Both tickets to the final of the 2006 UEFA Champions’ League will be punched this week as Europe’s best this season. Arsenal, Villarreal, AC Milan, and Barcelona take the last step toward making it to the showpiece event of the European season.
Arsenal and Barcelona appear to be in the driver’s seat at the moment as they take narrow leads into this week’s return legs. Still, narrow is the operative word here, and, after last season’s amazing comeback by Liverpool in the final, it’s quite possible that anything can and will happen in this tournament.
On Tuesday evening, Arsenal and Villarreal meet in the second leg of their semifinal fixture at the Estadio El Madrigal in Spain. A Kolo Toure goal gave Arsenal a slim 1-0 victory in the final European match played at Highbury last week, and Arsene Wenger’s side will look to finish the job as the Gunners aim for their first trip to a Champions’ League final.
The plucky Spaniards, however, will be up for it having shown in their first ever Champions’ League campaign that they don’t go down easy. In fact, after losing to Inter Milan in the first leg of their quarterfinal match-up at the San Siro, Villarreal duly defeated the favoured Italians at the Madrigal, something that will surely give fans of the Spanish club hope as Manuel Pellegrini’s side seeks a place in the club’s first European final. The difference now, though, is that Villarreal don’t have an away goal like they did in the quarterfinals.
Nevertheless, it has all the makings of a tasty affair on Tuesday night with both sides recognizing how big of an opportunity this really is. Villarreal have not lost at home this season in the competition, while Arsenal have been even more impressive having not lost at all in 11 Champions’ League matches since last September. Something has got to give. If Villarreal can overturn the current deficit and knock out another big European side they will be worthy of their place in the final, but so will Arsenal should they stand tall in the Madrigal and continue their remarkable run in the tournament.
If Tuesday’s match-up is all about two teams who have never contested a European Cup/Champions’ League final, then the other semifinal clash is the exact opposite, with both teams having a long history of participation in important European matches over the years, including several appearances in the final between the two.
On Wednesday, Barcelona and AC Milan meet at the Nou Camp to settle their mammoth semifinal tie. Barca take a 1-0 advantage back home after recording an important away win at the San Siro last week thanks to Ludovic Giuly’s second-half strike. Milan missed numerous chances to get on the scoreboard themselves though Rossoneri boss Carlos Ancelotti believes that those chances signify that his men have the ability to score goals against Barcelona, which they will, he says, at the Nou Camp.
Milan are looking to make it to their third final in four years, while Barcelona are aiming for a return to the final for the first time since 1994, when they incidentally lost to Milan 4-0 in Athens.
For Milan, overturning their current predicament would go some way in erasing the terrible memories of last season’s final in Istanbul where the club raced out to a 3-0 lead over Liverpool, before Rafa Benitez’s side staged one of the all-time greatest European comebacks. And while many believe that Milan have the ability to get the result they need at the Nou Camp, that many more observers are convinced that Milan already missed their chance at home last week. Barcelona meanwhile must still prove that they are the total package and put to rest the notion that they are an exceptionally talented attacking side, which has some glaring defensive frailties.
So, prepare for a potentially memorable set of semifinals this week with a fascinating final grouping to come from these matches. Will it be Arsenal-Barcelona in the final as many claim? Or will Villarreal and Milan meet by overcoming their first leg deficits? How about Arsenal versus AC Milan or an all-Spanish tilt between Villarreal and Barcelona? The possibilities are intriguing and the beauty of football is that we simply don’t know yet and probably won’t know until the 90 minutes are up in each match, or perhaps until after 120 minutes or penalties. What we do know is that the winners of each semifinal will meet in Paris at the Stade de France on 17 May and a new European champion will be crowned.