Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: Barcelona 3, at Spartak Moscow 0

Leave a comment

Barcelona had their easiest match of the Champions League season, their long trip to Moscow met with little resistance in a 3-0 win over floundering Spartak Moscow.

With the victory, Barcelona has clinched a spot in the tournament’s second round. Should Celtic lose at the Estadio de Luz later today, Barcelona will clinch first place in Group G.

Right back Dani Alves opened the scoring in the 16th minute, his half-volley of a blocked Lionel Messi shot finding the lower left corner from 19 yards out.

Before halftime, Messi added his fourth and fifth goals of the competition, settling the matter before the sides went into intermission.

Man of the Match: With two first half goals, Lionel Messi raised his 2012 all-competition total to 80, five behind Gerd Müller’s all-time record. His first was a right-footed finish from the edge of the area, converting after Spartak keeper Andrey Dikan had blocked an Andres Iniesta shot. The second saw Messi take a Pedro Rodríguez pass and dribble around Dikan before finishing into an open net from just inside the six-yard box.

Messi has up to 10 matches remaining in 2012. If his usage pattern holds, he’ll appear in almost all of them. With a hot streak, Messi could eclipse 100 goals.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

For better and worse, Barcelona looked their normal selves.

Let’s concentrate on the good with this bullet point, because an elegant display from Barcelona shouldn’t be overshadowed. Spartak’s passive defensive posture meant Barça wasn’t pushed to the frantic extremes that bring Barcelona’s best, Barça was allowed enough time on the ball to complete a number of uncharacteristically long, perfectly executed passes, particularly during their first half push. Xavi chips over the top, Messi swinging the ball wide for Iniesta, long probing sliders picking out gaps in the Spartak defense – Barça was given a chance complement their tiki taka.

While those moments were abnormal for Barcelona, the tenor of the performance wasn’t. After Dani Alves’ opening goal, Barça seemed to play the match at three-quarter speed, Emery’s approach allowing Barcelona’s bursts to augment out of their spans of calm control. Never bothered to break their gallop, Barcelona pranced to a typically easy victory.

Defending wide continues to be a problem for Barcelona.

Barça has always been vulnerable behind Dani Alves, but in the past, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets have been able to mitigate that danger. With Eric Abidal at left back, Barcelona were always able to do an adequate job compensating for the right winger they employ in defense.

Now Jordi Alba’s at left back, and while he’d no Alves, he does push forward farther, more often, and with more persistence than Abidal. That leaves both flanks vulnerable, and without an Abidal-esque presence on the right, Barcelona doesn’t have as much support when the defense is forced to flatten out and cover the width of the pitch. Add in Puyol’s injury problems and you have a much more vulnerable team.

One first half counter from Spartak served as a perfect illustration. The movement started down the left (Alves’s side) before a long ball switched right found a man on Alba’s flank. The defense stretched, Spartak was able to find a player for an open half-volley in the middle of the penalty area.

Abidal is due back at the beginning of the year, though it’s unclear how much (or if) he’ll play. Puyol was on the bench today, as was Alex Song. Barcelona has options. They just need to decide how vulnerable they’re willing to be.

Time to pass some judgments on Unai Emery.

Spartak has been generally unimpressive under new coach Unai Emery, but since their middling form had yet to cost them anything major, it was best to reserve judgment on the former Valencia man. After today’s loss, though, Spartak can’t advance to Champions League’s knockout round. If Benfica defeats Celtic later today, Spartak’s out of Europe.

Combined with a fifth-place standing in Russia (nine wins through 16 rounds), the Unai Emery era has been a worrying one for the People’s Team. In a Russian soccer culture that’s not shy about cutting bait with a coaching commitment, Emery’s putting himself in (more) trouble.

Spartak’s performance today at the Lizhniki was lacking in everything. There no inspiration in a team whose tournament sat in the balance. There was a hint of a plan (dispossess high, counter quick, otherwise absorb), but with no spirit backing it, the approach was set to fail. The backline seemed ill-prepared. The squad took a 2010 approach to 2012 Barcelona.

Other than “more time,” it’s hard to make an argument supporting Emery, if you call “more time” supportive.

Packaged for takeaway

  • José Jurado was useless today. Deployed as the attacking midfielder in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 formation, he had no impact. He was a wasted man when the team could have used more of a presence in front of the defense.
  • Spartak needed that presence because deep midfielders Rafael Carioca and Kim Kallström did little to prevent Barcelona from picking out holes in the defense.
  • At least, that’s what happened in the first half. With Barcelona up three at intermission, the second half was inconsequential. Spartak improved over the last 45 minutes, though it would have been difficult not to.

On This Day: The Battle of Old Trafford

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fourteen years ago today, Arsenal headed north to Manchester for a famous matchup with Manchester United.

Taking the field at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unbeaten to start the season, having won its first four Premier League matches before drawing a week prior at home against Portsmouth. Manchester United meanwhile had four wins and one loss in that span.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

By way of Arsenal’s FA Cup title and Man United’s Premier League title the year before, the two teams met for the annual Community Shield a month earlier, and the game descended into a physical battle. Five yellow cards were shown, Arsenal substitute Francis Jeffers was shown a red card and defender Sol Campbell was later banned for kicking at an opponent, and Man United – backed by a young Tim Howard in goal – won 4-3 on penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after extra time.

With numerous physical encounters over the years, the September 21 encounter was shaping up to be another monumental showdown, and in terms of physicality, it didn’t disappoint.

Each team were shown four yellow cards and there was a combined 31 fouls. The match took a turn when Patrick Vieira was shown a second yellow card and subsequent red card for kicking out at Man United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy after Van Nistelrooy had fouled Vieira going for a header. The decision set off a scrum in the middle of the field.

Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal held on until the final minutes, when Martin Keown was whistled for a foul in the box on Diego Forlan, giving Man United a penalty kick. But whether it was karma or lady luck, Van Nistelrooy’s penalty clanged off the crossbar and away to safety. Arsenal held on for a goalless draw, which helped boost the team’s belief in itself.

The Gunners went on to finish the 2013-2014 season undefeated, the only team to finish a Premier League season without a defeat. Man United wound up taking the FA Cup crown, settling for third place in the Premier League.

Watch some highlights from the match below.

Former Sunderland forward Scocco scores five goals for River Plate

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Veteran forward Ignacio “Nacho” Scocco is quickly endearing himself to the River Plate faithful.

Nearly three months since joining River, Scocco scored an incredible five goals in the second leg of his team’s Copa Libertadores quarterfinal matchup with Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann. Scocco scored a first half hat-trick and added two more in the second half as River turned around a 3-0 deficit heading into the second leg.

Scocco had a mostly frustrating spell in 2014 ahead of the World Cup with Sunderland, joining the club as they staved off relegation by one point. Scocco failed to score for Sunderland in eight appearances, all off the bench.

However, since then, he returned to his native Argentina and starred for his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys before moving this summer to River as a replacement for Sebastián Driussi, who completed a transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Here’s a look at all of Scocco’s goals Thursday evening.

Tammy Abraham denies switching national teams

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fans of the England National Team may still have a chance to see Tammy Abraham don the Three Lions crest one day.

Abraham refuted reports from earlier Thursday that he was in the process of switching his national team to Nigeria from England. The 19-year-old Swansea City forward on-loan from Chelsea has played as high as the England Under-21 Men’s National Team but because of his Nigerian father, he’s eligible for the African nation.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Abraham confirmed that he had met with Nigeria Football Federation chief Amaju Pinnick after Swansea’s last game, but denied that he was looking to play for the Super Eagles.

“I have informed The FA that I remain available for selection for England,” Abraham said, via the BBC. “Contrary to reports in the media I would like to clarify that I have not agreed to switch my national team allegiance. I can confirm I met the President of the NFF after our last game against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday given he is a friend of my father. However, any suggestion that I have made a decision to change my international representation is incorrect and wide of the mark.”

Earlier in the day, reports emerged that Pinnick said the process was underway for Abraham to switch his international allegiance.

Abraham’s apparently decision to remain with the England set-up is good news for his club Swansea City, who will get to keep him closer to Wales on a regular basis, but Abraham may be missing a chance to play senior national team soccer at a young age.

Paulinho has silenced his critics at Barcelona

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID (AP) Brazil midfielder Paulinho wasn’t greeted with the warmest of welcomes when he arrived in Barcelona.

Fans made it clear they were not too thrilled to see the club spend 40 million euros ($48 million) on a defensive midfielder who was playing in the Chinese league.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

They were expecting a blockbuster signing after Neymar’s departure and ended up getting a player they knew very little about.

Paulinho didn’t have any links to the club’s youth academy and his style apparently didn’t suit the team’s traditional ball-possession game.

A video of Paulinho struggling to juggle the ball during his presentation at Camp Nou Stadium didn’t help, going viral and igniting even more criticism against the player and the club.

But things have changed quickly in favor of the low-key, hard-working Brazilian.

After five Spanish league games, Paulinho has done enough to mollify the critics.

He has two goals, including a late winner against Getafe last weekend, and showed some of the prowess that led him to success in Brazil and made him an indisputable starter for his national team.

He thrived after coming off the bench in his first four matches, and eventually earned a start on Tuesday against Eibar.

“I’m happy with how things have gone for me,” Paulinho said. “I’m glad that I’m playing well, it helps me get adapted to the club. I’m playing alongside some great players and they have all been supporting me a lot.”

The 29-year-old Paulinho has added versatility to the midfield. He is solid as a defensive midfielder but also excels with attacking runs that often surprise defenders.

That’s how he scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 win against Getafe, making a run between defenders and entering the area to fire a firm shot into the far corner. His second goal was a header in a 6-1 rout of Eibar.

“He will end up being a cheap signing,” Brazil teammate and former Barcelona player Dani Alves said.

Paulinho has a lot more presence in the area than some of the team’s other midfielders, including Ivan Rakitic and even Andres Iniesta.

It was this that made Paulinho a key player in the Corinthians team that won Club World Cup in 2012. His success with the Brazilian club prompted a move in 2013 to Tottenham, where he disappointed in his two seasons before moving to Guangzhou Evergrande.

Paulinho, who signed a four-year contract with Barcelona, said he had regained his confidence while playing in China. And his good performances with Brazil also helped.

“He gives us a lot of versatility. He can help us in many different ways,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Barcelona’s next game is on Saturday at Girona. The Catalan club has won its first five Spanish league games and has a two-point lead over second-place Sevilla.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Follow Tales Azzoni on http://twitter.com/tazzoni