The knockout stage continues with the rest of the lot matching up in the jostle for glory.
Well, yesterday’s clash of the titans turned out to be bloodbath. Bayern was favored, but no one saw a 4-0 demolition of Barcelona coming. More on that later in the week..
In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the 2nd semfinal 1st leg later today, another Bundesliga club hosting a Spanish club, with Real Madrid at Borussia Dortmund. A somewhat unusual feature of this matchup is that these squads are quite familiar with each other, as they finished 1-2 in the Goroup of Death in the group stage in the fall. Dortmund unexpectedly finished top of the group, drawing 2-2 at the Bernabeu (a game they probably should have won), and beating (and outclassing) Madrid 2-1 at home.
As yesterday, here’s a few preview links to get you ready for today’s big match:
As usual, if you have time to read only one thing, read Zonal Marking’s tactical preview. Two players to watch, as ZM highlights, are the two opposing young German umlauted star creative midfielders–Madrid’s Mesut Özil and Dortmund’s Mario Götze:
Götze v Özil
Maybe the most interesting battle, however, will be between the number tens. Last year Mesut Özil was outclassed by Toni Kroos at the semi-final stage, because Kroos was more comfortable dropping into deeper positions to allow Bayern to dominate.
They won’t literally be duelling on the pitch, of course – both will be fielded as central attacking playmakers, closely supporting their side’s main striker – but both will be charged with providing creativity from between the lines and leading quick counter-attacks.
Perhaps the style of this contest will suit Özil, but if the match becomes a patient battle of possession, Götze has the opportunity to dominate. Although a playmaker who thrives on space between the lines, and loves dribbling with the ball at speed, he’s also intelligent with his positioning, happy to drop deep into midfield to find space. In the previous round, with Manuel Pellegrini ordering Malaga to sit deep in two banks of four, Götze often retreated to extremely deep positions, behind Dortmund’s holding midfielders, to collect the ball and start attacks. You won’t find Özil doing that.
Götze’s role this week will be fascinating. He unwittingly finds himself at the centre of a very modern tactical debate — next season at Bayern Munich he’s likely to become a false nine, but in this Champions League semifinal tie, will he play as an Özil, or play as a Kroos?
The big surprising news of the week alluded to above is that Götze will be moving to Dortmund’s hated rivals Bayern Munich–the timing of which news that Dortmund’s star manager Jurgen Klopp is understandably unhappy about.
From a profile of Klopp, who, as much as any player, is the public face of this team: “Dortmund want to play football people will remember, says Jürgen Klopp: Talismanic manager has taken the club from uber mediocrity to a:
Dortmund pounced on Klopp when others hesitated. The manager was delighted to join a “football city” (although he later revealed he thought the club’s first contract offer “was a mistake” as it was less than he had earned at Mainz) and started rebuilding the squad. “I have the feeling that I will be able to work with the full support of the club here,” he said in August 2008. “Life is too short to worry about things anyway. I am 0.0% naive. I know how it works by a business. If you don’t do your job properly you lose your job.”
There has not been any chance of Klopp losing his job at Dortmund. Borussia finished sixth in his first season in charge and then fifth in 2010, having sold the club’s two top scorers, Mladen Petric and Alex Frei, in the process. The following season Dortmund won the Bundesliga, seven points ahead of Leverkusen, while still operating on a much smaller budget than most of their rivals. Dortmund had gone from the brink of bankruptcy to winning the league in six years, Kloppo style.
Mats Hummels, a Bayern Munich reject, cost €4m, Robert Lewandowski €4.5m, Neven Subotic likewise, Shinji Kagawa a measly €350,000. Lukas Piszczek arrived on a free while his compatriot Jakub Blaszczykowski joined for a reported fee of €3m. Nuri Sahin, Marcel Schmelzer, Götze and Kevin Grosskreutz all came through the ranks. Since that first league title win, Ilkay Gündogan has signed from Nürnberg for €4m and Marco Reus from Borussia Mönchengladbach for €17.1m.
No wonder Brendan Rodgers said recently that he wants to build Liverpool’s squad “the Dortmund way” (although the way Sahin, now back at Dortmund after a short-lived loan spell at Liverpool “thanked God” he was no longer playing for Rodgers suggests the man at Anfield has some way to go to match Klopp’s man-management skills).
But the Dortmund way is so much more than just scouting and bargain buys. Klopp has his own philosophy of what makes a squad competitive and it is one that sums up the ethos of the city they play in. “There are certain places where you have to conduct yourself and play football in a certain way, where you just can’t be pleased with staying back and hoofing the ball upfield,” he told the German football writer Uli Hesse last year. “There are certain places where, if you do that, people will say: ‘If that is the way you are going to play then I won’t go and watch you.’
“And Dortmund is one of those places. Here people demand that the team should play with the attributes that are closest to my heart: with a lot of feeling and with intensity until the very last minute. We want to play the kind of football people remember.”
Finally, one for the hipsters: SBNation with an essay on “Borussia Dortmund and hipsterdom“.
Today is the match of matches–at least of the season thus far: Real Madrid vs Manchester United, at El Bernabéu.
It’s the 1st leg of their Champions League Round of 16 draw, certainly a huge and highly anticipated match (though sophisticated football hipsters know that Shakhtar Donetsk vs Borussia Dortmund–also playing today, at the Donbass Arena–is the truly interesting matchup of the the Round of 16).
For previews of today’s match, read ZonalMarking’s tactical preview listicle here (the takeaways, or posited by Adam Novy before he read Michael Cox (see Appendix 1 below for more): “Smother Ronaldo, sit on Xabi, hope that Carrick isn’t smothered); and/or listen to Michael Cox, Sid Lowe and Barney Ronay on Monday’s rather epic pod.
For a history Madrid-Manchester United, the Telegraph has put together a nice feature: “Real Madrid v Manchester United: all of their past meetings have been a history of entertainment“, with embedded YouTube clips of the 1957 European Cup semi-final, 1968 European Cup semi-final, 2000 Champions League quarter-final, and 2003 Champions League quarter-final.
The 2000 quarterfinal tie was given a very close reading by Rob Smyth in this fascinating essay on thefcf.co.uk (also printed in The Blizzard, Issue One)–what writer and longtime United supporter/observer Adam Novy immediately remembered as “The Redondo Game.” See Appendix 2 below for Smyth’s intro paragraphs.
Appendix 1: As promised above, here’s a fuller exclusive excerpt–well, not exclusive if you’re fb friends with him–of Adam Novy’s thoughts going into today’s match:
Push the ball to Ronaldo and drive him to the sideline. Sit on Xabi Alonso and make someone else pass it out of the back. Pray that Madrid hates each other more than they hate losing. Also: don’t play Cleverly, Anderson, and Kagawa simultaneously. None of them can last for 90 minutes. Give Nani a chance. if he plays well in the first leg, offer him a massive contract to keep him happy.
Let the likes of Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones run like headless chickens in Madrid’s half, especially at Pepe and the backup goalie. Do not concede in Madrid. A scoring draw is bad against a cunning Spanish team. Win 2-0.
Though minutes later:
Beating Utd is actually very easy, if you have the players. Sit on Michael Carrick and force someone else to pass it out of the back. Charge your whole center midfield up the middle. Utd does not track back well. Finish the chances you get and keep up the pressure. Southampton tried to do this but they don’t have the finishers. Madrid have the finishers. Maybe play Kaka? He’s Madrid’s best goalscoring midfielder.
Appendix 2: The opening paragraphs of Rob Smyth’s close read:
A football match lasts much longer than 90 minutes. It begins before the first whistle and continues beyond the final whistle. Every game has a back-story and a front-story, and matches exist in what the academic film critic Stephen Heath called an “englobingly extensive prolongation”. Few have had such an extensive prolongation as the immense Champions League quarter-final between Real Madrid and Manchester United in 2000 when Real, having drawn the first leg 0-0, won 3-2 at Old Trafford in a game notable for a staggering quality of attacking play and a legendary tactical switch from Vicente del Bosque.
In a sense the tie began 40 years earlier, when a teenage Alex Ferguson sneaked into Hampden Park and was spellbound by Madrid’s 7-3 evisceration of Eintracht Frankfurt in the European Cup final. And it continues to impact 11 years on; every time Manchester United line up for a big game at home or in Europe, their tactics are a direct consequence of that chastening experience against Madrid. Del Bosque spoke of United’s “tactical anarchy” that night, and Ferguson ensured such suggestions could never be made again. Put simply, up until that game his teams tried to score one more than the opposition; ever since they have tried to concede one fewer.
Real’s win ended United’s reign as European champions, at a time when many felt Ferguson’s young side were set to establish a dynasty, and also instantly restored their own faded glamour. It also changed Del Bosque’s life. Until then he had been Real’s odd-job man, almost a Spanish Tony Parkes, but that match set him on the road to becoming one of the most successful coaches of the early 21st century. All of that, and Ferguson’s tactical epiphany, mean that this was arguably the most epochal European match since Heysel — although for very different reasons. Del Bosque’s tactical brainwave caused shockwaves that would indelibly change the landscape of modern football.
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.
The three matches we chose yesterday weren’t the most compelling: Sunderland-Spurs the most dreary, a scoreless draw, while Lazio beat Napoli 3-1 (highlighted by a fantastic chilena goal by Mauri), and Porto beat Sporting Braga 1-0 on their home ground. There were other interesting results in Italy, where AC Milan lost to lowly Fiorentina due to a late late goal, and later in the day Juve dispatched Palermo, thus pulling even with Milan on points at the top of the table. And in Germany, both Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund won (vs Augsburg and Wolfsburg, respectively), and thus Dortmund’s 3-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga table was conserved–setting up a showdown this coming Wednesday. But more on that later–for now, here are a few matches to watch on this sunny Easter Sunday:
Arsenal vs Manchester City (11amET; FSC & Fox Deportes): The big match of the weekend in England. #4 (though perhaps only temporarily) hosting #2 at the Emirates, with a full 3 points crucial for both teams. Arsenal need them to climb back into 3rd (ahead of local rival Spurs), in their continuing effort to consolidate a top 4 (preferably top 3) finish. City need them to stay within striking distance of their local rivals United–if City drop points today, they can say goodbye to any chance of winning the title. Which would give extra pleasure to many Arsenal fans, given that City have developed a habit of poaching some of Arsenal’s key players over the past few years–most recently and prominently French playmaker Samir Nasri–luring them north with petrodollars, plus the promise of hardware in the near future–something Wenger has been unable to guide his sides to in the past handful of years.
When these two teams met in mid-December at the Etihad, City slipped by the Gunners 1-0 thanks to a goal by their slight Spanish star David Silva. Indeed, the theme of our writeup was “Silva es magico.” But since then City’s (on-field) fortunes have waned, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that it’s primarily due to Silva tiring. He certainly hasn’t displayed the magical realism that was on display weekly in the fall (most prominently in the Massacre at Old Trafford early in the season).
We noted that that December result knocked the Gunners out of the title race–but that was only the beginning of the crisis, with Arsenal seemingly falling out of contention for even a Champions League spot after a horrendous January (lowlighted by the Night Arsene Lost the Emirates–also against United). But they rebounded with an impressive February, which started with that memorable 5-2 win against Spurs, although they’ve wobbled against recently, with a loss to QPR last weekend.
Athletic Bilbao vs Sevilla (12pmET; GolTV): Two underachieving sides, at least domestically. We’ve been tracking Athletic closely, and they’ve been delivering in cup competitions–thru to the semis of the Europa League, and in the finals of the Copa del Rey (where they’ll be taking on Barcelona, in May)–but they’ve slipped into the bottom half of the table as their league form has slipped badly. Sevilla has been trying to get back to the level they achieved a handful of years ago, and although they’ve got some talent–including current Spanish internationals Álvaro Negredo and Jesús Navas–their game perhaps depends a bit too much on aging former stars like Malian Frédéric Kanouté and well-traveled former Spanish international José Antonio Reyes. Reyes has come full circle–he came up through Sevilla youth system and made his La Liga debut with them over a decade ago, and then went on to play for: Arsenal, Real Madrid (on loan), Atlético Madrid, Benfica (again on loan), before returning to his first club.
Real Madrid vs Valencia (3:30pmET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): The slightest bit of pressure is on Madrid now in La Liga, since Barcelona have pulled to within 3 points. Hence, anything less than a win would be considered disastrous among los madridistas. It is Valencia, which as seemingly always sit in 3rd–although if they lose and Malaga win Monday against Racing, the latter would pull ahead of them in the table. Valencia, like Athletic, is thru to the semis of the Europa League, but similarly their domestic form has dipped recently too.
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.
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.
A couple of big-name matchups in 2nd legs of domestic cup competitions coming up later today: (1) Carling Cup semifinal - Manchester City vs Liverpool - 8:45pm CET / 2:45pmET / 7:45pm GMT (USA TV: FSC); and (2) Copa dey Rey quarterfinal - Barcelona vs Real Madrid - 10pm CET / 4pm ET / 9pm GMT (USA TV: ESPN Deportes, GolTV, ESPN3.com)