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Archive for the ‘Champions League’ Category

While numerous soccer pundits believed that Barcelona and their beautiful brand of soccer would prevail yesterday evening, I believe most were picking with their heart and not their head. If Mourinho decided (as he did) that Inter’s two goal lead was enough and all they were going to do was pack the back and defend with discipline, it was going to be asking a lot of Barcelona to score twice.

Pack it in

You can say many things about Mourinho’s tactical choice; it’s ugly, it’s boring, it prevents progress of the game, it’s “anti-football.” However, the purpose of the the Champions League semi-final is not to play soccer beautifully or attack at all times or maintain as much possession as possible but rather to win.  Mourinho has never owned a “style”, he has always focused on the task at hand…winning, and he will not allow anybody to influence how he will do it.  It must also be stated that he is fortunate enough to have squads at his disposal which have a litany of talent, as many La Liga sides will tell you that just “packing the back” isn’t enough to stop Barcelona.  But his ability to orchestrate his side with such exacting standards time after time puts them in position to win, a lot.

His self proclaimed “specialness” is a little tired at this point; his Porto CL triumph still fueling much of his greatness, he did a good job with a Chelsea team loaded with talent and money but his inability to win the Champions League questions whether or not he got maximum value out of them, additionally, he inherited the only top level Italian side which wasn’t (possibly incorrectly) implicated in the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, it would have been embarrassing if he hadn’t won Serie A with every chance he got.

The reason he was brought to Milan has always been to win the Champions League though. Now he has the chance to prove that his Porto victory wasn’t an aberration but the coming out party of manager with very few equals.

The Final

The final is probably not quite what Fox was hoping for when they moved the game from FX to Fox proper, but it should be a fascinating match-up. Inter has been excellent throughout the knockout stages, beating both Chelsea and Barcelona en route while Bayern had a little more trouble, leaving it until late against both Fiorentina and Man Utd. Their performance against Lyon was excellent though and they only seem to have improved throughout the competition.

Ribery will likely spend the final in the stands, unless UEFA breaks with tradition and lessens his suspension, but this shouldn’t be too much of a concern as his off the field issues had obviously begun to mess with his head.

FCB

Barcelona’s showing yesterday was admirable, they gave it their all and came only within an incorrectly called handball of another late winner. However, if I had to nitpick i would say there wasn’t enough urgency in the first half; the possession was there, the position was there, but besides a few close calls, they didn’t test Julio Cesar enough. It wasn’t until the final 30 minutes when they decided they had to shoot and shoot often. Full credit goes to Inter though who completely won this tie.

If I was going to call out one player it must be Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for he was the player Barca valued at Samuel Eto’o + 50 Million Euros. He probably deserves another season but he was held in check aerially by Lucio/Walter Samuel and when he drifted out wide he was not finding any space for himself. I understand that he often occupies two defenders and opens up space just outside the box for players like Messi, and yes he can score in an instant but with Inter being so dominant in the air, maybe Pep should have tried to go small and make an attempt at winning with speed. That is absurd for me to question Guardiola though, my knowledge pales in comparison.

The early sending off of Thiago Motta sent the crowd into a frenzy but as Gerard Pique (one of FCB’s bright spots) contends, “the red card was counterproductive.” It made Barcelona push a little too hard while also making Inter’s task very clear, defend defend defend because we can no longer afford to push men into attack. (Click on that link for some further reaction from Barcelona players).

A more complete look at “tops and flops” from Goal.com…

In his weekly ESPN Soccernet column, the excellent Phil Ball takes a look at the current environment in Spain post Champions League; most appropriately whether Inter’s win means that Mourinho will be at the Bernabeu next fall and

Onto some World Cup news and the mass of press surrounding the US’s imminent 30 man announcement…

Daily World Cup Dosage

From Goal.com a debate over whether or not Charlie Davies will make the flight to South Africa

From ESPN.com a look a position by position breakdown of who is going and who is still hoping

Again from the WWL, Bob Bradley’s current ambiguous views on Mr. Davies chances

EPL Talk takes a look at two additions ESPN’s roster for this summer…one and two

A good breakdown from the No Short Corners blog on the USMNT’s current injurty situation;

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This was originally going to be a post about the lack of an EPL team in the Champions League final since 2003; however, being a Barcelona fan, I must give due credit to today’s 2-0 result at the Bernabeu. Rather than talk, here are some ghetto highlights…

If anyone had a doubt about the level at which Lionel Messi is playing, there is no longer an argument about him being the best player in the world right now. You could argue that I am just making a statement for the self important reasons of making a statement like that, but it is so easy to say, there should be no illusions about my motive. It’s true, thats it.

Due credit must be given to the team around him with out which this wouldn’t be possible. If I had the resources, I would love to know the % of Messi’s goals which have been assisted by Xavi Hernandez. He served the first one today on a platter and played an inch perfect pass on Pedro’s 2nd half effort to put Barca up 2-0. With out some excellent goal keeping from Iker Casillas, there is no doubt that Lionel could have had an additional 2 goals, both supplied by Xavi.

The game itself was everything it was billed to be, probably only because in my opinion there are fewer things greater than watching Barcelona completely outclass Real Madrid. Carlos Puyol brought his usual ‘reserved only for El Classico’ performance, Pedro continued his breakout season, and it was evident that Real Madrid were frustrated after Messi’s opener.

Credit should also be given to Pique and Milito for anchoring the defense, Keita for being relentlessly active in the midfield, and Dani Alves for providing a right sided attack when Guardiola moves Leo into the middle.

The fact that Real Madrid attempted to spend their way to Barcelona’s level and are already out of Champions League only made it sweeter. Barcelona is now in prime position to win their 2nd La Liga title in a row; 7 games remain and they are up 3 points, leading on the first tiebreaker (head to head record).

Coming less than a week after Messi’s incandescent personal defeat of Arsenal (an obvious overstatement, but more than one website has listed that performance as a perfect 10…video just below) is what has actually put an end to any debate about his current form. His control is immaculate, his time to top speed unmatched, and the overall rythym of his game set him apart from absolutely everyone else out there.  In fact, that statement alone trivializes his game right now.  Enough Slurp?  Ladies and gentlemen, the hilites…

Ever??

The British announcer calls him “the most talented footballer of his generation,” others will make similar statements for various reasons, and there is an argument to be made there.  Personally, I would say that to be considered among the truly great footballers of all time, that  rare tier of 3 or maybe 4 players, he must succeed on the world stage.

He is currently turning himself and Argentina’s success into the main story line during the lead up t0 the upcoming World Cup.  It is a different game though and single elimination can be a doozy for any team.  While failure doesn’t rule him out, it will mean another 4 years until he is afforded the opportunity again.

Others…

A good collection of world reaction to Tuesday’s win from the NYTimes.

A good look at Messi’s status around the World from one of America’s most connected soccer writers.

Champion’s League Final Four

If Barcelona are able to repeat Champions League glory in the May 22nd final in Madrid, it will be the ultimate proverbial icing on the cake of 2 years of beautiful soccer, or cherry on top, or any other food related superlative. They will also be the first ever back to back champions in the “Champions League Era.”

Of course getting there will be very difficult. The upcoming semi-final is against an Inter Milan team which has the class, experience, and determination to stop Barcelona from playing their style. Of course, no one has really been able to effectively do that in a long time.

Eto’o coming back to send Barcelona packing almost seems true before it happens.  He is one of those athletes who elevates his game when he’s convinced he has been slighted or disrespected and the trade of him +43.25 Million Euros is, in my opinion, slightly disrespectful (this is the nature of running a successful professional sports team).

Additionally, Jose Mourinho has provided problems for the Catalans in the past, it should be noted that Barcelona got the better of the group stage battles (0 0 tie in Milan, and a 1 0 victory in the Nou Camp).

Mark it on your Calendar, April 20/28, 2:45 PM EST; second leg in Catalunya.

Donde Esta El Brits?

As stated earlier, up until today the headline from Europe must have been that this is the first time in 7 years that there is no English team in the final four of the Champions League.  While there was the obvious overreaction on the part of the British, this does not a represent a decline in the EPL but rather just the end of a great run of continental football.

In elimination style competitions, even two-leg versions, there are bound to be surprising trends (witness the Big East’s variation from the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament to this year’s version).

It was a brilliant goal from Arjen Robben (one of the deftest signings of last summer) which sent Bayern through to a semi final date with Lyon.  If you haven’t seen it….

While the Inter/Barca semi-final is the marquee matchup, neither of these teams should be counted out in the final. They have both beaten teams which many believe to be better them; Lyon over Madrid in the round of 16 and Bayern outplaying Man Utd in the Quarterfinals.

Lyon has experience in this competition and the confidence that comes with getting to this point. They are willing to sit back and take the goals when the opportunities present themselves. You must be finishing effectively for this to work and Lisandro has spear headed some excellent counter attacking football.

Munich’s attack pairing of Ribery and Robben is as fast and lethal as anything out there. With a goal in each leg vs United, Ivica Olic’s European performances have added that in form striker who can change the game on his own accord.

That is all for now…I continue to want to provide some updates on the USMNT but right now your soccer focus should be on the culmination of the European season over the next 6 weeks.

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The first two Champions League quarterfinals this afternoon kick off a blistering 3+ months of soccer across the globe. In short…

Real Madrid leads Spains’s La Liga based solely on goal differential.  They welcome Barcelona to the Bernabeu the weekend of April 10th for what should be the most entertaining domestic league match of the season.

4 time defending Serie A champions Inter Milan saw their lead dwindle to only 1 pt after Luca Toni grabbed a late winner for Roma at the stadio olimpico on Saturday.  AC Milan lurks 2 pts beyond Roma with only 7 matches left for each squad.

Chelsea seem to be dialed into the Premier League race after crashing out of Europe but still cannot seem to shake a Man Utd side leading the league by a single point.  The two sides face off at Old Trafford this Saturday morning at 7:45 AM here in the states (ESPN2).  Arsenal sits 3 pts back of Chelsea as well and have continued to find a way back into the mix after being counted out numerous times this season.

Even the recently Lyon dominated French Ligue 1 (despite last years Bordeaux victory) is incredibly tight at the top this year.  An astounding 6 clubs are within the 3 pts of each other although the Bordeaux must be given the advantage at this point as they are tied at the top but hold 2 games in hand.

All these battles will however have crowned their champions by the time the final two Champions League survivors meet on Saturday, May 22nd at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid.  While Real Madrid spent preposterous amounts of money this past summer to ensure they were one of those teams, we all know that didn’t work as hoped.  With the final 8 kicking off in just under 1 hour, lets get into the meat of it (First team listed gets to play the second leg at home…

Bordeaux v Lyon – March 30/April 7

While the French were understandably enthused about being 1 of 2 leagues with 2 teams in the final 8 and were liking their chances of having both in semi finals on the strength of their round of 16 victories, they got drawn together which instead guarantees there will be a French team in the final 4 for the first time in, um, a long time.

Lyon’s victory over Real Madrid is more impressive than Bordeaux’s expected triumph over Olympiacos but Bordeaux does have the confidence that comes with their 1-0 victory in Lyon in mid-December.  Due to the lack of any US coverage of Ligue 1, I am not terribly familiar with either team.  Both have quality throughout the ranks though and a level of familiarity that should result in a very entertaining draw over the course of the two legs.

Manchester United v Bayern Munich – March 30/April 7

In a repeat of the classic 1999 Champions League Final (highlights here and well worth the 5+ min) these two European powerhouses should produce a bruising 180 minutes of soccer.  Manchester United has been in great CL form for over 2 years now and last year saw Bayern get absolutely outclassed by FC Barcelona at this stage.

Mario Gomez’s injury is probably going to make scoring goals more difficult for Bayern but with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben both healthy and playing well, this is a team that can cause issues for anyone going forward.  Robben on the right should produce an excellent battle with Patrice Evra but Bayern are going to be in trouble if Thomas Muller or Miroslav Klose cannot cause some trouble in the middle.

United comes in with a level of experience in this competition that is unrivaled except in the Camp Nou.  Alex Ferguson will be unafraid to play a defensive style and leave Wayne Rooney upfront all by his lonesome to create and finish chances.  Is there another striker in the world right now who could be counted on to supply all the offense needed at this stage in this competition? Definitely not and thats why United has to be favorites.

CSKA Moscow v Inter Milan – March 31/April 6

As Inter’s multi-year stranglehold on Serie A is slowly weakened they were rewarded with probably the easiest Quarter Final matchup.  They face a CSKA Moscow side which did go to Sevilla and get a win in order secure passage but that could be attributed more to a crumbling Sevilla side than a performance worthy of advancing; it was by all accounts a proper smash and grab job.

Mourinho brought hopes of European success to Inter and he is only now delivering.  They have the class and discipline to advance here and should do so with no problem.  The main obstacle is that the second leg will be played in Moscow and therefore it is very important for Milan to stay tight tomorrow night while also trying to grab at least 1 goal.

FC Barcelona v Arsenal – March 31/April 6

The other premier matchup of this Quarterfinal round pits the two clubs which are probably playing the most attractive soccer in the world right now.  FC Barcelona comes in with the experience but Arsene Wenger will surely have Arsenal believing that they can play with and beat Barcelona over the two legs.  This is so interesting b/c of the striking similarity between these two sides.

I counted Arsenal as ripe for an upset at the hands of Porto after the round of 16 draw as they were having trouble scoring and didn’t seem up for this competition.  After a first leg defeat however and with Nicklas Bendtner coming into form, they soundly smoked Porto and showed the level of class necessary to win this competition.

If Fabregas is healthy and they can use some of their speed on the counter attack, they could cause issues for Barcelona.  However it remains to be seen if they can keep their composure while not maintaining possession for long stretches as they are used to.  Barcelona should be able to win the possession game and Arsenal cannot let this unnerve them, they must take their chances when they come and remain tight in the back.

The concern for Arsenal has to be their lack of results against top quality opponents throughout this season, they must hope not to concede at home and play an opportunistic style which they are not familiar with.  Barcelona has drawn an intriguing opponent here but they should be able to give the Gunners a first hand lesson in beautiful football.

Some various US updates from around the world coming later this week….thanks for reading…

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