Monthly Archives: April 2012

Pep Moves On

So, it’s official. Pep Guardiola is leaving Barcelona, and Tito Vilanova will be his replacement. 

Both decisions make sense. Real Madrid look like they have a better team than Barcelona right now, and if Guardiola were to fail to win the league title for a second year running, it would ruin his reputation. The pressure of constantly putting his beloved club against Real Madrid’s limitless resources was definitely getting to him.

Meanwhile, who better than Vilanova to replave him? He knows the squad and Barcelona philosophy better than anyone, and he already has a rivalry with Mourinho. Barca wisely continue to promote assistant coaches.

So, where will Pep go next?

Chelsea: I just don’t like the fit here. Chelsea’s style is the polar opposite of Barcelona’s, and I don’t see Guardiola being very successful in his first year away from Catalonia. One bad year as coach of Chelsea means one year as coach of Chelsea. The pressure here is terrible. Chelsea should keep Di Matteo.

Abramovich will undoubtedly go after Pep, and offer him much more money that anyone else, but if Guardiola is smart, he will turn the offer down.

Manchester United: Guardiola has indicated he would like to take a break from football. If he does, this move could make a lot of sense.

Who would you rather have: the seventy-year-old Sir Alex Ferguson, or Pep Guardiola, at forty-one? If United want to ensure success after Ferguson, they need to pounce on Guardiola while he is available.

The problem here is Ferguson himself. The club would never fire him, so United must hope SAF decides to retire in one or two years.

England: The rumors about this one are growing really strong. But, England, really? I can’t see it. Again, this one makes sense if he does take a break. Right after the Euros would be a good time to take over.

Arsenal: Of all the English clubs, Arsenal are the best fit for Guardiola. But Wenger’s job appears safe (France job after the Euros?), and it would be against Arsenal’s current owners tendencies to spend big. In a couple of years though, when Wenger’s contract expires, this could look a lot more likely. Poor Fabregas…

Manchester City: The dark horse. Have the most to offer Guardiola. Are they so closely related to Chelsea that they make a bid here? They seem to really like Mancini, although nobody knows anything about what is going on in Eastlands.

After that, almost every club in England has been linked to him, but none of them will be in contention for a title, or even a Champions League spot, for a while.

He won’t want to play against Barcelona twice a year, so that leaves Italy, a country with many options. Inter, AC Milan, Juventus, and Napoli should all be in the mix, but the last year has proved that Italian teams don’t have the money to compete on the transfer market.

So, in review…

Chelsea will put all their time and energy into Guardiola. If he says no, the two Manchester teams, Arsenal, and the two Milan teams are all attractive for different reasons.

Meanwhile:

-The two biggest games of the Premier League season come in the next three days. The Manchester derby, on Monday, and Chelsea-Newcastle, on Wednesday, could decide the title and fourth place, respectively.

-Surprise Montpellier realistically clinched Ligue 1 after PSG lost to Lille. That leaves two major leagues still to be decided: England (City is three points behind United, but would be ahead on goal difference if they win tomorrow) and Italy (Juventus is three points ahead of Milan; the teams do not play, and both have very easy remaining schedules)

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Champions League Final: First Take

STORYLINES ABOUND FOR CL FINAL

After two shocking upsets in the semifinals, both of which were quite deserved, there are many questions about whether the teams can repeat their respective performances in the final. Notably, both defensive lines have been ruined by suspensions. On paper, then, it should be a wide-open attacking final, with quality players like Robben, Ribery, Gomez, Mata, and Drogba operating within the attacking third, but both teams have gained a reputation for being quite thrifty at the back.

There have also been questions about Roberto Di Matteo’s future at the club. After all he has proven, why take a risk on somebody else, even a big name like Guardiola? It will be a very hard transition for the former Barcelona manager, and nobody knows who he will do outside of Barca. Di Matteo, on the other hand, has proven himself many times this year.

Although perhaps not quite as dramatic as Mourinho facing his old club would have been, there will be plenty of interesting twists to the 57th Champions League Final:

-Chelsea’s old team, getting a last chance to win Abramovich’s much-wanted trophy, taking on a young Bayern squad full of future stars.

– This is perhaps the best possible final match-up in terms of goalkeeping. Again, there is the aging legend (Petr Cech) against the rising star (Manuel Neuer).

-Both teams have had very poor seasons in their domestic league, and, without ever playing their best, made the Champions League semifinals. Now, after two brilliant semifinals, each has a chance for redemptions.

-Could Roberto Di Matteo, an unknown four months ago, win a Champions League trophy in his first season in charge of Chelsea?

-How much will Bayern’s home-field advantage help?

-If Chelsea wins, Newcastle United, one of the season’s great underdog stories, behind only Chelsea themselves, would lose their Champions League place.

KEY PLAYERS:

– Three of John Obi Mikel, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien, and Frank Lampard will play in the center of midfield, and will need to be at the top of their games, to prevent Bayern’s midfield from taking over.

– The many replacements will be important. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (or possibly a half-fit Daniel Van Buyten) will start at center-back for Munich, and will have to learn quickly. For Chelsea, defenders Jose Bosingwa and Gary Cahill will need to repeat their surprising performances against Madrid.

-If Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are both at their best, a rare occurrance these days, the home team will have a dimension the Chelsea simply can’t match.

-Two great goalkeepers will start in the final, and Petr Cech will likely face more shots, and harder ones, then his opposite number Manuel Neuer.

FOUR REASONS CHELSEA WILL WIN:

1. Lack of Pressure: If only Abramovich weren’t in the owners box. The pressure will be on Bayern regardless, because they are huge favorites and playing at him. Chelsea, on the other hand, are desperate. They have nothing to lose by holding back- this is an aging teams’ last chance to win a Champions League, and to make it to next year’s tournament.

2. Tactical Discipline: If Chelsea takes the lead, through a Drogba counterattack, will Bayern really be able to score where Barca could not. Chelsea’s best shot at a win.

3. Can Bayern play against their style? And there could be a good chance that Drogba gets that goal. Bayern Munich are very unused to Chelsea’s physical, long-ball style. The Bundesliga doesn’t play like that. And Manchester City, a poor specimen of a Premier League team, is the only English squad Bayern have played in two seasons.

4. Let-down for Bayern Munich?: Meanwhile, Bayern is using a make-shift defensive line. They’ve played brilliantly in recent weeks, since the Dortmund loss, and it feels like time for a let-down. Chelsea aren’t going to let them play well. If Bayern walks into the stadium, after a energy-expending win over a much more talented Madrid team, expecting to win, they’ll let Chelsea impose their style on them, and that can only lead to bad things happening to them.

FOUR REASONS BAYERN MUNICH WILL WIN:

1. Chelsea’s depleted back line: Chelsea’s defense seems to be doing it mostly with mirrors. Now they have no John Terry. A half-fit Cahill and Luiz pairing doesn’t look good, and they may have to bring Bosingwa, an already weak right-back into center defense. Leaving who to play right back? Yes, they just smothered Barcelona’s attack. Don’t expect a similar performance in the final.

2. Neuer, Gomez, Robben, Ribery,…: Bayern Munich were the better team against Real Madrid, and looking at their lineup, you can see why. Gomez is in the form of his life, Neuer hasn’t allowed three goals in a game once this season and has a case for best goalie in the world, and when Robben and Ribery aren’t injured they are world-class wingers. Then there is Bastian Schweinsteiger, possibly the best midfielder in the world, and young German starlets Kroos and Muller, who took the world by storm at the last World Cup. Chelsea’s midfield is about to get run over.

3. Fast Starts: Unfortunately for Chelsea and their hopes of an early goal, Bayern Munich are the team that has gotten many fast starts this season. They did allow two early on to Madrid…

4. Chelsea’s EPL Games: The Bundesliga was decided weeks ago, and there are only a couple games remaining. Unfortunately for their opponents, the Blues  have four grueling Premier League games ahead of them, in which they face the uphill task of finishing in the last Champions League spot.

PREDICTION

Bayern Munich 2-0 Chelsea

I was tempted to pick Chelsea here, after the incredible rise of Roberto Di Matteo, and Bayern Munich’s dud of a Bundesliga season.

But, on paper, this is almost as big a mismatch as Barcelona-United last year. Chelsea will keep it closer than it should be for about 70 minutes, and then the more talented team will win the title.

There is no way to stop Gomez right now.

There is no way to stop Bayern right now.



End of an Era?

Pep Guardiola will likely announce in tomorrow’s press conference that he is leaving FC Barcelona.

The club reportedly want Marcelo Bielsa, who uses very similar tactics, to be Pep’s successor.

Analysis coming soon…

The Stars of Chelsea’s Resurgence

Roberto Di Matteo

Immediately after becoming coach, he fixed everything AVB had done wrong. Most importantly, he changed Chelsea’s defensive scheme. Andres Villas-Boas had used a high-pressing line, something that worked for him at Porto, but which Chelsea did not have the personnel for. RDM made the defense more compact, and switched the focus of Chelsea’s game to defense. The team resumed a counter-attacking, long-ball style. When AVB’s Chelsea played Arsenal, they lost 5-3; the game last weekend finished 0-0.

The players said they didn’t trust the Portuguese manager. In Roberto Di Matteo’s first game in charge, they looked much more confident and, for the first time this season, looked like they were actually trying.

RDM has only lost once so far with Chelsea. His biggest impact came in the Champions League, where the team went from losing 3-1 to Napoli, in AVB’s last game in charge, to defeating Barcelona and advancing to the final. In the Premier League, the team remains in sixth, with only three games remaining, a sign of how far back Andres Villas-Boas had left them.

It seems like AVB’s firing came in the nick of time. Roberto Di Matteo was able to change the fate of their Champions League adventure with a thrilling 4-1 extra time win over Napoli, and qualification for next year’s tournament is still within reach, although very unlikely.

 

Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres

Drogba was the hero of the Champions League semi-final, but Fernando Torres has also been much better under Di Matteo. He has actually scored several times in the last few games, including the final goal in that CL semifinal.

Again, Di Matteo is able to do something AVB could not do- use Torres and Drogba effectively.

Barcelona, for example, were best disturbed by Drogba’s physicality. La Liga is far more technical (and less physical) than the Premier League, and Barca are an extreme example of that. Since Barcelona controlled possession, Chelsea also needed a good holding striker, and Drogba is clearly better at this than Torres.

 

John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba

Andres Villas-Boas last act as Chelsea coach was an act of defiance, and what got him fired. He benched the three biggest locker room trouble-makers for him, as well as arguably Chelsea’s three most consistent players, in both the past and present. Not coincidentally, they are also the oldest, at 35 years each.

They have been the best players for RDM,and that is a sign of trouble in the future. None of them have more than one or two years of top-class soccer yet. Drogba is rumored to be leaving this summer.

Chelsea’s eternal question (other than “When will the coach get fired?”) remains: When, and how, will they rebuild?

 

Juan Mata and Ramires

Here is a possible answer. Two talented midfielders who have had great seasons. The revival of Torres can really be put almost fully on the arrival of Mata.

Mata is a typical Spanish playmaker; Ramires a box-to-box midfielder best exemplified by his role in Drogba’s goal in the first leg. Both types of players are rare in today’s Premier League. Use them well, RDM.

 

The Defense

The biggest stars under Di Matteo, as many journalists have noted.

 

In Conclusion

Who would have thought that, after all the money Abramovich spent on the Champions League, this would be the year the team would win it?

Overlooked as contenders for almost all of the tournament, they will probably not even make the Europa League next year.

Whoever they face in the final, they will be the underdogs, but their opponents will have a very hard time scoring on them.

 

Two Key Victories

Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake both considered themselves to be the best teams in MLS entering Saturday night’s game; only one team could say that leaving it. The best team in the East took on the best team in the West, even while the second placed teams, New York and San Jose, were finishing their exciting, violent, 2-2 draw.

Neither team sprung any surprises in the starting lineups; Kansas City started the same XI for the fourth straight game, again leaving out Teal Bunbury. As for Salt Lake, Saborio is their biggest threat offensively. Beckerman controls the game in midfield, and they have the best center-back pairing in the MLS, in front of perhaps the best goalkeeper, Rimando.

Both teams pride themselves on their defenses; it looked like it would be a 0-0 game.

The tone was set after ten seconds when a high boot caught a Real Salt Lake player, who went down injured.

Salt Lake controlled the first ten minutes of the game on the slick Livestrong surface. From the early minutes, RSL held the ball, got the feel for Kansas City’s defense, and kept possession, their basic strategy in every game.

Sporting KC on the other hand were very frustrating. Despite their strong midfield and physical play, they would simply kick it long and chase it every time their press won the ball back.

But slowly, KC’s passing got better and they figured out Real’s physical play.

Real Salt Lake couldn’t score in the first fifteen minutes and were made to pay for it. Both teams were in the game now, able to keep possession, while occasionally throwing a long ball in, as they like to do.

Neither team was able to keep up the good play for the entire half, making the game unpredictable, back-and-forth and evenly-matched.

Had C.J. Sapong been on form, K.C. could easily have scored twice in the first half, but it was Sapong who finally put the ball in the back of the net with a header right before half time. It was ruled off for a nonexistent foul.

Sporting Kansas City’s biggest problem is scoring goals. Their best offense is usually letting Kamara and Sapong dominate in the air. Sporting’s goal later in the game came on a header, as did their lone goal against the Galaxy and the goal that was ruled off. Kamara and Sapong are great players, but they can’t seem to finish with their feet. That is where Teal Bunbury would seem to be useful, but Vermes continues to rest him.

Kansas City dominated the second half, and Real Salt Lake finally conceded one set piece too many in the 62nd minute, Collin scoring on KC’s 9th corner of the night. Kansas City are not a teams you want to be trailing too. They easily played out the rest of the game, claiming their fourth 1-0 victory in six games, and getting the title of the MLS’s best team.

Only three real tests remain:

-New York Red Bulls

-Winning a big game on the road

-Playing multiple games in one week.

Kansas City’s style is based on running, and they are in the middle of a stretch with three games in eight days. Their first midweek game went fairly well, a comfortable 3-1 win at Vancouver. They did look tired at times, but it was nice to seem them scoring again. The last game of the stretch is against Portland on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the big question around the team is their ability to finish. Would Teal Bunbury help? Would they be a better team with Bunbury starting? Why is Vermes keeping him on the bench?

All in all, two very convincing performances by this bright young team.

Breaking News: Rossi out of Euro 2012

Guiseppe Rossi, Italy’s best forward, re-injured his ACL on Friday, and is out for six months, including Euro 2012. Cesare Prandelli now has a selection dilemma, and Croatia must be liking their chances of getting out of that group.

Meanwhile, it is more bad news for Villarreal, who are in the midst of a long relegation battle right now. They were considered the 5th best team in Spain at the start of the season, but are in 17th right now, despite a huge win over Malaga. They lost all of their Champions League games this season, and are likely to trade Rossi to an Italian club this summer.

Twists and Turns

The meaningful games keep coming hard. The key results of the last five days:


Premier League

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester City: The Citizens bad form continued. This loss dropped them eight points below United, who won that same day. The Premier League race was over and focus turned to Mario Balotelli’s stupidity, until…

Wigan 1-0 Manchester United: An uninspired United squad once again got most of the refereeing decisions. This time it wasn’t enough to produce a win, and the Red Devils’ again looked like they need a Wesley-Sneijder-type creative midfielder.

Manchester City 4-0 West Brom: Meanwhile, City finally started Tevez, annihilated West Brom, and is right back in the title race. They also improved their goal difference dramatically; they are three ahead of United, who still has to travel to Etihad Stadium.

Sunderland 0-0 Tottenham: Arsenal seemed to solidify third place with the win over City, leaving Tottenham, Newcastle, and Chelsea to battle it out for the last Champions League spot. Spurs, who were safely in third not long ago, continued their terrible form with a draw against Sunderland.

Chelsea 1-1 Fulham: The Blues were unable to capitalize, and despite their remarkable resurgence under Di Matteo, and lucky win over Wigan, remain in sixth place.

Norwich 2-1 Tottenham: Then Tottenham were shocked by an out-of-form Norwich team, and the race for fourth is tighter than ever. The table currently looks like this.

La Liga

Real Madrid 0-0 Valencia: Barcelona kept on winning, meaning Real had to do the same to bring the La Liga trophy to Madrid. They looked stale against Valencia, in a exciting, end-to-end game that either side could have won. How were there no goals?

Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid: A few days later, Madrid had to face their city rivals, knowing that Barcelona had won again, and cut the deficit to one single point. The most expensive team ever were much better on Wednesday, though, a pair of incredible Ronaldo strikes giving them an easy victory.

Bundesliga

Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Bayern Munich: The German clasico, and Dortmund won to move six points clear at the top of the table, but not before Franck Ribery missed a penalty for Bayern.

Serie A

Milan 1-0 Chievo: The Serie A championship is coming down to the wire, with Milan and Juventus the top two. Milan took the brief lead after this rather unconvincing victory…

Juventus 2-1 Lazio: …before Juventus took it back by defeating the third-place team. Juvy are undefeated in Serie A, but their propensity for getting draws has them only one point ahead of Milan.

Ligue 1

Montpellier 3-1 Marseille: Last year was the year of the underdog in France, with un-fancied Lille winning the championship over perennial challengers Lyon and Marseille. Paris Saint-Germain spent a fortune over the summer, and it looked like an easy victory was in store for PSG, considering the low level of the usual favorites in France. Lille hung around for a while, as did Lyon, but in another remarkable victory for the underdog, it is Montpellier who find themselves on top at the moment. They are showing no sign of slowing down, but PSG aren’t either.

MLS

Sporting KC 1-0 LA Galaxy (which I saw in person at the beautiful Livestrong Sporting Park): Kansas City is a young, well-run, defense-first team who are taking the MLS by storm this season, and should be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come. They dominated the MLS favorites on Saturday, their first game against a quality opponent. Their only weakness is finishing the ball, despite the talents of Kei Kamara and U.S. internationals C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury up top.

Kansas City and Real Salt Lake are the two best teams in the U.S. this season; they meet in K.C. on Saturday.

As for the Galaxy, they have been dreadful so far. While everyone recognizes them as the team with Donovan and Beckham, it was on defense that they were winning games last year. After losing their MLS-best Goalkeeper on a transfer, and MLS defender of the year to injury, it is only natural that they are taking some time to adjust.