MLS playoff preview: D.C. United at New York Red Bulls

2 Comments

D.C. United came out of its weekend draw with New York feeling like the better club and talking about missed an opportunity to whup a team that was there for the playoff whupping.

Nothing wrong with confidence, of course, except for this: they didn’t actually win the game and now the playoff waters are more choppy. Ben Olsen’s team will have to win at a place where not a lot of teams did in 2012.

Meanwhile, the weather looks quite uncooperative, with nasty stuff on the way for the team’s Eastern Conference semifinal series return leg.

(MORE: Which team benefits from impending nasty weather)

(MORE: Analysis of Saturday’s 1-1 draw)

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET, Red Bull Arena, NBC Sports Network

The series is tied on total goals, 1-1

On the New York Red Bulls

  • Hans Backe’s team was 11-2-4 with a plus-16 goal difference at Red Bull Arena this year.
  • Hard to makes heads or tails of the Rafa Marquez situation. Was that alleged calf injury a real factor in his halftime removal, or just more cover for a player who doesn’t really deserve it? He was spotted arguing with manager Hans Backe going into the locker room at halftime Saturday, which seems suspect. Then again, Marquez is made of Teflon, isn’t he? Nothing sticks. No matter how many different ways he hurts the team through ill temper, flagging effort or thoughtless quotes, they just trot him back out there.
  • What Backe said about Marquez’s injury Monday: “Probably it has to be … a late decision, I would guess. I don’t think it’s a big (injury), but definitely we will have to wait until tomorrow to tell.”
  • A potential replacement plan looks fairly straight forward: Heath Pearce, recently relocated from center back to the left, will move back into the middle alongside Markus Holgersson. Roy Miller or Wilman Conde will play on the left.
  • Perhaps Kenny Cooper and his 18 goals, benched for Saturday’s contest, wouldn’t have helped create a couple more chances. But he could hardly have helped produced fewer than replacement Sebastien Le Toux, so that choice was a push at very best for Backe.
  • Thierry Henry was hardly at his 15-goal, 12-assist best Saturday. They need more from his Wednesday.
  • Goalkeeper Luis Robles sure didn’t look like a man making just his fifth start this year. Among his five saves were two real delights.

On D.C. United

  • If United’s road record this year (5-9-3) doesn’t look too promising, this might: Ben Olsen’s team, adding more defensive focus, went 2-0-2 away from RFK Stadium down the stretch, allowing just two goals over those four contests.
  • That said, Olsen must replace Andy Najar, whose attacking push up the right side will be sorely missed.
  • (MORE: Longer suspension ahead  for Najar?)
  • Important, second year holding midfielder Perry Kitchen: “There’s still 90 minutes to go. Our heads are up.”
  • The finishing simply has to improve – because New York might not kick one in for the visitors this time. And Bill Hamid cannot have another wobble. So, suffice to say the work in front of both goals needs a boost.
  • Underrated hero of Saturday’s match: unheralded left back Chris Korb. Along with Chris Pontius, they were United’s top men in Saturday’s draw. (Yes, Pontius needed something better from the penalty spot, but he was The Man on the United’s attack otherwise.)

Bottom line:

The predominant back story here is the Hurricane Sandy-related venue swap. Originally, this second leg was to be in New York, but conditions demanded a change.

If this one is tied after 90 minutes, an extra 30-minute period (and potentially penalty kicks) will determine the survivor – and that will not make United fans any more pleased over the whole unfortunate situation.

United could surely squeak out a 1-0 result … and if Backe’s Red Bulls can’t muster any more urgency than we saw in most matches down the stretch, the most talented team ever assembled on paper will fall way too quietly.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.