Bale trumps Neymar in far from classic El Clasico cup final

Last night’s El Clasico was the third of the season. Even without the hyperbolic talents of one Cristiano Ronaldo, football fans worldwide were hoping for a classic to match Barcelona’s 4-3 victory last month. King Juan Carlos was in Valencia for the occasion, and two footballing superpowers lined out in the cauldron of the Mestalla to fight it out for the Copa Del Rey, or the Kings Cup.

Ultimately however, El Clasico take three was a pre-dominantly drab affair lit up intermittently by the sheer talent of the players on display. There were no hatricks, no sendings off, and little of the drama we have come to expect when these two rivals meet.

Football supporters were left to dine on tidbits of the extraordinary. A Xavi turn here, a Benzema flick there. Barcelona look disjointed at this moment in time and Real Madrid were content to play on the break. And it was Carlo Ancelotti’s game-plan that proved decisive. A quick counter in the 11th minute, supplemented by clever one-touch play from Bale and Benzema, released the marginally onside Angel Di Maria whose low strike could only be palmed into the bottom corner by Pinto.

Young Barcelona defender Marc Bartra scored an equaliser on his El Clasico debut, losing his marker Pepe to head past the helpless Casillas midway through the second half. Yet it was Gareth Bale who was to have the final say in the Copa Del Rey final.

Even with an impressive 19 goals and 13 assists to his name this season, the Welshman has come in for criticism at times from the Madrid faithful. The accusation levelled against him was that he didn’t turn up in the big games. With a trophy at stake and such illustrious opponents opposite, Bale answered his critics last night.

Barcelona had pinned Madrid back in their own box, but some careless play allowed Los Blanco’s to break out out with the ball. Bale gathered on the left wing and passed the ball into space beyond Bartra. It’s something that every football follower has seen the former Spurs winger do, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop. Bartra bodychecked Bale, who bounced off the field of play and kept on running. It may have been a less direct route than he would have liked, but he still had enough pace to burn Bartra and he finished calmly through the legs of Pinto.

The white half of the Mestalla erupted, and from his vantage point in the stands, the injured Ronaldo smiled a smile of approval.

Neymar had a chance to level things at the death, but one on one with Casillas he managed to hit the post when it seemed easier to score.

That miss summed up the Brazilian’s night. None of Barcelona’s starting forward three made much of an impact over the 90 minutes. Messi looked uninterested, Fabregas didn’t have the pace to threaten the Madrid defence, and nothing went right for Neymar. He lost possession far too easily, his movement rarely gave Barcelona’s midfield an option, and his shooting rarely troubled Casillas.

During a game in which footballing afficionados couldn’t compare the gifts of Messi and Ronaldo, it was only natural to focus on the lead supporting actors of Neymar and Bale. On the basis of last night’s performance the €100m Spurs commanded for Bale was a savvy investment for Madrid, while Neymar has much to do to prove he is worth whatever it was that Barcelona spent on him.

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.

 

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.