Sunday, March 22, 2015

Advantage Barça at home, Spanish four march on in Europe

* The 230th clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid was of course the match of the week, with 98,760 in the Camp Nou and an estimated global TV audience of 400 million.

Barça arrived the clear favourites on the back of their excellent form and Real the underdogs based on the Champions League loss to Schalke, Cristiano Ronaldo's grouchy mood, Gareth Bale's only recently re-watered goal drought and James Rodriguez' ongoing injury absence.

Lionel Messi's 17 goals in the calendar year of 2015 versus the 'BBC''s total of 15 also bolstered Catalan hopes of victory.

Real led Barça in wins 92 to 89 going into the game but the azulgrana had a 42 v 18 wins record on home turf and leading the league had not lost at home to Real for 85 years.

It was not a classic clásico by any means but had a heap of talking points and incidents. Having enjoyed the better of a first half and scored an exquisite equaliser, Real will be scratching their hands as to how they ended up playing such a muted second 45 minutes and losing 2-1.

They can point to Ronaldo hitting the bar and having a swerving long-range effort tipped over, Bale wrongly being flagged offside for a goal, two Claudio Bravo saves from Karim Benzema and narrow misses from the Welshman and Isco as evidence the gods were not on their side.

Yet the lack of true strikers beyond Benzema was again laid bare, as was the lack of fire in the midfield duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who burnt out early, and Bale's ongoing search for his old magic.

Much criticised for his selfishness, Bale played so many horizontal short passes one longed for him to run with the ball into his own channels, but he was compelled by Carlo Ancelotti's 4-4-2 shape to track back and keep the shape in the middle.

Despite exciting runs from Messi and Neymar and a brace of last-gasp saves from Iker Casillas to stop further scores, Barça themselves never really caught fire either.

The game as a whole threatened to descend into a bad-tempered scrap of fouls and simulations as referee Antonio Mateu flashed 11 yellow cards, and the show was not a patch on last season's memorable battles in the league and Copa del Rey.

But the Catalans were deserved winners simply for netting one more than Real, the first a simple Messi free-kick met by a diagonal run and header from Jeremy Mathieu, and the second a route one ball from right-back for Luis Suarez to run onto and fire into the corner.

Four points is the gap at the top now, which looks wider than it is given Barça's rich vein of football (19 wins in the last 20), but the big two could yet meet again in the Champions League.

Valencia maintained their fine form with a 4-0 win at Elche to stay third, a point clear of Atletico Madrid, who beat Getafe 2-0 at the Manzanares. Fernando Torres scored in the second minute for Los Colchoneros, his first strike in La Liga since 2011.

* It was a great midweek in the Champions League for Spain as Atletico Madrid and Barcelona joined Real Madrid in the last eight to form the largest country contingent.

Atletico rescued their waning season by advancing to the quarter-finals on a tense night at the Manzanares. Trailing Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 from the away leg, Los Colchoneros won 1-0 after 120 minutes and 3-2 in the resulting shoot-out.

The tie started nervously for the home side who lost goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya through injury on 21 minutes. They took the lead six minutes later from Mario Suarez' blast from the edge of the box but had to endure a nervous further hour and a half as both sides failed to find a decisive second.

Watching a German side fluff three out of their five penalties was a surreal sight, and Hakan Calhanglu's opening miss, a powder-puff pass down the middle to the goalie, will probably find its way onto football-comedy DVDs before long.

Atletico had an escape in truth as Raul Garcia and Koke both missed their penalties too. Luckily for Atleti, Omer Toprak and Stefan Kiessling scooped their kicks sky-high. During the shoot-out, Atleti's Turkish midfielder turned his back and prayed in Islamic fashion.

Two of his compatriots playing for Bayer then missed. For the 48,273 packed into the Manzanares, it was a mighty relief.

On Wednesday, Barcelona had it a little more comfortably as they edged Manchester City 1-0 at the Camp Nou to go through 3-1 on aggregate.

The Catalans dominated the game and showed flashes of their old brilliance, which doubtless pleased Pep Guardiola, looking on from the stands.

Messi was once again imperious, setting up the only goal, orchestrating Barça's best attacks with flambloyant aplomb and at one point nutmegging James Milner delightfully.

Ivan Rakitic's goal just after the half hour was the only goal they had to show for their efforts, but a lot of that was down to Joe Hart making a string of top-drawer saves for the visitors in the closing stages.

The Blues missed a golden chance to get back into the tie with twelve minutes to go when Sergio Aguero's spot-kick was saved by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, but they could not complain as Barça outshot them 19 to 10 overall with nine versus five efforts on target, and enjoyed 57% of the ball.

The last eight of the Champions League has three La Liga clubs but no more than two Spanish teams will be in the last four however, as last season's finalists Atletico and Real were drawn against each other, with Atletico at home first on the 14th of April.

Barça travel to PSG the following night for the first leg of their tie.

Over the past six seasons, the quarter-finals have witnessed 14 La Liga entrants compared to eight from the Premier League, eight from the Premier League and five from Serie A. Will it be the second all-Spanish final in a row?

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QFs: Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid, Juventus v Monaco, PSG v Barcelona, Porto v Bayern Munich.

* In Thursday's Europa League action, Sevilla eliminated Villareal 5-2 an aggregate after a 2-1 win at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Villareal were looking for a miracle having lost 3-1 at home in the first leg but attacked manfully and certainly did not throw in the towel. Their endeavour was not rewarded by goals however and their hopes took a hammer blow in the 69th minute when Vicente Iborra tapped in for Sevilla.

Giovani Dos Santos curled in an equaliser but Denis Suarez' header in the 83rd minute sealed the deal for the Andalucians.

As luck would have it the two clubs, who sat 5th and 6th in La Liga, met again on Sunday at El Madrigal in Villareal and Sevilla again emerged triumphant, 2-0, with goals from Coke and Vitolo.

Sevilla's reward is a quarter-final showdown with Zenit St Petersburg, who knocked-out Torino 4-1 on aggregate. The first leg is in Seville on the 16th of April.

EUROPA LEAGUE QFs - Sevilla v Zenit St Petersburg, Club Brugge v Dnipro, Dynamo Kiev v Fiorentina, Wolfsburg v Napoli.

* Real Sociedad boss David Moyes might have left the Premier League under a cloud following his traumatic few months at Manchester United, but he now claims from his La Liga vantage point that the English top flight is "probably the poorest Premier League I've seen in a long time."

Moyes' comments are timely as no English club has made it to the last eight of the European competitions. The Scot admitted that most Spanish clubs have no buying power compared to the big two, but that Atletico, Valencia and Villareal had still managed to go far in Europe.

* Sevilla's in-form Vitolo was the most notable addition to the Spain squad for their Euro 2016 qualifer with Ukraine on Friday in Seville and friendly with Holland in Amsterdam the following Tuesday.

The 25 year-old left-winger has scored eight goals in 28 appearances this season, helping guide Sevilla to the last eight of the Europa League.

Another new face was Villareal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo and Malaga's 21 year-old striker Juanmi, who replaced the injured Diego Costa.

Vicente Del Bosque dropped Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta, citing ample cover at left-back in the form of Barcelona's Jordi Alba and Bayern's Juan Bernat.

There was no recall for Fernando Torres, Juan Mata or Alvaro Negredo, but Juventus' Alvaro Morata was selected on the basis of his contributions to Juve's Serie A and Champions League campaigns. Valencia's 21 year-old striker Paco Alcacer was also overlooked.

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), David De Gea (Man Utd), Sergio Asenjo (Villareal)

Defenders: Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), JuanFran (Atletico Madrid), Jordi Alba, Marc Bartra, Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Raul Albiol (Napoli), Juan Bernat (Bayern Munich)

Midfielders: Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Mario Suarez, Koke (Atletico Madrid), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao), Vitolo (Sevilla), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), David Silva (Man City), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Isco (Real Madrid)

Forwards: Juanmi (Malaga), Pedro (Barcelona), Alvaro Morata (Juventus)

* Cristiano Ronaldo wants to move to MLS in 2018, according to Sports lllustrated and the Daily Telegraph.

The Portuguese would be 33 then and would have a maximum three seasons left in Spanish soccer.

If he went it would probably be to a major city like New York or Los Angeles, and he could link up with David Beckham, who still hopes to get his Miami franchise plan off the ground.

* The Daily Star claims Jose Mourinho is proposing a €200 million raid on Real duo Gareth Bale and Raphael Varane, joining the dots and coming up with a suitably large figure.

UPCOMING BIG GAMES ; kick-off times GMT

Fri 27th Mar - Euro 2016 qualifier - Spain v Ukraine 7.45pm

Tue 31st Mar - Friendly - Netherlands v Spain 7.45pm

Sat 4th April - La Liga     Cordoba v Atletico Madrid  5pm

Sun 5th April - La Liga    Real Madrid v Granada 11am, Valencia v Villareal 4pm, Celta Vigo v Barcelona 8pm

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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