For the sixth year in a row, Real Madrid fail to make the quarter-finals of the premier club competition in Europe. And Manchester United waltz through against miserable Milan side. While one result suggests that the tournament retains an element of unpredictability, the other strengthens the sense that the group of prospective winners continues to be narrow.
Milan are such a pathetic shadow of their former selves that the second leg of that tie quickly took on the air of an exhibition match, or maybe a long-delayed testimonial for the returning David Beckham, who was given a second half cameo. The Italian side were again so painfully lacking in dynamism, despite the inclusion at last of Flamini. United have shown that old players can remain effective at a high level of football if their younger team mates can compensate with high energy; at Milan, there are just far too many creaking limbs. The first leg saw one of the most ridiculous team selections I've ever seen- a front three that did not track back, and a trio of pensioners left to do all the work in midfield. That Milan should really still have won that game was mostly down to United's own early ineptitude, but there were no such mistakes tonight. It was a similar job as we've seen them do against Arsenal: sitting back, allowing the ineffective possession, and striking on the break. United have become quite functional in recent seasons; Ferguson never tires of trumpeting their commitment to attacking football and while that remains the United way, they are more prosaic now than they've been in a long time. Even Rooney, now in the best form of his career, seems somehow less exciting to me. He has adapted his game quite brilliantly to the needs of this team, and his ruthlessness in front of goal is a new string to his bow, as is his aerial prowess. But as effectively as he's performing, it seems, at least to a contrarian like me, to detract from his genius somewhat to see him functioning almost exclusively as a lone frontman, no matter how efficiently he performs the role. Still, it only demonstrates the amazing talent he is, that he has immediately filled the hole left by Ronaldo.
The Madrid-Lyon game was reminiscent of our quarter-final second leg against chelsea in 2004. The away goals rule can leave a team lacking clarity of purpose in the nervous late stages of a tie. Madrid, like Arsenal six years ago, could not attack for their crucial second goal with total conviction because they knew a goal at the other end would prove fatal. And so it was, Lyon conjuring a wonderful sucker punch to match Wayne Bridge's late strike on that heartbreaking Highbury night. In the remaining fifteen minutes, Real offered little. The best the strangely guileless galacticos could muster was a set play scramble or two, and some risible penalty box swan-diving that fooled nobody.
While the four ties that have thus far been settled have all held some intrigue, it's hard to escape the notion that the European cup is suffering a bit of a decline. That is something to be pondered while viewing the rounds to come, but I'll be hoping that Inter can prevail against chelsea, if only because it will stop the gloating of English pundits who believe that their league now monopolises the power in European football.