2008-09 Champions League preview: Semifinals

FC Barcelona. Arsenal. Cheslea. Manchester United. Which two teams will advance the UEFA Champions League final?

4 of the best soccer teams from across Europe continue quest to be crowned continental kings

Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona will have their hands full with Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals. ((Jasper Juinen/Getty Images))

We're down to the final four in the UEFA Champions League.

Champions League History

The European Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League, was the brainchild of French sports journalist Gabriel Hanot.

English league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated Hungarian side Honved in a 1953 exhibition match, leading Wolves' manager to rather arrogantly dub his team the "champions of the world" in the next day's newspapers.

Hanot, editor of influential French sports newspaper L'Equipe, used this as the impetus to pitch his idea for a continental-wide tournament featuring the best European clubs. UEFA, European soccer's governing body, approved Hanot's idea in April 1955 and the European Cup began in 1955-56 featuring league champions across Europe

In 1993, the European Cup was re-christened the Champions League, and in 1997-98 the tournament was expanded to include more teams, not just league champions.

Tournament Format

The 32-team field is divided into eight round-robin groups. Teams play three games at home and on the road with three points for a win and one for a tie. The top two teams in each group at the end of the group stage advance to the next round.

After the first round, the tournament takes on a single-elimination format. The remaining 16 teams are paired off and play a home-and-away playoff. If the teams each win a game, the overall score over the course of the two games acts as the tiebreaker, followed by goals scored on the road. If the teams are still tied, a penalty shootout solves the issue.

This two-game playoff format carries over into the quarter-finals and semifinals before the last two teams standing meet in the final on May 27 in Rome.

Previous European Cup/Champions League winners

  • 2008 - Manchester United
  • 2007 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 2006 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
  • 2005 - Liverpool (England)
  • 2004 - FC Porto (Portugal)
  • 2003 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 2002 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 2001 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 2000 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1999 - Manchester United (England)
  • 1998 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1997 - Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
  • 1996 - Juventus (Italy)
  • 1995 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1994 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1993 - Olympique Marseille (France)
  • 1992 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
  • 1991 - Red Star Belgrade (Yugoslavia)
  • 1990 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1989 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1988 - PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
  • 1987 - FC Porto (Portugal)
  • 1986 - Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
  • 1985 - Juventus (Italy)
  • 1984 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1983 - Hamburger SV (Germany)
  • 1982 - Aston Villa (England)
  • 1981 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1980 - Nottingham Forest (England)
  • 1979 - Nottingham Forest (England)
  • 1978 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1977 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1976 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1975 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1974 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1973 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1972 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1971 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1970 - Feyenoord (Netherlands)
  • 1969 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1968 - Manchester United (England)
  • 1967 - Celtic (Scotland)
  • 1966 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1965 - Inter Milan (Italy)
  • 1964 - Inter Milan (Italy)
  • 1963 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1962 - Benfica (Portugal)
  • 1961 - Benfica (Portugal)
  • 1960 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1959 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1958 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1957 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1956 - Real Madrid (Spain)

Club soccer's greatest and most prestigious competition resumes Tuesday as four of the best soccer teams from across Europe continue their quest to be crowned continental kings.

One semifinal is an all-Premiership battle between Manchester United and Arsenal. The other pits Chelsea against Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona.

Which two teams will take the final step and book their spot in the final on May 27 at Rome's Stadio Olimpico?

CBC Sports commentators Nigel Reed and Jason de Vos, and CBCSports.ca soccer expert John F. Molinaro offer their analyses and predictions below.

FC Barcelona (Spain) vs. Chelsea (England)

Nigel Reed: Guus Hiddink has conceded Chelsea's domestic title hopes are over but on the European front nothing could be further from the truth. Their ability to outlast Liverpool in the quarter-finals, where the damage was done in the first leg, could be critical. If the Blues can surprise Barcelona in the Camp Nou they'll then have the benefit of home advantage to look forward to.  

It is, of course, a big "if." Barca destroyed Bayern Munich in the home leg in the quarter-finals and will look to do the same to Chelsea. The Spaniards can be irresistible on home soil and will know they'll need to be in front by the time they travel to London.

Chelsea must make do without the suspended Ashley Cole for the trip to Spain so Lionel Messi could have a field day — Chelsea must be rock solid at the back and counter-attack with pace to give themselves a platform for the return.

Barcelona are favourites to win La Liga, but between the two Chelsea games, they also visit arch-rivals Real Madrid in what amounts to a title-decider. The Catalans, chasing a domestic and European double, face three huge contests in eight days, which will define their season.

The schedule is bound to take its toll and could give Chelsea the edge in the decider.

PREDICTION: Chelsea to make the final for the second season running.

Jason de Vos: With a 3-1 victory away to Liverpool in the first leg of the quarter-finals, Chelsea served notice to the remaining teams in the Champions League that they are a force to be reckoned with. 

Their 4-4 second leg draw at Stamford Bridge, however, showed everyone that they have a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde complex. 

On their day, Chelsea can be magnificent. The spine of their team is capable of handling the best in the world, with the likes of Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba all tremendous talents. Yet they are also capable of extreme mediocrity. 

I've never seen Cech look so frail as he did in that second leg against Liverpool. Perhaps his headgear was strapped on a little too tight. 

If you think Drogba looks fresh and energetic, it's because he should; he has spent more time sulking this season than he has playing football. Only since Guus Hiddink took over the reigns has Drogba played up to his potential.

By contrast, Barcelona just keeps sailing along. They crushed a poor Bayern Munich side in the quarter-finals, with the second leg nothing more than a formality for the Spaniards.

They continue to dominate in La Liga, although a tricky match against Real Madrid is coming up for them between the two Champions League semi-final legs. A win in that one and the title is theirs once again.

I'd love to see the best player in the world right now, Lionel Messi, lifting the most coveted prize in club football, so I'm going to tip the Spaniards.


John F. Molinaro: Barcelona cruised into the final four on the heels of easy victories in the previous two rounds over Lyon and Bayern Munich, so Chelsea provides the Catalans with their first stern test of the competition.

A lot of pundits believe Barcelona is too fancy for their own good and that they can't grind out victories. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I've watched a lot of Barcelona's games this season — including three while I was on holidays in Spain last December — and I can attest to the fact that while they play champagne football, they can also dig down deep and pull out victories when it appears to be a lost cause.

Pep Guardiola's team has great self-confidence and believe that no matter how dire the situation, they can always come from behind and win a game.

For me, Barcelona is a world-class side that just swarms the opposition. Lionel Messi (the best player in the world), Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry form a deadly attacking triumvirate, supported by the likes of Dani Alves, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Yaya Toure and Carlos Puyol.

Barcelona keeps coming at you and you get the sense that they're going to score every time they even get near the penalty box.

Chelsea hasn't exactly been the model of defensive stability the past few weeks, having conceded nine goals during a four-game stretch in mid-April.

What's more, the Blues will be missing rampaging left-back Ashley Cole (suspension) and centre-back lynchpin Ricardo Carvalho (hamstring injury) for the first leg in Spain. You can bet Messi and his cohorts will take advantage of their absence and exploit Chelsea's suspect defence.

I've been saying since last October that Barcelona is the best team in the world and this tournament is theirs to win. Chelsea is not going to be able to stop that from happening.


Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United are looking to repeat as champions of Europe. ((Associated Press))

Manchester United (England) vs. Arsenal (England)

Reed: History is all that stands between Manchester United and another Champions League crown.

It's nearly 20 years since AC Milan won the European Cup in successive seasons, and no team has achieved the feat since the inception of the now familiar Champions League format. That's assuming, of course, United reach the final and to do that they must first get past an Arsenal side which is fully focused on European success without any other distractions.

The Gunners, who have home advantage for the second leg, are yet to concede a goal at the Emirates Stadium in this season's competition but will miss the influential Robin van Persie for the trip to Old Trafford. On the plus side, first choice goalkeeper Manuel Almunia is ready to return and striker Emmanuel Adebayor may have also recovered from injury; both will be important to Arsenal 's hopes of success.

United, who were caught cold by Porto before becoming the first English team to win in Portugal, should have learned their lesson and their collective experience at this stage of the competition will be crucial.

The "March Madness" which saw United slump to consecutive losses against Liverpool and Fulham has been forgotten and the FA Cup semifinal defeat to Everton may yet be a blessing in disguise.

Alex Ferguson can now set his sights firmly on another EPL crown and a night of glory in Rome but if Arsenal can survive at the Theatre of Dreams it's their tie to lose.

PREDICTION: Arsenal to upset the formbook and set up an all-London finale.

De Vos: I don't buy the argument that Arsenal will be more focused for this game because they aren't chasing the Premier League title. Players don't prioritize games, and it doesn't matter if they are playing the Champions League final or a game of cards, top players always want to win.

I do, however, think that Arsenal has their best chance ever of upsetting their rivals from up the M6. United will still be disappointed with their FA Cup semifinal defeat to Everton, which halted their quest for five trophies this season.

Most of Arsenal's big guns are firing on all cylinders, Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas in particular. The diminutive Spaniard holds the key for me. If he can dominate midfield, he could be the difference maker for Arsene Wenger's men.

But don't discount Fergie's boys just yet. Their victory in Porto was typical Man U, with Cristiano Ronaldo providing the requisite wonder goal. 

The reason for their success this season lies at the back. Edwin Van der Sar has been fantastic in goal, and the central defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand is the best in the world. 

With the likes of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov lurking up front, I'm going to go for the defending champions to edge this one.

PREDICTION: Manchester United

Molinaro: Arsenal has done very well to reach the semifinals, overcoming AS Roma in the second round and slipping past a tough Villarreal side (albeit one without Marcos Senna and Santi Corzola) in the quarter-finals.

Arsene Wenger's men have shown great discipline and tactical awareness in Europe this season, and the Gunners have finally realized that it doesn't always have to be pretty — winning is all that matters.

That said, the loss of the influential Robin van Persie (groin) for the first leg at Old Trafford is a massive blow for Arsenal, even with the return of striker Emmanuel Adebayor from injury.

How Wenger would love to be able to unleash Andrei Arshavin against the Red Devils after his recent four-goal performance against Liverpool. Unfortunately, the Russian is cup tied, having previously turned out for Zenit St. Petersburg is this year's competition.

As for United, well, they're riding high (despite the loss to Everton in the FA Cup semifinals) and look well on pace to repeat as champions of Europe thanks to the outstanding form of goal-machine Wayne Rooney and defensive anchor Rio Ferdinand.

I don't buy the argument that Arsenal has the advantage in this series because they are out of the Premiership title race (unlike Manchester United which is trying to hold of Liverpool as the season enters the home stretch) and therefore will be more focused than United.

As my esteemed colleague Jason de Vos so astutely points out, "it doesn't matter if they are playing the Champions League final or a game of cards, top players always want to win."

The fact that United are chasing the double will only serve as an inspiration and motivation, not as some burden or distraction.

Alex Ferguson's team is noted for its professionalism at all times, and I have no doubt that they are going to come out on top in this series.

PREDICTION: Manchester United