Offshore drilling, Spain: Barcelona 3, at Málaga 1

Leave a comment

The typical formula for combating Barcelona is absorb their attack, stay very deep and compact, and on rely on counters. While the approach rarely leads to results, teams like Celtic, Chelsea, and Rubin Kazan have had success. Only José Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been able to go blow-for-blow with their rivals (and during the Special One’s first year in Madrid, it was too close to literal blows).

That’s why it’s surprising when a team like Málaga not only plays Barcelona straight up but is able to compete with Spain’s runaway leaders. For over a half on Sunday, only an aberrational first half mistake separated the two sides.

In the second, however, a Cesc Fabregas goal doubled Barcelona’s lead, and although Málaga again dialed up the intensity after a brief period of shock, Barcelona a superficially comfortable 3-1 victory.

It’s not exaggeration to say this game could have gone either way. Ignacio Camacho’s ill-advised first half back pass (after a collision between Málaga teammates on a Willy Caballero goal kick) gifted Lionel Messi the half’s only goal. Before that, Málaga was almost as dangerous as Barcelona, frequently able to get at their opponent down Barça’s right flank.

Given the tenacity with which Málaga was playing, the game may have broke differently were it not for one unfortunate, atypical mistake.

Man of the Match: Barcelona was playing, right? OK, then: Lionel Messi was Man of the Match.

The choice is both the default and justified. While the opening goal was gifted — Camacho’s backpass easily intercepted before Messi rounded Caballero at the edge of the area to finish into an open net — Messi assisted on each of Barça’s other goals. In the second half, a nice 20-yard diagonal allowed Fábregas to race past Sergio Sánchez and finish against Caballero’s left post. On Thiago Alcantera’s 82nd minute goal, Messi laid off a pass to the substitute midfielder ahead of his 19-yard blast.

(MORE: Video of Messi’s goal Sunday)

By Messi’s standards, it was an average day. He less dominant than opportunistic, but in match where Málaga’s tenaciousness held most of his teammates in check, the Ballon d’ Or winner was still the game’s best player.

Threesome of knowledge

1. Beware Málaga in Champions League – Spain-based Guardian and Sports Illustrated correspondent Sid Lowe was high on Málaga’s chances to go far in Champions League when December’s knockout round draw was made. Manuel Pellegrini’s team had cruised through their group, but against a floundering Milan, a Zenit squad in turmoil, and an outgunned Anderlecht, it was difficult to gauge how ready Málaga was for the next phase.

If Málaga plays like they did today, they’ll be a major threat in the knockout round. Few teams have players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets in midfield. The elite talents of that trio were the only thing that kept Barcelona in control at the Rosaleda. Were it not for the midfielder-esque skills of central defenders Gerard Pique and (to a lesser extent) Javier Mascherano, Barça would have been thrown off by high pressure from Roque Santa Cruz and  (and Jeremy Toulalan and Camacho in behind them). Less talented teams would have crumbled.

Even Real Madrid at their best — as talented but slower than Barcelona — would have had trouble. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are capable of dealing with Málaga, but teams like Manchester United, Juventus, and Paris Saint Germain? They’d struggle.

Porto – Málaga’s Round of 16 opponent? They’re in trouble.

2. That extra dimension of Andrés Iniesta – Were it not for Andrés Iniesta’s ability to turn upfield and move the ball vertically, Barcelona may have been relegated to knocking the ball sideways to try and get around Toulalan and Camacho. But at various moments in the match (most importantly, during Málaga’s last surge in the middle of the second half), Iniesta’s ability to dribble through Málaga’s initial pressure was the only thing that allowed Barcelona to keep the ball.

It was an example of the exquisite balance in Barcelona’s midfield. Neither Xavi nor Busquets are capable of carrying the ball like Iniesta, yet Iniesta can’t run a game like Xavi. And neither man’s capable of providing Busquets’ support.

Today, Barcelona needed Iniesta to shine. When teams pack it in, they’ll need Xavi to unlock them. And against teams that can win the ball and counter through the middle, Busquets will need to step up.

3. Barcelona’s defense coming around – Early this season, Barcelona’s defense looked suspect, but because their opponents rarely had the ball, the goals allowed numbers stayed low. Yet when you watched Tito Vilanova’s team you couldn’t help but wonder what teams like Bayern Munich would do to them in Champions League.

Now the defense is coming around. During Málaga’s first half advances, the back stayed organized as attacks into the space behind Daniel Alves forced the defense to reorganize. Gerard Pique (playing right-center half) calmly forced the play away from goal, where Sergio Busquets dropping into the back left the team prepared to deal with Málaga’s followup.

Instead of seeing their defenders isolated and desperate, Barcelona fans saw their team coolly deal with the type of attacks they’ll see against the world’s better teams. And with their defense playing better, those fans have reason to expect their guys will hold up.

Packaged for takeaway

  • By the end of the game, Barcelona’s possession number was at a typical 64 percent, though the shots on goal only favored them 4-2. Most of possession came in the second half after Fábregas’s goal temporarily disillusioned Málaga.
  • At times, there seems to be little difference between the team’s two right backs: Spanish internationals Jordi Alba (Barcelona) and Nacho Monreal (Malaga). But in the second half, Alba flashed the quality that sets him apart, coming from nowhere to overlap Iniesta in the box during one mid-half movement. Nothing came of it, but the speed with which Alba joined the attack created a “yeah, that’s what makes him different” moment.
  • Were it not for some strong reads early from Caballero, Barcelona may have rolled out to a typically easy victory. Three times in the first half hour Caballero charged off his line to deal with attacks. Still, it was an early stop on Lionel Messi that really deserves some attention. It wasn’t a leaping save, so you won’t see it in a highlight, but in going to ground on his right arm before reaching across his body to stop the ball with his left, Caballero showed the type of athleticism that’s often overlooked. A lot of goalkeepers can make the leaping stop, but to be able to both divert an attacker and recover to block his followup is something that would ask too much of a lot of pure shot-stoppers.

Leicester 1-2 Chelsea: Blues battle to victory

Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • Morata scores first goal of 2018
  • Vardy nets, score 17th of season
  • Pedro scores in extra time

Chelsea beat Leicester City 2-1 after extra time to seal their spot in the FA Cup semifinal.

Alvaro Morata gave Antonio Conte’s men the lead, but Jamie Vardy equalized to take it to extra time.

Pedro then struck to send Chelsea into the semifinal for the second-straight season.

Leicester started well and went close when Marc Albrighton‘s effort from the edge of the box squirmed just wide.

However the longer the first half well, the more dangerous Chelsea looked.

The West London club threatened on the break through Morata with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses having plenty of space out wide.

Morata then made the breakthrough right on half time as Willian nicked the ball, surged forward and released the Spaniard who finished calmly for his first goal in 2018.

After the break Leicester finally came to life as Wilfred Ndidi picked out Vardy with a wonderful pass but the Leicester forward looped his header over the bar.

Albrighton whipped in plenty of inviting crosses as Leicester pushed hard for an equalizerand eventually broke through.

Vicente Iborra got on the end of Riyad Mahrez‘s cross and he was denied twice by heroic blocks but Vardy was on hand to tap home. Game on.

Substitute Shinji Okazaki almost got on the end of a cross soon after and at the other end Morata hit the post with an acrobatic finish… but he was in an offside position.

Morata was then denied twice by Kasper Schmeichel at the end of normal time as the game went to extra time.

Pedro was the hero for Chelsea as he headed home the winner in extra time to send Chelsea to Wembley.

FA Cup semifinals draw: Man United vs. Spurs; Southampton vs. Chelsea

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

All four of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Southampton have one final chance to win a trophy this season: the FA Cup.

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

Man United and Tottenham reached the semifinals with wins on Saturday, followed by Chelsea and Saints on Sunday.

[ MORE: Southampton see off Wigan | Chelsea complete the final four ]

The semifinals draw, which was held immediately after Chelsea’s extra-time victory over Leicester City on Sunday, has pitted Man United against Tottenham with Spurs the de facto away side in their temporary home at Wembley Stadium. The two sides are currently separated by just four points (with eight games to go) in the race for second in the Premier League.

In the other semifinal, it’ll be Southampton versus Chelsea. The Blues made it all the way to the final last season before losing out to Arsenal. Similarly, Saints lost last season’s League Cup final, to Man United.

The games will be played on Saturday, April 21, and Sunday, April 22.

FA Cup semifinals schedule

Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Southampton vs. Chelsea

USMNT name squad for friendly v Paraguay

US Soccer
Leave a comment

The U.S. national team have announced their 22-man roster for the friendly against Paraguay in Cary, North Carolina on March 27.

This could be the moment we look back at the old guard passing the baton.

Interim head coach Dave Sarachan has named a young team as Levante’s Shaq Moore and former Sporting KC defender Erik Palmer-Brown (now at Manchester City) received their first call ups.

Per the release, the average of the squad is 23 years, 84 days with 17 players aged 24 or under. Is this the dawn of a new era?

With no sign of a new head coach being appointed until probably after the 2018 World Cup, plus no General Manager (a newly created role by new USSF president Carlos Cordeiro) yet appointed for the USMNT, it’s tough to know how much to read into this team selection as the U.S. rebuild continues to be put on hold after the failure to make the 2018 World Cup.

Christian Pulisic has not been called up due to the U.S. letting him focus on Borussia Dortmund for the time being and, let’s be honest, we all know he is the star of this team and will be for decades to come. Giving him a rest this time could be hugely beneficial in the future.

Antonee Robinson, Marky Delgado, Timothy Weah and Andrija Novakovich are also looking for their first cap after impressing.

Weah has been rewarded after coming off the bench for PSG’s first team in recent weeks as he also starred for the USA at the U-17 World Cup, while Robinson has broken through at Bolton and Novakovich is scoring goals for fun in Holland.

Sarachan has taken charge of two USMNT games as interim boss after being an assistant coach in Bruce Arena’s coaching staff. The U.S. have drawn both of those games against Portugal in November and Bosnia in January.

Below is the squad in full.

U.S. ROSTER BY POSITION (Club; Caps/Goals):
GOALKEEPERS (3): Alex Bono (Toronto FC/CAN; 0/0), Bill Hamid (Midtjylland/DEN; 5/0), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC; 1/0)

DEFENDERS (8): Cameron Carter-Vickers (Ipswich Town/ENG; 1/0), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest/ENG; 14/1), Matt Miazga (Vitesse/NED; 4/1), Shaq Moore (Levante/ESP; 0/0), Erik Palmer-Brown (Kortrijk/BEL; 0/0), Antonee Robinson (Bolton Wanderers/ENG; 0/0), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna/MEX; 15/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United/ENG; 49/0)

MIDFIELDERS (8): Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls; 2/0), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC/CAN; 0/0), Weston McKennie (Schalke/GER; 1/1), Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United FC; 24/1), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC; 2/0), Kenny Saief (Anderlecht/BEL; 1/0), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC; 3/0), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain/FRA; 0/0)

FORWARDS (3): Andrija Novakovich (Telstar/NED; 0/0), Rubio Rubin (Club Tijuana/MEX; 4/0), Bobby Wood (Hamburg/GER; 36/10)

Podolski goal powers Vissel Kobe to 1st win in J-League

Getty Images
Leave a comment

KOBE, Japan (AP) German striker Lukas Podolski scored late in the second half on Sunday as Vissel Kobe beat Cerezo Osaka 2-0 for its first win of the J-League season.

Naoyuki Fujita gave the hosts a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute and Podolski secured the win on a left-foot shot with eight minutes remaining in regulation.

It was the first goal of the season for Podolski, who last year moved from Turkish club Galatasaray after signing a deal with Kobe estimated to be worth $5.3 million.

Elsewhere, Thai midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin scored late in stoppage time to lift Consadole Sapporo to a 2-1 win over V-Varen Nagasaki.

Takuma Abe scored midway through the second half to give Vegalta Sendai a share of the points in a 1-1 draw with Shimizu S-Pulse, while Diego Oliveira scored his first goal of the season as FC Tokyo beat Shonan Bellmare 1-0.

Mu Kanazaki scored the only goal as Kashima Antlers beat Sagan Tosu 1-0, Gamba Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol finished 2-2 and Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata ended in a goalless draw.