|Lionel Messi: undeniably good|
APEOL’s dream campaign continues after a dramatic penalty shootout in Cyprus. Benfica will go through at the expense of Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg while Barcelona showed why then are the best team in the world as they dominated the two fixtures against Bayer Leverkusen. Arsenal were nearly able to turn a 4-0 deficit into a 4-4 draw but fell short by just a goal while AC Milan squeaked by the London side and into the quarter finals on the long road to Munich in May.
Benfica 2-0 Zenit St. Petersburg (4-3): Benfica were able to convert an unfavorable score line and will roll into the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions League. A goal from Pereira in stoppage time of the first half and a goal from Oliveira in the third minute of added time at the end of the match saw Benfica turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-2 aggregate win. The Portuguese team enjoyed a successful group campaign despite having to face last season’s finalists Manchester United and the stubborn Swiss side Basel both home and away. They were knocked off of their rocker in Russia but knew what to brace themselves for in the return leg. Despite holding 2% less possession than the Russian visitors, Benfica had six attempts on target and scored two crucial goals. The Russian side came painfully close to an extra opportunity to make themselves heard on the European stage but will not be participating in European football until next season while Benfica moves on to the next stage.
Arsenal 3-0 AC Milan (3-4 agg): Arsenal were so very close to moving on to the quarter finals and ensuring job security for Arsene Wenger. However, it wasn’t Arsenal’s night. Despite an unbelievable first half where the home side scored three goals in the first half from defender Laurent Koscielny in the 7th minute, a cool finish on the ground from Rosicky in the 26th minute and a penalty kick from none other than the in-form Robin van Persie just before the halftime break. Arsenal came agonizingly close in the second half on several occasions, but Milan’s goalie, Abbiati, was able to deny the frustrated Arsenal offense. Arsenal’s attacking force was quieted in the 75th minute when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pulled his hamstring and was substituted off. The youngster proved to be a real playmaker as the Arsenal attack began to crumble and hopes of tying up the aggregate score four goals to four looked unlikely. Arsene Wenger criticized referees in his post match conference today, but it was impossible to deny the quality of saves from Abbiati in the second leg and the quality of the goals in the first game at the San Siro. AC Milan can now continue down the road to Munich while Arsenal can only focus on staying in fourth place (although Chelsea are only three points behind them) and hope for European success next season.
Barcelona 7-1 Bayer Leverkusen (10-2 agg): A dignity goal in the 91st minute from Bellarabi was the only highlight to a painful defeat for Leverkusen at the hands of the current European champions, Barcelona at the Camp Nou. FIFA World Player of the year Lionel Messi lived up to his title as he scored an incredible five goals against the German side, adding to the 7-1 score line and 10-2 aggregate result. Messi scored his first in the 25th minute with a nicely timed chip over the head of Leverkusen goalkeeper, Leno. Messi’s Messi’s second came just before halftime in the 42nd minute and he struck his hattrick five minutes after the restart. Tello was substituted on in the 54th minute and scored in the 55th, his first touch being a shot that found the back of the net. Tello found the back of the net one more time and Messi twice before the 91st minute goal from the visitors. The Spanish side held 70% of possession, using their flawless passing to break through the German defense and threaten their goal repeatedly, creating fifteen goal scoring opportunities. The German’s European run is over, but the Spanish side still have their eyes set on the final in Munich and the chance to be the first side to successfully defend the UEFA Champions League title.
APOEL 1-0 Lyon (1-1 agg, 5-3 on penalties): APOEL continue to roll on despite being the underdogs in every Champions League match this season. The little team from Cyprus were not about to go out because of a 1-0 aggregate score that was not in their favor. The first 45 were dominated by APOEL, who quickly put themselves level nine minutes into the game with a goal from Gustavo Manduca. The home side repeatedly threatened the Lyon goal but Hugo Lloris and a scrambling defense kept the ball out of the back of the net, taking the match to overtime. Manduca put his side a man down with his red card in the 114th minute, getting his second yellow of the match and first sending off of the season in extra time after his side tied 1-1 on aggregate with Lyon in Cyprus. After 120 minutes of playing, the two sides went in to the nerve wracking penalty shootout. Kallstrom for Lyon struck the first penalty kick and swooped it coolly past Chiotis. Ailton took the first penalty for APOEL and kept the side level 1-1. Lisandro nearly missed his kick when the keeper saved it and the ball bounced off of the post and quite into the back of the net. APOEL Captain Charalambides took a near perfect penalty with both pace and accuracy, sending Lloris the wrong way. Gomes took the second kick for Lyon, slotting it to the corner under the arms of Chiotis. Alexandro the substitute hammered home another powerful kick, keeping APEOL level with the French visitors. Lacazette’s soft kick was saved by a pumped up Chiotis, who dashed across the line to save the kick. Trickovsky followed up the save with a fine kick, giving his side the narrowest of advantages. Bastos’ staved penalty meant that the little side from Cyprus went through to the quarter finals while the European power Lyon went back to France with no hope of European football until next season.