Champions League preview: Picking favorites between Bayern Munich, Barcelona

1 Comment

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.

Salah’s sensational season in context

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
Leave a comment

Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4

How long is Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC?

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

While Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League success has largely been driven by Sebastian Giovinco — Wednesday’s final second leg not withstanding — perhaps the Reds’ brass isn’t convinced the diminutive 31-year-old can keep it up much longer (at least in terms of value).

[ MORE: Behind the scenes at NYCFC training ]

Toronto’s dynamic Designated Player says he wants to stay in Ontario, implying that he’d like to be there for the rest of his career, but TFC’s brass may not want to pony up DP dollars for the next stage of Giovinco’s career.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson:

“I already talk, but they said it’s not the moment (for contract talks),” Giovinco told the Sun. “For them, that’s not a problem, for me it is a little bit. I want to know my future. I have family. I’m 31 years old. For what I do for the city, I think I deserve it, no? … For them it’s not a problem, for me it’s starting to be a problem … I already said I want to stay here forever … If not, I have to think about other options.”

Let’s look into Seba’s success. The Italian has three goals and four assists in seven CCL matches (though scoreless through three MLS matches).

2017: 32 games, 20 goals, seven assists (6W-3L-2T w/o him)
2016: 37 games, 22 goals, 16 assists (1W-1L-4T w/o him)
2015: 35 games, 23 goals, 14 assists (0W-2L w/o him)

The assist numbers took a hit with the emergence of Victor Vazquez, but the ex-Barcelona man is also 31 years old. Michael Bradley turns 31 this summer, and Jozy Altidore is 29 in November.

Who will stay long-term? Who could general manager Tim Bezbatchenko have in mind as replacements, upgrades, or buttressing? Inquiring minds are

Checking the Championship with two weeks to go

Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
Leave a comment

There are two match days left before the Football League Championship playoffs, and there’s still no clarity outside of who will finish first.

The champion Wolverhampton Wanderers have a 12-point lead on second place, but there are three teams still alive for the second automatic promotion spot and technically seven who can make it into the playoffs.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

May 6 is the final day, and all kickoffs will take place at 12:30 p.m. ET

Instant promotion battle

Cardiff City, Fulham, and Aston Villa are the three sides aiming to finish second, with Cardiff currently holding the advantage. Their 86 points are one more than Fulham, and four clear of Aston Villa.

2. Cardiff (86 pts, +28): at Hull City, vs. Reading
3. Fulham (85 pts, +34): vs. Sunderland, at Birmingham City
4. Aston Villa (82 pts, +31): vs. Derby County, at Millwall

Projection: Cardiff has a decent run-in, but Fulham’s path will carry it past them should the Bluebirds stumble at all. Aston Villa faces two sides aiming for the playoffs, and is probably plotting out its strategy for the playoffs themselves.

Playoff spots

Aside from the two above sides who fail to grab second, there are seven other sides within varying degrees of probability for a playoff spot. Middlesbrough and Derby County hold fifth and sixth now, but Millwall and Brentford are within a win of the Top Six and Preston North End, Bristol City, or Sheffield United could get in with a win and help.

5. Middlesbrough (72 pts, +20): vs. Millwall, at Ipswich Town
6. Derby County (71 pts,+19): at Aston Villa, vs. Barnsley
7. Millwall (69 pts, +12): at Middlesbrough, vs. Aston Villa
8. Brentford (68 pts, +12): at Barnsley, vs. Hull City
9. Preston (67 pts, +9): at Sheffield United, vs. Burton Albion
10. Bristol City (66 pts, +10): at Nottingham Forest, vs. Sheffield Utd
11. Sheffield United (66 pts, +7): vs. Preston, at Bristol City

Projection: Brentford is the only club without at least one date against a promotion hopeful, but everyone under 8th will be rooting for Derby to lose out (and probably Boro to draw Millwall?). Preston and Sheffield are likely staging a knockout match on Saturday. Expect Tony Pulis and Boro to avoid dropping from the Top Six, an Derby should manage its fate well even with Villa on the fixture list. Yet don’t be surprised if Brentford climbs into sixth even though the Bees have only claimed a point of six from their remaining opponents.

Behind the scenes: A look into an NYCFC player’s training routine

New York City FC
Leave a comment

Professional athletes are often lauded for their achievements on and off their field of play, but for those that have never played their respective sport at the highest level it is often difficult to exactly understand what occurs on an everyday basis for that athlete.

Regimented training schedules, as well as pre-planned diets for each player are only a few of the considerations that take place between a club and its players, and New York City FC is no different.

[ MORE: Sweden coach says Ibra must reach out to have chance at World Cup ]

On Tuesday, Pro Soccer Talk and various members of the media had the unique opportunity to visit the Etihad City Football Academy — NYCFC’s new, state-of-the-art training facility in Orangeburg, New York to get a closer look at what the daily life of a soccer player is like.

PST’s Matt Reed, and decided to keep a journal of many of the day’s activities, from getting all geared up in the locker room to viewing his performance from the day’s training session following the workout.

Below, we’ll take an hour-by-hour look at what it means to be an NYCFC player.


9 a.m. ET

Upon arriving in Orangeburg, the first thing noticeable when pulling off of the Palisades Parkway was the town’s devotion to soccer.

Before driving into the parking lot at NYCFC’s facility, it’s nearly impossible to miss the various turf fields that lie in front of the City Football Group-owned ground. Those fields belong to World Class FC — a local U.S. Soccer Development academy that has begun working closely with the Major League Soccer side.

After parking the car and walking through the front doors of the venue, there was immediately a presence that could not be overlooked. On the near-side wall was a global map, which featured pinpoints of each of CFG’s entities around the globe, which include parent club Manchester City, NYCFC and Melbourne City, among others.

Breakfast was the first item on the agenda in the team’s cafeteria, which featured an open setting that allows players to either eat inside or outdoors right next to the pitch. Every food and beverage item features a card next to it indicating the calorie intake, which is something the organization is making a strong effort to pay close attention to.

Following the meal, we had the chance to walk through the facility, which features a very similar setup to that of Man City and Melbourne. The design is said to be nearly identical to NYCFC’s sister club in Australia.

Many of the club’s full-time staff for both the senior and academy teams work on-site in Orangeburg, with an office view that allows the employees to look directly outside to the pitch.

One major emphasis from the club and its vision of the facility was to allow everybody to be inclusive of one another.

That was in focus when we visited the indoor training area, filled with weights, stationary bicycles and various workout machines. Not only can players view the pitch outside, but the team’s medical staff is able to see everything in that room, as well as on the opposite side of the wall where players can be tended to for injuries, massages, ice baths and other amenities.

New York City FC

10 a.m ET

Although NYCFC has been training at its new facility for over a month now, the occasion served as an official opportunity to open up the ground with all of the club’s executives.

Technical director Claudio Reyna and head coach Patrick Vieira were on-site for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with Vice-Chairman of NYCFC, Marty Edelman, and president Jon Patricof.

Photo by Anthony J. Causi

As several of NYCFC’s higher-ups alluded to on Tuesday, their vision for the new facility won’t be simply for the club, but also give the opportunity to other teams to practice in Orangeburg when they are in town.

Man City has already been scheduled to make a visit to the training ground in late July when the incumbent Premier League champions arrive in the United States for the International Champions Cup.

They’ll face PL giants Liverpool on July 25 at MetLife Stadium, approximately 30 minutes from the NYCFC training facility.

PST then had an opportunity to speak to several players and staff members in an open media forum, so we decided to provide some of the most-notable takeaways from the discussions.

Patrick Vieira on links to Arsenal

“Who? Vieira said jokingly. “No. I’m sure you would know before I do. It’s an honor, of course. It’s Arsenal Football Club, and it’s a big football club.

Vieira on how the club has been able to become more inclusive at the training ground

“When I was talking to Claudio about what we really wanted here we wanted our departments to interact with each other. We wanted to be more like a family. People can see each other. It’s not too small, and it’s not too flashy. You understand what I mean? You have what you need. There’s nothing over the top that we don’t need. Every single room makes sense. At the same time it’s good, and it’s simple. I really love this facility. There’s nothing extra that we don’t need.”

President Jon Patricof on vision for pursuing a stadium

“This is not going to put our fans at ease. And nor should it. Listen, MLS is continuing to grow and the stakes are rising. The standards are rising. We’re really proud of this facility, but this is what is expected of MLS clubs today. It’s a huge milestone. It’s important.In no way does it slow down our plans in pursuing a stadium. We have to and continue to press full speed on that front. I recognize that expectations are high. We are highly focused on it.”

Technical director Claudio Reyna on having their own facility

“Manchester is still part of the group, so it’s an extended home for us as part of the team. Also, in January the weather isn’t great here. Not that it’s great in Manchester either, but it allows us to send guys there and get some preparation ahead of the MLS season. But of course, what we didn’t have at SUNY Purchase for December and January was a gym space. And if the field is in good condition then we can obviously use it. The players come earlier and leave later. They want to stick around, and they do extra work. It’s very motivating for them. Since this will be our first offseason here, we’ll see how the players use it, but I think a lot of them will be here once the season is over.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson on setting the standard for other MLS sides

“I can’t speak for the rest of Major League Soccer because I haven’t been around to many club’s training facilities, but what I can say is that from my experience this place doesn’t compare to anything I’ve seen. For a player to have a place like this is amazing, and us as players don’t take it for granted. We feel this is very special, and we want to make sure that we’re doing our part and give back.”

Midfielder Tommy McNamara on being from the Orangeburg area

“It’s beautiful. We’re very appreciative to have it. We’re given everything we need to compete. We feel very grounded and settled here like we’re at home. My parents live three miles down the road. My cousins, you could walk to their house from here. My sister grew up on those fields. It means a lot to me because this is literally home to me.”


11 a.m./12 p.m. ET

It’s impossible to pinpoint one specific highlight that created the best memory of the experience, but viewing the locker room and physically participating in training have to be high up on the list.

After sitting down for the interviews, we got to suit up just as NYCFC players would, went out to the pitch, and experienced a Vieira-led training session up close and personal.

Before moving to the field, members of the media were given their own kits and changed in the locker room, which featured a unique twist on a traditional changing area.

The circular dynamic of the room is another measure of the team’s willingness to create a welcoming atmosphere for its senior players.

That was something McNamara and Villa stated repeatedly during his interview sessions with the media, and they believe it is one of several reasons why the club’s camaraderie has improved with the current group of players.

Then, it was time to hit the training room for several workout exercises to warm up, including leg lifts, several forms of dynamic yoga and box-jumping routines.

Once the warmups were over and everyone was loose, we went out onto the pitch to receive instructions from Vieira and the rest of his training staff. The former Premier League midfielder broke the session up into different groups to focus on certain drills, as the team would on a regular training day.

A communication drill kicked off the on-field display, as players passed the ball to one another in a small 10 yard by 10 yard grid.

Then, games of 3 versus 3 and passing drills designed to find the open player were implemented to get a better feel for the group of players.

Needless to say, t’s very easy to see how difficult some of the exercises are…


1 p.m. ET

After a filling lunch back in the cafeteria, the final stop of the day brought us to the film room, where we had the chance to view some of the action from our on-field session.

Several members of NYCFC’s coaching staff indicated the importance of these sessions, which normally takes place in small groups. Vieira stated that he has put an emphasis on the meetings to not only point out areas where his players can improve, but also to indicate something a particular player is doing well.

Matt Reed/Pro Soccer Talk

One person, in particular, who is often only caught behind the scenes for the club is Head of Performance Analysis, Daniel Fradley. Vieira suggested that Fradley has been an integral part in NYCFC’s analytical approach, which has helped the club improve since the team’s inception over three years ago.

On a regular day of training, NYCFC players have the opportunity to speak with Vieira, Fradley and other members of the staff about their individual play from their session on the pitch. This includes individual tactical approaches, as well as how the group as a whole should be performing as a unit.


Training evaluation

For about five minutes, there was a strong sense within myself that I could impress Vieira and the rest in attendance, but then I came the realization that I haven’t played competitive soccer in years and this was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.

To be perfectly blunt, the warmup exercises were tricky enough as it was, and that was only coupled by the fact that the on-field experience featured my very sloppy touches on the ball and several missed opportunities shooting on goal.

Straying away from my personal lack of soccer skills though, it’s very easy to see why the NYCFC players enjoy their new facility so much.

As Vieira stated so succinctly, “The venue isn’t too big and it isn’t too small. It has exactly everything that we need.”