Brilliance of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid has begun to transcend results

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Three hundred sixty minutes that leave two teams at a stalemate would normally be considered useless. After all, isn’t the point of competition to compete, with side eventually deemed the winner? Over short periods of time, draws are practical, but over 360 minutes? What’s the use of a stalemate if crowning the winner is our goal?

Four games this season from Atlético Madrid and Barcelona have challenged that notion. Except for the most partisan of Blaugrana and Atleti supporters, few could have cared about which side won today. Such a result would have distracted from the purpose, if not undermined it entirely. Barcelona’s full technical precision was again on display, pressed to its limits by an Atlético side that’s taken a completely contrasting approach. Eschewing the game’s new dogma of possession and midfield dominance, Atleti reaffirmed their status as Barcelona’s equals, a status made all the more brilliant as they’ve  brought out their opponents’ best while doing so.

Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say so, but it feel true right now: Today’s was one of the best-played games of the European season, something we’d be fawning over if we hadn’t seen it three times before. We saw it twice in August, when the teams played 0-0 and 1-1 matches in the Spanish Supercopa. We saw it again in January as the side waged 0-0 in La Liga. The same qualities that have vaulted Diego Simeone’s team to the top of the Spanish table force Barcelona to use every bit of their technical mastery just to keep up, just as the Blaugrana’s nearly unmatched, exacting control bleeds every drop of effort from the Colchoneros.

(MORE: Diego, Neymar goals leave Atlético, Barcelona even after leg one)

It’s the perfect match of opposing styles. It’s soccer’s yin against football’s yang. It’s modernism, possession, and technique matched against timeless emotion and organization. It’s a team that looks beyond the typical trappings of athleticism and brawn facing a side that leverages their power to complement their passion. From the same league, both sporting Argentine coaches, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid couldn’t be more different, yet, after each set of 90 minutes they play, the scoresheet’s left them beautifully identical.

It’s a contrast makes results like today’s 1-1 special – more valuable than a win could have been for either side. Because at this point, a victory would defeat the purchase. The battle’s balance of physique, application, and philosophy has produced some of the best soccer of our lifetimes: what’s become a 360-minute marathon, where each side has brought evermore perfect free soccer out of the other.

source: AP
Barcelona and Atlético Madrid (yellow) have met four times this season, drawing each time. After 360 minutes of play, the teams have a 2-2 aggregate scoreline. They’re scheduled to play two more times this season. (Photo: AP Photo.)

Would this same perfection be able to beat Bayern, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, or any of our time’s other great teams? In the wake of what we saw today at the Nou Camp, it’s a scornful view. It’s simple, greedy, short-sighted. It overlooks the obvious: This matchup, over the course of what will six games (by the time the teams meet on the last day of the Spanish season) has given us everything we could have reasonable asked for. To turn off today’s game and ask for something better is to take to watch another sport.

In a sphere were we obsess over results and define quality in terms of bottom lines, Atlético and Barça remind us of the bigger picture. Sport, ultimately, is meaningless, which means there’s nay so much significance you can put into a win or a loss. On a more basic level, the game is as much about the enjoyment is provides as the result. Talent, mastery, performance, and love all translate to victories, but no game can been seen in terms of its victor alone. The game only exists where two teams can meet, and in the space, through four matchups this season, Barcelona and Atlético have provided more enjoyment than was could have possibly expected.

It is, admittedly, a romantic notion, written while still reflecting on today’s game. There is, however, the unmistakable feeling that we’re seeing something special – a confluence that defies comparison in terms of its style, results, and, now meeting in Champions League, stakes.

And ironically, as those stakes escalate, determining a winner becomes even less important. In fact, it may ruin everything if, over the teams’ final two games for the season, anything but esoteric tiebreakers put distance between them. Let away goals decide who advances in Champions League, and let other results determine who claims La Liga.

But in the battle that really matters — the one we’ll get to see two more times this year — let nothing throw off this perfect, symbiotic balance. If anything, find a way to make these games last longer.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly.

Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United. “Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?”

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.