Champions League Preview: It’s PSG-Barcelona, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic gets to play

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Anytime Zlatan Ibrahimovic faces Barcelona, the main subplot will be about one of the world’s best players facing the team that rejected him. Though Barcelona shelled out what was eventually booked as a $100 million price to get the Swedish superstar from Inter Milan in July 2009, the Catalans shipped him back to Italy 13 months later in what stands as the biggest failure of the all-world striker’s career. Despite winning a title in Spain, Ibrahimovic ended the season in Pep Guardiola’s dog house, with Barcelona eventually taking 30 cents on the dollar to give AC Milan one of the world’s transcendent talents.

While with the Blaugrana, Ibrahimovic (right) collected 22 goals and 13 assists in 46 appearances, many of which failed to give the striker his customary 90 minutes. In the two-plus years that’ve following, Ibrahimovic has 87 goals and 36 assists across 122 appearances with Milan and his current team, Paris Saint-Germain.

With Guardiola having left Barcelona, much of the underlying conflict between player and club is gone. In the buildup to the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal, Ibrahimovic has shown the same respectful awe most opponents hold ahead of a match against what he calls “the best team in the world.” Nearly three season after his disappointing year in Spain, “Ibra” seems to have found peace with his rejection.

source:  What’s left amid Ibrahimovic’s continued brilliance and Barcelona’s inability (read: unwillingness) to utilize a traditional striker or an attacker with any aerial ability is incredulity. Chalk it up to an anomaly, bad timing, or a conflict of styles between “Ibra” and a fellow superstar (Lionel Messi) being converted to a through-the-middle player, but it’s still remarkable one of the world’s best clubs couldn’t make room for one of the planet’s defining talents. Generations from now, fans who won’t have the time to watch all of their games will ask why a Messi-Ibrahimovic tandem couldn’t be made to work.

But Barça’s loss has ultimately become the Parisians’ gain, with Ibrahimovic having moved to Ligue 1 this summer. His addition has allowed PSG to put last year’s disappointing second place finish behind them. Thanks to Ibra’s 25 league goals, PSG sits seven points clear in France. To put Ibrahimovic’s performance in perspective, last season’s Ligue 1 Player of the Year (Eden Hazard) had 20 goals over the entire season.

Clearly Ibra would be a threat to any team has faces, but with Barcelona’s best defender (Carles Puyol) out, he is a particular threat to his former team. With the Parisians presumably willing to sit back, absorb Barça’s pressure, and use Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura, and Ezequiel Lavezzi to hit them on the counter, Ibrahimovic could find himself isolated against Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano.

That puts the big Swede in a position to be decisive in a match he was supposed to miss. A harsh red card in PSG’s first game against Valencia originally had Ibrahimovic suspended for Tuesday’s game. After UEFA corrected the error, France’s best player is set to take on a side he still calls “without doubt, the best team in the world.”

(MORE: Too soon for Bayern-Juventus.)

Notes

  • In addition to Puyol’s absence, Barcelona should be without attacker Pedro Rodríguez. Cristian Tello will likely start up top.
  • Left back Jordi Alba will return to Barça’s XI. Eric Abidal, returning from last year’s liver transplant, is expected to make Barcelona’s 18.
  • And David Beckham? Yeah, he’ll be there, likely starting on PSG’s bench.
  • PSG is still without midfielder Thiago Motta. Marco Veratti will start along side Blaise Matuidi in Carlo Ancelotti’s midfield, though it would be interesting to see Thiago Silva, the team’s best defender, put into a midfield role that would allow him more freedom to track Lionel Messi. PSG could then start Alex and Mamadou Sakho in central defense.
  • Messi set another record this weekend, scoring in his 19th consecutive La Liga match. His seven goals in Champions League trail Burak Yilmaz and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have each scored eight times.
  • Paris Saint-Germain returns to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995 when they eliminated Barcelona. That year’s semifinal appearance is the club’s best showing in Champions League.

Possible lineups

Paris Saint-Germain (4-4-2/4-2-2-2): Salvatore Sirigu; Maxwell, Thiago Silva, Alex, Gregory van der Wiel; Javier Pastore, Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi, Lucas Moura; Ezequiel Lavezzi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Barcelona (4-3-3): Víctor Valdés; Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Piqué, Daniel Alves; Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández; David Villa, Lionel Messi, Cristian Tello.

Mourinho praises Chelsea, his defense after Man Utd win

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Jose Mourinho had a better game plan, better substitutions, and perhaps most critically the better of luck as Manchester United came back to defeat Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday.

[ MORE: Recap | 3 things ]

Romelu Lukaku had a goal and an assist, and both Jesse Lingard and Eric Bailly were good off the bench in the win.

United reaped the rewards of a razor-thin offside call denying a late Cesc Fabregas goal as well as Alvaro Morata blasting the ball off the cross bar early and Andreas Christensen‘s head injury going unseen by the official in the lead-up to the Lukaku goal.

But make no mistake: after coming back from a slow start against an in-form opponent, United deserves the three points that split the season series.

Mourinho deferred to his players for the performance, mostly, and was effusive in his praise of Chelsea.

“They started very well. It’s as simple as that. When they hit the post, I was looking to my players and I was thinking, “What can we do? Who can I blame?” It was so well-played, so beautifully played, there is nothing to say. They have a very good team. They have a fantastic dynamic. I was trying to find a way for my players to be dangerous in the interior because through the sides they are very strong, so we found a way to play against them where we didn’t concede much.”

He did, however, note that the Red Devils had Eden Hazard in his their pocket for a second-straight match:

“We had control of Eden. Willian, of course, is an amazing player and in that action he killed us but with the production of the game we had more and more control of the game. That’s the way I was expecting the game (to go).”

Considering the way Hazard disappeared in Mourinho’s final year at Stamford Bridge, it’s little surprise the ex-Chelsea boss relishes the opportunity to dismiss the player in a quote.

United moves five points clear of fifth place Chelsea.

Three things from Man Utd 2-1 Chelsea

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Antonio Conte‘s was outdone by Jose Mourinho, only just, as the artist formerly known as “The Special One” had the plan and got the required bounces for a big Premier League win on Sunday.

[ RECAP: Man Utd 2-1 Chelsea ]

Manchester United beat Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford, and here are our main takeaways.

Mourinho turns back the hands of tactical time

Manchester United’s boss has rightly been judged for his tactical acumen and organization this year, and not just for perceived parking of proverbial buses.

But Mourinho outfoxed his old nemesis Sunday with a series of changes that weren’t always about the flow of the game as much as keeping Conte’s Chelsea off balance.

Already prepared to play more than usual, United showed inspired work through the middle of the pitch and Paul Pogba was given a bit more freedom and responded by doing a lot of little things right.

The Jesse Lingard sub obviously worked out for the best as the Englishman scored the go-ahead goal, and the introduction of Eric Bailly for his first extended run since Halloween turned out to be an inspired risk.

Lukaku delivers (and delivers)

The big Belgian striker had a dozen goals but none against the Top Six sides of the Premier League before Sunday’s match at Old Trafford.

Lukaku started and finished the equalizer, and then worked well down the right flank before hitting a pinpoint cross for Lingard to head home. That was the one, really, that turned the story line in his favor.

That it came against his old club will feel wonderful.

It’s worth noting that Lukaku did have an assist against Spurs and a goal against Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, but he entered the match with just those numbers and a 2-2-2 record against Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man City, and Arsenal.

Conte unlucky, not rewarded by Morata

Spanish forward Alvaro Morata got the start in place of in-form Pedro, as Antonio Conte decided against the so-called “false 9” which has served his club well in recent week.

It has to be said: Morata’s hard early volley off the cross bar makes Conte’s choice look better if it gets the Charlie Conway “quarter of an inch the other way” treatment, but Hollywood wasn’t on the scene here.

Pedro did provide some love off the bench, but it was not enough as Manchester United’s big man ultimately delivered what Chelsea’s target man could not.

Some of Conte’s choices did work out fine: Antonio Rudiger had some key moments, and who knows what happens had play been stopped when Andreas Christensen went head-to-head with Lukaku ahead of the Belgian’s goal.

And it’s worth noting that Conte’s sub of Fabregas had a chance to match Mourinho’s perceived brilliance with Lingard but was ruled just offside.

Conte didn’t necessarily lose this game of inches, but Mourinho made the moves that won it. It could simply be that some matches are just not to be.

LIVE, League Cup final: Arsenal v. Man City

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Arsenal and Manchester City clash at Wembley on Sunday (kick off, 11:30 a.m. ET) for the League Cup trophy — known as the Carabao Cup for sponsorship reasons — as Arsene Wenger looks to win the tournament for the first time, while Pep Guardiola is aiming to secure his first piece of silverware as City’s manager.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembely

The Gunners lost won this trophy in 1993, while Man City have been in this final in three of the last five years, winning it in 2014 and 2016.

In team news Arsenal start with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front in a 3-4-3 formation with Mesut Ozil supporting Aubameyang and Aaron Ramsey returning from injury to start.

[ LIVE: League Cup final stats ]

Man City start with Claudio Bravo in goal, while Vincent Kompany starts in central defense alongside Nicolas Otamendi. Gabriel Jesus returns to the bench after a long spell out with injury.

Click on the link above to follow the action live, while we are on site at Wembley to provide you with analysis and reaction from what promises to be a classic encounter.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Ospina; Bellerin, Chambers, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Xhaka, Wilshere, Ramsey; Ozil, Aubameyang. Subs: Cech, Mertesacker, Kolasinac, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, Welbeck

Manchester City: Bravo; Walker, Kompany, Otamendi, Danilo; Fernandinho, Silva, Gundogan; De Bruyne, Sane, Aguero. Subs: Ederson, Stones, Laporte, Bernardo, Zinchenko, Foden, Jesus

Man Utd 2-1 Chelsea: Lukaku on point

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  • Lukaku the star
  • Assists Lingard winner
  • Willian gave Chelsea lead
  • Sides split season series

Romelu Lukaku scored and set up Jesse Lingard for the winner as Manchester United came back to beat Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Willian scored the Blues’ opener.

The win moves Manchester United back into second place with 59 points. Chelsea now sits fifth with 54 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The visitors were nearly in front when Morata belted Marcos Alonso‘s cross off the bar, and the rebound popped over the goal.

The 10th minute saw Paul Pogba win a free kick off Morata at the corner of the 18.

Anthony Martial broke up a long spell of Chelsea possession with a dribble and cross that failed to meet a receiver in the 25th minute.

Antonio Rudiger blocked a Lukaku chance moments later, then Courtois stopped Alexis Sanchez.

A yellow card came N'Golo Kante‘s way after the Frenchman chopped down countryman Pogba following a nifty move in the 30th minute.

Willian broke up a cross and then was there at the other end to finish his move and start the scoring. There was a rare David De Gea mistake on the finish, but Willian hammered his effort.

Lukaku then defied critics of his big match record in starting and finishing a terrific team goal with Nemanja Matic, Sanchez, and Martial.

Andreas Christensen was stunned after head-to-head contact with Lukaku just before the goal, but play was not stopped.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

A slow first stanza of the second half hoped for change with Jesse Lingard’s entry for Martial.

Courtois made a fantastic tip save of a Lukaku side volley in the 68th, off a Sanchez cross.

Lukaku did his best Lingard in a role reversal with the wide man, working the right to send a cross inside for the Englishman to head home.

Willian tried to answer back within a minute, but De Gea went low to collect the shot.

Fabregas was offside by a razor-thin margin when his clean finish slid inside the far post with five minutes to play.

Lukaku effectively killed the game with a 60-yard dribble and shot, blocked out for a throw, deep into stoppage time.