronaldo could be key to United's chances of retaining the European Cup, but Pique believes his four years at Old Trafford have given him an insight into what makes Ronaldo and co tick.

"I know most of the players inside-out because I have spent hours and hours with them in training," he said.

"I have passed on some of that knowledge to the coach (Pep Guardiola) and my team-mates and I'm sure it will help.

"I think I know all Ronaldo's tricks by now - he's a great player and he can hurt you, but I've spent a lot of time playing with him and against him in training, and I believe we can stop him."

Pique revealed his pride at having worked under United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

"I have huge respect for Ferguson - he has an aura about him, he has won it all in an amazing career and he commands respect," he added.

"He is a big personality and tells you exactly what he wants from you - I feel honoured to have played for him."

Pique, who was not part of United's matchday squad for their Moscow success against Chelsea in the 2008 final, admits it would mean more to him to win the competition for Barca.

"It was great to be there last year, but I wasn't involved and didn't play much in my time at United," the 22-year-old said.

"This year is different because I've been a Barca fan all my life and hopefully I will be playing - it will mean so much to be out there defending the badge of the club I have supported all my life," he said.

Pique began the season as Barcelona's third-choice centre-back behind Rafael Marquez and Carles Puyol, but he has now played 41 games for the club in all competitions this term - just one less than skipper Puyol.

And since the injury to Marquez, Pique has taken on the role of chief ball-playing defender, usually occupied by the Mexico captain.

Pique has been a revelation in that function and has been nicknamed 'Piquenbauer' by the local press, due to his likeness in style to Germany great Franz Beckenbauer.

"I knew when I came here that I wouldn't be starting every game," Pique added.

"Rafa is a fantastic player and Puyol is the captain, so it was always going to be difficult to start ahead of those two, but I've played a lot of games and I've had more responsibility since Rafa's injury," he said.

After moving back to Catalonia, Pique is now playing under one of his idols in Pep Guardiola and describes the former Barca captain as the perfect modern coach.

"Guardiola is different - he is more hands-on during the week and is always close to the players.

"He has been there and done it in a Barca shirt, and is a symbol of this club - he has Barcelona's philosophy in his blood and all of the players love him.

"He has got us playing wonderful football and what we have achieved so far has been incredible, especially when you consider it's only his first season.

"He is the perfect modern coach," he said.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mourinho - Fergie will be best

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Fergie and Mourinho
Jose Mourinho feels that European glory for Manchester United on Wednesday will make Sir Alex Ferguson the 'greatest club manager'.

The Red Devils are set to face Barcelona in Rome next week in an eagerly-anticipated UEFA Champions League final.

Victory for United would see them become the first side to successfully defend the trophy in its current format, while also allowing them to add the continental crown to their Premier League and League Cup triumphs.

Ferguson's men have also added the Club World Cup trophy to their ever-growing list of achievements this season, with the Red Devils continuing to dominate both at home and abroad.

Their unrivalled success over the years is largely due to the tactical nous of their manager, and Inter Milan boss Mourinho is full of praise for the manner in which his Old Trafford counterpart goes about his business.

"He is a super manager and a victory or defeat in this moment of his career doesn't make him any better or any worse - he has had a great career," said the Portuguese.
Super team

"But of course if he wins on Wednesday it would make him the greatest club manager.

"Sir Alex has made a super team. Three Premier League titles in a row and two Champions league finals - that is really top.

"They have quality and experience, with Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. They have absolutely everything as a team: strength, mentality, speed, magic, solutions.

"Beating Arsenal in the semi-finals (of the Champions League) didn't impress me too much. It is normal.

"But three Premier League titles and two Champions League finals, you need no more words to explain how strong they are."

Friday, May 22, 2009

United's Foster to miss Rome final

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Ben Foster
Manchester United FC goalkeeper Ben Foster will miss the UEFA Champions League final against FC Barcelona after undergoing surgery on ruptured ligaments in his right thumb.

Final disappointment
Foster, who would have been an understudy to first-choice keeper Edwin Van Der Sar in Rome on 27 May, will be out for at least nine weeks, the club said. "It is big blow for Ben as not only will he miss the Champions League final but also England's summer internationals," manager Sir Alex Ferguson told the club's website. "Ben has tried to continue the season with this injury but it got so critical that an operation was the only way forward. It is disappointing for him but the important thing was to get this operation done." The 26-year-old England international made nine appearances for the newly-crowned Premier League champions this season and was key to their penalty shoot-out victory over Tottenham Hotspur FC in the League Cup final at Wembley in March, superbly saving Jamie O'Hara's spot-kick.

Guardiola warning for Fergie

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Guardiola
Pep Guardiola has warned Sir Alex Ferguson that Barcelona know how to exploit Manchester United's weaknesses.

The two teams are set to meet in Rome on Wednesday for the UEFA Champions League final and Barca are looking for revenge after last season's semi-final defeat.

Guardiola, who took over at the start of this season, has been studying video footage of the games from 2007/08's last four, which Barca dominated but lost 1-0, while also researching this season's fixtures.

And the Camp Nou coach has spotted chinks in United's armour that his team can take advantage of when they face the holders, live on Sky Sports 1 & HD1.
Hurt

"The games against United are the ones I watched first," he said in The Sun.

"I saw things where we can hurt United and things where they are dangerous.

"I saw many games from the league this season as well as the games against Arsenal in the Champions League semis.

"We're still studying United's game so I still don't know exactly what I will be saying to my players."

History

Barcelona, who have already won the Primera Liga and Copa del Rey, can make history by becoming the first Spanish team to win the Treble, if they lift the Champions League.

And Guardiola is well aware of the opportunity, adding: "We have to win at all cost because we can make history."

The Barca boss also added that he would give Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta late opportunities to prove their fitness as they struggle with knee and calf injuries, respectively.

"We'll decide on Wednesday. I have to see them train before I make a decision," said Guardiola.

Ferdinand faces 'toughest battle'

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Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand says the race to be fit for the Champions League final in Rome is "the toughest battle of his career."

Ferdinand has missed three games with a calf injury and has been told he must prove his fitness against Hull on Sunday to have any chance of playing.

"It's perhaps the most important injury battle of my career," he said ahead of next Wednesday's clash with Barcelona.

"I've not thought about not playing in the final. It's as simple as that."

Ferdinand last played for United in the Champions League semi-final, second-leg victory over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on 5 May, shortly before suffering his calf injury in training.He had already been doubtful for that game because of a rib injury sustained in the first leg, while he has also been plagued by back and groin problems this season.

If Ferdinand is not fit for the game against Barcelona next week, his place in the team is likely to go to Jonny Evans.

However, 30-year-old Ferdinand said he was so preoccupied with thinking about his injury, he was not thinking too much about the game in Rome next week.

"I trained with the ball on Wednesday and did some running, so I'm doing all the movements I need to be doing before a game," he said.

"I haven't even thought much about the actual details of the final. I've been so engrossed in my injury that I haven't thought about much else.

"I'll start thinking about the actual match when I'm sitting on the plane to Rome."

"You'll have to ask the manager if I'm playing, but physically I'd be able to do it, no problem.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vidic is unbelievable

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Fergie & Chalton
Sir Bobby Charlton reckons that every team would die to have a player like Nemanja Vidic.

The Serbian ace scored big on Sunday as he took home two Player of the Year awards, holding off strong competition from United teammate Ryan Giggs.

The Sun reported that Charlton was proud of the defender's achievement and went on to heap further praise on the giant sweeper.

Charlton said: "It's normally the glamour players who get these prizes, but Nemanja deserves this.

"He has been such an influence. He is the envy of the whole league and he has been a brilliant, brilliant player for us.

"He is unbelievable in the air and wins absolutely everything.

"He is so powerful and brave, and has a fantastic leap to get above the strikers.

"And he also comes up for set-pieces and scores goals.

"As a defender he makes the full-backs, the goalkeeper and the midfielders in front of him all feel secure.

"He is a player you can depend on and put your trust in, and that's important.

"I like that he doesn't try to do too much, he sticks to his task of defending, and does that job very well.

Charlton is also surprised that the current United team have been able to juggle both attacking abd defensive duties so well.

"It's hard for me to imagine that Manchester United would be congratulated and lauded for our defensive capabilities. We're not supposed to be defensive!

"But alongside Rio Ferdinand or young Jonny Evans, Nemanja has dominated our area this season.

"You also have to give credit to Edwin van der Sar and his other colleagues in defence."

Vidic will hope to add one more trophy to his already bulging cabinet when United travel to Rome to take on Barcelona in the Champions League final.

Messi draws first blood

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Kaka Ronald & Messi
Lionel Messi drew first blood ahead of the Champions League final with a snide remark on Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Barca winger knows that if Barca beat Manchester United for the European title, he will most likely end up World Player of the Year.

If his team loses, Ronaldo will most likely retain the coveted award.

Messi said: "Nobody plays to be the best player in the world. This is a team game. I don't see it as a tussle between Cristiano and me. It will be a Barca-Manchester battle.

"What is important is that Barcelona are champions of Europe on May 27 in Rome.

"If we are champions it will certainly help me, but this is secondary."

The Argentine superstar is determined that his team come out tops as he sees it as a chance to write himself into Barca's history books.

"I want the Treble. We will be the best Barcelona of all time and we're 90 minutes away from doing that.

"It's an opportunity to write ourselves in the history books." he added.

Barca boss Pep Guardiolas has already made it known that he will wrap his star striker in cotton wool until the finals but Messi would much rather see some playing time.

"I don't know how I'm going to spend all those days without being able to play - it seems ages just thinking about it.

"But I will come back with batteries fully charged and I will be at the top of my game in Rome.

"We're giving it everything we've got. The team is focused."

Messi takes strength from victory

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Messi
Lionel Messi believes the "mental strength" Barca showed against Chelsea shows they deserve to win the Champions League.

Andres Iniesta's stoppage-time equaliser at Stamford Bridge earlier this month saw Pep Guardiola's side eliminate the Blues on away goals in the semi-finals to earn a final date with defending champions Manchester United in Rome next Wednesday.

And Messi reckons the fact his side never gave up when they looked to be heading out in west London will stand them in good stead in the Italian capital.

He told Champions Magazine: "We were suffering right up until stoppage time at Stamford Bridge. But that's one more proof that we deserve to win the Champions League.

"The fact we beat Chelsea, and the manner in which we did it, shows Barcelona aren't just a good team - we have impressive mental strength too.

"In Spain, Chelsea gave us no space. They put four or five men in defence and we couldn't score past them. But that didn't make us give up.

"We were at their place and we were losing from early on but we gave them a fight right to the end. That last move was just glorious - my heart nearly exploded when I saw Iniesta's shot go in."

Since that night at the Bridge, Barca have clinched Copa del Rey and Primera Division glory and Messi is desperately hoping they can complete phase three of a historic treble next week.

"Winning the Champions League interests me more than anything," he said.

"I'm dreaming of Barcelona becoming the Champions League winners. And, at least until 27 May, no-one can take that dream away from me.

"The Champions League final will be the most fantastic thing that has happened to me in all my life. These are incredible moments you can't really explain with words; in a match like the one in Rome, the whole world is hanging on your every move."

The match pits Messi against 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, but the South American knows United are far from a one-man team.

"They're a great team, Manchester," he said. "If you go through the whole squad, you'd be hard pushed to know which player to choose if you had to pick just one.

"But clearly you have to start with Cristiano, a great forward who can gambetea [a South American term for dribbling with feints/checks/swerves/tricks] with speed and ease.

"And he has a great medium-range shot. We're conscious that in Rome we can't give him time to think or get a shot in from distance. He's a great footballer."

Still, Barca will be focusing on their own game and trying to finish off an already-memorable first season under rookie coach Guardiola in style.

"Guardiola is a piece of history, so he understood straight away how to speak to the players about the way to play football at this club," Messi said of the 38-year-old, who took up the Nou Camp reins last summer.

"So we were soon in tune with his playing style. For example, a couple of times he played me in positions where I didn't think I'd be able to give my maximum, like when I played as a deep-lying number nine against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu [Messi scored twice as Barca won 6-2 on May 2].

"But he explained to me that I could play there - and in that area, a few metres deeper than where a number nine usually operates, I was going to hurt Real. And he was right. Pep knows a lot. You can tell that very quickly. He's very hard-working, modest and optimistic."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Guardiola keeping stars for Rome

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Guardiola
Pep Guardiola confirmed he is set to continue wrapping his top players in cotton wool until the Champions League final.

No Spanish team has won the holy grail of Primera Division, Copa del Rey and European Cup but Barca are two-thirds of the way to achieving that feat after claiming the domestic double in the last six days.

And having clinched the league title on Saturday night without even playing due to Real Madrid's 3-2 defeat against Villarreal, Guardiola opted to ring the changes for last night's clash at Real Mallorca.

Seven first-team players, among them Lionel Messi, Xavi, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Yaya Toure, were promptly left out of the travelling squad once it was confirmed Barca had won the league, and a host of players from the club's B team were drafted in.

Barca, for whom Xavi Torres, Jeffren and Thiago all made their debuts, lost the match 2-1, but Guardiola has his eyes on a bigger prize and admits he is unlikely to risk many regular first-teamers for next weekend`s game against Osasuna either.

"My thinking is that a lot of the players will not play until the final in Rome. I don't want to take any risk, especially taking into account the number of players we already have out," said Guardiola, referring to Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta, Rafael Marquez and Gabi Milito, who were all sidelined for last night's game.

"It helps us to have won the league as early as possible so we can disconnect a little and then switch back on for the final. With regards to the Champions League, it's a lot better to have already won the league."

Barca looked set to celebrate their title triumph with a victory in the Balearic Islands after taking a 10th-minute lead through Samuel Eto'o - one of only three regulars in the starting line-up alongside Eric Abidal and Dani Alves, who are both suspended for the Champions League final.

However, the youthful Barca side could not hold on and two quickfire goals from Juan Arango and Cleber Santana in the last 17 minutes earned Mallorca the win.

"It was a game where we had our chances. I can't complain about the performance of the team," said Guardiola, whose side had a chance to salvage a point but Eto'o missed a last-gasp penalty.

"Maybe we didn't play as well as could have but we did have chances to score. We had players out there we haven't played too much; today they have done and I don't have any criticisms at all."

Despite the weekend setback, Guardiola was full of praise for his players for their achievements this season.

It has been an incredible first season in charge for Guardiola, who had just one year`s coaching experience with Barca`s B team before he was promoted to replace Frank Rijkaard, but the 38-year-old former club captain preferred to let his players take most of the credit.

"The only reason (for the success) is the talent and commitment of the players," he said.

"I'm sure that with other players I would not be a league champion. In contrast, with a different coach, maybe the club would still have won the league.

"The key is their talent, humility and the fact they always hard work in every single game."

He added: "Football is about footballers. We coaches set out plans, some ideas and get them to follow them. All the rest is them, only them."

Giggs eleven, Neville nine

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Giggs
Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville have been around long enough to know that this is the strongest Manchester United squad ever.

Their latest Premier League triumph is Giggs' 11th and number nine for Neville.

During that time they have played with plenty of big-name players and won enough additional silverware to leave even the strongest trophy cabinet begging for mercy.

However, at no time have they been accompanied by such a vast number of experienced and talented team-mates.

Sir Alex Ferguson does not just have two players for every position, in some cases it is three.

In others, like Neville's right-back berth for instance, the number is even greater, given John O'Shea is likely to claim the spot for the Champions League final against Barcelona and the Irishman was not even third choice for that role when the season began.

"Without a doubt this squad is the strongest we have ever had," said Neville.

"The strength in depth is incredible. You cannot begin to compare this squad with the rest. You cannot name a side now.

"You could have one lot of 11 players one week and an entirely different team for the next game."

Giggs goes even further. Whatever team Ferguson picks, although maybe not including the one likely to tackle Hull at the KC Stadium next Sunday, the veteran Welshman is convinced it is better than any that have previously represented United during their current manager's illustrious reign.

"Squad wise, this is the strongest I have been part of," said Giggs.

"Team wise, it is the best partly because of what we have already achieved but also what we could do in the future as well.

"We have been there and done it. We have won leagues and we have won a Champions League. Hopefully we can win another."

The meeting with Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico will now dominate Ferguson's thinking, which is why United's team to face Hull may resemble the one that turned out for the FA Cup semi-final defeat by Everton.

While United will want to do the right thing by Newcastle and Sunderland, their manager's priority clearly has to be getting his best team onto the pitch in Rome, which presumably does not involve them putting their fitness at risk against fully-revved up opponents battling for survival on their own soil.

"It is a 50-50 game," said Neville.

"We are playing Barcelona in a Champions League final. We can't say we are just going to win.

"Anything can happen in those games, although we hope this is not the last trophy we win this season because the European Cup would cap off a brilliant year."

When the analysis of United's season is completed during the early summer months, yesterday's goalless draw with Arsenal will not figure very prominently - other than what it actually meant.

Far more important was the victory at Stoke on Boxing Day, only four days after United returned from their successful quest to become world champions in Japan.

Last month's home win over Aston Villa and the five-goal second half against Tottenham, at a time when any further slips would have fuelled Liverpool's belief they were going to end a drought dating back to 1990, were equally crucial.

Those backs-to-the-wall successes only add further credence to a belief this was a championship that owed as much to United's sheer will and refusal to give in than any free-flowing football.

Twenty-two clean sheets in a 37-match programme that has yielded only five wins by a margin of three goals or more seems to bear that feeling out.

"Every title is special," said Neville.

"To win it three years on the trot is a fantastic achievement.

"This season has been about digging in and fighting for results rather than producing brilliant football all the time.

"We have had a lot of injuries and had to change the team quite regularly.

"This title is as good as any because we have used so many players."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fletcher will accept final fate

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Darren Fletcher expects to miss out on the UEFA Champions League final and is instead relishing the prospect of another Premier League title.

United's appeal against Fletcher's red card in their Champions League semi-final second leg win at Arsenal will be heard by Uefa on Monday.

The Red Devils have made their plea on 'compassionate grounds', with European football's governing body already stating that appeals will only be considered in the case of mistaken identity.

Fletcher was dismissed late on in the victory over Arsenal after bringing down Cesc Fabregas, although replays showed he had won the ball first.

The Scotland international has already come to terms with missing out on the 27th May meeting with Barcelona in Rome.
Get on with it

"I just have to accept it," he said, speaking on Sky Sports after United's 2-0 Premier League win over Man City. "It is the final decision on it tomorrow but I have got to get on with it.

"I have got to make sure I am fully focussed on winning the Premier League and let the lads take care of the (Champions League) final."

United's victory against Manchester City was never in doubt after Ronaldo's opener and Fletcher added: "It is important to keep winning and we did today.

"We slacked off a little bit in the second half but we had done enough to win the match. It was important that we kept our shape.

"We did not have to chase the game and we defended well."

Ancelotti: No Chelsea ultimatum

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AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti has denied he has been set an ultimatum to agree to take over as manager of Chelsea next season.

Instead, the Rossoneri coach claims he will continue in charge at the San Siro.

Speaking after last night's 1-1 draw at home to Juventus which all but ended Milan's hopes of catching city rivals Inter in the race for the Serie A title, Ancelotti branded speculation of an ultimatum as "rubbish".

"It is not a problem which concerns me," he said.

"I don't have to give my availability. The time has not yet come for me to be replaced at Milan."

Ancelotti still has a year left to run on his contract with Milan and last night's draw should be enough to guarantee them a place in the Champions League next season.

Having won Europe's premier club competition twice already with the Rossoneri, Ancelotti has no intention of leaving just when the chance of completing a hat-trick remains.

"It's easier to win in Europe with Milan than with other clubs so I am staying here," he added.

On the domestic front, though, Ancelotti has conceded Milan's Scudetto hopes are now over.

It is four seasons since Milan last won the title, but a win last night would have reduced Inter's lead to just five points with three games remaining.

But their rivals can now clinch a fourth straight title by beating Siena at the San Siro on Sunday night, regardless of how Milan get on at Udinese 24 hours earlier.

"That issue had already been dealt with," he said. "Our aim is to get one more win to finish in the top three.

"It is not going to be easy at Udinese because they are in good form, but we should be able to take the points home with us from one of the next three games."

Iniesta is major doubt for final

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Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta looks set to miss the Champions League final after picking up a thigh injury.

Iniesta looked downbeat as he left the pitch at the end of the 3-3 home draw with Villarreal Sunday night, a disappointing result as the Catalans failed to secure the three points they needed to seal the title at the Nou Camp.

Early indications suggest the midfielder has suffered a recurrence of the serious thigh injury he picked up in November and Barca coach Pep Guardiola admitted he is likely to lose his in-form star for the rest of the season.

"I don't have a good feeling," he said on Sunday night.

"We will do tests tomorrow, but there is no way he will play this week."

That means Iniesta will definitely miss the final of the Copa del Rey, which sees Barcelona face Athletic Bilbao at Valencia's Mestalla stadium on Wednesday night.

"We will try to get him fit for Rome - that's all we can do," he said. "We will have what the tests reveal."

Thierry Henry is also fighting to be fit for the season's showpiece against United after picking up a ligament injury in the 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid last weekend.

Meanwhile, Rafa Marquez is definitely ruled out for the rest of the season and Gabi Milito looks unlikely to return before the summer.

Against Villarreal, Barca saw Eric Abidal sent off for the second time in a week and the France full-back will now miss both of the club's finals through suspension.

With Dani Alves also suspended for the Champions League final, Guardiola faces some difficult selection choices in defence.

But the Barca coach says other players will step forward.

"We have suffered many injuries recently and we don't have a huge squad, but we have some huge players and they will step forward for the important games which lie ahead," he said.

It was a frustrating night for Guardiola as Barcelona let a two-goal lead slip in the closing stages and missed out on sealing the title in front of their own fans.

The Barca coach says he was as disappointed as anyone to see his side pegged back to 3-3, but remembered that the title is still close.

"It was disappointing because at 3-1 we were in control of the game.

"But we are still in a great position. We could be four or five points ahead, but we are eight clear with nine to play for, so we know the title is close."

And despite fielding his strongest available side, Guardiola does not believe tiredness will be a factor in Wednesday's final.

He said: "We have accumulated tiredness because we have played lots of games, but we have a cup final on Wednesday and we'll be ready for it.

"My players won't need any motivation for a game like that - we just have to out there at Mestalla and play."

UEFA punishment would be 'curious'

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Guus Hiddink believes it would be "curious" if UEFA were to heavily punish Chelsea or striker Didier Drogba.

UEFA have yet to rule on the unacceptable over-reaction from several of the Blues players - most notably a foul-mouthed tirade into a live TV camera by Drogba - following their controversial midweek exit in the Champions League to a late Barcelona away goal.

However, following this afternoon's 4-1 thrashing of Arsenal at Emirates Stadium which secured third place in the table, the Dutch coach, in charge until the end of the season, praised his team's reaction and called on the disciplinary chiefs at Europe's governing body to show compassion.

Hiddink had no qualms about selecting Drogba. He said: "We do not live with headlines, whether they are right or not, that is not the big issues.

"Drogba has always fought for the team.

"Everyone has talked about the incident afterwards, but in the game there were no incidents, everyone respected each other.

"He [Drogba] saw what he did wrong and apologised strongly.

"We do not know what is going to happen regarding that, but when the people in charge at UEFA they have the feeling of being football people and not bureaucratic authorities, then they might perfectly understand that the big apology of his was okay.

"So I do not expect much from that, it would be curious I think."

Hiddink praised Drogba's attitude. "We said 'everyone is focused on you, but if you play the simple game you have, you have efficiency for the team', which he did," said Hiddink.

"He took a perfect free-kick for Alex, which was a beautiful header and he worked as he should. He did not react to any challenges."

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, however, felt Drogba had won the free-kick which led to Chelsea's opening goal and saw Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas cautioned for dissent at suggesting the Ivory Coast striker had dived.

Asked if he believed Drogba had indeed taken a tumble, Wenger said: "We live in a league now where the divers are rewarded. It is not right, but it is like that.

"I do not want to go into any individual assessments. It is down to the referee to do his job.

"I don't think it (the free-kick) should have been given, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't win the header after that. The referee will make some decisions for you or against you, but we should still have cleared the ball from the cross.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Fletcher may miss final

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Manchester United's Darren Fletcher will miss the Champions League final after Uefa confirmed that his red card against Arsenal will stand.

Fletcher was given a straight red card for an adjudged foul on Cesc Fabregas in the box as United won the second leg of the Champions League semi-final 3-1.

Uefa has confirmed that no appeal can be made against the decision, no matter what the referee says in his report.

United will face Chelsea or Barcelona in the final in Rome on 27 May.

"Manchester United have the right to protest the decision within 24 hours of the match," said a Uefa spokesman.

"However, the protest is only admissible if the referee made an error and mistakenly identified and cautioned or sent off the wrong player.

"There cannot be an appeal against a factual decision taken by the referee and there is nothing to indicate that the referee made a mistake in identifying Fletcher as the player he penalised last night."After Tuesday's game, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson described the prospect of Fletcher missing out on the final as "a tragedy" but did not criticise Italian referee Roberto Rosetti.

"You can see the ball has moved in a different direction but we shouldn't ask the referee," stated Ferguson.

"He's competent and fair enough to look at it himself possibly. Apparently, you can't appeal and if that's the case it's disappointing for the boy.

"Darren's one of the most honest players in the game and to miss the final is a tragedy."

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger also insisted the red card was "very harsh" after television pictures showed Fletcher played the ball cleanly.

Bosingwa blasts referee

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Chelsea winger Jose Bosingwa has labelled referee Tom Henning Ovrebo a "thief" after Chelsea's controversial Champions League exit.

Andres Iniesta's stoppage-time equaliser saw Barca progress to the final of Europe's premier club competition but Chelsea claimed they could have had four penalties.

And Bosingwa has laid the blame for the Blues' failure to reach their second successive final squarely at Henning's feet.

"I don't know if he's a referee or a thief," he told Portuguese television station RTP. "I don't have any words to describe that man that was on the pitch.

"We have nothing against Barcelona's goal but the penalties that he didn't give us and his way of managing the game weren't right at all.

"This referee should never referee a game again. What happened was a disgrace.

"It was a well contested game but the referee came to spoil our game."

Drogba rages at ref for Euro exit

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Chelsea striker Didier Drogba labelled referee Tom Henning Ovrebo a "disgrace" after his side's Champions League exit at the hands of Barcelona.

The Blues felt they had four strong shouts for penalties before Barcelona won the semi-final on away goals with a 93rd-minute Andres Iniesta strike.

After the 1-1 second-leg draw, Drogba ran on to the pitch to confront Ovrebo at the final whistle and was booked.

He then shouted and swore into TV cameras and may face action from Uefa.

A Uefa spokesman said: "We will see the report from the referee and match delegate before deciding whether to take any action or not." Drogba, who had been substituted after 72 minutes, had to be restrained as Norwegian Ovrebo went down the tunnel.

Blues captain John Terry, who also strongly remonstrated with Ovrebo, defended the reactions of the Chelsea players and Drogba in particular.

"I am fully behind Didier for the way he reacted," declared Terry. "The man wants to win. You can see the passion that he played with during the game and the passion afterwards.

"People are saying we shouldn't have reacted the way we did but the fact is, six decisions went against us in front of 40,000 people. And for the ref to not give one of them is unusual."

The central defender also condemned the decision to select Ovrebo for such a high-profile tie.

Referee wins the match for Barca

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Andres Iniesta's spectacular strike deep into stoppage time wrecked Chelsea's dreams of a second successive Champions League final against Manchester United amid chaotic scenes at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea looked to have kept Barcelona at bay and sealed an all-Premier League clash in Rome on a night of nerve-jangling tension after Michael Essien's 20-yard blockbuster in the ninth minute.

But with Guus Hiddink's side hanging on - and fuelled by a sense of injustice after referee Tom Ovrebo rejected a succession of penalty appeals - Iniesta beat Petr Cech from the edge of the area to send Barcelona into the final on away goals.

It was a heartbreaking moment for Chelsea and one that was too much to bear for Didier Drogba, on the sidelines after being substituted with an injury.There had already been angry scenes in the technical area after Barcelona's leveller, with Hiddink appearing to be buffeted on the touchline, but at the final whistle, Drogba marched on to the field to subject referee Ovrebo to a prolonged verbal tirade.

He rightly received a yellow card but Drogba refused to be deterred by this punishment and continued to pursue the official while being held back.

It was an unpalatable conclusion to a dramatic encounter in which Chelsea had four appeals for penalties ignored, the strongest being a clear handball by Gerard Pique after the break.

Barcelona now face United in the final - but it was victory at a price, with Dani Alves ruled out of the final after a booking and Eric Abidal will also miss out after he was unluckily sent off for tangling with Nicolas Anelka.

Chelsea, meanwhile, must now gather their forces for the end of the Premier League campaign and the FA Cup final against Everton.

They looked to be on their way to a European final after a superb defensive display that restricted the visitors all night until Iniesta's deadly strike.Barcelona's attempt to secure a crucial away goal suffered a blow before kick-off when Thierry Henry was ruled out with a knee injury - while Chelsea included both Drogba and Anelka in their line-up.

The Catalan giants posed the first threat when Xavi's effort took two deflections before Jose Bosingwa cleared from almost on the goal-line.

And Chelsea took advantage of that escape to make the breakthrough after only nine minutes.

Frank Lampard's pass was half-cleared and even though there seemed little danger, Essien met the loose ball with a thunderous left-foot volley that left Valdes stranded as it ripped high past him and into the net off the bar.Barcelona's response was predictably measured as they refused to stray from their trademark passing approach but it failed to reap any rewards as Chelsea keeper Cech remained well protected by his defenders.

Indeed, it was Chelsea who had the better chances despite having less of the possession, with Valdes just beating Drogba to Lampard's long ball before diverting away the striker's angled free-kick with his knees.

Chelsea made the first of a series of penalty appeals when Malouda appeared to be hauled down by Alves inside the box, only for the referee to signal a free-kick just outside the area.

Drogba was the next to appeal when he was tugged back by Abidal but Ovrebo ignored his claims - much to the obvious disgust of Chelsea's high-maintenance striker.The home side, predictably, came under pressure in the opening exchanges after the break but they broke away to great effect, only to see Drogba waste a perfect chance to double their lead.

Anelka set him up 12 yards out but after cutting inside Pique, Drogba shot against the legs of Valdes, with Malouda striking the rebound into the side-netting.

Drogba was again left appealing in vain for a penalty after colliding with Yaya Toure but Barcelona's giant midfield man looked to have just got a touch on the ball.

Referee Ovrebo was on the receiving end of Barcelona's anger after 65 minutes when he sent off defender Abidal for what only appeared to be an unwitting tangle of legs with Anelka.

And Ovrebo was in action again 10 minutes from time when Pique handled under pressure from Anelka but once again the referee was in no mood to point to the spot.As the game entered the final minutes of stoppage time, the one moment of magic Chelsea feared from this gifted Barcelona side arrived to steal their dreams of a second successive final away from them at the last gasp.

Essien sliced his clearance and the ball came to Iniesta, who sent a rising 20-yard drive past Cech into the top corner to spark chaotic scenes on the touchline.

More drama was to follow when Chelsea's players appealed one last time for a penalty when Michael Ballack's volley appeared to strike Samuel Eto'o's arm - and the German midfielder chased the referee back up the pitch to express his fury when the spot-kick never came.

And when the final whistle blew, Drogba marched on to direct his tirade at referee Ovrebo - it was an act that only increased the sense of anger and injustice on the air on a night of bitter disappointment for Chelsea.

United close to retaining their title

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Arsenal were no match for the current rulers of Europe and they are on route for another title .Manchester United produced a virtuoso display to remain on course to become the first team to retain the Champions League - and destroyed Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger's dream of winning his first European trophy.

Arsenal's hopes of wiping out a single-goal deficit from the first leg ended inside 11 minutes as United struck twice to silence an expectant crowd at the Emirates.

Ji-Sung Park pounced on Kieran Gibbs' slip for a close-range finish after eight minutes, while Cristiano Ronaldo fired a 40-yard free-kick past startled keeper Manuel Almunia three minutes later.

It left Arsenal's plans, plus Wenger's bold promise of a "magnificent" performance from his players, in tatters as they were simply unable to cope with the power, pace and energy produced by Sir Alex Ferguson's side.Ronaldo's second goal of the game after 61 minutes summed up his side's display in the space of a few devastating seconds.

Arsenal were undone from their own corner by a superb sweeping move that also involved starring roles for Park and Wayne Rooney before Ronaldo completed the formalities with a flourish. It rubber-stamped United's passage into a final against Chelsea or Barcelona in Rome on 27 May - and on this evidence they will take some stopping.

The only blot on United's otherwise perfect night came 16 minutes from time when Darren Fletcher was sent off by referee Roberto Rosetti, who ruled the midfielder had fouled Cesc Fabregas as he raced in on goal.

Robin van Persie's penalty will not cause United as much pain as Fletcher's suspension for the final.

If United's first-leg performance did not bring the margin of victory it deserved, they were full value for this triumph.

And as Ferguson and United's players celebrated, Wenger was left to contemplate the stark statistic that Arsenal have not won a trophy since they beat these same opponents in the 2005 FA Cup final - and looked light years behind them on the evidence of these two games. United will now press on to try to seal another Premier League title, safe in the knowledge they can take a tilt at winning this European trophy for the fourth time.

Arsenal attempted to crank up the atmosphere inside the Emirates by placing thousands of flags on seats around the stadium but two early blows from United ensured they were swiftly lowered.

United were desperate for the away goal that would leave Arsenal facing a mountainous task and they were gifted it via an error from Gibbs. He looked comfortably positioned to clear Ronaldo's routine cross but he slipped and Park was on hand to take advantage by sliding in to lift a finish over Almunia.

Arsenal's plight became virtually impossible three minutes later when another mistake, this time from Almunia, allowed United to double their advantage and leave the Gunners requiring four goals.

Van Persie fouled Ronaldo 40 yards out and while his strike was sweetly-struck and dipping, Almunia must take responsibility for moving too late to save an effort that arrived at a comfortable height.

Arsenal's players - and their thousands of followers - were visibly shell-shocked and Rooney almost made it three after 18 minutes.Playing with great discipline in a left-flank role, he cut in dangerously to test Almunia with a shot the keeper was just able to turn to safety.

United were in complete control and Ronaldo was just off target with a header from Anderson's resulting corner.

Arsenal had been dominated to such an extent that they were reduced to ignoring Wenger's long-held philosophies as they launched aimless balls in the direction of Emmanuel Adebayor and Van Persie.

Their only response was a tame header from Fabregas that provided little more than catching practice for Edwin Van der Sar.

If Arsenal hoped the interval would inspire some remarkable transformation in a one-sided encounter, they were to be disappointed as United simply resumed with the same air of superiority.

Ronaldo tested Almunia with a low shot at his near post before he added United's third - a goal that summed up the quality of his side's performance.

From an Arsenal corner, Ronaldo found Park just 20 yards from his own penalty area. He played in Rooney and when he served up a perfect pass, there was Ronaldo to complete a picture goal with a finish high past Almunia.It afforded Ferguson the luxury of being able to remove Rooney and Patrice Evra, players who would have missed the final had they had picked up another yellow card.

Fletcher did, however, suffer that fate when he was shown a straight red card by referee Rosetti 14 minutes from time when Fabregas tumbled as the pair collided in the penalty area.

Rosetti awarded a penalty, which Van Persie duly scored, but replays showed Fletcher appearing to get a clean touch on the ball before Fabregas fell to the ground - although there was no suggestion the Arsenal captain dived.

United then simply played out time before taking deserved acclaim at the conclusion of a magnificent team effort - as Europe's elite trophy came into sight for Ferguson and his men once more.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Heroic Chelsea Got It Right, Arsenal Got Away With It - Alan Hansen

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Alan Hansen was a colossus on the pitch for Liverpool and Scotland, becoming a true Anfield legend and collecting a host of medals in a glittering playing career. And since hanging up his boots he's become a giant of football punditry too, renowned for his forthright views and analyses which are eagerly anticipated by millions of viewers of BBC TV's 'Match of the Day' every week.

In his role as a pundit for the New Football Pools, Hansen gave Goal.com his take on the two Champions League semi-finals, both involving Premier League clubs...

Chelsea Produced A Fantastic Defensive Performance

"In the aftermath of Chelsea’s heroic 0-0 draw over at the Nou Camp, the Barcelona players have been outspoken against their opponents’ physical and defensive display. They can say what they like but what did they expect Chelsea to do? Play an open expansive game against a team with some of the best attacking players in the world? Of course not, if you do that against Barca they will destroy you.

"Chelsea may have not had a kick or much of the play but 0-0 was still a fantastic result over in Spain. Barcelona play some of the best football you will see in your life but Chelsea restricted them to a handful of chances on the night. Guus Hiddink is not silly, he knew that if Chelsea opened up they could have been ripped apart. By keeping two banks of four and defending the 18-yard line Chelsea restricted the space for Barcelona to exploit and any defender will tell you it’s far easier to defend like that. It also helped that Petr Cech was back to his best in goal. He had a fantastic game apart from the first five or six minutes when a few crosses went into the box and he was all over the place.

"Football is all about exploiting the weaknesses of other teams and Barcelona didn’t do that. Chelsea have shown they struggle defending set-pieces aerially at the moment but Barca refused to throw the ball into the box. Now if this was a Premier League game I’m sure the opposition would be throwing the ball right under Cech’s crossbar but that’s not Barcelona’s style. They play their own game, their own style and back that to get results but they came unstuck against Chelsea.

"The talk before the game was how hard it would be for makeshift left-back Jose Bosingwa to stop Lionel Messi but he did really, really well. Now Messi is an unbelievable talent but if you restrict any player’s time and space, it’s going to be hard for them to influence the game. Chelsea packed men behind the ball, doubled up on the wings and strangled the life out of Barca when they got near their box so Messi didn’t really have an influence.

"It all points to an intriguing second leg at Stamford Bridge next week as the proposition will be different for Chelsea as they will have to come out a bit more. Hiddink won’t have his side going gung-ho and they will still keep men behind the ball even at home. Against Barcelona you have to. If you play too open against a team of that quality they will rip you apart so expect Chelsea to have more of the play but remain solid.

"The comments from the Barcelona players are ridiculous to be honest; there wasn’t a bad tackle in the game. Did they expect Chelsea to just roll over and let them play? It was a fantastic defensive performance from every one of the Chelsea players and all in all a great result.

"I must say I expected Barcelona to reach the final prior to the first leg but it remains unbelievably tight now going into the second leg at the Bridge. I would rate this one as 50-50 but it promises to be a really intriguing clash back in London next week."

Arsenal Got Out Of Jail But Must Improve

"Manchester United should have booked their Champions League final place with the amount of opportunities they had to put the tie to bed. Unlike Chelsea, Arsenal don’t have the mentality to go to Old Trafford and defend solidly without the ball. Even when they don’t play well, they still get men forward, which means if they lose possession, they are open to a counterattack. In contrast, Chelsea never really had the ball at the Nou Camp so were never ever going to be counterattacked, especially as they never got that many players forward. Arsene Wenger’s young team are not able to adapt to play tight and gain a 0-0 draw but, despite playing poorly, they will be happy to return to the Emirates only one goal down.

"All credit must go to Manuel Almunia for keeping Arsenal in this tie as he made a string of saves against a United onslaught, especially in the first half. He was one of the few Gunners' players to emerge with any credit from the game, although young Kieran Gibbs did well. The 19-year-old was up against some of the best attacking players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney but did not look out of place. Unfortunately for Arsenal, Emmanuel Adebayor was very poor on the night. He failed to use his strength at all, despite his size, and barely held onto the ball for his side. He owes his manager a big performance in the second leg at the Emirates after that showing.

"The Arsenal defence was so wide open at times that it wouldn’t be an over-exaggeration to say United could have won this match 4-0. However, now Wenger’s team have got out of jail they have a real chance of upsetting Sir Alex’s team at the Emirates.

"I’d be surprised if United play any differently at the Emirates as their pressing game worked well but there should be a marked improvement in the Arsenal performance and tactics. To be honest, I’d expect United to progress as they have players that can score anywhere and if they get one at the Emirates then Arsenal face a huge task to recover. However, Arsene Wenger’s side have shown they have the ability to pull off surprising results in the past and they may have to again."

Chelsea Star Ballack Laughs Off Barcelona’s Criticism

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Chelsea midfielder Michael BAllack wrestles with Barcelona ace Andres Iniesta for possession
Barcelona had launch a scathing review of Chelsea and referee, Wolfgang Stark’s performance in last Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg clash at the Camp Nou.

Blues manager, Guus Hiddink utilised an ultra-defensive strategy and a physical approach to stifle the Blaugrana attacking tidal wave and duly earned a 0-0 draw, while the referee was condemned by numerous Barca figures for allowing the English side to get away with an excessive amount of dangerous challenges.

Now, midfielder, Michael Ballack has chipped with his own two cents about all the fuss surrounding the much talked-about game, starting with the match officiating.

“The referee did a great job. This is football and the Barcelona players should know this. Maybe they expected us to roll over for them and because we didn’t, they don’t think it’s fair,” he told The Sun.

“You have to play differently against Barca as you do against Liverpool. This was all part of our strategy,” he added.

The German then responded to his nemesis, Andres Iniesta, who was one of the more vocal players to criticise the referee as well as Chelsea’s ‘anti-football’.

“Iniesta is a great player and there’s no need for him to talk that way,” he declared.

“In fact, it was a game where it was not necessary to talk about the referees at all. But this is how players react when they do not obtain the result they want.”

Chelsea and Barcelona will square-off again this coming Wednesday for the second leg at Stamford Bridge.

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