What To Watch Today: Man Utd-Spurs & Barcelona-Napoli

August 22, 2011 — by Suman

We’ll be back soon with an account of what we watched this past weekend, but first there are two matches later today that are worthy of your attention:

Monday, August 22

Gamper Trophy (friendly), Barcelona-Napoli (2:30pmET,

This is an annual pre-season friendly hosted by Barcelona each August, named after Joan (nee Hans) Gamper–a Swiss player and businessman, and founding member of FC Zurich.  He moved to Barcelona in 1898, where he founded, played for, and then served as club president of FC Barcelona (cf. Chapter 4 of Jimmy Burns’ definitive history of the club, Barça: A People’s Passion).

Aurilio De Laurentiis' Napoli goes into the Lion's Den to face Barcelona today

For this trophy, Barcelona invites a club from outside Spain to play at the Camp Nou; the past few years have seen top clubs like AC Milan, Man City, Boca Junions, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, and Juventus travel to Barcelona.  Today it’s another Serie A club, one that has emerged as a challenger to the Milanese hegemony in Italy.

Napoli finished 3rd in Serie last season, behind the two Milan team, so we’ll be seeing them in the Champions League this fall. Their breakout star last year was 24-year-old Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani–he scored a club-record 26 goals in Serie A last season, his first with Napoli after they’d signed him away from Palermo.  Napoli showed they’re serious about challenging in Serie A–and perhaps even in the Champions League–by extending Cavani’s contract until 2016.

Not only that, they added to their squad over the summer by signing Swiss-Turkish midfielder Gökhan Inler away from Udinese (who, by contrast with Napoli, sold off their star players following their strong finish in Serie A last season).

Inler’s unveiling in Naples was quite literally that–or more accurately, an unmasking.  See the photo, or better yet the video: “Presentazione Gokhan Inler con la maschera da leone e la grande risposta di De Laurentiis” (yes, that’s the film producer  Aurelio De Laurentiis, who refounded the club after it had gone into bankruptcy into 2004).

And of course on the other side of the ball it’s only the best club side of our era.  Given that it’s just a friendly, we’ll be watching for some of the second-stringers to get more playing time: new/recent arrivals Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Ibrahim Affelay, as well as La Masia graduate Thiago Alcântara. Consider that those four (Thiago and Cesc in the midfield, in the spots where Xavi and Iniesta usually run things; Sanchez and Affeley on the wings), plus current starters Messi and Busquets, form a front six (in Barça 4-3-3) for the next decade–Cesc and Affelay are the senior members of that lineup at 24 and 25, respectively.

EPL, Manchester United-Tottenham Hotspur (3pmET, ESPN2/ A more consequential match than the one above.  It’s Tottenham’s season opener, after their Week One fixture was postponed in the wake of the London riots–and they have the tough draw of going into Old Trafford to face defending title-holders ManU.  Here are Coach Larry’s thoughts on the match:

Considering we know (assume?) that Spurs will make significant changes to their team before the window closes, how they lineup should prove interesting.  United’s squad appears settled, and now they have the youth (back from loan spells) they lacked last term.  ManU should lock down the midfield area to protect their central defense, but Rafael van der Vaart could prove a challenge.  Tottenham’s back line represents their most consistent group and their matchup against United’s attack probably will offset.

Our resident Spurs fan John Lally is optimistic: “I really fancy spurs to put in a performance today.  Ashley Young is their biggest threat but hopefully we start [Croatian] Kranjčar again in the middle. I’ll say 2-2”

Also optimistic is the Guardian’s Barney Ronay, who writes that the Spurs may “wing” their way to victory, thus ending to their long drought at Old Trafford (their last win there was in December 1989!)–that is to say, that the matchups to watch will be on the wings, where Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon will be running at Man U depleted defense.


The Element of Suicide, Or What Must Go Right For Manchester United To Win

May 25, 2011 — by Adam

[Editors’ note: We welcome back Adam Novy for a preview of this Saturday’s little match in London–Manchester United versus FC Barcelona, meeting at Wembley for the 2011 UEFA Champions League final.]

Suicidal tendencies?

Manchester United is a cunning team who play a vintage 4-4-2 formation and, when focused, do well controlling games against big teams, as with their three recent wins against Chelsea, a side who always used to kill them. While Barcelona my be slightly overrated by a droolingly uncritical press who’ve made them poster kids for liberal self-congratulation despite their racist players, they play the best and most attractive football of any club in memory, and have five or six of the best position players in the world, including Leo Messi, who’s in a class by himself. To beat Barcelona, Utd will need a number of things to go their way, and, if any single one of them doesn’t, they will lose. (You should probably be told, gentle reader, that I’m a Man Utd fan.) It’s not impossible for Utd to pull this off, but it’s highly unlikely.

Here is a list of things Utd need to do to win:

Squeeze Out Service To Messi

Lionel Messi is almost impossible to stop, except when he plays for Argentina, when he never gets the ball in dangerous places and has almost no influence at all. Germany contained him without sweating, and, to do the same, Utd will need to keep the ball from getting to him in the box. Because he moves back and forth and side-to-side, Utd will cede possession if he’s far from the goal, but try to angle him away if he’s in the area. Also, once he gets the ball, he’ll need to be smothered. He cannot be allowed to pass to open teammates.


Little Lille Leading Ligue 1

May 11, 2011 — by Suman1

What’s one to do until the highly anticipated Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United (Saturday May 28 btw)?  All the big European league winners have been virtually decided over the past couple weekends, and in each case there’s been little drama–the champions have each been atop their respective tables for some time.  Manchester United basically wrapped up the English Premier League with their dominating victory over Chelsea on Sunday. In Spain, Barcelona need just a single point this afternoon in their match against Levante to clinch the title (though really they clinched it with their draw a few weeks ago with a draw at the Bernabeu).  And despite a bit of wobble over the past few weeks, Borussia Dortmund finally did wrap up the Bundesliga crown.

Lille Olympique Sporting Club - Les Dogues

Well, you could finally turn your attention across the Channel/Pyrenees/Alps/Maginot to France, where surprisingly Lille has put some space between them and perennial powers Marseille and Lyon.

Via a SkySports writeup:

A 3-2 loss to fellow high-fliers Lyon on Sunday put another sizeable dent in Marseille’s hopes of defending their Ligue 1 crown. They now sit seven points adrift of table-topping Lille with time running out on the 2010/11 campaign.

Marseille do have a game in hand on the leaders, though, and Deschamps insists his side will not be giving up without a fight.

“Can we retain our title? We have only taken one point from the last two matches, so that hasn’t helped,” he said.

“But there are still 12 points to play for and it is still possible….

Marseille play host to Brest on Wednesday and, with Lille not in action, will be looking to close to within four points of the summit with three games remaining.


Lille–the full name of the club is Lille Olympique Sporting Club Lille Métropole, and hence they are known as LOSC (and also as Les Dogues–The Mastiffs) last won the Ligue 1 in 1953-54, and spent much of the next few decades down in Ligue 2.  But they’ve been doing well over the past decade, highlighted by a couple appearances in the Champions League following top 3 finishes domestically.  The name we’ve been hearing from the current squad is 20-year old Belgian “starlet” Eden Hazard, who may leave Lille this summer for one of the really big clubs elsewhere on the Continent (or in England).

Marseille and Brest kick off in just over an hour, so you could tune in for that one. For an idea of who to watch for on Marseille’s squad, take a look at our post prior to their Champions League Round of 16 match against Manchester United back in March.  That match–along with a handful of additional Ligue 1 fixtures–are available for streaming on

Or you could tune in to see Barça visit Levante UD and presumably celebrate on the pitch at Estadi Ciutat de València (Levante Unión Deportiva being the second team en la ciudad de València; the first, València Club de Futbol, plays of course at El Camp de Mestalla).


El Clásico Series, Part 3: Champions League 1st Leg

April 27, 2011 — by Suman2

Pep: Decir la verdad al puto jefe!

Just when you thought El Clásico couldn’t get any more heated, Pep Guardiola took the rivalry to 11 in his press conference yesterday in Madrid. But the real battle of Mourinho contra Guardiola will take place on the pitch later today, with the 1st leg of the Champions League semifinal. It will remarkably be the 3rd meeting in the past 11 days between Guardiola’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Real Madrid (following the tense 1-1 draw in a La Liga match on April 16 and Madrid’s dramatic 1-0 Copa del Rey victory a week ago), and the real battle will be the tactics the two managerial masterminds deploy today, in light of the past two matches–and in light of key absences for both squads.  Here’s what you need to get ready for today’s match:

If you have time for nothing else, open up this post of ours from last November, containing both sides’ squad lists; also open up Marca’s very cool interactive graphic showing “Los sistemas de Mourinho y de Guardiola“–though given the injuries and suspensions, today’s starting XIs will not be any of the ones shown there. Keep reading..

If you’ve got more time, and haven’t been following our El Clásico coverage, catch up on last November’s initial La Liga meeting here and here (“This game more than any other has divided the CultFootball brain trust, with one faction supporting the brilliant arrogance of the establishment side and the other hoping the subversives from the north can one-touch their way a million times to victory.”). That match of course produced a stunning 5-0 victory for the Catalan club–what we called “Tiki-taka to La Manita” (that post includes two sets of video highlights from that instant classic El Clásico).

Like the rest of the footballing world, we’ve got loco for El Clásico over the past two weeks. Our preview of this four-game series is here.  These words still hold true–but a couple key names mentioned here will be absent today due to injury (Iniesta for Barça, Khedira for Madrid):

So which team is in better form? Through most of the season it was clearly Barcelona, but they’ve seemed a tad shaky of late while Madrid are looking pretty comfortable on the pitch. Madrid have also had an entire season to learn Mourinho’s defensive principles…then again Barça tend to have their way with what seem at the outset to be the most prepared of teams.

The key to a Madrid victory will be to limit Messi’s time with the ball. When his teammates have looked less than otherworldly this season, the little Argentine has stepped up his game to amazing levels. Very often it’s some combination of Iniesta and Xavi that pop open the defenses, with Messi finishing the movement, but Khedira and Alonso will collapse on them very quickly and it’ll be up to Lionel in isolation (and also finding Villa moving off the shoulder of his defender).

For Barcelona to walk away with the win they’ll have to retreat quickly when they lose possession (Madrid have a very quick counter attack) and not give Özil any time on the ball. The young German is a key link between back and front, and with him contained Barça can maintain their high pressing and look to turn the ball over quickly, as they do.

After the Copa del Rey, the observation that Barcelona seems a tad shaky while Madrid is looking increasingly comfortable holds a fortiori–as well as the tactical observations about Messi on the ball and Madrid on the counterattack, with Madrid’s defensive midfield “trivote” tasked with collapsing on the former, and Özil certainly a key to the latter. See our multipart film session on the Copa del Rey final for illustrations of these points.

Madrid’s trivote in the previous two matches consisted of Khedira, Xabi Alonso, and Pepe. With Khedira out, look for Lass Diarra to step into the midfield. Might we see Kaka make an appearance in the midfield, and/or Higuain up front? The Brazilian midfielder and Argentine striker have both been absent this season due to injuries, but both played well over the weekend in Madrid’s 6-3 blowout of Valencia.

ZonalMarking's Probable Starting XIs

For Barcelona, their stalwart defender Puyol returns to lineup, but both Brazilian left wingbacks (Adriano and Maxwell) have been left back in Barcelona due to injury. Add to this Eric Abidal’s continued absence (due surgery in March to remove a tumor from his liver, although remarkably he returned to training this week), and Barcelona will again be forced into a suboptimal lineup in defense. Look for Mascherano to stay in the starting XI, though it’s not clear if he’ll be playing wingback.  ZonalMarking speculates that Puyol will play on the left, while Mascherano will stay in the center.  In either case, Barça likely won’t get the forward width they get from Adriano or Maxwell–but that may actually be a good thing, as Puyol or Mascherano will stay home and be more likely to prevent Madrid counterattacks up that wing.  Hence, look for Madrid to concentrate even more on getting behind Dani Alves on the other side of the field–the diMaria-Alves matchup there is key.

Not having Iniesta in the midfield is of course a huge loss.  In his stead, it will likely be the Malian Seydou Keita who pairs with Xavi and Busquets–though we may also see the 20-year old “wonderkid” Thiago Alcantara in action. Up front it will be the usual trio of Villa, Messi and Pedro.

We leave you with video of Pep’s presser yesterday–we are confident we will be using the phrase “el puto jefe y puto amo” with regularity in the future:


CultFootball Film Session: Copa del Rey Clásico (Part 2)

April 25, 2011 — by Suman1

We went through the 1st half highlights of last Wednesday’s Copa del Rey Clásico in detail–highlights that were dominated by Real Madrid’s counterattacking.  But it was a game of two halves:

The second half was a different game entirely. Barcelona were rejuvenated by whatever spanking Pep Guardiola gave them in the dressing room, and they came out with the sort of belly fire you expect from the best team of their generation. Suddenly the game was stretched (in part because Madrid were pushing more into attack, but also because Xavi and Pedro were drawing out Pepe and Khedira more successfully) leaving Iniesta room to move through the middle.

Watch along as we detail the 2nd half highlights below:

Comments on 2nd half highlights:

The 2nd half highlights start off (at 7:06 of the video) with a great chance for Pedro from the left flank, created by Xavi and Iniesta (51′).  The tape jumps from that clip ahead to the 69′ (7:44), and a classic instance of Messi’s ability: he drops back to the halfline to receive the ball from Xai; three Madrid defenders converge on him (Pepe, Marcelo, Xabi), but he turns away and scampers across the field, turns away another Madrid tackler, and slots a ball through for Pedro–who does in fact put the ball in the back of the net and starts celebrating.  But the linesman had called offsides, and the explosion of Barça joy is cut short (“Explosión de alegría abortada”). The replay shows that Pedro was leaning just beyond the last defender.

"Explosión de alegría abortada"

Another beautiful Barça thru-ball creates another great chance (8:43, 75′): Busquets with a great pass from the center line to Dani Alves, who’s further forward than any other Barcelona player.  He cuts back and finds Messi, who’s run into space at the top of the Madrid box.  He gets off a good shot, but Casillas saves well–and here’s an example of where ” the counter attack of Madrid started to look more like desperate clearing rather than pointed reply.”  Watch the sequence after Madrid boots the ball up off Casillas’ rebound–Barcelona plays keep away for about 20 seconds in the crowded middle of the pitch, evenutally leading to another great chance for Pedro.  The ball goes tiki-taka from Dani Alves to Busquets to Xavi, who dances around a challenge from Marcelo, gives it back to Busquets.  He finds Iniesta, who one-touches to Messi.  Messi once again skips through a few Madrid defenders, shifting the play from one side to the other, and finds Xavi in a bit of space. He puts Pedro in, and he nearly scores by chipping Casillas–but the Madrid captain just manages to swat it away with his fingertips.  Casillas keeps Madrid in the game a few minutes later, when another sequence of Barça possession leads to another great chance, this time for Iniesta off a quick give-and-go with Messi (9:45, 81′).

Madrid does create two chances in the last five minutes of regulation.  A good tackle and quick pass forward (by Xabi? 10:22, 87′) to CR7 leads to a strong run at Barça’s defense by Adebayor.  Ronaldo runs behind him and up the left flank; Dani Alves is tracking him, but gets turned around when it seems like Adebayor might get through to goal himself.  Adebayor lays off for Ronaldo, who’s seemingly in on goal once again, but again Alves is able to recover just in time to block Ronaldo’s shot.  The last chance is created by Ronaldo, who despite his missed opportunities keeps working hard.  He picks up a loose ball in the middle, finds diMaria on the left; the Argentine cuts in, creates a bit of space between him and Dani Alves just outside the box, and sends in a curling shot that Pinto palms over.


CultFootball Film Session: Copa del Rey Clásico (Part 1)

April 22, 2011 — by Suman2

Sean’s excellent postgame analysis of Wednesday’s tense and memorable Copa del Rey final included the video of Sergio Ramos dropping la Copa under the bus.  Here is video from the match itself, followed by some micro-analyses of key sequences in the 1st half.  We’ll follow up with commentary on the 2nd half and extra time highlights over the next couple days.  Certainly prior to the next El Clásico (3 of 4)–back to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Wednesday, for perhaps an even bigger match–the 1st leg of the Champions League semifinal matchup.

Comments on 1st half highlights:

The first highlight (0:00-0:50 of the clip, 11′ of the match) illustrates Madrid’s quick counterattacking in the opening half.  The play is created in the initial 10 seconds–we suggest you watch that segment a few times: notice how Madrid left winger diMaria picks up the ball in a crowded space along the touchline and quickly splits a couple Barça defenders. In particular, he gets behind Barça’s attack-minded right wingback Dani Alves; the diMaria-Alves matchup on this side of the pitch is one to focus on.

Özil (#23) is initially standing inside towards the center, but as soon as diMaria breaks through, Özil sprints up the inside left channel, finding a seam of space in between Barcelona central back Pique (#3) and left wingback Adriano (#21).  It’s a great run by Özil, with credit also due to diMaria for slotting the ball through into Özil’s path.  Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo is initially on the far side of the field very close to diMaria, but he sprints behind Özil’s run into the empty space in the center–the space that’s opened up when Pique steps towards diMaria’s penetration and Adriano chases Özil across.

Turkish-German Özil vs Brazilian Adriano

Özil receives the through ball on the left flank, does a little pirouette, and chips the ball over and across onto Ronaldo’s foot–note how the ball floats just over the head of Pique.  The Catalan center back did well to recover towards the middle in an attempt to track Ronaldo’s run, but Özil’s ball was measured just right.  Just those few seconds–the run, the turn, the pass– show the creativity in Özil’s movement, vision and passing that’s earning him such as praise in his first year at Madrid.

With a better first touch CR7 should have created an excellent chance to score here.  Imagine how different the game would have been had he put Madrid up in the 11th minute–but his first touch betrayed him, and the ball skittered almost to the touchline.  Ronaldo did well to still put the ball on net, but from a sharp angle, and by that time Barça’s defense had recovered, and Mascherano cleared off the line.


Real Madrid Lay Hands on the Copa del Rey

April 21, 2011 — by Sean5

Less than a week after their hard fought tie in league play, Madrid and Barça met in the final of the King’s Cup. Mourinho sent his defensive set into the midfield again, then put in Özil from the start for an added touch of creativity in attack, and sprinkled the whole side with an extra dose of aggression dust.

The force of Madrid’s tackling and their quickness in closing down the Barça players immediately unstabilized the usually unflappable Blaugrana. On the strength of their defense and their quick counter attack, Madrid had far the better of the first half. Pepe seemed to be everywhere and Ronaldo did very well as the lone striker up top (even with Mascherano shadowing his every move). The game moved quickly up and down the pitch, but Barcelona weren’t finding any joy past the midfield circle and it wasn’t until nearly the 40th minute that they finally caused an overload close to goal (the chance fizzled without them manufacturing a shot).

Their one foray aside, Barcelona were lucky to get to the halftime whistle tied at zeroes, especially after Pepe’s towering header above Dani Alves smashed against the inside post and deflected at an agonizing angle across the goal mouth.

The second half was a different game entirely. Barcelona were rejuvenated by whatever spanking Pep Guardiola gave them in the dressing room, and they came out with the sort of belly fire you expect from the best team of their generation. Suddenly the game was stretched (in part because Madrid were pushing more into attack, but also because Xavi and Pedro were drawing out Pepe and Khedira more successfully) leaving Iniesta room to move through the middle.

It was in fact Iniesta who turned the game in Barça’s favor. In the first half, the playmaker forced passes into Messi and Villa only to find them sitting inside a trap. In the second half the tiny balding Spaniard held the ball and ran past the first defensive line of Madrid, then worked in closer proximity to his strikers so they could work the tiki taka. As soon as they found their rhythm the counter attack of Madrid started to look more like desperate clearing rather than pointed reply.

If not for Iker Casillas, Barça would have gone ahead in the second half, and considering the state of Madrid at the time they would probably not have found a way back. Spain’s number one tapped away a lovely chipped ball by Pedro and pushed aside an Iniesta strike destined for the corner.

It looked as if the game would head for extra time, until Madrid managed an odd man rush at the very end of the 90 minutes and di María found himself free to test Pinto from just outside the box. Valdés’s stand-in managed to palm the floating attempt above the bar and it was onto the next 30 minutes. More of the same for the most part. Hard tackling from Madrid but Barcelona with better control, though the chances had dried up.

Sergio "Butterfingers" Ramos drops the Copa del Rey under the party bus

Then just past the 100 minute mark Madrid found their way through the center of the pitch by way of another Pepe tackle. Marcelo swung the ball out to di María who got a toe in front of Alves to lift a far-side cross to the slicked head of Cristiano Ronaldo. The glistening head of the Portugese directed the ball past the unbalanced Pinto — Madrid 1 – 0 Barcelona.

Substitutions were made by both sides in the final fifteen minutes, but the score remained the same, and Real Madrid walked away with their first Copa del Rey in eighteen years. Then, Sergio Ramos dropped it under the party bus on the way back from the airport…


Marca on Madrid: “Con 10 Se Juega Mejor”

April 17, 2011 — by Suman1


We’ve been digesting Saturday’s Real Madrid-Barcelona 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu–just the first installment of this month’s 4-part El Clásico series; the second is coming up this Wednesday with the Copa del Rey final, to be contested on neutral turf–at the Mestalla in Valencia. In the meantime, it’s always entertaining to see how Madridista tabloid Marca spins the latest big result.

There’s much to savor in this cover. The screaming lead (“Con 10 se juega mejor”) seems pedestrian enough. Translating to “It’s better to play with 10” (or “We play better with 10”?), Marca is seemingly remarking simply that Madrid played better after losing Albiol to a red card and playing a man short for the final 40 minutes of the match.

But it turns out the headline may actually be an allusion to an aphorism attributed to the legendary manager Helenio Herrera–which leads to something of a Möbius strip of historical resonances: Herrera, nicknamed Il Mago (“The Wizard”), is best known for managing Barcelona (1958-1960) and subsequently Inter Milan (1960-1968).  His Barcelona sides successfully challenged the 5-time European champions Real Madrid on the domestic front. Then in Milan he gave birth to Catenaccio and led “La Grande Inter” to two consecutive European championships (1964 and 1965).  Inter didn’t conquer Europe again until last year–led by Jose Mourinho of course, defeating Barcelona along the way in the semifinal, which led to headlines such as “In José Mourinho Inter finally have a true heir to Helenio Herrera.”

(For more on Herrera, confer this post on The Equaliser (which also has a post about La Grande Inter); Chapter 9 of Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against The World, titled “A Day with Helenio Herrera”; the chapter of Jimmy Burns’s Barça: A People’s Passion covering Herrera’s tenure at Barcelona, titled “El Salvador”; or this post titled “The Really Special One – Helenio Herrera.”)

Back to the Marca cover: Mou(rinho)’s comment on the matter gets put across the top (“Me cansa jugar siempre contra ellos con diez jugadores” / “I am tired of always playing against them with 10 players”), and Marca asks whether the “roja directo” (straight red) for Albiol versus no yellow (“ni amarilla”) for Alves on the respective penalties represents a double standard (“¿doble rasero?”).

Of course it’s CR7 and Messi that dominate the image–another fine piece of photoshopping. Ronaldo striding with the ball, looking up, clawing at the air like some sort of big cat (perhaps an allusion to Mourinho’s hunting with cats?), while Messi shuffles behind him, eyeing the ball, looking disturbed/disturbing.

But we also rather like the little image of Guardiola and Mourinho inserted at the top: the two managers with their backs to each other, pistols in hand.  One round of the duel completed–three more to go.