Real Madrid's Angel Di Maria and Manchester City's Yaya Toure fight for the ball during their Champions League Group D soccer match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid

Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: at Real Madrid 3, Manchester City 2

1 Comment

Man of the Match: Is Ángel Di María still underrated? Perhaps, with today’s performance the perfect example why. The Argentine winger was vital to two Real Madrid goals, but within the context of one of the more dramatic matches you’ll see, the highlights won’t have time to adequately highlight his contributions.

On Real’s opener, Di María made a key run from the right, took a pass from Mesut Özil and drew in the defense before finding Marcelo. Moments later, Real Madrid was even, 1-1.

On Real’s second goal, the Argentine international dribbled from the right into the middle of the defense before threading a ball to Karim Benzema, who was left with only one man to beat for Real’s second equalizer.

Di María will get one, maybe two assists today, but within the context of Real’s dramatic comeback, those contributions will be undersold. As always, he was left to walk the line between overlooked and star.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • The match started flat, but with four goals in the final 15 minutes of regulation time (three in the last six), day one of Champions League group stage gave us an immediate classic.
  • Both teams made surprising changes in defense, starting young center halves few predicted would see time. Nineteen-year-old French defender Raphaël Varane was in Real’s XI, relegating Sergio Ramos to the bench. Serbian Matija Nastasic, also 19, came in for City, pushing Joleon Lescott out of the team.
  • With Michael Essien (for Real Madrid) and Gareth Barry (for City) also in, the teams set up slightly defensive. City had sacrificed a striker to go 4-2-3-1, putting Yaya Touré behind Carlos Tévez. José Mourinho started neither of his playmakers: Mesut Özil or Luka Modric.
  • Perhaps predictably, Real Madrid was able to control the first half. City was content to sit back and absorb pressure, and while that left a number of opportunities for Real to try from distance (Cristiano Ronaldo took a number of cracks at Joe Hart), the containment plan worked.
  • The only cracks in City’s first half defense were two Gonzalo Higuaín chances, both times running on to Di María chips to earn chances on Hart. The first was snuffed out by a nice read from the `keeper. The second was shot wide.
  • City’s best chances of the half came on counters, taking advantage of Touré’s advanced role, though chances in the 31st and 38th minute broke down before testing Iker Casillas.
  • Roberto Mancini was forced into a change in the 38th minute, Samir Nasri coming on with a right leg injury. Aleksandr Kolarov came on to play in front of Gael Clichy for the rest of the half.
  • The substitution eventually brought about a formation change. Kolarov played deep on the left, pushing Clichy into the left side of a central three. Maicon played Kolarov’s opposite wingback, and with Touré dropping deeper into midfield, City played a 3-5-2, with David Silva playing in support of Tévez.
  • The shift served Maicon well. The former Inter defender was initially able to push up the right and disrupt Real left back Marcelo, who Real had trouble building through after the change.
  • It took Real Madrid about 13 minutes to figure out what City had done. Then, they resumed the same dominance of play they had in the first half, creating 60th and 65th minute chances for Marcelo just outside the box.
  • And Manchester City returned to the counter attack, with Touré finally pulling the right string in the 69th minute. A turnover created just inside City’s half gave Touré the opening to burst forward to create a two-one-one – he and Edin Dzeko versus Varane. Twenty-five yards out, Touré released a pass for Dzeko who, with Alvaro Arbeloa and Sami Khedira in pursuit, slotted the opener past Casillas.
  • The lead didn’t last long. Seven minutes later, Real Madrid was able to create another chance for Marcelo. This time, the defender took his time, opted for precision instead of power, and opened his right foot on a ball that flew just under Hart’s crossbar.
  • Nine minutes later, luck smiled in City’s favor when a restart by Kolarov skidded behind Madrid’s defense, possibly deflected off Xabi Alonso, and went inside Casillas’s far post, giving City their second one-goal lead. The outcome may have been fortunate, but if it wasn’t for Pablo Zabaleta – who hustled to draw the foul on Karim Benzema  – the goal wouldn’t have happened.
  • Benzema got revenge two minutes later, taking a pass from Di María, moving around Nastasic, and beating Hart  inside the right post for another quick equalizer.
  • Three minutes later, Real had their first lead. Cristiano Ronaldo, in possession just to the left of the box, cut back on Zabaleta and onto his right foot. He launched a topspin heavy shot that confused Hart, the keeper seemingly expecting Vincent Kompany to block the ball. Hart hesitated, didn’t react as the ball dipped, and let in a winner most goalkeepers would have stopped.
  • The comeback would have been amazing in it’s own right, but within the context of what Real Madrid’s league struggles, it became both necessary and a possible turning point. Losing to Manchester City would have thrust the club into an identity crisis. Forced to comeback twice, Real Madrid’s attack had to wake up. That it did will help the club re-grasp its mystique.
  • For City, this is a match you forget as soon as possible. They weren’t expected to get anything out of today’s game. That they lost their point on a howler makes it hard to reconcile (Javi García threw both arms up and fell to the ground when he saw the ball go in), but in the bigger picture, this one of the more acceptable losses City will ever be dealt.

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
Leave a comment

Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
1 Comment

Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.