Looking back at Chelsea-Barcelona, and pondering Champions League soccer as the game at its best

20 Comments

Champions League soccer typically represents the game’s best version.

Yes, better that World Cup soccer; superior team cohesion and a higher level of player balance creates this sharper brand, not to mention an overall approach that generally leans more assertive, less cautious.

I tell people this all the time. Only yesterday’s eventful semifinal, full of brilliant talking points as it was, hardly made the case.

I still can’t quite figure out how to feel about Tuesday’s incredible night. Yes, Chelsea deserves credit for fortitude and finding a way, and praise rains effusive today across UK media stops. English soccer has long been hopelessly enamored with the blood-stained, desperate stand.

Only “blood-stained, desperate stand” is hardly how I prefer to see my Champions League semifinal play out. If we’re talking about Bolton needing a point to stave off relegation to a lower tier, bravely drawing its lines against mighty Manchester United or the like on a season’s final match day, then fine. But a moneyed team of Chelsea’s alleged quality?

In terms of what this means to the UEFA final in Munich, it’s like being presented with cough medicine or ice cream, knowing that either one will ease a sore throat – and choosing the cough medicine.

Yes, I understand the Blues were a man down on the road. And yet, building a line of six across the back, with two forwards stationed on the outside, is hardly the bright stuff of Champions League dreams.

All that said, it’s hard to reckon that Barcelona deserved to go through either. For all of the fabulous talent assembled at the Nou Camp, the Blaugrana simply failed in too many ways Tuesday to be considered among the most worthy finalists, either.

Shall we count the blue and deep red ways?

The goalkeeping wasn’t good enough. (By contrast, Chelsea’s Petr Cech wasn’t tested repeatedly Tuesday but certainly rose in the moments that mattered.)

Barcelona’s defending simply wasn’t good enough.

The tactics were wrong. Pep Guardiola’s over-thought 3-3-4 served only to stack more bodies along the black wall of death, a crowd of congested cleats drawn with anti-soccer purpose 20 yards from Chelsea goal.

But those were failures of the day; misdemeanor offenses compared to the felony crimes of a larger level.

Diversity of attack was sorely lacking Tuesday. True that its Barcelona’s beautiful style that makes Pep Guardiola’s side something special. It made Barca such a worthy and memorable champion a year ago. But it shouldn’t be carried like a burden, a precious cargo to be towed no matter the cost.

And yet, the ball went in, the ball went out.  Again and again.  With a curious, almost bizarre lack of bigger purpose. Hard-headed Barca was so dead-set determined to score the Barca way – and now they’ll have plenty of time to ponder the sorry consequences.

Shoot from beyond the 18? Not the Barca way, apparently. A few more speculative crosses, hoping to catch the visitors as they reorganized after the clearance? Nah.

Along those lines, at a bigger level, where in the world was Plan B? Going forward, Pep Guardiola simply must find one target player capable of changing the look periodically, or must otherwise find a way to be less systematically rigid when Plan A, stylish and pleasing to the eye as it can be, isn’t working.

So five things went wrong Tuesday from Barcelona’s side, undercutting the wealth of skill and smarts developed and gathered majestically at the Catalan home of soccer:

Goalkeeping not good enough; defending not good enough; over-cooked tactics; lack of diversity of attack; lack of a plan B.

But there was one more missing element (again, giving Chelsea proper credit for fiercely navigating the difficult night – even if they’ll be fighting in the Munich final with the shortest of sticks due to injury and suspensions):

Leo Messi picked an awful night to have a stinker.

That’s not Barcelona’s fault, and it’s probably not Messi’s fault, either. That just happens in the game from time to time. The timing in this semifinal case was just tremendously, notoriously ironic.

Ander Herrera piles the pressure on Manchester City

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ah, just five games into the Premier League season and the mind games have already started.

[ MORE: Pulisic the Golden Boy? ]

Manchester United’s midfield terrier Ander Herrera has been speaking about the pressure facing crosstown rivals Manchester City who are the Premier League favorites.

Herrera, United’s Player of the Season in 2016-17 as they won the Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League, believes that spending over $240 million means Pep Guardiola‘s side are “obligated” to deliver trophies this season.

“Man City have spent the biggest amount in the Premier League so they are the principle contenders for the title,” Herrera said. “We will try to be there as well, we have quality as well, and we will fight for every title. But I think because of the money they have spent they are the favorites. We will try to be there but they have spent the biggest money in the league.

“There is always pressure when you spend a lot but there is also pressure on us because we are the biggest club in England. We won three titles last season and City didn’t win anything. They are under pressure. They are obligated to win titles. We won three last season so they have more obligation than us. But you know when you play for Man United wining is an expectation and an obligation but I like that obligation to be honest.”

Does he have a point?

Last season City’s failure to win a trophy was put down to the “process” under Pep as they lost in the FA Cup semifinals, were knocked out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 and finished a distant third in the Premier League.

This season no silverware and a finish below second place in the table would constitute a massive disappointment for Guardiola’s side and pressure would perhaps start to build on the Spanish coach.

With City and United the only two teams in the Premier League who remain unbeaten (they have identical records with points, goals scored, goals against and points) the growing notion that the PL trophy will be in Manchester next May seems spot on.

Between now and then every single way United or City can gain an advantage over their rivals, that will take it.

Herrera has started the mind games ridiculously early and perhaps that shows just how scared United are of City as Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva rip teams apart and the deadly strike-partnership of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus deliver the goals.

Mark this date in your calendar: Manchester United vs. Manchester City on Dec. 9.

FIFA hopes for big increase in TV viewers at Women’s World Cup

Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARIS (AP) FIFA president Gianni Infantino wants the next edition of the Women’s World Cup to draw a billion TV viewers across the world.

Infantino, who attended the official launch of the tournament that will be organized in France in 2019, said on Tuesday that the previous edition in Canada in 2015 was watched by 750 million viewers.

Speaking alongside French federation president Noel Le Graet and French Sports Minister Laura Flessel, Infantino said “our goal is to reach one billion in France in 2019.”

The tournament, which will run from June 7 to July 7, will gather 24 teams in six groups.

France will kick off the event at Parc des Princes in Paris, with the semifinals and finals in Lyon.

“It will be magnificent,” Infantino said. “France is a great football nation for both men and women.”

Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer out until 2018

Getty Images
1 Comment

Bayern Munich have been handed a big blow as goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer has been ruled out until early 2018 after surgery on his broken left foot.

Neuer, 31, will not return before January and the German international star will leave a huge void as Carlo Ancelotti’s side aim to push for a four-straight Bundesliga title and challenge for the UEFA Champions League.

The German national team will be hoping Neuer does not face any complications in his recovery with Joachim Loew’s men the favorites for the 2018 World Cup next summer in Russia.

In his absence former Germany U-21 goalkeeper Sven Ulreich will step up as the new No.1 at the Allianz Arena with the German goalkeeper patiently waiting for his chance in Bavaria since arriving from Stuttgart in 2015.

Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said that Neuer’s operation “went perfectly” and the German giants are looking forward to his return.

The Bundesliga powerhouse have won three of their opening four league games to start the season but there has been some criticism for Ancelotti and his players, especially following the 2-0 shock defeat at Hoffenheim.

Losing one of the best goalkeepers on the planet is sure to test Bayern’s defensive unit and they have a tough job on their hands to qualify for the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds as the top seed as they battle with Paris Saint-Germain to win Group B ahead of Anderlecht and Celtic.

Pulisic nominated for 2017 Golden Boy

Getty Images
Leave a comment

U.S. national team teenager Christian Pulisic has been nominated for the prestigious Golden Boy award.

The award, run by Italian outlet Tuttosport, goes to the top player in European soccer under the age of 21 over the past 12 months.

[ MORE: JPW speaks to USMNT’s Pulisic ]

Pulisic, who turned 19 yesterday, has been a star for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga over the past 12 months and has nine goals and 14 assists in 61 appearances for the German side. He also has seven goals in 18 appearances for the USMNT.

Marcus Rashford, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele are expected to challenge for the trophy but the Pennsylvania native being among the final nominees for the award proves how highly regarded he is on the global stage.

[ MORE: Breaking down Pulisic at 19 ]

Seven players from the Premier League have also been included in the shortlist of nominees with Rashford from Manchester United, Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City, Joe Gomez and Dominic Solanke from Liverpool, Dominic Calvert-Lewin from Everton, Reece Oxford from West Ham (on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach) and Kyle Walker-Peters from Tottenham all getting recognition.

The 25 nominees for the 2017 Golden Boy award are in full below.


Aaron Martin, Espanyol
Jean-Kevin Augustin, RB Leipzig
Rodrigo Bentacur, Juventus
Steven Bergwijn, PSV Eindhoven
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton
Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina
Ousmane Dembele, Barcelona
Amadou Diawara, Napoli
Kasper Dolberg, Ajax
Gianluigi Donnarumma, Milan
Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City
Joe Gomez, Liverpool
Benjamin Henrichs, Bayer Leverkusen
Borja Mayoral, Real Madrid
Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain
Emre Mor, Celta Vigo
Reece Oxford, Borussia Monchengladbach
Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund
Marcus Rashford, Manchester United
Allan Saint-Maximim, Nice
Dominic Solanke, Liverpool
Theo Hernandez, Real Madrid
Youri Tielemans, Monaco
Enes Unal, Villarreal
Kyle Walker-Peters, Tottenham