Football Focus, Barcelona-Madrid: Barça’s midfield dominance; Madrid’s periodic opportunism

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source:  FC Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the first 2013 installment of El Clásico kept it undefeated and at the top of the La Liga table. Aside from a 15-minute spell of Madrid domination in the second half, the result always looked assured.

Barça dominated the first half, moving the ball at will and allowing Neymar to run at defenders. Lionel Messi played as a tucked-in right winger on the opposite side of an asymmetrical 4-3-3.

Neither team played with a traditional center forward, as Gareth Bale drifted between the right and left sides for Madrid, and Cesc Fàbregas did the same for Barcelona. Both favored attacking through a certain side, as Madrid overloaded Barça left back Adriano, and Barcelona tended to look for Neymar as a first option.

As always in the Spanish league, positions in attack remained fluid and interchangeable, aided by the teams’ use of a false nine. That resulted in a central overload that favored a dominant Barcelona midfield triangle.

Early Barça dominance sets the stage

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

The home team set the tone early, out-passing Madrid, 147-73, in the first 20 minutes. The early spell gave the game its first goal and established its rhythm. Hard tackles and the expected intricate passing moves would be the flavor of the day.

With Messi used to playing a central role, Barcelona played wide through the left flank more often. Messi frequently tucked in to give Dani Alves his accustomed space to overlap. The team’s attacking shape was designed to make defenders think twice about their positioning and put numbers in the middle:

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Fábregas ended up on top of the midfield triangle often, creating almost a diamond. Neymar’s width gave him multiple isolation opportunities against Daniel Carvajal. It was one of these instances, created by Andrés Iniesta’s dribble to commit two defenders, that gave Neymar his goal.

The attacking patterns that emerged were either an interchange of short passes in the middle and on the right with Messi, or a longer ball to Neymar on the opposite side.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Real chances in second half

The best spell for the visitors occurred just after the second half kicked off. Madrid found its way around Barcelona’s stranglehold in midfield, opting for longer, squarer passes to get possession in wider areas.

Real’s attacking shape all game provided chances of sustained possession when the field and players spread farther. Luka Modrić and Sami Khedira pulled farther to their respective sides of the midfield triangle than normal in a 4-3-3, while Bale drifted from side to side (but he preferred the right):

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Madrid’s best area of attack became a triangle higher up the pitch, involving Bale, Khedira and Ángel di María. However, even when those three became involved and maintained the ball, Real could not get behind Barcelona’s back line without assistance from a bad giveaway or poor positioning. Most of its dominance — in the spell in which it found some — was on the border of midfield and the attacking third.

Win the midfield, win the game

The match progression showcased Real and Barça’s individual strengths as teams. Barcelona controlled the middle of the field, while Madrid had to pick its moments and play more opportunistically. Against weaker teams, Real can also control the middle, but its biggest strength is along its front line, while Barcelona’s is in the middle.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Barça’s Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield triangle completed 175 (91.1 percent) of its 192 attempted passes, led by Busquets’ 50-for-52 performance. In the Barcelona-dominated first half, Busquets completed all 29 of his attempts. Iniesta’s higher rate of incompletion came from his probing forward passes, trying to get behind the Madrid defense.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

By comparison, the Ramos-Khedira-Modrić trio completed 89 (83.2 percent) of 107 attempts — a lower percentage in just over half as many tries. Bale’s poor performance had a greater impact than it normally would have because of Barça’s midfield dominance; he could not find the ball very often, receiving just 10 passes in the attacking third and two in and around the penalty area before being substituted.

Shifting season paradigms

Saturday’s result asks more questions of Madrid’s early season form than Barcelona’s. Real has proven to be a competent team in continental play this season, racking up a plus-10 goal difference in three victories. Even in its 1-0 derby loss to Atlético Madrid in La Liga, Real controlled the middle.

However, coming up against a team with Barcelona’s skill set proved to be a tough challenge. Perhaps it says more about Barça’s ability. Maybe assertions of domestic and European dominance from a star-studded lineup — headlined by Bale, who was ineffective on Saturday — were premature.

After its dominance in El Clásico, FC Barcelona now looks like the team to beat.

LIVE – Arsenal v. Man City in FA Cup semifinal

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Arsenal and Manchester City clash in an FA Cup semifinal on Sunday at Wembley which promises to be a case of all-out attack.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola met earlier this month with their teams drawing 2-2 at the Emirates Stadium in an end-to-end encounter.

The winner of this semifinal will play Chelsea in the FA Cup final on May 27 at Wembley after Antonio Conte‘s side beat Tottenham 4-2 on Saturday.

In team news Arsenal stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation they used at Middlesbrough with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil off Olivier Giroud.

City line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sergio Aguero up top and Leroy Sane, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne off him.

Click on the link above to follow live coverage of what promises to be an entertaining semifinal, while here at Pro Soccer Talk we will have plenty more reaction and analysis after the game too.

STREAM LIVE: Burnley host injury-hit Man United

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Burnley host Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at fortress Turf Moor with the Clarets in search of yet another huge scalp.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Sean Dyche‘s men have already beat the likes of Everton and Liverpool at home this season and one more victory should all but secure their Premier League status and first-ever consecutive seasons in the PL.

As for United, Jose Mourinho’s squad is depleted and after the news that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo both suffered “significant knee ligaments injuries” in the Europa League quarterfinal clash against Anderlecht the Red Devils’ resources have been stretched even further.

In team news Burnley stick with a solid 4-4-2 formation as Ashley Barnes and Andre Gray play up top, with former United duo Tom Heaton and Michael Keane also starting.

United make eight changes and line up with what looks like a three-man central defense given that Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Rojo are all missing, while Wayne Rooney starts up top and captains United.

LINEUPS

Burnley: Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Barton, Hendrick, Brady; Gray, Barnes. Subs: Flanagan, Westwood, Defour, Tarkowski, Gudmundsson, Agyei, Pope

Manchester United: De Gea; Darmian, Bailly, Blind; Young, Herrera, Pogba, Fellaini, Lingard; Martial, Rooney. Subs: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Shaw, Carrick, Mkhitaryan, Rashford

Barcelona leaves Neymar out of ‘El Clasico’ v Real Madrid

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona has decided to leave Neymar out of the decisive “clasico” against Real Madrid because of the legal uncertainty over an appeal to overturn his suspension.

The club had taken all legal measures to try to clear the player for Sunday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, but ended up not including him in the squad because there had been no ruling on its latest appeal by Sunday morning.

Barcelona’s first appeal was rejected by the Spanish football federation last week, but the club was also trying to reverse the suspension through a local sports tribunal.

The club released a statement on Sunday criticizing the tribunal for not making a decision on the case in time for the match.

The tribunal said Saturday that while it had not yet had the opportunity to consider the appeal, that did not mean the striker was cleared to play.

Neymar was handed a two-game suspension for sarcastically applauding an assistant referee after being sent off in a 2-0 loss at Malaga on April 8.

The two-match ban was in addition to the one-game suspension he was automatically required to serve for the red card. The Brazilian had already sat out one match.

Two-time champion Barcelona also won’t have the injured Rafinha and Aleix Vidal, who have long-term injuries.

Madrid, seeking its first title since 2012, is expected to welcome the return of Gareth Bale, who had been sidelined because of a muscle injury.

Madrid enters Sunday’s game with a three-point lead over Barcelona. Madrid also has a game in hand.

MLS roundup: FCD win battle of unbeatens; POR rebound vs. VAN

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With seven MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 27 more to go…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage

FC Dallas 1-0 Sporting Kansas City

The only two remaining unbeaten teams faced off in Frisco on Saturday, and only one came out still unblemished. FCD dominated in the two most important facets of the game — chances created, and goals.

Maynor Figueroa scored the game’s only goal, a 77th-minute header to put home Michael Barrios’ floated cross toward the back post. If not for the (increasingly typical) heroics of Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia (five saves), FCD would have already been 3-0 or 4-0 in front by that point. Sporting’s only shot on target didn’t arrive until the 47th minute, and it was far from a clear-cut chance, as Jimmy Medranda fired from the corner of the 18-yard box and hardly tested Jesse Gonzalez with the effort.

The win sees FCD move to six games unbeaten to start the season (three wins, three draws), while Sporting suffer their first defeat in seven games.


Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks bagged goals for Portland, who wasted little time in bouncing back from last weekend’s home defeat to Sporting. Nagbe’s goal, a stunner from outside the penalty area (WATCH HERE) opened the scoring in the 18th minute, and Mattocks made it 2-0 five minutes before halftime.

Fredy Montero scored his third goal in two games to bring Vancouver back to 2-1 just before the hour mark, but that’s as close as the visitors would get.

Diego Valeri was carried off the field in the 80th minute, which is the worst scare that Timbers fans could have possibly imagined, though the Argentine superstar told reporters after the game that he was feeling much better.


Real Salt Lake 1-3 Atlanta United

The honeymoon period is over for Mike Petke who, after back-to-back wins to open his tenure as RSL head coach, suffered his first defeat since taking over for Jeff Cassar five games into the season.

A series of comedic errors doomed RSL just about from the start, as Hector Villalba (9th minute) and Yamil Asad (46th), two of Atlanta’s South American starlets, put the visitors 2-0 ahead a minute into the first half — the latter was set up by Miguel Almiron, another of the young, South American attackers at Gerardo Martino’s disposal. Albert Rusnak pulled RSL back to 2-1 in the 69th minute, but it would remain that way until second-half stoppage time, when Brandon Vazquez beat Nick Rimando for a 3-1 clincher.


New York Red Bulls 2-0 Columbus Crew SC

Columbus’s defeat away to New York went from bad, to worse, to worst, in 39 minutes’ time on Saturday. Midfield revelation Artur went off with a nasty arm injury in the 6th minute, Alex Muyl put the home side 1-0 up in the 11th minute Daniel Royer made it 2-0 from the penalty spot in the 38th minute, and defensive revelation (and rookie) Alex Crognale went off injured immediately thereafter.


Houston Dynamo 2-0 San Jose Earthquakes

Wilmer Cabrera’s side will live and die by the form of his young attacking quartet this season. On Saturday, Erick Torres and Alberth Elis delivered the goals (read: goals) as Houston picked up a rather comfortable him win over San Jose.

Torres opened the scoring in the 9th minute, and though Elis didn’t double the advantage for another 63 minutes, the result was rarely, if ever, in doubt. San Jose managed just two shots on target (Houston had just three, for what it’s worth), as Adolfo Machado, Tyler Deric and Co. kept their first clean sheet of the season.


New England Revolution 2-2 D.C. United

In a battle of bottom-half Eastern Conference sides, New England and D.C. drew 2-2 after Lee Nguyen and a Sean Franklin own goal stalemated tallies from Jared Jeffrey and Sebastien Le Toux.