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.
The UEFA Europa League final is upon us. It’s an all-Spanish match later today, with Atlético Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao facing off at the National Arena in Bucharest. It’s a late kickoff in Romania: 9:45pm EEST, which corresponds to the usual 2:45pmET/11:45amPT for those of in the US.
(Athletic Bilbao’s nickname is Los Leones, while Atlético is known as Los Colchoneros–The Mattress Makers. Hence the headline.)
This term Athletic won their home Liga fixture 3-0 in October with the help of two Fernando Llorente goals [a match report here], but a Falcao double consigned them to a 2-1 loss at the Vicente Calderón in March [a match report here].
We previously wrote about Athletic Bilbao initially in November (here), ahead of their home match against Barcelona. We focused there on the interesting relationship between Athletic Bilbao’s manager Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola. (The two who will meet again in a couple weeks, when Barcelona and Athletic meet in this season’s Copa del Rey fnal. It will be Guardiola’s last match managing Barcelona. Coincidentally that match will take place at the Vicente Calderon, Atlético’s home ground.)
Bielsa and Atlético’s manager Diego Simeone also know each other very well:
Bielsa was Simeone’s coach with Argentina between 1998 and 2002. Both were involved in Argentina’s 2002 FIFA World Cup campaign, where they failed to progress beyond the group stage. Simeone made the last of his 106 international appearances under Bielsa in Sapporo, in a 1-0 defeat by England on 7 June.
Simeone was also celebrated player for Atlético, spending two stints playing in Madrid (1993-1997 and 2003-2005), and his return to the club mid-season as manager has been a very successful one, at least in terms of results. In addition to guiding the club to this European final, Atlético is still in contention for a Champions League spot. See here for excerpts from a Sid Lowe column about the return of El Cholo to Atlético.
Regarding the squads, here are some players to watch:
Athletic Bilbao: Fernando Llorente up front, at “la punta” of the attack, a player who has won 19 caps playing for Spain (including an appearance in South Africa for the World Cup-winning side); speedy and skilled 18-year-old Iker Muniain, who plays in an attacking midfield role, often out wide; behind them 23-year old Javi Martínez, formerly a central midfielder who Bielsa has moved back into central defense; and right back Andoni Iraola.
Atlético Madrid: Colombian striker Falcao is the primary goal-scoring threat, although young Spanish winger Adrián López has also been scoring in Europa matches; behind them look for Brazilian midfield playmaker Diego.
It’s worth listening to this week’s Guardian podcast. After the discussion of Newcastle-City (and Arsenal’s woes), and Sid Lowe discussing Granada-Real Madrid, he previews today’s match (and afterwards James Richardson and Paolo Bandini discuss the Milan derby and Juve’s scudetto).
A few picks for today, Saturday May 5:
FA Cup Final: Liverpool vs Chelsea (12:15pmET, FSC & Fox Deportes): Two teams that have been underwhelming in the league but surprisingly successful in cup competitions. Liverpool has already won the League Cup, while this is the 1st of two cup finals Chelsea will be competing for this month.
As outlined in this Telegraph column, these two clubs developed a heated rivalry over the past decade, playing in each other a remarkable 39 number times in the aughts:
One club was a product of its time, the other traversing a long road of redemption towards former glories.
Chelsea had Abramovich’s millions and the charismatic and calculating Jose Mourinho. Liverpool the tactical nous and organisational skills of Rafael Benitez that had been missing under the admittedly exciting stewardships of Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans.
Liverpool had capital-h History. Chelsea were rich upstarts. The pair were never likely to get along.
Their rivalry was ignited by ignited by Luis Garcia’s phantom goal at Anfield in 2005 [pictured above] which sealed qualification for the Champions League final. Jose Mourinho is still whingeing about it.
La Liga, Atlético Madrid vs Málaga (3pmET, ESPN3.com): Málaga sits in the crucial 4th place in the league, which would lead to Champions League qualification. That is one of primary goals of the ambitious–although so far somewhat rocky—Qatari-funded Málaga project. They’ve spent a fair amount of petro-euros on transfer fees over the past couple years–most prominently the €19m they spent last summer to lure Spanish international midfielder Santi Cazorla away from Villareal–“the crowning moment in Málaga’s transformation” Sid Lowe wrote at the time. Other Málaga players who’ve caught our eye: Venezuelan striker Jose Rondón, attack-minded Portuguese fullback Eliseu, and two young attacking players in Argentine Diego Buonanotte and Spaniard Francisco Román Alarcón, aka Isco. The former is a 24-year-old who starred for River Plate as a teenager, before he barely survived in a horrific car crash 3 years ago–see FiveInMidfield’s account. Isco, who just celebrated his 20th birthday a couple weeks ago, was born in Benalmádena, just outside Málaga, but came up through Valencia’s youth system. He made just four La Liga appearances for Valencia last season before Málaga paid €6m last summer.
Atlético–who will be travelling to Bucharest this coming week to take on Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League final on Wednesday–still have an outside chance of catching up with Málaga. Los Colchoneros (“The Mattress Makers“) sit in 6th place, 5 points behind Málaga (with Levante in between in 5th place). The player to watch on Atlético is without a doubt Colombian striker Falcao, who has ably replaced Kun Aguero. One of Atlético’s challenges this summer will be to keep richer clubs from luring him away after just a year in Madrid. Falcao also starred for River Plate–he played for the Argentine giants from 2001-2009, including under current Atlético Madrid manager’s Diego Simeone‘s stint as manager there in 2008.
La Liga, Barcelona vs Espanyol (3pmET, ESPN3.com): The Derbi barceloní, and Pep Guardiola’s last match at the Camp Nou. Espanyol held Barcelona to a draw on their ground in January, after which Sid Lowe wrote:
Created as a conscious rejection of Barcelona – not, as is often assumed, of Barça’s Catalanism but of their foreignness, founded by Hans Gamper, who was Swiss, and full of British ex-pats – Espanyol’s identity has shifted over the past century. So, even, has their name. From the consciously Spanish club they became, rejecting the growing identification of Barcelona with Catalanism, to their recent reinvention, staking their own claim to being Catalan, there has been a constant: they don’t like Barça. Just as Barcelona’s narrative evokes their status as a kind of resistance to the state, so now does Espanyol’s – only this time the “state” is the Catalan one. Barcelona is more than a club; so too, as the banner at Cornellá pointedly put it on Sunday night, “is Catalunya”.
We took a look at Espanyol’s youthful talent in a previous what-to-watch feature, here.
A busy week across the continent, including five more matches in the English Premier League. But none of those look particularly compelling to us, while there are four compelling and consequential matches elsewhere featuring teams at or near the top of their domestic tables–highlighted a huge match in Germany and a derby in Madrid. Here they are in order of importance, according to our subjective estimation and interest–given that it’s this member of CF’s birthday today, I’ve humbly requested the good guys at Woodwork to tune of their TVs to GolTV so that we can watch the first two matches in the German-Spanish doubleheader. Join us if you’re in the neighborhood:
Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern München (2pmET, GolTV): #1 vs #2 in the Bundesliga–the biggest match of the day, and the biggest match of the season in Germany. Bayern has closed the gap between them and Dortmund to 3 points over the past couple months, so that a win on the road in North Rhine-Westphalia, in the mammoth Westfalenstadion (capacity: 80, 720) would pull them even at the top of the table.
Dortmund won the title last year, and with their campaign to repeat, and their young and exciting squad–to be strengthened next year by the arrival of Marco Reus (“the latest star off Germany’s production line“), for whose signature they beat out Bayern–they are looking to challenge Bayern’s Germanic hegemony. (See this feature on “Why the emergence of a rivalry between Bayern Munich & Borussia Dortmund is essential to the revival of German football“–something that even Bayern fan Boris Becker agrees with.)
In a previous “what to watch” feature, we noted that Dortmund has:
young and exciting players from across the globe on their squad: strikers Robert Lewandowski (Poland) and Lucas Barrios(Paraguay); Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa; Serbian(-American) Neven Subotić, who teams up with German Mats Hummels in central defense. FC Bayern blogger & “Bundesliga wannabe expert” @RedRobbery kindly replied to our question about who to watch in this match, and directed us to also watch midfielders Sven Bender and Jakub “Kuba” Błaszczykowski. (The latter is captain of the Polish national team, and described by Polish great Zbigniew Boniek as a “litte Figo” when Dortmund signed him from Wisla Krakow in the summer of 2007).
Bayern’s squad should be better known to non-German watchers, given their prominence in the Champions League (where they’ll be facing Real Madrid in the semis–1st leg next week!), and the prominence of their star players on various national sides: star wingers Arjen Robben (Netherlands) and Franck Ribery (France), along with the core of the exciting German national team: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Mario Gómez, Jérôme Boateng, Holger Badstuber, Manuel Neuer. Two more players to watch in central midfield: Ukrainian Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (who will be leading the Euro2012 co-hosts this summer) and Brazilian Luiz Gustavo.
Atlético Madrid vs Real Madrid (4pmET, GolTV): El derbi madrileño is always a bitter battle, and this time it’s a match that matters deeply for both teams. Real Madrid is still at the top of the table, where they’ve been all year–but their once-commanding lead over Barcelona has shrunk over the past month to a mere 4 points, following a three draws in their past five matches (1-1 to both Malaga and Villareal, and a scoreless draw Sunday to Valencia)–and now it’s down to a single point following Barcelona’s 4-0 win over (3rd Madrid team) Getafe. So the pressure is on Mourinho and his squad, especially with El Clasico coming up a week from Saturday at the Camp Nou.
Atlético are 7th in La Liga, 7 points behind 4th place Valencia (who’ve just relinquished their seeming stranglehold on 3rd to Malaga) and a Champions League spot. A return to Europa is more likely–where they’ve had a successful run to the semifinals this year, and in fact play Valencia over the next two weeks (April 19 and 26). If a goal against Real is going to come today, it’ll most likely be from prolific Colombian striker Falcao, who’s had a great first season in Spain with 20 goals, tied for 3rd best in the league. But 3 of the top 5 are from Real: Messi 39, Cristiano Ronaldo 37, Falcao 20, Higuain 20, Benzema 17.
Juventus vs Lazio (2:45pm, Fox Soccer Plus, ESPN3.com): Juve is still undefeated in Serie A, and after Saturday’s results they’re back on top of the table. Lazio continues to solidify their hold on 3rd place and hence a Champions League spot–at the expense of competing clubs with bigger names (Udinese, Napoli, Roma, Inter–who sit behind them in 4th, 5th, 6th & 7th).
We’ll be watching for peerless deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo–who Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox recently described as “the most important player of his generation.”
AZ vs Twente (1pmET, ESPN3.com): #2 vs #3 in the Eredivisie.
Yes, we’re eagerly looking forward to the big-name UEFA Champions League semifinal ties–but don’t overlook UEFA’s other final four. (Indeed, as Zonal_Marking wrote for ESPN today, the Europa League deserves more respect.) Given our growing interest in La Liga beyond the Big Two, yesterday’s quarterfinal results make for an especially interesting Europa League run-in: Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, and Sporting Clube de Portugal advanced to the semifinals, setting up an all-Iberian set of semifinal ties:
1st legs on Thursday April 19: Atlético Madrid-Valencia & Sporting CP-Athletic Bilbao
2nd legs a week later, Thursday April 26: Valencia-Atlético Madrid & Athletic Bilbao-Atlético Madrid
As we wrote earlier in the week, the Athletic Bilbao-Schalke tie was the only was that was pretty much wrapped up after the 1st leg, with Athletic’s 4-2 win in Germany. But the return leg at the legendary San Mames turned out to be a match worth watching (not that we did, unfortunately). It was a game of tit-for-tat: Dutch marksman Klaus-Jan Huntelaar scored, pulling Schalke to within one goal on aggregate–but then Athletic equalized shortly 4 minutes later. And then it happened a second time: Raul scored yet another European goal, but Athletic equalized 3 minutes later. So Athletic wins another tie in convincing fashion, by an aggregate of 6-4. They have to be considered the favorites to win the whole thing, given how much energy they bring to their Europa fixtures.
The other three ties had 2-1 scorelines for the home team in their first legs: Atletico, AZ Alkmaar, and Sporting CP were leading Hannover, Valencia, and Metallist Kharkiv, respectively.
The match at the Mestalla was one we thought might be worth watching–and it was, in some sense, as Valencia quickly and convincingly turned the tie around. They were up 2-0 by 22′–both goals suprisingly by French international center back Adil Rami, off assists from the impressive Algerian youngster Sofiane Feghouli and the always dangerous Roberto Soldado. They added 2 more scores in the 2nd half–Spanish international wingback Jordi Alba scored one, and Pablo Hernandez added the final goal. The 4-0 win gave them a 5-2 win on aggregate.
The other two ties came down to the final minutes. Sporting CP held on for a 1-1 draw in far eastern Ukraine, eliminating Metallist. And in Hannover, Falcao scored a fantastic late goal to seal the deal for Atlético. Via twitter at approx 5pmET:
1-2, Falcao. “What technique! That is absolutely balletic. Mama mia! Colombian coffee house tricks alright, sweet, sweet.”
— Live Ray Hudson (@liverayhudson) April 5, 2012
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.
We’ve got to post a quick recap of what we watched this past weekend–but first, very briefly, here are two games today that you could tune in for, in case you’re looking for something to watch this afternoon/evening (depending on your timezone):
African Cup of Nations, Côte d’Ivoire vs Angola (1pmET, Al-Jazeera Sports / Eurosport International): The group stage of AfCON2012 wraps up over the next couple days. These are the top two teams in Group B, and will most likely advance to the knockout stage (Sudan, who are simultaneously playing Burkina Faso, can advance only according to a very convoluted–but not impossible–scenario:
Sudan will advance to the quarterfinals as the second-placed team in the group if they defeat Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire defeat Angola and
- the combined margin of the two wins is at least 3 goals, or
- Sudan score at least 3 more goals than Angola do, or
- the combined margin of the two wins is exactly 2 goals and Sudan score exactly 2 more goals than Angola do and prevail over Angola by tie-breaking criteria No. 6 and 7.
Côte d’Ivoire’s squad of course has the most big-name big-club players in the tournament: Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou (both Chelsea), the Touré brothers (both Man City), impressive holding midfielder Cheick Tioté (Newcastle), former Arsenal man Emmanuel Eboué (now Galatasaray), current Arsenal attacker Gervinho. Another Ivorian striker we’ll keep an eye (given that we’re trying to watch more Eredivisie): Wilfried Bony, who just joined Vitesse Arnhem last summer, after a few years in with Sparta Prague.
Like much of the Euro-centric football-watching world, we’re not sure who to watch on Angola. A look at their current squad shows (not surprisingly) a number of players playing club ball in Portugal–we’re guessing that forwards Djalma is a player to watch, given that he plays for Portuguese powerhouse Porto.
Spain (La Liga), Osasuna vs Atlético Madrid (3pmET, GolTV): Atlético has been experiencing a resurrection since they fired Gregorio Manzano and hired El Cholo–former Atlético star Diego Pablo Simeone. As usual, we rely on Sid Lowe’s Guardian writing for our knowledge of La Liga. Read his blog post from mid-January in full: “Atlético’s favourite son Diego Simeone returns to light up the Calderón: Atlético’s fans finally welcomed home ‘El Cholo’ on Sunday, and their new coach gave them hope for a more stable future” (and/or see below for an excerpt).
After selling off their big name players last summer (Kun Aguero to Man City, Diego Forlan to Inter), Atletico Madrid lost a lot of star appeal. The player on their current squad that we’ve been hearing the most about is Colombian striker Falcao, who’s been banging in the goals, as he did previously at Porto under Andre Villas-Boas. Indeed, AVB wanted to bring Falcao along to Chelsea over the summer, but somehow Atlético got him instead–and now there there are rumors AVB will ask Abrahamovich to open up his moneybags yet again to do the deal this summer. Falcao as a replacement for Drogba–or maybe even Torres? Maybe a swap that send El Niño back to his boyhood club?
Beyond Falcao, we recall from a previous viewing of Atlético that we were impressed with Brazilian midfielder Diego, who’s on loan from the Bundesliga’s Wolfsburg. Also keep an eye on Spanish youngster Adrián López, who just joined the club last summer after five years with Deportivo La Coruña. Further back on the field, Uruguayan international Diego Godín and captain Antonio López (a product of Atlético’s youth system) anchor the defense, and in front of them experienced Portuguese midfielder Tiago Mendes (30yo, has stints at Chelsea and Juve on his resume, plus 58 caps for Portugal, including two World Cups and a Euro championship).
Now for those excerpts from Sid Lowe’s column about Diego Simeone returning to “the banks of the Manzanares“:
Madrid awoke to the front-page news that “El Cholo” had filled the Vicente Calderón on his return, 55,000 faithful atléticos acclaiming the third coming. The headline came as bit of a surprise: not so much because he hadn’t filled the Calderón as because he hadn’t even returned to it yet. Still, there’s nothing quite like selling successes that haven’t happened and still might not, especially round here, and it was only a few hours away. Noon on Sunday 15 January and Diego Pablo Simeone was at last back on the banks of the Manzanares, a saviour.
At last? In truth, he hadn’t taken all that long. It had been just six and a half years. Yet it felt longer. It often feels like Atlético Madrid work in dog years: everything happens so fast, so much goes on, that each year at Atlético is worth seven anywhere else.
Simeone always knew this day would come. Twice he had played for Atlético Madrid, between 1994 and 1997 and again between 2003 and 2005. The first time he had been at the heart of the side that won the double in 1996. When he left Atlético, he did so in tears to a huge, emotional ovation. A hardnut and a football nut who stood sadly under the shower the day he finally retired at Racing de Avellaneda, half an hour thinking silently, he went into coaching immediately. He had, team-mates said, been a coach as a player. There were six managerial stints in five years at five different clubs, some successes too, but none were Atlético. And the promise was always there, hanging in the air: maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day …
Sunday, at last, was the day. “The day of the Cholo,” as El Mundo Deportivo put it. Brought in at Christmas, Simeone had returned to action the week before, with a 0-0 draw at Málaga. Now, he was making his debut as coach at the Vicente Calderón and against another hero from the double – José Molina, Atlético’s goalkeeper in 1996, the unexpected debutant manager at Villarreal and back at the Calderón for his second game in charge. Team-mates but never actual mates – the photo of the pair “together” that the media used most last week shows the quiet, occasionally distant Molina posing with the trophy while Cholo Simeone stands saluting the fans as he waits his turn, a little too close to get out of the shot – here they were again, 15 years later.