Monday, April 25, 2011

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Real Madrid - Barcelona

Yesterday, we previewed the Manchester United-Schalke match, if you missed it check it out. The second semifinal (April 27th at 2:45 Eastern) will be the 3rd edition of El Clásico in 11 days (the first match was a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu , the 2nd a 1-0 Real Madrid victory in the Copa Del Rey final).
  Much has been written about this matchup, which is widely regarded as the best rivalry in world soccer, and maybe even in sports - apologies to Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants, and Duke-North Carolina.  Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals should be a treat.

The Champions League trophy has arrived in
London ahead of the final. Hopefully, London mayor,
Boris Johnson takes better care of this
trophy than Sergio Ramos. (image from of
 Barcelona has been the best side in world soccer for the past several years and are looking for their 3rd title since 2006 (2006 and 2009).  Sure Inter won the Champions League last year, but Barcelona has been dominant in La Liga the past three seasons and won an unprecedented 6 trophies in the 2008-2009.  Currently, Barça sit 8 points clear of Real atop the La Liga table. Pep Guardiola's side, led by mighty-mite Lionel Messi, play some of the most attractive soccer in the world.  Messi has been brilliant this season, scoring 50 goals in all competitions.  It's not out of the question that the diminutive Argentine could hit 60 this season.  While Messi gets all the praise, he isn't alone.  Midfielders, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have been superlative this season, and David Villa (21 goals in all competitions) has proved an excellent deputy to the reigning World Footballer of the Year.

It was originally thought that Iniesta might miss the first leg of the semifinals after deliberately provoking a yellow card in Barcelona's first leg defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk. UEFA decided to forgo any further punishment.  This is a huge boost for Barça who would have certainly missed Iniesta's creativeness in midfield.  While Iniesta will be available for the Catalan giants, Adriano will not.  The defender/midfielder is out for four weeks with a torn thigh muscle.

Update: In addition to Adriano, Maxwell has now been ruled out for the match.  Barcelona will be scrambling to patch together a back four.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Carles Puyol play LB with either Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets play CB.  Busquets has played CB multiple times this season, and Mascherano turned in a fine performance in central defense in Barcelona's 2-0 victory over Osasuna on Sunday.  Barcelona will need to find a defensive alignment that works in order to stop Real's offense.

Real Madrid, who won their first Copa del Rey since 1993, against Barcelona earlier this week and looked excellent in their game against Valencia following their victory. Los Blancos are looking to make it to their first Champions League final since 2002 when they defeated Bayer Leverkusen. Real, who have played second fiddle to Barça for the past 3 or 4 seasons, attempted to address their short comings this summer with the signing of José Mourinho as manager.  While it appears the league will slip through the grasp of the Special One, the ultimate prize - the Champions League trophy - is still a possibility.

While Barça have Messi leading the way, Real have Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo leads Real with 42 goals and 12 assists in all competitions.  That output is bested only by Messi.  Gonzalo Higuaín (10 goals), Karim Benzema (21 goals) and Ángel Di María (9 goals, 13 assists) have provided extra spark for Mourinho's side.  One player who will be missing from the side when they take the pitch in Madrid is German international Sami Khedira. Khedira, like Adriano, suffered a torn thigh muscle that could keep him off the pitch for the rest of the season.  At a minimum, he will miss the next several weeks.  The defensive midfielder will be missed, as he has featured in 8 of Madrid's Champions League games.

Real Madrid and Barcelona face off for the 4th and 5th
time this season for the right to play for the Champions League title.

Prediction: Despite Madrid having the momentum following their Copa del Rey victory, I expect Barcelona to advance to the final. The Special One will certainly have something up his sleeve when the two teams meet, keep in mind he led Inter to victory over the Catalans in last season's semifinal, but Barcelona are just too good.  Expect home wins from both side, with Barça finding the extra goal needed to advance.  Also, as an American sports fan whose teams have befallen curses for their transgressions, I expect Real to pay the price for running over the Copa del Rey.

While the Champions League trophy has already arrived in London, we don't know the teams that will walk out on the pitch at Wembley on May 28th.  The games on Tuesday and Wednesday should go a long way to providing us the answers.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Manchester United - Schalke

Schalke, the surprise team of the season, look to continue
their magical run against Manchester United.
For soccer fans, the end of April can be a melancholy time.  Domestic leagues around Europe are winding down, and the transfer window doesn't open until July 1.  But, one thing that makes the end of April exciting is the culmination of the season long UEFA Champions League.

This year's Champions League semifinals should offer some exciting soccer.  Three of the most well-known soccer clubs in the world are in the final 4, and there is a Cinderella team for all those fans who like cheering for the underdog.  What more could you ask for?  As an Arsenal fan, I suppose I could have asked for the Gunners to make it to the semis, but I'm just excited at the prospect of some good soccer.

The first match (April 26th at 2:45pm Eastern), will see this season's surprise team, FC Schalke 04, take on one of the preeminent sides in Europe, Manchester United. While this match may not have the flash of the other semifinal, expect some good soccer.  It pits a side that has hit its scoring stride (Schalke outscored Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in their quarterfinal meeting) against a side that has conceded just three goals in 10 Champions league games!

Schalke have been a classic example of a Jekyll and Hyde side this season.  Prior to sacking Felix Magath in March, die Königsblauen (the Royal Blues) were struggling in the Bundesliga and still sit just 10th.  While their domestic form left something to be desired, Schalke was simultaneously turning in strong performances in both the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the Champions League.  Since Ralf Rangnick's appointment it seems the German side has found some joy on the pitch.  Under Rangnick, who spent a spell as manager with Schalke in 2004-2005, Schalke have parlayed their form in cup competitions into better form in the Bundesliga (2 wins and a draw away to Werder Bremen).

While the team, as a whole, has underperformed, Raúl seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in Gelsenkirchen.  The Spaniard, a legend for Real Madrid, has scored 18 goals and assisted on 6 more in all competitions for Schalke this season.  Playing sidekick to Raúl, the Royal Blues boast Peruvian playmaker, Jefferson Farfán and Dutch forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Farfán has been a creative force throughout the Champions League and has tallied 4 goals in the competition (10 goals, 8 assists overall).  Huntelaar, hampered by injuries of late, he hasn't played since the end of February, but could be back for the clash with the Red Devils.  His presence on the field (10 goals in all competitions) would certainly boost the Germans' hopes.

On the other side of the pitch, Manchester United again find themselves the last English team standing.  The Red Devils will be looking to make it to their 3rd final in the last four seasons (winning in 2008 against Chelsea, and losing in 2009 to Barcelona).  The beginning of the season saw many pundits writing of Manchester United's demise - the team was too old, Wayne Rooney had lost his form, the big money teams of Chelsea and Manchester City had bought too much talent.  It turns out rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated.  Man U has lost just 3 games in the Premier League this season, and hasn't lost in the Champions League.

Like Raúl, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar seem to have found the Fountain of Youth in Northwest England.  Both evergreens are having excellent seasons.  Giggs has 3 goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances this season, while van der Sar has 13 clean sheets in league play and 7 in the Champions League.  The Red Devils aren't just getting contributions from their veterans.  Javier 'Chicharito' Hernández has been a revelation this season, scoring 11 times in the EPL and another 4 in the Champions League.  Nani has developed into one of the best wingers in the world (9 goals and 14 assists in the EPL this season), and Wayne Rooney has seem to have refound his form since his amazing bicycle kick goal.

This matchup would seem to favor Manchester United, but Man U does not have the best of luck with German teams in the Champions League.  Check out this post on the Red Devils' history against Bundesliga teams. While past results are not indicative of future performance, you have to wonder if Schalke will find some magic.  With the first game taking place at Veltins-Arena, the Royal Blues will have every chance to take a lead heading into the 2nd leg.

Prediction: Manchester United advance, but don't win as convincingly as most EPL fans might expect.  I see a draw or even a loss for the Red Devils in Germany, followed by a victory at Old Trafford.

Agree? Disagree? Think I'm crazy?  Leave  a comment, and come back tomorrow for a preview of the second Champions League match - Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Champions League - Quarterfinals Review

The quarterfinals looked like they would serve up some good matches,
but all drama is gone as 3 of the 4 are already decided
Typically, I like to write a post about the upcoming Champions League round before it actually happens.  Clearly, that's not the case this time.  For those that are interested, I went 5-3 with my predictions from the round of sixteen.  Certainly better than I did in my NCAA bracket.  I picked Shakhtar DonetskAC MilanValenciaBayern MunichReal Madrid, BarcelonaManchester United and Chelsea. My incorrect picks - Tottenham beat AC Milan, Schalke beat Valencia, and Inter Milan beat Bayern.

Since my slacker tendencies prevented me from getting this post up before the first leg of the quarterfinals, I've had to tweak what I was going to write.  At this point, there is no reason to predict who is going to make it through to the semifinals, as three of the quarterfinals are well and truly over.

Here's a screen shot from the video of Dejan Stankovic's
golazo against Schalke. Check out the video, it's worth watching.
In what has to be considered a shock, Schalke destroyed Inter in Milan 5-2.  Inter certainly were not helped by defender Cristian Chivu drawing a red card in the 62nd minute, but by that point the Nerazzurri were already down 4-2 to the Germans.  The one highlight for the Italians was Dejan Stankovic's wonder goal that started the scoring.  Check it out.

Barcelona similarly dismantled Shakhtar, 5-1, at Camp Nou.  Five different players scored goals for Barça - Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Seydou Keita and Xavi.  Barça are truly an incredible team to watch.  They play some amazing soccer.  With a 5-1 lead heading to the Ukraine, Barça have booked their spot in the semis.

The other Spanish team, Real Madrid, similarly dismantled their competition, winning 4-0 over Spurs. Things looked bad from the outset when Emmanuel Adebayor scored off a corner just 4 minutes into the game.  Things went from bad to worse when Peter Crouch was sent off for his 2nd yellow card inside of 15 minutes.  Spurs could never gain or hold possession and Real just kept putting more balls in the back of the net. Based on the way they played, Spurs would have lost even if Crouch has stayed on the field.

Rooney's suspension will not affect his eligibility for
the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal.
Good thing for Manchester United, as he scored the only goal in the first leg.
The only match that still has some drama going into the second leg is Manchester United vs. Chelsea.  Man U secured a vital away goal at Stamford Bridge, beating the Blues 1-0. Chelsea enjoyed more of the possession and outshot the Red Devils - 21(7 on goal) - 8(2), but the were unable to find the leveler.  Chelsea will be hard pressed to advance with the second leg being at Old Trafford, especially since Man U have that away goal in their pocket.

With the second leg of the quarterfinals being played on Tuesday and Wednesday, look for a semifinal preview in the next week or two.  Hopefully, the matches will be more competitive this time around.  Happy soccer watching!