FBL-EUR-C1-ZENIT-MILAN

Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: Milan 3, at Zenit St. Petersburg 2

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Man of the Match: Of Milan’s three goals, Stephan El Shaawary’s stands out. It was the one that didn’t need major help from a Zenit player to find nylon. El Shaawary’s goal didn’t need help from his own players, either. The Milan attacker took a pass on the left wing, and dribbled through Zenit’s defense before slotting the Rossoneri’s second goal just inside the right post.

It was the 19 year old’s first Champions League goal, part of a day where he continuously created trouble for Zenit defenders. With Milan spending most of the match defending a lead, El Shaawary played as much as a conventional wide midfielder as attacker. But when he went forward, he created huge problems for Zenit.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • What do you get when two struggling but talented teams meet? Add the stakes of Champions League, and you get an unbalanced game with wild swings, a form of soccer chaos. Large swathes of this match were characterized by one team’s control meeting the other’s failings. There was never a time where both teams were at their best, and while that produced a compelling match, neither team was actually that good.
  • The sides began with near-identical setups – four man defenses, three-man midfields, two wingers flanking a central forward – but only one team showed up at the opening whistle.
  • Milan started strong, their energy allowing them to move quickly into attack, usually down left side worked by Stephan El Shaawary and, coming from the middle, Bojan Krkic. Attacking midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng was staying so high (right behind Krkic) and came back so little, Milan’s formation played like a 4-2-4.
  • In the 13th minute, Milan’s ambition met a little luck. Zenit had just started coming into the match when midfielder Viktor Fayzulin committed a ill-advised foul on Urby Emanuelson, the Milan attacker cutting into the middle from his wide right position. Emanuelson’s restart from 24 yards out got mostly wall but still deflected up and toward goal, with goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev unable to get back from his move to the left to prevent a fortunate opener.
  • Malafeev really should have stopped it. After hitting the wall, the ball seemed to hang in the air and briefly looked like it would go well wide. But the spin sent the ball diving back toward goal. Malafeev was slow to react, his momentum toward the opposite post leaving him off-balance.
  • Four minutes later, Milan doubled their lead, with El Shaawary dribbling in from the left, beating Fayzulin and defender Nicolas Lombaerts before putting the Rossoneri’s second goal inside Malafeev’s left post.
  • That wasn’t the first time El Shaawary had done damage. Minutes earlier, the 19-year-old was given too much space to run at Zenit right back Aleksandr Anyukov. He was able to cut in and, although Anyukov got a foot to the ball, create a chance for Krkic. Eventually, Luciano Spalletti would have to switch Hulk away from that flank, getting his more defensively responsible winger, Vladimir Bystrov, onto El Shaawary’s side.
  • It was an absolutely inept start from Zenit. Milan was the better side at the opening whistle, but they weren’t executing anything so remarkable that Zenit couldn’t have held out. The first goal was fortunate, but it was one that came from Milan control drawing a bad foul. On the second goal, defenders just blindly went into tackles, come up with nothing, and couldn’t stop a run that was inelegant if successful.
  • It wasn’t until the 22nd minute, six minutes after Milan’s second goal, that Zenit started to pick up their energy. By then, you could see Milan already adjusting. El Shaawary and Emanuelson were sitting deeper on the flanks. When Zenit set up in the final third, Milan’s highest man (Krkic) was playing off the last midfielder instead of the defense.
  • That approach looked set to preserve Milan’s two-goal lead into half before a breakdown in the second minute of injury time. Ignazio Abate was drawn away from his place at right back, opening up too much room to the left of Cristián Zapata. Roman Shirokov found Hulk in the channel, the Brazilian’s left-footed shot beating Christian Abbati for Zenit’s opener.
  • What a huge difference a goal makes. Without Hulk’s score, Zenit goes into half time with nothing positive to take from the first 45 minutes. Down only one, Zenit goes into the locker room on a positive note. They don’t have to start the second half in panic mode.
  • Four minutes into the second half, Zenit was even. Shirokov beat his mark, Riccardo Montolivo, on a corner. Hulk’s ball swung in perfectly, drawing Abbiati off his line, giving Shirokov the entire goal to finish his equalizer.
  • Zenit would dominate the next 20 minutes, forcing Max Allegri into a change. Early in the half he had brought on Giampaolo Pazzini for Krkic – a like for like – but on the verge of conceding a go-ahead goal, he changed the shape. Emanuelson was off and Antonio Nocerino, a central midfielder, was in. He’d play on the one side of a diamond-esque midfield. El Shaawary played high on the other side, Montolivo above Nigel de Jong in the middle.
  • The change worked. Almost immediately, Milan started seeing more of the ball, able to possess for meaningful periods of time and not have to play in their own end.
  • The move almost worked too well. Spalletti immediately responded. In the 72nd minute, Bystov made way for a central midfielder, Konstantin Zyryanov.
  • The change never had time to take effect. In the 75th minute, sloppy play from Zenit coming out of their own end let to a turnover. Milan swung the ball ahead of a Montolivo cross. Pazzini’s attempted redirect went off defender Tomas Hubocan’s left arm and into Malafeev’s net. It was the second huge piece of luck Milan’d gotten, the difference between being down one and up 3-2.
  • As you’d expect, Spelletti immediately changed again, bringing on a forward (Maksim Kanunnikov) for a midfielder (Fayzulni). Allegri responded by bringing in a third central defender, Mario Yepes coming on for Boateng.
  • Allegri’s change killed off the match. Any time Zenit set up in attack, they’d see a box crowded with red and black between them and goal. Attempts to play in from wide almost never got past the first man. That match was over.
  • It’s a huge win for Milan, if a very lucky one. There’s no arguing that they got two goals out of pure fortune. Both the first and third game from otherwise innocuous plays. Milan gets three points, but it’s hard to say if they earned or stumbled into them.
  • The Rossoneri do deserve credit for the energy they brought from the get-go. In the preview, we talked about the morose aura that’s enveloped the team. None of that was evident tonight. There was no self pity, only effort.
  • For Zenit, it’s a crushing loss, but they did little to win this match. They never led, only played well for a 30 minute span in the middle, and needed a first half wakeup call to even get in the match. Against a Milan team that hasn’t been that good, they allowed the game to be taken from them

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)