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.

Balotelli, Nice may have spoiled PSG’s title chances

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Monaco took care of business at the top of Ligue 1 on Saturday and now the Champions League semifinalists could be closing in on France’s crown.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in ruling North London, but want more ]

Paris Saint-Germain slipped up on Sunday with a 3-1 loss against third-place Nice, and it could spell the end for the Parisians’ hopes of winning Ligue 1 in 2016/17.

Mario Balotelli sprung Nice in front after 26 minutes with a curling left-footed effort from outside the box, before Ricardo Pereira doubled the advantage for the hosts just three minutes into the second stanza with a lovely curler of his own.

PSG managed to pull a goal back in the 64th minute as Marquinhos gave the visitors a glimmer of hope to keep their title hopes alive.

However, the final minutes of the match took a drastic turn for the worse for PSG as Thiago Motta and Angel di Maria were both shown red cards for violent tackles on Nice players.

Nice also found a third finish after PSG was dwindled down to nine men when Anastasios Donis headed home a lofted cross from the left wing.

With three matches remaining for PSG, Unai Emery’s side sits three points behind league leaders Monaco, who also have a match in hand. PSG finishes up their Ligue 1 account with matches against Bastia, St Etienne and Caen.

Video: Camilo Sanvezzo scores wonder goal for Queretaro

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Camilo Sanvezzo scored two goals on Sunday for Queretaro but many won’t even remember the score of the game after his brilliant first effort.

The Queretaro forward scored the first of two finishes in the 66th minute after winning the ball in his own half, carrying it into the Toluca end and unleashing a deadly shot from just inside midfield.

Sanvezzo eventually scored his side’s second goal in the dying minutes of the match, and his 88th minute finish proved to be the winner for Queretaro, who currently sit 13th in Liga MX.

The 28-year-old should be familiar to MLS fans after Sanvezzo’s time with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2011 to 2013. The veteran scored 39 goals in 92 matches with the Canadian side.

MLS Snapshot: Atlanta United 1-3 D.C. United (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): Atlanta has been one of the most exciting teams in MLS over the opening two months of the season, but with a bit of luck and grit D.C. United spoiled the newcomers’ fun on Sunday afternoon. It was all the home side early on in the match, which was spearheaded by Kenwyne Jones‘ emphatic header, but D.C. responded well with some good pressure of their own. The win for D.C. moves Ben Olsen’s club into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, Atlanta still holds the sixth and final playoff position through eight matches as Gerardo Martino’s side sits on 11 points.

[ MORE: MLS roundup from Saturday’s action ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Hosts apply pressure and hit D.C. where it hurts — This is exactly why Atlanta brought in Kenwyne Jones. Big body and deadly heading ability. Can’t stop that.

25′ — D.C. unexpectedly pulls level — It certainly wasn’t how Lamar Neagle drew it up but he and D.C. somehow equalized before the half hour mark after some sloppy Atlanta defending.

36′ — Acosta runs wild — Atlanta will probably want to look back on this moment and make sure they do a better job covering the diminutive attacker next time.

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Men of the match: Luciano Acosta

Goalscorers: Kenwyne Jones (9′), Michael Parkhurst — OG (25′), Luciano Acosta (36′), Sebastian Le Toux (55′)

La Liga & Serie A: Napoli gains ground on Roma and more

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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

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Celta Vigo 0-3 Athletic Bilbao

Bilbao is up to sixth place following Sunday’s win over Celta, and it was quite the dominant performance from the road side. Celta managed zero shots on target throughout the match in comparison to Bilbao’s 12, while Raul Garcia’s brace helped pace his side to victory with goals on each side of halftime. Mikel Rico added a third in the 83rd minute for good measure but there was never much doubt on the day as to which side was coming away with the points.

Real Betis 1-4 Alaves

Despite going down inside the opening quarter hour, Alaves put out a superb showing after halftime to solidify its place in the top 10 in Spain. Nenad Krsticic, Rubén Sobrino and Christian Santos scored in a 10-minute span early in the second half to give the visitors a commanding lead before Aleksandar Katai added his side’s fourth of the day late in stoppage time.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Osasuna 2-2 Deportivo La Coruna
Eibar 2-0 Leganes


Roma 1-3 Lazio

It’s always a fun one when these two sides get together in the Derby della Capitale but Lazio’s victory could prove quite costly for their rivals from Rome. Keita Balde Diao continues his fantastic scoring run for Lazio as the 22-year-old is up to 13 Serie A goals on the season after Sunday’s brace. The Senegalese striker scored after 12 minutes before providing the final touch on the match for the visiting side. Daniele de Rossi converted from the penalty spot to pull Roma even on the stroke of halftime, but Dusan Basta restored the lead for Lazio five minutes into after the break.

Napoli 1-0 Inter Milan

Jose Callejon made things a lot more interesting in the race for the UEFA Champions League. Following Roma’s defeat, a victory for Napoli ensured that the side would move to within a point of the Giallorossi in Serie A. And that’s exactly what Napoli did. Callejon’s first-half finish gave Napoli the cushion it needed on the day, and now sets up an intriguing race for automatic qualification into next season’s UCL.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Bologna 4-0 Udinese
Cagliari 1-0 Pescara
Crotone 1-1 AC Milan
Empoli 1-3 Sassuolo
Genoa 1-2 Chievo
Palermo 2-0 Fiorentina