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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.

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

Champions League Diary 27.02.14

February 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Chelsea were the only remaining English team in the competition yet to play in the first knockout round prior to yesterday evening however Jose Mourinho’s men managed to get what at the moment looks like a very good result in Istanbul. Real Madrid travelled to Gelsenkirchen to face Schalke and ran out comfortable winners with the forward three of Benzema, Ronaldo and Bale all in fantastic form.

John Terry allows Chedjou to ghost in behind for Galatasaray's equalising goal.

John Terry allows Chedjou to ghost in behind for Galatasaray’s equalising goal.

Despite being right in the midst of political unrest around Taksim Square as well as being given advice not to use the area’s public transport, Chelsea supporters had an evening to remember as Mourinho guided the Blues to a 1-1 draw in Istanbul with Fernando Torres scoring the all important away goal. In truth by half time the game should have been out of sight with Galatasaray setting up with a suicidal backline. Jose Mourinho alluded to an expectation of space in behind through his selection of Torres but I doubt even he could have predicted the sheer ease with which Chelsea would be able to set up counter attacks against a weak in number defensive line.

Galatasaray were looking to utilise attacking wing-backs however the two wing-backs on either side, Eboue and Telles were too far forward when the Galatasaray defensive pairing had the ball. It was clear Mancini had instructed his players to try and retain possession of the ball, as such Muslera played the ball out to the centre halves when possible, in addition to this the former Manchester City coach had also encouraged his defenders to push high up the pitch in an ambitious system to try and catch Chelsea in an offside trap.

As a result we saw Chedjou and Balta receive the ball from Muslera and when they turned to try and move the ball to either Eboue or Telles, the wing-back pairing were in Chelsea’s half making a pass to them impossible. We would then see the Galatasaray defensive pairing try and loft a pass out of defence into midfield only for it to be cut out and Chelsea have a chance for a three or even four against two scenario.

Young attacking midfielder Izet Hajrovic was withdrawn on the half hour as Mancini reverted to a 4-5-1 system to steady the ship. It was this tactical decision which incidentally changed the course of the match, following this point the hosts looked much more solid at the back, even more so when Semih Kaya was introduced after the break and this allowed the Turkish Champions to try and get an equaliser with Drogba and Sneijder being brought into play with greater regularity.

Jose Mourinho himself did not push his side to seek the second goal, 0-1 was looking to be a great result in comparison to the matches involving English teams already played in this round however Chelsea’s option to hold their lead would eventually get the better of them with the hosts putting significantly more pressure on their midfield as the second half wore on.

The pressure told when Galatasaray equalised through Chedjou after sixty four minutes, a poorly defended corner allowed the defender to get free just in front of Petr Cech and steer the ball home. John Terry’s marking left a lot to be desired in that instance with the experience defender appearing to lose Chedjou whilst tracking the flight of the ball.

With the score now 1-1 it was the hosts who were relentless in their search for a winning goal with Chelsea introducing John Obi Mikel in the middle of midfield to secure the score draw. Galatasaray lacked a bit of bite in the final third in the last twenty minutes which maybe would have taken them over the line however the fact remains that Selcuk Inan had a great chance near the end of the match when the Turkish midfielder hit the post when he had an open goal to aim at.

Jose Mourinho will undoubtedly be happy with coming away from such a difficult away trip with a 1-1 draw however the Portuguese coach recognised in his post-match interview that the tie could have been put out of sight in the opening exchanges when Mancini’s side were on the ropes defensively but for a lack of ‘cutting edge.’ Mourinho went on to say, “Some other teams have three chances and score three goals. We have five and score one, we create but when we arrive in the final third of the pitch, the correct pass and right movement is something we don’t have.” The Chelsea boss was quick to point out he was not criticising his strikers after the furore created by his recorded comments regarding the age of Samuel Eto’o and his other striker’s inability to be consistent, “That’s not a critique of the strikers but it’s the profile of the team we have.”

Elsewhere in the Champions League last night Real Madrid were in action as Carlo Ancelotti’s side began their quest to secure the club’s tenth European Cup at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen with Jens Keller’s Schalke team the opponents. Jens Keller’s suggestion that the club “would need a miracle” to get a result last night turned out to be not far from the truth as a rampant Real Madrid ran out 6-1 winners.

There were two goals each for Benzema, Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo and Schalke’s shaky backline simply could not deal with the onslaught. Bale’s second goal was a fantastic display of quick feet and nous to weave in and out of a group of Schalke defenders before firing past Fährmann in the German’s goal. This looked for all the world to be the goal of the evening only for Cristiano Ronaldo to step up in a similar display of fleet footedness, leaving Joel Matic swinging his leg at thing air as Ronaldo breezed past him with a triple step-over before powering the ball into the far corner to make the score 3-0.

Gareth Bale managed to work through three Schalke defenders before firing his first goal into the German's net. There is a real feeling that Bale has found his feet at Madrid now with the Welshman putting up some impressive numbers this season.

Gareth Bale managed to work through three Schalke defenders before firing his first goal into the German’s net. There is a real feeling that Bale has found his feet at Madrid now with the Welshman putting up some impressive numbers this season.

With the score at 6-0 many of the Schalke fans had left the ground however the ones who remained in their seats witness Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s excellent strike against his old club, bringing to an end Iker Casillas’ run of over nine hundred minutes without conceding a goal.

Real Madrid will be the first to admit they endured a difficult start to the season, adjusting to life without Mesut Ozil, Gareth Bale was struggling with fitness after having virtually no pre-season and the new manager Carlo Ancelotti had to wait before his methods began to show progress at the Bernabeu. Since the winter break it all seems to be coming together for Los Blancos with Ancelotti’s team top of La Liga and already in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in all but name. The work rate Ancelotti is seeking from his wide players in terms of tracking back is also extremely helpful as it stops the Madrid defence ever coming under sustained pressure against most teams and with Luka Modric coming into to his own at Madrid as one of the best tempo dictators of a match in the world, Madrid can control matches with ease.

With the second legs in three weeks time it would be a surprise if Chelsea do not go through but with the firepower of Drogba always a threat it could well be the case that Mourinho lives to regret the many missed chances in the mad opening half hour in Istanbul last night.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Champions League Diary 20.02.14

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment

In the second of this week’s Champions League match days we saw yet another hammer blow to England’s chances of success in the competition this season as a spirited Arsenal side were defeated 2-0 at home by Bayern Munich. In the evening’s second game Italian giants AC Milan face a significantly uphill battle in three weeks time after they were beaten 1-0 at the San Siro by Atletico Madrid with Diego Costa getting the elusive away goal.

Toni Kroos celebrates putting FC Bayern ahead and in a commanding position ahead of the second leg. The Manchester United target will arguably have added a lot more money onto his next contract with last night's performance.

Toni Kroos celebrates putting FC Bayern ahead and in a commanding position ahead of the second leg. The Manchester United target will arguably have added a lot more money onto his next contract with last night’s performance.

First we’ll start at the Emirates as Arsene Wenger’s quest to finally win the European Cup continued with his Arsenal side hosting Bayern Munich in the first knockout round for the second successive season. Yesterday’s fixture was a world apart from the meeting at the Emirates last year with this new look Arsenal looking much the better team for the duration of the early exchanges. It was almost as if you had been transported back to 2006 when Arsenal were taking on Europe’s elite and overcoming them however there was the considerable difference in there being no world class forward in the side.

Arsenal created a number of chances early on with Bayern Munich struggling to get control of the ball, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain went close after an awkward header back to Neuer from David Alaba, whilst Yaya Sanogo tested the giant of a Germain goalkeeper with a header inside the penalty area. Arsenal had turned up on the biggest stage and were given the chance to take a priceless one goal advantage when Mesut Ozil was brought down in the penalty area by the clumsy Jerome Boateng after ten minutes of the first half.

Ozil, despite missing his last penalty for Arsenal stepped up to take the spot kick however made things easy for the penalty specialist Neuer with a stop start run up. The Bayern goalkeeper saved the penalty with ease, and it was at that moment where you worried for Arsenal. Would they be able to overcome the adversity created by missing such a golden chance?

The answer was yes, the hosts kept working hard and although Bayern grew into the game Arsenal were still more than matching the World Champions. That was until Wojciech Szczesny was dismissed for a foul on Arjen Robben inside the penalty area. The decision was a correct one according to the UEFA rule book with Szczesny denying a clear goalscoring opportunity but you have to feel it is a rule which needs looking at. For me the keeper shouldn’t be sent off if a penalty is given, it creates too much of a separation between the two sides as not only is the keeper sent off but another outfield player has to be withdrawn and it completely destroys the shape of a team. Can you honestly say the next fifty or so minutes were a proper contest?

David Alaba did in fact miss his penalty, the Austrian sidefooted his strike onto the right hand post, much to the delight of Mathieu Flamini who appeared to goad the young full-back following his miss in a somewhat unsporting manner.

As soon as you go down to ten men in European competition, particularly in the knockout stages, you stand very little chance of success. Just look at Manchester United against both Bayern Munich in 2010 and Real Madrid in 2013. As soon as Rafael and Nani were sent off in those matches respectively the game plan was undone, the shape was lost and the opposition were good enough teams to hold the ball just outside the United penalty area, wait for the inevitable gap to appear and then force a move through it. The second half last night was almost a carbon copy of those two situations.

Arsenal were forced to defend so deep and until Yaya Sanogo was moved back into midfield in a 4-5-0 system there was too many gaps for Bayern to exploit. Bayern were comfortable in sitting just in front of Arsenal’s penalty area and waiting for a chance and that is exactly what happened when Toni Kroos fired the visitors into a lead with a stupendous strike from outside the box. To fully illustrate the quality of the strike you just need to look at Fabianski, the Arsenal goalkeeper ended up crashing into the post yet was still nowhere near the shot such was the power and curl on the effort.

Arsenal defended admirably from then on however as with Barcelona and Manchester City the previous evening you always felt as if the visitors could create a goalscoring opportunity whenever they wanted and for them it was merely a case of running the clock down and striking late on. That is exactly what happened when a fantastic Philipp Lahm pass took Arsenal’s backline out of the game and found substitute Thomas Muller unmarked inside the box with the German duly heading past the onrushing Fabianski.

Another evening of continental disappointment for Arsenal supporters with it seeming in recent years everything that could go wrong for the Gunners, has ranging from being drawn against Barcelona and Lionel Messi repeatedly or red cards at inopportune times.  Mesut Ozil’s work rate was yet again lambasted yesterday but it must be remember that this is probably the first year since he was a teenage that Ozil has not had a winter break. Supporters must give him time to adjust to such a strenuous schedule. Despite the spirit within the Arsenal camp and the result in Bavaria last season, for me there is next to no chance of progression into the quarter-finals for the Gunners.

A less than bumper crowd of just under sixty six thousand set the tone for what was to be a difficult night in Milan for Clarence Seedorf’s team. Mario Balotelli, Kaka and Adel Taarabt were the chosen attacking trio as the hosts look to try and take a lead to defend in Spain in three weeks time.

In truth AC Milan started the match well with Taarabt seemingly showing the world the talent he has in his locker can be ultra effective when surrounded by a higher calibre of player than at QPR and Fulham. Thibaut Courtois was called into action twice in the early goings with the Belgian making two top quality stops to first deny Kaka and then Andrea Poli just minutes later.

Diego Costa after powering a superb header past Abbiati in the AC Milan goal with just seven minutes left to play.

Diego Costa after powering a superb header past Abbiati in the AC Milan goal with just seven minutes left to play.

Milan had much the better of the first half and really should have been ahead in the match but such was the quality of Courtois. Atletico were gradually getting more and more comfortable in the match after the start of the second half and you always worried that the Italian giants would come to rue the earlier missed chances. This was to be the case as Atletico stole the victory just seven minutes from time when a corner was flicked on by Abate and Diego Costa somehow conjured up the most amazing header using all his neck muscle whilst back pedalling away from goal. It was a goal worthy of deciding any European tie and AC Milan will have a lot to do to qualify for the quarter-finals when Seedorf’s charges head to the Calderon in three weeks time.

That concludes a difficult week for English teams in the Champions League with both Arsenal and Manchester City looking at a first knockout round exit however next week the Champions League returns with Chelsea and Manchester United carrying the flag for English hopes in the tournament with Galatasaray and Olympiacos their respective opponents. There was not a single goal scored by a home side in all of this week’s four matches however if that is to be the case next week then things are looking good for Chelsea and United.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Chris Winterburn meets Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka

February 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Earlier this season I caught up with a two of Everton and England’s defensive line at Adidas’ World Cup launch event in Salford. Here is what the pair had to say to me with regards to the new Adidas Predator boots, life at Everton under Roberto Martinez, the Toffee’s hopes for the season and of course this summer’s World Cup out in Brazil.

Leighton Baines getting to grips with his new footwear shortly after we spoke.

Leighton Baines getting to grips with his new footwear shortly after we spoke.

Phil Jagielka Interview:

CW: Chris here from FootballBoots.co.uk, I noticed the new Pink Adidas Predators you had on, I had a feel of them earlier and they are really light. Does that impact your game in any way?

PJ: Well yeah obviously. Same again, you’re not getting than many pairs of leather boots these days, so it’s like synthetic leather that probably makes the boot that little bit lighter.  If you look at the mould, especially there is no metal inside there either not that the studs are particularly much heavier but I like a light boot, obviously there is actually lighter ones out there as well obviously the F50 is that little bit lighter again but I think that is the way football is going now, the amount of speed and all sorts involved in the game the last thing you want is the feeling of running around in a pair of wellies so like you said these Predators themselves are getting lighter, more comfortable and for me that ticks two massive boxes.

CW: This summer you were made Everton’s club captain after Phil Neville retired, has that changed your attitude to the game at all? How you approach matches and will it affect you going into the World Cup?

PJ:  It hasn’t affected the way I go into games or matches towards anything. I think obviously there is more responsibility off the pitch, I think that’s probably the biggest thing and obviously it has been made that little bit bigger by having a new management staff because obviously the coaching staff and the manager I knew obviously a lot about left so it was all about me bridging the gap between the new manager, the new coaching staff and the players which was more difficult than maybe it would have been it things would have stayed the same but it hasn’t been, it’s not been majorly difficult it’s just something new to me being sort of a stepping stone between the players and the management staff.

CW: In your career so far you have played under Neil Warnock at Sheffield United and David Moyes at Everton but with Roy Hodgson and England is it any different because you can only work together in such a short space of time?

PJ: It is different because as much as you try and make it a club atmosphere and all sorts because you’re trying to make it as relaxed and like it is when you go back to your normal clubs because everyone does play for different clubs and are used to different styles of training and styles of coaching so I think it is a bit of a different job for Roy when he is taking the England team. As I say if he had us for six months at a time it would be a lot easier for him whereas obviously he only gets us for four or six days at a time so putting his methods and views across in such a short space of time becomes a lot harder, but I think he has done a great job with the squad he has put together and the way he has handled himself because it is difficult being the England manager not only on the pitch but obviously off the pitch as well so he has got a slightly different role to the previous managers I have had in my career.

Phil Jagielka on the new World Cup Ball (Brazuca): I have had a feel of it and a bit of a kick around with it and all sorts, fantastic as usual, a great ball from Adidas. I remember the days when I used to go out and buy myself an Adidas Tango, the ball has slightly changed from then to this one but yeah great colours, the ‘Brazuca’ as I have heard it’s been called so it’s just nice and hopefully it will be a memorable ball and hopefully I will get to use it in the summer first and foremost. Hopefully I will have a few decent memories of playing with it.

Leighton Baines Interview:

CW: Earlier I had a pair of the new Adidas Predators you have on and I notice they were very light will this impact your free-kicks at all?

LB: No because I think the thing with them is and the thing I like about them is the balance, I mean there are certain boots you pick up and there is no weight in them whatsoever so no real feeling in them, no real protection in them so the new Predators are really light but have still got some substance to them which is better. As I say with regards to striking a ball they have got that grip again which some boots don’t have, I’ve worn, tried a couple of other pairs of boots which just haven’t had the same feel so as I say the all round package for me is spot on.

CW: With Roberto Martinez your new manager, do you think any of his new coaching methods will help you to adapt your game in a World Cup year where you will be coming up against the World’s best players?

LB: Yeah, well what we’re doing now obviously is, the manager’s style is different so straight away it asks more questions of you sort of he is asking us to try different things to what we have been used to so that hopefully only adds another string to your bow if you like and makes you a more complete player and that’s the thing were doing now, were a lot further down the line than we were in pre-season in terms of implementing the manager’s methods and his ideas but it’s certainly been interesting to work with him.

CW: With a lot of teams being busy in the transfer market this past summer the competition is really strong for those European places, with this in mind what would you consider a good season for Everton this year?

LB: Well I think what we always have looked to do is find ways to improve on what we have done before so I think that’s the goal really, to try and get back in amongst those European spots you know, the Europa League and as you said there, there has been a lot of activity and a lot of teams have strengthened really well so it looked like it was going to be as tough as ever but then we sort of had a good final day of the window, bringing in some good additions so they seem to have helped us, we have had some good results, a good couple of wins so we feel confident. We haven’t lost in the League yet and its clear we are capable of doing it [Qualifying for Europe], it’s just the competition is as strong as it’s ever been so we are going to have to be at our best.

These interviews were conducted on behalf of FootballBoots.co.uk

You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4