Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bale Decides Copa del Rey Final for Dominant Real Madrid

Real Madrid have claimed their first piece of silverware as they march to the treble with a dominant performance over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final. With Cristiano Ronaldo on the sidelines due to injury, Carlo Ancelotti picked the attacking trident of Bale, Benzema, and Di Maria. It was Di Maria who sparked the match into life after a deadly counterattack of one touch passing started by Isco. The Argentine latched onto the low cross-field pass by Benzema before finishing across goal, with Pinto's weak touch unable to stop the ball.

Gerardo Martino's under pressure Barcelona had plenty of time and possession to fight back, however were often unable to find a comfortable rhythm against Real's compact defending. Messi and Neymar weren't given any time with the ball by Real Madrid's defenders, and it was left to Iniesta and Xavi to retain possession and search for openings. Martino's choice to start Fabregas as a sort of false center forward was incomprehensible, especially considering the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Pedro kept on the bench. Fabregas rarely touched the ball, and Martino's side was continuously vulnerable against Real Madrid's quick transition led by Bale, Benzema, or Di Maria.

In the second half Barcelona suffered more of the same. An uncontainable Isco pinged passes for his teammates, and all of the Galacticos showed incredible selflessness in their counter-attacking play of one-touch passes. Messi continued in his mediocrity, with a couple of shots snapped wide or too weak to trouble Casillas. However, it was the 23 year old central defender Marc Bartra who found the equalizer for Barca, with his powerful header from a corner. With about 20 minutes left, Barcelona had suddenly reopened the encounter, and Martino's earlier substitutions of Pedro and Adriano (for Fabregas and Jordi Alba) now looked ready to double up and score the winner.

Yet it was another Real Madrid counter-attack which undid the Barca defence, this time manned by the unstoppable Gareth Bale. Poking a long touch past Bartra, Bale was pushed off of the field by the scorer of the equalizer, however the Welshman continued his tempestuous run around the defender and straight at Pinto before nudging the ball into the net for the winner. It was a fantastic goal which left Barcelona with only five minutes to reply, and Martino immediately threw on Alexis Sanchez in desperate hope for an equalizer. The final chance of the night fell to Neymar after Xavi slipped a sublime pass through the Real defence, but the Brazilian banged his effort against the post with a practically empty net to shoot at.

The match ended 2-1 for Real Madrid, with Gareth Bale claiming his first major trophy thanks to his brilliant goal. The disappointment of Barcelona's meek performance, highlighted by Messi's invisibility throughout the match will now surely prompt Martino's dismissal at the end of the season. On the other side of the spectrum, Ancelotti and the rest of Madrid will be celebrating the Copa del Rey victory passionately, before preparing themselves for the two other trophies which await them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Liverpool's Title Dream Nears Under Rodgers' Guidance

The kindling of belief in Liverpool's title run is one which began in the best way possible. With Rodgers at the helm, this season's Liverpool players have been pushed to be versatile, able to play in various positions, in any formation. The continuous tinkering of formation by Rodgers has shown its results: a 3-0 win with a 4-3-3 at Manchester United, 4-0 against Everton and 5-1 against Arsenal playing with a 4-2-3-1, and now the 3-2 win over Manchester City with the midfield diamond 4-4-2. With that latest victory over Manchester City, Liverpool now have the fate of the Premier League title in their hands.

Earlier in the season, as Liverpool were rampantly eviscerating teams in free-flowing style with high-scoring matches, the possibility of a title run briefly came into my thoughts. It seemed reasonable that a team playing, scoring, and winning with that much ease deserves a title run, however I quickly came to the conclusion that they lacked the squad depth necessary in order to do so. With an already patchy defence, Liverpool's reliance on Suarez and Sturridge is evident seeing as they are the only two strikers who have scored for the club this season. Considering that the starting eleven for Liverpool are rarely rotated, the over-dependence on these players can not only lead to fatigue and injuries, but also stagnation and predictability.

By pushing his side to be adaptable, Rodgers has managed to avoid these problems of predictability while strengthening and broadening the attacking possibilities of his team. This growth is also seen on an individual level, with Raheem Sterling's performance against Manchester City highlighting a shining example of brilliant versatility. Previously only considered as a fast-running winger, Sterling has now become one of, if not even England's finest playmaker. Rodgers is a master of individually moulding his players. He has modified Gerrard's role into one of deep-lying and key importance while giving Henderson the space to blossom, and has helped Coutinho acclimatize into the Premier League with frightful speed. If you further consider the monumental man-management work required to transform Suarez into the loved goal-machine he now is, and to control the young and tempestuous Sturridge, Rodgers has revolutionized Liverpool and its players.

It definitely feels like Liverpool deserves this season's Premier League title. Recognition for one of Steven Gerrard's best season's yet, respect for Rodgers and his coaching of intoxicatingly exciting football, and a tribute in memory of the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. Yet the way things are poised, this season's heartwarming story is precarious with Mourinho's Chelsea still to beat. The Portuguese coach is hunting for silverware to crown his returned season as a success. While Norwich awaits Liverpool next weekend, the true test for Rodgers and his team will be against one of the most cunning and ruthless managers in the world. And if there's one man willing to shatter Liverpool's title dreams for his own, it is undoubtedly Jose Mourinho.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Griezmann Inspires Real Sociedad to Stun Barcelona in 3-1 Win

After a successful Champions League night in Manchester, Gerardo Martino felt at liberty to experiment with the Barcelona lineup away against Real Sociedad. Leaving Xavi and Fabregas on the bench, Martino chose a new midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Song, and Iniesta. Even with the attacking trident of Messi, Neymar, and Pedro, Barcelona succumbed 3-1 to a much superior Real Sociedad.

Martino probably should have anticipated a tough match against the Basque side, considering that Real Sociedad remain unbeaten at home against Barca in La Liga since their promotion back in 2010. It wasn't surprising that the altered Barcelona defence of Adriano, Bartra, Pique and Montoya had difficulty against the dynamic and hard-working Sociedad attack. Carlos Vela up front supported by the left-footed playmaker Sergio Canales, along with Zurutuza and Griezmann on the wings quickly put the blaugrana on the back foot with their fast-moving combination play.

Thirty-two minutes in Barcelona conceded the first, with Song unfortunately redirecting a corner past Victor Valdes for an own goal. Just a few minutes later Barcelona briefly decided to right the ship, with Messi rifling a low shot into the corner after a brilliantly set up dummy by Sergio Busquets. With both sides even at halftime and Gerardo Martino sent to the stands by the referee, Barcelona looked ready to turn the game around in order to equal Real Madrid's 63 points at the top of the table. However it was Real Sociedad who came out in the second half with one-touch counter-attacks, cutting through the Barcelona defence at an alarming and impressive rate.

It took less than ten minutes for Real Sociedad to score, with Carlos Vela putting across a perfect pass for Griezmann to blast into the net to take the lead. Minutes later it was Griezmann who placed a curled cross for Zurutuza's late run (which none of the Barcelona defence picked up), the ball poked into the net with Valdes swiping Zurutuza off of his feet right after. Less than fifteen minutes into the second half, Barcelona were 3-1 down and unable to muster any sort of fire to fight back. Fabregas and Sanchez were quickly introduced in hopes of spurring a reaction, but the Blaugrana possession was slow-moving and inconclusive, while Real Sociedad continued to create goalscoring opportunities. The match ended with Barcelona not even using their third substitution, Martino perhaps realizing from the stands that he might as well let Xavi rest considering the dominance of the home side.

Now unbeaten in ten league matches (seven wins, three draws), Real Sociedad have scaled their way up to fifth place in the table, just behind Athletic Bilbao. With the race for the La Liga title as exciting as ever, the competition for the fourth spot (the final qualifying Champions League spot) is just as tight and exciting, especially with Real Sociedad playing wonderfully thanks to its set of starlets. Griezmann continues to be eyed by just about every top European club, and the resurgences of Carlos Vela and Sergio Canales have blossomed an attacking force which is tearing through La Liga defences. Real Sociedad have claimed three important points against Barcelona in their fight for fourth place, however when the summer approaches the club will have a new challenge in retaining Griezmann and the rest of their top players.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Barcelona Punish Ten-Man Manchester City in First Leg

Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City suffered a 2-0 defeat at the Etihad stadium in the first leg of their Champions League round of sixteen tie against Barcelona. Although Pellegrini might argue that his side were slightly unfortunate, with the key foul by Demichelis on Messi starting outside of the box (which would've made it a free kick instead of a penalty), what still remains is the curious question as to why Pellegrini has stuck to picking Demichelis. In a season where Manchester City are thriving, playing in an attacking and exciting style, Pellegrini's hamartia of sympathy towards Demichelis is bringing down the goliath which was expected to win the Premier League and maybe even the Champions League.

Previously against Chelsea, when Fernandinho was replaced by the barely moving pony-tailed figure of Martin Demichelis, Manchester City suffered as Chelsea's quick moving quartet tore through the field in their counter-attacks. Now at his more comfortable centre back position against Barcelona, Demichelis was still the weakest link in an otherwise fairly well-constructed Manchester City team. Pellegrini's choice to use only one striker in Negredo, along with Kolarov sitting in front of Clichy on the left wing in the packed five-man midfield closed down on the available space for Barcelona to use in the midfield. City's disciplined and deep defending was stifling opportunities for the visiting Spaniards, however also led to their stuttering offence never really able to retain possession. Demichelis' sending off was a liberating of the shackles, as Manchester City was never truly dangerous until the Argentinean defender mixed everything up with his late tackle on Messi in the 53rd minute.

Messi himself put away the penalty, and a ten man Manchester City began to shine without the presence of Demichelis. They lost that reserved fear of the blaugrana which held them back in the first half, and began to play with a hint of the recklessness which previously belonged to the man who got himself sent off. David Silva came close with a well-created volley, however Barcelona continued to dominate possession and continuously found ways to cut in behind the City defence. In the final minutes Dani Alves combined in a passing triangle with Neymar, darting past the home side's defence to slide the second goal in through Hart's legs.

With this fairly comprehensive home loss, it's difficult to consider that Pellegrini's Manchester City has resigned itself to being knocked out of the tournament. Despite a return leg victory being a monumental task for City, the side showed itself to have the mettle and intensity to compete with Barcelona for an entire match, even with only ten men. If Pellegrini can put aside whatever strange preference he might have for Demichelis (whether he be playing in or out of position), and instead start using the various players available to him (Lescott, Javi Garcia, and many more), there's the true possibility of his team mounting a comeback.

The Chilean manager's tactics weren't off the mark, rather, they were just brought down by a single clumsy Argentine defender. Pellegrini finally got his formation set up without any gaps, and in the second leg without Demichelis, perhaps along with Aguero fit and back in the side, Manchester City is suddenly looking much competitive than some might expect.


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