Race for Europe – Premier League matches with Top 5 implications

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With three weeks remaining in the 2013-14 Premier League season we find ourselves with two major interests – the race to qualify for Europe (only suckas sleep on the Europa League) and the battle to avoid relegation.

In this piece, we’ll be discussing the former.

Let me start by noting that, like you guys, I’d rather be sitting here discussing a title race. But United put the kobosh on that storyline with the 3-0 blanking of Aston Villa a week and a half ago.

Damn those Red Devils.

With the championship in hand United also claimed a spot in next year’s Champions League meaning three spots remain in Europe’s top tournament while a single spot remains in the Europa League. Five clubs are in contention:  Manchester City (71 pts), Chelsea (65 pts), Arsenal (64 pts), Tottenham (62 pts) and Everton (59 pts).

Here’s how it all breaks down this weekend.

SWANSEA CITY v. MANCHESTER CITY (Liberty Stadium; Sat 10:00am EST)

With a win this weekend, City will secure its place in the Top 4. The Citizens enter the match winners of four of their last five and still pushing to save face with United by minimizing the gap between first and second. They’ll face a Swansea side that, since securing a spot in next year’s Premiership, have been in a free-fall going winless in their last six matches with only two points to their name.

Look for City to throttle the Swans.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR v. SOUTHAMPTON (White Hart Lane; Sat 10:00am EST)

With Everton nipping at their heels just three points back and Arsenal at arm’s length just two points ahead, Tottenham are in must win territory. They’ll face a tough test against Manuel Pochetino’s flashy Southampton side that only needs a single point to ensure their place in next year’s Champion’s League.

Spurs look ready for the kill.

QUEENS PARK RANGERS v. ARSENAL (Loftus Road; Sat 12:30pm EST)

A simple preview for a simple match. Something is seriously wrong with the Gunners if they don’t capitalize on a relegated and demoralized QPR.

Arsenal win with ease.

LIVERPOOL v. EVERTON (Anfield; Sun 8:30am EST)

Might this be Everton’s first victory at Anfield in 14 years? My biased heart says yes. But for an objective opinion, check out my extended take on this weekend’s Merseyside derby:

MORE: Merseyside Derby Preview: Can Everton overcome 14 year drought or will Liverpool continue its dominance? 

MANCHESTER UNITED v. CHELSEA (Old Trafford; Sun 11:00am EST)

For Chelsea, a loss this weekend would not be ideal but hardly lethal as the Blues still enjoy a game in hand on Arsenal. That game in hand, however, is against a Spurs team that is just three points adrift, meaning Rafa Benitez’ side would do well to take care of business ASAP.

Of course, that’s easier said than done as Chelsea set off to Old Trafford for a clash with United. It’s a match that, as Sir Alex Ferguson proved last weekend, will feature a slightly watered-down United side that that nevertheless remains hungry to compete.

With both teams near full health this should be a belter of a match but one that I expect will end in a draw.

MORE: Avoiding The Drop – Premier League matches with relegation implications

Bayern Munich smashes 10-man Besiktas

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Jupp Heynckes already had Bayern Munich humming, and didn’t need the help provided by Domagoj Vida and Besiktas in the first leg of the Bavarians’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie with Besiktas.

Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski each scored twice  as Bayern Munich punished 10-man Besiktas 5-0 at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday.

Kingsley Coman also scored for Bayern ahead of the March 14 second leg in Turkey.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Besiktas would’ve wanted to find an away goal at the Allianz Arena, but Domagoj Vida made it very hard to imagine that when he sent the Turkish side down to 10 men inside the first 20 minutes.

What followed, as you might expect, was Bavarian dominance. The goals did not come, but Bayern had 70 percent possession and a 10-2 shot attempts advantage by the half hour mark.

Mueller scored from close range before the break to give Bayern its advantage.

Coman then made it 2-0 with an assist from Robert Lewandowski, and Mueller completed his brace off a cross from Joshua Kimmich.  Lewandowski then scored twice in the final 11 minutes to salt away — in 999 of 1000 scenario — a place in the quarterfinals.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Messi makes impact

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Nas only needs one mic. Barca only requires one chance.

Lionel Messi scored on Chelsea’s lone mistake of the night, as Barcelona came back to score a potentially vital away goal in Barcelona’s 1-1 draw in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 meeting with the Blues on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.

Willian scored Chelsea’s opener after hitting both posts in a Man of the Match performance.

The second leg is March 14.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Chelsea played without a true “No. 9,” keeping Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud on the bench to start.

Both teams had chances in the first 15 minutes, with Jordi Alba having plenty of work on Barca’s left side and Paulinho missing a header for the Blaugranas at the other end.

Willian, ever dangerous, broke against the run of play and drew a foul from Ivan Rakitic to earn a free kick five yards beyond the arc of the 18.

The attempt was Marcos Alonso territory, though Willian also stood over the ball. Alonso’s swooping kick dipped toward the near post but Marc-Andre ter Stegen got low to collect the ball.

Willian then cranked a shot off the far post after cutting quickly past Sergio Busquets. Five minutes later, he ripped one off the near post.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Willian did his damage in the 62nd minute, getting a Hazard cross atop the 18 and pending it around six bodies and inside the near post.

And Messi. I mean, what can you say? Chelsea went from 1-0 to level with an away goal conceded when Iniesta cut the ball back for Messi off an Andreas Christensen error and mistimed desperations slide from Cesar Azpilicueta.

Three things we learned from Chelsea v. Barcelona

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LONDON — It was honors even at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday as Chelsea and Barcelona battled to a 1-1 draw in an intriguing UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg.

The familiar foes (this was their 13th meeting in the Champions League) played out a tight game with Willian hitting both posts in the first half with sumptuous curling efforts before scoring the opener in the second half, while Lionel Messi equalized late on to grab a crucial away goal.

Chelsea are unbeaten in eight Champions League games against Barcelona, who have won just once in their seven trips to Stamford Bridge, yet Barca are among just four teams who remain unbeaten in the UCL this season and they’ll fancy their chances of getting by the Blues at the Nou Camp on Mar. 14 in the return leg with a vital away goal in the bag.

Here’s what we learned from another massive European night between the clubs in west London, as Chelsea need a score draw 2-2 or higher or a win at the Nou Camp to advance to the UCL last eight for the first time since 2013-14.


WILLIAN, HAZARD DAZZLE

This wasn’t the Messi and Luis Suarez show. Chelsea’s dynamic duo of Eden Hazard, and particularly Willian, took charge early on Tuesday.

Hazard has yet to really carry Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League and it was his job to take the game to Barcelona in the first leg. He did the best he could, and although he had little support, he caused problems for Barca on the break.

With Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata both left on the bench from the start, Hazard was asked to play a role he has rarely flourished in. His talents are much better suited to playing in a No.10 role floating off a front man or cutting in from the left flank.

Hazard, 27, flashed an effort over the bar early on and wriggled free of Barca’s defense on a few occasions as he slammed another effort over the bar. Then Willian took over.

The Brazilian continued his fine form after two goals last time out against Hull City and he smashed each post with trademark curling efforts from outside the box. Antonio Conte stood with his head in his hands on the sidelines, but deep down he knew he’d got his tactics spot on.

It was a case of third time lucky for Willian as in the second half he hit a low shot into the bottom corner to put Chelsea ahead. Chelsea’s dynamic attacking duo of Hazard and Willian had delivered.

Suarez’s drought in front of goal was now his worst in the Champions League, while Messi’s peculiar lack of potency against Chelsea looked to be continuing…


MESSI’S CHELSEA CURSE IS OVER

A moment in the first half acted as a precursor to Messi’s magic. It was a warning for Chelsea that they didn’t heed.

The Argentine magician is a joy to watch in the flesh and the way he simply glided past N'Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger summed up that his gearbox us more than capable of cranking up five gears at a time with minimal fuss.

Yet Messi didn’t get too many chances to click through the gears as Barcelona’s pragmatic approach saw both he and Suarez left isolated for much of the game as the La Liga leaders struggled to get going until late on. He only needed one chance to grab the all-important away goal.

Barca’s defensive record was the best in the Champions League this season going into this game and although Ernesto Valverde has added steel to their swashbuckling style, too often they lacked cutting edge in the final third.

Messi, now 30, may not come up against Premier League clubs many more times in his career but he provided a dagger of an away goal 15 minutes from time to end the talk of him struggling against Chelsea.

It took over 730 minutes, but Messi finally has a goal against Chelsea and it was a hugely important strike.


CONTE GETS TACTICS SPOT ON

The decision to not start with Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud up top was a bold one from Conte and it paid off brilliantly.

Some may call it boring. Some may criticize him for not playing with a recognized striker. Yet Conte’s tactical masterplan to have Hazard, Pedro and Willian charging at the center of Barca’s defense whenever they could worked to perfection.

Ahead of this clash Conte admitted he didn’t sleep well because he was concocting a plan to stop Messi and Co.

“I must be honest… it was a bit difficult to sleep well,” Conte said. “When you have to play this type of game, you have to prepare. You have to prepare everything. You have to prepare big things, but the smaller details too.”

He got the small details spot on as the Blues retreated into a 5-4-1 formation at times with Conte screaming at Thibaut Courtois for lumping the ball long to Hazard and Willian. He wanted the Blues to keep the ball, give it to Cesc Fabregas and have Hazard, Pedro and Willian running behind Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti.

They launched several counters in the second half but could only finish one of them off, while one mistake from Andreas Christensen cost them dear in defense.

That said, Chelsea will use this same gameplan in the second leg at the Nou Camp with confidence they can at least take the game to extra time.

LIVE, UCL – Chelsea vs. Barcelona; Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas

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Two can’t-miss matchups are on display as the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first legs continue on Tuesday afternoon.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Chelsea and Barcelona continue its terrific recently rivalry over the past two decades with Ernesto Valverde’s side traveling to Stamford Bridge to face Antonio Conte and co. At the same time, Bayern Munich hosts Turkish giant Besiktas at the Allianz Arena.

Lionel Messi, who has yet to score against Chelsea in eight games, will be looking to break his own five-game goal drought while also keep Barcelona’s Champions League hopes alive against one of his club’s toughest opponents. Messi will be playing up top alongside Luis Suarez, with both Paulinho and Sergio Busquets sitting deep behind them to keep Chelsea from posing too much of a threat on the counter attack.

For Chelsea, the Champions League remains the last trophy the club can theoretically win, and Conte has named a strong side, though without a recognizable No. 9, with Eden Hazard playing as a false nine.

Bayern Munich is looking to reach the Champions League semifinals for the seventh time in the last nine years, and they’re facing a side who’s in the knockout stage for the first time. Vagner Love leads the line for Besiktas with Ricardo Quaresma and Anderson Talisca looking to create behind. Former Real Madrid centerback Pepe starts on the backline, and will look to stop Robert Lewandowski.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary of the two UCL last 16 games, while we will have you covered for analysis and reaction from both games right here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Chelsea vs. Barcelona – 2:45 p.m. ET
Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas – 2:45 p.m. ET