Champions League: Trying to find room between Chelsea, Atlético

Leave a comment

After seeing Real Madrid romp through Munich, it seems a bit disingenuous to, for the second day in a row, discuss a switch in venue as if it may be decisive. Certainly the move of Champions League’s other semifinal from Madrid to Stamford Bridge could have an impact, but the Merengues’ Tuesday dismantling of the former champs showed focusing on venue has its limits. Better to consider whether the change will affect either team’s approach.

On Tuesday, we knew it wouldn’t. Bayern was going to dominate the ball, while Real Madrid was going to look to hit them on the break. On Wednesday, however, the game plans aren’t so clear. While some suspect the Chelsea we’ve seen over the last two games will again show up on Wednesday, José Mourinho’s approach against Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals tells a different story. At home, chasing two goals, Chelsea opened up and beat PSG, 2-0.

The Blues had a huge incentive to change last round, an incentive that doesn’t exist on Wednesday. The teams enter tomorrow’s second leg having drawn 0-0, giving Chelsea reason to believe staying the course tactically could get them to the final. The second PSG performance still serves as a proof of concept, though. Those who don’t watch Chelsea regularly might be inclined to assume the current narrative, that they bunker all the time, is true, but this is a team that averages 55 percent possession in the Premier League, a number they duplicated in Champions League’s group stage. Getting nine behind the ball is only one of the gambits José Mourinho can play.

“Against Paris we were in a position where we had nothing to lose and no one really expecting us to turn the result around,” Mourinho explained on Tuesday. “At the moment, it is a ‘clean’ result, it is 0-0 and the chances are equal.”

The Chelsea could very well employ a different plan on Wednesday, particularly with Eden Hazard likely to return. The problem, however, is Atlético. Just as Chelsea’s personnel and natural tendencies leave them best served playing a more conservative style, so does Atleti’s, albeit in a noticeably different way. When playing against a team that wants the ball, Atlético’s high press is the most relentless (and, effective) in Europe. Under ideal circumstances, Chelsea may want to control play at home, but a match against a Diego Simeone team is never an ideal circumstance.

It is the nightmare scenario that surfaced when these teams were drawn together. Both talented yet risk averse, each capable of playing with or without the ball, what would happen to this tie if both lost the incentive to take risks?Atlético tried to score in leg one but couldn’t. They’re now in a situation where the best possibility of reward could be to lie in wait. Chelsea, on the other hand, has reason to believe being more aggressive could be rewarded, but that also plays into its opponent’s hands. What if both of these teams take a “let’s see what happens approach?”

“I respect different ways of setting out your team,” Simeone explained. “It’s about what’s the best way for a specific game or a specific opposition … There is no ‘best way’.”

The attitude hints leg two could play out like last week’s opener at the Vicente Calderón. Even if it doesn’t, the goalkeeping of Thibault Courtois and potentially Petr Cech — two of the best keepers in Europe — could keep the game at a stalemate. Though attacking threats like Hazard, Diego Costa, Óscar and Arda Turan are littered throughout the squads, the team’s combinations of talent, organization, and approach gives the defenses the upper hand. With strong back fours protected by defensive-minded midfield pairs in front, these teams look set to take this one past 120 minutes.

What could change this course? The obvious. One of these teams could have a bad day. Or one could go Real Madrid, play their best game of the season, and blow their opponents off the field. Diego Costa, averaging a goal-per-game (seven) in this year’s Champions League, could win this with one set piece conversion or finish off a perfectly served long ball. Or maybe an Atlético player will slip while on the ball, allowing Chelseato recycle its fortune fromAnfield.

“For the 90 minutes the players are more important than the manager,” Mourinho said. “I trust them a lot and that helps me to be calm.”

As much as any semifinal in recent memory, this one’s impossible to call, and as the first leg in Madrid showed, there’s little in the play, matchup, or philosophies that gives us a clue as to who’ll emerge victorious. But in a game that’s likely to be decided by one goal (probably the first), every moment will prove crucial. Onlookers my bemoan a match that lacks chances, but the scarcity of those opportunities means Wednesday’s game can be decided at any time.

“I’m here, I’m the manager” – Moyes will not quit Sunderland

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

This has been one horrible stretch for David Moyes.

The Sunderland manager probably thought he’d been through the worst once he left Real Sociedad, where he went 12-15-15.

But he’s managed just seven wins and seven draws in 38 matches in charge of the Black Cats — an 18 percent win mark. He’s also been charged for threatening to slap a female journalist.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

And after Wednesday, Moyes has lost both of his derby matches against Middlesbrough.

Sunderland is 12 points back of safety with five matches left. The odds the Black Cats are headed for the Championship are somewhere north of 99 percent, and fans are calling for his job.

Well, he isn’t quitting. From the BBC:

“No, I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose.

“There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Premier League Preview: The Manchester Derby

Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • City won 2-1 in PL on Sept. 10
  • United won 1-0 in EFL Cup on Oct. 26
  • First Mourinho-Pep match at the Etihad
  • United leads all-time 71W-51D-50L

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola get a tactical rubber match with plenty on the line when Manchester United and Manchester City meet at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

There will be no Paul Pogba nor Zlatan Ibrahimovic for United, while Gabriel Jesus is set to return for City.

Fourth-place City enters the day one point ahead of United, and both trail Liverpool but have played two less matches.

In case you’ve forgotten, here are the other two meetings between Guardiola and Mourinho this season:

  • Iheanacho, De Bruyne lead City’s 2-1 win in September. Zlatan Ibrahimovic made it interesting by pulling back a goal, but Pep Guardiola’s bunch fired the first shots of the season’s derbies with a win at Old Trafford.
  • It was the same venue six weeks later, when Juan Mata‘s 54th minute goal was the only marker as United knocked Manchester City out en route to its EFL Cup title.

Ander Herrera calls Thursday’s battle the “game of the season.” Here’s what other participants have on their minds.

What they’re saying

United boss Mourinho on finishing above City“If we finish fifth and they finish sixth, we are above them, and it means nothing. But if they finish third and we finish fourth, they are above us but it means a lot.”

City keeper Claudio Bravo on Guardiola’s City: “Our team plays differently to the rest of the teams, but at the same time it’s not easy. We are still in a stage of construction, keep improving and keep growing day by day. I think all the experiences we have got this season are going to help us a lot to grow in the future and get closer to trophies”

Prediction

United is without two of the most influential players in the world, and on the road. Those obstacles are a lot to overcome, and United will have to overload the midfield — maybe with both Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick — and use a classic Mourinho parking of the bus to get a result. But Marcus Rashford can be a menace on the counter, and just may find his way past Bravo. City 2-1.

Allardyce: Referee Moss “wasn’t brave enough” to send off Wanyama

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sam Allardyce is feeling strong these days (and every day).

The Crystal Palace manager is disappointed in referee Jon Moss after the head official failed to give Victor Wanyama a second yellow card following a tackle on Andros Townsend in the first half of Spurs’ 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

Sitting on yellow for a foul on Luka Milivojevic, Wanyama slid late on Townsend. The midfielder certainly made sure it looked worse than it was, but even without the tomfoolery it could’ve been a yellow.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs | Pochettino reacts ]

Moss instead gave Wanyama a talking-to, and Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino subbed the fiery midfielder at halftime. Allardyce isn’t too happy, as a dismissal may have given his side a chance at adding Spurs to its list of defeated Top Four candidates.

From the BBC:

“The second challenge was the worst. Mauricio was very clever to sub him at half time. I think the referee made the wrong decision, I don’t think he was brave enough.”

Woah. That merits a punishment for someone like Jose Mourinho, so let’s see if the FA sends a fine Allardyce’s way. To be fair to Big Sam, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see that second yellow.

Yet it wouldn’t take that much “bravery” to send Wanyama off at Selhurst Park as opposed to, say, White Hart Lane. For what it’s worth, Moss has sent off three players this season and one of them was Granit Xhaka at home for Arsenal against Swansea.

La Liga wrap: Real, Barca boast blowouts

Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Leave a comment

La Liga isn’t exactly competitive from top to bottom, and both Real Madrid and chasing Barcelona took advantage of weaker competition on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs ]


Deportivo de la Coruna 2-6 Real Madrid

When your “B Team” includes James Rodriguez and a certain Alvaro Morata, life is pretty good.

Zinedine Zidane watched as Real took another step toward a first La Liga title since 2011-12 behind a James brace and markers from Morata (below, with style), Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro, and Isco.

Barcelona 7-1 Osasuna

Barca effectively relegated Osasuna. Despite braces from Lionel Messi, Paco Alcacer, and Andre Gomes, the headlines were stolen by Javier Mascherano.

The Argentine scored his first ever Barca goal in just his 318th appearance for the club.

Elsewhere

Leganes 3-0 Las Palmas – Luciano Neves bags brace.
Valencia 2-3 Real Sociedad – Visitors build 3-0 lead.

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Barcelona 34 24 6 4 101 33 68 13-3-1 11-3-3 78
 Real Madrid 33 24 6 3 90 38 52 12-4-1 12-2-2 78
 Atlético Madrid 34 20 8 6 60 25 35 12-2-3 8-6-3 68
 Sevilla 33 19 8 6 58 39 19 12-3-1 7-5-5 65
 Villarreal 34 17 9 8 49 27 22 10-3-4 7-6-4 60
 Real Sociedad 34 18 4 12 52 47 5 9-4-4 9-0-8 58
 Athletic 33 17 5 11 46 37 9 12-3-2 5-2-9 56
 Eibar 33 14 8 11 52 45 7 9-3-5 5-5-6 50
 Espanyol 34 13 11 10 45 44 1 8-5-4 5-6-6 50
 Celta Vigo 32 13 5 14 48 52 -4 9-1-6 4-4-8 44
 Alavés 33 11 11 11 32 40 -8 5-7-4 6-4-7 44
 Valencia 34 11 7 16 49 59 -10 7-4-6 4-3-10 40
 Las Palmas 34 10 9 15 52 61 -9 9-6-2 1-3-13 39
 Málaga 34 10 9 15 40 49 -9 8-2-6 2-7-9 39
 Betis 33 10 7 16 36 51 -15 6-6-5 4-1-11 37
 Deportivo 34 7 10 17 37 57 -20 6-5-6 1-5-11 31
 Leganes 34 7 9 18 30 51 -21 4-5-8 3-4-10 30
 Sporting de Gijón 34 5 9 20 37 67 -30 4-3-10 1-6-10 24
 Granada 34 4 8 22 27 72 -45 4-4-9 0-4-13 20
 Osasuna 34 3 9 22 35 82 -47 1-6-10 2-3-12 18