Rob 11:17 PM If only...Arsenal weren't so fucked.
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 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!
The culmination of the European club season is upon us. Bayern Munich takes on aging interlopers Chelsea in the Allianz Arena–which happens to be Bayern’s home ground. (For US viewers: kickoff is at 2:45pmET, and the match will be televised on Fox’s main network. In fact, the Fox networks are going full bore with almost-Super Bowl levels of TV coverage–see below for the full schedule.)
And what a season it’s been–especially the past month. Recall that it was just (over) a month ago that the Champions League semifinals started, with Bayern defeating Real Madrid at the same venue, and with Chelsea shocking the world with a 1-0 win over Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. The return legs the following week were even more dramatic. Chelsea even more unbelievable result at the Camp Nou, eliminating the defending Catalan champions; and the next day Bayern downing Madrid in PKs at the Bernabéu.
At some point we’ll have to revisit those extraordinary matches, as well as the ensuing events (Pep Guardiola’s announcement that he will step down, and the dramatic events in the various domestic leagues and cups).
But with kickoff just hours away, here’s a pregame reading/listening list to get you ready for today’s match:
- ZonalMarking’s tactical match preview: including his probably starting lineups:
If Chelsea did an ‘Inter 2010′ in the semi-final against Barcelona, they need to repeat the trick here – Inter went onto beat Bayern in the final that year.
Jose Mourinho’s side played extremely defensively in the final two years ago, essentially continuing the strategy they’d used at the Nou Camp a few weeks earlier, despite the fact they were playing a much more attacking game in Serie A at the time. Will Chelsea do the same?
Broadly the same approach makes sense. No-one plays quite like Barcelona, but in terms of ball retention, Bayern are the closest thing. Barca lead the way in terms of average possession and pass completion rate across Europe’s major five leagues, but Bayern are second in both categories. Though they’ve always been a side with fine passers, they’ve become even more about retention since the final two years ago – then, they mixed possession play with direct play down the flanks from Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Those two are still in the side, of course, but tend to find themselves trying to break down packed, deep defences more frequently.
- FourFourTwo’s Professor Champions League Paul Simpson sounds similar themes in his column on the “Fascinating final clash of styles which echoes down the ages“:
The 2012 UEFA Champions League final isn’t just a contest for the greatest prize in club football; it is the latest instalment in a never-ending tactical argument.
Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern belong to the grand tradition of Bill Nicholson, Jock Stein, Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola in which teams dominate possession, take the initiative and feel obliged to win in style, as Danny Blanchflower once put it.
Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stand for a different, no less valid, tradition in which teams seek to draw the opposition out and punish them on the counter.
- Our friend PoliticalFootballs caps off this season’s last installment of his “This Week in English Football”–following of course a recap of last Sunday’s crazy final day in England–with a quick preview of today’s match (http://politicalfootballs.com/2012/05/17/this-week-in-english-football-city-champions-of-england-chelsea-of-europe-next:
With the game being played in Munich, and the home side having the duel threats of Ribery and Robben to throw at Chelsea, Bayern are clear favourites to win the trophy. But they are susceptible to teams who counterattack well – as last weekend’s 5-2 defeat to Borussia Dortmund proved in the German Cup final – and they will be wary of the English side who knocked out Napoli and Barcelona in previous rounds with the odds stacked against them. There is bad news and good news for Chelsea in terms of player availability – both Ivanovic and Ramires miss out through suspension; but so too does John Terry.
- Following Chelsea’s defeat of Barcelona, Jonathan Wilson detailed the remarkable historical coincidences between Chelsea 2012 and Leeds 1975:
The team in white celebrated wildly. Reduced to 10 men in their semi-final second leg on 24 April at the Camp Nou, they’d held on for an improbable 3-2 aggregate victory over Barcelona to reach the European Cup final.
Earlier in the season they’d looked in disarray. An upstart young manager who was supposed to oversee the rejuvenation of the squad had been ousted after alienating a core of senior players, but a safe pair of hands everybody assumed was a short-term appointment had arrived, soothed egos and reawakened some of the old fire.
The league was beyond them, but doggedly they’d scrapped their way through to within one game of the prize – the greatest prize – that had eluded them through all their years of success. In that final that side in white faced Bayern Munich. Undone by some scandalous refereeing, they lost and were never the same again.
The similarities with Leeds United in 1974-75 and Chelsea’s success at the Camp Nou 29 years later are striking.
Here’s the full day’s US televeision schedule, via WaPo’s SoccerInsider:
1 p.m. ET: Pregame show on Fox Soccer and Fox Deportes
2 p.m.: Pregame show on Fox’s main network
2:30 p.m.: Match coverage on Fox’s main network and Fox Deportes
5 p.m.: Postgame show on Fox Soccer and Fox Deportes
5 p.m.: Match tape on foxsoccer2go.com
8 p.m.: Match tape on Fox Soccer
10 p.m.: Match tape on Fox Deportes
Sunday at 3 a.m.: Match tape on Fox Soccer
Sunday at noon: Match tape on Fox Soccer
Sunday at 5 p.m.: Match tape on Fox Soccer Plus
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.
After a month’s hiatus (due primarily to an extended internet-free trip to India–see below), we’re back with a TV guide to the weekend. As usual, we provide US TV listings with ET kickoffs, since that’s where we reside. For our non-US readers, we’ve included a link to livesoccertv.com for each match.
Check back in over the course of the weekend, as we’ll post our Saturday and Sunday selections. But since our first selection kicks off in less than an hour, we’re posting now:
Friday, Jan 20
Germany, Borussia Moenchengladbach-Bayern Munich (2:30pmET GolTV): A good matchup in the Bundesliga’s Friday Night Lights offering. They’re just returning to action this weekend in Germany, after the longest holiday break in Europe. In fact, Bayern Munich took a little training trip to Asia earlier this month–some training and a friendly match in Doha, followed by a friendly in India–and they happened to land in Delhi while we were there. We’ll write that up in a separate post. For now, we’ll note that Munich is back to full strength–Bastian Schweinsteiger returned to the lineup in their friendly against the Indian national team, with Heynckes playing his top XI against the Indians (with the sole exception of Ribery, who came on in the 2nd half): Neuer, Boateng, Badstuber, Lahm, Kroos, Robben, Tymoshchuk, Schweinsteiger, Rafinha, Gomez, Muller.
On the other side, the only Moenchengladbach player we’ve heard of is Marco “Rolls” Reus–read this column by Guardian Bundesliga correspondent Raphael Honigstein: ‘Rolls Reus’ is the latest star off Germany’s production line. He’s definitely a player to watch. Since the fall all Bundesliga-watchers were well-aware it would be difficult to for Moenchengladbach to hang on to him. Wrote Honigstein back in October: “Reus, or ‘Rolls Reus’ as Bild has started calling him, was being genuinely targeted in the spring by Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Manchester United.” And in doing our pregame research for this match, we just learned he will move to the other Borussia this summer, after having spurned Bayern.
Actually we also just came across mention of another Moenchengladbach player to watch: Brazilian defender Dante, who was just praised by Bayern’s Heynckes. Uh oh..