By Joe Behan
Mark your calendar for April 23, when Barcelona play Real Madrid in a Champions League semifinal.
Real, maybe the best team in the world, will have to prove just that if they are to beat their fellow Spanish giants. For the soccer gurus, it is a must-see, both the home and away games.
The game itself promises to be the tactical battle of the season in the C.L. But even if you are not enthralled by the game itself, then you must tune in to see the best players in the world in action. Indeed, individualism may take over from the game.
Many a fan will want to see the debate unfold as to who is the best player in the modern game. For many a fan, the title of world’s best is between Real’s Zinedine Zidane and Barcelona’s Vitor Barbosa Rivaldo. Zidane’s performance in beating Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals was all about patience. The French m’stro got better as the game grew and we could be in for a peak display in the final stages, something world-class players have a habit of doing. The Spanish champions continued their will to attack at the start of the second half with Zidane’s superb effort off the post.
For Barcelona, Rivaldo has constantly saved his team with one-man shows in the last few years and finally his side is getting its act together in the C.L.
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Both midfielders have similar traits and if they turn on the magic, we are in for a serious treat of football.
And there’s more.
When you add Real names like Luis Filipe Figo, Roberto Carlos, Gonzalez Blanco Raul and Claude Makelele to the cast there is always the possibility that one of these players may be the star of the show.
Against Bayern, Carlos was outstanding down the left flank, while Figo seemed to have more time on the ball than anyone else in the world; that’s probably why he gets so upset when he loses it. His downfall is his temperament and that’s why he is out for the first leg against Barcelona after receiving too many yellows.
Waiting in the wings is Steve McManaman, who has not looked out of place at all with Madrid and a call-up for the semi will not be a surprise.
Another substitute making his mark for Real is Jose Maria Guti, who scored in the 84th minute after some cheeky stuff by Raul on the Bayern back line.
While we keep an eye on all the greats for Madrid, it was defender Ivan Helguerra who snatched the all-important goal in the 69th minute against Munich. It looks like Madrid are overloaded with superstars but a closer look at Barcelona’s individuals simply makes this a game for anyone who wants to know what soccer is all about.
Barcelona veterans Frank de Boer and Marc Overmars are very much in the world-class category. Their experience is by no means overshadowed by the brilliance of Zindane and Co. Martinez Luis Enrique is right up there with the best and his huge double against Panathinaikos set up Barcelona for the C.L. semifinal. It was just after the hour that the name Javier Saviola was once again written into the record books as the young Argentinean finished the Greeks off.
While we expect to see the Spanish clash epitomize the modern game, we may be in for some special individual performances. There is always that young superstar waiting around the corner and Saviola, aka the Rabbit, may be the magic on the big day. Saviola has already beaten Maradona’s scoring record in the youth World Cup and he is expected to be the surprise package at the next level.
United, Leverkusen for dessert
The winner of Real vs. Barca will meet the winner of Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen, the German dark horse. United’s chances of the C.L. title have been slashed with injuries to Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ronny Johnsen. But there are a few world-class footballers who will be more than capable of reaching the final.
Ole Gunnar Solskj’r once again came off the bench to bag two for United in their quarterfinal victory over Deportivo La Coruna. The baby-faced assassin is without a doubt one of the best marksmen in the game.
Ryan Giggs, meanwhile, finished off the Greeks and is capable of finding the net too. On his day, the Welsh wizard is one of the most exciting players to watch in the world, something United will need against Bayer.
In midfield Paul Scholes and Juan Veron have a tremendous opportunity to express themselves as world-class material. For some time now Scholes, while highly rated, has been under the shadow of Beckham, and Veron has battled to settle at Old Trafford with Keane always the first choice.
The biggest impact this season at United, however, has been Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Flying Dutchman has showed all class with his finishing and his relentless efforts up top. He has fit in like a glove at United and is especially effective in United’s 4-5-1 shape for Europe. So United still have some big guns to depend on and it will prove very costly for Leverkusen to dwell on Keane and Beckham out for this semi.
The Germans are somewhat of a dark horse, always a dangerous thing in a two-horse race. There are no superstars at the club, but that will change after the first leg against United. Bayer beat Liverpool 4-3 over the two legs and proved they have nerves of steal.
Michael Ballack hit a brace to open up a mean Liverpool defense, while Dimitar Berbatov and Ferreira Lucio made it 4 for Lever. The semis will enlighten us on the German outfit. While United, Real and Barca play in daunting stadiums, Bayer have an advantage with their smaller ground, they are tough to beat at home. For now though, it’s Real vs. Barca.