The UEFA Champions League Semifinals kick off tonight with Chelsea’s visit to the mighty Catalan Cathedral that is Barcelona’s Estadio Camp Nou. For an English football fan, these should be halcyon days, as for the second year running the Premiership provides three of the final four.
However, beyond the actual supporters of the three English representatives, you will be hard-pressed to find someone who will not be hoping that Barcelona make it through.
This season, Barca have swept all before them and sit four points clear at the top of La Liga with an obscene goal difference of +68. The attacking triumvirate of Messi, Eto’o, and Henry have scored more league goals between them than any other top-flight club in Europe, and all season long they have played with a swashbuckling style that has dazzled.
The fact that they are not already home and hosed in their domestic championship is testament to the obstinate pursuit made by Real Madrid, who 19 weeks ago were 12 points behind and looking likely to slip out of the top three. The replacement of manager Bernd Schuster with Juande Ramos, fresh from a sacking at Tottenham, shocked everyone by actually breathing new life into the dysfunctional Madrileños, and since an inevitable defeat at Camp Nou in December, they have won 18 of 19 matches.
After the big match between the two giants is this weekend, Real could find themselves just a solitary point behind their great rivals. But before then, Barcelona have a chance to see off the cosmopolitan West Londoners from Chelsea and take a giant step towards the Champions League Final and a third European Cup.
Chelsea will take to the field this evening knowing that the Champions League is the trophy which will define them in the PA (Post Abramovich) era. They still have the FA Cup to challenge for, but since the Russian Oligarch started plying his millions into the club, the Champions League has been the Holy Grail.
But history suggests that they will not be triumphing in Rome on May 27. Since 1994, only one team has won the European Cup for the first time; that was in 1997, when Borussia Dortmund shocked Juventus.
This is traditionally a competition for the powerhouses of European football; Chelsea may have money and a team of superstars, but history weighs heavy on the shoulders of underachievers, as does the expectation of an impatient benefactor.
The people that run the self-proclaimed "G14" of all-powerful European football teams have turned the world’s premier club competition into something of a closed shop. No longer can the champions of Romania, Belgium, or Yugoslavia compete with the giants of Italy, Spain, or England.
To allow the top four from major leagues into the competition stifles any ambition in the smaller countries, and just means the same clubs get the cash year after year, and the group format of the tournament gives the big teams every chance to come into form even after a poor start.
In the absence of any real minnows causing upsets, one must hope that the clubs with a winning tradition and history legitimize the competitionand do not allow the nouveau-riche to flex their muscles and buy their way to a trophy that was once held aloft by the likes of Di Stefano, Eusebio, and Cruyff.
No one can deny that Barcelona and Manchester United have huge spending power, but at least that is tempered by the fact that they have a history of competing and winning at this level.
There is nothing more vulgar than a sports club that comes into money and then feels it has a divine right to success.
The days of clubs rising through the leagues due to spirit, good management, and hard work are long gone. "Cash is king," and the whole organization of European football is set up to let the rich further gorge themselves from the deep trough of money.
I am not a fan of either Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, or Barcelona, but I will be hoping the latter wins the grand old trophy next month by beating Manchester United in the final.
Barcelona and Man U are the two clubs left who have won this competition before, and the two who can look back to a time before TV money flooded the game and still see achievement and legacy. Chelsea will have to win for another fifty years before they can consider themselves eligible.
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