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Ryan Giggs and Lionel Messi make presence felt

Veteran Welshman leads Manchester United and Argentine star sparks Barcelona into semifinals of European Champions League.

April 12, 2011|By Grahame L. Jones
  • Manchester United's Ryan Giggs, left, congratulates teammate Javier Hernandez during Manchester United's 2-1 Champions League victory over Chelsea on Tuesday.
Manchester United's Ryan Giggs, left, congratulates teammate Javier… (Andrew Yates / AFP/Getty…)

Imagine the sort of soccer team it would be if Ryan Giggs and Lionel Messi played together.

The Welshman and the Argentine were the unquestioned stars Tuesday as Manchester United and Barcelona, both three-time champions, eased their way into the semifinals of the European Champions League.

Giggs, 37, created both goals at Old Trafford, where Mexico's Javier Hernandez and South Korea's Park Ji-Sung scored for Manchester United in a trouble-free 2-1 victory over Chelsea.

The London club, hoping to avenge a loss to Manchester United in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, did not have the quality to do so. The Chelsea team appeared stale and uninspired, with out-of-form Spanish striker Fernando Torres again looking listless.

Didier Drogba, who replaced Torres at halftime, scored for Chelsea, only for Manchester United to reply within 60 seconds with a goal by Park.

Torres has played 662 minutes for Chelsea since his $80-million move to the Blues from Liverpool in January and he has yet to score. Small wonder Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's Russian owner, looked increasingly glum in the stands.

Chelsea is all but mathematically assured of ending the season without any silverware and the future of Coach Carlo Ancelotti will again be brought into question. Not that Ancelotti is looking at it that way.

"We're out of the Champions League, this is not good for us," he said. "We are disappointed, but this is football. We have to be able to look forward because we have other games to play and win if possible, because every one of us wants to play in the Champions League next season."

Chelsea, which was reduced to 10 men after Brazilian midfielder Ramires was ejected in the 70th minute, is in third place in the English Premier League, behind Manchester United and Arsenal and only two points ahead of Manchester City. The top three qualify directly for the 2011-12 Champions League tournament.

Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's coach, reserved much of his praise for Giggs, who also set up Wayne Rooney's goal in the first leg of the quarterfinal series, a 1-0 United victory in London as United took the series, 3-1, on aggregate.

"We've said it so many times, Ryan Giggs is incredible," Ferguson said. "He looks after himself — he has to. To play until 37 years of age, it must be a tremendous sacrifice."

While Giggs was the man of the moment in England, Messi was again the center of it all in near-freezing Ukraine, where his goal two minutes before halftime gave Barcelona a 1-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk and an aggregate 6-1 rout in the series.

The goal was Messi's tournament-leading ninth and his team-record 48th this season in all competitions. The 23-year-old star overtook Brazil's Ronaldo, who scored 47 goals for Barcelona in the 1996-97 season.

Barcelona, which was near perfect in 2009, winning all six competitions in which it competed, is on course to win its third Spanish championship in a row and will play Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup final and, very likely, twice more in the Champions League semifinals.

"These players have won trophies at Barcelona and with the [Spanish] national team, but they just go on and on," Coach Josep Guardiola said. "Whatever comes our way from here on in we will treat as a gift."

Mircea Lucescu, Shakhtar Donetsk's impish Romanian coach, summed up Tuesday's game and the series in splendid style.

"Our main shortcoming was our lack of Lionel Messi," he said. "If he played for us, I'm sure we would have beaten Barcelona."

Just as Manchester United is through to the semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons, Barcelona has made it to the final four for the fourth season in a row.

"If they win the Champions League, it will be easier to explain our defeat," Lucescu said of Barcelona.

The remaining two quarterfinal second leg Champions League games will be played Wednesday, and it would take an upset to change the outcome of either series.

Nine-time champion Real Madrid will be in London to play Tottenham Hotspur after routing Spurs, 4-0, in Madrid in the first leg.

Similarly, defending European champion Inter Milan will be in Germany, trying to turn around its shocking 5-2 loss at home in Italy to Schalke '04.

The Real Madrid-Tottenham winner will play Barcelona in a semifinal, and the Schalke'04-Inter Milan winner will play Manchester United.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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