Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: at AC Milan 2, Barcelona 0

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If you think today’s result will just be a one-off, your memory’s short. This is how Chelsea did it last year. This is how Manchester United did it in 2008 and how Chelsea nearly derailed them a year later. This is how Barcelona goes out, but unlike recent years that saw opponents get a goal and hold out, Milan got two. And now one of the tournament favorites is on the brink of leaving UEFA Champions League before they’ve even managed to threaten their opponent’s goal.

That’s how surprisingly lopsided today’s match was, though that imbalance won’t be reflected in the possession stat. At 73 percent, Barcelona held even more of the ball than they’re used to. Yet paradoxically, their attack was far more feeble, only putting one shot on Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati. Barça never showed the will or ability to solve what’s becoming a surprisingly reliable formula.

That formula: Defend. It’s not complicated. Just keep defending to the extreme and wait for your chances, no matter how long it takes. If you stay focused, camp behind the ball, and force Barcelona to move through you, they can be beat. All you need is one moment – one good bounce, one swift movement – and you can derail one of the best teams in the world.

“The result is definitely unexpected,” Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo conceded after his team’s 2-0 victory. “We faced the best team in the world.”

Milan’s first moment came in the 57th minute, the first real chance of a game that had been chance-less. Off a restart near the edge of their attacking third, Milan let midfielder  Montolivo try from distance. His shot from 30 yards out hit a Barcelona player, went off the hand of Cristian Zapata, and fell for Kevin Prince-Boateng. The Milan attacker turned on his left foot and fired with his right from just inside the box, the bang-bang action leaving Victor Valdés flat-footed as the game’s winning goal flexed the right side of his net.

It was a stroke of bad luck for the Catalans, but sauntering through their road leg with the intensity of camel, Barça was ripe to be caught. It nearly happened in the 11th minute, when Milan broke with numbers after a corner kick. It almost happened in the 16th minute, when a poor touch from Stephan El Shaarawy is all that prevented a point-blank chance on goal. Thanks to long passes from Montolivo and the constant threat of El Shaarawy getting behind right back Dani Alves, Milan was always one movement away from taking the lead.

“We couldn’t create chances, Milan was well-organized,” Alves said before conceding, “We could have competed a bit better.”

Lightning stuck for a second time in the 80th minute when a ball chipped forward M’Baye Niang allowed the French teenager to find El Shaarawy in the box. The young Italian lifted a ball over the right side of Barça’s defense for an oncoming Sulley Muntari, whose finish back across goal put Barcelona on the edge of elimination.

“It was the most important goal of my career,” Muntari said afterward.

No doubt Barcelona controlled the match, but their command was passive, their assured but serene possession playing into Milan’s hands. With three compact midfielders, wingers tracking deep, and a defensive so far back they rarely had to worry about anything behind them, the Rossoneri willing ceded a control that never mattered. They may have only held 27 percent possession, but putting three shots on goal to Barcelona’s one, Milan were the more dangerous side.

“This is a very negative result,” Iniesta said after the match. “When you don’t show up for the game, this can happen.”

With their 2-0 victory, Milan proved more than opportunistic. They were the better side, one that leaves Barcelona needing two goals to have a chance of survival. But even before worry about converting chances, Barça needs to figure out who to create some.

source:  Man of the Match: Montolivo and El Shaarawy were key to how Milan set up, but Kevin Prince Boateng’s finish is what set Milan on their way. Not everybody would have gotten that shot on goal, let alone hit a ball so well that the opposition keeper was left flat-footed. Reflexively shooting as he turned on the ball, Prince allowed Milan to reap the rewards of an extreme but highly successful approach.

And the former Ghanian international did his part on the other end, too, coming back from his right wing position to set up in the area normally patrolled by Andrés Iniesta. The Barça star had a quiet day, and although it was unclear Boateng was the cause of that, his positioning and willingness certainly helped, particularly when he was called on to track Jordi Alba’s runs (as he memorably did to win a ball behind Milan’s line in the 43rd minute).

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Allegri, Milan have come a long way – In the wake of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Thiago Silva sale, Milan got off to a terrible start to the season. They fell to the bottom half of the Serie A table while struggling to get through their Champions League group.

Now the team sits third and have a path into the Champions League quarterfinals. What happened?

Massimiliano Allegri was given time to figure his new team out, something that didn’t look certain to happen as the Rossoneri stumbled out of the gate. But slowly Allegri determined El Shaarawy was capable of carrying the scoring burden. He incorporated Montolivo, tweaked Prince’s role, and forged a viable central defense from Philippe Mexes, Cristian Zapata, and Mario Yepes.

Along the way, he moved away from Alexandre Pato. Robinho is no longer a major part of this team. Antonio Nocerino, a find last season, isn’t a vital cog in midfield.

Six months after fans were calling for his ouster, Allegri took apart Barcelona. That’s how far his team has come.

source: Getty ImagesWhere did Lionel Messi go? – The best player in the world was a complete non-factor. Milan was tight and compact through the middle, giving Messi no space to work, but even when the Balon d’Or winner started going wide right in an attempt to find room to work, he failed to have an impact on the game. Aside from a 29th  flash when he beat left back Kevin Constant, Messi might as well have been on the sidelines.

For only the second time this season, Messi was held without a shot on goal.

It’s not like Barcelona’s other stars were much better. Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta played a bigger part in the game, but that’s to be expected. Milan wasn’t crowding the areas were they operate. Cesc Fábregas and Pedro Rodríguez? Their names were rarely called.

Messi, however, usually finds a way to break through. Even when he’s off, he’s capable of finding a moment of brilliance. Tonight, he wasn’t even close.

A portable approach – Milan’s tactics weren’t complicated. They weren’t dependent on anything specific to the San Siro, and as we’ve seen in recent years, other teams have been able to execute this approach on the road. There’s no reason why Milan can’t replicate this performance in Spain. Carrying two goals out of the San Siro, they even have license to be more extreme.

Barcelona may be able to break through in Spain, but odds are they’ll lose if they don’t change things up. They know their recent history. They know they need a Plan B. They can’t just assume dogma will win out.

The question is whether they can change. Do they have enough diversity of talent within the team to make the necessary changes? Is there even enough familiarity with a different approach to make those tweaks viable? Is there the will to try?

Barcelona’s in big trouble, and their problems transcend the score. They’re not a team well equipped to address this kind of challenge. They may be left with no recourse but to play their normal style and hope this time it wins out.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Victor Valdés actually had a good day, particularly in the first half where a couple of aggressive reads helped him snuff out changes before they developed. But there was little he could have done to prevent either goal.
  • The matchup between El Shaarawy and Alves was a particularly interesting one, with the young Italian tasked with tracking the Barcelona wingback. Early, it became evident Milan was going to try and exploit Alves’s want to push forward, with Montolivo constantly firing diagonals behind the Barça right back. Though the matchup never really bore fruit, it still helped define how Milan set up.
  • Mario Balotelli is cup-tied, having appeared in the competition with Manchester City. He was seen celebrating on the sidelines during the match’s final moments.
  • Looking at Barcelona’s bench, it’s unclear how they could have significantly changed their team. Alexis Sanchez came on, and Javier Mascherano eventually replaced a cut Carles Puyol, but the rest of the team represents a series of more-or-less like-for-like options: Alexander Song, Cristian Tello, Martín Montoya, and Thiago Alcantera.

Stay with us throughout Wednesday as we take a look at the day’s other match, Turkish champions Galatasaray hosting Germans Schalke 04.

Men in Blazers podcast: Man City-Liverpool review, USMNT preview

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Rog and Davo recap the Top Four battle between Manchester City and Liverpool, ask (again) whether it’s time for Arsene to go, and break down two of the most important USMNT games in modern history.

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Germany overtakes USWNT for top spot in FIFA rankings

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The U.S. women have been displaced from their #1 world ranking by a team they beat less than a month ago.

Despite the USWNT 1-0 win over Germany to start the SheBelieves Cup, the subsequent pair of losses hurt them as Germany leap-frogged the United States into the top spot.

The U.S. lost to England and France, marking its first losing streak in three years and the first time in 17 years that it lost two in a row at home. Jill Ellis used the tournament as an attempt to experiment with different player combinations as she looks to navigate the transition between some aging well-known players and a new injection of youth.

France, who won the event, is ranked third, while England jumped Canada for fourth. The Canadians dropped to fifth, Sweden and Japan tied for sixth, and Australia, Brazil, and North Korea round out the top 10.

The last time the United States was not the #1 team in the world was March of 2015, on the heels of a 1-1-2 December and a loss to France in late February.

MLS Week 4 Preview: Portland flying, RSL depleted

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We’re just starting to see things take shape in Major League Soccer. The dangerous teams are clear, the middle of the pack is forming, and the struggling teams know it’s not too late to get a things going.

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Week 4 is stretched out over this weekend and next thanks to the international break, so there are only three matches to get to on Saturday. Here’s the outlook:

New England Revolution vs. Minnesota United – 2:00 p.m. ET

There is just one point combined for these two teams through the first three match weeks. They are both bottom of their conference. A basement spot awaits the loser, and a revival awaits the winner. If there is one.

A lot is on the line with these two clubs as they meet in Foxboro. It’s early enough in the season where three points can vault a team halfway up the table, completely alleviating any fears of impending doom. However, it’s at the point where should a team lose this match, the alarm bells begin to go off for fans.

Minnesota, already struggling to begin the season, has been ravaged by the international break and will be without Rasmus Schuller, Kevin Molino, Johan Venegas, and Francisco Calvo. That said, if there’s any time to have a number of players missing, it is nice to have it come against a struggling team like New England who has yet to score a goal from open play yet through two matches. Will New England strike against the lack of opposition depth to spark their goalscoring efforts?

New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake – 4:00 p.m. ET

RSL has to get things going, and they need to do it fast. Unfortunately, they visit an Eastern Conference might as New York welcomes the cross-country travelers with six points already in hand to Salt Lake’s one. To make matters worse for the visiting side, they’re ravaged up and down the roster. Nick Rimando and Albert Rusnák are on international duty, Kyle Beckerman is suspended for his silly red card, and Joao Plata is injured along with Jordan Allen. Tack on the questionable tags for Justen Glad, Aaron Maund, and David Horst, and the outlook is bleak for RSL. Oh, and they just fired their coach too.

That leaves interim coach Daryl Shore little to work with, and they’ll take on a strong New York team that presses hard. Sacha Kljestan struggled in last week’s loss to Seattle, but this team is known for its ability to bounce back. Bradley Wright-Phillips could have a field day if he gets the service, or even if he doesn’t.

Columbus Crew vs. Portland Timbers – 7:30 p.m. ET

For me, this is the best game of the three. Portland is considered by some to own the best attack in the league, and they’ve shown it through three games, scoring 10 goals against a relatively soft opening schedule. Columbus, meanwhile, picked up three points from a two-game road trip and is back home looking to prove that last year’s struggles are a thing of the past. We still don’t know exactly what to expect from the Crew, but we sure do know what’s coming to town, and that’s the Timbers’ red-hot attack duo of Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi.

22-year-old rookie Alex Crognale made his debut for Columbus last week and contributed heavily to the Crew’s clean sheet. He will be tested heavily should he earn himself a second start. Jonathan Mensah is back from his red card suspension and will add to the defensive abilities. Still, it will be a tough test for Columbus, one which would provide an enormous boost should earn all three points.

MLS Power Rankings — Week 3: Gap developing at the top

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We’re just three weeks in, and while there’s still obviously gobs of time for teams to right the ship, we are also seeing who’s for real at the top of the table, and while the table doesn’t always show it, we’re starting to learn more and more about each team that picks up the points.

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Atlanta continues to win, still yet to lose in MLS play three matches into its inaugural season, and Portland bounced back to prove they’re still in control. At about the 7-8 mark there looks to be a clear gap developing. Can anyone buck the trend moving forward? Your updated power rankings:


TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)

 

22 (19)

21 (22)

20 (21)

DC United: Six goals conceded, none scored in their last two. Not much else needs to be said.

Minnesota United: Their very first MLS point was an important one, holding on down a man. Still a very long way to go.

New England Revolution: More of the same for New England who admittedly had a tall task against FC Dallas but couldn’t hold on.

19 (20) Columbus Crew: Could this week be the one that starts the climb? Six shots on target out of seven total, that’s efficient. Still need a result against a better team to back it up.
18 (18) Real Salt Lake: No Glad, No Plata, down a man, still almost pulled it out. Still, the defending was poor at times a man down and Beckerman knows better. Need to start picking up points.
17 (16) Philadelphia Union: 14 shots, just two on target. That’s the type of day it was in Orlando. Just 2 points from three is worrying, but they have a shot for their first win against DC before taking on Portland and NYCFC.
16 (12) Chicago Fire: Ouch. It’s hard to take much of anything from a big loss to a smoking hot team playing 79 minutes with 10 men. Still…that one will hurt.
15 (17) Montreal Impact: They held firm against a good NYCFC attack, and actually did the coming back for once.
14 (14) Vancouver Whitecaps: In a vacuum, no shame in losing to Tigres or Toronto, but now they’ve got a bit of poor form with the Galaxy coming to town and then the CCL second leg. Will want to avoid a string of bad results.
13 (15) LA Galaxy: All road wins are good wins. That said, beating a weakened RSL by a goal after playing a man down the entire second half is not exactly convincing. They were second best until Beckerman went off and managed just 4 shots on target.
12 (13)
Sporting Kansas City: Have conceded just one goal. They have a plan, and it’s working so far. Just need to figure it out on the other end.
11 (5) Colorado Rapids: Give the Loons credit, but a draw against 10-man Minnesota is not a good look. The defending has been poor.
10 (7) San Jose Earthquakes: Bit tough to figure out this San Jose team early on, but with Godoy held in check, they were outshot 15-5 by KC.
9 (6) Houston Dynamo: Caught Portland at a bad time. This is still a good team, but maybe with some soul-searching to do after a big loss.
8 (10)
Orlando City: An extra week of rest helped Orlando and Cyle Larin did Cyle Larin things. Six possible points, six taken. Still need to prove themselves on the road after last season.
7 (9) Seattle Sounders: Just like Portland, Seattle got back to what it does best, and that involved Dempsey and Morris scoring. The attack looked dangerous
6 (4) New York City FC: Montreal hacked NYCFC to death and it worked. They’re still a good team, but will have to figure out how to win ugly too.
5 (8) Toronto FC: A very solid bounce-back win without Giovinco, who will be back after the break. The rough start appears to be more of a blip.
4 (3) New York Red Bulls: The ugly wins finally came back to haunt them. Hard to take much from a cross-country road trip, but they fell short in a tough test.
3 (11) Atlanta United: You betcha. This team’s for real. Well, they certainly appear to be with Josef Martinez on fire, but he’s just been injured. Now what?
2 (2) FC Dallas: A win over New England continued FC Dallas’s hot start. It’s mind-boggling how little attention Max Urruti gets.
1 (1) Portland Timbers: That’s more like it. The scary Portland attack bounced back by putting four goals past 2-0-0 Houston.