Champions League semifinals take two

In Tuesday’s match, Chelsea featured a nine-one formation, leaving a back line only meant to return to Stamford Bridge with a tie to bet on the second leg.  As Atletico Madrid kept the pressure up on the 2012 European champions, the Blues made an impenetrable line, sacrificing their veteran center back, John Terry, and their goalkeeper, Petr Cech, in the name of the tie.

(Photo by: ESPN)  As of right now, ESPN's Soccer Power Index gives Real the best chance at a title, but I think otherwise

(Photo by: ESPN) As of right now, ESPN’s Soccer Power Index gives Real the best chance at a title, but I think otherwise

On the opposite side of the city just one day later, the other Madrid team, Real Madrid, took a 1-0 victory away from a game in which they were clearly outplayed by Bayern Munich.  The men in red took away 72 percent of the possession and took twice as many shots as Real, but the final scoreline favored the home team.

As each team heads home to play a league match before next week’s draw, the soccer world holds its breath to see who will make it to club futbol’s biggest stage, the Champions League final to be held in Lisbon this year.

Wednesday’s match will feature a depleted Chelsea side against a revamped Atletico Madrid in a surefire set of exciting ninety minutes.  As the Blues take to the pitch, they will be without their captain, Frank Lampard, out due to an accumulation of yellow cards, their goalkeeper, Petr Cech, who fell victim to a dislocated shoulder, John Terry, who suffered an ankle injury, and John Obi Mikel, who also took his second yellow card of the competition in Tuesday’s match.  In the first leg, Chelsea failed to score an away goal, and as that is the tiebreaker, any tie in the second leg other than a score of 0-0 will see Atletico through.

The one thing Chelsea fans can take solace in is their home field advantage.  In his two stints as Chelsea manager, Mourihno has won seventy-seven matches matches while losing just one at Stamford Bridge.

On Tuesday, expect to see a Bayern team seeking revenge after failing to defeat Madrid in the first leg.  Although the German club’s play has dropped off somewhat recently, Pep Guardiola will prepare his players for what is sure to be an intense matchup at their home stadium, Allianz Arena, the same location where they lost the Champions League final to Chelsea in 2012.

Predictions: Atletico Madrid 1 – 1 Chelsea

Bayern Munich 2 – Real Madrid 0

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What happened Arsenal?

As this campaign comes to a close the title race has been narrowed down to just three clubs: Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool.  Just one hundred days ago, anyone you would have talked to would have drooled over Arsenal, Mesut Ozil, and the Reds’ potential for their first trophy in more than a decade.  Those days, however, are over, as Arsenal has slipped all of the way down to fourth in the league and been eliminated from the Champions League.

(Photo by: Bleacher Report)  Mesut Ozil's injury took a huge toll on Arsenal's title chances.

(Photo by: Bleacher Report) Mesut Ozil’s injury took a huge toll on Arsenal’s title chances.

On Sunday, fans of the Gunners celebrated wildly after defeating Wigan in FA Cup play.  Wigan, a team that hails from the Championship,  would be considered an easy trounce by most anyone contending for a Champions League spot.  But the match still found its way through regulation, two overtime periods, and penalty kicks before the Reds took their spot in the FA Cup final.  The fans of the Gunners have had little to cheer for recently, so a berth in the FA Cup finals is more than enough to excite the base.

Even at the beginning of the season, little was expected of the Arsenal side that failed to add talent in the summer months.  That is, until Mesut Ozil arrived on the second day of September, bringing with him his youthful aura and masterful creativity.

But Ozil went down with an injury at the beginning of March and Arsenal’s title aspirations went down with him.  Since his injury, the Reds have scored just four goals in the Premier League while allowing twelve, including a dismal 6-0 loss to Chelsea on March 22.

Now, Arsenal has turned their attention from the league title to two different aspirations.  The Reds have found a way to continue on into the FA Cup, making their way to the finals for the first time since 2004.  On a different front, a tight race has kicked off for the fourth and final Champions League spot, where Everton leads Arsenal by two points with five matches left to play.

For now, it is up to the common viewer to watch on and see if the self destruction continues.  For the sake of Arsenal fans everywhere, who had their hopes driven through the roof with the start of the season, I hope that the Reds are able to recover and capture both the FA Cup and a spot in the Champions League for next season.

Preview of the Champions League quarterfinals

Thirty-two teams were whittled down to sixteen.  Sixteen were whittled down to eight.  With the advent of the Champions League quarterfinals fast approaching, many questions still remain.  Here, I will preview all four matches before kickoff on Tuesday, April 1.

FC Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid

If this were any other year, I would say that the Lionel Messi and the rest of his crew would not have much trouble with the “other” team from Madrid.  However, at this point in the La Liga campaign, Atletico Madrid sits on top of the table, ahead of both Real and Barcelona.  The arrival of a healthy David Villa and his partnership with Diego Costa up top have led Atletico to an unprecedented standing that could give them a slight edge in a matchup of the old versus the new.

(Photo by: freewallpaper.com)  The remaining eight teams are all set to make April a great month for soccer fans.

(Photo by: freewallpaper.com) The remaining eight teams are all set to make April a great month for soccer fans.

Chelsea FC vs. Paris Saint-Germain

The story here is Zlatan versus the incredibly stingy Chelsea back line, which has let in less goals than anyone else in the Premier League.  Ibrahimovich and Cavani have combined for 39 goals throughout this Ligue 1 season, leading PSG to a solid ten point lead over Monaco for the league lead.  With only one loss to their name, Ibra and co. have a higher goal differential (goals scored – goals allowed) than anyone else’s goals scored.  Expect this one to be an intense battle, but I predict Paris Saint-Germain will take this matchup, potentially on away goals or penalty kicks.

Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich

Manchester United has dominated the Premier League for the past twenty years.  In their first year without Sir Alex Ferguson, however, the men in red have dropped all of the way to seventh in the league.  Their last hope for a return to the Champions League next year is a Champions League title itself, much the same as Chelsea in 2012 after an abysmal domestic campaign.  But after drawing Bayern in the quarterfinals, their hopes of a return to top-flight European soccer should be slim.  Bayern has been unstoppable this year.  With nine games still remaining, they have already clinched the Bundesliga title, drawing just two games and losing zero along the way.  The juggernaut that has formed behind Pep Guardiola has scored seventy-nine goals while allowing just thirteen, giving them the greatest goal differential in the top four leagues of Europe.  With all of this in mind, expect Bayern to pull out a victory by two or three goals.

Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid FC

Madrid has lost two straight league games for the first time since May of 2009, nearly five years ago.  In any other matchup, I would say that Madrid would take this one in a landslide, but these are atypical conditions.  Ronaldo is struggling to score and the entirety of Real’s back line has shown its porous holes time and time again.  While this is the case, even a poor Real Madrid team should have what it takes to defeat what has become a subpar Dortmund side.  I predict Cristiano to lead Real to a sweeping four goal victory.

Started from the bottom

As the Premier League prepares for an incredibly close finish at the top of the table with four teams still vying for the top position, another race has quickly unfolded to avoid relegation.  International club soccer differs from American sports in that the worst three teams move down a league and the best three move up, until you have either hit the bottom or top league.  England itself has a total of five leagues and 116 teams.

(Photo by metrouk.com.) With the kind of season that Cardiff City is having, I don't blame David Marshall for hiding his face.

(Photo by metrouk.com.) No one can blame David Marshall for hiding his face with the kind of season Cardiff City is having.  

With each league, there is a massive discrepancy in revenue, as a person is much more likely to attend a Premier League match than a Championship match, a Championship match than a League 1 match, and so on and so forth.  So, if not more meaningful, the fight to stay out of the bottom three is much more financially significant than the current battle to win the league outright.

As of right now, positions eleven to nineteen are separated by a mere seven points, leaving a lot of room for a shakeup of teams from the current table to the one fans will view at the end of this year’s campaign.

But the true contenders are those occupying the bottom five spots in the table: Fulham, Sunderland, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion, and Crystal Palace.  Of those five, it appears that Fulham, ranked twentieth in the Premier League, is a virtual lock to play in the Championship next year, leaving two to join them.

I believe that Crystal Palace, with the worst offense, statistically speaking, in the Premier League, will soon find themselves at the bottom, alongside of Cardiff City, who owns the title of both the second-worst defense and the second-worst offense.

For Cardiff, the recent addition of Fabio and subtle emergence of Steven Caulker will not be enough to make a return appearance in the Premiership.  In their final nine games, the squad will play the likes of Everton, Chelsea, and Liverpool, a difficult task even for a more talented team.  The Blues should have done better earlier in the season to avoid this situation altogether.

Crystal Palace was another victim to an incredibly slow start.  They did not take the second win of their campaign until November 23, a dazzling twelve matches into their schedule.  Again, I like the addition of Jason Puncheon on the last day of the transfer season, but it will end up being too little, too late.

The fight for the title

With only twelve matches remaining for most teams, the race for the Premier League title has come down to just four clubs, separated by only four points.  Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Liverpool have stayed neck-and-neck with each other all season, and no one intends to drop back before the campaign is over.

These three men, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, and Alvaro Negredo of Manchester City, have combined to score more goals than twelve Premier League teams.

These three men, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, and Alvaro Negredo of Manchester City, have combined to score more goals than twelve Premier League teams.

Arsenal, a club that was expected to struggle before acquiring Mesut Ozil a couple of weeks into the season, initiated their campaign with a fantastic combination of passing and playmaking as they rushed to the top of the table, not to take a step back until February.  After a 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich at home on Wednesday, the Reds will most likely exit European competition next month, which could actually turn out for the better.  With international soccer out of mind, the club can hone in on the Premier League and vie for the ever elusive trophy.  Although they could find their path to success again, Arsenal has certainly lost their way in the last couple of months.  I expect them to finish fourth in the final table.  

Chelsea has emerged from a difficult stretch unscathed, but are another one of the clubs who have to keep their eyes focused on two trophies.  Their defense ranks first in the league, as veterans John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic anchor a back line that has allowed just 26 goals this season.  The problem has been their struggle to score goals.  As of about a month ago, I would have said that the solution would be to play Juan Mata more.  But as Mata packed his bags and moved to United, Jose Mourihno has to get creative.  He does not have a plethora of talented strikers, as he has mainly relied on the once great but now aging Samuel Eto’o.  The only solution seems to be to rely on Willian and Oscar to distribute the ball to Eden Hazard on the wing to create chances.

Many, including Chelsea’s own manager, Jose Mourihno, have pitted Liverpool as the clear favorite because they can focus solely on Premier League futbol, instead of balancing English and European soccer, like the other three clubs. Their striking attack of both Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez has been prolific throughout the course of the season, but their spotty defense could end up costing them a trophy.  As they say, offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

That is, unless your offense is as good as Manchester City’s.  The Blues of Manchester have an incredible attacking front that has produced more goals than any other club in the Premier League, with 68.  To provide perspective on that number, Liverpool is the only other club that has scored more than 48 this season.  While City’s defense has not been subpar– they rank fourth in the league — it has certainly been a liability.  But I believe that their offense has enough firepower to overcome any setbacks to keep the trophy in Manchester.

Prepare for Champions League Matchups

Chelsea vs. Galatasaray

The most intriguing part of this matchup is Didier Drogba’s return to Stamford Bridge, his first trip to London since his stay at the club from 2004 to 2011.  Galatasaray is second in the Turkish table, behind only Fenerbahçe.  For a Turkish club, they have a surprising amount of star power, as their roster includes the likes of Wesley Schnejder, a Dutch international who has impressed on the big stage, particularly in the 2010 World Cup, Drogba, and Manchester

Jerome Boateng raised the stakes for Bayern's impending matchup against a tough Arsenal side (sueddeutche.com)

Jerome Boateng raised the stakes for Bayern’s impending matchup against a tough Arsenal side (sueddeutche.com)

City’s ex-manager, Roberto Mancini.   Although this should be an interesting match, do not expect the aging striker (Drogba turns thirty-six next month) to score anything.  Chelsea, and particularly their center back, John Terry, has been playing incredible defense of late, as witnessed by their stunning 1-0 win at the Etihad, where Manchester City had scored a goal in sixty-one straight games.  As this match plays out, watch for Eden Hazard and Oscar of Chelsea to expose a weak Galatasaray back line.

Prediction: 4-1 aggregate

Manchester City vs. Barcelona

This is the real matchup to be seen in February and March.  City had gone through a fantastic streak before losing to Chelsea at their Etihad Stadium last week, scoring in sixty-one straight home matches before losing their edge.  They also have the highest goal differential in the Premier League, an impressive feat in a year that features RVP, Rooney, and Mata at ManU and Sturridge, Suarez at Liverpool, and solid back lines at both Arsenal and Chelsea.

Barcelona has also seen its fair share of success, though, as Messi is now healthy and ready for the impending matches.  They now sit at second in La Liga, behind only the surprising contender Atletico Madrid.

Prediction: 3-2 aggregate for Barcelona

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich

This matchup should be interesting, although I believe that Munich will advance to the quarterfinals with minimal trouble.  Jerome Boateng, a Bayern defender, recently made waves by saying that a loss to Arsenal would destroy the Germans’ season.  Although the Reds have plenty of skill, they seem to have hit a plateau in their level of output.  They have won eight of their last ten league matches, but these wins have largely been against poor opponents.  Their league lead has also floundered, as Manchester City and Chelsea trail just two points behind.

This will be the ultimate test for the resurgence of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.  With the addition of Mesut Ozil at the end of the transfer window, they want on a great tear and successfully shocked the world with fantastic play on all parts of the ball.  Here, they get their first real chance to prove to Europe that Arsenal is truly back to play.

Prediction: 4-2 aggregate for Bayern

Manchester United vs. Olympiakos

This should be an easy win for United, but this team has dropped points in many games they should have easily won.  The recent addition of Juan Mata to Moyes’ starting lineup has given an increased boost to the Reds’ front that already featured Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie.  Olympiakos represents a small hurdle, but United should look for a much larger matchup if and when they advance to the quarterfinals.

Prediction: 5-1 aggregate for Manchester United

The plight of Juan Mata

During their short time together, Juan Mata and Jose Mourihno certainly had their differences (telegraph).

During their short time together, Juan Mata and Jose Mourihno certainly had their differences (telegraph).

Juan Mata was coming off a clear high at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 Premier League campaign.  In a span of just four years, Chelsea’s talented midfielder had won the Champions League, Europa League, Euro Cup, the last two Chelsea Player of the Year awards, the Under-21 World Cup, and, most importantly, the FIFA World Cup.  Last season alone, he was Chelsea’s Player of the Year, a finalist for the Premier League Player of the Year, Europa League Champion, Euro Cup Champion, and a scorer in the European championship game.

So, as Mata prepared for his third season in Chelsea blue, much was expected, and he seemed prepared to deliver.  Yet he debuted the season on Jose Mourihno‘s bench, a sign of the struggle to come between the two men.  As the campaign continued, the trend of sitting on the sideline did not subside, as Chelsea’s former stud played ninety minutes in just three of the Blues’ thirty-three Premier League matches.

Soon, Mata became frustrated, and, after a spat with his manager after being taken off yet again with a substitute before the sixty-fifth minute, he demanded a transfer to move away from Stamford Bridge.  The names of Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, and Manchester United, all high-caliber clubs with great track records all went into the rumor mill as analysts picked different destinations for the crafty Spaniard.  Although the Chelsea upper management hoped to keep Mata outside of the Premier League, they were willing to hear all offers.

So, when Manchester United offered thirty-five million pounds for Mata, the Blues took interest.  After a series of negotiations where the price was eventually raised to thirty-seven million pounds, Mata packed up his bags to make a quick move to Old Trafford in time for a training session with his new team.

Although at this point I can respect the deal as beneficial to both sides, as Manchester United gets the playmaker David Moyes so desperately needs and Chelsea receives a good price for their all-star bench-sitter, I simply cannot understand how Chelsea got to this point with such a talented midfielder.

While Mata sat on the sidelines, Mourihno turned to his midfielding counterpart, Ramires, a Brazilian player who will never live up to Mata’s playmaking ability.  The results have been okay, but certainly nothing that Mourihno would have hoped for.  While Ramires’ play has not been bad, he has only acquired one goal and two assists through twenty-one matches, a mark that Mata surely would have eclipsed.  In fact, in Mata’s last full Premier League season, he garnered twelve goals and twelve assists in just thirty-one games, only ten more than the number Ramires sits at now.

So, as Mata dons his Manchester United red for the first time this weekend, do not be suprised if he helps bring together Moyes’ team, and they make a bolt up the standings.  On this move, the “Special One” may have miscalculated.