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.

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.