Preview: Desperate times require new measures for Barcelona against Chelsea

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It would be difficult to imagine a team with both Xavi Hernández and Juan Roman Riquelme losing three in a row if it hadn’t happened nine years ago. That’s the last time Barcelona was on a losing streak as long, falling to Valencia, Celta Vigo and Atlético Madrid in the middle of a five-game winless run that cost then-manager Louis Van Gaal his job, leaving a team featuring countrymen Patrick Kluivert, Philipp Cocu, Frank de Boar and Marc Overmars behind at Camp Nou.

Tuesday, Pep Guardiola’s squad is on the cusp of the same result, carrying losses against Chelsea and Real Madrid into the second leg of their Champions League semifinal. Only once in Guardiola’s three previous seasons had Barcelona even lost consecutive matches – end of year irrelevancies at the close of the former captain’s first title as manager (2009). Though it is again the end of a season, their second leg with Chelsea is anything but an irrelevancy, the defending European champions carrying a 1-0 deficit into the second leg of their Champions League semifinal.

While Barcelona are considered the favorites by most, their recent history against English sides at the Nou Camp sides has been problematic. Against Arsenal – a team that, for the most part, has been willing to ry and match them like-for-like – they have been fine, winning their last two meetings in Spain by a combined score of 7-2. Against other English opponents (Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United), Barcelona has four draws and a loss since defeating Chelsea in February 2005. In back-to-back semifinal first legs against United and Chelsea in 2008 and 2009, Barcelona was held to scoreless draws.

Leaving Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, Barcelona looked as impotent as those manhandled sides. There was no distinct plan for how to deal with a physical, disciplined, patient side who valued its defensive shape above taking the ball off their opponents. Back then, the debate raged as to how long the English sides’ luck could last given the extent to which they were supposedly dominated by Barça. Now, there is a greater awareness that the problem is Barcelona’s. They have to find a solution, not wait for their opposition’s perceived luck to run out.

The scary part for Cules: Guardiola doesn’t appear to have a solution; or, at least, if defender Gerard Piqué is considered an antidote to a goal shortage, the problem’s not being properly tackled. The big Barcelona center back will give Guardiola an option at the end of matches, but reportedly benched due to a dip in form (before injuries slowed a return), he may afford Chelsea a route to kill off the tie before Barcelona can snag an equalizer. At the point where Piqué’s size would be utilized in an attacking role, Didier Drogba (presumed healthy for Tuesday after missing Saturday’s match with Arsenal) would be back, augmenting Chelsea’s height in defense.

Before then, Barcelona has few choices but to find a new, ingenious way to use their current, homogenous personnel. Even the channel between Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic that presented so many first leg options is likely to be closed by a Chelsea defense that, protecting a lead, can set up deeper and more compact than in the opening moments in London.

Chelsea can always make mistakes. We could see a penalty call, a freak own goal. We could see another Andrés Iniesta blast from distance push tactics aside.

But we could also see this play out the same way it did the last time Chelsea went to Catalunya, and while that wouldn’t hand Barcelona a third straight loss, it would put them out of Champions League.

As was the case last week, Pro Soccer Talk will be bringing out all the stops for this one. Play-by-play with will start around 2:00 p.m. ET, with post-match analysis and reaction to follow. On Wednesday, we’ll do it all over again as Real Madrid tries to stay on course for a double against Bayern Munich.

“Amazing Game” – Pep’s Man City reinforces UCL, PL bid with Napoli win

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If it hasn’t already, Manchester City is one win away from making a Premier League-UEFA Champions League double a very real goal.

The hosts had to scrap to hold onto all three points against visiting and Serie A leading Napoli on Tuesday, giving away two penalty kicks after building a 2-0 lead at the Etihad Stadium.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-1 Napoli ]

But Ederson stopped Dries Mertens effort, and opened the door to further dreaming for supporters of Pep Guardiola‘s dreamy deep squad.

It wasn’t 7-2, or even 4-0, but Guardiola was gushing after a mutually adventurous football match between two electric squads.

“It was an amazing game. Outstanding. Both wanted to play against high pressing. Napoli are one of the best teams I have faced in my career. If you are not aggressive without the ball you have no chance to survive.”

There’s still a very tricky match week in the fourth round at Napoli, and we wonder whether Guardiola will prioritize the Premier League visit from Arsenal later that week. And, even better, it may not be a necessity to prefer either: The Gunners will have one less day’s rest thanks to Europa League play, aren’t exactly inspiring this season, and playing stars twice in four days isn’t the end of the world with an international break following the Arsenal tilt.

City’s status on the precipice of the UCL knockout rounds means it can focus on the Premier League, as well as a kind draw that should put them within three rounds of a League Cup title. While Burnley has been quite good this season, no one’s debating that City could pile up points for their table lead as 2017 nears its conclusion with an away Manchester Derby on Dec. 9:

Sunday – vs. Burnley (PL)
Oct. 24 – vs. Wolves (League Cup)
Oct. 28 – at West Brom (PL)
Nov. 1 – at Napoli (UCL)
Nov. 5 – vs. Arsenal (PL)
Nov. 18 – at Leicester City (PL)
Nov. 21 – vs. Feyenoord (UCL)
Nov. 26 – at Huddersfield Town (PL)
Nov. 29 – vs. Southampton (PL)
Dec. 2 – vs. West Ham (PL)
Dec. 6 – at Shakhtar Donetsk (UCL)
Dec. 9 – at Manchester United (PL)

Consider that United will be finishing an 8-day stretch which includes Dec. 2 at Arsenal, Dec. 5 vs. CSKA Moscow, and the derby. That makes Wednesday’s United trip to Benfica an even bigger affair. If both sides have already sewn up the knockout rounds, the derby will be especially better.

That’s neither to say City’s two-point lead atop the table and win at Chelsea weren’t impressive enough, nor that it couldn’t have overcome a slower start to both the PL and UCL campaigns. And City did start last season red-hot, too.

But it’s already foolhardy to bet against Pep’s men given the path ahead. Given Real Madrid’s relative struggles, and Barcelona’s uncertain status, it feels like City has as good a claim to UCL favorite status as anyone outside of Paris Saint-Germain.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below.

Spurs’ Kane: Draw at Real “shows how far we’ve come”

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After pressuring Raphael Varane into an own goal, Spurs striker Harry Kane saw Keylor Navas make an outstanding late stop to ensure a 1-1 draw between Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.

“I thought I did everything right, I opened my body, I put the ball where I wanted to and he made a very good save,” Kane said.

[ RECAP: Real 1-1 Spurs ]

While the red-hot Kane sure would’ve liked to find the match-winner, he knows what Spurs just achieved in Spain against the back-to-back UEFA Champions League winners.

And that, he says, is pleasing. From the BBC:

“We are happy. Of course they are going to have chances but we played well and made it tough for them. A point at Bernabeu, you would take that every day of the week. It shows how far we have come as a team.”

Kane is right, this Spurs side looks far more self-assured than its predecessor. It shows the process of learning to compete in the UCL.

The return date at Wembley Stadium is Nov. 1, where a point would all but seal Spurs’ spot in the knockout rounds thanks to Borussia Dortmund’s stunning 1-1 draw at APOEL Nicosia.

Real Madrid 1-1 Spurs: Lovely Lloris!

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An error from each time in its own box and outstanding goalkeeping gave Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid a 1-1 draw in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday at the Bernabeu. (video)

Raphael Varane recorded a 28th minute own goal, but Serge Aurier gave away a penalty as Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for Real Madrid at home in the 43rd minute.

Hugo Lloris and Keylor Navas were the stars of the show, with Lloris making the lion’s share of saves.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Both teams are well-positioned to advance, with seven points. Spurs have the tiebreaker advantage, but both Tottenham and Real are six points clear of Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia after a surprising draw in Cyprus.

Early nerves were apparent for Mauricio Pochettino‘s men, but Tottenham grew into the game and took an early lead.

Concerned with the presence of Harry Kane, Real defender Raphael Varane saw a cross move off his pegs and behind Keylor Navas to put Spurs ahead.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The lead was short-lived, however, as Spurs back Serge Aurier cut short Toni Kroos’ rare foray into the 18, and Ronaldo buried the ensuing penalty kick.

Lloris made an outstanding save on a point-blank Karim Benzema header in the 54th minute.

A moment later, offside Ronaldo flashed a sitter over the goal before the whistle alerted viewers to his offense.

Ronaldo had another chance stymied by Lloris as Real really began to pile on pressure past the hour mark.

Kane had a 71st minute chance against the run of play off a gorgeous pass from Fernando Llorente, but Navas got low quickly to redirect Kane’s point-blank shot wide of the far post.

Navas made another save when Llorente cued up Christian Eriksen for a chance, and the Dane then sent in a corner that led to a Davinson Sanchez’s header wide of goal.

Llorente was quite good in the second half in this surprise two-striker move from Mauricio Pochettino, and the Spurs boss also deployed Danny Rose for a season debut off the bench.

Man City 2-1 Napoli: Early goals stand up

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Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored early, and Ederson stopped one of two penalty kicks as Manchester City held off Napoli 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

Amadou Diawara converted Napoli’s second PK after Dries Mertens saw his effort saved.

Napoli is six points back of Group F leading City, and three behind Shakhtar Donetsk.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Raheem Sterling was near the spot to blast an open rebound past Pepe Reina in the ninth minute.

Then Kevin De Bruyne swept an incisive pass into the six for Gabriel Jesus to slot home, giving Man City a 2-0 lead in the 13th minute.

Kyle Walker saw yellow after giving a penalty kick in the 37th minute, and Napoli star Dries Mertens had his chance to pull one back denied by Ederson.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

John Stones‘ impressive growth at City continued when he slid to stop Marek Hamsik from testing Ederson in the second half.

Fernando took down Faouzi Ghoulam to give Napoli a second penalty kick, and this time it was converted thanks not to Mertens, but Diawara.