Champions League Review: 3 ties balanced but Dortmund doomed

With the first leg of the Champions League quarter finals over with, it’s time to reflect on this week’s performances and look forward to next week’s encounters.

Manchester United v Bayern Munich

On Tuesday night Manchester United entered unfamiliar territory as underdogs at Old Trafford. They were up against a much lauded Bayern Munich side under the management of the much lauded Pep Guardiola.

While United can’t claim to ever really have dominated the game, they did cause problems for Bayern and Danny Welbeck had two great chances. The striker was unlucky to have a goal disallowed early on but he should have done better with a later chance when one-on-one with Manuel Neuer.

United managed to strike first, with a wonderful Nemanja Vidic header off a Rooney corner. Bayern adopt zonal marking when defending set-plays and we’ve seen over the years that this tactic is open to exploitation. The German team further incapacitated themselves by neglecting to put a man on the posts.

Bayern had looked a bit lacklustre early in the second half, but that goal jolted them into action. Eight minutes after United took the lead, substitute Mario Mandzukic nodded down into the path of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the German blasted home on the half-volley. After that it was all Bayern. Antonio Valencia was lucky to escape a second yellow for a heavy challenge on Boateng, and Guardiola was seething when Schweinsteiger was sent off for a less robust challenge in the closing stages of the game.

The goalscorer will miss the return leg, as will Javi Garcia. However Mario Gotze was rested for the first leg and is a capable replacement for Schweinsteiger. Dante returns from suspension and will slot in instead of Garcia. With an away goal in the bag and home advantage for the second leg, it is difficult to see past Bayern for a semi-final berth. However stranger things have happened and if United can put in a strong performance at the Allianz Arena they have a chance.

You can see the two goals from Old Trafford here:

Barcelona v Atletico Madrid

In Tuesday’s other game Barcelona welcomed La Liga title rivals Atletico Madrid to the Camp Nou. This was the fourth meeting of the sides this season and it ended like the previous three, in a draw. Atletico manager Diego Simeone has exceeded expectations this season after the sale of lethal Colombian striker Falcao last summer. His side work hard to press teams high up the pitch and it has had the required effect against perceived bigger teams.

Falcao may have been the main man last season, but Atletico’s other striker Diego Costa has negated the loss in this campaign, scoring goals for fun and looking a threat every time he gets on the ball. He was an injury concern before Tuesday’s game but spearheaded the attack from the start. However he only lasted 28 minutes before having to be substituted with a hamstring concern. His fitness will be crucial if Atletico are to maintain their La Liga challenge.

His replacement on Tuesday night was the Brazilian Diego, who gave Atletico the lead in the 56th minute with an absolute screamer. Behind to the away goal, Barcelona responded quickly. Busquets was denied by Courtois before a sublime Andres Iniesta pass released Neymar for a cool finish in the 71st minute.

The score remained at 1-1 until the end and so Atletico Madrid have the slight advantage going into next week’s game at the Vicente Calderon. If they play their usual brand of high-tempo pressure football they have an excellent chance of advancing to the semi-finals, even without Diego Costa. But on the other hand, Lionel Messi.

All the goals from Tuesday night here:

 

Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea

Last night saw the clash of two major egos as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea took on a PSG team spearheaded by Zlatan Ibrahimovich. Both men were respectful before the game, playing down their own team’s chances while praising the ability of their opponents.

Ibrahimovich has been scoring at will all season, however last night he was well marshalled and came off with a hamstring injury in the second half after being ineffective in the main. PSG had taken the lead in the third minute from a Lavezzi half-volley which was a direct result of an uncharacteristically poor headed clearance from John Terry. An Eden Hazard penalty in the 27th minute levelled matters, and it remained that way until half time.

PSG were the more composed side in the second period, and it was further defensive errors which allowed the home side to take a 3-1 lead to Stamford Bridge. With Matuidi running towards the corner flag with the ball on the hour mark, David Luiz opted to barge into the midfielder from behind. From the resulting free, Luiz bundled the ball into his own net after it cleared everyone else. In the third minute of stoppage time Javier Pastore scored a brilliant individual goal, tempered somewhat by the quality of Chelsea’s defending and Cech’s goalkeeping.

After the game Jose Mourinho again did something to his strikers that they themselves seem uncapable of. He attacked. While noting that his defenders had been solid all season and were allowed to make the occasional mistake, he bemoaned his lack of strikers. He had opted to start winger Andre Schurrle as the furthest man forward and as such there was no one to get on the end of threatening balls from creative talents like Hazard, Oscar and Willian.

A two goal deficit is far from insurmountable, particularly at Stamford Bridge. However Mourinho must figure out in the coming days who is most likely to bridge the gap for Chelsea. It’s clear he doesn’t believe his strikers are up to the task.

Here are all the goals from Parc des Princes

 

Real Madrid v Borussia Dortmund

The Santiago Bernebeu is a difficult enough place to come without having five of your first team players missing. Add to that the fact that the 4 goal hero against Madrid in last year’s semi-final Robert Lewandowski was missing througt suspension, and Borussia Dortmund were always going to have a mountain to climb.

Madrid were ruthless from the off, with Gareth Bale poking the ball into the Dortmund net from close range in just the third minute. Isco added a second from the edge of the box in the 27th minute and Ronaldo wrapped the game, and more than likely the tie, up in the 57th minute, showing quick feet to get a shot away from eight yards out.

Out of all the quarter finals, this one looks to be beyond doubt. Home advantage may not help Borussia Dortmund in the second leg. Just ask Schalke, who Madrid demolished 6-1 in Gelsenkirchen at the last 16 stage.

All the goals from Madrid’s victory here:

 

 

He is Zlatan – Greatest goals and incidents in Ibrahimovich’s career

Zlatan Ibrahimovich was surprisingly humble before tonight’s Champions League clash with Chelsea, calling Jose Mourinho’s men the favourites to progress to the semi-final.

It’s not often you see humility from the Swedish striker, but then with a goal catalogue like this why should you?

 

He has  been one of the best strikers in Europe for nigh on a decade, and has played at some of the greatest clubs on the continent. Ajax, Juventus, AC Milan, Internazionale, Barcelona and now a PSG side intent on becoming a European superpower.

His goal-scoring record is phenomenal, averaging out at around a goal every 2 games throughout his career. He has never won the Ballon d’Or, but has a wealth of other accolades to his name. In these years of Messi and Ronaldo dominance, only Ibrahimovich can claim to have been as consistently brilliant. Such is his reputation in the game that the World Cup playoffs between Portugal and Sweden was a mere side show to the main act, Ronaldo vs Ibrahimovich.

His supreme confidence is backed up by his ability on the pitch, as seen above. However sometimes that confidence goes beyond scoring goals… This video shows what happens when Ibrahimovich loses his temper on the field, when journalists question his ability, and when he has to play second fiddle to a certain Lionel Messi…

 

What a man.

 

Manchester United v Bayern Munich: As it happened

man utd, bayern munich, champions league

United will look to Rooney for inspiration tonight

Welcome to this evening’s Champions League live-blog.

It’s the quarter finals stage of Europe’s premier club competition, and tonight plays host to two cracking games. Manchester United welcome old adversaries Bayern Munich to Old Trafford, while first and second in La Liga meet at the Camp Nou where Barcelona take on Atletico Madrid. This live-blog is for the United-Bayern game, but I’ll keep you up to date with what’s happening in Spain too.

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And so to Old Trafford and the meeting of Manchester United and Bayern Munich. If the home side win tonight it would be a bit of an upset, but United have beaten the odds against Bayern before…

History won’t save United tonight if they don’t perform in all areas of the pitch however. Bayern Munich are the reigning European Champions and boast an embarrassment of riches in midfield. The visitors though will be without Thiago Alcantara and Dante tonight. Alcantara sustained an injury in league action at the weekend, while defender Dante  is suspended.

The team news is in:

Man Utd: De Gea, Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic, Buttner, Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Giggs, Rooney, Welbeck. Subs: Lindegaard, Hernandez, Nani, Young, Fletcher, Januzaj, Kagawa.

Bayern: Neuer, Ribery, Martinez, Robben, Rafinha, Boateng, Lahm, Muller, Alaba, Schweinsteiger, Kroos. Subs: Starke, van Buyten, Mandzukić, Shaqiri, Pizarro, Gotze, Hojbjerg

You may have to refresh the page to update content. New posts will appear at the top. Comments on the games can be posted underneath or tweeted to me at @AlanKeane23.

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Full time thoughts: United’s performance will have delighted manager Moyes and the fans. Not so much for the quality but for the commitment the players showed. They were second best in the first half with Bayern dominating the possession and dictating the play but second half they gained more of a foothold. Guardiola may be a bit disappointed with his side for losing some of their intensity in the second half but even with Schweinsteiger and Martinez suspended for the second leg Bayern should have enough to advance to the semi-finals. Ribery and Robben create too many chances for them not to score at the Allianz Arena.

93 mins – Full time comes somewhat bizarrely as Neuer’s attempts to take a goal kick  are hampered by paper being thrown at him by the United fans.

90 mins – 3 minutes added here.

89 mins – RED CARD! Schweinsteiger gets a second yellow for a late challenge on Wayne Rooney. Not the smartest move from the German knowing he was already on a caution. Bayern might feel hard done by after Valencia escaped similar action earlier.

88 mins – Yellow card for Javi Martinez for a cynical tackle on Hernandez, who had spun smartly. He was clear on goal if Martinez hadn’t taken him down. He’s out of the second leg for that caution though.

84 mins – Substitution for United. Hernandez on for Welbeck, who will be ruing his disallowed goal and his other missed chance in the first half.

81 mins – Mandzukic booked after fouling Nemanja Vidic in the air.

79 mins – Bayern haven’t dominated this half quite like they did the first but they’re still creating chances. Robben knocks a ball across the six yard box but Mandzukic isn’t in the wrong place.

78 mins – Incidentally Neymar has levelled for Barcelona at the Nou Camp. 1-1 there but Atletico have the away goal.

77 mins – Robben comes close after taking advantage of confusion near United’s goal. He drags his right-footed shot just wide.

73 mins – Substitutions: Buttner injured so Ashleyon in his place. Gotze on for Kroos. Valencia moves back into the United defence. Fortunate not to be down the tunnel.

72 mins – Valencia a lucky boy. Already on a yellow, he jumps into a challenge with Boateng and catches the German defender. The ref shows leniency.

70 mins – Gotze receiving instructions from Guardiola. He’s on next.

67 mins – An away goal for Bayern and Old Trafford is a little quieter, except for the corner the away fans are in.

66 mins – GOAL! United’s lead lasts just 8 minutes. Rafinho finds sub Mandzukic with a cross and the striker nods down for Bastian Schweinsteiger to thump in on the half volley from close range.

65 mins – Boateng stings De Gea’s hands with a shot from distance. The Spaniard holds on.

62 mins – Substitution. Muller off and leading goalscorer Mario Mandzukic on for Bayern. Guardiola’s side have scored at least one goal in their last 60 matches and it has been two years since they failed to score in an away fixture. An interesting half hour in store.

60 min – Kagawa races in behind the Bayern defence and Neuer has to punch clear. Schweinsteiger booked for a tackle on Carrick. The away side are rattled. Rooney wastes the free-kick.

57 mins – GOAL! A Wayne Rooney corner is directed brilliantly into the bottom left corner by the head of Nemanja Vidic. No-one picked up the captain and no Bayern players were covering the posts either. Game on!

56 mins – Chances both ends now as the game opens up once more. Fellaini should have done more controlling a high ball near the Bayern penalty spot and Schweinsteiger gets a shot off the other end.

53 mins – Muller, Robben and Schweinsteiger combine well to allow the Dutchman a shot at goal. Blocked away. United support is right behind their team and has been since before kick-off. No sign of a plane over Old Trafford tonight.

52 mins – Rooney gets a header on target following good play from Kagawa on the right. The Japanese playmaker has looked bright so far.

51 mins – Neither side dominating the in the early stages of the half. Still 0-0 in the other quarter final at the Camp Nou incidentally where Barcelona are hosting Atletico Madrid.

46 mins – Early chance for Bayern. Rafinha plays a ball through to Schweinsteiger who has crept behind the United defence but he fails to find the targer.

45 mins – We’re underway again.

20:46 -Second half about to begin and substitution for United. Giggs is off, and Kagawa on. Positive change from David Moyes, but it was forced due to a groin injury.

 

Half time thoughts: Bayern dominated that first half, and if their final ball improves they should be able to bag an away goal in the next 45 minutes. However United have had chances of their own, most notably Welbeck’s. They need to find a way to stem the flow of Bayern’s passing in the second half, as they can’t get their foot on the ball as of yet.

Roy Keane pleased with Mancester United’s commitment in the first half, and calls the home side’s problems “nice” ones because the chances Bayern have created in general haven’t been clear-cut.

45 mins – The half time whistle goes to boos from United fans. Not because of their team’s performance but because they thought the ref should have allowed United to take another corner. He’s not obliged to do so and the teams make their way down the tunnel.

44 mins – Valencia’s shot deflected over for a corner after Rooney and Welbeck cause problems at the edge of the box.

39 mins – Big chance! Boateng loses his bearings and allows Welbeck to race onto a through ball from Rooney. The striker tries to chip it over Manuel Neuer instead of drilling it hard and low and the keeper gets a hand to it. Moyes doesn’t look happy.

38 mins – The Old Trafford surface must be slippy. Everyone is losing their footing. Phil Jones more than most.

36 mins – An Alaba cross is heading towards Muller for a tap in but Vidic makes a vital interception.

33 mins – The game is opening up now. Commotion in the United box as Jones and Ribery both slip and the ball is cleared by De Gea. Seconds later, A Rafinha shot hits Buttner on the arm but calls for a penalty are waved away.

31 mins – At the other end Danny Welbeck bounces a shot in front of Manuel Neuer. The German keeper was always behind it though.

30 mins – Robben tests De Gea with a nice curling effort from the edge of the box. The Spaniard is equal to it and palms it to his right for a corner.

28 mins – The only thing saving the home side is the quality of Bayern’s final ball so far. Crosses haven’t reached their targets.

25 mins – United can’t string three passes together. All the play in and around their box. Arjen Robben popping up everywhere.

21 mins – A Vidic slip almost allows Ribery’s cross-field ball to reach Robben, but the Dutch winger mis-controls.

19 mins – United fans cheering any indication of passion from their team. It’s all they’ve got so far, as Bayern are playing keep-ball.

18 mins- Ribery with a speculative shot from distance. Well wide from the Frenchman, who came third in the Ballon d’Or last year.

16 mins- Ribery and Robben have such a good understanding of each other’s game. The two link up down the left to win a corner.

14 mins – United haven’t been out of their own half for the past five minutes. Valencia picks up a yellow card for a tackle on Lahm.

10 mins – A Ribery cross finds Muller in the six yard box but Muller doesn’t connect properly and United clear their lines. Chances for both sides early on.

8 mins – Neuer forced into a hasty clearance under pressure from United’s forwards.

7 mins – Arjen Robben curls a first shot a yard or two wide of De Gea’s right hand post. Nice passing from Bayern in the build-up.

2 mins- Danny Welbeck finds the net for United! But… Bayern get a free out for a high boot. Good work by Rooney and Valencia to set up the chance. That decision could have gone either way really but it’s given United and their fans encouragement early on.

1 min – And we’re off!

19:40 – With nothing left to play for in the Premier League, winning the Champions League is the only way United can take their place among the European elite next season. They’re quoted at odds as high as 6/1 to even beat Bayern tonight. 5 mins to kick-off.

19:35 – Roy Keane on ITV calls it a “big ask” for United tonight.

Lahm isn’t playing in the Bayern defence after all. He’s in the midfield with Rafinha slotting in at right-back.

19:25 – In the build-up to tonight’s game, Utd manager Moyes and veteran midfielder Ryan Giggs were in bullish mood. Moyes predicting that tonight would be the first of many times he will come up against Pep Guardiola, while Giggs had this to say;

“As players we don’t see ourselves as underdogs, we see ourselves as Man Utd playing at home in the Champions League and we can’t wait. These are the games that you want to be involved in as a player and we will go out there and try and win the game.”

19:10 – Injury and suspension have forced David Moyes’ hand too, with Alexander Buttner replacing the suspended Patrice Evra and Phil Jones at right back instead of Rafael. Record signing Juan Mata is ineligible in the Champions League.

19:05 – With Dante suspended, it looks likely that Philipp Lahm will play at  right-back. It’s a position that he’s pretty familiar with… It’s only this season under Pep Guardiola that the Bayern captain has pushed up into the midfield.

19:00 – As I said at the beginning Bayern are spoilt for choice in midfield. One of their stand out performers is Tony Kroos, who David Moyes is rumoured to be interested in buying this summer in an attempt to strenghten United’s centre. The German international has yet to sign a new contract at Bayern, however that’s not to say United will have an easy time acquiring his services.

Weekend Round-up: Spurs in turmoil, toothless Chelsea and stylish Liverpool

1 – Everton serious contenders for a Champions League spot.

While other teams have suffered following the appointment of new managers last summer, Everton have had a fantastic season under Roberto Martinez. Astute dealings in the transfer market have given the team a strength in depth unseen for years at the club.

Everton fans will hope that the bubble doesn’t burst when loan signings like Gerard Delofeu and Romelu Lukaku return to their parent clubs. A Champions League club needs players of that quality, and if Everton can beat Arsenal at Goodison Park in two week’s time, they have an excellent chance of mixing with Europe’s elite next season.

everton fulham

Everton were 3-1 winners at Fulham yesterday,

2 – Chelsea need a new striker.

Jose Mourinho has conceded defeat in the race for the Premier League title, a race that he said Chelsea weren’t really in anyway. The defeat at Crystal Palace was Chelsea’s first against a newly promoted club in Mourinho’s two spells at the club. A John Terry own goal gifted Palace a much needed victory, but it was the lack of a cutting edge on Saturday that really hurt Chelsea’s title tilt.

It’s all very well having the creativity of Oscar and Hazard, but who is there to finish off the chances they create? Fernando Torres started at the weekend and Demba Ba made an appearance towards the end but neither made an impact.

Mourinho spoke after the game about the need to add a striker during the summer. Diego Costa is rumoured to be the main target and the question is which current front-man will be surplus to requirements.

3 –  Arsenal’s glimpses of quality not enough for team with title ambitions

Paul Scholes’ assessment of Arsenal last week irked Arsene Wenger enough that he responded before his side’s game with Manchester City. Scholes said that Arsenal were a “million miles away” from being able to challenge for a title, with Wenger retorting that six points cannot be called a million miles. However the points difference doesn’t tell the whole story. In games against other big sides this year Arsenal have looked out of their depth at times. Chelsea scored six against them last weekend, following on from another hammering from Liverpool in February.

Against Manchester City on Saturday evening, it took a David Silva goal for the visitors to spark Arsenal into life. They look nervous when faced with the big challenges, and until they can prove they can put it up to other teams with title ambitions on a regular basis they will have to be content with chasing a Champions League spot.

4 –  Spurs heading for another summer of change.

Spurs fans knew that it would take time for the multitude of new players bought with the Gareth Bale money to settle in. Nevertheless having broken their transfer record three times in the space of a few weeks with Paulinho, Soldado and finally Erik Lamela the hype was such that fourth place and the Champions League was the least expected from the White Hart Lane faithful.

Whatever hope was left of a fourth placed finish vanished within a minute at Anfield yesterday when Younes Kaboul knocked the ball into his own net. Now Spurs are looking at another summer of big change where there will certainly be players leaving, and perhaps the manager too.

Tim Sherwood was handed an 18 month contract in December following the sacking of Andre Villas Boas and won supporters initially due to Spurs playing a more attacking brand of football. However results have been inconsistent and questionable tactical decisions have contributed to rumours that current Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal will take over in the summer.

Yesterday’s game at Anfield was viewed as a chance for Sherwood to prove his worth to the Spurs board, and it was a test failed by both players and the manager. If a new manager does come in, then Spurs fans hopes for a settled squad by this summer will be dashed as he moulds the squad to his liking.

liverpool chelsea spurs arsenal everton

Soldado and Spurs set for another summer of change

5 – Liverpool worthy of top spot.

Liverpool would not have gone top of the Premier League table yesterday if it weren’t for results elsewhere. However it is hard to argue with their league position given their recent form. They have won eight on the trot in the league, and have won 12 out of 13 at home.

They are playing the best football too, with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge contributing 49 league goals between them this campaign. Suarez’ 29th goal of the season against Spurs yesterday gave him the accolade of most goals scored by a Liverpool Player in a Premier League season.

Equally important to Liverpool’s run-in are the likes of Henderson, Gerrard and Coutinho. These three (along with yesterday’s man of the match Raheem Sterling) are a big part of the reason the strikers are so prolific this season. Their work-rate in the midfield has been second to none, and the link up play has been wonderful to watch at times.

Manchester City still have the title in their grasp, and if they manage to overcome Liverpool at Anfield in a few weeks time the title race will be as good as over. However Liverpool have the greatest goals per game ratio since the 1960/61 Spurs team, and that in itself shows their title credentials.

 

Advantage Liverpool as Chelsea and City drop points

Liverpool Tottenham

“Really? John Terry!?”

Liverpool can go top of the Premier League tomorrow evening after results went their way today. Brendan Rodgers’ side host Tottenham Hotspur in the Sunday afternoon kick-off and victory will see them leapfrog Chelsea to the summit.

A John Terry own goal gifted a struggling Crystal Palace side a vital win at Selhurst Park this afternoon, and Liverpool fans had more to cheer about as Manchester City could only draw at Arsenal.

David Silva gave City the lead at the Emirates, but a Mathieu Flamini equaliser ensured Manuel Pellegrini’s men left London with just one point.

Liverpool go into tomorrow’s 4pm kick-off knowing that a win will put them top, two points ahead of Chelsea and four ahead of City, albeit with two games more played than the Manchester side.

The Merseyside club have been in a rich vein of form recently, winning their last seven games in the League and scoring 26 goals along the way. This weekend’s however can only dream of that consistency. Tottenham have lost three of their last six games in all competitions. Tim Sherwood’s chargers haven’t lost three consecutive away games in the league since January 2009, but that record is under threat tomorrow.

Brendan Rodgers will again look to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to lead the charge. The SAS partnership has yielded 48 league goals so far this season, and with Spurs short of defensive cover, the strikers will be confident they can add to that tally tomorrow as Liverpool chase their first league title in 24 years.

Tottenham have little left to play for this season, however with Louis Van Gaal openly courting the managerial position, Tim Sherwood will be keen to show that his side can compete with the top sides in the league. They snatched victory late on against Southampton last weekend, keeping the pressure on Everton in the race for fifth.

Striker Roberto Soldado showed some intelligent link-up play in last week’s win, however the Spaniard is still struggling for goals and Tottenham will be hoping that Emanuel Adebayor will have recovered sufficiently from his ankle injury to take some part tomorrow. Jamie Carragher has retired so Spurs can’t depend on him for goals anymore in this fixture.

3 vital points at stake as Arsenal welcome Manchester City

arsenal

Wilshere and Silva clash in December’s clash

Manchester City go to Arsenal on Saturday evening chasing the three points that will keep their title tilt on track. Arsenal meanwhile need the victory to stave off Everton who are breathing down their necks for the fourth and final Champions League spot.

If this fixture had occurred a few weeks back it would have been billed as a battle between two title contenders. However a bad run of league results in March for Arsenal, victory over bitter rivals Spurs notwithstanding, has left them adrift of the top three. Last weekend’s 6-0 hammering by Chelsea was followed by a calamitous midweek draw at home to Swansea. Everton are now just 6 points behind the Gunners with a game in hand and Arsenal still having to visit Goodison Park in April.

Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes was quick to put the boot in on Tuesday night, questioning Arsenal’s lack of leaders and heart in big games. Even his own beleaguered former club has taken four points off of Arsenal in the league this season. In games against strong opposition this campaign Arsenal have crumbled. Against Liverpool in February they shipped 5 goals away to Liverpool while in the December’s reverse of Saturday’s fixture Manchester City hit them for six.

As is usually the case with Arsenal, talks of a crisis don’t tell the whole story. They may be out of the Champions League after losing to Bayern Munich and have no chance of lifting the Premier League trophy, but they are still in the FA Cup (felling Liverpool the week after losing 5-1) and haven’t fallen below fifth in the league all season.

Nevertheless February and March have, for the past few seasons, seen the start of a good run of form for the Gunners which would consolidate their place in the top four. That has certainly not been the case this campaign, and if they should capitulate to Manchester City on Saturday then Everton will certainly fancy their chances of overtaking them.

City go into the game having scored 8 goals in their last two outings. Yaya Toure has helped himself to half of that total and Arsenal have to  find a way to subdue the big Ivorian, along with the in-form David Silva. Pellegrini’s men had no difficulty in demolishing Manchester United at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, even with the home side crowding the midfield in an attempt to curb Toure’s influence. If Arsenal’s midfielders don’t harry and hassle City in the middle of the park at every opportunity, they will leave their defence with too much to do.

With City only three points behind league leaders Chelsea, with two games in hand, they know that a victory at the Emirates will give them the upper-hand going into a crucial period of games which includes a trip to Anfield to face second placed Liverpool.

 

Jury still out on UEFA’s Nations League

Spain v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Final

Spain, winners of a 16 team Euro 2012

In the future, international friendlies will be a thing of the past. The 54 members of UEFA this morning unanimously ratified the proposed Nations League, which will come into effect from 2018 onwards.

The aim of the competition, according to UEFA’s website, will be “to improve the quality and standard of international football.” UEFA admits in its statement that the exact format of the Nations League is yet to be determined, but “the concept is for the 54 teams to be divided into four large groups according to co-efficient rankings.”

When news of this possible development broke earlier in the week, it was easy to dismiss it as a PR move to make international friendlies more appealing. However it has emerged that the Nations League will be linked to the Euro Qualifiers, with extra places in the European Championships at stake.

In some respects this is a welcome move. Weaker countries will get extra opportunities to qualify for the European Championships. Anything that adds some spice to international friendlies can only be good for supporters, particularly Irish ones. If it wasn’t for the appointment of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane last autumn, the Aviva Stadium would have been harder to fill for games against Latvia and Poland.

However is there really a need to throw another competition into the mix? The Nations League runs the risk of becoming the Europa League of international football; important to the smaller sides but treated with contempt by the top teams. Furthermore, if it is important to the weaker nations, does that allow less room for them to blood new talent? International friendlies, while often tedious, have always been the stepping stone for younger players between club football and the higher intensity of competitive international fixtures. If the Nations League threatens teams with relegation should they lose, will they be reluctant to field inexperienced players?

In any case, with the expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams taking place, surely the current qualification route would have been enough of an opportunity for the weaker teams to stake their claim. Traditionally the group stages of the Euros have been more exciting than those in the World Cup due to fact that there were only 16 teams of a decent quality involved. Raising the quota to 24 teams has already given the third-best side in a qualification group the opportunity to progress to the flagship tournament via the play-offs.

UEFA run the risk of not only diluting the quality of the championship itself but also of the qualifiers. If a team is doing well in the Nations League, will they focus more on achieving their qualifying objective in that manner than in the qualifiers?

These are all questions which cannot be definitively answered until the inaugural Nations League in 2018. The tournament could be a success, or it could be just another ridiculous idea like those linesmen behind the goals who don’t actually do anything.

 

Manchester Derby: Toothless display from United as City march on

Dzeko gives City a very early lead
United tonight had the opportunity to have their say as to where the Premier League trophy spent it’s summer holidays. They capitulated with barely a whisper. A second consecutive 3-0 home defeat.
By the end of the game David Moyes was sat in the Old Trafford dug-out with a look on his face that is all too familiar to United fans this season. Bewilderment.
No sooner had the game began and City had the ball in the back of the net. 45 seconds was all it took for United’s positivity, garnered from two wins on the trot, to dissipate. Rafael did well to block Silva’s initial attempt but the ball eventually found its way to Nasri. His shot cannoned off the upright into the path of Dzeko who was left with the easiest of tasks.
City had the game by the throat and you feared that United would capitulate in the manner of Arsenal at the weekend. Silva was a constant menace, popping up everywhere in the final third. In the midfield Yaya Toure was controlling the tempo without breaking a sweat. Ominously for United, Fellaini, the man best equipped to deal with Toure’s physicality, was brushed off the ball by the big Ivorian easily in the 7th minute.
Moyes looked furious on the touchline. Tom Cleverley was moved to the right wing from a central berth with Mata heading in the opposite direction. Antonio Valencia was stripped off and ready for action with a mere ten minutes gone and it looked like Cleverley was going to be the one to make way. He got a reprieve and showed some promise as the first half developed, linking well at times with Rafael down the line.
City’s movement off the ball however was just too much for United. Nasri, Navas and Silva flitted about, occupying United’s defence while their full-backs made inroads down the sides. Zabaleta in particular was getting the better of Patrice Evra, but the Argentinian was subdued somewhat after shipping two nasty challenges within 15 minutes of each other. Welbeck took him out with a sliding tackle after quarter of an hour, and Fellaini was lucky to stay on the pitch following an elbow to the full-back’s face with half an hour gone. Both United players saw yellow.
United gained a foothold in the game in the last 15 minutes of the first half, but couldn’t make any meaningful progress behind the City defence. If Moyes’ plan A is to get the ball out wide and cross it early, then so be it. If that’s the case however, it’s something that needs more work at the training ground. Aside from Wayne Rooney, who should be in the box and benefiting from decent deliveries, not one Manchester United player this evening looked capable of threatening the City defence with a cross. Rafael and Evra over-hit the majority of their efforts, Mata often hit the first man, and substitute Antonio Valencia rarely threatened the byline, having lost much of his pace at this stage of his career.
Pace. That’s at the heart of United’s problems this season. They have no-one with the searing pace of a Ronaldo who can turn defence into attack in seconds. When they are under the cosh, there’s no outlet with which to relieve the pressure. The ball may make its way into the midfield, but any build up play is laboured and clunky. While both have other attributes, neither Carrick nor Fellaini seem capable of imposing themselves on a game the way Yaya Toure does for Manchester City. A central midfielder (or two) of that ilk is desperately needed in the summer. Parachuting Rooney, their biggest goal threat, into the midfield is not a viable long-term solution.
Manchester City’s second goal highlighted United’s shortcomings in defence too. City were dominating without creating much in the early stages of the second half. However in the 52nd minute they had a corner and Fernandinho flashed a header over following a flick on from Kompany. Fellaini had failed to follow the run of his compatriot. United had been warned. Two minutes later it was Rio Ferdinand who lost Edin Dzeko at another corner, and the Bosnian volleyed in from close range.
The second goal effectively ended the game as a contest. Welbeck had two half chances either side of the 70th minute, but it was comfortable for City. Jesus Navas made way for Javi Garcia, who sat alongside Fernandinho allowing Yaya Toure to roam further forward. It was the Ivorian who delivered the final insult when a cross from sub James Milner deflected into his path and he finished coolly down to De Gea’s right.

The talk tomorrow will focus on Manchester United’s toothless display, but City’s quality cannot be overlooked. They march on with the Premier League title still theirs for the losing.  United will be hoping for a pick me up when they welcome Aston Villa to Old Trafford on Saturday. That’s because a week from today they’re in Champions League quarter final action. Against an irrepressible Bayern Munich.

Manchester Derby: United hoping to derail City’s title ambitions

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City ran out 4-1 winners in September’s reverse fixture

Sky Sports may have raised a few eyebrows when they pronounced tonight’s Manchester derby as the “Race for the Title”, but regardless of Manchester United’s position in the table, they can still have a say in the destination of the trophy come May.
Tonight’s game is their final chance to do so however, as City are the last team they encounter this season still in the running. Manchester City could afford to lose tonight, as winning the rest of their games would most likely put them one point ahead of Liverpool and level on points with Chelsea with a superior goal difference come the 11th of May. However, with crucial games coming up against Arsenal and Liverpool, they would be leaving themselves with a mountain to climb should they capitulate at Old Trafford.
It says something about the shift in power in Manchester that United go into tonight’s game on home soil as underdogs. That’s something that would have been unthinkable during the Ferguson era. Such has been David Moyes’ maiden season in charge however, that home advantage hasn’t guaranteed one point, let alone three. West Brom, Newcastle, Spurs and Liverpool have all left Old Trafford with maximum points this season.
It seems that Moyes’ struggles to make the best out of the less than stellar squad bequeathed him by Ferguson has been met with a certain amount of Schadenfreude from opposing fans and the media. Where other manager’s travails have slipped under the radar somewhat, the focus on Moyes has been intense and unrelenting. While this may be unfair in some respects, some blame has to attributed to Manchester United’s transfer dealings, or lack of same, last summer. With a clear need to strengthen in midfield and at the back, United’s efforts in the summer ultimately amounted to the capture of Marouane Fellaini on the final day of the transfer window.
In contrast, Manchester City, themselves under new stewardship with the introduction of Manuel Pellegrini, identified their targets early and had time to integrate them into the squad before the start of the Premier League season. Fernandinho and Alvaro Negredo in particular have come in and strengthened the squad. When Manchester’s new managers went to battle for the first time at the Etihad in September, the home side ran out 4-1 victors. The tone for the season had been set.
However, while a Capital One Cup victory and possible Premier League success constitutes an impressive season, Pellegrini’s belief that his side could attain an unprecedented quadruple was misplaced. Defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League, after a second consecutive defeat at the hands of Wigan in the FA Cup, left that dream in tatters. The only English teams left in the Champions League are title rivals Chelsea and who else? Manchester United.
And so back to tonight’s game. United manager Moyes has kept his own counsel this week regarding the availability of his centre halves. With Michael Carrick having to deputise at the back in Saturday’s 2-0 win at West Ham, United fans will be hoping that at least one of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Rio Ferdinand will be fit to face Kompany and co.
Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata started at the weekend, with the Japanese international occupying the number 10 role apparently coveted by Mata. Moyes has stated that the Spanish playmaker is happy to occupy any position for the side. With City usually deploying full backs who like to get forward however, perhaps the manager may move Mata to a more central attacking role in order to facilitate a more defensive minded winger.
With Robin Van Persie unavailable yet again due to injury, United will very much depend on Wayne Rooney for goals tonight. Having found the net five times in his last five appearances against City, the £300k a week striker should be a key concern for Pellegrini. Two goals at the weekend will have boosted his confidence and City should aim to keep him, above all others, under wraps.
With Sergio Aguero out injured, and Alvaro Negredo in a poor run of form, it may be up to free-scoring midfielder Yaya Toure to inflict damage on United tonight. Fresh from a hat-trick against Fulham at the weekend, the Ivorian international will be City’s key player. While United fans may flinch at the idea of adapting tactics to stop other teams rather than just playing their own style of football, it is imperative that Moyes’ midfield tonight is set up right. Liverpool’s 3-0 victory 9 days ago at Old Trafford is a case in point. Jordan Henderson was allowed too much space and was involved in much of his side’s good play. With all due respect to Henderson, Toure is an infinitely more accomplished player at this point in time. If he is allowed the same space as the Liverpool midfielder then United will surely miss their chance to dictate where this year’s Premier League title ends up.

In From The Cold: King recalls Reid, Gibson and Stokes for October qualifiers

Reid to make his international comeback.

Ireland’s caretaker manager Noel King today announced his provisional 26 man squad for the upcoming qualifiers against Germany and Kazakhstan.

While there are no real changes to the defensive personnel, there is a reshuffle in the centre of the park which sees Darren Gibson return to the fold after a self-imposed exile. Nottingham Forest midfielder Andy Reid gets a call up after being left out in the cold by Trappatoni for the past 5 years. 
Reid is a player of undoubted ability, with a left foot capable of picking the lock of any defence. There have always been question marks over his fitness, however his lack of pace is compensated by his passing, shooting and free-taking ability. Below is a short clip highlighting what he’s capable of. The only pity for Ireland is that Reid, along with Wes Hoolahan, were overlooked by Trappatoni during a period when Ireland were crying out for a creative presence in midfield. Now the two of them are the wrong side of thirty years old, Hoolahan only finding his way into Trappatoni’s plans earlier this year and Reid parachuted in for two World Cup qualifiers rendered almost meaningless by recent results. 
Darron Gibson took himself out of contention for an Ireland call-up following last year’s disappointing European Championship. The decision of Trappatoni not to play him in any of Ireland’s three games was something that rankled, leading him to opt out of playing any more games under the veteran Italian manager. He declared his availability once more when Trappatoni parted ways with the Ireland team and will be a welcome addition to the midfield. 
A return on the cards?
Interestingly, Stephen Ireland is a name that we could be seeing again on the team-sheet. Irish Independent football writer Daniel McDonnell tweeted today “A comeback for Stephen Ireland was discussed. He doesn’t feel in top condition/ready but gave impression he wants to play for Ireland again.” Whether he would be welcomed back by Irish fans is another matter entirely, but there is a precedent for a controversial Corkman returning to the fold.
Up front, Anthony Stokes is called up to the international set-up for the first time since he withdrew from the Carling Cup squad in May 2011. As the only player of the Irish panel currently involved in Champions League football, his inclusion at the expense of Connor Sammon is a welcome one.
Kevin Doyle has also been given a reprieve by Noel King, having missed out on the past few international fixtures. However the Wexford man had not been overlooked by Trappatoni due to some slight, (perceived or otherwise) but rather because of an abysmal run of form. Doyle now plies his trade with Wolverhampton Wanderers in League One and will surely be desperate to get on the field in a green shirt, if only to put himself in the shop window for a January escape. At 30 years old, time is running out for the former Reading striker.
Doyle back in the squad.
Elsewhere in the squad, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea are included despite both being suspended for the Germany game. They will join up with the rest of the team before the Kazakhstan fixture. Darren O’Dea has been omitted from the squad but Noel King is confident he has the strength in depth needed to cope at the back. While Andy Reid returns to the fold, his club-mate Simon Cox misses out.
Provisional 26 man squad:
Forde [Millwall], Westwood [Sunderland], Randolph [Birmingham], O’Brien [West Ham], St Ledger [Leicester], Wilson [Stoke], Coleman [Everton], Kelly [Reading], Clark [Aston Villa], McShane [Hull], Gibson [Everton], Whelan [Stoke], McCarthy [Everton], Green [Leeds], Reid [Nottingham Forest], McGeady [Spartak Moscow], Pilkington [Norwich], McClean [Wigan], Brady [Hull], Quinn [Hull], Hoolahan [Norwich], Long [WBA],Keane [LA Galaxy], Walters [Stoke], Doyle [Wolves], Stokes [Celtic] – O’Shea [Sunderland] and Dunne [QPR] will join squad for Kazakhstan game.