Real Madrid 1 – 1 Manchester United. It says something about the magnetism of managers Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson that their pre-match remarks arguably made as many headlines as anything uttered by the world class players on show. Madrid’s Mourinho isn’t having the easiest of seasons, with his side trailing behind rivals Barcelona in the league, and journalists were keen to know what his next managerial move might be. Would he eventually take over from Sir Alex at Manchester United, when Fergie eventually calls it a day (he’s been the boss since 1986)? While the former Chelsea manager confirmed that a return to English soccer “will be my next step,” he dismissed the possibility of heading to Manchester because “I think we have to end our career at the same time. [Ferguson] at 90 and me at 70.”
It was a cute, yet respectful, answer and a reminder that, even with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney taking to the field at Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium Wednesday, these charismatic leaders are enthralling. Ferguson, who can handle anything thrown at him, had a zinger of his own in response to Spain‘s press labelling his striker Rooney as a “hooligan,” and “a freckled demon.” “Rooney can’t read Spanish so we will be all right,” said Sir Alex.
Perhaps Rooney had been taking lessons, and was so hurt by the remarks that he put in a curiously quiet performance. Luckily for United, one of his strike partners for club and country, Danny Welbeck, was far livlier and gave the road side an early lead (and potentially crucial away goal) with a header from a corner. Ten minutes later and former United star Ronaldo equalized with an even more powerful header, somewhat reminiscent of the goal he scored for United in the 2008 Champions League final. Say what you will in the great Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo debate but it’s hard to find a player who heads a ball as decisively as the Portugese playmaker.
The game was utterly compelling and played at a pace which made a mockery of any claims that international soccer is the pinnacle of this sport. There’s a frenetic quality to Champions League knockout games, but class and poise somehow remains on show. In theory, United remain more on track to progress to the quarter finals thanks to the tie, and Ferguson has his defence and goalkeeper David De Gea to thank for holding firm (the always on point, and hilarious, Roger Bennett tweeted that “This was a lot like witnessing De Gea’s BarMitzvah. The day he became a man.”) The game might not have ended up being the final that Sir Alex wanted but the good news for the rest of us is that we get to do it again in a few weeks.
Shakhtar Donetsk 2-2 Borussia Dortmund. Unless you were at this game, did it truly take place? With no disrespect intended, who would have been watching when Madrid vs. United was on at the same time? But anyone who did tune in was treated to a thoroughly absorbing contest, with Borussia Dortmund emerging happier than Shakhtar Donetsk. Twice Dortmund fell behind, to Darijo Srna’s free-kick and then substitute Douglas Costa doing his best to replicate Dennis Bergkamp’s wonder goal for Holland which knocked out Argentina at World Cup ’98. But the German outfit would not yield. They equalized through the prolific Robert Lewandowski and, with three minutes to play, Mats Hummels. Dortmund continue to go under the radar but if they progress, as they will be expected to, nobody will fancy playing them.
Celtic 0 -3 Juventus. Scottish side Celtic had already defied expectations in this season’s Champions League by emerging from a group which contained Spartak Moscow, Benfica and Barcelona, who Celtic memorably defeated at home. So when you beat Messi and his mates, a knockout match against Italian giants Juventus is unlikely to fill you with fear. But despite giving their all, and, to keep the soccer clichés rolling, working their socks off, Celtic got caught cold by a classic road performance from Juve, who soaked up considerable pressure from the home side, and then went down the other end of the field to score three times.
Within three minutes, striker Alessandro Matri made defender Efe Ambrose pay for his misjudgement. But the Italians didn’t score their decisive second and third until the final 15 minutes of the game when Claudio Marchisio scored on the counter-attack before Mirko Vucinic rubbed salt into the wounds after another error from the hapless Ambrose. His selection may have caused some surprise, considering that he played in last Sunday’s African Cup of Nations final for Nigeria and didn’t even arrive back in Glasgow until the day of the game.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon didn’t shy away from the monumental effort required in the return game next month by stating that his side “need[s] a miracle. It’s the harsh reality of football at this level.” He also got in a dig at referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco, calling him “very pro-Juventus” for what he felt was robust man-marking at corner kicks, and how “it’s not rugby we’re playing, it’s soccer.” Regardless of the sport, if Celtic did somehow manage to overturn the deficit, the result would surely be on a par with their historic win in the final of this competition back in 1967.
Valencia 1 – 2 Paris Saint-Germain. PSG made one of the biggest splashes in the recent transfer window by enticing David Beckham to join for the remainder of the season. Despite being eligible to play in the Champions League, Becks wasn’t included in the squad (though was watching from the stands) and will be pleased that his new side won the first leg, on the road no less. But perhaps he and they will reflect that the task at hand is more difficult than it ought to be. Going into injury time, PSG had a healthy 2-0 lead, courtesy of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Pastore’s first half goals. But then two major blows: first, Valencia halved the deficit when Rami headed in Tino Costa’s free-kick, and then Swedish enigma Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off for a stamp, though it didn’t appear as if there was much contact with Andres Guardado. His three-match ban means he’ll miss the return fixture on March 6. At least they’ll have a replacement player raring to go, even if Beckham’s best days are probably behind him.