Champions League preview: Picking favorites between Bayern Munich, Barcelona

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Having won an ever-tougher German league in record time, Bayern Munich needs little more to prove their European bonafides that the domestic distance between them and Borussia Dortmund (20 points), a 4-0 (aggregate) trouncing of Juventus in the UEFA Champions League quarters, and a roster with depth and quality that rivals any in world soccer. If they did, the 16-2 margin they’ve racked up in winning their last three league games or the +75 goal difference they’ve accumulated through 30 Bundesliga rounds would be enough to argue they’re not only Europe’s form team, they’ve put together UEFA’s most impressive campaign. If you were to pick Champions League’s favorite based on only this year’s returns, Bayern would be the obvious choice.

But that status only confounds the picture ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal, one that pits the would-be kings against the reigning monarchs. Because although Barcelona didn’t win last year’s Champions League (remember Chelsea?), their status as ‘team our club would most like to emulate’ creates a standard, one Bayern has implicitly bought into while tabbing Pep Guardiola to take over at the Allianz next year. Having won two Champions Leagues and three Spanish titles during four years bossing the Blaugrana, the Barcelona legend is set to bring Barça to Bavaria, a move that makes Tuesday’s meeting the first half of a type of Guardiola Clasico.

“I have respect for Pep Guardiola and we have a very good relationship,” Bayern head coach Jupp Heynckes said on Monday. “This match will not affect this. I don’t need any information from anyone. I know Spanish football, I know Barça and I know my own team very well.”

It’s exactly what you’d expect from a coach that signed off on Guardiola’s hire, though it doesn’t help answer the central questions ahead of Tuesday’s match: Who’s the favorite? The team with the gaudy numbers and layers upon layers of talent? Or the team that sits on the proverbial throne.

There seem to be two schools of thought:

Picking Bayern Picking Barça
They’re clearly the best team in Europe. They’ve lapped the Bundesliga and embarrassed Juventus with talent that explains their results. Only subscribing to Barcelona mysticism would make them underdogs. We’re seen Barcelona be eliminated by lesser teams than Bayern. It’s one thing to put up impressive results against Germany and the res of Champions League – results that shouldn’t be discounted – but Barcelona is so stylistically distinct, you predict results based on a club’s performance against other teams. Most teams crumble against Barcelona

Bayern’s a team which, even by Barcelona’s standards, has an enviable amount of artillery. Even with first choice number nine Mario Mandsukic suspended, Bayern has an elite goal scorer: German international Mario Gomez. On the flanks, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben present significant challenges for Barcelona’s fullbacks, while Thomas Muller, set to play in support of Gomez, has proven himself in a World Cup and the previous Champions League. Bayern has no shortage of players who could win this match.

“To sum up Bayern’s strength this year with just one word, I would say ‘teamwork’,” Heynckes said. “Bayern play the most modern and up-to-date football in their history. There are so many things you can prepare before a game, but being spontaneous is very important in football. You need good intuition to do this.”

source: ReutersThat spontaneity means players like midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger (right) and Javi Martinez could also be threats, as well as fullbacks Philipp Lahm and David Alaba. It also means the team may have the fluidity to cover for the absence of Toni Kroos, the Bayern playmaker out for the season after suffering an abductors injury against Málaga.

The bigger injury concern, however, lies with the other side. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi – the consensus world’s best player who’s scored an astounding 43 goals in 29 league games – has only played since the his team’s second quarterfinal leg against Paris Saint-Germain, a match in which he could only go half an hour. Having picked up in injury in the first leg in Paris, Messi hasn’t started a game since April 2. He’s expected to being in Jordi Roura’s starting XI on Tuesday, but whether he’s 100 percent remains to be seem.

“Messi is improving and is getting better but we will have to see what the doctor says,” Barça’s interim boss Jordi Roura said on Monday. “He is a great player because he can dictate games. We hope he will be fine tomorrow.”

In a way, that’s not even the most important part of the match for Barcelona. On the road in game one of a two-legged tie, the more important thing will be staying close. Barcelona need to keep the score close enough to play their normal style when the match moves to Cataluyna. They need a big day from Gerard Piqué in defense, and they’ll need strong performances from Sergio Busquets and Victor Valdes.

Any result that keeps them from falling behind by more than one goal will be a positive one. Because of their standards, Barcelona will want to win on Tuesday, but with the quality of this Bayern side, staying close away from home could be the difference between maintaining their Champions League dreams and being just another Juventus on the road to Bayern’s title.

Notes

  • Bayern’s domestic season is done, but they’re still racking up results. Gomez and Claudio Pizarro each scored twice in this weekend’s 6-1 win at Hannover.
  • Barcelona also won this weekend, albeit in less convincing fashion. Cesc Fabregas’s 84th minute goal gave the Blaugrana a 1-0 win at home against Levante.
  • Eric Abidal, coming back from a liver transplant, played 90 minutes in central defense on Saturday, though don’t expect him in Roura’s XI at Bayern. Adriano should start along side Piqué in the middle.
  • The last time the two teams met was the 2008-09 Champions League quarterfinals. Barcelona routed Bayern in the first leg on their way to a 5-1 aggregate victory.
  • Bayern returns two starters from that match: Ribery and Lahm. Barcelona could return as many as six starters: Valdes, Dani Alves, Piqué, Xavi Hernandez, Messi, and Andres Iniesta,
  • Bayern have only lost once at home to a Spanish side in Champions League play: 3-2 to Deportivo la Coruna in 2002-03.
  • Barcelona have an eight match unbeaten run on German soil, their last trip a 3-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in last year’s group stage.

Possible Lineups

Bayern Munich (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; David Alaba, Dante, Daniel Van Buyten, Philipp Lahm; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez; Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben; Mario Gomez.

Barcelona (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Jordi Alba, Adriano, Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves; Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez; David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro Rodriguez.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

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The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

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The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

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The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

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On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.