Defeat to Everton all but seals Sunderland’s fate

Written by Chris Winterburn

Sunderland’s display at home to Everton this afternoon showed a great deal of character if not the necessary quality to overcome an in-form side challenging for Champions League football next season.

Gus Poyet’s men knew prior to kick-off that anything other than a victory would most likely not be enough to give the Black Cats a fighting chance of avoiding the financially perilous drop into the Championship. Poyet abandoned his recently favoured five at the back system with Santiago Vergini dropping out of the starting eleven with the experienced partnership of John O’Shea and Wes Brown preferred.

There was a tense feel around the ground from the start which was only made worse as news filtered through from around other grounds that goals were going in for Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and latterly Cardiff City which made Sunderland’s task even more challenging. It was clear that the midfield three of Cattermole, Ki and Colback would have to be incredibly mobile to avoid being overrun by Everton’s quartet of attacking talents, a fate suffered by Arsenal just six days earlier.

Whilst it wasn’t the attractive football Poyet had promised when he first took the Wearside job the first half display was effective. Sunderland’s high pressing and concentrated area of challenges around the centre circle restricted Everton’s movements going forward and Roberto Martinez’s side had the look of a frustrated team as they found it harder and harder to break into Sunderland’s defensive area.

Gerard Deulofeu, given yet another start by Martinez, was the only bright spark in what was in truth a dismal opening forty five minutes as the quick footed winger tested his fellow countryman Marcos Alonso on the right hand side with great regularity. Alonso simply had no answer to Deulofeu’s speed and quick feet, often being left in an awkward position with Deulofeu at least five yards further up the touchline. Had Deulofeu’s decision making been less selfish Everton could have been a goal to the good before half-time with Sunderland leaving gaps at the back following a corner kick.

Sunderland’s defensive line was guilty of dropping deeper and deeper near the climax of the first period and whilst this was effective in crowding out Everton attacks in and around Vito Mannone’s penalty area it made counter attacks very difficult with Fabio Borini finding himself charging up the field with the ball with absolutely no support on a handful of occasions. The best chance of the game came just before the break when Borini took the ball round Tim Howard and placed a shot that was goal bound only for John Stones to clear the ball off the line in what was a hugely solid performance from the teenager.

Connor Wickham has been asked to do a very difficult job since his return from a loan spell at Elland Road. In fairness the former Ipswich Town striker looks low on both fitness and confidence and being isolated at the top of the pitch did him no favours as Sunderland’s defensive solidity came first. With Fabio Borini’s energy in effect just behind Wickham you feel as though Steven Fletcher’s eye for a run in behind was a real miss today.

Everton themselves did not click as well as in previous fixtures this afternoon with the free flowing and at times frantic attacking football that tore Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal to pieces last weekend just not there this afternoon. Ross Barkley’s introduction just prior to the hour mark was supposed to rectify this however it was Deulofeu who would make the difference late on.

Despite the Spaniard having drifted out of the match not long into the second half, Deulofeu picked up the ball on the right hand flank, beat Marcos Alonso yet again and fired the ball across the face of Sunderland’s goal only for Wes Brown to clip the ball into his own net past the wrong footed Mannone.

You always felt as though Sunderland would have to score first this afternoon if they were to earn all three points and when Everton took the lead the mood around the Stadium of Light became one of considerable concern. The crowd did their best to urge Gus Poyet’s side on and the hosts did have a number of chances in the remaining twenty minutes but none which truly tested Tim Howard in the Everton goal. Worryingly for Sunderland, whilst throwing men forward in attack they left the back door wide open and Everton could have scored at least two further goals had there been more composure within the Toffees’ forward line.

At this point Sunderland sit rock bottom of the Premier League on twenty five points whilst Cardiff City and Fulham have both moved onto twenty nine and thirty points respectively courtesy of victories this afternoon. Although Sunderland do still have a game in hand you do feel as though there is no too much to do for Gus Poyet and his side and a rebuilding job with a year in the Championship may well be close on the horizon.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Porto fall glaringly short as Sevilla march on into the semi-final

Sevilla celebrate their early goal which levelled the tie and set the Spanish side on their way to the semi-final stage of the competition. (Photograph courtesy of Getty Images)

Sevilla celebrate their early goal which levelled the tie and set the Spanish side on their way to the semi-final stage of the competition. (Photograph courtesy of Getty Images)

Written by Chris Winterburn

FC Porto headed to Andalusia this evening holding a slender 1-0 lead from last week’s first leg in Portugal however with the important duo of holding midfielder Fernando and top scorer Jackson Martinez both missing through suspension it was always going to be a difficult evening for Luis Castro’s side.

Right from the off Sevilla flew out of the traps. Unai Emery’s side looked hungry and pressed high up the pitch using Ivan Rakitic as a reference point in the middle of midfield, every single player knew where they should be in relation to the Croatian and it made for a very fluid opening half hour performance from the hosts. Porto looked weak through the middle without Fernando and despite the best efforts of Steven Defour the Belgian is simply not as effective a holding midfielder. Without Fernando, Sevilla were able to flood the middle of the pitch and were rewarded for their efforts with a penalty inside four minutes.

Carlos Bacca went down rather easily, even a couple of steps after the initial challenge from Danilo however the former Santos defender’s challenge was clumsy and gave the Colombian an opportunity to go to ground. Ivan Rakitic converted the penalty with ease and the Sanchez Pizjuan was set for a historic European evening.

Eliaquim Mangala is reportedly moving closer and closer to a summer switch to Manchester City however the French defender didn’t cover himself in glory with his display this evening. In fairness Mangala is given a lot of work to do, he is playing in what is probably the weakest Porto side since early this millennium and it shows. This evening however, particularly in the first half Mangala was given the work of two defenders courtesy of Alex Sandro’s incredibly short sighted approach to the match. The Brazilian full-back looked to go forward at every given opportunity but was so slow in tracking back to his position that Mangala had to then cover the left-back position as well as his own area through the centre.

It seemed as if Benfica’s performance at White Hart Lane was the model for Porto this evening with the fluidity in movement between defensive positions essential the Jorge Jesus’ team’s success in London. The two full-backs surged forward whilst Garay and Luisao the two central defenders moved into wider positions to cover the space, holding midfielder Fejsa then filled in at centre half. For Porto it was an incredibly poor imitation with a lack of balance and discipline. Mangala moved to the left to cover Alex Sandro whilst right sided full-back Danilo didn’t go forward which left fellow defender Diego Reyes rather unsure of his position. Had Fernando been in the side to offer a bit more protection ahead of the defence then perhaps Sevilla wouldn’t have been able to take such advantage of Porto’s defensive lapses.

Sevilla after taking a 3-0 lead into the half-time break were given a setback when right sided full-back Coke was needlessly sent off for a second yellow card after a clumsy challenge on Ricardo Quaresma. What was most disappointing about Coke’s dismissal was just how the Spaniard picked up his initial yellow card in the midst of a melee in the first half. This red card changed the game, giving Porto a lot more time on the ball and a spare man to always pass to however the Portuguese side just didn’t have enough up front without Jackson Martinez.

Quaresma looked the most likely to make something happen however the former Chelsea and Barcelona winger was far too inconsistent in his decisions when on the ball which has been an unfortunate theme of his entire career. With Sevilla down to ten men and Porto without a manager after Luis Castro was sent to the stands early in the second half, it was certainly a gamble to throw on Juan Fernando Quintero, the starlet of Pescara’s Serie A campaign last term. Heralded as the next big thing, Quintero was sizably hugely disappointing this evening with the Colombian barely looking interested.

On too many occasions Quintero received the ball then played a pass only to not bother making a run to look for the return ball, it made Porto’s late attacking moves look rather laboured and ineffective with Sevilla seeing the final stages of the tie out with ease despite Quaresma’s late consolation strike.

As Chelsea did at times last year, FC Porto looked like a team with an ‘interim’ first team manager in that there was no direction about their play. The lack of defensive stability in the first half followed by Ricardo Quaresma’s all too common willingness to try and play the game on his own showed Porto in a really poor light without the discipline of Fernando.

Ivan Rakitic did his market value absolutely no harm this evening with the Croatian captain putting on a masterclass from the middle of midfield. When you look at teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool who are perhaps lacking a driving force in the middle of midfield Ivan Rakitic would fit the bill perfectly. The Croatian was always willing to receive the ball in the middle of the pitch and then turn and look to run at Porto’s midfield before playing in either Bacca or one of Sevilla’s wide players. He was constantly involved in the match and really drove his team on from the start, he was also a calming influence following Coke’s dismissal when the tie looked to be swinging in the favour of Porto.

The Europa League semi-final draw takes place tomorrow and it is a very Iberian dominated affair with Benfica and Valencia joining Sevilla and Juventus in the hat. Sevilla would welcome domestic rivals Valencia whilst all teams would hope to avoid the outright favourites for the competition Juventus. Whilst Sevilla fully deserved their victory tonight the lack of quality within Porto’s squad was highlighted and it will take a significant rebuilding job to take the Portuguese giants back to Europe’s top table any time soon.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Paris Saint-Germain prove they are more than just pretenders with victory over Chelsea

Written by Chris Winterburn

Paris Saint-Germain dispelled the belief that the perceived lack of competition in Ligue 1 would hinder their chances in the Champions League with a 3-1 victory over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the Parc des Princes this evening, despite giving up a one goal lead inside the first half.

Much was made of the attacking qualities in the French Champions’ locker before the kick-off and it was no surprise when the hosts went one goal to the good inside three minutes after a very positive start on the front foot. Chelsea were caught cold by the pace of the Parisians’ attack and Ezequiel Lavezzi slammed the ball past Petr Cech when the ball finally fell into a shooting position after impressive work on the flank by Blaise Matuidi.

Javier Pastore sealed the 3-1 victory with a sensational individual goal in injury time. (Photograph courtesy of Reuters)

Javier Pastore sealed the 3-1 victory with a sensational individual goal in injury time. (Photograph courtesy of Reuters)

Jose Mourinho’s decision to play Andre Schurrle as a lone forward cum attacking midfielder this evening was pondered by the media prior to kick-off as possibly a message to owner Roman Abramovich with regards to the purchase of a striker in the summer, however it must be said that the German winger by trade put in a commendable shift. Schurrle consistently harried the defensive pairing of Alex and Thiago Silva and then had the energy to put Marco Verratti under pressure when the ball was moved onto the Italian.

Paris Saint-Germain seemed to have stunned themselves such was the early timing of their opening goal with Laurent Blanc’s side unsure whether or not to pile forward and try and take further advantage of Chelsea’s sluggish start. The home side did in fact show a hint of indecisiveness and elected to sit back on their one goal lead and it allowed Chelsea to compose themselves and gain a foothold in the contest. It was the sort of faux mercy that Europe’s elite tend not to show after taking a lead and that is something Paris Saint-Germain will have to learn from should they progress to the semi-final stage.

Chelsea’s equaliser came through a rare Thiago Silva mistake, the Brazilian defender seemed to get the timing of his challenge ever so slightly off and Oscar was felled by a trailing leg. Eden Hazard comfortably stepped up to wrong foot Salvatore Sirigu with his penalty finding the bottom right hand corner of the net.

Marco Verratti will come in for criticism tonight as the Italian gave the ball away a few times too many however the former Pescara midfielder was crucial to PSG’s ball retention throughout the match. Seldom did you see the French champions play an aerial ball from their own penalty area, the hosts much rather preferred to play the ball out from Sirigu and Verratti was often the recipient. As Marouane Fellaini found last night in a similar position, against a team who presses high up the pitch at pace it is a thankless task receiving the ball from the goalkeeper as you have to turn, often be faced with two or more men and try and slide an inch perfect pass through a miniscule opening.

Verratti did manage to retain possession more than people realise as well as running himself into the ground to create an opening for others to pass into. It was a rather sacrificial performance with Verratti giving up potential rave reviews for his own performance for the good of the team.

The match had slipped into a lull after the break with neither team looking particularly threatening going forward, Chelsea happy with their away goal and PSG rather puzzled with regards to how to regain their earlier tempo. PSG were given a significant helping hand by David Luiz just after the hour when the Brazilian gave away a sloppy free-kick wide on the left hand side in a position where PSG were looking unlikely to develop the move. The man of the match Lavezzi went on to deliver an almost perfect delivery into the gap between the goalkeeper and the line of defenders with David Luiz putting the ball into his own net.

An injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic not long after saw the introduction of Lucas Moura. The direct running of the former Sao Paulo starlet caused Chelsea real problems and Moura’s positivity proved to be infectious to the rest of the team.

Chelsea had lost their momentum courtesy of both the goal and the introduction of Fernando Torres in place of the hard working, if isolated, Andre Schurrle and PSG took full advantage of the newfound room in midfield, Thiago Motta orchestrated the tempo without so much as a second glace from Chelsea’s forward line. It seemed only a matter of time before another PSG goal came.

In truth it looked as if both teams had settled for the result as it stood heading into injury time, until €42million substitute Javier Pastore received the ball in the right hand corner of Chelsea’s half. The Argentinean playmaker seemed to flick a switch and turn on the style out of the blue with his nimble feet seeing him beat three Chelsea defenders before powering the ball past Petr Cech at his near post to send the Parc des Princes into an ecstatic frenzy just seconds before the full-time whistle.

Jose Mourinho was unsurprisingly disappointed with his team after conceding a late goal labelling the manner in Chelsea allowed Pastore to score as “ridiculous.” Mourinho continued on what appeared to be the words of a frustrated man by suggesting it would be “difficult” to overcome the 3-1 deficit with Chelsea “not a team full of talent to score a lot of goals.”

On the topic of PSG, Laurent Blanc’s men showed that they were far more than wealthy pretenders this evening with the widespread quality in the side showing them to be a class above Chelsea, despite a difficult period following the equalising goal. Thiago Silva was a rock at the back with the captain’s reading of the game cutting short Chelsea attacks before they had even had chance to develop, giving away the penalty was the only blotch on his copybook.

There are worries for Laurent Blanc ahead of Tuesday’s return leg at Stamford Bridge with Marco Verratti and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both being substituted through injury with Ibrahimovic appearing to have pulled a hamstring which will almost certainly see him miss the trip to London. Lucas Moura’s twenty minute cameo did however show that there are options from the bench to replace Ibrahimovic without too much of a decrease in production.

With the heavyweights in the competition all in a good position to progress to the semi-final you have to feel that PSG showed tonight that they have a good mentality as well as individual quality on the pitch. A year ago we saw a team which perhaps wasn’t ready for the pressures that come with latter stage Champions League football however this year they have taken that next step. Despite a set-back following their early opening goal the French side remained largely positive in the second half and with this added to their obvious footballing qualities, it is easy to see them being more than a match for any of the side’s left in the competition.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

David Moyes remains defiant in face of the media

March 18, 2014 2 comments

Manchester United manager David Moyes faced the World’s media this afternoon as he and his side prepared for tomorrow’s huge Champions League tie with Olympiacos at Old Trafford. Manchester United hope to overturn a two goal deficit from the first leg in Piraeus just under three weeks’ ago and David Moyes was yet again defiant in his press conference that he felt his job was safe and that there is a long-term plan for the progression of Manchester United despite what various reports have claimed since Sunday’s dismal defeat to Liverpool.

David Moyes once again spoke of the confidence he has that he will be given time to turn Manchester United's fortunes around.

David Moyes once again spoke of the confidence he has that he will be given time to turn Manchester United’s fortunes around.

David Moyes began by addressing the good mood in training from earlier in the morning with MUTV’s cameras being given access to film the session due to tomorrow being a Champions League game. Patrice Evra would later allude to the fact that the match against Liverpool on Sunday had to be forgotten with full focus placed on putting on a significantly better performance against Olympiacos for the Old Trafford crowd.

It wasn’t long before the hard hitting questions were asked of the under fire Manchester United boss with the Scot having to assess just what impact the result of tomorrow’s match has on his job security,

“My future has not changed one bit, I’ve got a great job and I know the direction I want to go in. It hasn’t been the season we’d have hoped for at this present time however I’ve got ideas of what I want to do that I’m going to put in place when the time is right. The most important thing now is to get the Olympiacos game played and hopefully get through in that competition. If we can do that it would be a massive lift for us.”

Of course this sounds good in theory however some Manchester United supporters would question why ideas of progression aren’t being put into place right now with the club appearing to lurch from one on field disaster to another. Of course on the flip side of that David Moyes will argue he has had one fair crack of the whip in terms of transfer windows and during that period he managed to bring one of the better playmakers the Premier League has seen in recent times to the club and hopes to put more of those deals into place next summer.

Amidst the vast number of reports regarding David Moyes’ Old Trafford future penned since Sunday’s match with Liverpool there has been very little official word from the club with many simply suggesting the line from Old Trafford was still the same, “David Moyes will be backed.” Either David Moyes has a very, very good poker face or this is in fact one hundred percent true. The manager was asked what assurances he had been given by the club irrespective of what happens on the field between now and the summer and the former Everton boss’ answer was one of confidence,

“The biggest assurance is that they [Manchester United owners and directors] let me get on with the job, we never discuss it [job security], we talk about the future, we’re making big plans for years going forward, this is not a club that works on the short-term, Manchester United works on a long-term vision.”

The rest of the press conference was rather like many gone before with the manager pointing to the “phenomenal” support inside Old Trafford as well as the need to score the first goal against Olympiacos to give the place a real lift. Patrice Evra was also quizzed on his future with the club with his contract set to expire in the summer, despite having an additional year clause embedded within his current deal which was triggered once the Frenchman had played a certain number of matches in his final contracted season. Evra refused to comment on his own future only suggesting, “the important thing is Manchester United’s future, not mine” with many possibly taking that as a sign he may well leave the club this summer.

Whilst David Moyes once again quashed any rumours about his impending dismissal the press conference reached its close with one titbit from the manager particularly sticking out, “I think Manchester United are the biggest club in the world, it might not feel like it today, but it will rise again.” Whilst a very clichéd statement it is difficult to find fault with the final words. Manchester United historically do rise again, be that in a short-term period or over a longer term and at this moment it still very much looks as if the future rise of Manchester United is entrusted in the hands of David Moyes be that what some supporters desire or not.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Jose Mourinho reiterates belief that Chelsea squad is a work in progress

Ahead of this evening’s first knockout round clash with Turkish giants Galatasaray, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has once again reiterated that this current Chelsea squad is not quite ready to challenge for major honours but rather a work in progress for the coming seasons.

Jose Mourinho was speaking to Adidas to promote Adidas Gamedayplus and was abundantly clear on the direction he wants to take Chelsea.

Jose Mourinho was speaking to Adidas to promote Adidas Gamedayplus and was abundantly clear on the direction he wants to take Chelsea.

In one of the rather more surprising motifs of the current Premier League season the usually supremely confident Mourinho has played down his team’s title chances, even likening his Chelsea squad to a “little horse” who is not quite ready to race for the title despite being top of the Barclays Premier League table heading into late March as well as having a good chance of progressing to the quarter-final stage of the UEFA Champions League.

Many believe it to be a long running mind-game from Mourinho whilst others simply believe it to be his way of trying to downplay expectation and pressure within a squad where the majority have never been in a strong position to challenge for the Premier League crown.

In a recent interview to help promote Adidas Gamedayplus, Mourinho spoke yet again about how he is viewing the long-term rather than the upcoming months in terms of success with regards to the younger players in his team,

“We are trying to build this team for the future – obviously including these older guys because they are important to give some stability and some experience but I can guess this team in a couple of years with these guys below 25, in 2-3 years time they will be between 24 and27 which is a fantastic age for a high level football player. I think it can be a very good team.”

What Jose Mourinho says here is true, it is a complete turnaround from the ageing team he left behind at Stamford Bridge in September 2007, now it looks as if Jose Mourinho is planning on being at Chelsea for the long haul. Listening to him speak of the younger players, you do get the real sense he wants to be the manager to guide them through the development process and then take them into battle for all competitions in a couple of years time, when they reach their “fantastic” age as a footballer.

In terms of the Champions League Mourinho was yet again slightly coy in his verse. This is a coach who has won Europe’s top competition on two separate occasions with two different football clubs however bringing the title to Stamford Bridge is clearly still an important target. However Mourinho once again stated that this season’s continental adventure was going to be used as a learning tool for his younger players in the hope it will prepare them to perennially challenge for the trophy in the coming seasons.

“We have to use the competition and the difficulties of the competition to improve, to prepare ourselves for the future, I think. It is the kind of competition when you are in the last 16 you can clearly identify the 3, 4, 5 teams that are favourites for the competition but also depends about the draw and sometimes the draw can make things happen in a different way.”

One thing that Jose Mourinho is crystal clear on is his passion for Chelsea Football Club. If Chelsea supporters can take one thing from the repeated rhetoric from their boss about the team not being strong enough to challenge this season, it is that Jose Mourinho absolutely wants to be the man in charge when the young players are ready, and as we have seen throughout the Premier League’s history there is no better catalyst for success than continuity.

“Sometimes it is difficult to explain, maybe because it was my first experience abroad? Maybe because at the same time I had Chelsea and English football and because English football is something with a lot of appeal and when you like you really like… after that the relation lies with the fans since 2004 – you know, big deep relation we couldn’t hide even when I was coaching with other teams so I like it. The club likes me and here I am and happy to lead.”

Chelsea host Galatasaray this evening hoping to progress to the quarter-final stage with the score from the first leg in Turkey 1-1 with Fernando Torres giving Chelsea what could prove to be a vital away goal. There is also the secondary spectacle of Didier Drogba returning to Stamford Bridge with a lot of rumours this week suggesting he may well make a Chelsea return, as a player, this summer.

“Jose Mourinho was speaking to promote adidas Gamedayplus, bringing together the best of the UEFA Champions League in one place. To find out more visit adidas.com/gamedayplus or join the twitter conversation @adidasfootball”

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Benfica’s defence shows ‘as águias’ to be a cut above Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur had surprisingly high hopes for the remaining rounds of the UEFA Europa League this season despite just scraping past Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the first knockout round and with Tim Sherwood’s side having the perceived advantage of having the home leg first it was hoped Spurs would be able to take a lead to Lisbon in a weeks’ time.

Tempers flared on the touchline as Spurs' week got even worse.

Tempers flared on the touchline as Spurs’ week got even worse.

Tottenham ended up being completely surprised by the Portuguese giants although admittedly Tottenham carried their poor form from Stamford Bridge on Saturday straight through to yesterday evening’s fixture. Benfica’s qualities should not have been a surprise to Tottenham, this was a team who failed to qualify from their Champions League group with ten points.  To put this into context, ten points is usually the benchmark elite clubs set for qualification.

Benfica’s game plan for yesterday evening was based on being solid defensively against the home team who were expected to create much of the evening’s attacks whilst having enough quality on the counter attack to cause Spurs problems. Make no mistake however this was not a back to the wall job from Benfica, the visitors were more than adept at keeping the ball for long periods and making Tottenham do far more running than the home side were expecting.

Spurs were not just outclassed by a superior opponent but in what is becoming an increasingly worrying trend for Premier League teams in European competition, they were outthought.

Benfica’s pressing game was perfect. Like so many wonderful teams before them Benfica, after a ten minute period at the beginning of the match to take stock of the situation and team they were facing, simply gave Tottenham no time on the ball whatsoever.

The quick tempo of Benfica’s pressing game started from the front with Rodrigo and the quick Lazar Markovic giving the Spurs backline no time on the ball following a pass from Hugo Lloris. This continued right the way back to the Benfica back four who took an interesting tactic of squeezing high up the pitch when not in possession to ensure Spurs had absolute no time to work the ball Spurs’ main creative outlet Christian Eriksen.

With this tactic Spurs were encouraged to move the ball to the flanks and normally with the pace of Aaron Lennon it would be a huge advantage for Tottenham if an opposition’s defence pushes up so high, just look at the fixture against Arsenal at White Hart Lane in the 2012-2013 campaign. However Tottenham could not get Aaron Lennon in behind simply due to the speed of both Garay and Siqueira who were stationed on the left hand side and with that outlet closed and Christian Eriksen wasted on the left wing to accommodate the disappointing Harry Kane, Tottenham found themselves effectively throttled as soon as they took possession in the middle of the pitch.

Even more worryingly Tottenham looked bereft of ideas. Whether this comes from the manager or just is a reflection on the current state of the Premier League in relation to the rest of Europe, I’d point to a mixture of the two, Tottenham simply could not fathom another way of playing to the system which had failed from the beginning of the match.

At no point did Spurs think to move Christian Eriksen into his favoured number ten role where he could be more of a threat which could then see Harry Kane placed on the left where his speed could at the very least give Silvio a challenge on the flank.

Benfica on the other hand were always thinking, whether it was coming from Jorge Jesus on the sidelines or the players themselves, Benfica were always a move ahead of Spurs even if they didn’t really have to be.  A key example of this on the job thinking as it were came throughout the ninety minutes with Benfica’s reshuffling of the defensive line.

Whenever Tottenham were on the ball it was a conventional back four with both central defenders guiding the more attack minded full-backs through the defensive side of the game, however whenever Benfica won the ball back the team knew they needed to push men forward to test Spurs and grab the away goal. Guilherme Siqueira marched up the pitch and became a winger, as did Silvio on the right whilst Benfica then switched to a flat defensive three.

Luisao moved to the right whilst Garay shifted to the left and Ljubomir Fejsa filled in as an auxiliary centre-half with the holding midfielder unlikely to offer much going forward. Luisao and Garay’s ability on the ball was put to the test here however both were excellent with the pair comfortable in possession and content to manoeuvre the ball within their own zone whilst the marauding full-backs returned to recreate the initial shape after an attacking move had broken down.

This is what Benfica's defensive setup looked like when Tottenham had possession. You can see via the yellow dash line the movements of the two wing-backs when Benfica had possession whilst the black arrows indicate the change in position undertaken by Sulejmani, Amorim and Fejsa when the two wing-backs bombed forward.

This is what Benfica’s defensive setup looked like when Tottenham had possession. You can see via the yellow dash line the movements of the two wing-backs when Benfica had possession whilst the black arrows indicate the change in position undertaken by Sulejmani, Amorim and Fejsa when the two wing-backs bombed forward.

Benfica’s fluctuating defensive line was huge in the visitor’s victory, possibly not in the goals themselves but in the grander scheme of play. With Benfica retaining three at the back it meant the Portuguese team were still covered against a Tottenham counter attack however it also meant that Benfica could swarm the Tottenham half and outnumber the Spurs back four with the forward runs of Siqueira and Silvio.

Sulejmani and Amorim would move slightly closer together almost as a pushed up central midfield partnership when Benfica went to a back three and despite completely changing their shape at a moment’s notice throughout the night the team still looked competent and composed. This constant thinking was the difference maker in the match yet it is hard to see any English team possibly bar Mourinho’s Chelsea making such an on the fly change to win a match.

Benfica's 4-3-3 became a 3-4-3 whenever the visitors had a chance to attack. Siqueira and Silvio became essentially wingers whilst Fejsa dropped into the heart of a back three. This system provided defensive cover for Benfica but also allowed the visitors to truly dominate the Spurs defence with Benfica on numerous occasions eclipsing the number of players Spurs had in their own defensive zone.

Benfica’s 4-3-3 became a 3-4-3 whenever the visitors had a chance to attack. Siqueira and Silvio became essentially wingers whilst Fejsa dropped into the heart of a back three. This system provided defensive cover for Benfica but also allowed the visitors to truly dominate the Spurs defence with Benfica on numerous occasions eclipsing the number of players Spurs had in their own defensive zone.

Tottenham didn’t make it unduly difficult for Benfica don’t get me wrong but it was clear to see that Tottenham were matched against a far superior team and this is a Tottenham Hotspur team let’s not forget who saw upwards of £100million leave the club’s coffers on transfer fees last summer.

Despite words to the contrary from the Tottenham hierarchy, Tim Sherwood’s future as Tottenham Hotspur manager looks bleak with the English coach expected to be replaced with Louis van Gaal in the summer. Whilst van Gaal may not be the perfect fit for a number of teams in the Premier League, even more so when you consider his disappointing end with Bayern Munich in 2011, the Tottenham Hotspur job looks perfect for him.

There are players in that team with unbelievable quality, Sandro, Paulinho and Christian Eriksen to name but three. With van Gaal at the helm you will never, ever see Christian Eriksen forced to play in a position where he is ineffective. Louis van Gaal knows the importance of creative talents such as Eriksen and at the moment it looks as if Tim Sherwood does not.

Whilst there is still a second leg to go, a 3-1 deficit looks rather difficult to overturn in Lisbon and with Benfica seeming to be so much better than Tottenham it looks as if Spurs’ continental adventure is over for another year.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Manchester City gain valuable European experience despite falling short: Champions League Diary 13.03.14

Manchester City’s first venture into the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League came to an end in Barcelona last night with the Blues going down 2-1 to the Catalan giants in a 4-1 aggregate defeat. Manchester City were without the touchline presence of manager Manuel Pellegrini who was suspended courtesy of his comments regarding referee Jonas Eriksson just after the first leg where the Chilean coach called into question the Swedish official’s impartiality after he felt there was a string of wrong decisions which went against his team.

Joleon Lescott struggled to contain Messi all evening long and it seemed only a matter of time before the Argentine got the better of the English centre-half.

Joleon Lescott struggled to contain Messi all evening long and it seemed only a matter of time before the Argentine got the better of the English centre-half.

With the much maligned Martin Demichelis suspended as a result of his red-card in the first meeting between the two sides, Joleon Lescott was brought into the starting eleven to partner Vincent Kompany whilst James Milner was positioned on the left hand side of midfield to track the forward runs of Dani Alves just as Kolarov had done three weeks’ previously. The first half was a fairly even affair with perhaps Barcelona having the better of the opening exchanges with there being shouts for a Barcelona penalty turned down when Joleon Lescott was far too late to a challenge on Lionel Messi however referee Stephane Lannoy rather inexplicably waved play on.

Whilst Barcelona looked much more comfortable on the ball than their English counterparts in the first half, Manchester City were still more than in the game, Yaya Toure was a real threat in the centre of midfield with the Ivorian looking to push back the duo of Xavi and Fabregas through his marauding forward runs and as the half wore on it became more apparent that there was a sense of panic within the Barcelona backline whenever Toure set off on a forward drive such was the rather uncharacteristic tendency to try and bring Toure down once he got past one player to limit any damage he could possibly cause.

The inclusion of James Milner was a clever one, whenever Toure ran forward Milner would drift into a central position and provide light cover for the now exposed Manchester City midfield and this was possibly something which Pellegrini could have done with in the first leg.

Prior to kick-off Sergio Aguero had been heralded as the great hope for Manchester City to turn the tie around however the Argentine was very much on the periphery of the match with statistics showing the former Atletico Madrid forward had only six touches of the ball throughout his entire evening’s work. Aguero was withdrawn at half-time with a hamstring injury and looking back his first-half display was very similar to Mesut Ozil’s against Bayern the previous evening with the German international too suffering a hamstring complaint.

Manchester City started the second forty five minutes much the better team with captain Vincent Kompany leading from the back. The Belgian’s reading of the game was perfectly displayed last night however Barcelona’s lack of running options in behind allowed the City back four to step out and try and intercept a pass before it had reached its destination as there was no danger of a Pedro or an Alexis Sanchez running in behind and having a one on one with Joe Hart.

Barcelona looked to be on the ropes for the first ten minutes of the second-half with substitute Edin Dzeko looking to be a catalyst for a highly unlikely comeback. There is a feeling amongst Manchester City supporters that you can usually tell whether or not the Bosnian forward is in the mood based on his first few involvements in a match. Going by that charter you could see Dzeko was set to impress and his first touch was a shot which tested Victor Valdes.

In the ten minute period that followed Manchester City may well look back and reflect that they may well have not been adventurous enough to really make the most of their dominance. James Milner, whilst having a good evening doing the task he was entrusted with before kick-off, is not a real creative force. Whenever the ball went to the left hand side for a Manchester City attack it was slowed down by Milner and allowed the Barcelona back four to get back into some form of shape. Had Jesus Navas been introduced on the left hand side at half-time or even if Samir Nasri had just swapped sides there was a real chance for City to turn the screw.

As it happened Barcelona came out of a difficult period unscathed after Edin Dzeko forced a fine save out of Valdes whilst Pablo Zabaleta went close with a half volley from inside the penalty area. City’s valiant defensive efforts were in vain as Lionel Messi put the hosts in front with little over twenty minutes to go following a calamitous first touch from a not fully sharp Lescott allowed the Argentine in behind with only Joe Hart to beat.

City with now an even bigger task continued to fight on but it appeared too little too late and Stephane Lannoy’s decision not to award the Sky Blues a penalty when Gerard Pique clumsily brought Edin Dzeko down from behind only worsened the French referee’s shocking evening. The following complaints from Fernandinho and Pablo Zabaleta earned the Argentinean full-back a second yellow card and he will be out of City’s first Champions League fixture of next season.

Manchester City did pull a goal back in injury time through Vincent Kompany following a poorly defended corner from a Barcelona perspective however with only a surprisingly short two minutes of added time there was no hope for the visitors to mount a historic comeback.

Bayer Leverkusen travelled to Paris already knowing they were all but out of the competition however Sami Hyypia’s team began the match with a sense of freedom and took the lead early on from a smart Sidney Sam header at the back post. If there was even the slightest hint of belief from the German side it was quashed not long after when Marquinhos levelled the match for the Parisians with a powerful header from a corner.

Paris Saint-Germain celebrate progression to the quarter-final stage knowing they could pose a real threat to any opponent with the attacking talents at their disposal.

Paris Saint-Germain celebrate progression to the quarter-final stage knowing they could pose a real threat to any opponent with the attacking talents at their disposal.

Leverkusen then missed a penalty through captain Simon Rolfes and this killed any momentum Leverkusen had and the game lessened as a contest, it became at times like a practice match and PSG sealed their passage through to the quarter-final stage for the second season running when Ezequiel Lavezzi fired the hosts in front with a powerful shot from the edge of the area which beat Bernd Leno at his near post.

As many will tell you the Champions League is very much a steep learning experience. Manchester City have now had three seasons in the competition and this year was a real sign of improvement. The experience gained from the two ties against one of Europe’s elite in FC Barcelona will only serve as positives for the majority of the squad. At no point over the two matches when it was eleven vs eleven did City look completely out of their depth and with a central defender added in the summer to partner Vincent Kompany there is a very real chance City could improve on their performance in this year’s Champions League next season.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

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