Commentary

In appreciation of the CL semifinals

Champions League provides many enduring moments -- though all before the final

Updated: April 20, 2012, 6:58 AM ET
By Michael Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It might not fit with the entrenched idea that international football is the highest standard of the sport, and it certainly doesn't tally with the format of a knockout competition. But it remains true -- Champions League semifinals are the pinnacle of modern football. It's at that stage, far more than the final, that we get the best moments, the biggest drama and the most symbolic stories.

It's hardly controversial to say club football has overtaken international football -- this is a long, slow process that has accelerated over the past couple decades. Clearly, modern football is based around cohesion and understanding, and club sides have longer to work on attacking moves. Comparatively, international football sees the majority of sides playing cautiously, which leads to poor games.

The abolition of the "three foreigner" rule was also crucial, and when combined with an ever-increasing revenue stream for Europe's top clubs, it means that they can assemble teams superior to international teams. Who would win between the best club side and the best international side? Well, do you want Lionel Messi on your team or not?

It is more controversial to say that semifinals are of a higher standard than the final. Of course, the final is the greatest stage, but it's rarely the greatest spectacle. It is nervy, cagey and quite often boring -- either one-sided or settled by a penalty shootout after a goalless extra-time period in which neither side attacked. When was the last genuinely great final? Probably Liverpool's comeback in 2005 -- and that was arguably the weakest side to win the European Cup in the modern era, demonstrated by how quickly Rafael Benitez replaced the likes of Djimi Traore and Milan Baros.

Semifinals are tense, but rarely cagey. The key difference is the concept of home advantage -- one side is always looking to take control, and as a result there are fewer nerves, generally leading to better games.

But people don't remember entire matches years after the event; they only remember individual moments. And it's the semifinals that have provided us with the best moments in recent years.

In 2006, there was Juan Roman Riquelme's late penalty miss against Arsenal. Riquelme was a wonderful player but was never quite appreciated in Europe because he played the game at such a slow tempo. He always wanted time on the ball, demanding that the side be built around him. If Villarreal had made it into the final, against a Barcelona side that had neglected Riquelme, he would have been the star. In the end, Jens Lehmann saved his penalty, and Riquelme was the villain. It was a brilliantly poetic way to sum up the European career of a modern great.

[+] EnlargeJose Mourinho
Josep Lago/AFP/Getty ImagesJose Mourinho's manic dash around the Camp Nou stadium following Inter Milan's heroic aggregate win over Barcelona in 2010 was unforgettable entertainment.

A year later, Milan's Kaka arrived at Old Trafford for the semifinal against Manchester United, prompting debate about who was the best player in the world -- him or Cristiano Ronaldo. "I agree they are among the top of their profession at the moment, but it's extremely difficult to say who is the best," Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti said before the game. "That will be decided by the player who manages to determine the outcome of the game." He was right -- Kaka was superb and won the Ballon D'Or that year, beating future teammate Ronaldo into second place.

In 2008, it was Paul Scholes' turn. His tremendous 25-yard strike against Barcelona, the club whose players admire him so much, was the highlight of his career as he'd missed Manchester United's 1999 victory through suspension. Shortly after the game, Ferguson was so full of praise for Scholes that he declared Scholes "the first name on the team sheet" for the final.

In 2009, Andres Iniesta's late equalizer at Stamford Bridge remains possibly the key footballing moment of the century so far. The side that had cultivated its style over years, based entirely around possession, defeated a team whose temporary coach told it to defend for two legs. Messi's pass to Iniesta, as Graham Hunter put it in "Barcelona: the making of the greatest team in the world," was "the epitome of the Barcelona ethos."

But that ethos fell short 12 months later against Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan, which produced the most remarkably defensive performance you'll ever see at Camp Nou. "We didn't want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position," Mourinho explained. "I didn't want us to have the ball, we gave it away." It was an incredible strategy, and Mourinho's postmatch run across the pitch toward Inter's traveling support, disrupted by Victor Valdes and the Nou Camp's sprinkler system, is an enduring image.

Last year, it was all about Messi. In a horrible, scrappy Clasico at the Bernabeu in which both sides were more intent on winding the other up than playing football, Messi decided he'd had enough. He slalomed past four Real Madrid players before finishing for a goal that will be considered one of the all-time greats in the history of European club competition.

It is beautiful footballers -- Riquelme, Kaka, Scholes, Iniesta, Messi -- who always provide these moments. Finals are usually won by ruthless poachers (Diego Milito, Pippo Inzaghi) or surprise heroes (Juliano Belletti, Jerzy Dudek) or are just one-sided. Zinedine Zidane 2002 moments don't come along often.

So what have we witnessed so far in these semifinals? No particularly great moments yet, but two fascinating matches, and two tight wins for the underdogs. Bayern Munich's win over Real Madrid was a victory for cohesion and teamwork -- Jupp Heynckes learned his lesson from the previous weekend's title-ending defeat to Bayern in which his side was broken into six defensive players and four attackers, with no link between. Toni Kroos played in the advanced midfield role and made this a well-functioning unit. Meanwhile, Chelsea's win over Barcelona was excellently judged by manager Roberto Di Matteo. Barcelona had little luck, but Chelsea coped well by drawing heavily upon its near-perfect performance at this stage three years ago.

So nothing spectacular, but we're midway through the ties and in the ideal scenario for some key moments next week. The favorites are one goal down. They'll dominate possession at home next week, with the opposition sitting deep and trying to play out a 0-0. If the greatest players tend to decide the semifinals, it's time for Messi and Ronaldo to show their class.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.