Football Focus, City-United: Central superiority wins Manchester derby

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source:  While Sergio Agüero scored twice in Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Manchester United on Sunday, the key tactical move of the game came from the final goalscorer. Samir Nasri’s movement, and the counter-movements that it created, were the key to City’s attack.

Both teams played hybrid 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 formations, with one holding midfielder advancing higher than the other and one attacking player underneath the other. With the pressure it put on United, City was able to allow both outside backs to overlap, sometimes at the same time.

This pinned United wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young deeper into their defensive half than United is used to, meaning they could not get forward to provide width in attack.

Danny Welbeck often looked like a lonely island, as Wayne Rooney dropped deep to find the ball and defend City’s attacks. On the other end, Álvaro Negredo and Agüero linked up more often, and their partnership proved to be a handful for United’s back line, combined with Nasri tucking in and the outside backs advancing.

Kolarov overlapping, Nasri pulling central

Multiple times in the early going, Nasri drifted way inside to find the ball. Taking the cue, left back Aleksandar Kolarov provided the team’s width on the left. Pablo Zabaleta also got around Jesús Navas on the right, and he varied his runs to the inside and outside to keep from being too predictable.

source:  The result was an overload of City attackers against a United defense that often got pinned into its own end, especially in the first half. Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling could not advance very often, and their wingers had to collapse to mark the extra numbers City threw forward.

This approach offers a high reward for the risk it takes. Leaving just two center backs to defend is a dangerous proposition against a two-forward set, but with how deep Rooney dropped, it still left a two-on-one advantage most of the time.

source:  With Nasri cutting in and holding midfielders Fernandinho and Yaya Touré both pressing into supportive attacking positions, City had numerical superiority in the middle of the field. Agüero dropped back at times, or Navas would also tuck in, often giving the home side four attackers to three United defenders (a winger and central midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick).

The first goal came from this type of movement, with Kolarov serving the cross that Agüero volleyed home. Nasri also created the third goal with an incisive central dribble, and he finished off the fourth goal.

In the play above, Valencia and Young (just a shadow on the very right of the screen) are pinned deep again because of Zabaleta and Kolarov’s advancement, giving United just Rooney to look for as an outlet.

United can’t get in

(Chalkboard courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

When United did get forward, its attack was often delayed and stifled by how many numbers City threw forward. United wasted little time in getting the ball into midfield, attempting less than 50 passes in its defensive third.

However, after advancing quickly to the border between midfield and attack, the passes became stagnant. Side-to-side ball movement was the norm, and rarely did the ball get behind the City defenders. This lack of penetration resulted in frustrated strikers, and Rooney dropped deeper and deeper into midfield to find the ball at his feet.

United attempted 25 total crosses in the game, but it completed only five. Nine of those service opportunities came from outside the penalty area extended to the touchlines, and only one of those was successful.

The four wide players — Evra, Smalling, Young and Valencia — only completed four crosses of their 17 total attempts. The area on top of the City penalty area offered little more than a series of missed connections and lack of attacking creativity (see the red lines in that area on the chalkboard at right).

Wayne Rooney’s work rate

Rooney found more success in passing the deeper he dropped. As a shadow striker, his range is wide, as he ended up defending 20 yards from his own goal at times and in the channels.

(Chalkboard courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

This is nothing new: Rooney has always been a rangy attacker who likes to be in the thick of the action. He was one of United’s only threats on Sunday, but his frustration was readily apparent.

In the second half, manager David Moyes moved him to the target role, dropping Welbeck to the wing in a 4-3-3. However, the shadow role is Rooney’s best, as his immense work rate and desire to have the ball at his feet drive the United attack.

Fellaini is a similar type of player, although it didn’t show against City. In his brief time as an Everton player this season, he ranged from box to box and touchline to touchline, acting as the Toffees’ attacking metronome.

If he can share that role with Rooney going forward, it will take the strain off both players and make it more difficult for opponents to key in on just one of them.

Newfound deficiencies at Old Trafford

On a couple occasions under Moyes, United has come across situations and opponents that made them look less than comfortable. After a shaky first 20 minutes at Swansea City, for example, Robin van Persie saved his team some embarrassment and put away two goals. From that point on, the team cruised.

Rooney and van Persie have proven to be a formidable partnership, and adding Fellaini into the equation should only make that more dangerous. But with van Persie out, United looked listless in attack against City. Fellaini won’t take over a game by himself; he needs players around him who can be dangerous.

The questions only got louder for Moyes after this defeat, but the warning signs have been there all along in this young season. Things might be tough for a while as United goes through its managerial revolution, but if the Red Devils have proven anything, it’s that patience is never lacking at Old Trafford — at least among those in charge.

Serie A: Napoli make good on Juve’s slip-up, now just 2 back

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona still unbeaten after 29 league games; Ronaldo scores 4 ]

Napoli 1-0 Genoa

Juventus slipped up in a big, big way on Saturday, stumbling to a scoreless draw away to tiny SPAL 2013, and opening the door ever so slightly for Napoli. With a win on Sunday, secured by Raul Albiol’s late winner, Napoli now trail Juve by just two points with the two sides level on games played (29) once again.

The victory snapped a two-game winless skid for Napoli, a run which saw them cough up the top spot which they had held for nearly the entire season, and set up perhaps a colossal title decider on April 22, when first hosts second in their quest to claim a seventh straight Serie A title.

Crotone 0-2 Roma

One spot and 14 points further down the table, you’ll find an interesting battle for third, with Roma picking up their third straight win, 2-0 over 18th-place Crotone on Sunday.

Stephan El Shaarawy (38th minute) and Radja Nainggolan (74th) bagged the goals for Roma, who lead Inter Milan by four points with nine games to go (Inter have a game in hand).

Sampdoria 0-5 Inter Milan

No one was more impressive this weekend than Inter, who put four past Sampdoria in the first half, including a hat trick from Mauro Icardi, who would then go on to add his fourth — Inter’s fifth — in the second half. That’s 22 league goals for the Argentine forward, who now trails Lazio’s Ciro Immobile by two in the Golden Boot race.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Lazio 1-1 Bologna
AC Milan 3-2 Chievo
Hellas Verona 0-5 Atalanta
Torino 1-2 Fiorentina
Benevento 1-2 Cagliari

La Liga: Barcelona unbeaten after 29 games; Ronaldo scores 4

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United vs. Spurs in FA Cup semis; Chelsea-Southampton]

Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

Updated numbers for Barcelona’s current unbeaten run in La Liga: 29 games this season; 36 dating back to last season. The quest for the unbeaten league season is now just nine games from reality.

Perhaps even more impressive than the W-D-L record is their defensive record: 13 goals conceded in 29 games (they’ve also scored 74 and have a +61 goal differential).

Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Bilbao saw Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Co., go 11 points clear in the title race and all but secure their third title in four seasons, thanks to results elsewhere (see below).

Paco Alcacer opened the scoring after just eight minutes, and Messi made it 2-0 right on the half-hour mark (his league-leading 25th goal of the season; 34 in all competitions).

Real Madrid 6-3 Girona

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged four goals of his own to bring his season total to 22 (32 in all competitions), now second ahead of Suarez and three behind Messi for the Golden Boot, and in the process push Real Madrid (60 points) to within four points of Atletico Madrid in the race for second.

Ronaldo scored goals no. 1, 2, 4 and 6 for Madrid, with tallies from Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale sprinkled in between.

Villarreal 2-1 Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid were the last side within touching distance of Barca — “just” eight points back coming into the weekend — but that’s no longer the case following a late collapse and a 2-1 defeat away to fourth-place Valencia.

Antoine Griezmann put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot in the 20th minute, but Enes Unal bagged an equalizer in the 82nd and the game-winner in the 91st. Atleti finished the game with 10 men after Vitolo was sent off in the 92nd minute.

Real host Atleti in the Madrid derby on April 8, a game which will go a long way towards crowning this season’s runners-up.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 3-1 Alaves (Saturday)
Leganes 2-1 Sevilla
Real Betis 3-0 Espanyol (Saturday)
Celta Vigo 0-0 Malaga
Real Sociedad 1-2 Getafe (Saturday)
Levante 2-1 Eibar (Friday)
Deportivo La Coruña 1-1 Las Palmas (Saturday)

FA Cup: Conte “pleased” by Chelsea’s rebound after CL defeat

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The mark of a truly great team is not only found in the number of trophies won, but how they bounce back from failure.

[ MORE: Chelsea drawn against Southampton in semis; Man United-Spurs ]

After bowing out of the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona on Wednesday, Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea could have gone one of two ways during Sunday’s FA Cup quarterfinal clash with Leicester City — and for the rest of the season, for that matter. When Jamie Vardy pulled Leicester back to 1-1 with fewer than 15 minutes until full-time, the Blues had a choice to make: keep fighting, or fold under (more) pressure.

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

To their credit, they were undeterred and booked their place in the semifinals, where they’ll face Southampton, courtesy of Pedro‘s 105th-minute winner. Following the game, Conte was highly complimentary (by his standard) of his players — quotes from the BBC:

“A tough game but we knew this. The last game at home we suffer a lot against Leicester. We must be pleased today. I saw a good performance and great character from my team. After the game in the Champions League when we spent a lot of energy they showed good heart to beat Leicester.”

“When you arrive at this point, every game is difficult. They (Southampton) have just changed coach but now it is important to be happy and to go for another game at Wembley. We will try to do our best to reach the final. We want to give satisfaction to our fans.

“I think that for us our target is to try and do our best. To work hard with the players. I must be pleased with the commitment of the players. If you can win a trophy it is important for a team like Chelsea. But the most important thing is for us to fight until the end in every competition. We will try to reach the final.”

[ MORE: Southampton see off Wigan | Chelsea complete the final four ]

As for Pedro, he believes scoring a goal of Sunday’s import will do wonders for his confidence, which could prove a massive boon in Chelsea’s quest to overcome a five-point deficit and usurp fourth-place Tottenham:

“It was a very difficult game. It was good for me to score for my confidence and to get to the next round.

“It was hard to find the pass in between the lines. Leicester defended very well and pressed high. It is difficult to win against this team.

“The most important thing for us was the teamwork and to make it through to the next round. “We have to fight in the next few games. It is a difficult situation for us in the league but we have to fight.

“We have a good opportunity to go to the final and fight for a place in the top four. But now is the moment to relax and enjoy this win.”

Leicester 1-2 Chelsea: Blues battle to victory

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  • Morata scores first goal of 2018
  • Vardy nets, score 17th of season
  • Pedro scores in extra time

Chelsea beat Leicester City 2-1 after extra time to seal their spot in the FA Cup semifinal.

Alvaro Morata gave Antonio Conte’s men the lead, but Jamie Vardy equalized to take it to extra time.

Pedro then struck to send Chelsea into the semifinal for the second-straight season.

Leicester started well and went close when Marc Albrighton‘s effort from the edge of the box squirmed just wide.

However the longer the first half well, the more dangerous Chelsea looked.

The West London club threatened on the break through Morata with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses having plenty of space out wide.

Morata then made the breakthrough right on half time as Willian nicked the ball, surged forward and released the Spaniard who finished calmly for his first goal in 2018.

After the break Leicester finally came to life as Wilfred Ndidi picked out Vardy with a wonderful pass but the Leicester forward looped his header over the bar.

Albrighton whipped in plenty of inviting crosses as Leicester pushed hard for an equalizerand eventually broke through.

Vicente Iborra got on the end of Riyad Mahrez‘s cross and he was denied twice by heroic blocks but Vardy was on hand to tap home. Game on.

Substitute Shinji Okazaki almost got on the end of a cross soon after and at the other end Morata hit the post with an acrobatic finish… but he was in an offside position.

Morata was then denied twice by Kasper Schmeichel at the end of normal time as the game went to extra time.

Pedro was the hero for Chelsea as he headed home the winner in extra time to send Chelsea to Wembley.