Monthly Archives: December 2011

Manchester United 5-0 Wigan

How the Premier League was Tied:

Manchester United entered the game with a depleted back line, and they were forced to play Antonio Valencia at right-back and Evans and Gibson at center-back. Valencia was excellent, but the two center-backs both played poorly. Evans picked up an early yellow-card and was taken off at half-time, while the best clearance of the day fell to Nani. In fact, one Wigan counterattack saw Wayne Rooney playing left-back (Wigan’s right-forward nearly scored) and Evra center-back.

It didn’t matter. United were ahead after eight minutes through Park-Ji-Sung after a mazy run from Evra.

In the first half an hour Wigan couldn’t keep the ball and rarely tried. Instead, they played with three center-backs, soaking up most of Man-U’s attacks. The failure to clear the ball was reminiscent of Barcelona in El Clasico, although Wigan couldn’t clear it because there was nobody up top, while Barcelona simply refused to take the ball off the ground.

Valencia and Nani combined several times, even though neither was playing in his natural position. Valencia played as an attacking right-back, forcing Nani to move the middle.

Chicharito badly wasted a couple half-chances, and Wigan picked up a yellow card, but they calmed down after about 30 minutes and had a decent spell when they started to keep possession and neutralize the Manchester offense.

Wigan is known for its heavy losses to its better opponents (7-0 to Chelsea last season; outscored by more than 40 goals all-time against Manchester United), but was coming off draws against Chelsea and Liverpool. With 38 minutes gone, either a draw or a blowout looked possible.

Unfortunately, Wigan’s Sammon, who had missed what would turn out to be the Latics best chance, was sent off for an innocuous challenge. Caldwell was booked for arguing, Valencia whipped in a pair of dangerous crosses, and Berbatov scored, all within two minutes, and the rout was on.

The Bulgarian used great strength and good finishing to score, but it must be said that the defending wasn’t great: Alcaraz, Stam, and Al Habsi all had a chance to close the goalscorer down.

It would be hard to imagine the Sammon challenge being a red card if it had been committed by a Red Devil, at Old Trafford, but Wigan can hardly claim they would have won had the call gone differently. Most of the Wigan team was invisible during the first half.

A dangerous Wigan back-pass ended the first half, and United’s attention soon turned to the City-West Brom game, scoreless at the break.


Other upsets were in the air: Liverpool trailed by one at Blackburn, and Arsenal would draw the next day against Wolves, a club with a penchant for getting good results against top teams.

Chelsea had already drawn with Fulham. Chelsea’s results since the victory over City: draws with Wigan and Fulham, both of whom Man-U defeated 5-0; and a 1-1 draw with Tottenham- AVB won the tactical battle but it was pretty obvious that Chelsea are no longer any better than Spurs.

Villas-Boas has been changing his approach to a more direct one, and it paid off against Manchester City, but the manager faces questions once again after a disappointing draw. For the second time he made a defensive substitution while drawing against an inferior opponent, and he allowed Danny Murphy to be the best player on the pitch. Meanwhile, AVB continues to experiment with Mata and Torres’ positioning without success (can anything help Torres?).

What a club in chaos Chelsea are, with half their players rumored to leave over the transfer window.

Another half-time score: Bolton 0-0 Newcastle. Bolton, playing at home, were disappointing. Both goalies had one or two good saves in the first half, but Newcastle were dominating. It took an inspired substitution to turn the flow of the game. Ben Arfa, minutes after coming on, made it one-nil Newcastle. Within five minutes Newcastle got a lucky second, and nearly scored a third. Bolton didn’t have any offense, and succumbed, 2-0.


Wigan hadn’t been at all bad in the first half, considering that they were at Old Trafford, and were hanging on until the sending off. They came out with a change in strategy: letting United control the first two-thirds of the pitch and only pressing when the Red Devils got too close to the goal. Once again, soft defending let them down, and Berbatov, given far to much space, put a neat finish into the back of the net, and leaving SAF with a selection headdache for Man-U’s next game. On the rare occasion where he and Hernandez started together and Rooney was on the bench, he was much more involved than Chicharito and showed his finshing skills, but his passing was wayward. Rooney later came on but rarely got the ball.

One more point about Man-U’s lineup: Lindegaard, instead of the error-prone De Gea, started in goal. He barely had a save to make.

After 68 minutes more scores came in: Manchester City still hadn’t scored, but Liverpool and Everton, both surprisingly trailing, had found equalizers.

Meanwhile, the merciless Ferguson had put on two strikers for two midfielders. Neither Macheda nor Rooney made any difference, but United would find two more.

The first was a crazy strike by Valencia, capping off his Man of the Match performance against his old club nicely.

The second came on United’s umpteenth penalty appeal (the referee got them all correct). Berbatov completed his hat-trick by slotting past Al-Habsi, not an easy task, considering his impressive penalty save against Liverpool the previous week.

Alcaraz committed the foul, right on the line. He hadn’t had a bad game, but Wigan surely have to buy a defender during the transfer window.

Fergie still is unlikely to start Berbatov next week. The Bulgarian continued his frustrating habit of scoring all his goals in one match.

Goal difference is important this season though, for both United, as they chase the title, and Wigan, in yet another relegation battle.

Several minutes after the United game had ended, their players were celebrating once again, after Manchester City failed to score against West Brom. Manchester City now only leads on goal difference.

When we look back at the end of the season, this could very well be the decisive week.


Manchester United verdict: Can we play them every week? Berbatov has 8 goals in 10 games against Wigan; Rooney 10 in 14.

Red Devils’ next game: v. Blackburn, a great chance to put pressure on City, who have to play at Sunderland the next day, and host Liverpool just two days after that. The Manchester teams have to be aware of Tottenham, the only other realistic threat to take the title, seven points behind with a game in hand.

Wigan verdict: They need to put this game behind them, and fast. Having an in-form Hugo Rodallega is the next step in avoiding relegation.

Latics’ next game: @ Stoke, the team they beat last year to improbably avoid relegation.




Weekend Preview- December 10



5- The Club World Cup started, without much fanfare, this week. It should get more interesting when Barcelona and Santos join for the semifinals.

4- Wayne Rooney’s Euro 2012 ban was reduced to two games, making him a certainty to join England’s squad. England could still be in trouble, as their game  with Rooney is no gimme, against the hosts Ukraine.

3-  Arguably the best center back in the world, Nemanja Vidic could be out for up to a year, to add insult to the injury of Manchester United’s early Champions League elimination

2- The Champions League group stage concluded in wild fashion on Wednesday. Both Manchester City and Manchester United were eliminated, with the former dominating a second-string Bayern Munich side, only to have Napoli advance in their stead, as the Italians beat Villarreal 2-0. The Red Devils, meanwhile, were pitiful, failing to get a point against Basel, when they had control of their own destiny.

Meanwhile, Lyon scored six second-half goals away to Dinamo Zagreb, pipping Ajax to second place in Group D on goal difference. Coupled with Marseille’s improbable comeback the day before, the result left France with two round-of-16 participants, when they easily could have had none.

The other countries which did surprisingly well were Russia (CSKA’s late winner against Inter put them into the second round at Trabzonspor’s expense, and the Russia has two teams still alive in the competition), Cyprus (with APOEL’s shock qualification), and Italy, which has the most teams remaining in the competition (three) and the two best second-place finishers (Napoli and Milan). Inter are lucky that you cannot play teams from your own country in the round-of-16. They desperately need an easy tie. Milan and Napoli are lucky too- they have already faced Barcelona and Bayern Munich, respectively, and so cannot play them again.

 Team Carling Cup Fa Cup Champions League Premier League
Manchester City v. Liverpool in semifinals v. Manchester UnitedRound of 64 Eliminated 1st Place38 points
Manchester United Eliminated v. Manchester CityRound of 64 Eliminated 2nd place33 points

Back to Manchester. As you can see the effects of the elimination may be worse for United, who are unlikely to win a trophy this year. Neither team from Manchester is likely to play their strongest squad in the Europe League. Their Premier League form could suffer greatly if they decide to.

Two teams which could afford to  rest starters in the Champions League were Real Madrid and Barcelona, which led to speculation about their starting lineups for the clasico. Tellingly, Lassana Diarra was excluded from Real Madrid’s squad at the last moment, while Gerard Pique surprisingly started for Barcelona.

1- El Clasico Links:

Zonal Marking

The Hard Tackle

Sports Illustrated



The Telegraph


10- Torino v. US Pescara (9 ET). Can the great year for soccer in Turin continue when 1 hosts 3 in Serie B?

9- Maritimo v. Benfica (3: 15, Sunday). A surprise top 4 team takes on Benfica, who are tied for the top spot in a tight title race.

8- Marseille v. Bordeaux (3). This is always one of the biggest games of the year in France, although both teams are struggling near mid-table.

7- Novara v. Napoli (2:45, Sunday). The Serie A feel-good story are in a relegation battle, while Napoli is trying to stay in the title hunt.

6- Real Betis v. Valencia (2). Unfortunately, Betis has slipped to 17th, so this is another battle between a team near the relegation zone and a contender for a Champions League spot.

5- Borussia Dortmund v. Kaiserslautern (9:30, Sunday). Kaiserslautern were one of the surprise teams in the Bundesliga last year. Borussia Dortmund are one of the most exciting teams in Europe. Kaiserslautern are fighting relegation. Borussia are a title contender. Should be a great game.

4- Malaga v. Osasuna (Noon, Sunday). It’s 6 vs. 7 and the ability to play  European football is on the line. Malaga are slipping somewhat, while Osasuna are somehow in the top half of the table again, despite a terrible squad.

3- Chelsea v. Manchester City (3, Monday). Manchester City could run away with the Premier League if they win. 4th place Chelsea have title hopes, but are also in a tight race for the last Champions League spot.

2- Sunderland v. Blackburn (8:30, Sunday). Already, we have a relegation six-pointer. The loser could be in big trouble, depending on other results. 17 v. 18.

1- Real Madrid v. Barcelona (4)


5- The referee will once again be under a lot of pressure. In El Clasico, penalties almost always are awarded to the home team (which would be Madrid), but Real Madrid seem the more likely team to commit a red-card offense. Will the referee by brave enough to hand out a red card? Whatever happens, he will be criticized, most likely by both coaches.

4- Will Isaac Cuenca, the best crosser of the ball on FC Barcelona, make a surprise appearance?

3- Whatever happens, Real Madrid will be the most likely winner of La Liga. If they win, they will be 6 points up, with a game in hand; the title will be basically locked up.) If they tie, they are basically 7 points ahead, which leaves them in a very good position. How much will they play for the draw, at home? If Barcelona wins, with the momentum and the Camp Nou game still to come, the teams are close to even in the standings. But even then, Barcelona will have to drastically improve its away form to have any chance at winning the Spanish League.

2- Barcelona Tactics: The main decision for Pep Guardiola is whether to play with three at the back or four. Eric Abidal should start either way. Dani Alves would be the other full-back in a four-man backline. So which two center backs? Puyol, Pique, and Mascherano are the contenders, and although one would think Pique would be a starter, he played recently in the Champions League with most of Barcelona’s second-stringers. Both Pique and Puyol are having some injury/form problems. Guardiola can’t remove one of the center-backs, even if he plays with only three defenders, and with Madrid’s heavy emphasis on the wings and the counterattack, I would strongly advise Barca to put four defenders in.

Guardiola could also be worried enough to introduce more physicality to the midfield. Seydou Keita could come in, and Iniesta be pushed forward.

Fabregas has been playing amazingly, and is forming an impressive partnership with Messi. Both should start, with David Villa staying on the bench. As for the right-forward position, Pedro and Sanchez have both been injured recently. Iniesta could play in this position, while Isaac Cuenca has an outside chance to make an appearance.

1. Madrid Tactics: The defensive positions are mostly settled, although Lassana Diarra may play as a right-back due to injuries. Mourinho would also like to play Pepe in the midfield, as he did last year, to try to nullify Messi, but a lack of center-back options suggets he won’t.

Ronaldo and Di Maria will start on the wings, leaving Mourinho with one major choice: will he play without the ball, utilizing his sides’ damaging counterattacks, and playing three defensive midfielders, or is he confident enough to press high up the pitch, and play his usual 4-2-3-1-ish formation, with Mesut Ozil in the lineup? The first system is not as defensive as it sounds, as all three defensive midfielders and both fullbacks have more freedom to charge up the pitch. Xabi Alonso, the team’s midfield metronome, would especially benefit from the change. Either way, he can expect to be heavily marked by Fabregas. The other two midfielders would likely be Lass and Khedira, and this seems to be the way Mourinho is leaning right now.

At forward, Higuain is much better suited to the counterattacking style, while Benzema is a more traditional forward, an out-and-out goalscorer. But it was Benzema who was taken off far earlier in the Champions League game. Three midfielders and the Frenchman?


Yes, this has happened before. Last year, Real Madrid had the momentum going into the game, and were the favorites, only to get blown out 5-0. But Mourinho seems to have learned, and there are more reasons than ever to pick the side from the capital. It could even be another blowout…

10- First of all, even a draw will be considered a win for Real Madrid. And they should at least draw. Barcelona comes into the game under a lot more pressure.

9- The home-field advantage is particularly advantageous when there are 100,000 supporters in their stadium. As I mentioned earlier, the referee is also likely to favor them.

8- And the individual match-ups seem to favor Madrid. Pepe will try to control Messi, and the rest of the defenders should have no trouble with Barca’s otherwise unexceptional (at least by Barcelona standards) forward line. The midfields will come close to cancelling each other out. Xabi Alonso will be more tactically disciplined that Cesc Fabregas, who is still learning his new position. And who on Barcelona’s patchwork defense will stop Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, arguably La Liga’s most in-form player, or Karim Benzema/Gonzalo Higuain?

This has been billed as a clash of La Liga’s top offense (Real Madrid) against their top defense (Barcelona). Statiscally, that may be the case, but Barcelona does not allow goals simply because the opponent never has possession past midfield and almost always plays defensively. The defense itself is hardly great; just as in all Barcelona games, it will come down to how much they dominate midfield. They usual win that battle by a lot.

7- This time, it may be closer. Barcelona will try to push it up the middle, where most of Madrid’s defensive players are, while Real will try to get the ball to their two star wingers as often as possible. Lass, Khedira, and Xabi Alonso will be Xavi and Iniesta’s toughest test yet, and if the Barcelona players fail there will be a swift, decisive counter-punch from Real. Meanwhile, for Real Madrid,  it is about containment, not control of the ball, in the very center of the park. If Guardiola does decide to add a second defensive midfielder, which at this point looks very unlikely, the midfields would be just about even. Barcelona would have a bigger threat up top, but Iniesta would be out of his natural position. Some of his track backs into the midfield could be interesting, but the only way Barcelona can outnumber Real into midfield, and keep the successful three-man front-line is by playing three defenders. And that provides its own set of problems.

6- Real Madrid would absolutely love it if Barcelona played three at the back. Guardiola himself admitted that the three would need to play a “nearly-perfect game.” And how is that supposed to happen, when Pep rarely plays the same lineup twice? Whoever he plays, the defensive chemistry will not be very good.

Ronaldo and Di Maria are probably dreaming about playing against only three defenders, with so much extra space on the wing.

5- In all of last year’s Clasicos Barcelona had to rely on their extra creativity and possession, because Real Madrid had some inherent advantages, which remain the same: height and depth. Barcelona have had more injuries, and have been affected by those injuries more. And because of the height difference, Real Madrid should dominate the set piece battle. Also, just like one year ago, Real Madrid has a significant momentum advantage.

4- Meanwhile, Barcelona seem to have some mentality issues at the moment. Guardiola and Messi think this game is the most important one of the season, while Xavi has said the exact opposite. Guardiola and Pique also had a much-publicized debate after Pique purposefully got a yellow card to ban himself from the Levante game, instead of the Real Madrid one. This seemed to be a smart move, but Guardiola was quite upset, and punished Pique by playing him with the second stringers. Now, he seems unlikely to play in the big one. Not the way you want to go  into the “biggest game of the season.”

3- Now the three biggest things Real Madrid has in their favor. Their counter-attack is even better than last year, if that is possible, with the whole team playing a lot more offensively. This seems to play perfectly on Barcelona’s weaknesses.

2- They should be able to control Messi better than Barcelona can control Ronaldo. Pepe was pretty effective against the Flea last year, and he will be assigned to Messi again. Obviously, Messi will still have his moments, and will be impossible to neutralize, but Barcelona do not even seem to have a plan to stop Ronaldo. What can they do?

1- If Real Madrid wanted to, they would probably be able to shut out Barcelona. They couldn’t at the Camp Nou, but many teams have come close to shutting Barcelona out when Barca were on the road. This may have something to do with the 3-defender experiments, but, frankly, Barcelona’s away form has been unacceptable.

Team (W-D-L) Goals Scored Allowed Record (W-D-L) Points/ Points Possible OffensiveRecord Average Score Defensive Record
Barcelona home, League 39 0 8-1-0 25/27 All 8 wins by 3 goals or more, 5 wins of 5 goals or more 4.33-0  No goals allowed
Barcelona away, League 8 7 2-3-1 9/18 No games of 3 or more goals, Both victories by score of 1-0 1.33-1.17  2 goals allowed in half of games

Of course, there are plenty of reasons Barcelona could win, but more and more every year the power is returning to Real Madrid. For the first time, it was relatively easy to pick against Barcelona. In fact, I’m taking a risk, and going with a 3-0 Real Madrid win.

Will this game really be the breakthrough? Whatever happens, it will be interesting, if not necessarily pleasing to the eye, something we learned the hard way last year.