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The New and Returning Faces of Next Season’s Champions League

With unusual league winners across Europe, the new names in next season’s Champions League may be unfamiliar to many fans. Here’s a rundown of a few of the infrequent or new qualifiers already confirmed for the group stages of next season’s tournament…

Dzeko (c) and Grafite (r) will be crucial as Wolfsburg try and make a good impression on the Champions League...

Dzeko (c) and Grafite (r) will be crucial as Wolfsburg try and make a good impression on the Champions League...

With new rules in place for qualification this year, UEFA is hopeful that the 2009-10 Champions League will see a host of new teams compete in the tournament, from a greater variety of countries than seen in previous years.
Ironically, with many previously unheralded teams already having earned automatic qualification for the group stages of the competition by triumphing in their respective leagues, UEFA—and, more accurately, Michel Platini—already seem to have got their wish, before the revamped qualification stages have even begun.
Here is the lowdown on a few of the teams set to take their bow (or, at least, their first appearance in a while) on Europe’s grandest stage.
Wolfsburg (Germany)
Led by the goal-laden duo of Bosnian Edin Dzeko and Brazilian Grafite (54 goals between them—the most prolific partnership in Bundesliga history), Wolfsburg marched to a shock league title last season, beating out perennial challengers Bayern Munich on the last day of the season.
It was a surprise triumph for the Wolves (once managed, in a beautiful twist of fate, by Wolfgang Wolf) earning themselves a first appearance in Europe’s showpiece competition.
The club were steered to triumph by former Bayern coach Felix Magath, who subsequently left the club to join German underachievers Schalke 04 (he had agreed to join the Ruhr Valley side before the title was won).
Without Magath at the helm, the club’s expectations for the upcoming campaign should be tempered somewhat, with new manager Armin Veh given the unenviable task of replicating Magath’s success. Unsurprisingly, Veh has already moved to play down hopes.
“Nobody can seriously demand that we defend our title,” he said. “A title defence would be a Utopian and over-confident aim.”
Nevertheless, the club has so far resisted overtures from the likes of AC Milan for 23-year-old Dzeko—and tied Grafite to a new long-term contract—to give themselves the best squad possible for their first tilt at the Champions League. With the club membership having been boosted by 5,000 (from 9,000) in the wake of their triumph, the atmosphere has never been more buoyant.
With the new qualification rules surrounding the Champions League, Wolfsburg will be hoping their automatic entry into the Champions League, and the strength of squad at their disposal, will see them through to the knockout stages of the competition.
But, like a title defence, progressing further than that might be a Utopian aim.
Standard Liege (Belgium)
Unlucky to be drawn against Liverpool in the final round of Champions League qualifying last season (they eventually lost 1-0 on aggregate), a second consecutive Belgian league triumph and a change in qualification rules means Les Rouches will be in the group stages this time when the tournament kicks off in September.
Liege’s strength comes from their disciplined yet creative midfield, which boasts a bit of flair in the forms of Axel Witsel and Steven Defour—both rumoured to be targets of various Premier League sides—and Brazilian-born forward Igor de Camargo.
At the heart of the defence, American Onguchi Onyewu keeps things tight and makes it hard for the opposition. As their performance against Liverpool last year showed (indeed, they went on to beat Everton over two legs in the UEFA Cup just weeks later), Liege will prove a handful against any team they face.
A lot will depend on whether they can keep all their star players (striker Dieumerci Mbokani has already been heavily linked with German side Vfl Stuttgart, and their midfield stars are coveted by Europe’s big sides), but even if they keep their squad intact it would be a surprise to many if they made it any further than the group stages.
Rubin Kazan (Russia)
First time champions of the Russian league way back in November 2008, Kazan will make their long-awaited Champions League debut when the group stages kick off almost a year after they qualified.
Due to the idiosyncratic scheduling of the Russian league season (which runs from March to the end of November), Kazan will be reaching the climax of their domestic campaign when they make their debut against Europe’s best.
While that might prove an advantage in the early rounds, it did not help Zenit St. Petersburg escape the group stages last season, and fatigue might well hamper Kazan in the last few games of their group.
Unlike Zenit, who could call on the mercurial talent of Andrei Arshavin (now of Arsenal), Kazan seem to lack a real creative threat. Argentinian striker Alejandro Dominguez will be a player opponents legislate for, while Russian international Sergey Semak will attempt to control things from midfield. But overall, the squad is one low on established stars.
Kazan are once again challenging for the top honour in this season’s Russian League (two points off the top with a game in hand after 11 games) and in a competitive league that indicates a certain amount of pedigree.
But the Champions League is more than a step up.
Opponents will be wary of the threat Kazan pose, and certainly won’t fancy an away trip to middle Russia as winter deepens.
Nevertheless, only the most optimistic of fans will expect them to progress beyond the group stages.
CSKA Moscow (Russia)
The second Russian side already in the group stages—UEFA class their league as the equal of those in France and Germany—CSKA Moscow might well prove a more difficult proposition for European opponents than domestic champions Rubin Kazan.
CSKA have a squad of demonstrable quality. In Igor Akinfeev they have one of Europe’s premier goalkeepers, and they provided no less than seven players to Russia’s squad for the recent World Cup qualifier with Finland.
It is with their two influential Brazilians, however, that the majority of their threat will lie. Daniel Carvalho is an attacking midfielder with guile and poise, who possesses the ability to unlock defences at will. Back from a loan spell in his homeland with Internacional, he will hope to make a big impact for his side.
Up front in Wagner Love, CSKA have a truly mercurial striker—at times the 25-year-old is simply unplayable. Thanks in part to Love’s quality, CSKA knocked Aston Villa out of the UEFA Cup last season, and his presence will ensure the side go into the Champions League respected by every team they face.
If they can keep the majority of their star players—they have already lost wide-man Yury Zhirkov to Chelsea—then they could pose a threat to the more renowned members of their group, and may well find their way into the knockout phase.
Unirea Urziceni (Romania)
Former Romanian international defender Dan Petrescu led Unirea Urziceni to their first domestic title in June, following a 1-1 draw with traditional domestic powerhouses (and 1992 European Cup winners) Steaua Bucharest on the final day of the season.
It was Urziceni’s first ever league crown and came after just three seasons in the First Division. Quite an achievement for a club with a stadium capacity of just 7,000, and town population of around 14,000. Unsurprisingly, these statistics make Unirea the smallest club to have qualified so far for the Champions League group stages.
Indeed, their stadium is so small that UEFA have ruled that their European matches will have to be played at Steaua Stadium—Bucharest’s home ground, which holds nearly 30,000—because their own doesn’t meet requirements. Even home games might feel like away games for Urziceni.
Consequently, nothing will be expected of the side, with former Chelsea defender Petrescu no doubt expecting nothing more from his side than a good account of themselves.
Few will expect them to finish anything other than last in their group.
Having said that, Urziceni’s predecessor as Romanian champion, CFR Cluj, caused problems for the teams in their group, including holding Chelsea to a draw on home turf.
So while Petrescu and his side will have no expectations, such freedom might well make them dangerous, if only in front of their—admittedly, limited number of—home fans.
Besiktas (Turkey)
With their first title win in six years, Besiktas ensured their place in the group stages of the Champions League after a year’s absence. And the club is intent on using their return to Europe’s top table to attract many new signings to the club.
Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen has been linked with the club, as well as Tottenham striker Roman Pavlyuchenko. Italian defender Matteo Ferrari has already signed on, with Turkish international striker Nihat returning home from Spanish side Villarreal to join the Instanbul-based club.
“Intense negotiations are going on right now,” said manager Mustafa Denizli. “We have choices, and we’re trying to make the best of what we have. We are negotiating according to our means and will continue to do so.”
The squad is littered with homegrown players, so perhaps it is understandable Denizli is looking for foreign talent to increase the continental experience at his disposal. It seems this season, the club is not prepared to fall out of the competition at the group stages like they did last time out, in 2007-08 (they finished fourth, and lost 8-0 at home to Liverpool).
“The important thing is that our team exceeds itself in the Champions League,” Denizli said this week. “There are teams that spend more than 150, 200, 250 million euros for transfers. We cannot afford such figures, so we need to enhance the limits of our players to exceed their potential.”
Besiktas are certainly talking a good game at this early stage, but even if they do add many of their rumoured targets to the squad, you feel it will take a kind draw and some fortunate results for them to find their way out of the group stages.
Sevilla (Spain)
Another side with European pedigree, having won the UEFA Cup in 2006 and 2007, Sevilla, like Besiktas, are back in the Champions League after a year’s absence, courtesy of finishing third in a hotly contested La Liga race.
Led by former player Manolo Jimenez, Sevilla are blessed with talented players across the pitch. They have two solid goalkeepers in Spanish international Andres Palop and Italian Morgan De Sanctis, along with the highly touted Federico Fazio in defence.
In attack is where their main strength lies, however. Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano showed his quality on the way to becoming top scorer at the recent Confederations Cup, and youth products Jesus Navas and Diego Capel provide a constant threat from the wings. Navas’s acute homesickness, however, might reduce the team’s threat if they are drawn against clubs that ply their trade many miles from the Iberian peninsula.
Sevilla might compete in the shadow of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but—depending on the draw—they will nevertheless be expected to progress beyond the group stages with relative ease. A quarterfinal appearance is a reasonable target for the Rojiblancos, as striker Frederic Kanoute recently stated:
“We have the desire in the Champions League to get as far as we can,” the Mali international said last week. “To get to the quarterfinals will be difficult but we will be trying to get there.”
AC Milan (Italy)
After an embarrassing season spent in the unfamiliar surroundings of the UEFA Cup (expected to challenge for the cup, Milan went out in the first knockout round to eventual finalists Werder Bremen) the 2007 Champions League winners are back on a stage they are more accustomed to.
However, they may find that the competition has got a lot stiffer in their absence.
Much will depend on how the Rossoneri cope with the loss of their talisman Kaka, who joined Real Madrid in the summer. Former world player of the year Ronaldinho might be given the chance to reclaim his form and reputation within the game, although the loss of manager Carlo Ancelotti (to Chelsea) might not have as positive an effect on the majority of the squad.
Ancelotti, while sometimes falling short in Serie A, often seemed to be tactically astute in Europe—leading his side to two finals in three years between 2005 and 2007. New manager Leonardo will not be given long to prove he has a similar ability.
The fans will expect their team to breeze through the group stages, and with the quality of players still at their disposal, they should easily achieve that. But you feel that their new Brazilian manager will have to add some fresh blood to the squad, get the tactics correct, and get his compatriots (Alexandre Pato, Ronaldinho, new signing in defence Thiago Silva) playing to their full potential if they are to progress much further than the quarterfinals of a competition they once used to dominate.
AZ (Holland)
What is with Champions League teams and a change of managers? Dutch side AZ won the Eredivisie for the first time in 25 years last season under the guidance of legendary manager Louis Van Gaal, who then promptly agreed to join German giants Bayern Munich.
Former Dutch international Ronald Koeman is the man charged with maintaining what Van Gaal got started, but with many bigger clubs circling around the team’s man stars (in particular, strikers Mounir El Hamdaoui and Moussa Dembele) most fans will be happy with a solid showing in Europe this season.
Koeman is certainly not prepared to raise expectations:
“It will be a nice season,” he said. “Playing in the UEFA Champions League is something to look forward to for everyone; players, coaches, staff, and fans.”
Back in the early 90s, Dutch teams were among the most feared in Europe. AZ might be the emerging power in domestic football, but even their fans will not be expecting their side to do more than finish third—and so continue their European adventure in the newly-formed Europa League—this year.
That would do nicely.
Glasgow Rangers (Scotland)
For a couple of seasons left in the shadow of cross-city rivals Celtic, the 2008 UEFA Cup finalists took their first SPL title in four years to book their place back in the Champions League.
With Walter Smith at the helm, ably assisted by former striker Ally McCoist, the team have a wealth of coaching experience on which to draw. But the Scottish league is not the strongest, and additions will have to made to the squad if they are to challenge in Europe.
Last season, Celtic struggled valiantly but failed to make it out of the group stages. Rangers may be the equal of their rivals on the paper, but the lack of recent experience in the competition will undoubtedly make their task very difficult.
Few fans of the Gers might admit it, but privately they will be satisfied if their team acquit themselves well against more prestigious opposition, and prolong their European adventure via the Europa League.
The other clubs already qualified for the group stages are: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Bordeaux, Olympique Marseille, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Porto, Bayern Munich, and Dynamo Kyiv.
The remaining ten teams will be decided at the conclusion of the qualifying stages.

With new rules in place for qualification this year, UEFA is hopeful that the 2009-10 Champions League will see a host of new teams compete in the tournament, from a greater variety of countries than seen in previous years.

Ironically, with many previously unheralded teams already having earned automatic qualification for the group stages of the competition by triumphing in their respective leagues, UEFA — and, more accurately, Michel Platini — already seem to have got their wish, before the revamped qualification stages have even begun.

Here is the lowdown on a few of the teams set to take their bow (or, at least, their first appearance in a while) on Europe’s grandest stage.


Wolfsburg (Germany)

Led by the goal-laden duo of Bosnian Edin Dzeko and Brazilian Grafite (54 goals between them — the most prolific partnership in Bundesliga history), Wolfsburg marched to a shock league title last season, beating out perennial challengers Bayern Munich on the last day of the season.

It was a surprise triumph for the Wolves (once managed, in a beautiful twist of fate, by Wolfgang Wolf) earning themselves a first appearance in Europe’s showpiece competition.

The club were steered to triumph by former Bayern coach Felix Magath, who subsequently left the club to join German underachievers Schalke 04 (he had agreed to join the Ruhr Valley side before the title was won).

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July 3, 2009 Posted by | Sport, World Football | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weekly Musings: The Apprentice, and the Champions League…

What Catch Seventy7 learned after another week of soul-destroying job searching…

The Apprentice: Beauty averse, and risk averse

The Apprentice: Beauty averse, and risk averse

The Apprentice: In an economic downturn, the risk averse need not apply

This week young Howard Ebison was despatched from Sir Alan Sugar’s minimalist board room. Coming the week before the remaining candidates have their CV’s hung, drawn and quartered in front of a national audience, that might not be the worst thing in the world from the likeable pub chain manager.

But the reasoning behind Howard’s departure might irk him for a few months to come. According to Siralan, Howard was too “risk averse”, and in the current economic climate Amstrad need people that take risks. Because, of course, it wasn’t brazen risk-takers that landed the economy in this mess in the first place…

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May 29, 2009 Posted by | Weekly Musings | , | Leave a comment

Josep Guardiola the Emperor as Barcelona Dominate in Rome

It was the Spanish Inquisition, and Manchester United just couldn’t find any answers. Barcelona boss Josep Guardiola must take the plaudits for an historic triumph…

Guardiola: Puppetmaster of one of the greatest Punch and Judy shows ever...

Guardiola: Puppetmaster of one of the greatest Punch and Judy shows ever...

Veni, vidi, vici.
They came, they saw, they conquered.
It may not be the most original summary of events in Rome, but it is the most accurate. Barcelona did not just beat Manchester United in Wednesday’s Champions League final, they demolished them.
They rendered their opponents mere spectators with their intricate passing game. They stood firm defensively as United probed desperately for an opening.
Like Spain in the Euro 2008 final barely 10 months earlier, the Catalan giants entered the game knowing that their opponents had a sizeable physical advantage. But by making the ball do the work, they exposed that advantage as insignificant and made sure the game was played they wanted it to be played.
From that point on, the comfortable 2-0 win was almost inevitable.
“I think the whole year we played the same way, we wanted to play well,” said Thierry Henry after the game. “We didn’t start well—United were better than us in the first 10 minutes—but once we had the ball we played the way we can.”
Once again, manager Josep Guardiola must take a huge amount of credit for the triumph. Like in the semifinal against Chelsea, he masterminded a tactical victory that belied his managerial inexperience.
Yaya Toure was again imposing as a make-shift centreback. But Guardiola gave him permission to push forward when necessary, and the Ivorian’s seemless interchanging of roles with the equally impressive youngster Sergi Busquets caused United a lot of problems.
Equally, Barca seemed to have done their homework in identifying Michael Carrick as United’s key distributor. For the first 40 minutes, Busquets surged forward to stifle Carrick whenever he got on the ball.
By half-time, the England midfielder was demoralised, and United were searching for other outlets.
In the second half, Barca had possession almost uncontested.
Carrick, like almost all of United’s players, will likely be forced to face some criticism during the game’s post-mortem. But it would be inaccurate to simply state that he didn’t perform—in reality, Barcelona just didn’t allow him to play.
“You’ve got to give credit to Barcelona, they played well,” admitted Rio Ferdinand after the match. “On a day like this you need to be able to play your best football, and today we couldn’t produce it. On today’s performance they were the better team.”
All the best managers seem to also be lucky managers, and there is certainly a case to say Guardiola falls into that category. “Pep” will no doubt accept that Barcelona enjoyed a crucial does of luck on Wednesday—just the sort of luck a team needs to win major finals.
Gerard Pique was lucky to get away with only a yellow after cynically blocking Ronaldo as the Portuguese winger threatened to bear down on goal inside the first 20 minutes.
And Samuel Eto’o’s goal—after only 10 minutes—came just as United had made an imposing start to the game, and immediately and irrevocably changed the balance of the tie.
If that first shot had not gone in, United might well have taken over totally.
Yet, even this critical moment was touched by Guardiola’s tactical hand. United seemed caught unawares as Barca started with Messi on the left, Henry in the centre, and Eto’o on the right—roles different from their traditional lineup—and Eto’o’s pace and quick-thinking enabled him to lose Patrice Evra, twist inside Nemanja Vidic, and poke it beyond Edwin van der Sar.
United were 1-0 down before they had tactically adjusted to the questions Barca posed.
“We started the game brightly and I thought we looked confident, played well, and could have been in front,” said Sir Alex Ferguson after the match. “But the goal was a killer for us. Trying to get the ball back off them is difficult, and they use it very well. They’re the better team.”
Guardiola, just 38 years of age, is 30 years Sir Alex Ferguson’s junior. But you wouldn’t have thought that from the action on the pitch. Blessed with the mercurial talents of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, two players built very much in his image, the former Barcelona captain was always going to know how to get his team purring.
Years ago, when Guardiola was captain of the first team, he took aside a young Xavi on the training ground, and directed his attention to a baby-faced Iniesta, who had just been promoted to the first team.
“Remember the first time you played with Andres,” Guardiola told Xavi. “You’re going to retire me; he’s going to retire us all.”
Little could he know that, almost three years later, the three of them would end up crushing United’s Champions League ambitions at the final hurdle.
Against arguably the best side in Europe over the last three years—lest we forget—the mercurial trio made sure the Spanish side played to the best of their ability.
That proved more than enough for victory.
After the game, Sir Alex Ferguson commented that Carrick and Anderson might have learned a lot from coming up against the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi. If United’s midfield did learn from the footballing lesson they were given, then they will be back with a vengeance next season.
But for now, Barcelona are the deserved champions of Europe.
And in Guardiola, they have a manager who already looks destined for greatness.

Veni, vidi, vici.

They came, they saw, they conquered.

It may not be the most original summary of events in Rome, but it is the most accurate. Barcelona did not just beat Manchester United in Wednesday’s Champions League final, they demolished them.

They rendered their opponents mere spectators with their intricate passing game. They stood firm defensively as United probed desperately for an opening.

Like Spain in the Euro 2008 final barely 10 months earlier, the Catalan giants entered the game knowing that their opponents had a sizeable physical advantage. But by making the ball do the work, they exposed that advantage as insignificant and made sure the game was played they wanted it to be played.

From that point on, the comfortable 2-0 win was almost inevitable.

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May 28, 2009 Posted by | Sport, World Football | , , | Leave a comment

Barcelona’s 4-3-3 Built For Champions League Success

They could have injuries to every striker on their books, and they still wouldn’t change formation. Johan Cruyff’s 4-3-3 is an integral part of Barcelona’s modern identity…

Barca: Everyone's happier in a 4-3-3

Barca: Everyone's happier in a 4-3-3

In football, 18 years is a long time.
Eighteen years ago, the Champions League was still just an idea being bandied about between UEFA board members. It would not replace the traditional format of the European Cup until the 1992-93 season.
Tomorrow in Rome, English champions Manchester United will face Spanish champions Barcelona in the final of the Champions League.
Eighteen years ago, Manchester United had not won a top-flight title since 1966-67. The Premiership—and United’s subsequent dominance of it—would only begin from the 1992-93 season.
In 18 years, however, things haven’t changed too much for Barcelona. In 1991, the Catalan giants were under the stewardship of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, and about to embark on one of the greatest seasons in the club’s history.
Cruyff had introduced to club an attacking mentality, with a style of play centred around short passing, creativity, vision, and uninhibited expression. At the end of the 1991-92 season, Barca would win the first European Cup in their history, at the old Wembley Stadium.
At the heart of it was Cruyff’s innovative formation—the 4-3-3.
Eighteen years on, Barca still play the same way—and are still competing on the same level.
Back then, the stars of the side included Ronald Koeman (who scored the winner in the Wembley final), Hristo Stoichkov, Josep Guardiola, and Michael Laudrup. When Brazilian poacher Romario arrived in the summer of 1993, Cruyff’s side cemented its status in Spain as “The Dream Team”—a legend that exists to this day.
“The fact that Barcelona still play the way the Dream Team played says enough,” said Jordi Cruyff, Johan’s son, this week. “You can’t imagine Barcelona playing a different system to the 4-3-3, and that’s what the Dream Team brought about. Even today people speak about that team, it made a big impact in Spanish football.”
On the pitch, a new era of heroes fill the Dream Team’s boots. Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Carles Puyol—to name just a few—are at the forefront of the Blaugrana’s modern charge.
Led by Guardiola—who has re-established the tenants of the Dream Team’s modus operandi since taking the helm—the club now finds itself on the verge of winning the treble, something no Spanish club has ever achieved.
“Turning and passing, plus a good vision of the game, so that the team can move the ball well. If you’re playing for Barcelona, that is our main weapon,” was what Guardiola reminded the players when he took over. ”The main objective of this season is to make sure our fans are proud, more than ever before, of the team and above all that this season is a very good season in the history of Barca.”
High ambitions, indeed.
But with La Liga won and the Copa Del Rey already in the bag, Guardiola has so far seen his side more than live up to expectations. The Champions League is the final hurdle.
But Wednesday’s final with Manchester United will prove to be a touch proposition—as injuries and suspensions look set to cause Barcelona some problems.
With a change to the 4-3-3 formation proving unthinkable, Guardiola will have to improvise.
Eric Abidal and Daniel Alves, the club’s first choice fullbacks, are both suspended after picking up cards (red and yellows respectively) in the club’s semifinal triumph against Chelsea. Centre-back Rafael Marquez is injured, and niggling doubts still remain over the fitness of Andres Iniesta and Thierry Henry.
As a result, holding midfielder Yaya Toure looks likely to have to deputise once more in the heart of defence. The 35-year-old Sylvinho will get a rare start at left-back, and club captain Carles Puyol will likely be forced to fill in at right-back.
Inevitably, with such a makeshift backline to attack, United will look to expose any frailities that emerge. With the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, and Berbatov to fend off, just one mistake could prove fatal.
Replacing Toure in Guardiola’s former role in the 4-3-3 is likely to be Sergi Busquets, the 20-year-old cantera product. He will be given the task of winning the ball in midfield, and distributing possession to Xavi and Iniesta. For someone so young and inexperienced, it is a massive responsibility—but one Guardiola has little option but to bestow.
All to preserve the sanctity of the 4-3-3.
Crucially, however, such defensive reshuffling should enable the attacking quintet to continue as it has done throughout the season. With Messi, Thierry Henry, and Samuel Eto’o having combined for a staggering 94 goals in all competitions this season, United will have food for thought.
And with Xavi and Iniesta pulling the strings in midfield, United might find themselves preoccupied with finding a way to stop what Sir Alex Ferguson has described as their “dizzying carousel” of intricate passing.
Last year, when the two sides met in the semifinal of the competition, Ferguson implemented a defensive strategy that limited the effectiveness of Barcelona’s 4-3-3 and, in particular, shackled the intricate passing game that Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi thrive upon.
Paul Scholes scored a 30-yard thunderbolt that allowed the English side to progress 1-0 on aggregate. Messi does not believe that will be the case in Rome tomorrow.
“I think that when they played against us [in last year’s semifinal], they just waited for us to attack and played with a counter-attacking style—with Cristiano, Rooney, and Tevez, who are players of great quality and are very fast,” said Messi.
“But I think that a final is different; they’ll come to play more as they have been doing throughout this year and last year, so I think it will be an open match. We know that we are facing a great team, with the added experience of having played in the previous final—but we’ve also had a great year.”
Eighteen years ago, Manchester United were just beginning to reap the rewards of sticking with a manager named Ferguson. Tomorrow, that Scot might pick up his third Champions title and 26th trophy as Manchester United manager.
Eighteen years ago, Barcelona were just beginning their love affair with the 4-3-3. Tomorrow, it might reward them with a third European Cup title.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but tomorrow, two footballing dynasties will walk out at the Stadio Olympico with the hope of cementing their legendary status.
It is what Barca’s 4-3-3, and the Champions League, were built for.

In football, 18 years is a long time.

Eighteen years ago, the Champions League was still just an idea being bandied about between UEFA board members. It would not replace the traditional format of the European Cup until the 1992-93 season.

Tomorrow in Rome, English champions Manchester United will face Spanish champions Barcelona in the final of the Champions League.

Eighteen years ago, Manchester United had not won a top-flight title since 1966-67. The Premiership—and United’s subsequent dominance of it—would only begin from the 1992-93 season.

In 18 years, however, things haven’t changed too much for Barcelona. In 1991, the Catalan giants were under the stewardship of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, and about to embark on one of the greatest seasons in the club’s history.

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May 26, 2009 Posted by | Sport, World Football | , | Leave a comment

Despite Chelsea Moans, Don’t Overlook Barcelona’s Tactical Victory

The spotlight might be on Chelsea’s grievances with the referee, but Barcelona and manager Josep Guardiola deserve all the plaudits for engineering their progression to the Champions League final…

Iniesta: Silenced Stamford Bridge

Iniesta: Silenced Stamford Bridge

Much has been made of the fallout of Chelsea’s last-gasp defeat at the hands of Barcelona on Wednesday night, in particular the reaction of Didier Drogba at the final whistle.

Much has been made of the fallout of Chelsea’s last-gasp defeat at the hands of Barcelona on Wednesday night, in particular the reaction of Didier Drogba at the final whistle.
Yes, many might agree with the Ivorian that the refereeing was a “disgrace”, but the truth is only one of the four shouts the Blues had was worthy of a penalty being awarded (Pique’s handball from Anelka’s flick).
Indeed, a case can be made that Chelsea profited from referee Tom Henning Overbo as much as they were disadvantaged—in particular Eric Abidal’s sending off for a challenge only the Norwegian saw handed Chelsea a numerical advantage for the majority of the second half.
The fact they did not take advantage of this, but instead were content to sit on the slender lead they had, cannot be blamed on the referee.
Over both ties, Chelsea showed little real adventure or ambition, and looked destined to go through on the back of one unexpected moment of exquisite beauty from their midfield linchpin. To moan afterwards about the refereeing is simply disingenuous—the misplaced anger of an emotional team devastated to see victory snatched away from them in the cruelest of manners.
Blame must start at home.
Where is the dissection of Cech’s questionable technique, that allowed Iniesta’s shot to rifle past him?
Where is the post-mortem of the defensive organisation, lax enough to allow arguably Barcelona’s most threatening player on the night space on the edge of the box?
Why didn’t the team go in for the kill when their opponents went down to 10 men?
These questions, ney criticisms, for Chelsea should be raised and answered. Hiding behind the excuse of poor referring will not change anything in the long-run. But a bit of self-awareness and reflection, currently so conspicuous in its absence, just might.
Due to the fuss made by much of the Chelsea hierarchy, the consensus already seems to be dismissing Barcelona’s triumph as a result of extreme good fortune.
This paints an inaccurate picture.
If anything, a Barcelona triumph would have been the only fair reflection of the tie.
Barcelona’s manager, Josep Guardiola, deserves great credit for steering his side to success. Yes, Iniesta’s strike came dangerously late, but to restrict a powerful and imposing Chelsea side to one goal in 180 minutes (and a Yeboah-esque wonder strike at that) is an impressive achievement equal to anything their opponents were lauded for at the Nou Camp.
Considering in the second leg Barcelona had to do without the influential presence of Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez, and Thierry Henry, Guardiola should be lauded for enabling his team to progress—especially on enemy territory, having seen his side go a goal down.
Playing Yaya Toure in central defence was a masterstroke—the key pre-match decision in a selection full of them. Guardiola had other options—he could have opted for admittedly inconsistent Martin Caceres at the back, or put Busquets as the makeshift defender in order to keep the team’s traditional midfield core together.
But he went for Toure—and the Ivorian proved himself to be the correct choice.
The 25-year-old helped Pique cope with the physicality of Drogba, and nullified the threat of a striker that has been in top form in recent weeks. Crucially, though, he also acted as a invaluably distributor of the ball when in possession—bringing it out of defence with panache, and starting attacks with intelligence.
He created another facet to Barcelona’s play in attack, without sacrificing too much defensive security.
Attacking threat was something they craved, especially as the absence of Thierry Henry appeared to considerably blunt the Catalan giant’s threat. Iniesta did a solid job deputising in the Frenchman’s unfamiliar role, creating a lot of width on the left and generally giving Bosingwa food for thought.
But, thanks in part to Chelsea’s dogged and disciplined defence, it rarely looked like anything tangible would come of his prolific industry.
Until the last minute, that is.
In midfield, Sergi Busquets stepped up to the plate admirably, as did Seydou Keita. At times they did bend, but never did they break. Confronting arguably the most imposing midfield trio in world football, that is not something to be overlooked.
Still, the nagging feeling for Chelsea fans today might be that if their team had applied more pressure on the two newcomers, they might have got some reward.
In his career, Guus Hiddink has been on the end of as many fortunate refereeing decisions as poor ones, and would undoubtedly admit privately that the team cannot really blame anyone other than themselves for the defeat.
Ultimately, Abidal’s red should have been the rag to the bull—spurring the Blues on to go in for the kill. That it didn’t only serves to demonstrate the team are not yet worthy of becoming European champions.
Last night’s match was not a triumph for refereeing, nor a triumph for Chelsea’s style of play—but it was a triumph for the beautiful game.
And it was a triumph for Pep Guardiola.Much has been made of the fallout of Chelsea’s last-gasp defeat at the hands of Barcelona on Wednesday night, in particular the reaction of Didier Drogba at the final whistle.

Yes, many might agree with the Ivorian that the refereeing was a “disgrace”, but the truth is only one of the four shouts the Blues had was worthy of a penalty being awarded (Pique’s handball from Anelka’s flick).

Indeed, a case can be made that Chelsea profited from referee Tom Henning Overbo as much as they were disadvantaged—in particular Eric Abidal’s sending off for a challenge only the Norwegian saw handed Chelsea a numerical advantage for the majority of the second half.

The fact they did not take advantage of this, but instead were content to sit on the slender lead they had, cannot be blamed on the referee.

Over both ties, Chelsea showed little real adventure or ambition, and looked destined to go through on the back of one unexpected moment of exquisite beauty from their midfield linchpin. To moan afterwards about the refereeing is simply disingenuous—the misplaced anger of an emotional team devastated to see victory snatched away from them in the cruelest of manners.

Blame must start at home.

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May 7, 2009 Posted by | Sport, World Football | , , , , | 3 Comments