Barca and United look good for final
FC Barcelona, almost certain to play Manchester United in the final of the Champions League next month
FC Barcelona looks almost certain to play Manchester United in the final of the Champions League next month in a repeat of the 2009 final. British bookmaker William Hill offer odds of just 1/50 that Barca and United will meet in the final at Wembley Stadium next month after both sides won 2-0 away from home in their semi-final first leg ties against Real Madrid and Schalke respectively.
Real Madrid defender Pepe and Barca's sub keeper Pinto were both sent off in Wednesday night's El Clasico at the Bernabeu before Lionel Messi's late brace gave the Spanish La Liga leaders a massive advantage over Los Blancos ahead of the return leg, while United were even more impressive in winning in Germany on Tuesday night.
Barcelona took a giant stride towards a second UEFA Champions League final in three seasons after Lionel Messi struck twice in the final 15 minutes, the second a memorable solo strike, to earn victory at ten-man Real Madrid. The third game between these eternal rivals in less than a fortnight proved just as intense as the first two, the balance tipping decisively in Barca's favour a minute past the hour when Pepe's dismissal left Madrid a man short. Messi made them pay with two late goals, touching in a low cross from substitute Ibrahim Afellay to break the deadlock and then slaloming his way past four players to score a second that leaves Madrid with it all to do at the Camp Nou on Tuesday.
Manchester United meanwhile can all but smell the Wembley turf after taking a huge step towards a third UEFA Champions League final in four seasons with victory at FC Schalke 04. United, appearing in their 12th semi-final, completely dominated a Schalke side new to this stage of the competition and got the victory their superiority deserved through strikes from Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney.
The winning margin would have been greater but for the brilliance of home goalkeeper Manuel Neuer who made a string of fine saves before United finally broke through with two goals in three minutes midway through the second period, leaving Schalke with a mountain to climb in next Wednesday's return. Meanwhile an all-Portuguese Europa League final looks also likely after Radamel Falcao's four goals gave FC Porto a 5-1 victory over Villarreal as Benfica secured a 2-1 lead over Braga in the first leg of their semifinal on Thursday.
Falcao took his Europa League tally this season to 15 with his latest goal burst, while Freddy Guarin added another for Porto, the newly crowned Portuguese champions. Villarreal went in front on the stroke of halftime when Ruben "Cani" Garcia scored for the only non-Portuguese side still in the competition. "We can't kid ourselves the job is done," Porto coach Andre Villas-Boas said. "We have to keep our feet on the ground. The atmosphere away from home, in a foreign city, will be very different."
The first all-Portuguese semifinal in a European competition saw Jardel and Oscar Cardozo clinch Benfica's win over Braga. But 2011 looks set to belong to Porto. A 13th straight victory in all competitions on Thursday put the team closer to capturing three trophies, with a Portuguese Cup final clash with Guimaraes still to come. In a ruthless attacking display Thursday, Falcao scored from the penalty spot, with his left foot, and twice with his head.
"He's a fantastic striker but he plays as part of a unit, which give him strength and opportunities," Villas-Boas said about his standout player. Falcao blasted in a penalty kick after goalkeeper Diego Lopez pulled him down in the area in the 49th minute to equalize. Guarin then the visitors' defense with a strike that hit the post before he headed the rebound into the net. Hulk raced down the right flank to set up the unmarked Falcao in the 67th minute.
Falcao's fourth came when he headed in a free kick from Guarin, and he rose up to guide a header over Lopez in the 90th. In Lisbon, the match burst into life after an uneventful first half, with three goals in 10 minutes after the break. Center back Jardel poked the ball in from short range in the 50th minute after Cardozo's header bounced back off the post. Vandinho headed in Braga's equalizer from a free kick three minutes later, but Cardozo found the target with a curling free kick.
"It was a good result for us but we deserved to win by a bigger margin," Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said. "They never really caused us problems." The second legs are next Thursday.
The final is in Dublin on May 18.
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