Archive for the ‘Champions League’ Category

Manchester United vs. Barcelona Going Live

For all the marbles at Wembley.

Park and Messi, today's two key figures

Sir Alex chooses the more balanced formation and keeps Chicharito to start up top with Fletcher only making the bench.

Man United leads with: Van der Sar; Fabio Rio, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs Park; Rooney Hernandez.

Barca leads with: Valdez, Alves Pique Puyol Abidal – Xavi Busquets Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa

* Interesting selection of Abidal, great story but is he ready?

Champ’s League Final: Prediction: United (Yikes!)

Editor’s note: No “I told you so’s” here. Basically United have to play a flawless defensive game and execute in the areas below for the win. Confidence in my prediction? 50%”

Manchester United vs. Barcelona in a rematch of the 2009 final in Rome.

Park needs to be--and should be--loud tomorrow...

I’ll take the probably very clichéd contrarian approach of suggesting that Manchester United will take this one. Barcelona certainly has the upper hand and there is not reason that their possession-oriented “attack” shouldn’t work on the divots of Wembley.

Alas, why Manchester United could win?

Here are some reasons:

Ji-Sung Park:…. The effect of Park on the game for United cannot be understated. I haven’t looked at other previews, but I would imagine that this is a central theme in most of them.

With Park, you have a player with the speed and ability to quickly jump into the offensive play faster than their marker can join, but recover on defense to stop said-marker who has now become attacker.

Park will tuck in and provide a highly effective ability to know when to double down and help on defense and will also provide a quick outlet upon a turnover. He’s the safety valve both ways.

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Champion’s League Live: Man United Vs. Schalke

I used to be thought of as "the next guy"

United line-up: Van der Sar – Rafael, Smalling, Evans, O’Shea – Gibson, Scholes, Anderson – Valencia, Nani – Berbatov

Surprised, that’s a ton! of missing firepower. I would have thought that either Vidic or Evra starting was a certainy.

Schalke:  Neuer – Uchida, Höwedes, Metzelder, Escudero – Papadopoulos, Jurado – Farfan, Baumjohann, Draxler – Raul

Maybe an appropriate sub-title juxtaposition here is “Excuses, excuses, excuses.”

For all the wrong reasons these days...

First, Mr. Cristiano Ronaldo.

Somewhat appropriate perhaps that the team he forsook for the paella and weather of Madrid, Manchester United, is one draw or even less away from the Champion’s League final.

The offensive components added in Ronaldo’s absence merely Antonio Valencia (who hasn’t been the same since his injury) and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. (Perhaps Dimitar Berbatov as well but that’s debatable given his ratio of plays made to minutes played.)

Even Sir Alex Ferguson conceded, in commentary on Inside United, that his “team might not have the ‘Ronaldo’ factor” but acknowledged “that it [Man United] doesn’t understand the word defeat. It’s determined, gritty and very professional, and it’s produced some great moments.”

Somewhat poignant words as it was just two years ago that Ronaldo himself criticized the much revered Ferguson’s gameplan when United fell to Barcelona in the Champion’s League Final.

Last year, it was Ronaldo complaining about tactics again, this time as Real Madrid fell to Lyon.

Today, Manchester United should see their way through to the final setting up a rematch of the 2009 Champion’s League final between the Premiership’s United and La Liga’s Barca and a subplot here would be–with none other than Jose Mourinho in charge these days at the Bernabeu–the grandiose commentary that the star of Ronaldo, all goal-scoring theatrics, aside is not as bright as it once projected to be.

His nemesis and his team’s main league rival just whooped them and the team he abandoned thriving without him.

The main plot of course is a Manchester United side not making any excuses and winning with a collective team effort.

Ouch Ronaldo.

On to the game.

Just like Kaka prayed to the heavens yesterday, Schalke finds themselves in the unenviable position of needing at least two away goals to have a chance today. It looks highly improbable.

It was none other than stalwart goalkeeper Manuel Neuer who had the second most touches for the home side last week. Schalke’s backline looked ambivalent about defending and Wayne Rooney, playing a lot more like a #10 these days, ran rampant over the central midfield challengers defenders and dropping potential dimes for pick-up around the Schalke 18-yard box.

Schalke will have to dictate the tempo today and take chances by flooding their outside fullbacks up the pitch. You cannot expect to sit deep and counterattack for two goals against the likes of the United backline who has tightened into late season form.

Now hear this, you need to play better today Jefferson.

That means the Jefferson Farfan and Astuto Uchida on the right needs to be much better than the last affair where Evra and Park flat out shut them down and pushed up the pitch.

I think if you’re Schalke as well you need to take a chance and play a very high line forcing your central players, especially your holders Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Jose Jurado, up the pitch and demanding they engage the midfield linking combo of Giggs and Carrick before they get time on the ball. This was a huge problem in Game 1.

If Chicharito beats you over the top or on a through ball, I think, if you’re Schalke, you have to live with that tradeoff.

As for United, just like Barca yesterday, business as usual as they’ll manage the game through  Giggs and Carrick in the middle and Sir Alex will pick again between Nani and Valencia for which player and which flank he wants to lob efforts in to keep the opponents boxed in.

Champion’s League Live: Barcelona v. Real Madrid

Real Madrid, and Kaka, will need to sell their soul northward and hope for a miracle today...

(More coverage: Op-Ed: Xavi is wrong & why I hate Barcelona

Messi No Le Lanza!….Messi Don’t Dive)

Update: Real Madrid’s line-up: The Special Ones: Casillas; Arbeloa Carvalho Albiol Marcelo; Diara, Alonso; Di Maria Kaka Ronaldo; Higuain

Thought Kaka for DiMaria, not Ozil. Interesting as Real Madrid will play wide.

The Peppies: No suprises for Barca: Valdes – Alves Mascherano Pique Puyol – Xavi Busquets Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa

Here’s what I don’t understand.

Messi did it last week. What say you Ronaldo? Still going to lash out at the coach and make excuses?

Why doesn’t anyone just toss up crosses into the box against Barcelona? At least try it for chrissakes. You’ve got Pique and Busquets and that’s really it back there. I never understand that.

Every team seems hellbent on trying to bring the counter to bear on Barca when they’re advanced up the field, but just like in basketball on a three-point shot, long balls equal long deflections. Either, in this case, Madrid is going to collect the rebound somewhere at the top of the offensive third or there may be an errant deflection that leads to a goal out of nothing.

And, so what if you give up the counter, this is Barcelona, the team that wants to get into their ping-pong passing attack.

At least try that out for a little bit….if you have the ball.

Barcelona and Real Madrid resume their rivalry today and conclude their four match series.

A monumental task today for Real Madrid and you have to believe the visitors are thinking like they do in baseball when a team is down four runs in the late innings. “Just let me get the tying run to the plate.”

To make matters work for Mourinho and company, two-way stalwarts Sami Khedira (injury) and Pepe (last week’s phantom second yellow) are out for the match, leaving Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diari in the middle to fend off the Barca attack.

I, for one, have yet to see the Alonso that was the glue at Anfield for Real Madrid. In big games, he appears to wither away and not look for the ball. Something more is needed out of the Basque midfielder today.

Madrid likely sees Emmanuel Adebayor–with the Special One hoping he’s motivated up top–flanked by Mesut Ozil and Ronaldo, now on the left in place of DiMaria. We saw what happens last week when Ronaldo is left to fend for himself up top. He runs around like a chicken with his head cut off, so to speak.

Centering the two is none of than Kaka. (The sacrificing of DiMaria for Kaka would be audacious, but we’ll take our chances with the prediction.)

In the back for Madrid, they’ve got even more problems and are going to have to deal with Barca’s attack with Sergio Ramos watching from the side as well.

Barca will be content to do what they do. Not force the action and carefully dissect Real Madrid’s makeshift defense.

Without a miracle from the Special One today, Madrid likely goes packing.

Op-Ed: Xavi Is Wrong & Why I Hate Barcelona

TSG’s Tuesday back with an op-ed

Who's in the right? Who's in the wrong?

After losing the Copa Del Rey leg of El Cuatro Clásicos, Barcelona reclaimed their crown as the best team in the world on a night that left Real Madrid’s manager and several of their players questioning why they keep finding themselves a man down against Barcelona.

According to Xavi, “they have nothing left but to play dirty because that’s what their coach drums into them. I wouldn’t dream of playing that way and Barça cannot let ourselves play that way. Football was the winner.”

Xavi is wrong. A mirror image of their pragmatic opponent, Barcelona were willing to use any means necessary to win. Football was not the winner last night, only Barcelona was. The two things are not synonymous. Barcelona’s claim to moral superiority, their claim to carry the banner for “football” increasingly strains credulity.

Not to mince words, but they cheat to gain an advantage in these contests. They do not simply dive or go down without much contact to win free kicks. Several of their players cynically try to get opposing players sent off as their colleagues surround the referee in a display of mock outrage. And they’ve been doing it for years, while football’s aesthetes saw only the beauty. But the ugly is there for all to see.

Frankly it’s disgusting. And even though they’re capable of playing the most extraordinary football in the world, it’s why I hate Barcelona.

It bothers me that those on the Barcelona side think that their opponents should just give them space to play their little triangles and not contest, not challenge and not try to win the ball. Then they complain of negative tactics as Barcelona reach those lopsided 71% figures scrolling across our screens.

With the brilliance of their possession, the intensity of their pressing (somewhat subdued last night), the numbers they manage to get forward, their style of play isn’t boring. But counterintuitively, Barcelona plays with incredibly little risk to dominate possession as they do. While they sometimes leave themselves short at the back, they don’t play thrilling football, at least for those less in thrall to geometry. And without Iniesta they’re quite an ordinary team that happens to have the best player in the world to single-handedly win games.

Ordinarily, much of their possession of the ball is just outside the final third. They keep it there, gaining territory little by little and pushing their opponent back towards their own goal, compressing the space between the midfield and back line like a boa constrictor. They squeeze the life out of their prey, pummeling their opponents with a dizzying array of short passes until they become fixed points in space, reduced to the reference grid for their attacking patterns.

Same strategy, different tactics?

But Mourinho’s Madrid refused to be pushed back. They had 6 midfielders waiting around the halfway line, daring Barcelona to try to play through them in an area where any mistake would have Madrid streaking forward on the counter. They did not concede the territory Barcelona is accustomed to using as their attacking base.

How did Barcelona react? With long stretches of aimless possession around the halfway line. At times they were positively English, knocking it across the back. They found opportunities to get forward up the flanks, but they weren’t able to find possession in dangerous areas until they gained a man advantage. Even then, Barcelona were only rarely able to push Madrid back and pressure with possession in the final third.

All Barcelona’s possession asks their opponents to chase them. That means they are going to get fouled more. This isn’t cynical fouling. It is a simple consequence of having the ball twice as much as their opponents. Trying to get it back quickly whenever its lost, Barcelona are ready to mow down any attempt to break through their lines. Let’s stop pretending they aren’t above putting a stop to their opponents counterattack with a judicious foul.

The fetish for possession can be an extremely negative tactic when they aren’t intent on doing anything with it. It’s almost a cliche now to say that this is their way of defending, the mirror image of Mourinho putting 6 players in front of them in midfield. As Mourinho’s side is content to do without the ball, Barcelona wile the game away with it, knowing they only need that one moment of magic from a Messi as Madrid needs one from Christiano Ronaldo.

The desire for referees to call things this tight at the highest levels was to protect these special players. They needed to stop players like Messi, Villa, Xavi from having lumps taken out of them to remove their influence on the game and preserve the potential for magic that those tactics once threatened to extinguish.

But it’s not these “special” players falling down clutching their faces or rolling around like they’ve been shot after losing a 50-50 ball. It’s the combative midfielder Sergio Busquets with the face so long it extends all the way down to his navel, Delicate Dani Alves and second-rate Pedro that are deliberately trying to con the referee into sending players off.

Messi, the great "un-"equalizer...

A lot of this would be solved if feigning serious injury and immediately returning to the pitch was discouraged with a yellow-card for time-wasting at any stage of the match instead of being rewarded with the occasional game-changing red.

The Barcelona brigade think everyone should play Barcelona’s way and if they aren’t they aren’t playing football. But cheating to gain an advantage and then hoping Messi can win it for you? Is that football? If they’re really the best team in the world how come they always seem to need a man advantage to win matches at this level?

I for one, would love to see someone compile the numbers on how much time Barcelona spends with a man advantage compared to the average team in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. I expect they would tell an interesting tale.

Champion’s League Live: Barca vs. Real Madrid

Will Jose handcuffs his troops at home or will he press like he did in the Copa Del Rey?


Barca: Víctor Valdés; Daniel Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol -Busquets, Xavi, Keita – Pedro, Messi, David Villa

Ronaldo starts-up top; Pepe again in the holding role. Albiol called on for Carvahlo.

Madrid line-up: Casillas – Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol, Marcelo – Diarra, Xabi Alonso, Pepe – Özil, Cristiano Ronaldo, di Maria

The Bernbeau will bare witness today to a revitalized Real Madrid side that is seething with confidence off a Copa Dely Rey win (trophy be damned) and weekend lambasting of Valencia.

Barcelona has continued their strong pace as well, only stumbling thus far in the trophy hunt to Madrid in the Copa.

All eyes today on Jose Mourinho despite Pep Guardiola’s theatrics. Sounds cliche, but Barca will play their game. They try to dictate the game tempo and play to every team they play. They believe they are the best.

Mourinho realized this strength and decided to park the bus so to speak in the first major showdown of his tenure. Bad idea. He put five across the back betting the Barca couldn’t find their way through on the floor and they’d have to come over the top. Didn’t work. Not only didn’t work, completely didn’t work. 5-0 Barca need I remind Real Madrid fans.

Will Pepe be called on to boss the midfield again?

Fast forward to April and the Copa Del Rey and Mourinho’s got a new strategy and dare I say it’s quite similar to the one that Bob Bradley deployed to thwart Argentina. Mourinho took his defender Pepe and put him in the midfield and elected to press the passing lanes, slowing Barca’s attack before it got to Messi and friendly.

With Ricardo Carvalho and Sami Khedira (expected to be replaced by Lassana Diara) out, can Mourinho afford to push Pepe up the pitch?

What will we see tomorrow with Barca seeking at least one crucial away goal? If you remember last year, Mourinho got offensive against a Barca team that had bused it’s way to the San Siro with the soot of a volcano still thick in the air. Result 3-1.

This year? About an hour or so flight from Barcelona to Madrid. No volcano.

What to look at today? Just how offensive is Jose Mourinho at home.

Champion’s League Live: Man United vs. Schalke

Champion's League: Manchester United vs. Schalke 04

Update: Floodgates open, 2-0 Manchester United and Schalke has been broken at home. What a wild Champion’s League year as Schalke themselves are coming off destroying the champs, Inter Milan at home in the last stage.

Halftime: 0-0. Gave up the commentary, but basically it’s just Manuel Neuer and a firing squad of Man United players teeing off. 11 shots, seven of them on goal.

Neuer has been nothing short of fabulous, but–and maybe it’s a German stereotype–best of all he’s been unflinching and thus keeping his defenders in it (for what they’re worth).

6:25: Fabulous tactical battle here as both teams poking and prodding, but making sure there read end doesn’t get hung out.

6:25: Best series there from Schalke as Edu finds Farfan, but skids it wide. Patience a virtue.

2:50: The weight of Giggs’ passes is unparalleled. Continually marvelous. Great ball to Hernandez there, though nothing comes of it.

2:50: Schalke giving entirely too much space in their defensive third. United will punish them if that continues.

Update: Under way shortly here. Can Schalke switch the attack fast enough to open the flanks. Will Raul be dangerous enough to make the midfield collapse and aid in that effort?

I wonder what brats they serve at Veltins-Arena.

Update: Valencia over Nani, Fabio over O’Shea. MUFC: Van der Sar; Fabio Ferdinand Vidic Evra; Valencia Carrick Giggs Park; Rooney; Hernandez.

Fabio over O’Shea is surprising (or is really Rafael in disguise).

Update: The vet Sarpei over Escudero. Schalke: Neuer, Sarpei, Raul, Edu Buamjohann, Papadopolous, Farfan, Jurado, Metzelder, Uchida, Matip


It’s go time again in Europe.

The undercard today to the premier Spanish match-up tomorrow.

Astuto for Schalke....

I don’t expect many surprises today out of either United or Schalke.

For United, Sir Alex will employ Ji Sung Park on one side effectively nullifying Schalke’s advancement through wing and overlapping defender player on that flank. I think that’ll be United left flank where Park and Evra will patrol and attempt to quash Schalke’s attack through the creative Jefferson Farfan and the speedy backer (who is getting a lot of pub today) Atsuto Uchida. On the right flank, the Red Devils will attempt to advance more with either Valencia (likely) or Nani continually busting into the corner backed up by Michael Carrick who can swing a pass and the industrious John O’Shea.

Elsewhere I think you’ll see Rooney in the roving false nine role with Chicharito making strategic runs ahead of him. Nothing new there.

For Schalke (and I’ve only seen a handful of their games this year. They’ll try to get both Astuto open on the right playing off Farfan and on the left through Sergio Escudero whose youth United will try and take advantage of.

But amazingly, it’s Raul again for the Germans as his ability to find the ball, hold it and pick out passes in the midfield will be vital to United’s defense collapsing inward and giving those flankers space.

On to the game….