Defending champions Bayern Munich have travelled to London to take on Arsenal at the Emirates, while emerging power Atlético Madrid take on waning power AC Milan.
Set your DVRs, plan your late long lunches, etc. The Champions League is back. If you're a follower of European club football, you're excited as we are. If not, but you plan to watch the World Cup this summer, this is the competition you need to watch to get ready. Here are our previews of this week's four first leg matches, with a focus on which players to watch on each team (and a particular focus on players that will feature prominently at the World Cup this summer): Man City-Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen-PSG, Arsenal-Bayern Munich and AC Milan-Atlético Madrid.
Sunday, May 6
EPL, Newcastle United vs Manchester City (8:30amET, FSC & Fox Deportes): A massive game in the Premier League, both for the title race and Champions League qualification.
Following Man City’s tense 1-0 victory in last Monday’s much-hyped Manchester derby, this match becomes the new title-decider. If City win this one, they’ll need only a final day win over Sunderland at home to claim the title (assuming Manchester United win their final two–versus Swansea at Old Trafford later today, and at Sunderland on the final day).
But Newcastle will be fighting for a win here as much as City. They’re even with Spurs on 65 points, who play Villa today–only 2 points behind Arsenal, who slipped up badly this weekend with a 3-3 draw at home against Norwich.
And Newcastle is equally in form, especially January signing Papiss Demba Cissé. He’s the talk of the league after scoring 13 goals in 12 appearances since coming over from the Bundesliga’s SC Freiburg (where he was also prolific–his 22 goals last season, in his first full Bundesliga campaign, were 2nd only to Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez). But he’s especially the talk of the league after his spectacular exta-time goal Wednesday at Stamford Bridge–frontrunner for goal of the season. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now; if you have, watch it agian:
Key matchups: Cissé and his Senegalese strike-parter Demba Ba against the City’s center back pair of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott; and in midfield, Newcastle’s creative Frenchman Yohan Cabaye and Ivorian hardman Cheikh Tioté against the likes of Yaya Touré, David Silva, and Samir Nasri. Watch also for another creative Frenchman on Newcastle’s wing, Hatem Ben Arfa.
Interesting historical resonance: City are looking to win their first title since 1968–when they clinched the title with a 4-3 victory over Newcastle at St. James’ Park, allowing them to squeak past crosstown rivals Manchester United. In addition to the photo above of the opening goal, see the rest of the Telegraph’s gallery of photos from that day.
Serie A, Inter Milan vs AC Milan (2:45pmET, FSC, Fox Deportes & ESPN3.com): La Derby della Madonnina , i.e., the Milan derby. Not only one of the most storied and heated rivalries in the game, but also, as if often the case, a match with big implications for the Serie A table. Like the Newcastle-ManCity match, this match simultaneously impacts the race for the domestic title as well as Champions League qualification.
AC Milan sit one just point behind still-undefeated Juventus. So they’ll need Juve to slip up, either today against Cagliari or next week at home against Atalanta. But they’ll certainly need to keep winning to give themselves any hope of winning another Scudetto.
On the other hand, Inter have had a roller coaster of a season. They’ve been on the rise again over the past month, after Claudio Ranieri was sacked and Andrea Stramaccioni was promoted from manager of Internazionale Primavera to manage the senior squad. But they now sit in 6th place, one point behind 5th place Lazio and 3 points behind 3rd place Napoli and 4th place Udinese. With the top 3 finishers in Serie A going to the Champions League, while 4th and 5th go to Europa, Inter will need at least one of those teams to falter in order for a return to European competition next season.
We did tune in over the past few weeks for bits of March Madness–culminating in Calipari’s Kentucky completing the professionalization of the college game last night–but we found it mostly uninteresting. And although we haven’t found the Champions League completely compelling this year either, we’ll certainly be watching these quarterfinal 2nd leg matches over the next couple days to see which clubs advance to the Final 4–at which stage it should get very interesting. And it’s not only the Champions League winnowing down from 8 to 4 this week. The Europa League too–that largely overshadowed European stepchild to the Champions–also has its quarterfinal 2nd legs this week. True to our name, we actually find Europa League worth following–and this season especially so, given Athletic Bilbao’s scintillating run which has them on track for the semifinals.
Here are the fixtures and some match notes:
Tuesday, April 3 (both matches kickoff at 2:45pmET):
Barcelona vs Milan: The match of the week, and of the competition so far. After a taut scoreless draw last Wednesday at the San Siro, Milan have a realistic chance of eliminating the defending champions. It’ll be the 4th Champions League meeting between these two this season, since they were drawn into the same group. The first match last September was similar to last week’s: despite dominating possession, Barcelona could do no better than emerge with a draw. At least there were goals in that one though–Pato’s stunning 1st minute goal and Thiago Silva’s extra time equalizer sandwiched around Barcelona goals by Pedro and Villa. The return at the Camp Nou in November was an exciting affair with even more goals: Xavi’s 2nd half score eclipsed goals by Zlatan and that memorable finish by Kevin-Prince Boateng.
We expect that Barcelona will emerge victorious again today (at least this half of the CultFootball board does–like El Classico, this is a fixture that divides us)–when was the last time Barcelona lost a European fixture at the Camp Nou? Well, UEFA’s match preview conveniently provides the answer: “Barcelona are unbeaten in 14 home fixtures dating back to October 2009, with 12 wins and two draws at the Camp Nou since then, including the 7-1 defeat of Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the round of 16.” That’s preceded by these fascinating historical tidbits:
• Milan earned a 0-0 draw at Barcelona in their 2005/06 UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg but lost the tie because of the preceding 1-0 home reverse.
• The lineups for that second leg on 26 April 2006 were:
Barcelona: Valdés, Belletti, Márquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst, Edmílson, Deco, Iniesta, Giuly (Larsson 69), Eto’o (Van Bommel 89), Ronaldinho.
Milan: Dida, Kaladze, Costacurta (Cafu 64), Stam, Serginho, Gattuso (Rui Costa 68), Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaká, Shevchenko, Inzaghi (Gilardino 79).
• Milan’s last victory against Barcelona came on 20 October 2004 in the UEFA Champions League group stage, Andriy Shevchenko scoring the only goal. Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf and substitute Massimo Ambrosini played for the Rossoneri with Xavi, Carles Puyol, Víctor Valdés and substitute Andrés Iniesta lining up for Barcelona. Ambrosini is the sole survivor of Milan’s only previous victory at the Camp Nou, 2-0 on 26 September 2000.
• The clubs’ most high-profile encounter was the 1994 UEFA Champions League final in Athens, which Milan won 4-0. Milan also prevailed when the pair met in the 1989 UEFA Super Cup, winning 1-0 at home after a 1-1 away draw.
In fact, Sid Lowe produced a column on that 1994 Champions League final last week, calling it “the night the Dream died”–i.e., the symbolic end of Cryuff’s Dream Team era, which featured among others a young Catalan holding midfielder named Pep Guardiola.
Bayern München vs Olympique Marseille: This one is pretty much done. Bayern won 2-0 in Marseille last week, and have been on a hot streak lately. It’s highly unlikely OM will win by 3 in Munich, and so the Bavarians are on track to continue their quest to play in the final in their home stadium on May 19.
Wednesday, April 4 & Thursday April 5:
We’ve split off our previews of the other two Champions League matches & Thursday’s four Europa League matches into a separate post.
We gathered at CultFootball HQ yesterday afternoon to watch Super Tuesday results roll in. Although there had been some noise about opting for the more closely contested matchup in Lisbon, we went with the bigger-name but more lopsided faceoff in London. AC Milan had destroyed and embarrassed Arsenal 4-0 in the first leg at the San Siro a few weeks ago (“the Milan massacre“), and although there were historical precedents for a 2nd leg comeback against Milan, we thought it unlikely.
But whereas Robinho and “the mustached, cheesy-nightclub-predator-looking” Ibrahimovic could do no wrong in the 1st leg, somehow they were ineffective and wasteful this time around. And whereas Milan’s defense had looked nearly impregnable against Arsenal’s flaccid attack in Italy, they coughed up chances which Arsenal finished. Koscielny emphatically headed in a tremendous whipped corner from the Ox in the 7′, and the game was on. Then in the 26′, Milan’s Thiago Silva–who some are tipping as one of the top central defenders in the world–instead of clearing a ball from his own 6-yard line, passed it right to a resurgent Tomáš Rosický*, who slotted it home past Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati.
Rosický again orchestrated Arsenal’s midfield action. Wenger lined up his squad in more of a 4-3-3 than their usual 4-2-3-1, with Rosický, usual holder Alex Song, and surprising selection Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the central midfield 3. It was the Ox who assisted that first goal off the corner, and he created their third goal in the 40′, with a surging run into Milan penalty area, splitting Milan defender Mesbah and Nocerino, who could do nothing but sandwich him. After a moment’s deliberation, referee Damir Skomina pointed to the spot, Van Persie stepped up and blasted it past Abbiati–and suddenly Arsenal were within a goal of pulling even on aggregate.
Indeed, the imitable Barry Glendenning was doing the Guardian MBM of the match, and wrote this at the 44′: “You’d have to say Arsenal are the favourites to win this tie at this stage, as long as they don’t lose the run of themselves and forget to defend stoutly. They’ve been making hay down the right wing, where the visitors’ left-back Djamel Mesbah looks like some supporter who’s won a competition where first prize was the opportunity to play for AC Milan in a Champions League match. He’s having a shocker.”
But after scoring three goals in the first 45′, they were unable to put another one past Abbiati in the second 45′. The moment that is frozen in the memory of anyone that watched that match was Van Persie’s close range encounter with Abbiatti in the 59′. It was a remarkable save, one which dominates the headlines today (e.g., “Christian Abbiati stops Arsenal completing great escape against Milan” and “Milan’s Christian Abbiati hails ‘lucky’ crucial save against Arsenal” and in La Gazzetta dello Sport “Abbiati Santo“–the caption to the Reuters photo of that moment:
*: An extended aside re Rosický: the diminutive Czech has emerged as a central figure in Arsenal’s resurrection over the past couple weeks, and seems to belatedly be fulfilling the promise Wenger saw when he bought “The Mozart of Football” from Borussia Dortmund in 2006. He scored the winning goal in that remarkable comeback against Spurs a couple weeks ago, executing an extended give-and-go with Theo Walcott before flicking the finish over Friedel with the subtlest of touches; and in general he orchestrated things in the midfield.
Indeed, from an August 2007 Guardian Football column prior to an Arsenal Champions League match against Rosický’s first club, Sparta Prague: “A deep thinker, who views top-level football as akin to chess, he prefers to orchestrate – in Germany, he was called the Little Mozart.” Rosický was born in Prague and played in Sparta Pragues youth system from the age of 8:
“Sparta were my team,” he says. “They still are my team in the Czech Republic. It was the most important step in my career. When I was 17 they gave me the first opportunity to play in the league, when I was 18 I played in the Champions League and when I was 19 I was in the national team.”
Fever pitch aptly describes the atmosphere awaiting him: many Sparta fans have not forgiven Rosicky for joining Dortmund and the Bundesliga in 2001 and he anticipates a rough ride. But Rosicky will not allow anything to deflect him. Although only 26, he is one of the oldest heads in Arsène Wenger’s team and he is aware of what is expected. With Thierry Henry now at Barcelona, much of the creative burden this season will fall on his shoulders. After showing flickerings of his mercurial talent last season, it is incumbent on him to deliver consistently.
Mind you, this was 5 years ago. He’s an ancient head in Wenger’s Benjamin Button-like squad, which seems to get younger with each passing season. And with Cesc Fabregas now at Barcelona, Samir Nasri at Man City, and Jack Wilshere still trying to rehab his worrying ankle, Wenger has turned out of necessity to the Czech captain. Here’s what Wenger said five years ago:
“Yes, I think there is more to come from Tomas,” said Wenger. “That is because he is classy and because he is at the age where you get the right balance in the final third. He is sharp, quick, lively and I believe that the final level is to finish well. What we want from Tomas is to give key passes and to score goals. I was happy with his contribution last season. The biggest problem was injury. He struggled after injuries.”
Also: although Mozart was born in Salzburg, he had a special relationship with Prague.
Saturday Feb 25
Italy, AC Milan vs. Juventus, 2:30pmET (FSC, ESPN3.com): Could be the match that decides the Scudetto. These two are the top of the Serie A table, separated by just a point (although Juve has a game in hand). Can La Vecchia Signora go into San Siro and beat the defending champions? A prominent subplot: this is aging midfielder Andrea Pirlo‘s return to Milan, to play against the club where he spent a decade as the premier deep-lying playmaker in Serie A (and perhaps in the world).
Spain, Espanyol vs. Levante 4pmET (ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): Yet another match pivotal in the bunched-up race for 4th place in La Liga. Espanyol is tied for 4th with Athletic Bilbao (33 points), while Levante (and Atletico Madrid) are just a point behind them. We wrote last weekend about Espanyol’s youthful talent.
Sunday Feb 26
England, Arsenal vs. Spurs 8:30amET (FSC): The North London Derby–and for the first time in many years, Spurs are widely acknowledged to have the superior squad, and are favored to win on Arsenal’s home ground. But Spurs supporter PoliticalFootballs isn’t buying it. An excerpt from his match preview:
I am not so optimistic about Tottenham’s chances, neither for this weekend or the following week’s match against United. For too long, Spurs have looked good and then collapsed – it seems inevitable that it will happen again this year. With their 10 point advantage over Arsenal, they have a great opportunity to finish above them for the first time since the 1994/5 season, having never done so since Arsene Wenger became the Gunners’ manager. Tottenham have also not done the double (beat them home and away) over their neighbours since 1992/3 – and even then, the match at Highbury was against a makeshift team, as the home side were looking ahead to the FA Cup final the following week.
Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven vs. Feyenoord 8:30amET (ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): #1 in the Eredivisie table vs #5, separated by only 4 points (with AZ Alkmaar, Heerenveen and Twente in between, and Ajax in 6th a point behind Feyenoord). Also a chance to see some young Dutch internationals that are still playing in the home country: from PSV defender Erik Pieters and midfielders Georginio Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman are in the Dutch squad that will be playing England on Wednesday, as is Feyenoord central defender Ron Vlaar. The one to watch is deep-lying midfielder Strootman, who has been called the future of the Dutch midfield.
Germany, Bayern Munich vs. Schalke 9:30amET (ESPN3.com): #3 hosts #4 in the Bundesliga table. Bayern is in somewhat of a crisis, after slipping behind both Borussias in the table, and then losing at Basel in the Champions League last Wednesday. They’ll need to win at home to avoid falling further into crisis–and to avoid falling further behind the Borussias.
Spain, Rayo Vallecano vs. Real Madrid 10amET (ESPN3.com, tape at 5 p.m. on ESPN Deportes): A Madrid derby of sorts–Rayo Vallecano is located in the Vallecas neighborhood of Madrid, where they play at the 15,500-capacity Campo de Futbol de Vallecas. Rayo Vallecano just got back to the first division this season, after spending most of the past decade in Segunda Division and Segunda Division B. But they’re currently just two points off that all-important 4th place, and Sid Lowe cited them as a team that’s worth watching in a recent column:
Look at La Liga now and few teams are exciting; few look genuinely good; fewer still have achieved any sort of consistency. Rayo Vallecano are one (five wins in seven and great to watch), Athletic Bilbao another (they lost three of their first four but just three in 19 since), improving Atlético Madrid perhaps a third. A case can be made for Espanyol. And then?
England Carling Cup, Liverpool vs. Cardiff City 11amET (FSC): Liverpool’s first time back at Wembley since the 1996 FA Cup final (a match that’s remembered more for the Spice Boys’ pre-match white Armani suits than for the match itself).
Italy, Napoli vs. Inter Milan 2:30pmET FSC, ESPN3.com: Another chance to watch perhaps the most exciting and dynamic attack in Europe–Napoli’s front line of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik, supported by Inler and Gargano in the center of the midfield, Zuniga and Maggio on the wings. (Note that Maggio is the only Italian among those, and note the strong South American contingent: Cavani and Gargano are Uruguayan, while Lavezzi is Argentine.)
Spain, Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona 3:30pmET (GolTV): Might Barca drop yet more points at the Estadio Vicente Calderón? Atletico certainly has more to play for, as they’ve climbed back into contention for that last Champions League spot, while Barcelona has practically given up any chance of catching Real Madrid for the La Liga title–due to struggles on the road–and has consequently shifted their focus and energies on the Champions League campaign. We looked at Atletico’s squad–and their recently installed manager, former Atletico player (and Argentine international) Diego Simeone–in this post a month ago.
Three slightly frozen memories, ready to be thawed and forgotten:
(1) The coin toss. Compatriots Seedorf (class act and true legend) and Van Persie (legacy yet to be determined) faced each other, hugged, and exchanged symbols of their respective clubs. Seedorf was jovial, calm, confident, and looking RVP in the eye. Robin seemed unwilling, nay, unable, to look Clarence in the eye for more than a second or two. Van Persie seemed… twitchy. He looked around, he appeared distracted.
Maybe he was foreshadowing (and influencing) his team’s performance that night, admitting to himself that the game might be over before it begins. Maybe his mind was already tanning on the Mediterranean beaches of Barcelona or the navigating lively and bustling streets and plazas of Madrid.
(2) I’ve been focusing on Sagna a bit, wondering if he’s been thinking, “Hell, Clichy went to City, I’m just as good, maybe better, I actually start for my country, so why I am I still here?” Even before his injury, Bacary has seemed lazier this season. (Watching as he jumped for that ball against Assou-Ekotto, his awkward attempt that caused his injury a few months ago, I wondered, “Why would you jump so needlessly, so awkwardly?”) Yesterday, Sagna’s passes were poor, he wasn’t charging forward (but who was?). And then the moment that infuriated me: The ball was put to the space in front of Zlatan, Sagna appeared to assume that Ibra was offside, so Sagna fucking JOGGED as the mustached, cheesy-nightclub-predator-looking Swede sprinted, collected the ball, and fed it to Robinho. 2-0. Pitiful. Sagna, the team veteran and two-time selection to the Premier League Team of the Year as voted by his peers, seems to be gone as well. Only he knows where, but I doubt he knows where, for his contract isn’t up until 2014.
(3) Starting Rosicky (experience) instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain (potential world-class talent): I understand the reasoning, but in hindsight it was such a bad decision.
Watching the Milan game, I found even more respect for Cesc. It’s been obvious all season, but last night it was glaring: This year’s squad simply thinks about going forward. They wait an extra second or two, make an extra pass or two, and often send it back to a defender or goalkeeper in order to regroup for absolutely no reason at all. Not so with Cesc. With Fab 4 we were going forward, one-touching, passing with instinct, and then thinking, if thinking was even necessary. With Cesc, there was no thinking, just doing.
Arsene, and ONLY Arsene Wenger, could admit his team still has a chance to move on and at the same time put a value on how slim the chances are: “Two to five per cent chance.” Got to love him!
The Telegraph ran interviews over the past few days with Arsenal legends Denis Bergkamp and Emmanuel Petit, before and after Wednesday’s game, respectively. Of the two, Bergkamp was more politically correct in his interview (conducted by an Arsenal striker from a previous era, Alan Smith). The Dutchman reminisced about The Invincibles, remembering Henry and Vieira, the all-English back four they had back then. But he also had criticisms of the present squad: he mentioned that Arsenal have too many players who are similar in the way they play, that there is not nearly enough diversity, no impact player to come off the bench and bring a new dimension. He wondered if Arsenal need more English players, but he professed his continuing trust in the Professor, that Wenger has endured peaks and valleys before now.
Petit was more direct and honest in his comments. After the game, he mentioned that Ramsey appeared to be a “twin” of himself on Wednesday, that Theo hasn’t grown at all in the past few years, and that Arshavin and Rosicky need to go. (I’ll add Djourou to that shortlist.) He said that that 6 new players around the age of 27 need to be brought in–that “we shouldn’t hesitate to talk about the end of the cycle.”
It’s important and worth noting that these former and future Arsenal legends are speaking out. It means that times are truly, officially, tough. It means they care, it means they are bothered.
Last year saw Birmingham (February, Carling Cup), Barcelona (March, Champions League) and Manchester United (March, FA Cup) assist Arsenal in their self-destruction. By mid-March, the season was over, save for the 4th place finish. This year, Milan has played the role of Barca twofold, ending the Gunners’ Champions League aspirations in only one game. Sunderland (FA Cup) and Tottenham (crucial league match and chance for to avenge last year’s home loss) are next.
Last year’s fall from contention in three competitions was official and final in March. These next two pivotal games fall in February. I hope Arsenal doesn’t fall in February. Wenger is no Caesar, not yet anyway, but I’d rather not revisit his Ides of 2011. I’d rather not see him stab himself in the back for a second consecutive year, one
How many of us can endure another early fall, just before Spring?
The Tevez-Pato “will he? won’t he” questions ricocheted every which way this January as the musical chairs transfers song played at AC Milan, but at the end everyone retook their own chairs. Boring. Perhaps they were dating Berlusconi’s daughter, or were on £200,000 a week slave wages that no one else could match, but whatever the reason, that anti-climax will be followed up by a busy February and early March. The Rossoneri take on first-place Juventus twice in the Coppa Italia and once in the league, Napoli and Udinese in the league, not to mention the two Champions League legs against Arsenal.
It all starts with the home match/grudge match against Napoli this Sunday at 2:30 ET (Fox Soccer).
To put the upcoming matches in perspective, Milan has not beaten any team in the top five in a league match this season, including the painful loss to Inter in the Derby della Madonnina in January. Furthermore, Napoli beat Milan 3-1 in their only other matchup this season. If Milan continues to find itself unable to beat the top teams, this upcoming run could prove very difficult and very damaging.
However, aside from the Tevez-Pato dud of inaction, Milan did bring in five reinforcements over the window to deal with the second half of the season, including striker Maxi Lopez from Catania and out-of-favor midfielder Sulley Muntari from Inter. Coming off a disappointing 2-0 loss to Lazio that could have seen them take pole position, they have everything to play for—and conversely, everything to lose.
Napoli has stuttered to a string of draws and a defeat to Genoa of late, but Cavani fired them to a 2-0 victory over Inter in the Coppa Italia last week and they could come roaring back this Sunday.
Feb 5, 9:00 ET AC Milan vs. Napoli
Feb 8, 2:45 ET AC Milan vs. Juventus
Feb 11, 12:00 ET Udinese vs. AC Milan
Feb 15, 2:45 ET AC Milan vs. Arsenal
Feb 19, 9:00 ET Cesena vs. AC Milan
Feb 21, 2:45 ET Juventus vs. AC Milan
Feb 25, 2:45 ET AC Milan vs. Juventus
Mar 3, 12:00 ET Palermo vs. AC Milan
Mar 6, 2:45 ET Arsenal vs. AC Milan
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 15 goals in the Serie A this season. But should he get injured or need a breather during the fast-and-furious fixtures ahead, Lopez may be called into action. Alexandre Pato suffered a thigh strain last month that may see him missing out on the next 4 matches, including the home leg against Arsenal. Lopez was not top-choice at Catania, so while there is cover, it’s not of the same quality. The decision between Lopez and Tevez was never one of equals, rather of finances.
New loan signing Muntari continues his international engagements with the Ghana national team in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon and may not be back in time for the Champions League fixture against Arsenal in the San Siro, either. Muntari was brought on to help bolster a depleted midfield that has lost Mathieu Flamini, Gennaro Gattuso, Alexander Merkel and Alberto Aquilani to injury. Kevin Prince-Boateng also has spent quality time on the injury table of late.
Obviously, with talented players such as Thiago Silva, Robinho, van Bommel, Seedorf, Ambrosini and Zambrotta all hale and hearty, the team is not in crisis, but performances this month could very well determine their fates in all remaining competitions: the league, the Coppa Italia and the Champions League.
It should be getting quite interesting quite soon.