April 28, 2010
Bojan holds his head after a missed chance.
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It is hard to criticise a team who have scored 83 goals in La Liga this season for lacking the firepower to see them through but, against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, reigning European champions Barcelona showed that their fluid attacking style has weaknesses.
After the heights of the sextuple last year, this season’s Barcelona had a lot to live up to, but the decision to sell Samuel Eto’o to their eventual conquerors in Europe could be one that comes back to haunt them.
On 62 minutes, with Barcelona needing two goals, coach Pep Guardiola decided to bring off €40 million+ man Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a kid - Bojan Krkic - who missed a glorious chance late on. It was a patent admission that his gamble to sign the inconsistent Swede in the summer – losing 34-goal Eto’o in the process – had failed and that analysis was backed up further when centre-back Gerard Pique was employed as a striker.
For all Barcelona’s fluid passing, neat movement and attacking prowess, they lack a Plan B. It is a criticism that has often followed the great attacking sides in the game, especially those who remain faithful to one particular style of play. However, truly great sides need to be adaptable and when a bus is parked in front of goal, they need to find a way past it.
Guardiola’s decision to employ Pique up front bore fruit with the Spaniard’s wonderful goal in the 84th minute, but he had the opportunity to make changes once Inter had been reduced to ten men an hour earlier. After Thiago Motta’s dismissal for what can only be described as a ‘face push’, Guardiola had licence to attack and change his formation, but he chose not to until the break.
Even when it became obvious that Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdes was going to have an easy night, Guardiola still only brought on Maxwell to give the side more width when he replaced Gabriel Milito at left-back. Then, when he did make his second roll of the dice, Ibra was withdrawn and Thierry Henry overlooked for 22-year-old Jeffren Suarez.
What may prove to be Henry’s last appearance on the Barcelona bench could also be viewed as the moment that the Barcelona boardroom discovered Guardiola’s limitations as a coach. He will learn from the experience, yes, but perhaps the realisation that he cannot rely on his two main central strikers will force his hand in the transfer window this summer.
Incredible when you consider the money that Barcelona spent last season, but the cost of £40 million to bring in Valencia’s David Villa (a man who has proven at both international and club level that he is the real deal) suddenly looks cheap in comparison.
Of course the other name that the club will be chasing this summer will be Cesc Fabregas. The talent of the Barcelona midfield is there for everyone to see, until the evidence is placed before you that they do not possess a genuine goalscoring midfielder. Inter were able to upset the balance of the Barca passing game and cause Lionel Messi to drop so deep that he was miles away from goal (where he is not at his most dangerous), but more was perhaps expected from Xavi.
One moment, when he turned brilliantly to get free of the persistent Wesley Sneijder before opting to pass badly to Messi rather than shoot, suggested that a player of the Fabregas mould would find himself most welcome at Camp Nou, even if it means battling the absent Andres Iniesta for a place in the side.
Ultimately, Inter must take credit for holding off their opponents with a defensive display that Mourinho can be proud of. The master tactician made sure that he played upon Barcelona’s weaknesses and, rightly, has a European final to look forward to as a result. For the Catalans, the focus turns to the league – failure to bounce back from this painful experience would render the season a failure too. They may need a Plan B to do it though.
April 27, 2010
Bayern cruised to victory over Lyon
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It seems unfair to question a team that has just reached the Champions League final with a 4-0 aggregate victory, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Bayern Munich have been fortunate this year.
Lyon had been meek at best in their 1-0 defeat at Allianz Arena last week. Even when they had an extra man following Franck Ribery’s dismissal, they looked to be playing at a disadvantage. Any question over whether playing on home turf would reverse their fortunes was comprehensively resolved with a 3-0 defeat at Stade Gerland.
It was 26 minutes before Ivica Olic grabbed the away goal that all but settled the tie. When Cris was harshly but stupidly dismissed on the hour, Olic was able to add two more to complete his hat-trick and a comprehensive win. Bayern had made the extra man count where Lyon had not, but there was never any sense that the referee had altered the course of the game.
Bayern could hardly help Lyon’s ineptitude over the two legs, of course, but the margin of the victory did nothing to change the feeling that Bayern look like a team going into the final in hope more than expectation.
They had been on the verge of an early exit in December. Louis van Gaal was under pressure and Bayern were struggling but, against all expectation, they secured a superb 4-1 win at Juventus and the teams’ campaigns took very different courses.
That hurdle comprehensively overcome, they came up against Fiorentina in the second round. The tie started to turn when, with the score at 1-1, Massimo Gobbi was controversially sent off. Miroslav Klose then avoided a red card for a two-footed lunge before scoring a clearly offside goal, allowing Bayern to clinch a 2-1 win. Fiorentina were excellent in the second leg, but a sublime Arjen Robben strike saw Bayern go through 4-4 on away goals.
They progressed from the quarter-final against Manchester United by the same scoreline. Bayern won the first leg 2-1 and, while it was a deserved win on balance of play, there was still that element of luck: a deflected Ribery free-kick had brought the equaliser. At Old Trafford, United had been cruising 3-0 when Olic scored a goal against the run of play before the break and then, in the second half, Rafael was justifiably but controversially dismissed. Again, a sublime Robben strike saw them through on away goals.
It was a result that deserved great credit. Van Gaal had tagged Bayern the underdogs even after their 2-1 win in the first leg, and the German press hailed their ultimate success as a miracle. Yet the lingering feeling was that Bayern were a team with a handful of great talents but still yet to prove their status among the very best in Europe.
Lyon robbed them of the chance to prove their capabilities in the semi-finals. They allowed them all the space in the world to play and failed to offer a threat, even on the counter. When they did fashion a chance, as when Michel Bastos was left free in the area in the first half at Stade Gerland, they could not convert it. Robben admitted after the game that it had been "easy".
What Bayern have shown, at least, is that their attack is not as reliant on Ribery and Robben as previously suspected. In the first leg against Lyon, Ribery made his mark on Lisandro Lopez’s leg but not on the tie, while Robben was a peripheral figure at Stade Gerland.
Olic, meanwhile, took his tally for the competition to seven goals in nine games, and his two goals against United prove he can deliver under pressure. He is a tireless worker, a strong finisher and an intelligent forward. Bastian Schweinsteiger was superb, Mark van Bommel is as wily as ever, and Hamit Altintop is an able deputy in the wide areas.
So while Lyon robbed Bayern of the chance to prove they are back among the best in Europe, these players will be given the opportunity to silence the doubters at the Bernabeu. Barcelona rode their luck in their semi-final against Chelsea last year, but the comprehensive victory in the final itself left them rightly hailed as one of the finest teams of recent memory.
Bayern will not be able to rely on away goals or a free ride against Inter or Barca. Next month, Van Gaal's men will be given the severe test they need to prove their credentials once and for all.
April 21, 2010
Robben was Bayern's matchwinner once more
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Franck Ribery did his best to steal the spotlight from Bayern Munich team-mate Arjen Robben against Lyon, but it is the Dutchman who will be making all the headlines after he capped a sparkling display with a long-range winner, to give Louis van Gaal’s side the advantage going into the second leg in France next week.
Bayern Munich 1-0 Lyon: Match Report
Bayern shocked by Ribery red
Perhaps Ribery felt that his team-mate had been getting too much attention lately; Robben has been overshadowing the Frenchman for a while now. The Flying Dutchman scored the crucial away goal against Fiorentina in the Champions League last-16, before repeating the feat against Manchester United in the quarter-finals. And while Robben netted a hat-trick in the 7-0 demolition of Hanover in Bayern's last league game, Ribery failed to find the net.
Against Lyon, Ribery lost his cool and was appropriately punished – receiving a red card for an over-the-top challenge on Lisandro Lopez. Having been at the centre of the furore surrounding French child prostitution scandal, for which the Bayern star and national team-mate Sidney Govou have been called as witnesses, Ribery had attracted plenty of negative attention. That is sure to continue after the tackle that prompted his dismissal.
Ribery has frequently been linked with a big-money move away from Bayern over the past 18 months – apparently seeking a transfer to a club that will afford him a better chance of lifting Champions League silverware. Ironically, his current side are now in pole position to make the Bernabeu final, but Ribery will have to watch from the stands after his moment of tempestuousness.
It is surely Robben, not Ribery, who Bayern should be desperately trying to convince to stay.
Before his sending-off, Ribery showed glimpses of excellence with some smart turns and touches but his delivery from set-pieces was poor. Robben, on the other hand, dazzled throughout. A constant threat with an electric turn of pace and intricate footwork, he was rewarded for his persistency with the winning goal, his 17th strike in the last 19 games. It was a speculative effort that took a definite deflection off Thomas Muller’s head but it mattered little who netted - it was exactly what Bayern deserved.
Claude Puel’s Lyon side looked a shadow of the side that dumped Bordeaux and Real Madrid out in the previous two rounds, and who defeated Liverpool home and away in the group stage. But it wasn’t anything new. They have flattered to deceive all season in the league and while Bayern have come good in the end domestically, sitting top of the Bundesliga with three games remaining, Lyon lie third in Ligue 1 with no chance of catching table-toppers Marseille.
Lyon were dire in the away leg against Bordeaux and, despite being handed a golden opportunity to take control of this game following Ribery’s dismissal, they were woeful again. The first time left-back Aly Cissokho got into Bayern’s final third was deep into the second half and a hardworking Lisandro was feeding on scraps.
Bayern came out in the second-half looking like the team with 11, while Lyon stayed on the back foot. Not content with that, they decided to make it a fair 10 v10 when key man Jeremy Toulalan saw red for two bookings in less than five minutes – the second could have been deemed a tad unfortunate.
That was just the inspiration Bayern needed to step it up a notch and Robben took the bull by the horns, menacing the Lyon defence until he was substituted, much to his dismay, minutes before the final whistle. Gomez and Schweinsteiger squandered chances to put the game beyond doubt and a lacklustre Lyon, possibly suffering from their long coach journey to Munich, were let off the hook.
Lyon will need to be a very different proposition at the Stade Gerland next week if they are to have any chance of progressing. Having won every match (apart from a 1-1 draw with Liverpool) at home in the Champions League this season, they certainly have the credentials and will be hoping to exploit the travel sickness of a Bayern side who have lost three times on the road in Europe this campaign.
April 16, 2010
Hicks and Gillett: Selling up
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Three years ago when George Gillett and Tom Hicks walked through the door at Anfield armed with a plan to make Liverpool great once again most fans thought their dreams had come true.
Forum: A new era at Liverpool?
Liverpool put up for sale
After the purse strings had become very much tied at the end of the long regime of the Moores family, fans could have been forgiven for thinking that this would herald a new era of star signings and silverware-laden celebrations. It was not to be.
One of their first pieces of business was to sanction the £25 million purchase of Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid, and while the Spain international may have struggled with injury throughout a return of 56 Premier League goals makes him one of most deadly strikers in England.
But there has been precious little evidence of serious spending since then. Having said that, when manager Rafael Benitez has been furnished with further transfers fees around the £20 million mark there have been notable poor buys - Robbie Keane and Alberto Aquilani barely produced performances to warrant the spend.
More concerning for the long-term future of the club was a failure to press ahead with plans for a new stadium in Stanley Park, with the increased capacity and associated commercial revenues enabling them to compete on a more level playing field with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. But the plans were scaled down and then put on the backburner as funding dried up during the global credit crisis.
There is absolutely no guarantee than anyone that comes in and takes control of Liverpool will actually be successful and remove the albatross around the neck which is a first league title since 1990.
The financial meltdown has seen the number of sugar daddies prepared to splash the cash on a sporting play thing dwindle considerably. It's likely that anyone who purchases Liverpool now will do so with their business head on.
And that means transfer spending may be curtailed in favour of funding the new stadium, which remains vital to competing in the long-term. Many clubs have suffered sporting difficulties as a result of diverting cash towards development of their infrastructure, and the same could happen at Anfield.
Those Liverpool fans who are currently rejoicing should remember that while the club is up for sale it could be a long time before any deal is struck. A failure to reach the Champions League next season not only affects the club's ability to attract the best players, pay the top transfer fees and keep hold of their star names; it also makes potential suitors think twice and pay less. Hopes of a takeover may rest on the price demanded by Hicks and Gillett.
With the club saddled with debt by the last takeover, any deal to buy Liverpool will be complex. They thought they had attracted a winning combination three years ago only for it to blow up in their faces amidst in-fighting and bickering.
Many Liverpool fans would probably welcome the days when the Moores family ran the club with the dignity they had come to take for granted.
April 15, 2010
Axel Witsel is said to be an Everton target
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The biggest transfer gossip of the day in Belgium involves three players – Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Dieumerci Mbokani – and as many clubs – Standard, Everton and Real Madrid. Further ingredients: David Moyes was in Liege for the Belgian champions’ Europa League game against Hamburg last week. Then, on Saturday, Fellaini was spotted with Zinedine Zidane at the Bernabeu executive suites. The theory? Fellaini to Real, Witsel and Mbokani to Everton.
Moyes would hate to lose Fellaini but, if Everton got two players in compensation, they might be tempted. Mbokani has been in Everton’s sights for some time and, on their missions to Liege, the Everton scouts cannot have missed Witsel, who has been in excellent form the past couple of months. Too good to be true? Possibly. It remains to be seen how much of this, if anything, actually materialises. Fact is that snippets of information (and speculation) about this can be found all over the net.
We must point out that in this whole story, there are elements of fact. Standard would earn big money if Everton sold Fellaini to Real, having agreed a hefty sell-on percentage on any sale outside England. Real, for all their big money transfers, were found out in Europe because they lacked a good box-to-box player, a physical presence, good passer and tackler to run the midfield and link up play. Fellaini ticks all the boxes.
Everton's interest in Mbokani is well-known and this transfer appears to be in an advanced stage. And then there is Witsel, who said in a press conference two days ago that, even if he is talking with Standard about a new contract, this does not mean he will never leave. Witsel is quite similar to Fellaini as a player. Not as tall but possibly more technically gifted. Another fact is that Witsel ended his contract with his manager, something Fellaini also did two years ago, just before he moved to Everton. There were rumours before of a transfer to Everton or Aston Villa.
Either this gets very exciting for all concerned or nothing happens in the end. Either way, it is a good thing that Belgian football is talked about for good reasons for a change. To be continued…
Carlos Tevez: Man City's star performer
This year's nominations for the PFA Player of the Year Award reflect how the Premier League has evolved this season, with no Liverpool player deemed good enough to grace the ballot paper.
The Player of the Year shortlist
Forum: Your Player of the Year?
Forum: Who shoud be Young POTY?
Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas and Carlos Tevez are the final four. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are all represented but Liverpool's annual nominee Steven Gerrard is nowhere to be seen. His place is taken by Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez, and rightly so.
Despite a slow start to his career at Eastlands, with just two goals in his first ten games, Tevez has stepped up the pace when it really counts, firing in 25 goals in his last 24 games to help City reach the Carling Cup semi-finals and, most importantly, usurp Liverpool as the fourth placed team in the Premier League.
The former Manchester United player was not deemed worth the £25.5 million it would have taken to make his loan move permanent at the end of the 2008-09 season and manager Sir Alex Ferguson must be looking across at his 'noisy neighbours' with regret as United's title challenge limps to a halt in the absence of Wayne Rooney and City continue to smash in the goals.
Rooney is the 2/25 odds-on favourite on to scoop the Award after smashing in 34 goals in all competitions and his importance to United has been highlighted by their lacklustre performances as he sits on the sidelines recovering from an ankle injury.
He is not just United's talisman, he is also England's. Such is his worth to Fabio Capello that should he be ruled out with injury England might as well not bother boarding the plane to South Africa this summer.
Despite Chelsea's Drogba returning to his best form and Fabregas continuing to pull the strings at Arsenal, only Rooney can really be crowned the PFA Player of the Year.
At just 24 years old, Rooney is also nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year, along with Fabregas, and for me this makes a mockery of the accolade.
Surely if Rooney wins the senior gong then he must also be the best young player in the England? How can one of his fellow nominees - Aston Villa's James Milner and Birmingham City's on loan goalkeeper Joe Hart - win it ahead of him?
Cristiano Ronaldo won both awards in 2006-07 but there must be a case for limiting nomination to either the senior or youth category, not both.
Maybe the PFA Young Player of the Year Award should be renamed the Breakthrough Player of the Year award or Most Improved Player of the Year award. There seems little point having two awards dominated by the same players.
The youth award should recognise players other than the usual suspects. Milner and Hart both deserve recognition for fantastic seasons and should not have their achievements overshadowed.
April 14, 2010
Cesc Fabregas is Arsenal's key player.
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It’s just a matter of time before Arsenal fans will have to come to terms with yet another world-class player leaving the Emirates. But nobody could blame Cesc Fabregas for heading back to Barcelona if Arsenal fail to clinch the title this season; it has been in the pipeline for years.
For all Arsene Wenger’s desire to keep hold of the influential midfielder, Fabregas’ love for Barca has not been a secret. Casting loving glances towards the Mediterranean, the opportunity to play with the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and, of course, Lionel Messi, must be a hard one to resist. You will hear talk of Manchester City, of Real Madrid, but Barcelona is the only place that Fabregas will go to. It is ‘more than a club’.
If the Catalans can part with around £50 million, then Arsenal will surely be tempted to sell their prized asset. For his part, Fabregas has been an example of honesty and loyalty, claiming that he owes a lot Wenger and stating his love for north London and the team that turned him from a teenage unknown to one of the best players on the planet.
But, at 22, Fabregas will be thinking that five years without silverware is enough. He will look at Messi (the same age) and what he has accomplished in his career thus far. League titles, Cups, a Champions League winners medal and dozens of personal accolades; Fabregas has just an FA Cup and Community Shield to his name, but he deserves so much more.
Undoubtedly one of the most gifted midfielders in Premier League history, Fabregas signed one of the longest contracts ever in 2006 – an eight-year deal until 2014, claiming that he did not care too much about money and just wanted to secure his future and focus on playing. Yet it was a decision that puts the ball in the club’s court, as they have to make the final decision over whether to let him go.
Some fans will say that it means he is going nowhere, with Wenger already citing this as the club’s insurance against a Barca offer. But player power is king and, if he chooses to leave, Fabregas should expect to see the same kind of loyalty that he has shown the club in staying put for the past two years. A repeat of the Ronaldo-to-Real saga would be a shame.
Of course, with new investment, Fabregas may be persuaded to stay for a little longer. Two or three top players spread across the side could lift the Gunners into serious contention for the Champions League and give them more ammunition to challenge in the league as well.
But, make no mistake, it would only be delaying tactics. Fabregas will play for Barcelona in the near future and only a serious upturn in the fortunes of Arsenal will keep him in the red and white shirt for the duration of another season or two.
Arsenal are closer to the title this year for sure, but the next five games – starting on Wednesday against Tottenham – may determine more than just their final league position. It could go a long way to deciding the future of their skipper.
April 10, 2010
Pedro celebrates after scoring
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It will almost certainly be the last time that Manuel Pellegrini is in charge of Real Madrid for an "El Clasico" match. Real Madrid's Chilean boss has been under huge pressure to deliver since his team crashed out of the Champions League to Lyon, but in losing the tactical battle against Pep Guardiola in a damaging defeat to Barcelona, Pellegrini's death warrant is soon to be printed.
Match Report: Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona
The decision to play without a commanding, ball-winning defensive midfielder can be seen as one of the main reasons for Real's failure to make their mark on their most important game of the season. Choosing to play, instead, with Xabi Alonso and Gago in the central roles, Real gave Barcelona far too much freedom to control the game and it was their inability to keep tabs on playmaker Xavi that proved their downfall.
First, it was Xavi's ball over the top to an onrushing Lionel Messi that opened up the Madrid defence in the first half. Later, he was given space again in the second half to slot a long throughball to Pedro for the winger to kill off the game. A player of Xavi's quality does not need much space, or much time; leave him alone for just a split second and he can open you up. Madrid ignored him twice and paid a heavy price.
The architect of Arsenal's demise - even though Messi took the headlines for his four goals - Xavi often fails to receive the praise he deserves because of the quiet nature of his play. Calmly playing the ball short, conducting the orchestra, he rarely concedes possession away and without him Barcelona lack the cutting edge that makes them such an imposing opponent.
For all the talk of Messi's impact before the game, Pellegrini must have realised that stopping the Argentine goes hand-in-hand with stopping Xavi. Employing the likes of Lassana Diarra to play his natural game, breaking up possession and generally putting pressure on Xavi's every move, seemed an obvious decision. But with Barcelona playing a three-man midfield, the outnumbered Alonso and Gago failed to stamp their authority on the game to such an extent that there were periods when you could have been forgiven for thinking that Barca were the home side.
For years after the exit of Claude Makelele from the Bernabeu, Madrid struggled to assert their dominance in the centre of the field because they did not replace him adequately. With two Diarras (Lassana and Mahamadou) capable of filling the defensive midfield role that is so important in giving their more creative players a platform on which to build, sat on the bench, questions must be asked why Pellegrini made it quite so easy for Barca to attack.
Credit, of course, goes to Barcelona for yet another dominant display in another wondrous season. The Primera Division title now looks a formality, but it is extremely doubtful, almost unthinkable, that Pellegrini will still be around to attempt to challenge their dominance next season.