Champions League preview: Picking favorites between Bayern Munich, Barcelona

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Having won an ever-tougher German league in record time, Bayern Munich needs little more to prove their European bonafides that the domestic distance between them and Borussia Dortmund (20 points), a 4-0 (aggregate) trouncing of Juventus in the UEFA Champions League quarters, and a roster with depth and quality that rivals any in world soccer. If they did, the 16-2 margin they’ve racked up in winning their last three league games or the +75 goal difference they’ve accumulated through 30 Bundesliga rounds would be enough to argue they’re not only Europe’s form team, they’ve put together UEFA’s most impressive campaign. If you were to pick Champions League’s favorite based on only this year’s returns, Bayern would be the obvious choice.

But that status only confounds the picture ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal, one that pits the would-be kings against the reigning monarchs. Because although Barcelona didn’t win last year’s Champions League (remember Chelsea?), their status as ‘team our club would most like to emulate’ creates a standard, one Bayern has implicitly bought into while tabbing Pep Guardiola to take over at the Allianz next year. Having won two Champions Leagues and three Spanish titles during four years bossing the Blaugrana, the Barcelona legend is set to bring Barça to Bavaria, a move that makes Tuesday’s meeting the first half of a type of Guardiola Clasico.

“I have respect for Pep Guardiola and we have a very good relationship,” Bayern head coach Jupp Heynckes said on Monday. “This match will not affect this. I don’t need any information from anyone. I know Spanish football, I know Barça and I know my own team very well.”

It’s exactly what you’d expect from a coach that signed off on Guardiola’s hire, though it doesn’t help answer the central questions ahead of Tuesday’s match: Who’s the favorite? The team with the gaudy numbers and layers upon layers of talent? Or the team that sits on the proverbial throne.

There seem to be two schools of thought:

Picking Bayern Picking Barça
They’re clearly the best team in Europe. They’ve lapped the Bundesliga and embarrassed Juventus with talent that explains their results. Only subscribing to Barcelona mysticism would make them underdogs. We’re seen Barcelona be eliminated by lesser teams than Bayern. It’s one thing to put up impressive results against Germany and the res of Champions League – results that shouldn’t be discounted – but Barcelona is so stylistically distinct, you predict results based on a club’s performance against other teams. Most teams crumble against Barcelona

Bayern’s a team which, even by Barcelona’s standards, has an enviable amount of artillery. Even with first choice number nine Mario Mandsukic suspended, Bayern has an elite goal scorer: German international Mario Gomez. On the flanks, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben present significant challenges for Barcelona’s fullbacks, while Thomas Muller, set to play in support of Gomez, has proven himself in a World Cup and the previous Champions League. Bayern has no shortage of players who could win this match.

“To sum up Bayern’s strength this year with just one word, I would say ‘teamwork’,” Heynckes said. “Bayern play the most modern and up-to-date football in their history. There are so many things you can prepare before a game, but being spontaneous is very important in football. You need good intuition to do this.”

source: ReutersThat spontaneity means players like midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger (right) and Javi Martinez could also be threats, as well as fullbacks Philipp Lahm and David Alaba. It also means the team may have the fluidity to cover for the absence of Toni Kroos, the Bayern playmaker out for the season after suffering an abductors injury against Málaga.

The bigger injury concern, however, lies with the other side. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi – the consensus world’s best player who’s scored an astounding 43 goals in 29 league games – has only played since the his team’s second quarterfinal leg against Paris Saint-Germain, a match in which he could only go half an hour. Having picked up in injury in the first leg in Paris, Messi hasn’t started a game since April 2. He’s expected to being in Jordi Roura’s starting XI on Tuesday, but whether he’s 100 percent remains to be seem.

“Messi is improving and is getting better but we will have to see what the doctor says,” Barça’s interim boss Jordi Roura said on Monday. “He is a great player because he can dictate games. We hope he will be fine tomorrow.”

In a way, that’s not even the most important part of the match for Barcelona. On the road in game one of a two-legged tie, the more important thing will be staying close. Barcelona need to keep the score close enough to play their normal style when the match moves to Cataluyna. They need a big day from Gerard Piqué in defense, and they’ll need strong performances from Sergio Busquets and Victor Valdes.

Any result that keeps them from falling behind by more than one goal will be a positive one. Because of their standards, Barcelona will want to win on Tuesday, but with the quality of this Bayern side, staying close away from home could be the difference between maintaining their Champions League dreams and being just another Juventus on the road to Bayern’s title.

Notes

  • Bayern’s domestic season is done, but they’re still racking up results. Gomez and Claudio Pizarro each scored twice in this weekend’s 6-1 win at Hannover.
  • Barcelona also won this weekend, albeit in less convincing fashion. Cesc Fabregas’s 84th minute goal gave the Blaugrana a 1-0 win at home against Levante.
  • Eric Abidal, coming back from a liver transplant, played 90 minutes in central defense on Saturday, though don’t expect him in Roura’s XI at Bayern. Adriano should start along side Piqué in the middle.
  • The last time the two teams met was the 2008-09 Champions League quarterfinals. Barcelona routed Bayern in the first leg on their way to a 5-1 aggregate victory.
  • Bayern returns two starters from that match: Ribery and Lahm. Barcelona could return as many as six starters: Valdes, Dani Alves, Piqué, Xavi Hernandez, Messi, and Andres Iniesta,
  • Bayern have only lost once at home to a Spanish side in Champions League play: 3-2 to Deportivo la Coruna in 2002-03.
  • Barcelona have an eight match unbeaten run on German soil, their last trip a 3-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in last year’s group stage.

Possible Lineups

Bayern Munich (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; David Alaba, Dante, Daniel Van Buyten, Philipp Lahm; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez; Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben; Mario Gomez.

Barcelona (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Jordi Alba, Adriano, Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves; Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez; David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro Rodriguez.

VIDEO: Brandi Chastain explains Hall of Fame plaque blunder

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Brandi Chastain had a strange day on Monday.

The U.S. women’s national team legend, who won two Olympic golds and two World Cups during her iconic playing career, was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

But when she unveiled her plaque, well, it got weird. Really weird.

Instead of a bronze image of Chastain’s face on the plaque, there was an image of what looks like an elderly man grimacing. Several media outlets have speculated as to who the face on the plaque actually is, with Gary Busey, Louie Anderson, John Goodman, a hint of Bill Belichick, and Mickey Rooney frontrunners according to Deadspin.

Take a look at the video below as Chastain appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show to explain what happened.

Needless to say, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame are going to get Chastain’s plaque redone.


Key takeaways: Emery’s first Arsenal press conference

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Unai Emery was unveiled as the new head coach of Arsenal on Wednesday and the Spanish coach spoke to the media at the Emirates Stadium soon after the news was official.

[ MORE: Emery “first choice” ]

The former PSG, Sevilla and Valencia coach spoke in limited English and answered some questions in his native tongue as he explained his vision for the Gunners AW (after Wenger) while sat alongside Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis.

Below is a look at five key takeaways from Emery’s first presser as Arsenal officially have a new boss for the first time in almost 22 years.


Emery was Arsenal’s “first-choice” replacement for Wenger

Gazidis revealed that there was an eight-man shortlist for the job and all eight were interviewed and kept their hats into the ring until the end. Emery was also the unanimous “first choice” selection and was interviewed on May 10 before being recommended to the board on May 18, then flying to Atlanta, Georgia, on May 22 to meet with Stan and Josh Kroenke before meeting the media. The fact that Mikel Arteta had seemed such a strong contender until Monday was perhaps a smokescreen before Emery was selected. The Spaniard has an impressive resume and no coach in Europe has won more than his eight major trophies in the last five years, which included three successive Europa League titles at Sevilla. At the age of 48 he has worked at huge clubs with big expectations and has delivered at each, apart from PSG being chucked out of the Champions League last 16 to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last two seasons.


The style of play will remain similar but “intensive pressing” will arrive

And this is maybe the main reason why Emery was first choice. Tactically Emery is quite different to the style Wenger created at Arsenal and there can be some clear, and healthy, progression while still sticking with the possession-based style.

Asked about Arsenal’s possession-based game and some of the counter-attacking tactics he has used during his career, Emery seems keen to not tweak too much with the way the team plays currently but he is further aligned to the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino with the way he sets his teams up.

“In my career I am very demanding of myself as well as the people at the club and the players. The history here is one thing, they love to play with possession of the ball,” Emery said. “I like this personality and when we don’t have the ball I want a squad to play with intensive pressure. Two important things are position of the ball and pressing when you haven’t got it.”

High-pressing with plenty of possession? Sign me up to watch that.


There will be funds to spend

In the media there’s been a figure of around $75 million being available for Emery to spend this summer on building a new squad. Although Gazidis wouldn’t confirm if that was true, he did state the following when it comes to money being spent on new players.

“We don’t discuss our finances publicly but we run ourselves on a very clear and transparent model. Anyone who wants to look at our accounts can do so. All of the money has always been available to our manager and that will carry on,” Gazidis said.

Okay, that was a little tetchy but it does mean there should be some significant funds available to spend if the past two years are anything to go by with Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all arriving. Emery’s main area of concern will be in central midfield and in central defense, so, not much changes in terms of their main needs, recruitment wise.


Small changes to the squad are coming up

When asked if the likes of Jack Wilshere will stick around despite being out of contract on July 1, Emery was quite eager to focus on the bigger picture.

That said, the Spanish coach said that there will be changes but didn’t seem to think plenty of ins and outs were needed.

“We think we need change, little things, a little players but I don’t want to talk individually about the players. This is a big team and today I want to work and speak globally for the squad,” Emery said. “This is a big project and I am proud to be here and to work after Arsene Wenger. We want to work on this club together. I know my ambition and my passion and to know how I want to grow up with Arsenal. All the conversations I have had with the club shows we share the same vision for the club.”

Emery hailed Mesut Ozil as “one of the biggest talents at Arsenal” but you have to wonder if Ozil and others will align with Emery’s tactics as he enjoys setting up solid defensively and hitting opponents on the counter.


His English isn’t great, which may be a good thing

Props to Emery for having a go at speaking in English and taking questions but it is clear that it will take quite some time for the Spaniard to express himself fully in the English language. And that may actually work in his advantage. Remember Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, then Tottenham? The Argentine didn’t have a single press conference in English for his first 18 months in the Premier League and that allowed him to absorb the culture and feel his way into the PL. Emery is already way ahead of Pochettino in that respect and even if Arsenal’s fans are looking for instant answers in every single press conference, it’s unlikely Emery will deliver them simply because he has yet to master the English language. That could well lead to more patience from fans (these are Arsenal fans though) and Emery will be able to give simpler answers due to the fact that he won’t be able to understand what a lot of journalists are asking. Or at least that’s the way he can play it when tough questions come around early on…

Harry Kane’s World Cup optimism encouraging

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Harry Kane raised plenty of eyebrows on Tuesday as the newly announced captain of the English national team had the following to say in a press conference.

“It’s impossible not to dream about lifting the World Cup. It’s the biggest competition in the world,” Kane said. “I believe we can win it – anyone can. I cannot sit here and say we are not going to win it because we could do. We are not favourites but you look at this season, no-one would have thought Liverpool getting to the Champions League final. You look at Manchester United back in the Sir Alex Ferguson days, they had a young team and dominated the Premier League for years to come.

“Being young is not an excuse – it could be a good thing. I believe we can and that is what we want to try and do. Anything else is not good enough.”

And just like that, England’s new skipper appeared to set the bar ridiculously too high once again ahead of a major tournament.

Compare Kane’s comments to that of England captain Steven Gerrard ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“Anyone who thinks we can’t win the World Cup has to be barking up the wrong tree,” Gerrard said, before England crashed out at the group stage four years ago…

Are England going to win the World Cup this summer? Probs not. Kane, and his manager, likely know that but what’s the point of having a negative mindset from the get-go? True, it hasn’t helped England in the past but this is a fresher, younger squad than in previous campaigns and there is a real sense of optimism building that Kane and Co. are flying under the radar.

The Three Lions have a chance of reaching the last eight, and even the semifinals if the draw is kind to them, and then, I guess, they’ll have a fighting chance. Germany, Spain, France, Brazil, Argentina and Belgium are still the clear favorites.

Still, Kane’s comments will no doubt be scoffed at and dismissed as nonsense by England fans and neutrals across the globe. Yet there is a growing sense that this is the strongest unit the English national team has had over the past decade with individual sentiments put to one side and Southgate fostering a team-first approach.

His selections for the final 23-man squad were based on sensibility and picking players who were in form, and fit, heading into this summer. So often the English national team has been about massaging big egos (Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry) and trying to fit square pegs in round holes come tournament time.

That’s no longer the case. With a humble, hard-working and talismanic figure such as Kane leading the line, and their charge, this summer, you get the sense that England will end up surprising many in Russia.

They won’t win the World Cup but they could win plenty of hearts for a brave style of play in a 3-4-3 formation and the likes of Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford excelling on the biggest stage.

Kane’s optimism is encouraging but unless England get out Group G (they face Tunisia, Panama and Belgium) comfortably, the negativity won’t take too long to take over the mood in the England camp.

That’s the way it always works for England as stars from the Premier League are put on a pedestal after a few decent performances and then knocked off it quickly with one slightly shaky displays. Perhaps the failure of the past two tournaments (knocked out in the last 16 at EURO 2016 by Iceland, plus the group stage exit at the last World Cup) will have toughened up this England squad.

With just five players left over from the Three Lions’ last World Cup exploit in the 2018 squad, this is very much a fresh, young squad looking to write their own history and not be haunted by the ghosts of England’s past.

“First-choice” Emery reveals his plans for Arsenal

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Unai Emery spoke to the media for the first time as Arsenal manager on Wednesday, with the Spanish coach detailing his vision for the Gunners as more details emerged about the managerial search.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s unveiling ]  

Emery, 48, was named as Arsenal’s new “head coach” with the former PSG coach replacing Arsene Wenger and edging ahead of Mikel Arteta in the battle to take charge at the Emirates Stadium.

Sat alongside Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis, Emery spoke to reporters at Arsenal’s home stadium on Wednesday and although his English is limited he seemed excited by the challenge ahead.

“My English is not very best now and I want to make sure, to the supporters to explain my idea, my ambition, to explain that I am very excited for this opportunity at a big club, a great city and a grand stadium. Also, great players for this work,” Emery said.

Before adding that “it’s a great challenge but in my career, every year I grow up with new challenge and for me this challenge is a dream.”

Asked about changes to his current squad and which players may stay or leave this summer, Emery wanted to focus on speaking about the club as a whole rather than individuals but hinted at change.

“We think we need change, little things, a little players, today I want to work and want to speak globally for the squad,” Emery said.

Asked about the specific style of play he aims to achieve at Arsenal, Emery believes he can follow a similar style to the one Wenger created over two decades.

“In my career I am very demanding of myself as well as the people at the club and the players. The history here is one thing, they love to play with possession of the ball,” Emery said. “I like this personality and when we don’t have the ball I want a squad to play with intensive pressure. Two important things are position of the ball and pressing when you haven’t got it.”

Gazidis revealed that he led a three-man team in the managerial search which involved Raul Sanllehi, the head of football relations, and head of recruitment Sven Mislintat.

The keys for Gazidis and Co. were to bring in “progressive, entertaining football, a personality and a record of developing players, particularly young players through detailed tactical instructions and cultural demands.”

Arsenal’s CEO also revealed that there was an eight-man shortlist and all eight were interviewed in-person and none of the candidates withdrew their interest.

Gazidis confirmed that Emery was their “first-choice” after meeting him on May 10, and the Spaniard was then recommended “unanimously” on May 18 to the board.

Emery, Gazidis and Sanllehi then flew to Atlanta, Georgia to meet majority owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh on Tuesday before arriving back in London to meet the media on Wednesday.

“Thank you to all the chairman and the board,” Emery said. “They feel with their heart Arsenal and the conversation with the chairman and the board is very important for me to know better Arsenal. Also, thank you Ivan, Raul and Sven, the first meeting with Arsenal’s board, after three hours I felt a very good feeling and we will work together and we will create a new present and future at Arsenal. Thank you Arsene Wenger for your legacy. For all the coaches in all of the world he is a reference. A learned from him all of the things in football.”

Emery will have a strong Arsenal squad to work with but fans and the board will no doubt expect him to challenge for the top four, at least, and that’s before any big-name arrivals this summer.