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 two epic Champions League semifinal ties did produce two memorable and perhaps historic 1st leg matches this week, but not in the way that any of us expected. One wordsmith needed only five of them to sum it up: “Two days of destruction. Unbelievable.”
Tuesday was Bayern Munich-Barcelona, Wednesday was Borussia Dortmund-Real Madrid. The Bavarians were favored in the first match, playing at home and in incredible form this entire season, while Barcelona have been wobbling for months. But surely no one predicted a Bayern’s 4-0 shellacking of Barça, nor Dortmund’s 4-1 decimation of Real Madrid the next day.
On Tuesday, Bayern dominated start to finish, playing with speed, power, and finesse. The first two goals came off corners–which Barcelona were conceding at an alarming rate, indicative of the fact that although Bayern predictably had less possession that Barcelona, their possession was much more potent. Bayern was especially dominant on the flanks, with Robben and Ribery winning their battles with Dani Alves and Jordi Alba–pinning the latter two back for the most part, thus robbing Barcelona of their width in attack. Coach Larry summed up Bayern’s masterclass thusly:
Bayern executed their plan perfectly. Press Barça to force wide at the back, and re-press from all directions if the ball reached attacking areas.
Their sheer relentless effort and physicality won them the match. Not ever have I seen a team play at that pace for an entire match, though perhaps Bayern took a bit of a break for about 15 mins after the 2nd goal.
Of course, they needed the right envirionment allowed by the referee to do so. Plus, the two goals (Gomez offsides on the 2nd, Muller’s pick to set Robben free for the 3rd) they benefitted from bad ref decisions are what ended the tie.
I’m hard pressed to think of a worthwhile contribution by any of Barca’s front players. They had practically zero attempts on the goal, and the only couple of serious chances fell to Bartra.
Much much more tactical analysis from ZonalMarking on his site, as well as in a Guardian column highlighting Spanish deep-lying midfielder Javi Martinez as a key player in the match. Martinez is the starred previously for Athletic Bilbao, and then controversially made the big money move to Bayern over the summer–a move that might have been to Barcelona, who wanted him badly, and could have had him had the Catalans been willing to show the Basques the money.
Excerpt from the Javi Martinez column:
Bayern’s key tactical weapon was Javi Martínez, whose primary job was to track Andrés Iniesta’s runs – but he played a much broader role, imposing his physicality on the game with a dominant midfield performance. He repeatedly dispossessed Barcelona’s midfielders and also stormed forward into attack unexpectedly to drive Bayern up the pitch – he demonstrated precisely why Barcelona were interested in signing him from Athletic Bilbao last summer. This was a landmark performance from the Spanish holding midfielder – he has been widely regarded as a success in his debut campaign at Bayern but here he outperformed his more illustrious international team-mates with an all-round performance Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta might not be capable of.
By Wednesday morning there were of course uncountably many “end of an era” op-eds littering sports pages across Europe. If you’re only going to read one, it might as well be Sid Lowe’s “changing of the guard” piece:
And so this Barcelona generation comes full circle. That, at least, is the conclusion many were drawing immediately after this astonishing defeat. For many this represented the end of an era. That conclusion is premature but there was a kind of seductive logic to it. Few teams have been as aware of their place in the club’s history as this one and, even at their lowest moment, there was a certain symbolism, a symmetry.
Barcelona equalled their worst ever European result, their worst result for well over a decade. They also equalled the result that Barcelona fans will never forget, from 18 May 1994. The Dream Team were the model that Pep Guardiola said all subsequent Barcelona teams sought to emulate. This generation had done so in just about every way; perhaps all that was left was to do so in defeat too.
The Dream Team’s most famous victory, the one that defined them, was a 5-0 victory over Real Madrid; their most famous defeat, the one that brought it all crashing down, was the 4-0 hammering at the hands of Milan in the European Cup final in Athens. This generation’s single most famous victory, the one that Xavi Hernández cites as their best performance, was a 5-0 victory over Real Madrid; could this 4-0 defeat be the one that brings it all tumbling down?
Jonathan Wilson had built up the expectations, writing pregame that this “meeting of the two great sides of the age” had the potential to be an era-defining encounter. And perhaps it was–after the match JW pivoted towards speculating whether now sides all over Europe (the world?) would try to emulate Bayern instead of Barcelona. His lede contains a nice capsule history the eras of European champions:
The sun has set on the age of Barcelona and dawn has broken on the bright new age of Bayern Munich. Bayern’s demolition of Barça last night certainly had the sense of a game that changed the order of things – even in advance it felt like an era-defining game. It crystallised the sense that Barça are not quite what they were, a weary shadow of the team that won the Champions League in 2011, and that Bayern are rising, inspired by a crop of fine young players and German economic might.
As such the victory – aside for all but ensuring Bayern’s place in theChampions League final – has largely symbolic value. That was the moment, historians will say (assuming things pan out as we think they will) when the crown was passed on. Except, of course, that it’s not that simple, not least because eras are no longer so easy to define as they used to be. Look down the list of European Cup winners and there are reasonably clear divisions: the age of Real Madrid separated from the era of Catenaccio and Milanese domination by the Benfica interregnum, the total footballing time of Ajax and Bayern Munich, then the period of English domination that was ended at Heysel. That led to a period of flux before the arrival of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan.
We’ll have to push a recap of Dortmund-Madrid into a separate post, to be published in the near future. Not only is this post too long already, but we haven’t even finished watching that match.
(Via a Guardian gallery of Spanish newspaper coverage of the historic defeat:
It is upon us, a clash of the titans: Bayern Munich hosting Barcelona in the 1st leg of their Champions League semifinal tie. The German superclub and Bundesliga champions against the Catalan superclub and La Liga champions-elect. Both of them 4-time European champions (Bayern in 1974, 1975, 1976, & 2001, Barcelona in 1992, 2006, 2009, & 2011). The two great sides of our era, perhaps–with a man who won’t even take part today sitting at the fulcrum between them.
Football too often denies us the truly epic tie, the meeting of the two great sides of the age, and it’s perhaps that more than anything else that makes Tuesday night’s Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona so enticing.
This has the sense of an era-defining encounter: Barcelona, who have dominated Europe for the past half-decade (it’s a remarkable fact that, even in their sixth successive semi-final, it still feels as though they have not quite achieved what they might have done in the Champions League) and Bayern, who could be the dominant force of the years to come: Pep past against Pep future in a Pep-less present that could mark the transition from one generation to the next. Or could, conceivably, were Barcelona to win convincingly, assert Barça’s hegemony and perhaps even the growth of a new dynasty under Tito Vilanova.
Staying with football’s New Seriousnessists, Zonal Marking’s tactical preview:
Even before Pep Guardiola announced he was moving to Munich in the summer, Bayern had increasingly become based around ball retention. Their 2009/10 side, which reached the final and is still similar to the current starting XI, mixed good ball retention with a counter-attacking threat, but their progress to the final that season was more based around the latter. From the first game of the following season, the 1-0 win over Wolfsburg, their possession play was much more pronounced – it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Germany’s 1-0 defeat to Spain that summer in South Africa, a clear demonstration of proactive football getting the better of reactive football, contributed, considering how many Bayern players played for Germany, and how many Barcelona players played for Spain. Louis van Gaal was also clearly a major factor.
And from the School of Unseriousness, the genius of Barney Ronay shines its light on the historical sweep of this Spain vs Germany set of semifinal ties:
It is tempting to read a great deal into the swaggeringly four-square German-Spanish dominance of this season’s Champions League semi-finals. Football loves a sweeping narrative and in Bayern v Barça and Dortmund v Real there is a sense of certain shared sporting values that go beyond mere geography, a butterfly print of matching elites from which the committed Rorschach theorist might draw all manner of overheated conclusions. But if the significance of such moments of dominance can often be overstated – exhibit one: the unstoppable rise of the Premier League (sell-by date 2011) – there is still a starkness to this semi-final lineup, a sense of a greater historical ascent in play. Something is happening here. But what, exactly?
Perhaps the most striking element of this drift towards a Germano-Iberian duopoly is the feeling not of opposed and contrasting superpowers, but of convergence and consensus, of a fraternal similarity. The dawning of the age of Iberia may have been upon us for some time, but in the Bayern supremacy it finds an answering echo: if Germany and Spain are streets ahead when it comes to player development and tactical coherence, they appear to have skipped off around the corner more or less hand-in-hand.
Read the links in the next hour–and enjoy the match!
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.
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.
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.
With Arsenal currently sitting 7th in the Premier League table, it’s now truly inevitable that Robin van Persie will choose a new club come summertime, barring some miracle. But because it seems so predestined, the notion doesn’t trigger anxiety levels of Fabregas-ian proportions from summers past, where you just really didn’t know what was going to happen. Even with Samir Nasri, one thought Arsenal might just take the financial hit and force the Frenchman to stick around, because surely Wenger wouldn’t let two of his three/four best players go at the last possible moment, would he?
Anyhow, just as Robin’s departure seems inevitable, so too does speculation of the destination club. Cue the inevitable stories of van Persie to Barcelona.
Van Persie currently ranks among the most in-form strikers in the world. It’s only natural that he be linked to the best clubs in the world. Money is not the motivating factor. What Robin wants is to win trophies and play with other players of his caliber. Even the most ardent Arsenal supporter will admit that van Persie is in his own league. Wilshere could get there, but certainly not while he’s out for the season.
With talk of Barcelona being the best team of this generation, obviously lazy journalists make “Van Persie to Barcelona” their go-to. They’ve already got the templates, having been through the whole business before with Henry, who left for similar reasons. And they can naturally cut-and-paste parts from the Fabregas template. (Hell, even Alex Hleb!) Despite not currently topping their own league, Barcelona is the best team is the world at present. So, even without a shred of supporting evidence, the link makes sense.
Why player, club and every onlooker might think it’s a good fit is too obvious to really go into any further.
The real question (to me) is: Would van Persie do well at Barcelona? Would he be the preferred starter?
If not, if he knows he will only provide cover for the main striker, utilized mostly as an impact sub, would he choose Barça? (Impact subs get CL winner’s medals, too…)
Van Persie comes from a system not entirely different from the Catalan way, but so did Henry, and that wasn’t exactly an unqualified success. David Villa had played with the midfield maestros on the national team, which made him less of a risk, but Ibrahimovic never had and didn’t mesh especially well, whereas Eto’o did.
Individual chemistry with the team is the unknown and unknowable but crucial factor towards determining an import striker’s success at Barcelona.
Any thoughts would be appreciated. Honestly, I really don’t know how it would pan out. Van Persie would certainly kill to play with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas (again), but I find it hard to believe he’d settle for a spot on the bench.
I also find it unlikely he’d move to another club in England, so who else does it leave? AC Milan? Perhaps next year’s coach at Real Madrid can come up with a new hunter-animal analogy for him?
To be fair to both Henry and van Persie, the comparison with Henry is not entirely like-to-like. Many often cite age as a factor with Barcelona-era Henry, but Henry was only a year older than van Persie will be in the summer. (Henry turned 30 in mid-August 2007; van Persie turns 29 this August.) It really was more that Henry was not at his peak, whereas van Persie is most definitely enjoying his peak and may stay there for a few years to come. (He could even get better with excellent through-pass service, however there was no mistaking the gray hairs in Wednesday’s match against Bolton.) With Robin, it has always come down to his injury status. He’s never lacked the finish, simply the fitness.
Henry in his peak combined with the current-day Barcelona squad would have been incredible to behold. God, I wish that had happened. Except that they were all wearing the Red and White. (And except for the whingeing, whining, diving Dani Alves—Barcelona can keep him. Hmm, I just realized that if you take the “an” out of Dani and “Al” out of Alves, you’re left with “Dives.” Sounds about right.)
What started off el clásico predictable turned into a wide-open and exciting affair. Though they were the losing side, Madrid's performance is sure to embolden them on their league return to the Camp Nou.