Czech Republic Soccer Super Cup

Champions League preview: Defending champion Bayern Munich looks to end Real Madrid quest for 10th title

Leave a comment

With the club one step away from its first Champions League final in 12 years, it’s tempting see a Real Madrid team bolstered by Carlo Ancelotti and Gareth Bale as within reach of the club’s coveted decima. Then you remember last year’s failure against Borussia Dortmund, the two semifinal exits before that, and the challenge that will stand across the pitch from the nine-time champions on Wednesday. That’s when Bayern Munich, favorites throughout this year’s competition, will visit the Santiago Bernabéu, with former El Real nemesis Pep Guardiola hoping to guide the German champions to Europe’s first back-to-back titles in 24 years.

We are in an important semifinal and we are more driven than anyone to win this competition,” Ancelotti said on Tuesday, in the midst of his first semifinal with the Merengues. “[It] is an advantage and a great motivation for us, not an obsession.”

That may depend on how you define obsession. Ever since the club defeated Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final, that 10th European championship has been Real Madrid’s primary focus. That the club has been  unable to complete its quest, failing to make a final over that 12-year span, has made the decima into a fixation. It’s the reason why Ancelotti was brought in; why the club wasn’t content with the league and Copa del Rey titles José Mourinho produced during his three-year tenure; why the likes of Bale have bolstered an already immensely talented squad. Whether Ancelotti wants to admit it or not, la decima is an obsession.

“We are only thinking about the match,” Ancelotti reiterated. “I am confident in my team and in my players … we are focusing on our own team. This is the most important thing for coping with the pressure.”

It’s a pressure compounded by a worrisome fitness situation, with Ballon d’Or-winning attacker Cristiano Ronaldo a doubt for the first leg. He’ll face a fitness test before the match. If he passes it, could be available off the bench, with Ancelotti having already ruled him out of the starting lineup.

Recovering from the flu, Bale may also be hampered, while Marcelo’s hamstring will the Brazilian left back give way to Fabio Coentrão. With midfielder Sami Khedira a long-term absence, Real Madrid will be without three or four of its first choice players. All of Bayern’s starters should be at Guardiola’s disposal.

“I hope [Ronaldo] plays,” Guardiola said on Tuesday. “We play for people who want to see the best. He is among the best. If he doesn’t play, [Real Madrid] play in a different way.”

It’s a confidence that’s endemic to Guardiola’s managerial style, but given the quality his Bayern team takes into Wednesday’s match, the attitude is even more well-grounded than usual. Led by the likes of Franck Ríbery, Mario Götze, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern’s lost only four times under its first-year boss. Combined with the Barcelona icon’s history of success against Real Madrid, Bayern are justified in assuming a favorite’s posture.

My stats at the Bernabéu were with another club at another time and in another situation,” Guardiola explained, having gone 9-4-2 against Real Madrid during his time managing Barça. “It has nothing to do with Bayern. If we win, we will have to put on a very good performance.”

Given Bayern has next week’s second leg at the Allianz Arena, the team doesn’t necessarily need to win.With a team that’s averaging more than 69 percent possession in Champions League, Munchen’s capable bleeding out a draw, should it choose to do so.

Even in the face of the Merengues’ attacking potential, Guardiola’s unlikely to make that choice.

Cristiano is a goalscorer, Isco gives you more control and possession, [Karim] Benzema gives you stability, [Sergio] Ramos, Xabi [Alonso] and [Luka] Modrić can play the ball from the back,” Guardiola explained, “… and with Bale, Cristiano, [Ángel] di María and Benzema, they can kill with space. We’ll try to attack and defend as we always do.”

Should it perform to its normal standards, Bayern Munich will likely get a result at the Bernabéu – the toughest challenge between it and a second straight title. Any slip, however, and the likes of Bale, Benzema, di María and Modric can heighten the tie’s drama ahead of next week’s finale, allowing Real Madrid’s obsession to feed off the challenge of the Allianz.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

Follow @NicholasMendola

Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

meninblazers
twitter.com/MenInBlazers
Leave a comment

Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

Subscribe to the podcast OR to update your iTunes subscriptions ]

Click here for the RSS feed ]

Follow @NicholasMendola

Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
Leave a comment

On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

Follow @NicholasMendola