Monday, June 1, 2015

Sevilla shine in Warsaw, Barça win cup number two

SEVILLA RETAIN THE EUROPA LEAGUE WHILE MAGIC MESSI DAZZLES THE COPA DEL REY

THE SPANISH WEEK IN REVIEW

Two cup finals, two Spanish winners.

Sevilla won the Europa League in style and Barcelona won the Copa del Rey with more devastating, winning football, topped by yet another wonder goal from Lionel Messi.

With the King in attendance, the Spanish national anthem was booed however by separatist-minded supporters filling the Camp Nou on Saturday. Spain briefly seemed the sum of its parts. So perhaps it was Andalucia who won the Europa League, while Catalonia beat the Basque Country for the Copa del Rey.

SEVILLA WIN IN WARSAW

Sevilla got the ball rolling by defending their Europa League trophy in Warsaw, defeating Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 3-2 on aggregate. It was an open and entertaining encounter, with four first-half goals, but the better team won in the end.

The Spaniards enjoyed 58% of the ball overall and outshot the Ukrainians 18 to 12 but overall looked to have the edge in technique and consistent quality.

Carlos Bacca was the star of the night, scoring twice to turn the tie after Dnipro had taken a seventh-minute lead through a Nikola Kalinic header, although local boy Grzegorz Krychowiak will have relished drawing Sevilla level just short of the half hour in front of 45,000 in Poland's national stadium.

Bacca's second, as the ball fell loose to him on the edge of the box, was a clinical strike worthy of a world-class finisher.

It was probably the Colombian's finest hour, as at national team level he has lived in the shadow of Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez. After his matchwinner he donned his country's tricolour to remind them he is in red hot form with the Copa America approaching, and was shown a yellow card.

Bacca netted seven goals throughout the campaign and was named by UEFA's Technical Study group in the 18-man squad of the tournament alongside teammates Sergio Rico, Timothee Kolodziejczak, Aleix Vidal, Ever Banega, Krychowiak and Stephane Mbia.

Jose Antonio Reyes had buzzed around effectively for about an hour in the final, a fitting swansong if indeed he is on his way out of the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Sevilla had played fourteen Europa League games before the final, an itinerary which had taken them to Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands (where they lost their only game, 2-0 to Feyenoord), Russia and across Spain to beat Villareal in the Round of 16.

The team played refreshing attacking football and, realistically unable to win La Liga, rightly enjoyed their moment in the sun in Warsaw. Sevilla have passionate fans and the city came to a standstill to salute their heroes' return on Thursday.

Manager Unai Emery dedicated the prize to his father, who had passed away two weeks beforehand, and Sevilla player Antonio Puerta who died in 2007.

"Life brings bitter moments so you must experience joy fully when it is there," he mused.

It was all good news for Spanish football.

Sevilla broke the record for UEFA Cup/Europa League finals with four victories, one more than Inter, Juventus and Liverpool.

They also won a place in the Autumn's European Supercup match and go straight into the 2015/'16 Champions League group stages, taking La Liga's representation to five teams and keeping Spain's coefficient at the top of Europe.

VILLAR THE VILLAIN

Sevilla's success coincided with the FBI raid on FIFA's Congress in Switzerland, providing a contrast between football as a passionate, theatrical entertainment enjoyed by supporters in stadia, and the dishonest, shifty and downright criminal empire run by Sepp Blatter from Zurich.

FIFA Vice President and Spanish F.A. chief Angel Maria Villar was not among those arrested, and remains one of embattled President Blatter's staunchest loyalists. He certainly voted for his reelection and must feel aghast at UEFA now making clear water between them and Blatter and entertaining a World Cup boycott.

He is one of those named however in the probe into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup votes and appears to be on a sticky wicket after famously boasting of trying to buy the 2018 tournament for Spain and Portugal as part of a mutual support deal with Qatar.

"All the fish are sold," his legendary quote, may yet come back to haunt him. He was of course left with egg on his face as Russia romped home for 2018 but like the rest of FIFA's old guard, has never dreamed of stepping down and continues to defend the organisation in absurd terms:

"FIFA is a clean institution," claimed Villar this week, ludicrously. "Enough slander. This process is clean, whatever they say."

Villar gained backing this week from national team coach Vicente del Bosque, who claimed, "I would put my hand in the fire for the president because I know he has football's best interests at heart."

The Basque-born Villar has plenty of critics however and once more raised eyebrows when he swanned in 45 minutes late for the traditional pre-match meal for directors at the Copa del Rey final in Barcelona.

Last season he said he was too busy to attend the title decider between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, which meant Atletico did not receive their trophy until the autumn, and this year failed to show up at the LFP (Spanish League)'s extraordinary general meetings following the death of a Deportivo La Coruna fan in Madrid and the threatened strike over TV rights last month.

The LFP Chairman Javier Tebas accused Villar of "living in medieval times, deciding everything from his castle."

Villar looked suitably relaxed at the Copa del Rey final but as a former Athletic Bilbao player, cannot have enjoyed seeing them outclassed by Barcelona.

Real Madrid Stadium, Madrid, Spain.


RAFA IS A REAL MAN

By midweek it seemed clear that Rafael Benitez would be taking over at the Bernabeu next season.

While Real Madrid have only said they will make a formal announcement next week, the former Valencia and Liverpool coach left Napoli with everyone all smiles and Real vice-president Eduardo Fernando de Blas told AS that Benitez would be the best manager in the world "from next week."

Benitez had already been sounded out before Real's Champions League exit and yet the transition from Carlo Ancelotti still appears to have been remarkably fast and smooth.

Benitez's final chapter at the Estadio San Paolo was a negative one as Napoli lost 4-2 at home to Lazio and duly failed to make it to the preliminary round of the Champions League. The Europa League is their consolation prize.

When the Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis said he was "120% satisfied with Benitez's work", and the manager was popular with the fans, one has to wonder if the lure of the Bernabeu was not an automatic decision for the Champions League winning coach.

"My family is not happy leaving Naples because they appreciate the city and its beauty," Benitez told AS. Paradoxically he added,

"A few weeks ago I spoke to my wife when we had the possibility to stay, but I could not convince her."

 The Real offer had been on the table for some time therefore, which explains Emilio Butragueno's persistent failure to back Ancelotti for next season.

It should not be forgotten that Benitez is Madrid born, spent seven years playing for the Merengues' reserves and coached the club's youth teams and Real Madrid B, before leaving to coach five Spanish teams, Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea and Napoli.

COPA DEL REY FINAL

And so the domestic season wrapped up with the Copa del Rey Final on Saturday night.

As expected, Barcelona triumphed over Athletic Bilbao, but with the King and 30,000 travelling Basques in the Camp Nou, the atmosphere was a little different than normal.

The pre-match national anthem played out in front of King Felipe, who happens to support Atletico Madrid, to expected jeers around the arena, with none of the players joining in.

This had always been expected, and the clubs may yet face fines as a result.

As regards the football, Athletic had not come for a hiding. Tens of thousands of their fans had descended upon Barcelona for the day out and their players started strongly with plenty of grit. But Lionel Messi, who else, wounded them with a goal so magical it seemed their cause was hopeless in the face of such powers.

In the 20th minute, the Argentine took off from the right wing, cutting inside and accelerating while dodging past four defenders and rifling a shot inside the near post. Breathtaking would be putting it mildly. The Spanish commentary called him 'The Martian' following the extraterrestrial strike.

The Barça trident was as sharp as ever and Neymar had had a goal flagged for offside in the tenth minute before he and Luis Suarez sprang the offside trap in the 37th to allow the Brazilian an easy tap-in. Keeping the two far apart and extending the rival back four across the box has been the key to forging space for Messi in the hole and handing the strikers space to attack.

Inaki Williams, born in Bilbao to two African parents, looked Athletic's only hope for goals as the Basques looked like drowning at 2-0 down shortly before the break.

Xavi replaced Andres Iniesta in the 55th for his final swansong at the Camp Nou and in the 74th minute it was all over as an alert Messi darted in between three sleeping defenders to poke home a cross from the overlapping Daniel Alves, a man apparently on his way out but whose reputation has risen in recent matches.

Athletic finally got a break with ten minutes to go when Williams flicked a header past Andre Ter Stegen but the subsequent fightback was not sustained.

The Lions wasted their last-chance momentum by taking offence to Neymar's showboating and almost starting a brawl in the process.

Neymar had attempted a two-footed flick, called a 'lambretta' over here, over Bilbao defender Unai Bustinza.

Bustinza then fouled him with a push, but the Brazilian's cheeky action, akin to Ossie Ardiles' trick in 'Escape to Victory', enraged the opposing players as they headed for defeat, particularly Xabier Etxeita, who had to be restrained several times.

Xavi did his captain's job in keeping Neymar away and at last it all calmed down. What a sorry sight to set before the King.

Luis Enrique refused to back his player in the post-match press conference, although personally I saw nothing wrong with it and thought the clear foul on Neymar should have been punished.

It was no more disrespectful than a Cruyff turn or Cuauhtemoc Blanco's two-footed leap with the ball (the Cuautemiña) for Mexico at the 1998 World Cup. 

Xavi curled a free kick onto a post in the 95th minute, almost a dream ending for him, but at least he looked delighted after the final whistle for a change.

Ernesto Valverde's men could have no complaints.

LIGA ADELANTE

Barcelona may be atop the European game but their reserve side Barcelona B have just been relegated to Spain's third tier, the Segunda B, after finishing bottom of the Liga Adelante. Sabadell have also gone down. Pepe Mel's Real Betis are up to La Primera, which sets up the juicy Seville derby for next season.

NEW FACES FOR SPAIN

Sevilla winger Aleix Vidal (25) and goalkeeper Sergio Rico (21)are the new call-ups for Spain for the friendly against Costa Rica in Leon on the 11th of June and the Euro 2016 qualifier away to Belarus three days later.

Vicente Del Bosque's squad:

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), David De Gea (Man Utd), Sergio Rico (Sevilla)
Defenders: Jordi Alba, Marc Bartra, Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Juanfran (Atletico Madrid), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao), Juan Bernat (Bayern Munich)
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Aleix Vidal, Vitolo (Sevilla), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), David Silva (Manchester City), Isco (Real Madrid), Nolito (Celta Vigo)
Attackers: Paco Alcacer (Valencia), Alvaro Morata (Juventus), Pedro (Barcelona)

TRANSFER RUMOURS

With Napoli losing Rafael Benitez to Real Madrid, the Italian club have turned to Sevilla's Unai Emery in their hunt for a replacement. Boss De Laurentiis has jetted into Spain to try to sign him. Elsewhere it was reported that Manchester City could offer Emery a job.

In this week's whisper mill, Diego Costa has apparently told his old club Atletico Madrid that he is unhappy at Chelsea and desires a return to the Spanish capital in the rojiblanco of Atleti.

Jose Mourinho meanwhile is still trying to recruit Atletico's central defenders Joao Miranda and Toby Alderweireld with Filipe Luis heading in the opposite direction. Southampton have an option to buy the on-loan Belgian for €9.4 million, or Atletico can, somewhat bizarrely, pay the Saints €2m to delete that clause.

Dani Alves (Barcelona), Sami Khedira (Real Madrid) and Stephane Mbia (Sevilla) are all out of contract now so expect them to hook up with new employers shortly. Alves apparently is moving to PSG as early as next month, while Khedira has apparently had a medical with Juventus and is about to pen a four-year deal.

Real Madrid are still keen to sign Italian midfielder Marco Verratti from PSG but the French giants have no wish to sell, having already turned down a €40 offer last summer, according to Gazzetta dello Sport. The player too seems to be in no hurry to move, earning €

Valencia are planning an audacious double-raid on Colombian strikers Jackson Martinez from Porto and Radamel Falcao from Monaco. Martinez is under contract until 2017 and is rated around €35 million but his salary is around a quarter of Falcao's reported €14 million p.a.

Porto look set to buy Brazilian midfielder Casemiro from Real Madrid for €15 million. The 23 year-old, who has seven caps for the selecao, has impressed during his year-long loan in Portugal.

Falcao has been linked again with Chelsea. He and Mourinho share the same agent, Jorge Mendes.

Chelsea are said to be after Atletico pair Koke and Antoine Griezmann as well.

The Europa League heroics of another Colombian Carlos Bacca, have not gone unnoticed with a rumour Manchester United may swoop for him to replace the disappointing Falcao.

Atletico Madrid are hoping to sign Celta Vigo's attacker Nolito for between €14 and 18 million, as well as Anderlecht's Congolese full back Chancel Mbemba.

Los Colchoneros face a three-way fight with Arsenal and Liverpool for Villareal striker Luciano Vietto. Diego Simeone must act fast, as the Argentine, dubbed 'the new Aguero', has a €20 million release clause.

The Madrid club have also slapped a €25 million price tag on Mario Mandzukic, who is interesting Milan.

Atletico and Sevilla are after Besiktas midfielder Gokhan Tore. The Turkish international has also caught the eye of Inter, Southampton, Tottenham and Wolfsburg, but it is felt the presence of fellow countryman Arda at the Manzanares could tip the balance in Atleti's favour.

Real Madrid denied offering €50 million to Juventus for Paul Pogba, as reported in La Stampa in Italy. Real chief Florentino Perez is said to be on bad terms with the player's agent Mino Raiola.

Real, along with Liverpool, are said to be eyeing Juventus's Chilean midfield star Arturo Vidal.

Paul Clement, the English assistant coach of Real Madrid, has resigned following his friend Carlo Ancelotti's sacking. The two worked together at Stamford Bridge and the Parc des Princes before the Bernabeu.

Athletic Bilbao are keen to sign Arsenal's Pamplona-born left-back Nacho Monreal as well as Spanish international Fernando Llorente from Juventus.

Real Sociedad could send Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason out on loan to a Premier League side.

Borussia Dortmund are keen to capture Chicharito as his loan at Real Madrid has now expired.

Real Madrid are set to slug it out with Chelsea for Raheem Sterling after Bayern Munich's interest cooled.

THIS WEEK'S BIG MATCH

UEFA Champions League Final - Saturday 6th June, Berlin, 19:45 GMT

Barcelona v Juventus

The biggest match of the season could have been another Spanish clasico, but Juventus were worthy winners against Real Madrid in the semi-final, and the cross-Mediterranean clash is just as fascinating.

Barcelona have been in fantastic form recently, winning with such abandon some are whispering of invincibility. What is for sure is that the team are so accustomed to attacking they will take the game to Juve.

Lionel Messi's latest wonder goal in the Copa del Rey final will have frightened the Italians, who must come up with a plan to isolate or suffocate the player Pep Guardiola said was unstoppable.

Italians' natural inclination may be to defend first with or without the awesome Barça trident bearing down upon them, but they too have a deadly double Latin strikeforce in Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata.

Should the former Real man knock out Real's biggest rivals at the last hurdle, the beleaguered Bernabeu faithful will have a little silver lining to their season.

The odds and expectation are however, that Luis Enrique will complete an extraordinary treble in his first season in charge, and Messi will provide the icing on the cake to another amazing campaign.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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