Monday, April 20, 2015

All-Spanish Euro final still on the cards

THE SPANISH WEEK IN REVIEW

Barça keep winning while Real's injury list is growing


Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid, a repeat of last year's final, was certainly the pick of the Champions League quarter-final ties on paper and a hard-fought 0-0 final score leaves a second leg to relish.

"It was the best of the worst possible results," said Carlo Ancelotti enigmatically, while his opposite number Diego Simeone added, "It's very difficult with such good opponents to see the smallest detail as favourable."

The capital derby as expected began a bit helter-skelter and with Real dominating possession. Gareth Bale flunked an early one-on-one but neither side forged other clear-cut chances of note, such was the space-denying going on. 45 minutes of struggle confirmed this was high-stakes football

While Ancelotti largely stayed put looking hot and bothered on the bench, his opposite number Diego Simeone prowled the touchline in his close-fitting and dapper black suit, frequently imploring his troops to close down the white shirts.

Sergio Ramos almost committed hari-kiri with an intercepted pass but Antoine Griezmann's whirl to shoot could not beat Iker Casillas.

James Rodriguez curled an exquisite attempt with the outside of his foot through a crowded box ten minutes before the break, but Atletico's goalkeeper Jan Oblak was wise to his plans.

The Colombian was denied by the Slovenian again in the 43rd minute from a tight angle and the half-time whistle came as a surprise after so much compressed energy.

If there was going to be a winner it would most likely be error-induced in the heat of battle.

The pressure threatened to spill over for Mario Mandkukc and Daniel Carvajal whose feud in progress out of sight of the officials at one point led to an exchange of blows which should have drawn red cards.

Mandjukic in particular was fuming and bleeding profusely as well following an aerial collision, seemed on the edge of exploding in red mist.

Replays showed Carvajal apparently biting the Serbian's arm but following the match both players denied any Suarez-esque antics had ensued. The referee flashed only five cards in total which could have been worse.

A dribble from Arda Turan was almost yielded a goal was the highlight of Atletico's attacks but neither side could break the deadlock.

Los Colchoneros had conceded 67% of possession to Real and did not take risks as the second half played out, apparently for fear of conceding an away goal, more proof it appears that the old rule has had its day.

Simeone's side obviously fancy their chances across town in the second leg and the tie looks only slightly tilted in Real's favour.

Real began as favourites and are still tipped to advance now but having failed to score an away goal at the Manzanares, the derby nature of the match means Atletico will have no fear of going for the win at the Bernabeu.

Simeone's side have gained even more hope as Real starters have been falling like ninepins while Atletico's sole injury worry is Mandzukic's right knee.

Los Merengues will be without Luka Modric, who having recently returned from injury, is out again, this time for six weeks with a knee ligament strain.

They will probably also have to do without striker Karim Benzema, who has also picked up a knee injury and Gareth Bale is out for two to three weeks with a calf strain.

Real's trio of fallen galacticos raises questions about the player conditioning at the Bernabeu, and whether they are rushing their stars back to action too readily and for too many minutes.

Bale allegedly complained of pain in his calf but the physios cleared him to play, only for the Welshman to break down after three minutes' action.

Football doctor Jose Gonzalez told AS that soft tissue injuries are often not detected by X-Rays until two or three days after they occur and that team doctors in general are used by clubs retroactively, instead of being involved to help plan training.

To add to Carlo Ancelotti's headaches, right-back Marcelo misses the return leg through suspension having been booked at the Manzanares.

Chicharito should get his chance in place of Benzema up front, but Real's midfield needs reshuffling, with Illarra, Isco, Sami Khedira and Pepe in the mix as replacements.

The onus will fall on James, Toni Kroos and Cristiano Ronaldo to carry the hopes of the home crowd.

Barcelona had no trouble scoring three away goals at the Parc des Princes to probably guarantee their progress to the semi-finals in a 3-1 victory over PSG.

A more open and less pressurized game than the Madrid derby allowed the Catalans plenty of space to weave their magic and PSG to attack too.

Neymar finished a zig-zagging attack diagonally in the 18th minute and Suarez then grabbed a brace of top-drawer finishes. For his first he showed his strangth in holding off defenders and the second was an outside of the boot curler into the top corner. For both goals he nutmegged David Luiz, who had gone back to his clumsy World Cup showings for Brazil.

Edinson Cavani drew a great diving stage from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen before Jeremy Mathieu deflected a late PSG shot into his net to give the French a glimmer of hope, though Barca will go through as long as they don't lose by three at the Camp Nou.

Barça had enjoyed 63% of the ball, in Suarez they had a world-class striker on top form and with the silence of the home crowd confirmed the blaugrana were a class apart. Indeed, it looks harder than ever to bet against them lifting the trophy, such have they excelled away from home in Europe this season.

Elsewhere, the prospect of Pep Guardiola locking horns with his old club receded as Bayern Munich, featuring Spaniards Xabi Alonso, Juan Bernat and Thiago, lost 3-1 at Porto.

"It's a very difficult result for the return leg," said the former Camp Nou coach, "but we are going to try."

Sevilla made it a trio of Spanish wins in Europe by emerging victorious in the Europa League on Thursday, but found a dogged opponent in Zenit St Petersburg, whom they finally downed 2-1.

Having drawn two-all with Barcelona last week, the Andalucians had high hopes of grabbing a healthy first leg lead in the passionate confines of the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

But sleepwalking defenders allowed the visitors' Alexander Ryazantsev two bites of the cherry to snatch a shock lead just short of the half hour.

The subsequent Sevillian siege finally bore fruit in the 73rd minute as Zenit failed to clear their lines en masse and Colombian ace Carlos Bacca leaped to head a snap cross from Aleix Vidal into the net.

Seville kept the pressure up, backed by a fiery 35,000 crowd, and took the lead with an exquisite dipping volley from the edge of the box from Denis Suarez in the 87th.

21 shots to seven confirmed the home side deserved the win but Zenit's away goal means they only need one strike to advance in the return leg next Thursday in Russia.

Back in La Liga, Barça maintained their two-point advantage over Real after defeating Valencia 2-0 at the Camp Nou, while Real won 3-1 at home to Malaga.

Real hopes that the league leaders might slip up for a second week in a row, this time against the fourth-placed side, were dashed as early as the first minute as Suarez slotted home from a Lionel Messi assist.

The Argentine added a second in the 94th minute, his 400th strike for the blaugrana, to seal the deal, running fifty yards unchallenged as the visitors had all pushed up. Valencia did not help their fate after nine minutes when Dani Parejo hit a powder-puff penalty at Claudio Bravo.

The visitors tried hard, largely dominating the game in an effort to draw level, but for all their endeavour and commitment, and despite such a poor performance from Luis Enrique's side, Barça emerged with all the points, and it appears, one hand on the league trophy.

With the gap once more at five points, Real needed a win at home to Malaga to stay in touch. Sergio Ramos grabbed the first in the 24th minute but Malaga fought bravely and in an exciting second half, Real could not relax, especially after Cristiano Ronaldo slammed a 67th minute penalty against the post.

A piece of magic from James Rodriguez doubled their lead in the 69th as the Colombian found space on the edge of the box before curling an exquisite effort onto the postage stamp. Yet two minutes later Juanmi scored for Malaga and it was not until injury time when Chicharito crossed for Ronaldo to tap in unmarked that victory was assured.

Worryingly for Real, who were already missing Karim Benzema through knee injury, Gareth Bale hobbled off after five minutes clutching his left lower leg and Luka Modric on the hour mark following a knee collision. Modric has been ruled out for six weeks.

Atletico won 2-1 at Deportivo La Coruna, who have slipped into the bottom three. Antoine Griezmann's double strike means he has overtaken Neymar in third in the race for the Pichichi top-scorer trophy.

The Frenchman leads the Brazilian by 20 goals to 18. Ahead of them are Leo Messi with 35 goals and Cristiano Ronaldo with 39.

* Real Betis, coached by Pepe Mel, lead the Liga Adelante (second division) by six points from Sporting Gijon and Girona.

Las Palmas, Real Valladolid and Ponferradina occupy the play-off spots with eight games left.

* In this week's transfer rumours, Manchester United goalie David De Gea was yet again linked with a summer move to the Bernabeu, with a Spanish TV programme Jugones claiming the deal was all but sealed.

But Iker Casillas told AS he intends to stay at the Bernabeu until his contract ends in 2017, dampening rumours he could make way for the young Spaniard.

Valencia meanwhile have quashed talk that much-praised teenage left-back Jose Gaya is on his way to Real or Manchester City.

"Gaya is staying at Valencia and is not going to Real Madrid or any other club," said chief executive Amadeo Salvo. Tipped 'the new Roberto Carlos', the 19 year-old is stalling on a new deal at the Mestalla, with his agents demanding a release clause of €22 million and the club €50 million.

Real have enquired about Milan's 16 year-old midfielder Hachim Mastour, according to his agent and are also sniffing around Borussia Dortmund's Marco Reus.

The 25 year-old attacker is under contract until 2019 but without Champions League football next season, could be tempted by a move to Madrid. He & fellow German international Toni Kroos share the same agent and a fee of €30 million has been mooted.

Martin Odegaard, the teenage Norwegian starlet signed in a blaze of publicity last autumn, could make a shock exit this summer from the Bernabeu after failing to break into the first-team squad and struggling to claim a place in Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid B side.

Real's Isco meanwhile, is catching the eye of Arsenal and Manchester City and a transfer fee of €45 million has been mentioned.

Pedro's agent Antonio Sanz confirmed that Inter is an option for the Barcelona attacker, but did not mention reputed suitors Arsenal and Liverpool.

Barcelona have joined the list of clubs interested in Torino's Italian international full-back Matteo Darmian.

Atletico Madrid could re-sign Brazilian left-back Filipe Luis barely a season after selling him to Chelsea for £15.8 million, with Spanish international midfielder Koke heading to Stamford Bridge.

Arsenal are set to pip Tottenham to the signing of Espanyol centre-back Hector Moreno this summer.

Deportivo La Coruna are an unlikely suitor for Tottenham's 20 year-old midfielder Grant Ward, currently on loan at Coventry City.

The English press keeps recycling the idea that Gareth Bale is headed to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or the City of Manchester Stadium, but their Spanish equivalent has never entertained the idea.

Jurgen Klopp's sudden exit from Borussia Dortmund made only a few waves in Spain compared to his more likely destination in England, but his name has equally not been discarded from the list of possible replacements should Carlo Ancelotti fail to land the league or Champions League and be given the heave-ho from the Bernabeu in the summer.

THIS WEEK'S BIG GAMES - Kick-off times GMT

Tuesday 22nd April CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Barcelona (3) v (1) PSG  7.45pm

Wednesday 23rd April CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Real Madrid (0) v (0) Atletico Madrid  7.45pm

Thursday 24th April EUROPA LEAGUE
Zenit St Petersburg (1) v (2) Sevilla

Saturday 25th April LA LIGA
Espanyol v Barcelona  3pm
Atletico Madrid v Elche  5pm
Real Madrid v Villareal  9pm


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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