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Champions League ties stay close after opening legs

Four UEFA Champions League knock-out stage first legs down, four to go. In each, one team seized the initiative and take an advantage into the second leg. Schalke is among them, but they're far from through.

Arsenal's Robin van Persie(l) celebrates with his team mates after scoring the equalizer against FC Barcelona

Arsenal delighted fans with their surprise comeback

The opening set of matches in the slate in the Champions League's knock-out stage delivered the goods. Those lucky enough to see some of all four matches got a bit of everything football has to offer.

Wednesday night in London, as Arsenal took down Barcelona 2-1 fans were treated to a stirring display of precise ball movement and offensive ambition. In Rome they saw a game of wild swings in momentum - one where the winners Donetzk looked hapless and rusty for stretches - but were still good enough to prevail 3-2.

Tuesday's meeting of Tottenham Hotspur and AC Milan in the San Siro was more street fight than a football match - but at least the less nasty side (Spurs) won. And Schalke's visit to Valencia? The match there was a comedy of defensive errors, one probably best settled at 1-1.

Gunners on target, Shakhtar too

On Wednesday night a capacity 60,335 fans packed into London's Emirates Stadium to see a magnificent match between two of the best exponents of attacking football in the world, Arsenal and Barcelona.

If it felt like déjà vu, don't worry - the two teams did square off in the Champions League last season. Then, Arsenal drew 2-2 with Barcelona in London before crashing 4-1 in Barcelona. Before this game, Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger said "We're better now than we were last season." Indeed, they were.

For the first 14 minutes Arsenal had slightly the better of it, but then Barcelona's well-oiled footballing machine clicked into full gear. In the 15th minute Lionel Messi broke through but chipped his shot just wide of the post. He would miss two other decent chances, but it came as no surprise when, in the 26th minute, Messi played in David Villa and he made no mistake and Barcelona took the lead.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi and David Villa celebrate

Villa and Messi's joy would be tempered by Arsenal's two goals

Arsenal kept battling, however, and midway through the second half Wenger rolled the dice. He brought on two attacking substitutes, Andrei Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner, and new spaces began to open up. Robin van Persie, who'd cut a lonely figure up top for much of the match, was rejuvenated and scored an equalizer from the narrowest of angles in the 77th minute. Just six minutes later Arshavin one-timed a beautiful, curling winner.

The highest scoring game of the week came on Wednesday night in Rome, where AS Roma slumped to a 2-3 home defeat against Ukranian champs Shakhtar Donetzk.

It was a strange match. Four of the five goals came in the first half, and were all scored by Donetsk players - the first was an own goal from Razvan Rat, but his teammates more than made up for his mistake. Despite not having played a competitive match in two months because of the Ukrainian league's winter break, Donetzk shook off the early-match rust and exploded for three goals in 12 blistering minutes from Jadson, Douglas Costa and Luiz Adriano.

Roma gave themselves a lifeline for the second leg when Jeremy Menez scored a 61st minute goal for the Italians, but overcoming three away goals will be a tall order.

Raul to the rescue

Valencia's Coach Unai Emery had caught Schalke off-guard on Tuesday by playing a very fluid 4-3-3, and Schalke were down 1-0 with not much more than a quarter of an hour gone. Their defense were at sea (it was a mental black-out from defender Christoph Metzelder that brought the goal), and it appeared the tie might just be swept away.

Schalke's Raul

It was Raul's 17th goal in 35 career appearances against Valencia

But when Schalke weathered that early storm and it was only 1-0 for Valencia at the half, from Schalke coach Felix Magath's perspective things were going according to plan. Indeed the shape of things conformed to what he had said before the game: "I expect us to hold them in the first half and then push on in the second."

Indeed as the match wore on, Valencia proved that both defenses were jittery and more than capable of making mistakes under pressure. And so in the 66th minute when Schalke went level, it was probably written in the stars that Spanish superstar Raul would hit the equalizer, and do so by slipping a marker caught napping.

Schalke's away goal may yet prove to be their passport to the money-spinning quarter finals. But they'll have to fight for it. Valencia need the seven million euros-plus that qualification to the Quarter Finals will bring just as much as the Gelsenkirchen club. After all, Valencia is the most indebted Spanish football club, and Schalke's debts outstrip those of any other German club.

Shocking Milan

While Schalke played out their eventful draw in Valencia, Italian Serie A leaders AC Milan suffered in the San Siro against visitors Tottenham Hotspur. Milan created nothing in the first half in what truthfully was a boring encounter.

The Rossoneri did come alive a little more in what was a stormy and at times violent second half. Milan forced the Spurs keeper Heurelho Gomes into two fine saves, but it was Spurs who seemed to want the win the most. In the 80th minute a good piece of running from Aaron Lennon set up Peter Crouch to sweep the ball into the net and Spurs deservedly won 1-0 in Milan.

For Crouch it was worth the wait. In 2007 when he was with Liverpool, he only got on the field for the final 12 minutes as Liverpool lost the Champions League Final against AC Milan. He had no time to make a telling contribution on that occasion, but this time out he got the start and savored the moment as Spurs were rewarded for their attacking style with a win.

Milan seemed content to strike a few blows, literally. There were ugly scenes after the game as Gennaro Gattuso pushed and then head-butted Tottenham assistant coach Joe Jordan. The fiery midfielder later apologized for his behavior but UEFA may take a stern view. In any case, he won't feature in the return leg in North London. Gattuso's second half yellow card means he's suspended for the next match.

Bayern and more

This coming Tuesday Olympique Lyon entertain Real Madrid. Many will be wondering if Jose Mourinho can weave his magic again in the tournament he has made his own, having already taken Porto and Inter Milan to Champions League titles.

The same night, the tournament's outsiders FC Copenhagen take on Chelsea. They played some scintillating football in the group stages and this is no longer the Chelsea side which powered its way to the 2008 Final. The West London club is in the process of changing the guard, with new, younger players coming in to replace the old.

Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger

Bayern have more than enough firepower to win on Wednesday in Milan

Next Wednesday Olympique Marseille host Manchester United - a game that is likely to be tight. United have not been too effective on their travels this season, but a draw would make them happy. United are virtually unbeatable at Old Trafford and will fancy their chances of progress.

All eyes in Germany that evening will be on the match in Milan. Bayern Munich go to the San Siro to take on Inter Milan for a re-run of last year's final. In that encounter Diego Milito scored the two goals which gave Inter their victory. Bayern will be delighted with the news that he's out injured.

Inter's coaching situation is quite different too. Jose Mourinho brings something special to every team he leads, and the current Inter Milan team under Leonardo is in real danger of not winning the Serie A title for the first time since 2006.

If they are to get a result out of the match, Bayern will have to hope for an uncharacteristically steady performance from their often-shaky defense. But then again, seeing as how Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez are all likely to be fit for this game, a goal glut might get the job done too.

Author: Paul Chapman, Matt Hermann
Editor: Holly Fox

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