It’s so easy now, after witnessing what became a route in Catalonia, to wonder why we ever doubted Barcelona, but we had good reason to think Milan would hold the two-goal lead they carried into today’s Champions League eliminator. Nobody had ever squandered that kind of a league. But perhaps more importantly, recent losses to Milan and Real Madrid (twice) provided hints Barcelona’s attack had been figured out, with good teams able to sit back and absorb the Catalans’ attack rather than waste time chasing tikis and takas.
We had every reason to think Barcelona would bow out of Champions League, but their 4-0 win (4-2, aggregate) reminded us, Milan, and the European soccer world that there’s one aspect of Barcelona’s attack that defies solution. The only options you have against Lionel Messi are containment, hope, and prayer that he doesn’t decide to do something special.
Three weeks ago at the San Siro, those options worked, but it only took five minutes for Messi to make his mark on Tuesday, the first touch on a shot from 19 yards placed immaculately into Christian Abbati’s upper-right hand corner. The ball left Messi’s foot so quickly, Milan’s defense was left frozen as the ball buckled the back of the net.
Messi added his second five minutes before half, a score produced by a Barcelona defense that was much more disruptive on Tuesday than it had been three weeks ago. In the 40th minute, as Milan attempted to transition the ball out of their final third, Andrés Iniesta forced a turnover, found Messi outside the area to the right of goal, and set up the Argentine for the equalizer. Using the lunging Philippe Mexes as a screen, Messi beat Abbiati well inside the right post, sending the matchup into halftime tied at two.
Ten minutes into the second, Barcelona’s defense created the winner, with a bold read from Javier Mascherano again disrupting Milan’s transition. The Barça defender intercepted a clearance and started a short movement that ended at the feet of David Villa. Open 15 yards out to the right of goal, Villa calmly passed the ball into the left side netting, putting Barcelona in front.
Milan’s approach was never one to play from behind. Despite three subs that changed their side, the Rossoneri couldn’t gain control of the match. The closest they came to an equalizer was a late cross for Robinho, a ball that was cut out by Jordi Alba before Victor Valdes’s help was needed.
In the 93rd minute, Alba got his reward, sprinting the length of the field to complete a counter that sealed Barcelona’s place in the quarterfinals.
With the win, Barcelona became the first team to turn around a 2-0 first leg deficit and advance in the Champions League, a fact that should haunt a Milan side that couldn’t muster the resiliency they leveraged three weeks ago. The Italians never posed the same threat on the counter, and the space between their midfield three and central defense proved easier to exploit. Perhaps it was too much to ask them to maintain the same standard they performed to in Milan.
And perhaps it was too much to ask them to stop Messi twice in a row. In Italy, the Ballon d’Or winner was surprisingly ineffectual. In Spain, he defined the match in the same way we expect him to define any match he starts.
Villa may have got the winner, and Alba may have provided the insurance, but it was Messi who steered his side to history. Maybe we were wrong to doubt.
Klopp’s blockbuster arrival brings hope back to Liverpool
LIVERPOOL – Jurgen Klopp is box office in every sense of the word.
His relaxed demeanor makes him likable, yet he also exudes self-confidence, something he will need a lot of in the coming weeks and months as he tries to get Liverpool’s players to believe in his methodology and drag the illustrious club back to the top of the Premier League and get them challenging for trophies at home and in Europe.
Being in the packed press conference in the Centenary Stand at Anfield on Friday, there was a palpable buzz and sense of excitement in the air as the British, German and world ‘s media descended on Anfield. The terraced rows of streets in and around Anfield were busier than usual. All roads led to Anfield. All roads led to Klopp. He didn’t disappoint as he delivered a flawless display of controlled optimism.
Previously he had described this opportunity to manage Liverpool as the “most interesting job in world football” at the moment. Everyone was interested in what he had to say, as he strode into the presser with a beaming smile on his face, wearing a a pair of jeans and a stylish unbuttoned shirt complemented with a trendy blazer. Make no mistake, signing Klopp to a three-year deal is a major coup for the Reds as any of Europe’s giants would have snapped him up had a managerial vacancy arisen over the past four months since he left Borussia Dortmund.
Friday marked the biggest managerial appointment for Liverpool in a decade, as all the stops were pulled out to make sure the German coach was given a royal welcome at Anfield, a pantheon of world soccer which he is eager to wake up from its trophyless slumber. After the presser, Klopp was ushered onto the pitch as he posed for pictures in front of the huge $165 million renovation of the Main Stand which will add over 7,000 corporate seats at Anfield and help the club generate extra revenue to compete with the four clubs currently above them — Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United — in the Premier League’s rich list. Liverpool’s American owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) will be celebrating their fifth anniversary at the club next week. This appointment was one of their biggest moments, if not the biggest, to date under John W. Henry and Co.
Klopp has previously spoken about his ability to coach with feeling. On Friday he spoke with feeling, with humor and engaged the audience as mutterings such as “he’s enthralling, gripping, isn’t he?” could be heard among the press. His enthusiastic mannerisms on the sidelines and his ability to conjure fervor from fans and players has been well documented. He is a man who is at one with the working-class people who make up the vast majority of the local fanbases for his previous clubs Mainz and Dortmund, and now his new club, Liverpool. He seems tailor-made for this adventure at Anfield.
In the past three seasons, hope of success flickered brightly at first, then intermittently, before fading in recent months. Liverpool failed to win a single piece of silverware under Brendan Rodgers, with the Northern Irishman finally shown the exit door last Sunday. In Rodgers’ place stands a coach who has been here before.
At Dortmund Klopp rebuilt the team from relegation candidates to two-time Bundesliga champions in his seven years in charge. He led them to the UEFA Champions League final (where they lost narrowly to German rivals Bayern Munich at Wembley) and built a young squad who was hungry to succeed and bought into his methods of high-pressing early in games and pacey counters later.
The similarities between the situation Klopp now finds himself in at Liverpool are strikingly similar to the one he acquired at Dortmund when he arrived from Mainz in 2008.
“We did in Dortmund what we had to do, to improve the players, to work for a common idea of play. That is what we did and its the same thing we want to do here. They are not the same players of course,” Klopp told NBC Sports ProSocerTalk. “These players from Liverpool are better, more experienced in some ways and younger in other cases. Everything is okay, I am here. I am not here only because LFC was calling. I believe in the potential of this team. Four or five strikers you can work with when they are not injured, midfielders is really good, defenders experienced and very young, goalkeeper is really good. Everything is there.
“Now we have to work. The problem in football is that you can be as good as you want but you always have to play against other teams. You have no influence on how good they are before the game. But in the game, if they are better, you have to bring them to your level. On your level you can kill every team. If they are not so good, you have to win. That is football.”
A towering six-foot four-inch veteran of the 2. Bundesliga during his playing days, Klopp’s soccer brain has been revered and he takes his staff wherever he goes. Longtime allies Zeljko Buvac (who he nicknames ‘the brain’) and analyst Peter Krawietz have joined Klopp at Liverpool, as he aims to replicate the success he had at Dortmund. He also revealed he is comfortable with the transfer committee which many blamed for Rodgers’ downfall. “It’s enough for me to have the first and last word.”
Liverpool’s 25-year wait for a 19th league championship may not end anytime soon but under Klopp FSG have got the man they were after. As he mentioned when saying: “I am not here only because LFC was calling. I believe in the potential of this team,” Klopp has placed his managerial reputation on the line to try and stir a sleeping giant of English soccer with his raucous celebrations and infectious enthusiasm set to grace the touchline for at least the next three years at Liverpool. If this initial appearance before the press is anything to go by, Klopp will bring plenty of life to the PL.
He has become the second German to coach in the Premier League, after the short-stint of Felix Magath at Fulham almost two years ago, and Klopp’s English is very, very good as he engaged with the press and put on a flawless show of charisma, style and confidence.
“In Jurgen Klopp we have appointed a world-class manager with a proven track record of winning and someone who has the personality and charisma to reignite this football club and take the team forward,” Liverpool chairman Tom Werner said in a statement. “He possesses all the qualities we are looking for in a manager, he is a strong, inspirational leader, who has a clear philosophy of high energy, attacking football. Critically, he is also a winner and someone who can connect with and enthuse our supporters.”
The club. The fans. The players. Klopp blends it all together perfectly. He gets what a club like Liverpool means to the fans and now shares their hopes and dreams.
Perhaps one of the most poignant quotes to come from Klopp was that he wants his players to believe, not be downtrodden by, the huge expectation placed on them by the fans and the media worldwide.
“It is a really important thing that the players feel the difference from now on,” Klopp said. “They have to think they can reach the expectations of all the people, of all the fans, of the press. We have to change from doubters to believers. We have to change our performance, of course, but stop thinking about money. It is only about football.”
There was no football played on Friday as Klopp will get to work early next week when the majority of his squad arrive back at Melwood from international duty. But the talking he did on Friday, with charisma oozing from his comments in both English and German, impressed and proved he is relaxed and capable of delivering success to a club which has been crying out for it for a very long time.
Spain can book its place in France with a win over Luxembourg on Friday, just one of several match ups of giants and minnows on the docket.
The real Group C battle is for second in the group, as Ukraine should easily pick up three points against basement-dwelling Macedonia, which would keep its Top Two hopes alive should Slovakia drop unlikely points at home to Belarus.
Roy Hodgson has set England’s sights on an undefeated run through group play, and that could crush Estonia’s hopes in Group E. Sitting fourth, two points back of Slovenia, Estonia has a tough duo of matches to finish (Switzerland is next).
The Swiss, for their part, have No. 6 San Marino, while Slovenia can stay in they playoff driver seat with a win versus Lithuania.
Will Austria be on cruise control, given it’s won Group G in a landslide? Montenegro will hope so, but their hopes also hinge on Sweden and Russia picking up historic upset losses on the road.
Macedonia vs. Ukraine
Slovakia vs. Belarus
Spain vs. Luxembourg
England vs. Estonia
Slovenia vs. Lithuania
Switzerland vs. San Marino
Liechtenstein vs. Sweden
Moldova vs. Russia
Montenegro vs. Austria