Mar 10, 2009

Blues, Reds advance in lockstep

The English Premier League really is the best professional soccer league in the world. Chelsea and Liverpool provided further support to this argument on Tuesday, by vanquishing Italian and Spanish foes in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. Both Juventus Turin (defeated by Chelsea 3-2 on aggregate) and Real Madrid (a 5-0 aggregate beatdown by Liverpool) occupy second place in their respective leagues, the Italian Serie A and Spanish Liga BBVA--the same position currently shared by Blues and Reds in the Premiership (Chelsea holds the edge on goal difference). There is now a very real chance we could see four English teams and no Italian clubs in the Champions League quarterfinals.

The Liverpool victory is particularly surprising, seeing as Real were resurgent under new coach Juande Ramos and had won 10 games in a row coming into the first leg at the Bernabeu a fortnight ago. Plus Real had exited the Copa del Rey and fallen off the pace of first-place Liga side Barcelona, leaving the Champions League as their last and best hope at silverware this season. It was also about redemption; Real had not made it past the Round of 16 since they last hoisted the Champs League trophy in 2002. No wonder then, that Ramos called the game "a matter of life and death."

Perhaps he wasn't taking it seriously enough. For whatever reason (probably because, um, Liverpool are a better team?) Real were unable to handle their opponents in the first leg, losing 1-0 at home. This forced the Madrilenos to atack from the word go tonight, which of course played right into Liverpool's hands. The Chelsea match was a bit hairier and not decided until Didier Drogba scored in the 83rd minute to tie the game at 2-2. With a 1-0 lead from the first leg, Juve needed to win by two goals once Chelsea scored. The 2-1 lead, established through a penalty kick in minute 74, had given them hope, even though they were playing with just 10 men after Giorgio Chiellini's second yellow card in the 71st minute.

There were no other real surprises from today's action., though we are of course a little disappointed Panathinaikos was unable to take advantage of its strong performance in the first leg of their match-up with Villareal. The Greek side were actually ranked higher than the Yellow Submarine in our most recent Top 25. But having now been eliminated from continental, domestic cup and, for all intents and purposes, domestic league competition (they are a distant second, nine points behind first-placed Olympiakos with five games to play), Panathinaikos are unlikely to see the Top 25 again this season.