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Posts Tagged ‘ Pep Guardiola ’

Champions League Quarter Final Draw Made

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Manchester United have been handed the toughest tie possible in the UEFA Champions League quarter finals as they were pitted against reigning champions Bayern Munich.

With United currently enduring a torrid season under the tutelage of David Moyes this clash could further highlight their woes or it could yet be the making of The Chosen One, should his charges halt the progress of Pep Guardiola’s  side.

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have been paired with Paris St Germain. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co will offer a stern test to the blues, who coasted through against Galatasary in the previous round.

Real Madrid will face 2013 beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund while an all-Spanish meeting between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid completes the quarter final draw.

Draw in full: 

Barcelona v Atletico Madrid

Real Madrid v Borussia Dortmund

Paris St Germain v Chelsea

Manchester United v Bayern Munich

First-leg ties to be played on 1 and 2 April, with the second legs being played on 8 and 9 April.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

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A Beautiful Game No More

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In the last number of weeks, we have been treated to a flurry of high-profile football games, with clashes at the top of the Premier League, big name ties in the FA Cup and the return of the Champions League with the first knock-out round. But did any of those big games bring about a truly enjoyable and competitive game? And if not, why not?

This week’s Champions League ties saw Barcelona take on Manchester City and Bayern Munich against Arsenal. All four teams would have to be considered expansive and attacking in their play, and with both English sides at home, the onus was on them to come out and attack. In theory, we were set up for two classic encounters with sides attacking and counter-attacking constantly. Yet the City game in particular was a huge disappointment. Manuel Pellegrini’s side have averaged 3.5 goals per home game, but ceded ground to the Catalan side from the off, which must have been why Aleksandar Kolarov was picked to play from the left wing. They only looked vaguely threatening and hugely dependent on Yaya Toure to roam forward from midfield and David Silva to create the chances. In fairness, it almost came off when Silva played in Alvaro Negredo, who rounded the goalkeeper only to be driven too wide to apply the finish. By and large though, City were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure, and their attacks were few and far between.

They were largely successful in containing Barcelona until their defensive unit were complicit in giving up the lead. Barca won the ball up the field, Vincent Kompany dropped too deep too fast and played on Lionel Messi, and Martin Demichelis brought him down, giving up the penalty and earning a red card, and changing the complexion of the game from then on. It’s almost impossible to play gung ho against this Barca team at the best of times, but with ten men it becomes time to batten down the hatches. It is interesting to note that it was Jesus Navas, as well as Kolarov, who got withdrawn, as he had the genuine pace that could have offered City a swift counter-attacking option.

The Arsenal game was fairly similar, in that it was changed by the red card to goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but really by that time Munich had taken hold of the game. But Arsenal did come out and play hard and fast for the first fifteen minutes, making Bayern look like a ragged bunch of journeymen. This spell culminated with the penalty won and missed by Mesut Ozil, who was presented with the chance to answer the bandwagon jumpers who have blamed him for most of Arsenal’s problems of late. Unfortunately for him and that game, he missed and the belief seemed to transfer from the Arsenal players to Bayern’s almost immediately. Arsenal barely had an attack of note after that, and certainly none after the red card.

In the case of Champions League ties, the home tie is a tricky one, given the importance of away goals. Even though the crowd are roaring you on and looking to take a lead for the away leg, it may suit a lot of teams to come out with a nil-nil, knowing a score draw in the next leg would see them through. For instance, if City had registered a scoreless draw the other night, would it have seemed farfetched that they could have nodded in a couple of goals from corners or free kicks in the Camp Nou, and put the game beyond Barcelona? Down a man, it is obviously pertinent to minimise the damage, and the couple of away goals both sides gave up mean they are highly unlikely to overturn the deficit and win their ties.

Pellegrini clearly has a lot of fear when thinking of this Barcelona side. Who wouldn’t? He has seen this team first hand a little too often for his own good in the last ten years, as he managed Villareal, Real Madrid and Malaga against them in La Liga during their pomp. It is unlikely he didn’t carry battle scars from all those encounters, and they possess great weapons. But Man City went away from their own strengths in the face of all this, when really they might have been better served by trying to put them on the back foot. Going forward, Barca’s most impressive player was Dani Alves, but he was on a yellow card from early on and is not the most accomplished defender on the planet, could they not have looked to exploit him more? Fortune favours the bold, and Man City had the team that could have troubled Barca a lot more than they did.

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What made these games in particular quite dull affairs was the possession-based game plan of both winning sides. As Bayern and Barca camped out in the English sides halves for the second half of their games, who was visibly enthralled? Toni Kroos smashed in a beautiful goal from outside the box, but Bayern didn’t really carve Arsenal open. Rafinha and Alves as full backs were the most incisive players of the midweek action as they had lots of space when defenders were already sucked in, but Bayern had to resort to lumping on big centre forwards to get the second goal. Nothing wrong with it, but they weren’t exactly cutting holes in the Arsenal rearguard by passing slowly and laterally outside the box. It was dull.

There is a trend in football now, largely thanks to the successes of Barcelona in the last decade, to play possession-based attacking games. Hog the ball, wear down your opponent, wait for your moment when the concentration levels drop, then pounce.  This has seen the rise of the offensive full-back, who is seemingly the player with the most space available to them. In turn, it now seems the centre-back is the new full-back, as the wider areas are closed down and the middle is where the space lies, so if you are lucky enough to have a centre-back with good ball skills they can drive forward and pick a pass, allowing your team to recycle possession effectively. But it is this type of dominant attacking that is making games less open. Opponents are generally pinned back and have to play with a defensive mind-set. There have been examples of teams capable of getting results with strong counter-attacking, such as Gareth Bale’s Spurs (no offense, AVB) and Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan team. These sides were able to take advantage of the major weakness of teams like Barca and Bayern, which is the defensive side of the game. Inter were able to knock out Barcelona and eventually win the Champions League by attacking when the moment was right, and defending solidly otherwise. But teams down the bottom of the league rarely have the speed of thought found in that Inter team’s Samuel Eto’o or Wesley Sneijder, nor the clinical finishing of Diego Milito. Thus, they spend the whole game defending and more or less awaiting the inevitable.

Even away from the elite teams in Europe, this trend can still be the case. The Europa League game between Swansea and Napoli had a similar plot. Swansea were always going to enforce their possession game too, but with all due respect they are not at the same standard as Barca or Bayern. The Napoli line-up was also one that boasted great talent, particularly going forward with the tremendous Gonzalo Higuain and the high profile Marek Hamsik, as well as winger Lorenzo Insigne who has played for Italy and Jose Callejon, who came through the ranks for Real Madrid before making a summer move to Naples. Add in counter-attacking away-leg specialist Rafa Benitez (see; any successful Liverpool European tie during his reign), and this should have been a rip-roaring tie with back and forth attacks. Unfortunately, not the case. Swansea played well but didn’t create too many clear chances, while Napoli were quite poor and resigned themselves to defending from early on.

Liverpool have played Arsenal twice in the last few weeks, with the first game a one-sided slaughter as Liverpool exposed Arsenal’s defence repeatedly in the first twenty minutes. The game was over after those early exchanges, and the second game could have gone the same way, with Daniel Sturridge having two great chances early on. Admittedly, the FA Cup game was a much more competitive game than any of the others mentioned, particularly in the second half. But it still wasn’t an end to end kind of game, as Liverpool dominated possession while pushing for an equaliser. The dross served up in the Arsenal versus Manchester United fixture was perhaps explainable by the frailty of both sides. Arsenal were just coming off the hiding at Liverpool, while United have struggled all year as a particular game plan and style remains unclear.

This is not to say anything is wrong with being a strong defensive side. Some of the best games in history have been based on a strong defensive effort defying a ferocious attack, like the Italian win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. There is certainly an art to defending, and it seems to evade the Pep Guardiola inspired teams like Munich and Barcelona. But if opposing teams are unwilling or unable to launch attacks and get at their back four, they will continue to get steamrollered. A fascinating encounter (not unlikely after the first leg results) would be a two-legged affair between these two teams down the Champions League line. None of the other games mentioned were uninteresting in their own right, but a tie between Bayern Munich and Barcelona might give us the furious, frenetic end to end game we’d all love to see.

Images courtesy of uefa.com, uefa.com/AFP/Getty Images

German Football Announces Itself With A Bang

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What have they been putting in the water in Germany this week, and where can we get our hands on some of that clearly magical substance?

It’s been another funny old week in European football. During Bayern Munich’s 4-0 humbling of Barcelona on Tuesday night, one of the commentators on TV3 said something to the effect that of all those who would be delighted with the Catalan’s rude awakening, chief amongst them would surely be Real Madrid. Fast forward 24 hours and Los Blancos and their supporters are undoubtedly a little quieter, having been on the receiving end of a 4-1 hiding of their own. It’s hard to believe that the two defeated Spanish sides are home to the top two players in the world.

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Pep’s German Test

pepThe news that Pep Guardiola has been confirmed as Bayern Munich’s next manager has surprised many, particularly those in the media who were sure a job somewhere in England was on the cards. But underneath, the move to the dominant German side seems like another shrewd move from a calculating manager.

You can see why Guardiola was attracted to the club. The most successful team in Germany, Bayern Munich are certainly one of the powerhouses of European football and the European pedigree is there, with the club having won three back to back European titles between 1974 and 1976 and once more in 2001 while they reached the finals most recently in 2010 and 2012. This is a winning side, and Guardiola can ease himself back into the football world with a project already destined to pick up trophies, domestically at the very least. And like Barcelona, the club is membership based with more than 185,000 members. Similar to the Catalonians, football is only one facet; the club has other departments for chess, gymnastics, bowling, basketball and table tennis. On the regular team sheet feature some very impressive names; Manuel Neuer, Ribery, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger to name but a few. What would many managers around the world give to have just one or two of those players in their squads? An impressive modern stadium, top quality training facilities, youth development programmes and a sizeable budget which allows for growth and development all combine to present Guardiola the chance to turn back the clock in Munich and allow the players and fans to experience the golden years of the 1960s and 70s once more.

“There aren’t many clubs within European football that have the stability and structure that Bayern Munich has in place. People look at the glamour of the Premier League and its global appeal but I think he probably saw the structure in place at the club, the success of the club and quality of the players,” said former Bayern midfielder, Owen Hargreaves, speaking to the BBC. “The facilities and the stadiums are better than anywhere in the world, I would guess. I think he’s probably looked at all aspects and, in my opinion rightfully so, thought that’s the best destination for him.”

A move to EPL was clearly never on the cards. The timing was just all wrong. Moving to Chelsea would have been a mistake; if he didn’t deliver Barcelona style football and the accompanying list of honours, there’s no doubt the former midfielder would have joined the growing list of managers booted out by the dictatorial Russian Abramovich who is clearly trying to prove at his time with Chelsea that he is largely ignorant on the subject of football, and will go to any lengths to subject his managers to this ignorance (for example, the forced playing of his £50 million toy, Fernando Torres). Managerial power, it seems, is an ignored afterthought and Abramovich is like the customer – always right, especially when he’s wrong. As for Manchester United, the setting would have been different; Alex Ferguson has long enjoyed autonomy at the club, and rightly so, given his success, and it’s hard to argue that Guardiola wouldn’t have enjoyed a similar status. But Ferguson, despite his advancing years, seems intent on remaining in the job for at least another year or two to come, displaying the same hunger and desire to win as when he arrived from Aberdeen all those years ago and so the timing simply wasn’t right. Meanwhile Manchester City seem to represent everything Barcelona and Bayern are not – a team that doesn’t always act like a team, rather a group of overpaid individuals, many of whom appear to be playing blue not for the glory, but the cheque at the end of the week. Sure the money is there for development should the right manager come in but its seems Guardiola was looking for a certain type of club with certain values, like Barcelona, like Manchester United, like Bayern Munich. Outside of those three, it’s hard to imagine any other club he might entertain thoughts of joining, realistically. Arsenal included.

So it seems it will be in Munich where we will find out the true nature of his managerial style. His experience outside of the Catalan club is zero, having completed a stint with the Barcelona B team before taking the reins of the senior side. Is manager of Barcelona a true test of a manger’s skills? The answer is no, not really. After all, when you have players like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta on the pitch, they often manage themselves. Sure, tactical acumen is certainly an advantage, as is having the knowledge and skill to work out weaknesses in an opposing team. But more often than not Barcelona pass and pass and pass until the other team gets tired or makes a mistake, a gap opens and someone, often and inevitably Messi, slips through. Other people brought the system of tika-taka play to the club, others embedded it in the Catalan team’s psyche, and others brought through the players which dominate on the pitch today. Things will be a little different at Bayern, who are intimidating yet far more beatable and far less lofty than Barcelona. Who would you rather play, given the choice? Barcelona? Or Bayern? The answer, for now, I think, is rather clear. For now. Whatever happens, it will surely be interesting.

A Tale of Nine Managers

The furore over Chelsea sacking Roberto Di Matteo following the club’s recent slip down the Premier League and in Europe and cemented by Tuesday night’s embarrassing defeat to Juventus was greeted with no great surprise and amazement as what was expected finally came to pass. Stan Collymore, Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand have all registered their amazement at the move, with Newcastle boss Alan Pardew branding the sacking ‘unbelievable’. BBC presenter Dan Walker probably provided the best summation of events, saying “Binning Di Matteo seems harsh, brutal, a bit daft but sadly inevitable. What Abramovich wants…”

It’s a little hard to believe when recalling that only last May Di Matteo was celebrating Chelsea’s historic Champions League triumph on a pitch in Munich. Of course of great importance now is that we are living in and moving ever increasingly into the era of not just the great players and the legendary managers who set the course for clubs, but also the owners. As football becomes a sport where money and bucket loads of it is needed to remain competitive and challenge for trophies, clubs are relying more and more on owners with plenty of cash, and, unfortunately, owners who in some cases believe they know more about football than the managers they’ve paid to do the job.

The surprise isn’t that di Matteo has been sacked. That has always been on the cards, with Chelsea it’s expected and a two-year contract proved that the faith simply wasn’t there, despite being a manager who had guided a team in disarray during the early part of the year to Champions League and FA Cup glory. No, the only surprise is that Roman Abramovich hasn’t followed his own ego and misplaced faith in his own football knowledge and simply installed himself as manager. He really calls the shots at the football club, they know it and we know it too. Why not just be open about it?

The most successful teams in football are those who have that one vital component – stability. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson often speaks about the need to build a club rather than a team, and the first thing he did upon his arrival at the club was to reorganise the club’s youth structures. Many of the players developed during this time went on to become standout players at the club – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham amongst them. And while of late Manchester United hasn’t been exactly living up to their fearsome reputation, the building is well underway again, as Sir Alex combines foreign acquisitions with homegrown talent. “The first thought for 99 percent of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win—to survive,” Sir Alex said, speaking to the Harvard Business School. “They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club—not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team.” At Barcelona, a similar approach is followed; while the managers do change somewhat often, the team ethos is what has kept the club elevated for such a long period of time – the tika taka style of play is embedded in the club from the youths to the first team.

What have Chelsea got? There is no set way they really play – managers haven’t had the time to put a stamp on the club, an established way in which they play because they simply haven’t been given a real opportunity. Managers come and go at Chelsea, each bringing their own brand of experience to the job, each bringing their own tactical ideas and player wishlists, and a gelling together of coach and club doesn’t always happen straight away. Some bad first results might have very well ended in the sacking of Sir Alex Ferguson all those years ago; if that had happened would Manchester United have enjoyed all of that success they’ve experienced over the years? Chelsea have a few trophies, some certainly very talented players, especially those brought in this past summer, and undoubtedly the money is there. But they need a manager to combine all of those positive aspects, and to do that definitively, they need time. And several of the more recent managers haven’t even had a full year at the helm. True success takes time. Where might Chelsea be if Mourinho had been left to his own devices and Abramovich had taken a back seat role consisting of signing the cheques and enjoying the success? At least that is something Manchester City are getting right – despite some pretty dismal performances over the past two Champions League seasons, Mancini has been given the owners trust along with their money and is experimenting, trying to find the Manchester City way, while building a solid base for the club in terms of the youth system. Managers need to be given time but in this day and age immediate returns on investments are expected, as manager’s terms in office are being measured in months rather than years.

It’s hard to see why any manager with any care for his reputation would come to Chelsea other than the impressive pay package coupled with the inevitable generous settlement when their tenure comes to an acrimonious end. Why would anyone come to a club as manager when they’re third in the pecking order, behind the Russian owner and senior players such as John Terry and Ashley Cole? Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail has recently revealed the conditions under which Di Matteo was forced to operate, chief amongst which was the constant and repetitive urging to play Torres, a wish on the part of the owner which impacted negatively on Di Matteo’s plans for the team, regarding proposed transfers.

Former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has already been confirmed as the ‘interim’ manager, a term which must surely fill the Spaniard with a world of confidence as he must realise the Russian oligarch trusts him at the steering wheel for just a little while as he makes his search for a more long- term sacrificial lamb.

FC Barcelona’s Irish Saviour

The generation of football fans which has grown up with the instantly recognisable and world revered and feared brand of tika-taka football which Barcelona play are familiar with a certain section of Barcelona managers who have strode back and forth in front of the touchline – Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and his successor Tito Vilanova. But rewind roughly 80 years and you would find a less continental name at the helm of a club struggling for their very lives in 1930s during the Spanish Civil war, because the Catalan club and area was associated so much with the Republican cause, and the immense pressure they came under almost caused them to fold.

Born and raised in working class Dublin, Patrick O’Connell used football as a method of escape. He joined Belfast Celtic in the early 1900s before transferring to Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City then Manchester United in May 1914, finishing his career with spells at Dumbarton and Ashlington while enjoying an international career with Ireland including captaining (with a broken arm) the side to a famous 3-0 victory at Ayrsome Park.

In 1922, for unknown reasons, Spain called to O’Connell and he left Irish shores and succeeded Englishman Fred Pentland as the manager of Racing Santander, guiding the side to five regional titles as they became founding members of La Liga in 1928. Between 1929 and 1935 as the world experience the Great Depression, O’Connell managed both Real Oviedo and Real Betis winning several titles with the latter. In the background right-wing tendencies were spreading across Spain and the Catalan region was becoming a focal point for resistance against these views. On the football pitch this manifested itself in the developing rivalry between Catalan Barcelona and the Franco-supported Real Madrid, a fierce and often bitter rivalry that still persists today. In the summer of 1935, O’Connell visited his native Ireland for a holiday and was appointed manager of Barcelona on his return after his successes with Betis hadn’t gone unnoticed. The club had gone into a decline during that decade, alongside the rising hostile political climate and success at the national level consistently evaded them. Things weren’t looking great.

What saved the club was the decision by O’Connell to take up an invitation to tour Mexico and America, for a guaranteed fee of around $15,000, a huge sum during the 1930s, throwing both the club a financial lifeline, and a period of respite and safety for the club’s players, some of whom had left to join forces in opposition to the military uprising, and who were feeling very unsafe. Thanks to O’Connell the tour was a PR success. The money was wired to a bank in Paris to ensure its safety from fascist hands, and the team eventually returned to Spain, consisting just of O’Connell and four other players from the original party which had travelled.  On his return to Spain, O’Connell left the club.

During the war years 1942-1945 O’Connell remained in Spain as the hand guiding Sevilla’s title ambitions, which never came to fruition before finishing his Spanish management career back where it all began at Racing Santander. What happened following his departure from Spain is unknown, all that is clear is that the man who ensured Barcelona’s survival through turbulent times died in obscurity in run-down lodgings in London in 1959. Today, the club still remembers the man who did so much for them; a bust of the man from Dublin sits in the Barca museum, part of their club’s history forever.

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