Champions League

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL PREVIEW: Barcelona

A JUVENTUS defense that has only conceded 24 goals this season will not be easy to break down, but a certain three men that have scored 120 between them will feel confident that at least one can find the back of the net on Saturday.

Lionel Messi (43), Luis Suarez (16) and Neymar (22) have scored 81 of Barcelona’s 110 league goals this season. To put that in some sort of context, the entire Juventus squad scored 70 goals this season, Chelsea scored 73 and Bayern Munich scored 80. Juventus (Italy), Chelsea (England) and Bayern (Germany) all won their respective leagues.

Despite the lethal form of “MSN” in front of goal, Barcelona did not finish as the top scorers in La Liga, as Real Madrid netted 118 times, but a reinvented Barca did concede the least amount in Spain (21), and only Bayern let in less in Europe’s top five leagues (18).

Tiki-Taka is not quite Tiki-Toast at Camp Nou, but, under Luis Enrique, Barcelona are certainly more dynamic.

Ivan Rakitic is one of the most notable men who spearheaded this change, with the Croatian play-maker being that bit more aggressive than the tippy-tappy Xavi and Andres Iniesta, with the former being dropped for Rakitic.

Iniesta, arguably the finest midfielder of his generation, has seen his role in the Barcelona fold somewhat decrease in value under the new style, contributing just one goal and five assists in La Liga and the Champions League combined compared to Rakitic’s eight assists and six goals in the two elite competitions. Rakitic also created 42 chances compared to Iniesta’s 32.

Ivan Rakitic: Modern Barcelona personified (Picture via theguardian.com)

Ivan Rakitic: Modern Barcelona personified (Picture via theguardian.com)

In comparison, the strike force has gone the opposite way to the midfield with the hard working Alexis Sanchez (sold to Arsenal for £35 million), and Pedro (benched) being replaced by the aforementioned Suarez and Neymar who are more intent on scoring, scoring…and scoring a bit more, as opposed to winning the ball back and setting up the micro magician Messi.

The Catalan kings are keen to return to the throne of being Europe’s finest once again having not won the Champions League since 2011 where they defeated Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley Stadium.

They have already snatched back their domestic crown after having briefly lost it to Atletico Madrid for a year and Saturday’s final in Berlin will see either Barca or Juve win the treble with Barcelona also winning this season’s Copa del Rey with a 3-1 win over Athletic Club and Juventus overcame Lazio 2-1 in the Coppa Italia.

If Barcelona are to win their first treble since 2009, the rebranded team are going to have to find a way past a very organised Juventus side, but very few have managed to stop Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

 

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL PREVIEW: Juventus

APPEARING in their first Champions League final since a tepid penalty shootout loss to Serie A rivals AC Milan in 2003, the Old Lady  will need to be more entertaining to win this time around.

The perception is that the Italian champions will need to sit back to beat Barcelona, but the much talked about front three of Luis Suarez, Neymar and of course Lionel Messi need no second invitation to score, allowing them to attack could cost Juve dear.

While the likes of Gigi Buffon, Georgio Chiellini, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra provide a steel to the Juventus defense, Paul Pogba, Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata will need license to roam as Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal pull the strings in midfield.

A central three of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli keep it tight in the middle and allow wing-backs Lichtsteiner and Evra to bomb forward and support three of either Pirlo, Vidal, Pogba or Claudio Marchisio in midfield and create opportunities for Morata and 32 goal Tevez up front in what is one of the most balanced teams in Europe.

Chiellini, however, has been ruled out through injury.

Saturday’s final is the perfect opportunity for a final swansong for a large section of the Juventus squad. Buffon is now 37 and a stalwart of the side, and while he has won almost everything he has taken part in, the Champions League still eludes the goalkeeping legend.

Do it for Gigi: Buffon is desperate for Champions League success

Do it for Gigi: Buffon is desperate for Champions League success (Photo via GianluigiBuffon.it)

Evra is set to play in his fourth Champions League final after losing the 2004 showpiece 3-0 to Porto while at Monaco, and twice more in 2009 and 2011, (both to Barcelona), when at Manchester United with his solitary Champions League triumph coming in 2008 as United defeated fellow Premier League side Chelsea on penalties in Moscow.

Precision passer Pirlo may still play like he did when he was 25, but the reality now is that he is 36 and may never get the opportunity to add to his two Champions League titles. Victory on Saturday will be his first “Ol’ Big Ears” success with Juventus, as his 2003 and 2007 wins both came with AC Milan over his current club and Liverpool respectively.

On the other end of the age scale, Pogba could be saying ‘ta ta’ to Turin after the Berlin final with anyone who is anyone in Europe being linked to the flamboyant Frenchman this summer.

Chelsea and Manchester City both want to bring Pogba back to England, Paris Saint-Germain are trying to persuade the 22-year-old to return home to his native France, Bayern Munich are also keen, while even Manchester United, the club who gave up on the mercurial midfielder when he was 19, are trying to make amends for their earlier error in letting him go three years ago.

If Juventus are to win Europe’s top competition for the first time since 1997, they are going to need to tactically outclass Barca, knowing when to soak up the pressure and when to attack the Catalans. A blend of youth and experience may just be pivotal to working that out.

Manchester City 1 (Aguero ’69) Barcelona 2 (Suarez ’16, ’30)

Luis Suarez’s return to England resulted in a bang as his brace put Catalan giants Barcelona in a commanding position ahead of the second leg at Camp Nou.

The ex-Liverpool forward, who netted 31 goals in 33 league matches on English soil last season, set Luis Enrique’s side on their way with just 16 minutes played.

His headed knock-on landed back into his path and he was agile enough to steady himself and slot the opener into the bottom corner.

Suarez slid in his, and Barcelona’s second, on the half hour mark off the base of the post to all but end the tie as a contest before half-time.

A traditionally sumptuous bit of Barcelona pass and move resulted in the second which Ivan Rakitic started and Suarez finished, with a jinking Lionel Messi run and a pinpoint low Jordi Alba cross in-between.

Sergio Aguero responded on 69 minutes with an equally aesthetically pleasing strike, he latched onto a neat David Silva back-hell and lashed the ball into the back of the net to keep slim City dreams alive.

Gael Clichy was given his marching orders four minutes later though for a second miss-timed challenge and his second yellow card. The first of which for slicing down Rakitic, and a similarly stupid challenge on Dani Alves brought Clichy’s night to an end.

Messi had a 90th minute penalty saved by Joe Hart, and the headed rebound went wide to keep City somewhat in the contest, but with an uphill battle.

Paris Saint-Germain 1-1 Chelsea

Edinson Cavani’s second-half header denied Chelsea a key away win in the first-leg of their last 16 Champions League clash.

Uruguayan Cavani swept in Maxwell’s delivery from the left hand side nine minutes into the second half to ensure that PSG earned a share of the spoils.

It was his sixth goal in the Champions League this season which makes him the tournament’s third top scorer.

Branislav Ivanovic had initially given the English side the lead with a headed goal of his own 36 minutes on the clock in what was his 30th goal in Chelsea colours and his 27th since August 2010.

John Terry’s low cross was flicked on exquisitely by Gary Cahill into the path of defender number three in the move Ivanovic for the vital away goal for the Blues.

PSG were the ones who looked more likely to go into the Stamford Bridge second-leg with the advantage from the off.

Blaise Matuidi had a header palmed away by Thibaut Courtois and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was foiled seconds later, again with a headed effort.

Chelsea took the lead against the run of play, but the Parisians were not deterred, with Ibrahimovic coming close again, denied by Courtois’ feet and then Cesar Azpilicueta blocked Matuidi’s goal-bound shot.

Cavani had another go in the closing stages, but shot wide after a neat bit of footwork but this was a match with little goal-mouth action.

Jose Mourinho’s side were below par but that away goal gives them advantage for the rematch in three weeks’ time.

PREVIEW: PSG v Chelsea

Diego Costa’s much awaited return to the Chelsea fold has been confirmed by manager Jose Mourinho ahead of the Blues’ showdown with Paris Saint-Germain.

Mourinho is worried, however with the lack of game time from his powerful centre forward due to a suspension that was dished out in the 1-0 win over Liverpool in the Capital One Cup.

“He will start but a long rest is not good for him,” the Special One conceded. “I don’t think it’s good for a player to be three weeks, or three matches, without starting a game. So I don’t think he’ll be in the best condition.

“A little rest is welcome for everyone; a big rest isn’t good for the players. So we are not going to see the best Diego. I hope I’m wrong, but probably he will need this game to try to get back to his best.”

Costa has not scored in the Champions League yet for Chelsea, despite leading the club’s goal scoring charts with 17 goals.

It is not a good omen for the West Londoners, who have not won on French soil since a 3-0 win, coincidentally over PSG, in September 2004, in what was Mourinho’s first Champions League match as Chelsea manager.

PSG themselves are unbeaten in 32 Champions League matches at home, a record that stretches back to December 2004, with their last home loss coming at the hands of CSKA Moscow, who won 1-3 at the Parc des Princes.

Laurent Blanc, PSG manager, is anxious of his side’s injury woes though, stating “You cannot play against Chelsea without being 100%”.

Yohan Cabaye (groin), Serge Aurier (thigh), Lucas Moura (also groin) and Thiago Motta (calf) will all miss tonight’s encounter

Not a problem Chelsea have though as only John Obi Mikel (knee) is unavailable for the away side and January addition Juan Cuadrado from Fiorentina is eligible.

Oscar and Willian have “little problems” but are in contention for a starting birth, and the same can be said of play-maker Cesc Fabregas who looks to have recovered from a recent illness.

Chelsea are the only English team to have beaten PSG in France (with the aforementioned 3-0 in 2004, along with a win by the same score line in 1994-95).

Costa and co are the highest scorers in the Champions League this campaign with 17 goals, seven of which have come on the road, which will concern their French counterparts, as they have kept only one clean sheet in this season’s tournament (a 1-0 win over APOEL).

The 2012 champions are also unbeaten in their last four away European matches, as they look to take revenge from the 3-1 defeat they suffered here last season.

Ezequiel Lavezzi, an own goal by David Luiz (now at PSG), and Javier Pastore scored the goals for the hosts in April, with Eden Hazard’s penalty provided an away goal for Chelsea.

Andre Schurrle and a last minute goal by Demba Ba (both have since left Stamford Bridge) sent Chelsea through to the Semi Final.

UEFA Champions League Group Stage Draw

Manchester City have been handed a tough draw in this season’s Champions League, being matched up with German Champions Bayern Munich in group E.

The Premier League holders will also have to face a tricky trip to CSKA Moscow and AS Roma.

Bayern Munich, Manchester City and CSKA Moscow were all drawn in the same group last season with Munich finishing first and Manchester City second.

Chelsea meanwhile were paired with Schalke 04 for the second season running and they will be joined in group G by Sporting Lisbon and Maribor, who elimiated Celtic in the last round.

Arsenal have been matched up with Borussia Dortmund again as well as Galatasay and Anderlecht.

Liverpool, in the Champions League for the first time in five years, will re-enter the competition knowing they will have to play holders Real Madrid, Swiss Champions FC Basel and Ludogorets of Bulgaria who make their Champions League bow.

Elsewhere beaten finalists Atletico Madrid have been drawn with Juventus and Barcelona will play PSG in a mouth watering tie.

Draw in full:

Group A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo

Group B: Real Madrid, FC Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets

Group C: Benfica, Zenit, Bayer Leverkusen, AS Monaco

Group D: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasary, Anderlecht

Group E: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, AS Roma

Group F: Barcelona, PSG, Ajax, APOEL Nicosia

Group G: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Sporting Lisbon, Maribor

Group H: Porto, Shaktar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, BATE Borisov

Top 10: Best young Championship players

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In yet another Championship season that has seen thrills, spills, excitement and drama, here’s a look at some of the young players who made an impact and could be destined for bright things in the future.

10: Jamaal Lascelles (Nottingham Forest)

The first of three Nottingham Forest players to make an appearance in this list, Jamaal Lascelles is hot property. The 20-year-old Centre Back has already attracted interested from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal in the Premiership with the latter submitting a £5 million pound bid for the Forest man when he was just 17. Everton are also keeping an eye on his progress.

The Derby born defender spent time at League 1 Stevenage last season, scoring one goal in seven games with his first start for the club coming in a 6-0 away win over Yeovil Town, who would of course go on to earn promotion via the play offs.

Lascelles has made 31 appearances this campaign, scoring two goals and has also made two caps for the England Under 20 squad.

9: Karl Darlow (Nottingham Forest)

Karl Darlow is the second member of the Forest contingent to appear in the top 10 and the only goalkeeper. Darlow began his career at Aston Villa as an eight-year-old but found himself without a club by age 16.

Weeks after his release he was snapped up by Nottingham Forest on recommendation by Villa goalkeeping coach Eric Steele and the Englishman hasn’t looked back since.

Darlow is eligible to play for Wales through his Grandfather Ken Leek who was a former pro himself, netting 49 goals in 104 games for Birmingham City, and representing Wales in the 1958 World Cup. Darlow however has rejected a call up from the Red Dragons in hope that he’ll one day attract interest from England.

The 23-year-old has had to be patient for his Forest chance, having been at the club since 2010 and being away from the club twice on loan in 2012 (Newport and Walsall) but he has now established himself as the number one at the City Ground following Lee Camp’s departure.

We could well be seeing Darlow in the Premier League soon, either with Forest who came close to promotion this season, or via another route with Liverpool and Tottenham keen on the youngster.

8: Rohan Ince (Brighton)

Rohan Ince, third cousin of Manchester United legend Paul and second cousin of Crystal Palace winger Tom, has made a big impression since joining the AMEX after his release from Chelsea.

Liam Bridcutt’s January move to Sunderland had Seagulls fans on edge, fearing a big gap had been left in the midfield but Ince has filled it admirably as Brighton push to finish in the final play off place.

The former Centre Back, now defensive midfielder, has looked solid in a Brighton shirt, making 28 appearances this season, including a number of man of the match performances as he looks to emulate both his cousins with Paul and Tom both gracing the Premier League in their careers.

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7: Anthony Knockaert (Leicester)

Villain turned hero. Knockaert was the man who missed “that penalty” against Watford that led to Troy Deeney’s magnificent counter attack goal that took Watford to Wembley instead of Leicester as the Hornets stung the Foxes at Vicarage Road.

Leicester’s Frenchman has redeemed himself however scoring five goals in 38 games as they have stormed to the Championship title.

The cunning Fox will have to be kept at arm’s length by Premiership defences next season as this tricky wide man will be keen to ensure Leicester do a lot more than just compete in England’s top tier.

6: Jamie Paterson (Nottingham Forest)

The third and final Forest man to feature is winger-cum-striker Jamie Paterson who has made a real impression in Nottingham since his hat trick in a 5-0 demolition of West Ham, his first three goals for the club.

He scored his first league goal in the following game, a 1-1 away draw at Bolton and then he scored in his third successive game in a 4-1 trouncing of Blackburn back at the City Ground.

Paterson would go onto score another five in the season as the Tricky Trees went on a terrible run of form leading up to Billy Davies’ sacking.

5: Matt Phillips (QPR)

In what has been a disappointing season by all accounts, Matt Phillips has been a rare top performer in a Rangers shirt this season.

The pacey winger who has also previously spent time at Wycombe and Blackpool has contributed two assists and three goals during the R’s stuttering season which has seen no-one score more than five goals apart from Charlie Austin, who spent a large chunk of the year out injured, and Ravel Morrision who only joined in January on loan.

Scotland International Phillips, 23, was voted Wycombe’s Young Player of the Year in 2009 (aged 19), and also picked up the prestigious Football League Two ‘Apprentice of the Year’ award the same year.

Phillips was also a regular for Blackpool when they graced the Premier League and following their relegation was subject to a £5 million bid from Southampton, which was turned down. Phillips handed in a transfer request soon after.

4: Patrick Bamford (Derby County, on loan from Chelsea)

Bamford is quickly establishing himself as one of the most talented young strikers England has to offer after firstly impressing at League 1 MK Dons and then a level higher at Championship’s Derby County.

Lincolnshire lad Bamford, 20, netted 18 goals in 37 League 1 games at Stadium:MK over two seasons before Steve McClaren invited the young forward to upgrade to the Championship which he took to like a duck to water scoring 8 in 20 in Derby colours.

Chelsea’s latest prospect will be hoping he is a Premier League player next season, either with Derby County who have guaranteed themselves a play off spot or with his parent club who are having a well documented problem with their forward line.

His International future is as open in the air as his club career with Bamford having featured for the Republic of Ireland under 18’s as well as England’s development squads (Under 18, 19 and 21 level) but it looks like he has opted for the three Lions, to the delight of many.

3: Will Hughes (Derby County)

When the phrase “top young talents in the Championship” is ever mentioned, Will Hughes springs to the mind of most football fans, none more so to those who watch him week in week out at Pride Park.

“Pride” is the operative word around the Derby area when talking about this young man, making his first team debut aged just 17 years of age.

He was immediately on the radar of Manchester United and City, as well as Chelsea and even Barcelona.

It’s Liverpool fans though who are most confident of the midfielder’s signature with Hughes being a fan of the club.

The midfielder’s development hasn’t slowed down, despite all the hype surrounding him at such a young age and the now 19 year old is firmly focused on getting Derby County, where he is now a regular, back into the Premier League.

Hughes is not much of a goal scorer, having only been on the score-sheet five times for County in 73 games but it’s his flair that excites clubs and fans alike with him. Hughes has assisted five goals this season and was voted the 10th best player of the season in the Championship.

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2: Kieran Trippier (Burnley)

Burnley Right Back Kieran Trippier has been a key cog in the Clarets doing so surprisingly well this season but hasn’t had the headlines he perhaps deserves with Sam Vokes and Danny Ings’ strike partnership stealing most of the attention.

The Manchester City Youth Graduate (who captained the side to 2008 Youth Cup glory) has plenty of Championship experience under his belt already with two loan spells at Barnsley followed by one at Burnley before Sean Dyche brought him to Turf Moor on a permanent deal.

Trippier is one of the league’s top assisters this season with 14 and also finds himself in the division’s meanest defence, Burnley have conceded just 35 goals in 45 games this season. He was also voted the Championship’s 8th best player this season.

1: Danny Ings (Burnley)

The Championship’s best young player, the Championship’s best player.

Danny Ings, aged just 21 was voted the player of the season this year as Sean Dyche’s cash-strapped Clarets, who many were backing for relegation to League 1, were promoted to the Premiership as runners up.

20 goals in 45 games makes Danny Ings the joint fifth top scorer with Derby’s Chris Martin and Sam Vokes who he’s enjoyed a fruitful goalscoring relationship with this season.

Just last season, Ings only managed three goals in 32 games which highlights his vast improvement this season.

Following his successful campaign he is now touted as a transfer target for title chasing Liverpool as they look to bolster their thin squad ahead of their first Champions League campaign in five years.

If Ings signs the dotted line at Anfield this Summer, it will be a far cry from 2010 when he found himself on loan at Dorchester Town.

Wherever Ings finds himself next season, we know it will be in the Premier League where he will be hoping to make a big impression and who knows, he may even find himself in Roy Hodgson’s plans.

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Why Arsenal need to change their philosophy to progress

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Arsenal are well known for their patient passing play but eight, possibly nine barren seasons without a trophy needs changing. Fast. It could all improve if they ditch their modern tactics.

Following Wednesday’s 0-2 defeat to reigning European Champions Bayern Munich, the Gunners look all but out of this season’s competition which would see them fail to get past the last 16 for the fourth successive time. They haven’t got past the quarters in five years.

What was highlighted most on Wednesday was how Arsenal were completely played off the park at their own game, at home, with Bayern having an astonishing 79% possession statistic. This wasn’t helped of course by Wojciech Szczesny’s dismissal on 37 minutes which forced Arsene Wenger to replace Spanish play-maker Santi Cazorla but Arsenal looked second best even before that.

England’s best “Spanish Footballer” comes in the shape of Jack Wilshere but he was non-existent for the full 90 minutes while Mesut Ozil was his usual “passenger” self, looking uninterested for the whole game, even his crucial penalty was incredibly lazy. He missed.

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Ozil’s dip in form should have him looking over his shoulder.

This is not the first time Arsenal have been beaten by their own game, Barcelona did the same to them in 2011.

One of the most worrying aspects of the modern Arsenal is Wenger’s decreasing tactical knowledge. Following Szczesny’s sending off, the Frenchman brought off Cazorla while the consistently average Ozil was kept on. Even worse, when 0-1 down with 15 minutes to play, Arsenal’s main, possibly only, attacking threat Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was hauled off for the defensive minded Tomas Rosicky.

Holding onto a narrow loss at home is embarrassing enough, even when a man down. What’s more embarrassing however is when it doesn’t work, Thomas Muller made it 0-2 with two minutes remaining.

Should Wenger have kept “The Ox” and Cazorla on, Arsenal would have possibly created more chances with Cazorla’s passing followed by Oxlade-Chamberlain’s powerful jinking runs, but there was none of that, Arsenal stepped off Bayern and allowed them to pass them to death.

The argument that this would have left Arsenal more open defensively is a valid one, however Chelsea proved in 2012 that it can be done when they earned their hugely impressive 2-2 draw over Barcelona at the Nou Camp, and that was with ten men following John Terry’s clumsy challenge.

Wenger’s tactical failings also apply to his forward line. Promising striker Yaya Sanogo looked isolated for large periods of the Munich match however he won most, if not every header. This suggests that the France Under 21 International would benefit from a striking partner, something Arsenal don’t use. Sanogo could use his strength and heading ability to knock balls down to his partner, possibly Olivier Giroud or a new acquisition, and even grab the odd goal himself as he does get in the right areas but lacks the decisive finishing touch at this stage.

Where Chelsea’s formation, which is exactly the same as Arsenal’s, succeeds is that they have better goal scoring midfielders in the shape of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, formerly Juan Mata and occasionally Ramires. These get on the score sheet enough times that the limited scoring ability of Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba isn’t too much of a problem. Whereas Cazorla, Ozil, and Oxlade-Chamberlain have 10 league goals between them, Hazard boasts 12 on his own.

This season has been a lot better for Arsenal, the double is still realistically on the cards in theory. Where they struggle however is overcoming the big teams. Their league results against last season’s top four are a 6-3 away loss to Manchester City, a 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea, and an away loss and home draw against a below par Manchester United team. Not forgetting a 5-1 thumping away to Liverpool.

The Gunners have a tough end to March with Tottenham away followed by a trip to Chelsea before finishing at Manchester City at home. February’s fixture list has been cruel to Arsenal with that Liverpool loss and the home draw against Manchester United joining an FA Cup and Champions League tie. If they end March where they are now they will still be in the title race but given this season’s record against the top sides it looks doubtful.

The FA Cup is realistic after they eliminated Liverpool to reach the quarters but they meet Everton which is not an easy prospect. Arsenal will be boosted by Chelsea and Man United’s elimination but Man City are clear favourites to lift the trophy and carry on Arsenal’s long wait for silverware where it all looked so promising just few months ago.