Weekend Preview- December 10

 

5 MIDWEEK STORIES

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

Goal

ESPN

The Telegraph

10 BEST GAMES THIS WEEKEND

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 THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND DURING EL CLASICO

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?

10 REASONS REAL MADRID WILL WIN

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.

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