Thought the Champions League was a European animal? Well, it is, but there’s one across the water too. Today’s three to watch come from the UEFA species, and its lesser-spotted CONCACAF cousin.
1) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Chelsea vs Benfica, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
With a 1-0 lead, an away goal and some so-so form under Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea are obviously favourites. But they’re up against two-time European Champions Benfica, who’ve lost just once away from home in the Portuguese league this season. A team containing Aimar, Gaitán and Cardozo that needs to pull off a win against the odds should, generally, do just that. But this is the quarter-final of the Big Cup, and Stamford Bridge is a tough place to go blah-blah-blah. For the neutral or semi-neutral, the best thing that could happen to this match is for big Cardozo to hit a Crouch-style screamer in the opening five minutes. That would give us a game that might make us look up from our Game of Thrones DVD boxset, as it would mean that Benfica were coming, my lord.
2) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Real Madrid vs APOEL Nicosia, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
APOEL’s run to the quarter-finals will probably never be matched by another Cypriot team or by a side from a similar-sized nation. No-one’s holding their breath for Maltese champions Valletta or Luxembourg title-holders Dudelange to take next year’s Champions League by storm. So, Brazilian mercenaries or not, it’s hats off to the Lyon-tamers (see what we did there?), but with the news coming in that Real plan on fielding a reasonably strong team, it’s also time to say ‘Kalinihta’ (‘good night’; our thanks go to the delightfully unreliable Google Translate) to our islander friends.
3) CONCACAF Champions League semi-final, second leg: Santos Laguna vs Toronto, 03.00 CET/20.00 EST
Toronto surprised many self-appointed experts (excuse us while we look the other way) by holding Santos Laguna to a 1-1 draw in the first leg at BMO Field. The Canadians have been making confident noises, but Seattle did that too, and they got gubbed 6-1 in Torreon in the previous round. The Mexicans are top of the league and unbeaten this year. Toronto are not. But, as Jimmy Greaves was fond of mumbling, it really is a funny ol’ game. If TFC somehow reach the final, it would probably rank as their biggest-ever achievement, akin to a team from, say, Cyprus reaching the last eight of the competition’s European equivalent. Which would just never happ…oh.
Three Champions League ties, across two continents. Here’s today’s trio to watch:
1) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, first leg: Marseille vs Bayern Munich, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
The Frenchies haven’t won the Big Cup since 1993, while Bayern haven’t ruled Europe since 2001. The Germans have a far superior team on paper (Ribery, Gomez, Neuer, Robben, and I’ll stop there so I don’t have to write out 11 names), but as that toothless bloke at the bar is fond of reminding you, paper is not the surface upon which the beautiful game is played. Munich have come unstuck in France before, but L’OM will need to find some form (recent results: losses to Dijon in Ligue 1 and 3rd division Quevilly in the Coupe) if they wish to give themselves a fighting chance in the second leg.
2) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, first leg: AC Milan vs Barcelona, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
The chat doing the rounds at the moment is that Milan may be the only side that can stop Barça tippy-tappying their way to Euro glory once again. For inspiration, fans of I Rossoneri will look back to 1994, when one of the finest Milan teams in history put in debatably the greatest team performance ever seen in a Champions League final, spanking their highly-fancied Catalan opponents 4-0. The odds on that scoreline being repeated tonight? 150-1. Go on, you know it makes sense.
3) CONCACAF Champions League semi-final, first leg: Toronto v Santos Laguna, 03.00 CET/20.00 EST
The first Canadian side to reach the last four of CONCACAF’s showcase event, Toronto are also the last MLS team left in the competition, leaving Americans in the uncomfortable position of having to cheer on their northern neighbo(u)rs. Aron Winter’s men took care of GoldenBalls and the Galaxy rather impressively in the last round, but the task remains a sizeable one. Los Albiverdes currently top the Mexican league, are playing some damn sexy football and smacked six past Seattle Sounders in the second leg of the quarter-final. If they’re in the mood, it could be watch-through-your-fingers time at BMO Field.