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Final four in sight of Athens

Published: Tuesday 1 May 2007, 0.54CET
After contrasting semi-final first legs one important theme emerged - a competitiveness that means all four sides retain real chances of going all the way.
by John Atkin
from London

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Published: Tuesday 1 May 2007, 0.54CET

Final four in sight of Athens

After contrasting semi-final first legs one important theme emerged - a competitiveness that means all four sides retain real chances of going all the way.

The UEFA Champions League semi-final first legs may have been contrasting affairs, one a carnival of free-flowing attacking panache and the other a fine display of defensive organisation, but at the end of it the result is the same – all four sides retain very real chances of reaching the Athens final.

Hostile returns
Manchester United FC and Chelsea FC each hold the slenderest of advantages having eked out one-goal leads over AC Milan and Liverpool FC respectively. Yet with full houses at the San Siro and Anfield awaiting them in the returns, neither are taking their position for granted. "I think that with the speed of our team we will score over there but I don't know whether that will be enough," said Sir Alex Ferguson having watched Wayne Rooney secure a 3-2 comeback victory with a superb added-time goal at Old Trafford.

'All to play for'
Sir Alex was struggling to hide his pleasure, but his face had borne a very different complexion at half-time after Kaká had scored twice to wipe out Cristiano Ronaldo's early goal and leave the Rossoneri in the box seat. Rooney ensured they would not remain there, though Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti remains upbeat: "The result suits United as they will be able to play on the counterattack [in the second leg] - one of their great strengths. We will go into the game with confidence, though, and while United have a slight advantage it is all to play for."

Past motivation
History provides a boost. Only once have United lost a first-leg advantage in the European Champion Clubs' Cup – against Milan in 1957/58 when a 2-1 first-leg lead was comprehensively wiped out 4-0 at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Similarly, Liverpool will take strength from past meetings with Chelsea in the other last-four tie. A Joe Cole goal earned the Blues a first UEFA Champions League victory in five attempts against the Merseyside outfit but spurred on by their "12th man" at home, Liverpool will be confident they can overturn the deficit.

Anfield intimidation
"They are a strong side at home," conceded José Mourinho, whose charges lost 2-0 at Anfield in January. "They have the historical advantage of success in the Champions League over decades, but we think we have a chance." Michael Essien's return from suspension will help but with the ties so finely poised their hopes, like that of the other three semi-finalists, appear 50-50.

Last updated: 01/05/07 0.17CET

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