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Bayern Munich reach near perfection in Eternal City

Bayern Munich's players celebrate in front of the travelling support at full-time. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bayern Munich’s players celebrate in front of the travelling support at full-time. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Every so often you see something in football that makes your jaw drop, yet next to no words follow. FC Barcelona’s comprehensive domination of Manchester United in the 2011 European Cup final was one such occasion, as was Germany’s 7-1 victory over hosts Brazil in the semi-final of this summer’s World Cup. Last night Bayern Munich forced another such moment with their 7-1 victory over AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, a scoreline which nobody could have predicted.

It was by no means a surprise that Bayern Munich won, that isn’t the issue, it was clear before kick-off that Pep Guardiola’s side has a wealth of talent however this wasn’t a mismatch on paper. Roma, despite finishing second in Serie A last season, are perhaps, due to the exit of Antonio Conte at Juventus, the best team in Italy. Under Rudi Garcia, Roma have returned to Europe’s top table and can be considered, quite fairly, an elite team.

Bayern Munich, however were on another level in the Italian capital last night. It was quite captivating just how close the Bavarian giants came to reaching football perfection, a description solely reserved for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team in more recent times.

Throughout last season Bayern Munich were impressive, winning the Bundesliga title, German Cup and reaching the last four of the European Cup. It is fair to say that in spite of all that success there was always a feeling that something just hadn’t quite clicked into place as yet, this is by no means a criticism of Bayern as adapting to a new coach, especially one as unique and demanding as Pep Guardiola, is always likely to take time.

Last night however felt to me like the line in the sand performance. The moment where Bayern have entered that sphere that most football teams are never able to, the sphere that Guardiola’s Barcelona reached between 2009 and 2011. Everything seemed to click into place.

Interestingly enough it was Roma who started the match the better with the hosts galvanised by Manchester City’s rather inexplicable failure to hold onto a 2-0 lead away in Moscow. A victory from Roma would have sent the Italians to the top of the group with qualification a serious possibility. Gervinho was busy running through the gap of Boateng and Benatia in Bayern’s back four and Rudi Garcia’s side were comfortable in possession inside their own half.

Of course this was just a five to six minute period but it looked as if we were in for a classic cagey, yet enthralling, European tie.

Then with what seemed like a flick of a switch Bayern turned things up a gear. Arjen Robben received the ball inside Roma’s penalty area and punished Ashley Cole for showing him inside to a shooting lane in the most emphatic way possible. Robben arrowed the ball past Morgan De Sanctis and into the far corner. This is the moment Pep changed the game.

The first shot of celebration on camera was between Guardiola and Neuer however it was more a case of Guardiola giving Neuer instructions. One of the keys to Guardiola’s success as a coach has been a quick pressing game and a high defensive line. Bayern’s defensive line had actually been uncharacteristically deep until the goal, to the visible frustration of Guardiola on the touchline, and it appeared that Neuer had been instructed to tell the defence to push up and thus start controlling the game as well as pushing further forward himself.

From this moment we saw a totally different shape from the visitors. Bayern’s defensive line pushed right up to the half-way line and penned Roma into their half.

Two of Roma’s most influential players, Francesco Totti and Miralem Pjanic were taken completely out of the game. This was the beauty of Bayern’s tactical switch. Roma now had no single outlet to retain possession or possibility to clear the ball and regain their own shape.

The only thing Bayern had to worry about was Gervinho nipping into the space between the two centre-halves and beating the offside trap however this is not a sustainable model of attack given the 50/50 nature of being called offside. Again another means of Bayern holding control.

Boateng and Benatia sat on the halfway line whilst Juan Bernat and Xabi Alonso pressed with speed and penned Totti and Pjanic into a small circle just inside the left side of Roma’s half, thus taking them out of the game completely. With Roma’s midfield bypassed, Bayern could solely focus on attacking and putting pressure on the two full-backs, Torosidis and Cole, who were both enduring nightmare performances.

Singling out one player can fully illustrate Bayern’s development as a team under Guardiola. Xabi Alonso’s pressing work in the midfield was surprisingly quick for a player not known for his speed. In his position last season was Toni Kroos, a player whom Pep Guardiola was hugely reliant on during that period. However one of Kroos’ weaknesses is his physical attributes, he isn’t an energetic midfielder and doesn’t have the tools to press quickly and then regain a shape.

His outstanding talents all come with the ball at his feet, which in a Guardiola team, may be too one dimensional to excel. With Alonso’s willingness to press came a tactic which took Roma’s midfield out of the game and allowed Bayern to show their footballing dominance in the form of seven goals.

An illustration of Bayern's effective high defensive line. Totti and Pjanic are totally cocooned inside the small red circle, outnumbered by the trio of Bernat, Boateng and Benatia. Alonso and Bernat's pressing work ensure that the pair have no time on the ball as well as forcing Roma deeper and deeper towards their penalty area.

An illustration of Bayern’s effective high defensive line. Totti and Pjanic are totally cocooned inside the small red circle, outnumbered by the trio of Bernat, Boateng and Benatia. Alonso and Bernat’s pressing work ensure that the pair have no time on the ball as well as forcing Roma deeper and deeper towards their penalty area.

What followed was a football team hitting their absolute peak and an opposition team having absolutely no answer. The shots rained in on De Sanctis’ goal and despite a drop in intensity in the middle period of the second-half, the final score could have read a lot worse than 7-1 from a Roman perspective.

Guardiola was keen to urge caution following last night’s result, claiming Bayern “must do better” before labelling the scoreline “an exception” however you would expect nothing less from a coach always in pursuit of total perfection. Last night we saw a football team with natural talent that we have been aware of for the past 2-3 years, however we saw the first real moment of total acclimatisation to Guardiola’s system and one which cannot be reversed and for the rest of Europe, that is indeed a worrying prospect.

Five players to watch at the World Cup

Written by Chris Winterburn

Every international tournament springs surprises. We’ve seen it all from the Czech pair of Patrick Berger and Karel Poborsky lighting up Euro 96 before earning moves to English giants Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, El Hadji Diouf’s exciting displays in the 2002 World Cup earning him a move to Liverpool and even Mesut Ozil’s creative masterclass in South Africa four years ago just prior to signing for Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.

Lorenzo Insigne could be Italy's creative spark this summer.

Lorenzo Insigne could be Italy’s creative spark this summer.

With this in mind we are likely to see players having similar breakout tournaments in Brazil this summer. Here are five players to watch throughout the World Cup who could take the tournament by storm:

1, Lorenzo Insigne – Winger – 22 – Italy

Italy have come a long way since the hugely disappointing World Cup campaign in 2010. After having failed to progress past the Group Stage, Italy turned to Cesare Prandelli, a coach renowned for his methodical approach to balancing squad morale with discipline, and the results have been fantastic.

Italy have integrated young talent into the team whilst keeping a core of experienced players in key positions and success on the pitch has followed. Italy are the only team to have figured out a repeatedly successful manner of playing against Vicente del Bosque’s Spain side whilst remaining a threat on the attack at the same time. This has been possible through the use of exciting individual players such as Mario Balotelli and Emanuele Giaccherini.

Giaccherini however has fallen slightly out of favour following a difficult year at Sunderland and considering Lorenzo Insigne’s outstanding displays for Napoli it has become impossible for Prandelli to hold him back. Insigne has impressed a domestic Italian audience for the last two seasons now. Usually situated on the left wing but with the ability to play either on the right or as a shadow striker, Insigne has really taken his game to the next level this season.

He is quick and exciting on the ball. Whilst impossible to predict just what he will do next you can be sure Insigne is one or two moves ahead of his opponent. His footwork is remarkably similar to that of Arjen Robben, as is his low centre of gravity which allows him to escape challenges and find space when cutting inside from the flanks. The conditions in Brazil will see players tire more quickly and this serves as a further advantage to Insigne.

With Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli likely to be battling to be Italy’s first choice striker for the tournament it is likely Insigne will slip under the radar. That is until the tournament starts. The winger who will be twenty three by the time Italy take on England on June 14th is only going to get better and on his first experience of the international stage, you can fully expect him to be a shining creative spark throughout the tournament.

2, Son Heung-min – Winger – 21 – South Korea

Son Heung-min is another exciting young winger heading to Brazil this summer. Having made his breakthrough in Europe with Hamburg it became clear last summer that he had outgrown the struggling club. A move to German giants Bayer Leverkusen has simply served as the catalyst for a huge improvement in consistent displays of quality.

It seemed that whilst it was clear the talent Son had at his disposal, playing with a better team was all that was needed to truly unlock his full potential. The South Korean winger who doubles up as a second striker has enjoyed a fantastic debut campaign with Leverkusen scoring twelve goals in all competitions whilst contributing seven assists.

One of Son’s best attributes is his ability to play with both feet. In the past you have seen wingers excel on one particular flank but have flattered to deceive when shown onto their weaker side. Heung-Min is not such a player. It is believed he is naturally right footed although if you have seen much of his season with Leverkusen you would be forgiven for not being one hundred percent sure. It is this versatility that allows him to be so effective when playing just off a long frontman, almost as a second striker.

Son can pick the ball up in pockets of space and truly dictate how Leverkusen attack. With Leverkusen boasting Sidney Sam as the first choice wide player this term it has been difficult for Son to play in his natural position. However the decision to move him into the secondary striker’s role has been a masterstroke.

For South Korea Son is now very much the main man. Having taken the mantle from the recently retired Park Ji Sung it is Son who carries the hopes of the nation on his shoulders this summer. It is likely Son will return to his preferred position on the wing for the national team this summer and will be a real danger when in possession of the ball because of the option to either play a reverse pass in behind, cut in and shoot or even carry on down the flank before putting a cross in, such is the variety in Son’s game.

The current crop of South Korean footballers is in fairness not at the high level of years gone by and the team may well struggle in Brazil but with Son Heung-min in the team there is real potential for attacking quality.

3, Carlos Bacca – Striker – 27 – Colombia

At twenty seven years old this is perhaps a surprise inclusion however Carlos Bacca’s performances at Sevilla this season had propelled him into the limelight and the battering ram of a centre forward could play a huge part in Colombia’s plans at the World Cup.

Having played in Colombia for most of his career, Bacca finally made the risky move to Europe at the half way point of the 2011-2012 campaign when the Colombian forward signed for Club Brugge of Belgium. What came next was thirty one goals in all competitions over the next season and half however it must be noticed twenty nine of them came in the 2012-2013 campaign once Bacca had found his feet on the continent.

This form earned him a move to Sevilla. Admittedly the club’s interested stemmed from the fact they didn’t have much money to play with, despite the sales of Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo. Neither the club nor Bacca has looked back since. Bacca has been a revelation with the powerful striker netting fourteen La Liga goals and five Europa League goals en route to winning the competition.

Standing at just under six foot Bacca is the archetypal hard working striker. Think Carlos Tevez but with the technical ability to match. One of the most surprising revelations as the season progressed was just how talented a footballer Carlos Bacca is. His hardworking on pitch persona combined with physical stature often meant the clever touches and off the ball runs went unnoticed. However this wasn’t the case in the second half of the season with the eyes of Europe admiring as Sevilla reached another European final.

Bacca was key, not only in his goalscoring but in his overall linkup play and the hole left by Alvaro Negredo lessened each week. Bacca was always an option for Ivan Rakitic to play the ball into with the Croatian safe in the knowledge his teammate would hold the ball up and allow for the wide players to catch up to the move hence why Sevilla were such an attractive attacking force this term.

Bacca, in terms of the national team, has struggled simply due to the fact there is a certain Radamel Falcao in front of him. However with Falcao still fighting to make the World Cup after an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury suffered in January there is a real chance Bacca will play a starring role for Los Cafeteros.

4, Ricardo Rodríguez – Full-Back – 21 – Switzerland

Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to impress at the World Cup. He is part of an exciting crop of Swiss youngsters.

Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to impress at the World Cup. He is part of an exciting crop of Swiss youngsters.

At a time when top quality full-backs are a rarity Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to truly catch the eye in Brazil this summer. Having joined Wolfsburg in January 2012 the former FC Zurich defender has been a revelation.

The Swiss international is a well rounded full-back. Not only is he fantastic at going forward and supplementing attacking moves but the defensive side of his game has not suffered as a result. Rodríguez’s tackling is noted as a particular strong point amongst Wolfsburg supporters.

Physically Ricardo Rodríguez is also a handful. Standing just under six foot he is incredibly difficult to dispossess when on the ball. The closest player I can liken him to physically is Liverpool’s Jose Enrique. This is what makes him such a rounded player. He excels defensively through this use of his physical stature and innate tackling ability whilst able to retain possession when going on one of his frequent marauding runs down the left flank.

Rodríguez does have the ability to switch flanks and play on the right if needs be but seldom does this happen both for club and country.

For a full-back Ricardo Rodríguez’s numbers for the 2013-2014 campaign are tremendous. In thirty four Bundesliga matches the Swiss full-back scored five goals and added nine assists with ‘WhoScored‘ giving him an average rating of 8.02 for the season.

At just twenty one his potential for further development is exciting. The World Cup is the grand stage a player can use to really catch the eye and whilst being a defender is not usually a position which grabs headlines, Ricardo Rodríguez is an exception to the rule.

Switzerland are fortunate that arguably their finest crop of young players for generations is being guided by the vastly experienced Ottmar Hitzfeld. The Swiss team heading to Brazil, whilst very young, is also equally as exciting and Ricardo Rodríguez is just one of the players who could really catch the eye in Group E.

5, William Carvalho – Defensive Midfielder – 22 – Portugal

Arguably the most interesting name on this list for Manchester United supporters is Portugal’s twenty two year old midfielder William Carvalho. Although speculation linking the Sporting Lisbon player to Old Trafford has cooled significantly since David Moyes’ departure there is still interest in the player’s performances from supporters, even if just to see in effect what they could have had.

Carvalho is one of the more physically domineering members of Paulo Bento’s squad headed to the World Cup, standing at 6.1 feet tall Carvalho has the energy to really emphasise his physical advantage over many opponents.

One of the key components of Carvalho’s game is breaking up opposition attacks. Being such a physically domineering player that is not too difficult for him to do however it is his ability to cover ground quickly which is so impressive. Of course he is not at say for example the speed of Arjen Robben but by holding midfielder standards it is a trait which sets him apart from other players.

Manchester United have been searching for a central midfielder who can break up play since the departure of Roy Keane. Owen Hargreaves did provide significant rest bite on that front but his struggles with injuries meant the club never had the stability on the defensive side of midfield. Even if the move is probably not likely to happen this summer you do feel as though Carvalho would add a lot to United’s ailing midfield.

Carvalho has been the standout performer of Sporting Lisbon’s excellent season which has seen the club return to the Champions League once more. It has been said that Carvalho needs to move to a more competitive league to truly show his ability however whilst that is not the case, the World Cup in Brazil is highest stage of them all.

Portugal have been placed in Group G along with Germany, Ghana and the United States. These are all teams which boast quick attacking players. The counter attack is a threat Portugal have been susceptible to in the past, and will come up against this summer. However with Carvalho in place as a holding midfielder the extra protection for the back four is there. Whilst it might not be the clearest position to impress in, the holding midfield role is vitally important in a game where speed is such an advantage. Carvalho might not take the limelight like Cristiano Ronaldo will this summer but Portugal’s chance of success does rest heavily on the twenty two year old.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Real Madrid stars look ahead to European Cup Final

Written by Chris Winterburn

Ahead of Saturday’s European Cup final between newly crowned La Liga Champions Atletico Madrid and fierce rivals Real Madrid a number of Carlo Ancelotti’s players have been speaking about the honour of finally playing in a European Cup final and just what it would mean to be able to complete Real’s pursuit of La Decima with a victory over their most unloved of adversaries.

Lisbon and Adidas prepares for Saturday's UEFA Champions League final. Photograph courtesy of Adidas.

Lisbon and Adidas prepares for Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final. (Photograph courtesy of Adidas)

Angel di Maria has really enjoyed a breakthrough season at the Bernabeu under Carlo Ancelotti. After reportedly being one of two names the former Milan boss had to choose from to be sold last summer, di Maria earned a stay of execution through Cristiano Ronaldo who reportedly asked for the Argentine not to be sold and the former Benfica winger has certainly delivered.

There was absolutely no question about his talent however during the Jose Mourinho era at Madrid it appeared as though di Maria struggled to play with a team ethos and often that contributed to rather unbalanced Real Madrid teams, particularly in the UEFA Champions League. This term however it has been a completely different story.

The arrival of Gareth Bale was expected to spell the end for di Maria however the Argentine has thrived. His overall game has improved and a willingness to work across the line to support either Marcelo or Fabio Coentrao and this has earned him a key place in Ancelotti’s team. The crowning moment was the display in the most recent La Liga Clasico in late March. Di Maria was arguably the best player on the pitch and was a key element in Madrid’s three goals.

Di Maria’s performances in Europe have been equally impressive and it is expected he will play a key part in Saturday’s Lisbon showpiece with the former Benfica suggesting it to be a dream to play in a European Cup final,

“The truth is that to be in the Champions League final is a dream come true. There have been a lot of seasons where I have only reached the semi-finals, and missing the opportunity of reaching the final. It’s a real joy to be part of this final.”

Angel di Maria is an adidas ambassador and wears the Predator Battlepack boots. For more information visit www.adidas.co.uk/worldcup or to join the conversation visit @adidasUK #allin or nothing

Asier Illarramendi has found first team opportunities rather limited since his £32million move to the Bernabeu last summer however the clever midfielder may well find himself thrust into action on Saturday evening courtesy of Xabi Alonso’s suspension.

Illarramendi was touted as the long-term successor to Xabi Alonso in the Real Madrid team although it appears this season has been rather more of a tool to get Illarramendi acclimatised to life with Los Blancos. When he has played he has impressed with a neat range of passing complementing the midfield tempo nicely and it is expected he will be more of a regular feature next season as Xabi Alonso enters his thirty third year

“We are fine. I think that during the season we have been up and down but now we are fine. We have the desire, the hope and above all the commitment to win it. Atletico will be a really difficult rival. This year they had an incredible season. But we are excited, motivated and we must win.”

A key point to pull out from that quote is the significance of the final three words, ‘we must win’. Defeat is not an option for Real Madrid on Saturday. After waiting twelve long years to reach another European Cup final since their triumph in Glasgow the club is finally in a position to complete La Decima, which according to former player Fernando Hierro has become ‘an obsession’.

Asier Illarramendi is an adidas ambassador and wears the Nitrocharge Battlepack boots. For more information visit www.adidas.co.uk/worldcup or to join the conversation visit @adidasUK #allin or nothing

Angel di Maria has enjoyed a phenomenal season under Ancelotti and claims it is a 'dream' to take part in a Champions League Final.

Angel di Maria has enjoyed a phenomenal season under Ancelotti and claims it is a ‘dream’ to take part in a Champions League Final. (Photograph courtesy of Adidas)

Twenty one year old centre forward Alvaro Morata has been another bright point to come out of Real Madrid’s campaign. Whilst he isn’t playing as much as perhaps he would at other clubs due to the performances of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, Morata has still contributed a healthy nine goals in all competitions and the home-grown talent is eagerly anticipating Saturday’s final and the positivity it will bring to Spanish football,

“I think it’s a tremendous joy for Spanish football and for the city of Madrid. I’m very proud. I was born here in Madrid and the truth is that this is something really great. It will be a hotly disputed final, two teams which have had a very good season, especially with this trophy. The best team will win, and we hope to win.”

Alvaro Morata is an adidas ambassador and wears the Adizero F50 Battlepack boots. For more information visit www.adidas.co.uk/worldcup or to join the conversation visit @adidasUK #allin or nothing

Much has been made of the impact Carlo Ancelotti has made at Real Madrid. After going through ten coaches since the 2002 final it finally appears as if the club has found the man to guide the team in Europe.

He is a coach who can keep control of the squad without being too divisive. Ancelotti’s experience as this level is well documented and both Alvaro Morata and Asier Illarramendi are keen to publicise the impact he has had on a team who finally looks to be reaching its undoubted potential,

AI: “He [Ancelotti] is a man that generates confidence. He is a quiet man and all the football players feel comfortable with him. He is helpful and the coaching staff in general is very good.”

AM: “The coach brought maturity most importantly he was a football player. He knows the players’ way of thinking, their behaviour and that’s important. If a player is not ok or needs help from the coaching staff, the coach knows it: he has been in the same situation as a football player.”

Alvaro Morata, Angel di Maria and Asier Illarramendi have all been speaking to Adidas this week in order to promote the newly released ‘World Cup Battle Pack’ boot range.

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

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

Arsenal bow out as Atleti cruise through: Champions League Diary 12.03.14

Arsenal’s European adventure is over for another year following yesterday evening’s 1-1 draw with holders Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. The visitors needed to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg at the Emirates just over three weeks’ ago to progress through to the quarter-final stage for the first time since 2010.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was one of the bright sparks of Arsenal's display with the midfielder showing he could match the very best in Europe.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was one of the bright sparks of Arsenal’s display with the midfielder showing he could match the very best in Europe.

Last night’s match had a lot of similarities to the meeting between the two sides in Germany last year in that Arsenal were more than a match for the Bavarian giants and it was only the first leg result which really did the damage for Arsene Wenger’s side. Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were obvious misses in the midfield but Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain did particularly well in their absence.

Bayern Munich set up in what has become their traditional 4-2-3-1 system which can fluidly turn into a 4-1-4-1 formation with Thiago Alcantara a drifting member of both the holding midfield pairing and an attacking midfield four. Thiago, whilst impressive on the ball, had his influence on the match restricted by the running of Oxlade-Chamberlain in defensive zones with the former Southampton winger more than willing to track Thiago back into Arsenal’s defensive area to ensure the visitors did not become overrun courtesy of a numerical mismatch.

Schweinsteiger’s return to the starting eleven saw the much talked about Toni Kroos drop to the bench and there was a notable change in the variety and consistency of Bayern’s movement of possession without Kroos dictating the play. If anything the first half was where Bayern looked at their weakest, if you can really say that about this current Bayern side, in the midfield and if Arsenal had been a bit more gung-ho in the first half then maybe taking the lead would have been possible.

One of the interesting pre-match quotes taken from Pep Guardiola’s interview to promote Adidas Gamedayplus, was his suggestion that German teams in the past struggle to defend a positive first leg result in European competition, “When they are going to defend our result, to defend something, they are not so good, so I improve that since I am here.” This desire to improve Bayern’s ability to defend a lead was evident last night with the positioning of the Germans’ back four.

The defensive line held a very tight shape and pushed up no further than the edge of the centre circle when Bayern had the ball in and around Arsenal’s penalty area. There was absolutely no risks being taken by Bayern in terms of defenders pushing up to try and win the ball back quickly and the only real breach of the hosts’ defences was Oxlade-Chamberlain’s incisive run before being fouled midway through the first half.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance was one of the numerous positives Arsenal can take from yesterday evening. It was reminiscent of Jack Wilshere’s performance against Barcelona in February 2011 when the then nineteen year old put in a sterling display against the world’s finest midfield and really proved he could mix it with the best. Whilst there was not much in creating clear chances from Oxlade-Chamberlain last night, such was the strength in Bayern’s defensive line, it very much showed he was more than capable of competing with the best and being on par with the Bayern Munich midfield on the biggest stage.

One of the areas where you felt Arsenal might have a chance was on set pieces, yes whilst Arsenal are not renowned for their aerial prowess the inclusion of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, both excellent headers of the ball, gave the Gunners a chance. However Arsenal were simply caught between a rock and a hard place due to being up against the most physically domineering goalkeeper in recent memory. If the ball was played in flat, looking for a flick on at the near post it was too easy for Neuer to muscle players out of his way and collect whilst if the corner was played further away from Neuer, past the penalty spot, the header could not pick up enough power to test the German number one with a prime example of this being Koscielny’s header in the second half.

Bayern Munich looked to have killed the tie completely when Schweinsteiger put the home side ahead with a controlled finish from inside the penalty area after some impressive work from Franck Ribery on the left hand side however Arsenal levelled just minutes after through Lukas Podolski after a collision with Philipp Lahm allowed the Arsenal striker a free run and strike at Neuer’s goal.

Try as they might for the remaining half hour, Arsenal could not muster a real crack at Bayern’s goal despite some good possession of the periphery of Munich’s penalty area as once again the Bavarian defence held firm. Arsene Wenger bemoaned the decision to award Bayern Munich a penalty in injury time, when Laurent Koscielny felled Arjen Robben, claiming the Dutchman “is very good at getting the maximum of nothing and he is a great player and as well a very good diver,” however Lukasz Fabianski stopped Thomas Muller’s spot kick.

Arsenal now only have the Premier League title race and FA Cup semi-final to concentrate out but with the squad likely to improve in the summer and with the two performances against the continent’s best this season there is hope for Arsenal’s European campaign next year.

In the second match of the evening, AC Milan travelled to the Vicente Calderon to try and overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg against Atletico Madrid. Things did not get off to the best of starts for the Milanese giants as Diego Costa put the home side in front after just three minutes with a clever volley. Milan levelled through Kaka just before the half hour and a short spell of control followed for Seedorf’s charges however any real hope of turning the tie around was destroyed just before half-time when Arda Turan’s strike from outside the box took a wicked deflection into the Milan net.

Kaka battles with Atletico's Miranda during last night's Champions League clash.

Kaka battles with Atletico’s Miranda during last night’s Champions League clash.

All the momentum from Milan’s comeback was taken away and the team struggled to put the wind back into their sails in the second half, Mario Balotelli was particularly disappointing as rumours about his future in the fashion capital of Italy continue to make headlines. Further goals from Raul Garcia and then Diego Costa late on condemned Milan to a 5-1 aggregate loss and the end of their run in the Champions League for this season. The real worry for Milan is that sitting in tenth place, a whole twenty points of AS Roma in third, all but ensures that this will be their last action in Europe’s top competition for at the very least a full season.

This evening Manchester City look to succeed where Arsenal failed by overturning a first leg 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou however with both teams suffering embarrassing defeats at the weekend this could well be a nervy affair. The return of Sergio Aguero will however give even the most pessimistic Manchester City supporter a glimmer of hope of a quarter-final birth. Bayer Leverkusen will be very much in damage control mode this evening as they head to Paris on the back of a 4-0 defeat in the first match.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Pep Guardiola keen for Toni Kroos stay and hopeful of Bayern progression

As the 2013-2014 season progresses one of the transfer rumours which simply won’t go away is one involving Bayern Munich’s metronomic midfielder Toni Kroos. Kroos, whose contract in Bavaria is up at the end of the 2014-2015 season, has been repeatedly linked with a cut price move to Manchester United this summer with the German midfielder desiring a wage similar to that given to Bayern Munich’s other stars.

Pep Guardiola spoke about tonight's match with Arsenal and his desire to keep Toni Kroos to promote Adidas Gamedayplus.

Pep Guardiola spoke about tonight’s match with Arsenal and his desire to keep Toni Kroos to promote Adidas Gamedayplus.

Despite words from Franz Beckenbauer alluding to the fact Bayern Munich will not be held to ransom by one player, and that the club will therefore not break its wage structure to keep one player happy it still seems as though a re-signing with Bayern Munich is the most likely outcome for Toni Kroos, especially when you consider the recent endorsements from manager Pep Guardiola with the Spaniard believed to desperately want to keep the midfielder at the club.

“Toni played awesome but not just in this game [vs Arsenal], the whole season. We had a lot of problems at the beginning of the season in our midfield because we had a lot of injuries and I hope he maintains this level until the end of this season.”

With the long-term fitness of Bastian Schweinsteiger not clear after a run of numerous injuries of the past two seasons, and with Pep Guardiola possibly having the long term plan to utilise Javi Martinez as a central defender, as he wanted to when he was in charge at FC Barcelona, there is very much a key place in the midfield belonging to Toni Kroos. Obviously there is competition for places in the Bayern Munich squad with such an array of talent in all areas but if you were going to look at the most important players, the spine of the team if you will then you have to include Toni Kroos in that.

The former Hansa Rostock youth midfielder is so centric to what Guardiola has thus far accomplished at Bayern. It was always impossible to improve on a treble winning season, however the real task for the two time UEFA Champions League winning coach was to make Bayern a sustainable entity, to improve them in areas which ensured they could challenge for the top honours every season without relying on individual brilliance, and he has done that. Kroos controls the tempo of Bayern’s play from either a deep position or a position further up the field as we saw recently against Schalke, where he made 142 passes in a 5-1 victory. Furthermore, as Guardiola states, he was tremendous at the Emirates just under three weeks’ ago working as a calming presence and moving the ball into good areas to take control away from Arsenal following the opening ten minute spell.

Kroos’ goal was an example of his individual brilliance, a perfectly struck shot which started off going way wide of the left hand post and somehow curled into the top corner. A true sign of how good the strike was is how goalkeeper Fabianski clattered into the post in an attempt to keep it out and was still somehow nowhere near it.

Guardiola was also discussing this evening’s tie with Arsenal with the current holders of the Champions League being two goals to the good after the first leg in London.

“We will be respectful, because in knockout games when we play against Arsenal or other teams, all of the people around the world think Arsenal know they are out of this competition already. It’s not true. I’m pretty convinced of that.”

Guardiola finally gave a closing word on how he is looking to change the traditional German approach to knockout ties when you have a lead to defend,

“Bayern last year took a better result than this year so 1-3 is better than 0-2.The Deutschland culture for the mentality, they are so good when they are aggressive, when they are going to look for something, to take something. When they are going to defend our result, to defend something, they are not so good, so I improve that since I am here.”

This is definitely one of the areas I mentioned earlier where Guardiola can improve the team to give this current Munich squad long-term sustainability at the highest level.

“Pep Guardiola 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