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:

 

 

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.

El Clasico: Messi hat-trick re-ignites Barca title challenge

Messi the difference in Bernabeu encounter

The latest instalment of El Clasico was preceded with a minute’s silence for Adolfo Suarez, the Prime Minister who united Spain after the reign of General Franco. Once the formalities were over, the only thing uniting Real Madrid and Barcelona was their desire to strike a blow to the other’s title hopes.
This game began at the pace we’ve come to expect in meeting of these two sides. Neymar had the first shot in anger in the third minute, and following a half-hearted Ronaldo penalty appeal, Iniesta drew first blood for Barcelona. A well-timed ball from Messi found the Spanish midfielder in plenty of space and he blasted a left footed shot across Diego Lopez and in off the woodwork.
That goal provoked Madrid and they responded swiftly. While all talk before the match was about Ronaldo and Messi, Bale and Neymar, it was Angel Di Maria who was running the show. He teed up Benzema in the 12th minute but the Frenchman squandered the opportunity, blasting over from close range. A few minutes later however the centre forward made no such mistake. Di Maria the provider again, Benzema rose highest to power a header past a despairing Valdes. The keeper got a hand to it, but it served only to place the ball in the top corner.
Di Maria and Madrid had their tails up, and three minutes later they took the lead. Di Maria was giving Dani Alves a torrid time down the left, and it was his cross again that found Benzema on the edge of the six yard box. A good first touch was followed by a smart volley with his right foot. The Barcelona players looked stricken as Ancelotti lost his usual composure celebrating on the sidelines.
With the combination of Di Maria and Benzema proving so effective, Barcelona would have been well advised to shackle them. The problem with that being that leaves space for messrs Bale and Ronaldo. So it was no surprise when Di Maria once more found space on the left flank to put in a cross. The ball eventually found its way to Benzema who shifted it onto his left and aimed for the bottom corner. Only a last-ditch block on the line from Gerard Pique prevented the French striker from completing a perfect hatrick.
It was all Madrid for large periods of the first half. When in possession, Barcelona faced a white wall near impossible to break down. Five minutes before half time however, Messi found a way through. His pass to Neymar inside the box deflected back into his path and he made no mistake, finishing low to Diego Lopez’ left. As Messi celebrated becoming the all time top scorer in El Clasico (19), Pepe and Fabregas rubbed noses and proceeded to fall to the floor. Both were awarded yellow cards for their efforts. There was still just time for Benzema to flash another header wide before the teams trudged down the tunnel. The 400 million people watching had time to draw their collective breath.
The second half didn’t spark to life until the 53rd minute. A jinking run from Ronaldo was ended abruptly with a trip from Dani Alves just outside the box. Incredibly however, the referee Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot, despite the protests from the Barcelona players. Unconcerned with the Barca players’ feelings, Ronaldo dispatched the penalty to give Madrid a one goal lead that was to last just ten minutes.
As Ronaldo had scored the penalty, it was Messi’s turn to influence the game once more. His slide-rule pass to Neymar was inch perfect and the Brazilian went down in the box following minimal contact from Sergio Ramos. The Spanish centre-half was duly shown the 19th red card of his career. It was his third in an El Clasico, and the 13th shown in the past 14 meetings between these two sides. Messi made no mistake with the spot-kick.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti sacrificed Benzema for compatriot Rafael Varane as he looked to protect the draw which would leave his side four points ahead of their bitter rivals. Zinedine Zidane was on hand to console Benzema as he came off without attaining his hat-trick.
Gerard Martino also made a change, taking off a disappointing Neymar and replacing him with Pedro. Calls had been made for Pedro’s inclusion from the start, given Neymar’s recent run of poor form as opposed to the Spaniard’s 14 goals and 8 assists this season.
The game died down again following Messi’s penalty, with both sides fighting hard for possession in the middle of the park but failing to make any significant breakthroughs. Dani Alves struck the base of the left post in the 73rd minute but the rebound failed to find any players in blue and red. Martino brought on Alexis Sanchez another player who had cause to be disappointed not to start the game. The Chilean had 17 goals and 7 assists before this weekend. Cesc Fabregas made way after an underwhelming performance.
It was neither Sanchez nor Pedro who were to make the vital contribution to the game however. Andres Iniesta, who had been lively all evening, found himself near the left by-line being marked by Carvajo and Alonso. As he tried to drift through the non-existent space between them, he found contact and went down. The referee pointed to the spot once more amidst howls of protests from the Bernabeu faithful. Messi blasted the penalty high into the roof of the net to secure his 26th career hat-trick. He scored his first against the same opponents way back in 2007.
The game ended scrappily as Madrid struggled to reclaim the ball from their opponents. Martino may have introduced a Plan B to this Barcelona side’s armoury, with crosses and diagonal balls not uncommon in games, yet this was all Plan A. Patient build up play, supporting the player on the ball. Alonso, Ronaldo and Modric received yellow cards for kicking the shadows they chased in the closing stages.
85,454 people in the Bernabeu to witness the latest in a long line of classic El Clasicos. When the final whistle blew, all that could be heard was the jubilant singing of the travelling Barcelona supporters.
Celebrating too will be Atletico Madrid. This result leaves them top of La Liga following their 2-0 victory away to Real Betis earlier this evening. Level on points with their bitter city rivals, they have a better head to head record. Barcelona’s victory brings them to within a point of the Madrid sides. Real Madrid must finish clear points ahead of both sides to claim the championship.
The last La Liga El Clasico of the season is by no means the last time these two magnificent sides will meet. They lock horns once more in the Copa Del Rey final on April 16th, and there is still the possibility that they will meet in the semi-finals or final of the Champions League. After matches like this one, we can only hope.

El Clasico: Messi v Ronaldo not the only show in town

An intriguing encounter in store tonight
El Clasico. There’s no more intriguing game in the football calendar. Leaving aside the political context, Real Madrid and Barcelona is never a boring spectacle. For the past few years it has been the Ronaldo and Messi show. That duel still takes centre stage, but this season there’s a wonderful supporting act in Bale and Neymar.
In the last El Clasico at the Camp Nou in October, the home side ran out 2-1 winners following goals from Neymar and Sanchez. That goal helped endear Neymar to the Barcelona support following his high profile summer move from Santos. Unusually however, the Brazilian’s transfer has come under even more scrutiny in the interim. It has emerged that the Catalan side paid far more than originally estimated to secure his services.
Off the field problems aside, Neymar has struggled for consistency when playing for the Blaugrana. His best spell coincided with Lionel Messi’s absence due to injury. Since Messi’s return this year, Neymar has found it difficult to be as effective. Could it be that Neymar needs to be the main man in attack in order to reach his full potential? Can he and Messi form a long-term beneficial partnership up front? Games against teams in the lower half of La Liga can only tell us so much. Real Madrid in the Bernabeu  will give a real indicator as to how the two South American stars can play together.
Messi himself has cut a frustrated figure at times this season. Gerardo Martino’s time at the helm has seen a slight shift away from the tiki taka football cultivated to devastating effect under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova.  This season has seen an emphasis in some games on diagonal balls and crosses, as opposed to patient build up play with the ball and urgent pressing without it. Martino is clearly trying to formulate a Plan B that Barcelona can switch to when opponents are difficult to break down. However these tactics need a genuine number 9 who can hold up the ball and get on the end of crosses. Messi is many many things, but an old style centre forward he ain’t. Noises from the Camp Nou suggest that Martino will move on in the summer, most likely to take over the Argentina national side. If he does, expect to see an advocate of Tiki Taka hired in his place. Messi is the one player who Barcelona don’t want to upset. He was the star of Barca’s 7 goal dismantling of Osasuna last week and will likely need to reproduce those goal scoring exploits at the Bernabeu. 
Since defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals in October, Real Madrid haven’t lost a game. This extra-ordinary run has been facilitated by a cohesive unit who are as potent in attack as they are  solid in defence. Ronaldo has been in his usual superlative form, and has been adequately supported by the player who usurped him as the most expensive footballer on the planet, Gareth Bale. Bale played in the last El Clasico while still not clearly fully fit (he didn’t have a pre-season), but since then he has been in flying form, weighing in with 14 goals and 17 assists as Madrid marched to the top of La Liga and into the Champions League quarter finals. His former team-mate at Spurs, Luka Modric, has been imperious in the midfield, with short odds on him being voted player of the season in La Liga.
Also in good form has been Karim Benzema, with Zinedine Zidane’s move from upstairs to the coaching team being credited for improving the French striker’s performances. The number 9 is a doubt for tonight, and Jese Rodriguez is certainly out. If Benzema doesn’t recover in time, Arsenal target Alvaro Morata may see game time. An extremely talented youngster, he has yet to  prove his worth to a dubious Carlo Ancelotti.

With Barcelona’s difficulties at the back (set to be compounded at the end of the season with Carlos Puyol’s retirement) it is difficult to see past Real Madrid for tonight’s game. However, if Messi and Neymar manage to combine to good effect, there’s always a chance Barcelona could sneak a result. A win for Real is a disaster both for Barcelona and neutral observers, as it would leave the Catalans 7 points adrift entering the home stretch of the season. A draw would suit Atletico Madrid as well as anyone, as they travel to Real Betis beforehand and could be level with their city rivals at the summit before El Clasico brings the footballing world to a standstill.