Tag Archives: Lionel Messi

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Real Madrid – Barcelona

Yesterday, we previewed the Manchester United-Schalke match, if you missed it check it out. The second semifinal (April 27th at 2:45 Eastern) will be the 3rd edition of El Clásico in 11 days (the first match was a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu , the 2nd a 1-0 Real Madrid victory in the Copa Del Rey final).

  Much has been written about this matchup, which is widely regarded as the best rivalry in world soccer, and maybe even in sports – apologies to Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants, and Duke-North Carolina.  Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals should be a treat.

The Champions League trophy has arrived in London ahead of the final. Hopefully, London mayor, Boris Johnson takes better care of this trophy than Sergio Ramos. (image from of UEFA.com)

Barcelona has been the best side in world soccer for the past several years and are looking for their 3rd title since 2006 (2006 and 2009).  Sure Inter won the Champions League last year, but Barcelona has been dominant in La Liga the past three seasons and won an unprecedented 6 trophies in the 2008-2009.  Currently, Barça sit 8 points clear of Real atop the La Liga table. Pep Guardiola‘s side, led by mighty-mite Lionel Messi, play some of the most attractive soccer in the world.  Messi has been brilliant this season, scoring 50 goals in all competitions.  It’s not out of the question that the diminutive Argentine could hit 60 this season.  While Messi gets all the praise, he isn’t alone.  Midfielders, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have been superlative this season, and David Villa (21 goals in all competitions) has proved an excellent deputy to the reigning World Footballer of the Year.

It was originally thought that Iniesta might miss the first leg of the semifinals after deliberately provoking a yellow card in Barcelona’s first leg defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk. UEFA decided to forgo any further punishment.  This is a huge boost for Barça who would have certainly missed Iniesta’s creativeness in midfield.  While Iniesta will be available for the Catalan giants, Adriano will not.  The defender/midfielder is out for four weeks with a torn thigh muscle.

Update: In addition to Adriano, Maxwell has now been ruled out for the match.  Barcelona will be scrambling to patch together a back four.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carles Puyol play LB with either Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets play CB.  Busquets has played CB multiple times this season, and Mascherano turned in a fine performance in central defense in Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Osasuna on Sunday.  Barcelona will need to find a defensive alignment that works in order to stop Real’s offense.

Real Madrid, who won their first Copa del Rey since 1993, against Barcelona earlier this week and looked excellent in their game against Valencia following their victory. Los Blancos are looking to make it to their first Champions League final since 2002 when they defeated Bayer Leverkusen. Real, who have played second fiddle to Barça for the past 3 or 4 seasons, attempted to address their short comings this summer with the signing of José Mourinho as manager.  While it appears the league will slip through the grasp of the Special One, the ultimate prize – the Champions League trophy – is still a possibility.

While Barça have Messi leading the way, Real have Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo leads Real with 42 goals and 12 assists in all competitions.  That output is bested only by Messi.  Gonzalo Higuaín (10 goals), Karim Benzema (21 goals) and Ángel Di María (9 goals, 13 assists) have provided extra spark for Mourinho’s side.  One player who will be missing from the side when they take the pitch in Madrid is German international Sami Khedira. Khedira, like Adriano, suffered a torn thigh muscle that could keep him off the pitch for the rest of the season.  At a minimum, he will miss the next several weeks.  The defensive midfielder will be missed, as he has featured in 8 of Madrid’s Champions League games.

Real Madrid and Barcelona face off for the 4th and 5th time this season for the right to play for the Champions League title.

Prediction: Despite Madrid having the momentum following their Copa del Rey victory, I expect Barcelona to advance to the final. The Special One will certainly have something up his sleeve when the two teams meet, keep in mind he led Inter to victory over the Catalans in last season’s semifinal, but Barcelona are just too good.  Expect home wins from both side, with Barça finding the extra goal needed to advance.  Also, as an American sports fan whose teams have befallen curses for their transgressions, I expect Real to pay the price for running over the Copa del Rey.

While the Champions League trophy has already arrived in London, we don’t know the teams that will walk out on the pitch at Wembley on May 28th.  The games on Tuesday and Wednesday should go a long way to providing us the answers.

Clash of the Titans

Before I launch into my preview of the Germany-Spain match, let’s look back at today’s game between Uruguay and the Netherlands.  The game turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament, with 5 goals being scored.  Two of the tournament’s best performers (Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlán) were again on display.  Sneijder bagged his 5th goal and is tied with David Villa for the Golden Boot.  The Dutch’s first goal was a great shot from distance by veteran left back,  Giovanni Van Bronckhorst.  The ball was a great strike into the top corner, Fernando Muslera could do little to keep it out.  Uruguay equalized through a goal by Forlán just before the half.  The Dutch pushed for a good portion of the second half and finally got a goal when Sneijder’s shot from the edge of the box took a funny bounce off of Maxi Pereira.  There is a question as to whether the goal should have been allowed, as Robin Van Persie (who has been less than stellar this World Cup) was narrowly offside.  Perhaps the referee saw him as being in a passive position (most definitely not) or perhaps he called him onside due to Maxi Pereira’s “playing” of the ball.  Either way, the goal counted.  THe Dutch scored again through a sublime build up and cross by Dirk KuytArjen Robben finished the cross from Kuyt to put the Oranje up 3-1.  Uruguay pushed in the final 5 minutes with Maxi Pereira scoring a goal off a well-played free kick that was laid off to him at the top of the box. The win propelled the Dutch to their first World Cup final since 1978 and assured an all European final.

An interesting thing about the Dutch win is that it eliminated the last South American team from the 2010 World Cup. South American teams had been dominant up to the quarterfinals, with 4 out of the 5 entrants making it to the final 8. Uruguay was the only South American team to make the semifinals.  Europe, on the other hand, has had a shaky Cup, until now.  Three European teams made it to the final 8.  All three advanced to the final 4 and we will have 2 European teams in the final.  Which team will be the second European team in the 2010 World Cup final? Let’s break down the match.

This is a match of a team that classically overachieves versus a team that is trying to permanently shed its underachiever label.  Spain went a long way to shedding that ignominious label by beating Germany in the Euro 2008 final. The win propelled Spain to the #1 spot in the FIFA rankings, but a series of less than stellar outings allowed Brazil to regain the top spot.  Spain’s loss to the US at the 2009 Confederations Cup combined with an opening game loss to Switzerland at this World Cup made the Euro 2008 victory seem like a thing of the past.  Spain has rebounded nicely to make it to their first ever semifinal at the World Cup.  Germany, on the other hand, are in their 4th semifinal in a row and are seeking a shot at their 4th title.

Goalkeeper – Captain, and arguably best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas is in net for Spain, while relative newcomer, Manuel Neuer will again backstop Germany.  Initial reaction from most fans would be the this is a no contest victory for Spain; however, Casillas has seemed a bit distracted throughout the tournament.  That said, a distracted Casillas is still better than most goalkeepers, and he rose to the occasion against Paraguay.  His save of  Óscar Cardozo’s PK was clutch!  The save kept Spain in the game and allowed David Villa to score the game winner.  Neuer has been playing very well and has only conceded 2 goals the entire tournament.  He is still untested in truly big games (and this one is massive).  Will he rise to the occasion?  Advantage: Spain

Defense – Here too, many fans might see Spain has having a much better defense than Germany.  Look past the glitzy names like Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué and this match up is much closer than it initially appears.  Spain certainly has the name recognition, but Germany’s defense has been excellent throughout the tournament.  While they are susceptible to the counter attack, as show by England, they bend but don’t break.  Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker might not have the name recognition of the Spanish center back tandem, but they have played every bit as well.  They worked tirelessly to keep Argentina’s potent offense off the score sheet, making Lionel Messi look a bit lost.  Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm have also done well at the full back positions, both in defense and going forward in attack. There has been some speculation that Puyol may miss game due to injury, which would likely mean Carlos Marchena or Raúl Albiol would start in his place.  Both replacements are solid, but Puyol marshals the back line very well, and his presence would be missed.  Advantage: Spain (by a small margin if Puyol plays).

Midfield – Spain, once again, has the star power in midfield with the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fábregas (who will likely start, if healthy, in the place of the slumping Fernando Torres).   If Spain elects to sit Torres, they will employ a 4-5-1 formation, with Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso playing behind the aforementioned trio.  Keep in mind that Fabregas appears to be nursing a leg injury, suffered during practice on Monday.  The Spanish midfield typically has a lot of possession as they like to use short passes to cut open defenses.  This, however, has allowed some teams to shut them down (see the US at the Confederations Cup, Switzerland and even Paraguay in defeat).  Their reliance on short passing can make them one-dimensional in their attack.  It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that Spain finally broke through against a tiring Paraguay (remember Paraguay had just played a game that went to PKs against Japan).  Germany has shown that it is a master of counterattacking in this World Cup.  Manager, Joachim Löw, has used his talent to the best of its abilities.  Thomas Müller has been a revelation, but will miss the semifinal due to yellow card accumulation.  Finding his replacement could be tough given how well he has been playing.  Even without him, Germany are strong with emerging holding midfielder Sami Khedira, attacking starlet Mesut Özil, and veteran playmaker/free kick specialist Bastian Schweinsteiger.  This match up shuld be fun to watch, as the Spanish try to break down the German back line and the Germans counterattack. The emergence of Özil, great play from Schweinsteiger and Khedira, and the potential injury to Fabregas make this an even match up.  Advantage: Push

Forward – As with every other area of the pitch, the Spanish have more star power up front.  David Villa is tied for the Golden Boot with 5 goals and Fernando Torres has been prolific for Liverpool since joining the EPL.  Torres, unfortunately for Spain, has not been able to translate that form to the international stage.  He has looked tired, lost, and just plain bad most of the tournament.  This is likely to prompt Spain into a tactical switch, leaving Villa as the lone striker.  Germany has Miroslav Klose, a man who knows how to score goals for his country, particularly in the World Cup. Klose (14 career goals at the World Cup) is 1 goal from tying Ronaldo for the most World Cup goals scored by a player in his career.  He has been his usual, solid self all tournament.  Lukas Podolski has been excellent setting up the attack and has found the back of the net twice himself.  Germany has more depth than Spain, being able to bring Cacau and Mario Gomez off the bench.  Both players are dangerous.  Spain has Fernando Llorente and wingers Pedro and Jesús Navas.  All are good players, but none have the finishing ability of Cacau or Gomez.  Advantage: Germany

Germany is a classic example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts.  They have several excellent players, but none are as flashy as their Spanish counterparts.  While Spain, on paper, has a better grouping of players, Germany has a better team.  For this reason, and Löw’s tactical superiority over Vicente Del Bosque, Germany will win this game.  They have looked much better throughout the tournament than Spain, but I still want to see Spain win.

World Cup Quarterfinal Preview and Predictions

Having taken a vacation to recover from the US’s crushing loss to Ghana, it’s back to the World Cup.  Despite the lack of both England and the US, I am still enamored with the quadrennial football fiesta.  The one thing that is missing is a team to support.  At the beginning of the tournament, as with Euro 2008, I was into the Dutch.  What’s not to like?  They play flowing soccer that is beautiful to watch.  Yet, as the tournament has gone on, the in-fighting in the Dutch camp has left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  I just can’t bring myself to root for Brazil or Germany.  I almost likened cheering for them to cheering for the Yankees, but the Brazilians are eminently more likeable, the Germans marginally so.  For obvious reasons Ghana is out.  Paraguay just doesn’t do much for me.  They don’t play exciting soccer and they don’t have any superlative talents to seduce me.  Uruguay has some appeal.  They are a plucky country with a strong World Cup tradition (they won in 1930 and 1950).  They also sport Luis Suarez, the best forward many people have never heard of.  Check him out, he was prolific with Ajax and will be the target of a big money move this summer.  There is something about Argentina that I like.  Is it their crazy manager?  Their diminutive talisman?  Or those spiffy uniforms?  I’m not sure, but they are a close second for me right now.  In discussions at work, I think I’ve settled on Spain.  They are fun to watch.  Their midfield picks teams apart and David Villa is a striking dynamo.  Can Spain win?  Yes.  They are the #2 team in the world and thankfully, they are on the opposite side of the bracket as Brazil.

Now on to a preview of the quarterfinals and my predictions.

Netherlands (#4 in the FIFA World Rankings) vs. Brazil (#1) – 10am, Friday 7/2:  It is truly a shame that this match is happening at the quarterfinal stage.  This match pits one of the best teams never to win a World Cup against the only team to win on 4 (hoping to make it 5) different continents.  Brazil has looked like a machine during the tournament.  They easily finished first in the supposed “Group of Death”, never really having a problem.  They then dismantled a Chile team that was playing some excellent soccer coming into their round of 16 match.  While Brazil may not have their traditional flare, they are still fun to watch.  They are a tough squad that mirrors their manager and if it is possible with a Brazil team, they are greater than the sum of their parts (which is substantial).

The Dutch marched through their group and swept away Slovakia in the round of 16.  Arjen Robben returned to provide the spark the Dutch needed and should be a greater contributor against Brazil.  (As an aside, does anyone think that Robben is soccer’s Greg Oden, a man who despite being a relatively young age looks like he’s about 50).  The Dutch have played excellent defense and but have lacked a little of their traditional attacking flare.  What they haven’t lacked is their traditional in-fighting.  Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder just can’t seem to bury a hatchet that has been around since Euro ’08 and this tension has spilled over to the rest of the team.  Another question mark is Maarten Stekelenburg, the Dutch keeper.  He has played admirably thus far, but can he withstand the Brazilian attack?

This match should provide some fun soccer.  Ultimately, I think that Brazil’s strong midfield and defense (captained by Lucio) will clog the field and prevent Robben, Van Persie, Sneijeder and the rest of the Dutch attacking talent from truly opening up the game.  I also believe that Luis Fabiano, Robinho, and Kaka will conjure enough magic to break through the Dutch defense.  Prediction: Brazil

Uruguay (#16) vs. Ghana (#32) – 2:30pm, Friday 7/2:  The late game tomorrow pits a team that has been to the top of the mountain (albeit 60 years ago) against Africa’s last hope.  Uruguay has looked impressive thus far, easily winning its group (thanks in part to an imploding France and a not ready for prime time South Africa).   It took a late winner from the aforementioned Luis Suarez to defeat South Korea in the round of 16, but Uruguay had the better of the chances in that game.  Uruguay has displayed an attacking style that is fun to watch, and they have two top level forwards in Suarez and Diego ForlanFernando Muslera, who plays his club soccer with Lazio in Italy, has been great in goal.  Uruguay will be missing defender Diego Godin, due to injury, and will have to find a replacement.

Ghana, as well know, defeated the US in the round of 16 to advance to the quarterfinals.  Prior to that, they finished 2nd in what I thought was the toughest group at the World Cup.  They were able to make it out of a group that consisted of Germany, Serbia and Australia.  Ghana is the lowest ranked team left playing in the World Cup and was the lowest ranked team in their group.  The Black Stars have taken advantage of home-field advantage and are receiving the support of the entire continent of Africa.  Ghana hadn’t scored a goal in the run of play prior to the US game, so scoring for them could be difficult.  Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince-Boateng will provide the attacking impetus.

This match could be fun, though I doubt it will be as exciting as the early game tomorrow.  Ghana’s defense and goal-keeping has looked shaky (the US game notwithstanding) and I think that the Uruguayan front line will be able to pick its spots.  I also think that Ghana will find it difficult to break down the Uruguayan defense and get a shot past Muslera.  Forlan and Suarez will lead Uruguay to its first semifinal appearance in 40 years.  Prediction: Uruguay

Argentina (#7) vs. Germany (#6) – 10am, Saturday 7/3:

Would you want to mess with this guy?

This match has generated the most off-field buzz, as one might expect when the match includes Diego Maradona.  A war of words has erupted between Germany and Argentina that stems from bad blood created at the 2006 World Cup.  Germany defeated Argentina on penalty kicks in that game, which was followed by some unsportsmanlike conduct (punches were thrown).  Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of Germany’s most important midfielders, admitted that he has been thinking about the 2006 match and expects Argentina to try to stir things up.  Diego Maradona, of course, replied to Schweinsteiger’s comments by donning a mock German accent to taunt the midfielder.  Maradona is crazy, who knows what the guy will do next.  It is part of Argentina’s appeal.  Carloz Tevez also got in on the war of words stating that he believed Mexico were better than Germany (a statement that is clearly false, my US fan credentials aside).

On the field, Germany has been its usual efficient self.  Apart from a 1-0 loss to Serbia (partially thanks to a dubious red card), Germany has looked every bit a contender.  Disallowed goal or not, Germany demolished England in the round of 16, dismantled Australia in the group stage and eased past Ghana.  The side is a mix of new and old, and features some up-and-coming talents that will surely be targets in the summer transfer window.  Mesut Özil has been a revelation, for Germany in the midfield and Thomas Müller has been his equal.  These World Cup rookies have been guided along by veterans like Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, Lucas Podolski, and Philipp Lahm.  Germany was once again unfancied coming into this tournament but have (as is usual for German teams) stepped up when it matters most.

Just as Germany has looked dominant in their run to the quarters, Argentina has been clicking on all cylinders.  Following an uninspiring 1-0 victory over Nigeria, Argentina then scored 9 goals while conceding just 2 over its next three games.  Destroying South Korea 4-1, Greece 2-0 and Mexico 3-1.  Gonzalo Higuain, has been in fine form, and the defense has made a minimum number of mistakes.  Lionel Messi hasn’t scored yet, but his presence is almost worth as much as his goal scoring.   Argentina’s mercurial manager has actually made some shrew managerial decisions, and hasn’t impeded a stacked team’s progression.

Whether Argentina’s defense can hold is a question that must be answered.  They will face a difficult task against Germany, but I think they are up to it.  Argentina will get some revenge for the loss in 2006 and advance to the semifinal.  Prediction: Argentina

Paraguay (#31) vs. Spain (#2) – 2:30pm, Saturday 7/3:  The last of the quarterfinals might also be the least intriguing.  Spain should dominate this match, at least on paper.  Paraguay has played well throughout the tournament, winning a group that included Italy.  Looking back, Paraguay may have won the easiest group in the tournament.  New Zealand were up for a match, but certainly aren’t that dangerous and Slovakia were never able to regain their qualifying form.  Paraguay’s victory over Japan was a scoreless affair that required penalty kicks to decide the outcome.  Thus far, Paraguay has only scored 3 goals.  On the other hand, they have only conceded 1 goal.  Paraguay needs to play amazing defense to shut down the Spanish midfield and a great game from Roque Santa Cruz or Óscar Cardozo if they want to advance.

Following a shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening game, Spain has looked like the team that won Euro 2008.  They have passed the ball beautifully through midfield, defended well, and David Villa has been his usual goal-scoring self.  The one negative thus far has been Fernando Torres inability to find the form that made him one of the most feared strikers in the EPL and all of international soccer. I don’t think that Spain will need Torres to find that form to win this game.  Will they need it to win the tournament?  Yes, they will.

My guess is that Paraguay will try to sit back on defense and then counter-attack.  This could lead to a rather drab game.  I, ultimately, see Spain winning this game after they break down Paraguay’s defensive shell.  Prediction: Spain

If my predictions are right, there will be three South American teams in the semifinals, an incredible stat when you think that South America only sent 5 teams to the World Cup.  The match-ups would be Uruguay-Brazil and Argentina-Spain.  Both games should be fun to watch and the possibilities for the finals are tantalizing.  I can only hope that my support of Spain doesn’t jinx them the way my support of the US and England contributed to their respective downfalls.  Viva La Furia Roja!