Monday, April 27, 2015

A Clásico beckons in Berlin...?

Champions League.
THE SPANISH WEEK IN REVIEW

Spain's big two reach the last four of the Champions League, Guardiola comes home, Torres at 700 and Chicharito shines again

The juicy prospect of a Clásico final in Berlin is on after Barcelona were drawn against Bayern Munich and Real Madrid against Juventus in the Champions League semi-finals.

The Barça v Bayern clash stands out as it pits Pep Guardiola against his former club and spiritual home, and the tactics spotters will have their eyes peeled analysing what has become of the Barcelona style of play at both clubs.

Bayern, who have just won the Bundesliga, also boast the Spanish legion of Xabi Alonso, Juan Bernat, Pepe Reina and Thiago, with Javi Martinez watching from the sidelines. Guardiola's presence still hovers over the Camp Nou, inevitably perhaps given the glory he achieved there and how young he was when he asked to step off the thrilling ride.

His status as a king in exile keeping the door slightly ajar makes this an intriguing tie. Win or lose, Guardiola will face questions and private thoughts about where he belongs.

Yet Juve and Real should serve up an equally gripping contest. The healing time for Real’s injury list could be key, although playing the second leg at the Bernabeu should give them the edge against La Signora's mean defence.

Luka Modric will definitely miss the semi, but is a possibility should Real reach the final. Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema are set to be fit for the 5th of May clash in Turin. Barcelona could get a boost as Thomas Vermaelen, their summer capture from Arsenal, is almost fit to make his debut.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SEMI-FINALS
5th May                 Juventus v Real Madrid
6th May                 Barcelona v Bayern Munich
12th May               Bayern Munich v Barcelona
13th May               Real Madrid v Juventus

Barcelona cruised through their quarter-final second leg, winning 2-0 at home to PSG to advance convincingly 5-1 overall.

Paris SG were supposed to be the new kids on the European block but they have some way to go having failed to make Barça sweat over 120 minutes. For the neutral it was another pleasantly open game like the first leg had been, and much easier on the eye than the Madrid derby.

Barça’s opening goal in the 14th minute was embarrassingly easy as Andres Iniesta picked up the ball in his own half and sailed past three PSG players before releasing Neymar to coast through and poke home.

4-1 up on aggregate meant Luis Enrique’s side could relax. Dani Alves drew a fingertip save from 30 yards and soon after indulged in some trickery to cross for an unmarked Neymar to head home a second.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was hardly noticeable on his return to his former club and another Camp Nou old boy, PSG coach Laurent Blanc, left with a lot of thinking to do.

After another apparently effortless victory and smooth passage to Europe’s last four, the debates over Luis Enrique’s stewardship have died down, as well as questions over Barça’s new playing style.

As in last year’s Champions League final, Atletico Madrid succumbed by the only goal to their big city rivals so the Real show goes on.

Diego Simeone’s battle-plan had all gone to script up until Arda Turan challenged Sergio Ramos for a high ball in the 75th minute and the Turk’s boot made contact with the Spaniard instead of the ball.
Ramos looked guilty of gamesmanship in his writhing reaction and it worked as Turan picked up his second yellow and left the field.

Turan was guilty of mistiming rather than malice but equally on a yellow card probably should have kept his studs down. Whatever the justice, after 165 minutes of sweaty deadlock, everyone felt the red card would be the turning point and Atletico wilted psychologically from it.

Thirteen minutes later, a moment of defensive chaos allowed Cristiano Ronaldo in and he squared to allow Javier Hernandez an easy tap-in.

The Mexican, on only his seventh start of the season, had failed to impress again, but celebrated his strike like he had won the World Cup. Chicharito’s ecstasy unveiled all his frustration at being a bit player in Madrid, and he is unlikely to score such a vital goal for such a big club in his life again.

Real had dominated most of the match and forged its best chances through James Rodriguez and Ronaldo. Lacking four starters and having failed to score at the Manzanares, it was a triumph of sorts to eke through at home, though the sending-off tilted the tie in their favour. Atletico’s gamble of playing for a lucky break or penalties had failed.

Atletico's last hope of a trophy this season has now gone, but a narrow loss to Real, a third-place finish in La Liga and the guarantee of Champions League football next season means there is no sense of failure or questions over Simeone's position.

Sevilla made it a clean sweep for Spain on Thursday drawing 2-2 at Zenit St Petersburg to go through 4-3 on aggregate to the Europa League semi-finals.

2-1 up from the first leg, the Andalucians got a break in the sixth minute when Vitolo was rashly scythed down in the box and Carlos Bacca fired high into the net to extend their lead.

But a trip to Russia was always going to be tough and Zenit got their own break two minutes into the second half as Sevilla goalkeeper Beto was caught out by a looping cross-cum-shot from Oleg Shatov and hastily backpedalling, could only fumble the ball straight to Salomon Rondon for an easy equaliser.

Zenit’s second was even more stunning, a snap shot from around 35 yards out on the right-wing by Hulk, which took everyone, including Beto once more, by surprise. The wind was now in the Russians’ sails and elimination loomed.

But the Spaniards struck gold in the 85th with a second goal to kill off the tie. Vitolo counter-attacked from the left and cut in to play a square ball across the D. Vicente Ibarra dummied it leaving substitute Kevin Gameiro to rifle a diagonal shot past Yuri Lodygin.

Fiorentina await in the semi-finals, with the first leg at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on the seventh of May.

*In La Liga it was business as usual as the top three all won. Barcelona had little trouble taking their city derby 2-0 at Espanyol. Two first half goals from Neymar and Messi did the damage, both moves of rapid switches rather than attacks down the middle.

The home side never truly threatened and both sides had a player dismissed, Jordi Alba for Barça for a foul and protest in the 54th minute, then Hector Moreno for Espanyol in injury time.

In Sunday's late kick-off, Real were once more playing catch-up on Barça but triumphed 4-2 in Galicia at Celta de Vigo.

The visitors trailed in the ninth minute as Celta's Nolito profited from Sergio Ramos losing a boot to cut in from the right and eke his way between Raphael Varane and Illarramendi before beating Iker Casillas at his near post.

Toni Kroos placed his shot through a crowded box into the top corner to equalise seven minutes later. Then in the 24th a Latin American combination helped Real take the lead.

James Rodriguez combined neatly with Javier Hernandez on the right to let the Mexican fire in from a tight angle. Chicharito, hero against Atletico in midweek, was ecstatic again.

But Celta were not out of it and just short of the half hour Santa Mina burst down the middle breaking the Real backline in two and netted at the second attempt to draw scores level.

Cristiano Ronaldo then hit the post before a James shot deflected off Andreu Fontas to wrongfoot his goalkeeper and make it 3-2 to Real after an action-packed 45 minutes.

Real got a break early in the second half when Kroos felled Fabian Orellana from behind in the box but no penaly ensued. Ramos made it sure in the 69th when he released Hernandez down the middle and the Mexican fired his second of the night past Sergio Alvarez.

Chicharito has enjoyed his best week at the club, profiting from Karim Benzema's injury to grab some goals and prove he is not a spent force or mere second-class option.

If he keeps up his scoring in the meantime, when the Frenchman returns Carlo Ancelotti will have some thinking to do, especially whether to spend the £7.5 million to buy him outright from Manchester United.

Hernandez had complained of a lack of opportunity, despite having been signed as striker cover after failing to nail down a starter spot at Old Trafford, but is changing opinions after this week's goal haul.

Atletico Madrid stay third after winning 3-0 at home to Elche. Fernando Torres played his 700th professional game, but failed to find the net. Antoine Griezmann continued his impressive debut campaign with a brace and Raul Garcia added another.

Sevilla capped a happy week by slipping past Valencia into fourth, at least until Monday night, beating Rayo Vallecano 2-0 at home.

Deportivo La Coruna, Granada and Cordoba still occupy the bottom three, but Almeria beat Eibar and Levante Getafe to help them move away from the drop zone.

LA PRIMERA

  1. Barcelona           Pld 33 Pts 81  +72
  2. Real Madrid       Pld 33 Pts 79  +69
  3. Atletico Madrid  Pld 33 Pts 72  +38
  4. Sevilla                Pld 33 Pts 66 +23
  5. Valencia             Pld 32 Pts 65 +31
PICHICHI (Top-scorer)

Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)          39
Lionel Messi (Barcelona)                     36
Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid)    22
Neymar (Barcelona)                            19
Carlos Bacca (Sevilla)                         17

In the Liga Adelante, Girona leapfrogged Sporting Gijon to jump into the automatic promotion place behind Real Betis, while Las Palmas, Real Valladolid and Ponferradina occupy the playoff spots.

* Real will hardly be able to relax this summer. The team will travel to Australia, China and Germany, playing the likes of Manchester City, Roma, Inter, Milan, Tottenham and Bayern Munich.

* In this week's transfer rumours, Real Madrid may launch an audacious raid on Chelsea for England's PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard. Los merengues are also said to be eyeing Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.

West Ham were mulling over a £7 million move for Chicharito, before his goal-fest this week. Dinamo Moscow have allegedly enquired too.

Chelsea allegedly offered Real £100 million for Gareth Bale and Raphael Varane but were turned down.

Real are said to have slapped a £35 million price tag on Isco, with Chelsea and Man City waiting in the wings.

Lazio meanwhile are interested in signing Real's 22 year-old Spanish striker Jese.

Man Utd are set to make Real "an offer they cannot refuse" for Gareth Bale.

Espanyol's Mexican centre-back Hector Moreno is set for a move to North London, with Arsenal pipping Tottenham to the contract.

Manchester City are willing to shell out £50 million to buy out the contract of Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba, who is tied to the Camp Nou until 2017.

City are also preparing an approach to Atletico's Diego Simeone to take over from Manuel Pellegrini or could turn to Carlo Ancelotti or Rafael Benitez if Pep Guardiola stays put.

Barça president Josep Bartomeu admitted his club "enjoy watching" Juventus' Paul Pogba on television. The blaugrana have a transfer ban until next winter.

Barcelona have also been keeping tabs on Inter's Croatian attacking midfielder Mateo Kovacic.

Atletico's Spanish international Koke is a £43 million target for Chelsea, despite a release clause of £50 million in the five-year deal he penned last year.

Los Rojiblancos are apparently no longer interesed in signing Everton's Kevin Mirallas, while Juventus are keen on Atletico centre-back Miranda.


THIS WEEK'S BIG MATCHES, all LA LIGA (kick-off times GMT)

Mon 27th April
Valencia v Granada  19:45

Tue 28th April
Barcelona v Getafe  19:00

Wed 29th April
Real Madrid v Almeria        19:00
Villareal v Atletico Madrid  21:00

Thu 30th April
Rayo Vallecano v Valencia  19:00

Sat 2nd May
Cordoba v Barcelona 15:00
Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao 17:00
Sevilla v Real Madrid 19:00

Sun 3rd May
Valencia v Eibar  18:00

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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