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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

Champions League Diary 19.02.14

February 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Well the UEFA Champions League is back with the box office tie in Manchester last night between Manchester City and Barcelona kicking-off the business end of Europe’s premier club competition. Bayer Leverkusen were also in action as they faced the financial might of France in the form of Paris Saint-Germain with the German side once again coming up far short against Europe’s elite in their own ground.

Lionel Messi celebrates his opening goal at Eastlands last night.

Lionel Messi celebrates his opening goal at Eastlands last night.

Manchester City, for the first time, reached the knockout phase of the Champions League and as soon as Manuel Pellegrini’s team were drawn to face Barcelona the hype began to build with it likely to be the tie of the round. Last night we were not at all disappointed as Manchester City put up a spirited fight against the attacking might of Barcelona with Manuel Pellegrini staying true to his pre-match word that Manchester City would not change their approach.

The hosts kept to their usual 4-2-2-2 system however Aleksandar Kolarov was deployed as the left sided midfielder in place of Samir Nasri. This, as pointed out by Michael Cox in today’s Guardian worked fantastically with the Serbian able to track the marauding runs of Dani Alves which often get ignored by teams. Alves, whilst not great in terms of crossing, can always get forward and then move the ball inside to one of the pass masters and this is so often how Barcelona up the tempo of an attack at less than a seconds notice. Pellegrini was incredibly astute to notice that and make a tactical change to try and limit the effectiveness of that particular move.

The opening forty five minutes was not a cagey affair but it did not have the spark which all the pre-match hype led us to believe. Both teams set about feeling the other out and as a result both teams enjoyed five or ten minute spells of control although Barcelona as expected dictated possession for the whole fixture. City I feel would have been the happier of the two sides going into the break however things could have been even better for the hosts had Alvaro Negredo been able to direct his lob over Victor Valdes into the corner of the net rather than across the face of goal.

As the match drew on it certainly appeared that without the services of Sergio Aguero, Manchester City were playing with one hand tied behind their back.

After five minutes of the second half the match was changed as Jesus Navas was dispossessed just inside Barcelona’s half. Andres Iniesta then duly found Lionel Messi with what would normally be a defence splitting pass however in this instance the Manchester City defence were already split. Vincent Kompany had dropped a couple of yards back to compensate for Demichelis’ lack of pace and Iniesta recognised it with scarily perfect precision.

Demichelis had no chance of keeping up with his Argentine compatriot as he broke through on goal and the former Bayern Munich defender went to ground and brought Messi down just outside the penalty area, or so it appeared. Demichelis was then correctly shown a red card yet a penalty was given despite initial contact between the pair occurring outside the box. Messi stepped up and converted the penalty with consummate ease to hand the Catalan giants the advantage.

City were never really in the match for the next forty or so minutes with Edin Dzeko replacing Negredo and Kolarov being withdrawn late in the game to try and provide an attacking burst to somehow head to the Nou Camp level with Barcelona. With Kolarov no longer on the field the frailties of Gael Clichy were fully exposed as Dani Alves made two surging runs into the penalty area both of which resulting in shots on goal, one of which fizzed past the post, the other nestled in the side of the net and more than likely condemned City to a Champions League exit.

Despite their impressive domestic form this season Bayer Leverkusen have not at all set the Champions League alight as yet with many feeling that the fluid Shakhtar Donetsk were the more deserving team to join Manchester United in the knockout stage. After being drawn against PSG, Sami Hyypia’s Leverkusen were never fancied to progress to their first quarter final since 2002. Last night’s first leg did prove to be a mismatch with PSG running out comfortable 4-0 winners away from home courtesy of a brace from Ibrahimovic and individuals goals from Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye on his European debut for the Parisian giants.

Bayer Leverkusen Sporting Director Rudi Voller said the club "looked stupid" after their 4-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain.

Bayer Leverkusen Sporting Director Rudi Voller said the club “looked stupid” after their 4-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain.

PSG will likely win the second leg comfortably and are certainly in with a shout of reaching the Lisbon showpiece in May, however where do Bayer Leverkusen go from here?

The German side have a lot of positives to take into next season’s Champions League, provided they secure qualification. A years experience in the tournament for both the young players and coach Hyypia can only help matters and the funds that come along with participation in UEFA’s flagship competition can only aid Sporting Director Rudi Voller in his search for new talent this summer. With the club having not recovered from the loss of Andre Schurrle last summer the departure of Sidney Sam to Schalke in July is likely to hit the club even harder.

There must be a real focus on securing exciting attacking talents on either flank to aid Stefan Kiessling and the exciting Son Heung-Min if Bayer Leverkusen are to return to Europe’s top table next year and progress even further than the first knockout round.

Tonight we see a repeat of last year’s first knockout round tie between Arsenal and Bayern Munich as Arsene Wenger’s side host the current European and World Champions who are without Franck Ribery who is still recovering from buttock surgery. The second match tonight is at the San Siro as Clarence Seedorf makes his Champions League bow as a coach against the hugely impressive Atletico Madrid lead by Diego Simeone in what could be an entertaining match when you consider the two centre forwards on show. Mario Balotelli and Diego Costa.

Written by Chris Winterburn

You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Tito Vilanova to leave Barcelona this evening

This afternoon could potentially be one of the most decisive moments in Spanish football ahead of the 2013-2014 campaign with strong reports from Spain emerging late this afternoon that FC Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova will this evening announce his resignation at a press conference. The reason for this is not yet known with details of the story remaining at this time, relatively hazy. Several media outlets including ‘Mundo Deportivo’ are suggesting that Tito Vilanova’s cancer has in fact returned which is forcing Pep Guardiola’s former assistant to relinquish his duties with the Spanish Champions.

Significant reports coming out of Spain that the Barcelona Head Coach will resign this evening following a return of his cancer.

Significant reports coming out of Spain that the Barcelona Head Coach will resign this evening following a return of his cancer.

Sandro Rosell and Andoni Zubizarreta have reportedly called a press conference for 20:30 this evening in order to clarify the club’s position and make an announcement on Tito Vilanova’s future and health. Vilanova has only been in the Barcelona hot seat for one season following a five year spell as Pep Guardiola’s assistant manager for both Barcelona and Barcelona B however his spell as manager of Barcelona was disrupted last season when he was diagnosed with parotid gland cancer for the second time, in December.

Whilst the situation regarding Vilanova’s health at this current moment is unclear, Barcelona are being left in relative turmoil with the future of Cesc Fabregas still unresolved following this morning’s confirmation from Manchester United manager David Moyes, that an official bid had been made for Fabregas from the English Champions. Cesc Fabregas was known to be one of the favoured players of Tito Vilanova and his departure from Barcelona may well pave the way for the former Arsenal captain to join Manchester United.

Mundo Deportivo have confirmed that unlike last season, Vilanova is resigning from his post as Barcelona manager completely rather than being granted ‘sick leave’. This opens up the position of manager at Camp Nou with important decisions needing to be made not only on Cesc Fabregas but also the situation regarding the club’s growing need to sign a central defender to partner Gerard Pique after last season’s poor defensive displays in Europe.

In his debut season as Barcelona manager, Tito Vilanova had what can be considered a successful season with the club regaining the La Liga title from rivals Real Madrid as well as reaching the Champions League semi-final stage where they were soundly beaten by eventual winners, Bayern Munich. Vilanova possessed an 84 percent win record in La Liga last season with his side registering one hundred and fifteen League goals which was one more than in Pep Guardiola’s final season in charge.

Early indications suggest that with most club’s having returned to pre-season and with it being so near to the beginning of Barcelona’s La Liga campaign, in which they will be defending their championship, it could be considered too late to appoint a new manager and may well look to promote someone from within the club on a part-time basis. We expect to hear more information on this story from club president Sandro Rosell at this evening’s press conference.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris Winterburn on Twitter @Chriswin4

Catalan paper ‘Sport’ reports Manchester United solution

Paper suggests Wayne Rooney will move to Barcelona with Thiago Alcantara and David Villa going in the opposite direction.

The Spanish paper suggests Wayne Rooney will move to Barcelona with Thiago Alcantara and David Villa going in the opposite direction.

The number of shall we say rather difficult to believe stories regarding the future of Wayne Rooney increased this morning as Catalan based newspaper ‘Sport’ reported a ‘solution’ had been found between Barcelona and Manchester United and this solution would take both Thiago and David Villa to Old Trafford for a fee of twenty six million Euros with Wayne Rooney moving to Barcelona for a fee of thirty million Euros.

This story to me, first appears to be nonsense due to the fact Manchester United had a number of opportunities to bring David Villa to the club whilst he was at Valencia with the Old Trafford club certainly having interest despite never officially tabling a bid for the forward, now with the player aged thirty one and wanting significantly higher wages than he would have done a number of years ago, why on earth would Manchester United want to take David Villa on especially with the difficulty suffered by Sir Alex Ferguson past season with regards to fitting Wayne Rooney into the starting eleven in a forward role?

It is no secret that Manchester United are certainly interested in bringing Thiago to the club with many media outlets including those with significant credibility in transfer matters reporting that a deal to take the Spanish midfielder to Old Trafford was close to being confirmed. However I don’t think a swap deal would be on the cards for both he and Villa, nor would Manchester United have to sweeten any sort of deal for Thiago with Barcelona due to the twenty two year old’s nineteen million Euro release clause courtesy of not having played enough minutes for Barcelona’s first team last term.

Now moving onto the second half of the story, Wayne Rooney moving to Barcelona for thirty million Euros, everything about this sentence just sounds wrong. Wayne Rooney regardless of his fitness, form and attitude over the past eighteen months is a sizeably valuable commodity for Manchester United to have in their possession and thirty million Euros which roughly equates to £25million in the British market is nowhere near what Wayne Rooney is worth to Manchester United. The figure I believe Manchester United may let Rooney leave the club for would be a lot closer to £40million despite the England international having only two years left on his current contract.

However perhaps more significantly, Barcelona are not in a position to pay thirty million Euros for Wayne Rooney even if they would make twenty six back through the sales of Thiago and David Villa. It has long been a poorly kept secret that Barcelona suffer from financial problems with the past superstar signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cesc Fabregas somewhat papering over the cracks, however with Barcelona being disappointing by their own high standards in the UEFA Champions League in the last two seasons the financial problems have really hit home. It was thought this summer that Barcelona would have to hold a fire sale of players who were not crucial to their first team with names like Alexis Sanchez, Victor Valdes, Ibrahim Afellay and even Thiago Alcantara being muted as being available this summer.

Speculation about this sale had increased even further following the completion of the deal to bring Neymar to Camp Nou with the enigmatic Brazilian forward being signed for a fee rumoured to be around fifty seven million Euros. Many thought Barcelona were going to have to sell to merely balance the books never mind free up space within their squad, however as yet there have been no significant sales with the only two departures being Marc Muniesa moving to Stoke City on a free transfer and Bojan Krkic moving to Ajax on a season long loan deal.

Whilst I don’t believe there to be the money to bring Wayne Rooney and his bumper wage packet to Barcelona, I also don’t think there is the space to fit him into the side. If you think back to how one position for a striker is taken by Lionel Messi who plays as a ‘faux number nine’ come centre forward then that takes away a position Rooney could fill. Next is the two wider forwards who over the past two years have been a rotation between Pedro, David Villa and Alexis Sanchez, now with the introduction of Neymar to the left hand side, it is likely Pedro and Alexis Sanchez would rival each other for the spot on the right hand side of the Barcelona forward three. The only space Rooney could then fit into would be in the central midfield area where he would only get a handful of appearances ahead of Xavi and Iniesta and if Barcelona were purchasing a player to seldom come off the bench to fill in at the heart of the midfield then they might as well have put up a greater fight to keep Thiago.

So there you have It, the story in ‘Sport’ this morning I feel is absolute nonsense and there are far too many factors working against it for it to be true however I know you should never take anything for granted in the transfer market but this one is just a bit too farfetched for me, even more so when you hear respected Spanish football correspondents saying how close David Villa is to leaving Barcelona for either Tottenham Hotspur or Fiorentina. The speculation regarding Wayne Rooney and Thiago Alcantara, I’m afraid will continue to rumble on until we hear definitive answers from the players’ respective clubs.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris Winterburn on Twitter @Chriswin4