Bayern Munich's Schweinsteiger and his teammates celebrate a goal against Borussia Dortmund during the German DFB Cup final soccer match in Berlin

Countdown to Champions League final: Looking at Bayern Munich, back to front

Leave a comment

They may be at home on Saturday, but when Bayern Munich kicks off their UEFA Champions League final with Chelsea, there’ll be a slightly unfamiliar feel about them. Three prominent suspensions will force a shake up in defense, with the implications of Jupp Heynckes’ reshuffle being felt all the way into attack.

They’ll still be favorites when the whistle blows, but facing the prospects of Didier Drogba matched up against a makeshift defense could cost a few Bayern coaches their Friday night’s sleep.

Looking at … defense: Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. A handful of people who take him over generally-recognized world best Iker Casillas (Real Madrid). I count myself among them. He’s the complete package: 6’4″, only 26 years old, commanding, confident, and quick. His penalty shootout performance in the semifinals at the Santiago Bernabeu (letting only one goal past him in the tiebreaker) pushed FCB into the final.

The rest of Saturday’s defense is a huge question mark. Superstar fullback Philipp Lahm is a constant, but Holger Badstuder and David Alaba – the normal left side of Bayern’s back four – are suspended, as is midfield destroyer Luiz Gustavo. Daniel van Buyten, out since January with a foot injury, is expected to start along side Jerome Boateng in the middle. Rafinha, who started 20 Bundesliga matches this season, could come in for Alaba (shifting Lahm to the left), while Bastian Schweinsteiger, normally the shuttler, could be asked to blow things up.

Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (for van Buyten) and Diego Contento (for Rafinha) are also options. Given van Buyten’s tenuous health and Contento’s ability to play left back, don’t be surprised to see any of the four selected.

If the players perform to their potentials, Bayern’s defense will be fine. Their biggest problem beyond cohesion will be van Buyten. A physical match for Didier Drogba, van Buyten lacks the quickness to contend with Chelsea’s counter-attacking tendencies, though the suspension of Ramires will likely take much of the push out of Chelsea’s counter.

Looking at … midfield: Toni Kroos will drop back and play closer to Schweinsteiger in Bayern’s 4-2-3-1. In the previous round, the 22-year-old had been deployed higher, giving Bayern a 4-3-3 look. After Bayern accounts for their suspensions, Thomas Müller will assume that role.

Müller’s natural tendencies have him play higher up the pitch. Even if Jupp Heynckes’ tactics call for him to come deeper, Schweinsteiger and Kroos are often going to have to handle the job by themselves, potentially outnumbered at times by a Chelsea midfield expected to feature Juan Mata, Frank Lampard and (sitting) John Obi-Mikel.

If Mata’s pushed wide again (as he was against Barcelona), that means Michael Essien’s gotten a shock start. That won’t change the numbers game for Bayern.

Look at … attack: Right wing Arjen Robben is Bayern’s most dangerous player, but left wing Franck Ribery is not far off. Often the two will be seen on the same side of the pitch, with Ribery coming in to play off Robben while the duo is supported wide by Lahm. Ribery coming in could work well on Saturday, with Müller potentially providing a second penalty area threat along with Mario Gomez. Or, Bayern could flip flanks and (if Rafinha starts) have Ribery and Lahm working down the left against José Bosingwa and Salomon Kalou.

If Chelsea plays as deep as they’ve become accustomed to doing under Roberto di Matteo, Bayern could be served by having to sacrifice Gustavo for Müller. While the Brazilian would have been Bayern’s ideal answer to Chelsea’s counter attack, if München dominates possession, they’ll have both Kroos and Schweinsteiger positioned to pick apart the Blues defense, with Müller serving as an additional advanced option.

Likely Starting Lineup (alternate option)

G: Manuel Neuer
LB: Philipp Lahm (Diego Contento)
CB: Daniel van Buyten (Anatoliy Tymoshchuk)
CB: Jerome Boateng
RB: Rafinha (Philipp Lahm)
M: Bastian Schweinsteiger
M: Toni Kross
LW: Frank Ribery
AM: Thomas Müller
RW: Arjen Robben
F: Mario Gomez

Most dangerous player: Arjen Robben

Most likely to score: Mario Gomez

Best creator: Toni Kroos

Key defender: Daniel van Buyten

Most important: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Back to front: Chelsea

Xavi backs Dybala, Verratti to succeed at Barcelona over Pogba

TURIN, ITALY - JANUARY 24:  Paulo Dybala (R) of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal with team mate Paul Pogba during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and AS Roma at Juventus Arena on January 24, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

With Paul Pogba linked with a possible summer move to Barcelona worth more than $100 million, one legend at Camp Nou believes Pogba may not be the right signing.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

After making more than 700 appearances for Barcelona, Xavi knows the club as well as anyone, and he prefers Pogba’s Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala for a move to the Catalan giants.

Xavi also praised the play of Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, saying that while Pogba is a star player, Dybala and Verratti have “Barca DNA.”

There’s two players I really like, both of whom I think have Barca’s DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala.

They are amazing and, thanks to their quality and style of play, would easily integrate into the [Barca] machine. I see them as future stars at the club.

[Pogba] is a great player. He’ll be a star for France as he is for Juve, but I see him with a different game to ours.

Both Pogba and Dybala are 22-years-old, while Verratti is 23. All three players have been among the elite young talents in the world, with Pogba earning the most praise of the group and always linked with a big-money move to Europe’s top clubs.

[ RELATED: Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career ]

Dybala is enjoying a breakout season at Juventus, currently with 13 goals and eight assists in Serie A play. In Paris, Verratti is part of a PSG side that hasn’t lost in 25 matches and holds a 24-point lead at the top of the table.

Vincent Kompany set to make Manchester City return this weekend

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Manchester, England.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Vincent Kompany is set to make his first appearance for Manchester City since Boxing Day as the defender has returned from injury.

City’s captain and center-back missed more than six weeks with a calf injury before Christmas, and then reaggravated the injury just minutes into his return at the end of December.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

However, Kompany has been back in training and manager Manuel Pellegrini said he is fit to play this weekend when City host Tottenham in a huge top-four matchup.

We’ll see what the starting XI is tomorrow – we’re not just thinking about one player and one game, we’re involved in a lot of competitions. Maybe we have a lot of criticism when we don’t play well but I’m happy with the squad over the whole season.

Every player must play a game when they’re 100%. Vincent has worked for three weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes in a friendly game against the under-21s and I think he’s ready to play.

Kompany’s presence in the City back-line has been pivotal this season. In the eight Premier League games Kompany has started, City have kept seven clean sheets. In the 18 matches without the big Belgian in the starting lineup, City have kept just five.

[ RELATED: Diego Costa suffers broken nose in Chelsea training ]

With City just a point behind Tottenham, Kompany returns from injury just in time for one of the biggest matches of the season. Tasked with slowing down Harry Kane and Spurs’ high-flying attack, Kompany’s play could prove crucial to the Citizens getting a result.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

Leave a comment
  • CFC unbeaten under Hiddink (W5, D6)
  • Newcastle have just 6 away goals all season
  • Diego Costa: 6 goals in his last 7 PL matches

Chelsea look to extend their unbeaten streak under Guus Hiddink to 12 matches on Saturday when the Blues host relegation-threatened Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

The Blues’ last loss came under Jose Mourinho in December.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Chelsea are up to 13th on the table, currently riding a run of 11 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Guus Hiddink is yet to suffer a loss after taking over for his second stint at Stamford Bridge in December, although draws have kept Chelsea from climbing further up the table. Diego Costa has had the hot-hand with six goals in his last seven appearances, but the Spanish striker will be forced to play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in training.

[ MORE: Hiddink has “no fear” of playing youngsters in Zouma’s absence ]

For Newcastle, the Magpies sit 17th on the table just one point above the drop. Their away form has hurt the club all season, as Steve McClaren‘s men have scored a league-low six goals on the road this year. The Magpies are coming off of a win over West Brom, and supporters will be hoping the club’s new January signings continue to produce. Seydou Doumbia could make his Premier League debut on Saturday, which would be a massive boost to the attack.

What they’re saying

Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink: “The status of being unbeaten sounds good but realistically we would have wished to have more victories, especially at home. And we have an opportunity to do so against Newcastle. They improved their squad with substance, some good signings, and they are more competitive now.”

Newcastle boss Steve McClaren: “In our home games we are starting to get a consistency in our performance and the way we play. We need to start transferring that to our away games and picking up points away from home – we owe it to the fans.”

Prediction

Newcastle have just two wins in their last 18 league matches away from home, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend. Chelsea have looked a new team with Guus Hiddink in charge, and they stay unbeaten under the Dutchman. Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United.

Pochettino enjoying best spell of career ahead of massive clash at Man City

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Mauricio Pochettino (R) Manager of Tottenham Hotspur is seen on arrival at the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.

The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.

When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”

[ MORE: Who are the Premier League title favorites? ]

Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.

Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.