Britain Soccer Champions League

UEFA Champions League preview: Atlético Madrid, Chelsea kick off the semifinals

Leave a comment

Particularly compared to Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal, there’s a temptation to see Atlético Madrid and Chelsea as a pair of blunt objects – two teams who put on more pragmatic faces than Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Given the two sides’  talents, the temptation makes for a convenient but misleading contrast, even if the teams’ primary creators, Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Arda Turan (Atlético Madrid), could both miss out. The Blues, one of the world’s most expensive teams, will still have the likes of Willian, Oscar, and André Schürrle at their disposal, while Atleti have skilled talents like David Villa, Diego, and José Sosa to augment Spain’s second-leading scorer: Diego Costa.

At least, that’s the generous way to look at it. As Atlético head coach Diego Simeone pointed out in Monday’s pre-match press conference, the broader, reductive perception carries a kernel of truth. When Chelsea visits the Spanish leaders on Tuesday, two similar sides will begin vying for a place in next month’s Champions League final.

“We have the best defensive records in our respective leagues,” the Argentine boss explained. “We both have good defenses and play a direct attacking game. We’re both also good at set pieces. These characteristics have led to us each fighting for titles.”

After this weekend, one team’s fight is more vibrant than the others. With a 2-0 win over visiting Elche, Atlético remains on track for its first league title in 18 years. In England, however, Chelsea again slipped against one of the teams in the Premier League’s bottom half, its 2-1 loss to Sunderland taking the team’s title destiny out of its hands.

It was a performance that feeds into a quiet theory about the Blues, one that, if true, does not bode will for Chelsea’s chances against Atlético. Chelsea, the thinking goes, is most effective against teams that are willing to try to play through them, an approach that opens opponents up to a practically patented Mourinho counter. Against teams the Blues have to break down, however, a defense that is by far the best in England gets exposed, leading to upsets like the ones they’ve endured against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Newcastle.

source:  It’s a weakness that would play into Atleti’s hands, if Chelsea had to pursue them. But unlike league play, where the Blues need to collect full points from the circuit’s weaker sides, Chelsea doesn’t have to chase Atlético, particularly in Tuesday’s road leg. Instead, the former champions can be patient, force Atlético to try to break them down, and hope for their own opportunities to counter.

“No team arrives in a UEFA Champions League semifinal without being a very good team, and they are no exceptions,” Chelsea boss José Mourinho said on Monday. “To be here they have to be a very good team … (we) have studied and analysed them.”

If Atlético tries to press them, as they do all each opponent, Chelsea can just kick the ball away. We’re fine playing without possession. When Atlético retrieves it, the Blues can sit deep and be patient. If you’re not going to take chances, we’ll wait you out. If Atlético can’t create something independent of Chelsea mistakes, this matchup could be decided by set pieces. Or penalty kicks.

“This is a semifinal, and as such it will be a very tight match,” Simeone said. “It is a game that will be decided by very small details. Teamwork will be all-important in helping to bring out the individual qualities that can decide games. Whoever can do that best will be closer to winning the first leg.”

Maybe Costa, able to score when opponents aren’t gifting goals, can make Chelsea pay for that approach, but as the Blues showed while claiming Europe’s crown two years ago, 90 minutes of mistake-free soccer is not beyond their talents. And as Atleti showed through February’s slump, they’re not above making mistakes of their own.

Particularly in leg one, when Chelsea may look to limit damage on the road, the matchup’s main question will be laid center stage: Can Atlético break down Chelsea before Chelsea breaks on Atlético?

Subplots

source: AP1. Thibault Courtois will play for Atlético – Under contract to Chelsea, Courtois has spent the better part of two seasons with Atlético, where his loan stints have established the Belgian international as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. By the terms of the teams’ loan agreement, the 21-year-old shouldn’t be able to play, but after the teams were drawn against each other just over a week ago, UEFA quickly said it considered such a clause unenforceable.

Quietly, the Blues have agreed to let their goalkeeper play against them, and while Chelsea fans would rightly see that as unconscionable, the decision reveals a previously unspoken reality. After two years in Madrid, Courtois is more Atleti than Chelsea. His true employer seems more of a technicality than a reflection of his spirit. On Tuesday, Atlético’s keeper’s unlikely to play with mixed emotions.

2. Fernando Torres faces his original club – Even though his role with Chelsea continues to wane,  Torres matching up against his former team is important in the same way Didier Drogba facing his former club had meaning in the Round of 16.

Torres is a legitimate legend at Atlético, having come through the club’s youth ranks before spending parts of seven seasons with the first team. Even if he’s with the opposition, that he’s present while the club plays in its first semifinal in 40 years has emotional value. It will be strange to see him play against Atlético in such an important match at the Calderón.

source: Getty Images3. José back against Atlético – The last time Mourinho faced the Colchoneros was last year’s Copa del Rey final, with Atlético’s upset of Mourinho’s Real Madrid confirming a rare trophy-less season for the coach. Mourinho would go on to call 2012-13 the worst year of his career.

One year later, Atlético have another chance to leave Mourinho without silverware. Unless Chelsea can win at Anfield, they’ll be out of the Premier League title race, with next week’s second leg in London set to decide whether the Blues also bow out of Europe.

4. An unwilling semifinal specialist – Mourinho has made two Champions League finals, winning them both (2003-04 with Porto; 2009-10 with Inter Milan). Those triumphs have been the exceptions in Mourinho’s seven previous semifinal appearances, with the 51-year-old unable a final with either Chelsea or Real Madrid.

On Tuesday, Mourinho sets the record for most semifinal appearances by a manager: eight. If he can’t get past Atlético, however, six exits at the penultimate step start to look look like a stumbling block. Even if there’s a good reason for the exits — even if Mourinho may be getting quarterfinal-quality teams one found too far — he be seen as a kind of inverse specialist – somebody who hasn’t entirely solved the semifinals.

Joe Hart’s agent confirms loan move to Torino

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: Joe Hart of Manchester City warms up prior to the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham United at Etihad Stadium on August 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Joe Hart‘s Manchester City departure seems all but complete.

According to a report in Italy, the goalkeeper’s agent has confirmed a loan move to Torino is complete pending a medical.

“Yes, Joe Hart will play for Toro,” agent Jonathan Barnett told Tuttosport. “It’s all done, the goalkeeper said yes to the Granata and now Manchester City have given the green light. It’s all true, it’s secured. Tomorrow Hart will have a medical in Turin.”

Earlier Monday, it was reported that Hart was considering the offer but had not decided yet if this was the right course of action. Reports over the last week have stated the 29-year-old has been looking to leave Manchester City after being benched by Pep Guardiola, but preferred a permanent move to a loan due to the uncertainty for his family that comes with the short-term nature of a loan.

To back this up, Sky Sports reporter Gemma Davis tweeted that Hart has been given permission leave the England squad to travel to Torino for a medical. This is unlikely to affect Hart’s place in the England team, given they do not play until Sunday.

After two games in Serie A play, Torino sits seventh in the league table with a win and a loss so far. 30-year-old Daniele Padelli has started both games in goal, playing the full 90 minutes. Padelli has been the main man for Torino since his arrival in 2013, missing just a chunk of games two seasons ago when benched early in the year.

Reports: Nigel de Jong preparing to leave LA Galaxy for Galatasaray

Los Angeles Galaxy's Nigel de Jong, right, strikes the ball in front of San Jose Earthquakes' Quincy Amarikwa during the first half of a MLS soccer game Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Multiple reports across both the United States and the Netherlands have claimed Nigel de Jong is close to a move to Turkish giants Galatasaray.

A report by AD writer Maarten Wijffles states that De Jong is currently in the country for talks. However, while L.A. Times writer Keith Baxter confirms that a deal is in progress, he claims the player is still currently situated in the United States and has not left for Turkey yet.

According to reports in Turkey, Galatasaray began its interest in De Jong only recently, when Newcastle enforcer Cheick Tiote apparently failed a medical. Other reports citing sources with Newcastle and the player have disputed this, saying talks instead broke down over personal terms.

De Jong had only joined Los Angeles at the end of the January transfer window, moving from A.C. Milan after the termination of his contract. The 31-year-old Dutchman made 18 appearances for the Galaxy and did not score a goal.

Between Tiote and De Jong, the Turkish club is clearly targeting a certain style of player. De Jong has been known throughout his career as a midfield enforcer, sometimes on the border of dirty play, and that did not change during his short time in Major League Soccer. He made several cringe-worthy tackles, including one in April on Darlington Nagbe that caused many to fear for Nagbe’s career until it was revealed he suffered just a sprained knee. Another in early July earned De Jong a straight red card against Vancouver in early July.

The Dutchman was thought to be taking over Steven Gerrard‘s Designated Player spot next year after his retirement at the end of the current season, but De Jong’s departure means the Galaxy could have an open DP slot next season.

Lionel Messi picks up hamstring injury, will travel with Argentina anyways

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 20: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Betis Balompie at Camp Nou on August 20, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Lionel Messi’s “return” to the Argentinian national team may have to wait.

Barcelona has revealed their superstar picked up a left hamstring injury at an unspecified time, and discovered them during tests earlier on Monday. The statement said he would still travel to Argentina to link up with the national team for the international break, and will have more tests there.

Argentina, sitting in the third spot in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying and just two points above elimination, have vital matches against Uruguay and Venezuela over the next week. “His presence in those matches will depend on how the injury develops,” the statement from Barcelona read.

It is unclear when Messi developed this injury. He has played the full 90 minutes in all four of Barcelona’s matches this season, including the 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, the first of the four matches in which he did not score or assist a goal.

This also could be a bit of gamesmanship from Barcelona. Obviously, it benefits clubs for their players to rest during international breaks instead of play international matches, and for them to suddenly announce an injury to Lionel Messi would put pressure on Argentina to consider sitting their superstar. Of course, in attempts to dispel this idea, Barcelona included in their statement that the injury report was “approved by the FC Barcelona Medical Services and the Argentinian Football Association.”

A legitimate injury to Messi would be a devastating blow to Argentina considering Sergio Aguero has already withdrawn from the squad following an injury picked up against West Ham this weekend. Aguero was substituted in the 88th minute of Manchester City’s 3-1 win over the Hammers.

Messi was expected to make his first appearance to the national team setup after his brief “retirement” following the loss in the Copa America finals.

VIDEO: What will Southampton’s new star Boufal provide?

Leave a comment

Sofiane Boufal is a name many will be familiar with.

After his $21 million move to Southampton on Monday for a club-record fee, plenty of people are getting excited about seeing Boufal in the Premier League.

The Moroccan international is the type of player who has already become a cult figure due to the “Football Manager” video game, as his potential to become a star of European soccer has been well documented with huge teams interested in signing him over the past six months.

[ MORE: Fabregas wants Chelsea stay ]

That’s because Boufal, 22, shone for Lille last season, scoring 12 goals and his trickery, pace, set pieces and direct running saw him named as the best African player in Ligue 1.

He chose Southampton and it seems like a very wise choice after they helped turn the likes of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw, plus many more, into top international players.

So, what have Southampton got in Boufal?

Take a look at the video above which gives a great overview of Boufal from his time at Lille after making the step up from Angers in Ligue 2 in January 2015.

That’s right, those comparisons with Riyad Mahrez seem pretty legit.