Posts tagged Cristiano Ronaldo
The Counter Press EP 33

Josh and Vijay chat about all the Champions League matchups, PSG giving up 5 goals to Lille, and the Premier League.

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The Counter Press - You Hate to See It

The Counter Press Boys are joined by Spurs fan @ryne_jones to talk about all things Premier League including Tottenham's list of transfers. We also dive into Champions League matchups along with some Serie A talk.

Follow Vijay on Twitter: @VJVemu
Follow Josh on Twitter: @highbiscuits

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The Counter Press EP 26
The Counter Press EP 24
The Counter Press Serie A Preview
2018-19 Serie A Power Rankings: Juventus should dominate but the league will be fun
Photo Credit: AFP

Photo Credit: AFP

Unlike years prior, last season’s Serie A title race was an eventful one. Maurizio Sarri and Napoli pushed Juventus all the way to the brink of breaking their championship streak. After Napoli’s 2-1 win in Turin against the defending champions, it looked like there might be a new team lifting the Scudetto. Things got even worse when Juventus found themselves down 2-1 at Inter Milan in the San Siro. But the Bianconeri showed why they are the cream of the crop in Italian football, making a stunning turnaround to win 3-2 thanks to a Gonzalo Higuain stoppage-time goal. In the end, it was Juventus who lifted the trophy. With the dramatic changes we have seen in the footballing landscape this summer, it seems like things will stay status quo when it comes to who will top Serie A. However the real fun begins when you look at how rest of the table is going to shake out.

Class 1: Title Contenders

Juventus

As I mentioned earlier, there is only one true contender for the Serie A title and it’s Juventus. They have only gotten stronger and the additions they have made could be enough to argue their worth as a top 5 European side. The big addition to Bianconeri is the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. In what was a shocking move, Juve landed one of the most talented players of his generation and even at 33 years old, Ronaldo can offer a potent scoring threat. If you thought he was good in La Liga, just wait till he plays in Italy. Ronaldo will be scoring goals for fun in Serie A and he has the providers around him to make the fit of him in a Juve jersey work. As he was in his final season at Real Madrid, Ronaldo will play up top in a pure striker role. He will likely have Mario Mandzukic on the left wing as a hybrid striker at times who can make backdoor runs into the box. Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa, or even Paulo Dybala could slot in on the right with the latter cutting inside more to be more of a playmaker. However, it would be in Max Allegri’s best interest to start Costa as he shined for Juventus last season. His pace and tricky dribbling can fool even the best defenders and he is a decent enough passer to give crosses into CR7. Dybala will likely play centrally in a CAM role with license to roam around to gather and push the ball up forward. Emre Can is a solid replacement for the aging Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio, who left last week after 25 years with the club. Blaise Matuidi offers a solid box to box option while Miralem Pjanic can boss a game around in the midfield.

Juventus also got back Leonardo Bonucci in the swap deal with AC Milan which sent Gonzalo Higuain to the Rossoneri. There is likely to be another change in tactics with Allegri changing to a back four instead of their famed back three. Alex Sandro and new man Joao Cancelo will be on the wings with the likely duo of Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini as the last line of defense. Mehdi Benatia and Daniele Rugani are solid backups.

It’s not hard to see what the aspirations are for Allegri and his side. There is no doubt they should be feared by the rest of Europe’s top clubs as a Champions League contender. As far as the league goes, they are by far the most talented side and bring back the majority of the squad. As long as the key players stay healthy and Ronaldo can provide to be a solid threat in front of goal, Juventus should win the league by a double-digit point total.

Class 2: European competition spots

Napoli
Inter
AC Milan
Lazio
Roma
Atalanta
Fiorentina

Like La Liga, it’s always a rotating door of who finishes where in spots 2 through 6 of Serie A. It’s unlikely we will see a club like last season’s Napoli in which they really give Juventus a run for their money. However, it doesn’t mean the race for Champions League and Europa League spots won’t be entertaining. Each of these clubs in this list has something to prove and the talent to beat each other.

Inter Milan had arguably one of the more better summers in all of European football. Luciano Spaletti’s side added more strength in key areas of the pitch as well as grabbing some solid youth presence as well. The biggest move they made was nabbing Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and grabbing Lazio’s Stefan De Vrij. Even at age 30, Nainggolan is a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the park and still is a good box to box presence. De Vrij came over on a free and was one of the trio of defenders Inter brought in (Kwando Asamoah and Sime Vrsaljko were the two others). Inter also picked up some nice wing depth in Monaco’s Keita Balde Diao, and Matteo Politano, who can step up for a now aging Andre Candreva. Along with Ivan Perisic, two signings will give Inter Milan pace and creativity from the wide areas. Mauro Icardi will continue to be a deadly scorer in front of goal and will no doubt lead them in scoring this season. Lautaro Martinez, who came over from Racing Club in Argentina this summer, is expected to be a solid backup. After barely nabbing 4th last year thanks to a final matchday win against Lazio, Inter Milan have had a really good summer. They were able to hang on to Icardi and improved offensively in both the midfield and on the wings. Along with that, Inter has some nice young prospects for the future. They should do better than 4th this year.

While they might not challenge for the title this season, there is still a lot to like in Napoli as well. Granted they lost two key members of the club in Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho but they were still able to hold onto everyone else. To replace their manager, Napoli brought in a top manager in Carlo Ancelotti. A knockout specialist, Ancelotti will inherit a squad still filled with attacking talent up top as well as a midfield with two solid engines. Most of the time when an upstart club makes a title run, their talent likely gets poached by the bigger fish the summer after. It wasn't the case in Naples this summer. The trio of Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon, and Dries Mertens all return while Simone Verdi and Amin Younes were brought in to help out on the wings. Arkadiusz Milik recovered from last year’s ACL injury and will fill in for Mertens, who is still resting after his spell in the World Cup. Piotr Zieliński slots into Jorginho’s role. he will be covered well with the likes of Allan and the ever-active Maren Hamsik alongside him. Both Allan and Hamsik will have big roles in Ancelotti’s system and the latter will still be expected to make late runs into the box or be available for long-range blasts. The backline should be the same with Mario Rui stepping into the left back slot as Fazio Ghoulam is still injured. Pepe Reina moved on from his spell in Italy and Napoli did well to bring in replacements. Alex Meret and Arsenal’s David Ospina should both be contenders for the starting nod. Last season Napoli hit their peak, they were one of the best teams in Europe to not win their domestic title. They played attractive football and made the Serie A title race fun. Even with Ancelotti at the helm, it will be a tough sell to say this will happen again. There are still questions about this squad, especially the defense which looked shaky in pre-season. Napoli’s offense and midfield should be enough though, to make sure they don’t make a dramatic leap down in the table.

Roma’s run to the Champions League semi-finals was magical. It featured some gritty away performances and an amazing comeback against Barcelona. Surprisingly it didn’t take a toll on them in the league as they finished 3rd, five points ahead of 4th place Inter. This year represents a new challenge. Roma knows they probably won’t repeat their performance in the UCL but finishing 3rd in Italy is very much on the cards. They have sold some this summer, letting Nainggolan leave and selling Allison off for a big fee to Liverpool. Eusebio Di Francesco did a good job of at least filling those spots with summer signings. Roma brought in three new keepers and four new midfielders so you can say they at least tried to replace two of their best players. The middle of the park is interesting as the likes of PSG’s Javier Pastore and Sevilla’s Steven N’Zonzi come to Stadio Olimpico. The Frenchman will offer a screening presence in front of Roma’s backline and can cycle possession if need be. Pastore will be looked to be a good link between offense and defense. Two youngsters in Ante Coric and Nicolio Zaniolo also arrived this summer. On the wings, the future is bright with Cengiz Under on one side and new signing Justin Kluivert on the other. There was the dilemma with Malcom spurning Roma at the last minute and if not for that, Roma would have had a trio of players the big clubs could come calling for in a couple of years. Edin Dzeko is undoubtedly the starter up top at striker with Patrik Schick his backup and a good option to bring on late. EDF and his side made some screwed moves this summer and definitely got younger. Losing out on Malcom really hurt and they will feel the losses of Nainggolan and Allison. But this squad is still talented enough to finish top 4 and gives someone trouble in the Champions League.

Lazio’s end of the season form was terrible as they missed out on Champions League action thanks to a 3-2 loss against Inter Milan on the final day. It didn’t get any better considering they were up 2-1 in the second half. It was a tough pill to swallow for the side and it’s now Simone Inghazi’s job to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The road back to a Champions League spot is going to be much tougher though and despite still having Ciro Immobile, who has had a career revival with the club, losing a player like Felipe Anderson really hurt. With his pace, Anderson was able to give Lazio a solid counter-attacking outlet and someone who can beat defenders one on one. Now they have a big gap to fill on the wings so they brought in Joaquin Correa from Sevilla. If anything Correa can give them some threat on goal as well as being able to track back and defend. The player to watch for, however, is big man Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. He starred for Serbia in the World Cup and should be a player who is surely going to command a humongous transfer fee sometime soon. At 6’4 and with the gracefulness of a top midfielder, SMS stands out in the middle of the park. If he’s able to have a great season, it will do wonders for Lazio. It’s going to be a tough season for Inghazi as he tries to replace the offensive workload done by Anderson. Correa is a good buy but who knows if it’s going to be enough. He’s going to need another big season from Immobile and SMS to step up as well.

Two other teams to watch for will be Atalanta and AC Milan. Milan has had a huge fall from grace since their glory days and they have been desperately trying to restore it. Finishing 6th last season helps the cause as it gets them back in Europe but they have a lot more work ahead of them. Bringing in Gonzalo Higuain certainly helps with the striker situation and gives Milan a real threat in front of goal. They also got a decent defender in Mattia Caldara in the Bonucci-Higuain swap deal. Getting Timothe Bakayoko on loan from Chelsea gives them midfield depth along with a younger face among the veterans of Lucas Biglia and Riccardo Montolivio. It will be an interesting year from Gennaro Gattuso and his squad. There are some good arrivals including Samu Castillejo from Villarreal. But they will be in a battle for one of the lower Europa spots.

Class 3: Mid-table

Sampdoria
Torino
Sassuolo
Chievo
Genoa
Udinese
Bologna

After finishing 9th last year, Torino leads the group when it comes to the midtable. They have some interesting players in attack to go along with captain Andrea Belotti with both M'baye Niang and Simone Zaza arriving. Both will make the striker positions competitive for Torino. Sampdoria finished right behind them at 10th and they added a lot of new faces to the club. Now it’s time to see if they can try and make another run into the top 8.

Other ones to look for will be Sassuolo, who beat Inter Milan on the first matchday, and Chievo who also gave Juventus a scare in Ronaldo’s debut. Both teams are expected to be mid-table at best but they won’t roll over easily. It won’t be an easy three points against them. Bologna also has a new manager in Filippo Inghazi and will be interesting as they explore working with a 3-5-2. If they fall, however, they could find themselves in a relegation fight.

Class 4: Relegation zone

Parma
SPAL
Cagliari
Empoli
Frosinone

Despite the relegation zone being all negative, there are some feel-good stories out of the handful of teams who will be fighting to stay alive. After years out of the top flight, Parma is finally back in Serie A. The famous club struggled for years to get back to the best of Italian football and they are finally here. They know how tough the transition is from Serie B to A. Signing a player like Gervinho isn’t a splashy move but getting him along with Jonathan Biabiany gives them some pace on the wings. Both are past their primes but can give Parma some flashiness at times. SPAL is a small team and have battled their way to stay in the league last season. It will be the same struggle last season. They are the ultimate Italian underdogs and should be very worried about them going down. Cagliari and SPAL barely survived last season, finishing a respective 4 and 3 points above the 18th placed Crotone. Empoli and Frosinone are the ones who really need to be worried though. Serie A is ruthless and the bottom two teams last year finished with less than 26 points each. There is a possibility we already know who is finishing last before Christmas. Hopefully, that’s not the case. 

Table Prediction:

  1. Juventus

  2. Inter Milan

  3. Napoli

  4. Roma

  5. Lazio

  6. Atalanta

  7. AC Milan

  8. Fiorentina

  9. Sampdoria

  10. Torino

  11. Sassuolo

  12. Genoa

  13. Chievo

  14. Udinese

  15. Bologna

  16. Parma

  17. SPAL

  18. Cagliari

  19. Empoli

  20. Frosinone

 

The Counter Press EP 20
FIFA World Cup Round of 16 preview: Argentina-France and Uruguay-Portugal
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Round of 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup begins today and we have some top-tier matches to kick off the knockout stages. Four powerhouses take center stage Saturday and there will be stars all over the pitch. We have a good ol’ slug out between Uruguay and Portugal on the tail end of the doubleheader, but before that Messi and Argentina meet one of the more complete teams in the tournament in France. It’s arguably the best day in the Round of 16. Get ready.

France vs. Argentina

On paper, this might seem like a close match-up but we might get a completely different result on the pitch. Neither squad has been overly convincing; one of the teams is in shambles right now while the other is still trying to find their identity. It’s one of the best players in the world versus one of the more talented teams in the world.

France qualified at the top of Group C and it was relatively easy 7 points, winning their first two games against Australia and Peru before a scoreless draw against Denmark, arguably the most boring match of the tournament. But wasn’t a dominant French performance overall. They struggled to find goals on Austrailia and it took two wonderful moments from Paul Pogba to generate goals. In the Peru match, they got a deflection which got behind the Peruvian goalkeeper and right to the feet of Kylian Mbappe. France was the stronger side in each game, but you didn’t walk away from those matches thinking they put on a grand show.

Like Brazil, France are not expected to just win. It’s especially evident with all of the young talent they boast at every position. It’s also troubling to see the French attack only score three goals in the group stage. With the likes of Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele up top, France has looked mediocre and have failed to score more than one goal in open play so far.

Argentina had a much more difficult time making the knockout rounds. In the group of death, Argentina was put through the ringer but somehow escaped. After a disappointing draw against Iceland, Leo Messi and company were thrashed by Croatia 3-0, a result both sides deserved. Argentina was outclassed and Messi was nowhere to be seen in the second half. Behind Luka Modric, Croatia bossed the game and won deservedly. Needing a win against Nigeria, an early Messi goal gave them the spark they needed, but it was canceled out by a dumb penalty by Javier Mascherano, which allowed Nigeria to equalize.

When all hope seems lost, Marcos Rojo volleyed home a shot in the box to give them the lead and send Argentina to the round of 16. They finished second in Group D, which was a result few saw coming. They weren’t one of the best teams to make it to the Round of 16 and the group stage was just pure chaos. Argentina got lucky in order to advance and they will need more of it against France.

France’s offense has been lackluster so far but Argentina’s defense is very shaky. Mascherano has looked his age and the centerbacks are thrown into the fire every time an opposing team gets the ball. If there was a game where France will want to see their attack get revved up, it’s this one. The formula is simple for the underdogs, everything will have to funnel through Messi and Ever Banega. Those two are the players for Argentina that are going to create things for others. It was the duo who combined for their first goal against Nigeria with Banega sending a beautiful ball over the top. With France’s defense centered on stopping Messi, it will likely take a world-class performance from Banega to unlock them.

N’Golo Kante and company are going to make life tough for one of the best players in the world and these are one of those cases where team trumps talent. Messi can’t do it all for Argentina and despite the talent he has around him attacking-wise, it won’t make up for the rest of the field and how good France are. Kante is a one-man destroyer in the midfield and if Messi is kept in check, it will likely be because of him. With Pogba and Blaise Matuidi bossing the midfield, France will control the game and force Argentina to hunker down and play on the break. Argentina can counter attack, but the question is how long can they keep France from smashing the ball into the back of the net? My guess is not long.

Prediction: France are the better side and although Messi will likely produce a wonder goal against them, they will be too much for the Argentine defense to handle.

France wins 2-1.

Portugal vs. Uruguay

If the first game will be attack-minded, this one will be the exact opposite. This game will be an absolute war between two sides who aren’t afraid of making a game mucky and terrible to watch. Both Portugal and Uruguay are content to sit back, defend, and let the talisman up top do their work. There will be a lot of hard tackles and we might even get some tension in this game. This will be good.

Uruguay, as everyone expected, finished first in Group A with nine points. But like France, they weren't as dominating as they could have been, with the exception of the second half against Russia. It took a Gimenez header in the 90th minute to beat Egypt and a Luis Suarez goal off a corner to beat Saudi Arabia. The floodgates opened up in the final game against Russia, but it was thanks to the host nation’s own doing. An own goal and a red card practically sealed Russia’s fate, but it did give Uruguay a boost heading into the knockouts.

It also gave Edison Cavani a goal which might help his confidence in this game against Portugal. They have looked sturdy in defense but the midfield still needs to answer some questions. Youngster Lucas Torreira has looked like a solid player in the midfield and is the only one who can play as the link between the back line and the duo of Suarez/Cavani. What Uruguay has missed for so long is a player who can do it all in the midfield and Torreira has shown some potential to do that. But it seems unlikely he will start for them in this game.

Portugal had an up and down experience during the group stage. They first played a thrilling 3-3 draw against Spain in matchday 1. It was one of the best games of the tournament thus far and include everything from a Nacho volley off the post and in, to a Ronaldo free kick capping off his hat trick. They got past Morocco with an early goal but faced trouble in the final game against Iran. After Ricardo Quaresma scored a wonder goal which only he attempts, a shaky penalty call led to Iran getting a penalty kick, which they converted. It was nervy times for Portugal as another Iran goal would see them crashing out of the group stage. Hearts were in the throats of all those in the stadium when Iran had a one on one chance with Rui Patricio closing down. The shot flew past Patricio but it went on the wrong side of the post and Portugal survived.

But if there was a saying that fits this team's will, it’s “survive and advance”. We saw how Portugal plays during the knockout rounds of Euro 2016. They are willing to make the game ugly and rely on random contributions from the “other guys” if Ronaldo doesn’t show up. Against a strong Uruguay backline, Ronaldo will be the center of attention and guys like Gonçalo Guedes will have to make smart runs into the open spaces vacated by Uruguay defenders. Portugal has shown at times that they can step up when Ronaldo can’t.

This will come down to whose talisman are more lethal and can finish more chances. Uruguay has two world-class strikers in Cavani and Suarez but Portugal has a Ronaldo. It will be an all out war and it won’t be pretty, but aesthetic is what neither team is good at nor are they trying to achieve an eye appealing playing style, especially Uruguay. They play very similar to Atletico Madrid on a club level and have become a mainstay in world football by doing so.

Prediction: What Uruguay is better than Portugal at is making this game murky and hard to watch. Uruguay wins in an absolute slugfest of a game. Suarez likely bags the winner.

1-0 Uruguay

The Counter Press World Cup preview
2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group B
Paul White/AP Photo

Paul White/AP Photo

Portugal and Spain will likely be in a two-horse race for first place in the group, and will also likely be the two teams to advance to the knockout phase. However, Portugal does not have the same well-balanced roster than their neighbors Spain have, and Spain suffered a humiliating collapse in the 2014 tournament after their golden-age players captured the title in 2010.

Let’s take a look at the for each team in Group B, and review their chances of advancing from the group stage and what they can do in the knockout phase.

Group A preview
Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group G preview
Group H preview

Iran

Iran will be in their second consecutive World Cup after going through a period of missing the tournament and qualifying for it in the previous four World Cups. Iran has only lost two matches since June 4, 2018, but will have difficulty facing Spain in the second match of the group phase. Sardar Azmoun will be the player to focus on for Iran. Although only 23, he has established himself as a capable scorer for the national team; he has netted 23 times in 32 appearances for Iran. Iran will likely need a tie against Portugal along with a win against Morocco to advance to the knockout phase.

Morocco

Morocco will be playing in their fifth World Cup ever, and they are captained by Juventus defender Medhi Benatia. Like Iran, Morocco has a key player who will be a cornerstone for the national team’s future, Real Madrid defender Achraf Hakimi. Expectations for the national team will be to advance to the knockout phase, but they will have to face off against Iran in their opener. Lose against Iran and their possibilities of advancing likely reach zero, but win big against Iran, and you give yourself a chance against the two heavy favorites to advance.

Portugal

The 2016 European Champions will look to win their first ever World Cup as this is likely the last chance we will see Cristiano at the peak of his powers in the tournament. The spotlight will be on Ronaldo, as it should, he is Portugal’s most capped player, their leading goal scorer, was the captain of the championship squad of the 2016 Euro, and has won four of the last five UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid, just to list a few of his accomplishments.

The roster is missing several key players from the 2-16 Euro Final, including Nani, Renato Sanches, and Eder. This Portugal squad will be reliant on several young players who are proving themselves for their respective clubs, including Andre Silva and Bernardo Silva (no relation). For this team to challenge Spain and finish top of the group, the attacking players will have to find a way to take advantage of the increased attention Ronaldo will draw, and the defense led by Pepe will have to hold similar to the Euro 2016 only conceded one goal in the knockout phase and held France scoreless in the final.

Spain

The Spain national team has the third best odds to win the tournament, according to Bovada. The squad maintains several players from their golden-age generation, including captain Sergio Ramos, his centre-back partner and club rival Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, and 2010 World Cup legend, Andres Iniesta. Manchester City midfielder, David Silva, was also an important part of the roster, but was not as integral as the other four in 2010.

When comparing Spain to several teams in the tournament, you can argue it has an embarrassment of riches. Spain left out Cesc Fabregas, Marc Bartra, Pedro, and Alvaro Morata from the 2018 World Cup roster, players who would be perhaps captains of several teams in the tournament. However, La Roja has been underwhelming in its last two major tournaments, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Euro 2016. Since the the Euro 2016, Spain has not suffered defeat, and is also coming off a massive 6-1 victory over Argentina, albeit without Messi.

The starting defense for Spain is almost set, but Carvajal’s hamstring injury will be something to monitor considering they face Portugal in their first match. Marco Asensio and Thiago Alcantara will likely both feature in the tournament as substitutes for an aging Iniesta and other midfielders in the starting eleven. The squad will be favored to finish atop the group, but should learn from its previous mistakes and be prepared for the challenges the other teams offer.

Prediction: Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco

The Counter Press ep. 12 (feat. @GuerschonLynch)
Champions League Final Preview: Real Madrid vs. Liverpool
Oscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Oscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After another long season of European soccer, we again have arrived at arguably it’s most important day.

Yup that’s right folks, we have arrived at the Champions League Final.

It’s going to a matchup of David vs. Goliath as an upstart Liverpool team face off against a Real Madrid team who seem to play well in the Champions League these days. If Carlo Ancelotti is hailed as a “knockout specialist” when it comes to managing teams to trophies, Real Madrid should be regarded in a similar way. Los Blancos are entering into this match and could walk away with their 3rd straight Champions League title. It’s an amazing accomplishment but Liverpool are looking to spoil the party. After upsetting England’s best team in Manchester City in the quarterfinals, it looked as if Jurgen Klopp’s side were a team on destiny. Led by the Premier League’s best player in Mo Salah, Liverpool’s potent attack has dissected opposing defenses left and right. They are one of the scariest teams offensively in all of Europe and combine it with Real Madrid’s front three, we are in for some fireworks in Kiev.

For this preview, we are going to do something a little bit different. Instead of just telling how both of these teams got here, we are going to take a look at some of the biggest storylines heading into the match. Let’s go.

Marcelo vs. Salah

Jurgen Klopp reportedly said the weakness in Real Madrid’s defense is the left back in Marcelo. While Klopp is technically wrong in doubting the rate at which both Real Madrid fullbacks can get up and down the pitch. Not to mention how good Casemiro has been at eating up space left vacated around him. While it might not look like it, Real Madrid have been a pretty cohesive unit at the back and when the going gets tough, they come up with timely blocks.

But Klopp’s also right in that against Bayern Munich, Joshua Kimmich scored two goals from the left side of the Real Madrid defense which is suppose to be Marcelo’s area. You need a winger who has a lot of pace and can keep it up for 90 minutes against Marcelo. Many times we see wingers with more technical skills get eaten by Marcelo cause he can always beat them to their spots while also zooming right past them in attack.

So it will be interesting to see if Salah can be the man to break Marcelo. He certainly has the pace and all it takes is one overstep from Marcelo and Salah is zooming right past him.

How much will Real Madrid’s midfield dominate?

If there ever was a huge gap in talent when looking at these two teams on paper, it has to be when you look at the two midfields of the teams. Even at their old age, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will run the show in this match. Compare that to the midfield Liverpool will likely throw out (Milner, Henderson, Wijnaldum) and it’s tough to see the Reds really controlling the match.

However if Liverpool is able to press just right and make life uncomfortable for Kroos, it could lead to some chances on the other end. Force Kroos to move the ball quicker than he likes and don’t give Modric the space to run around and find killer passes to fire between your backline. It’s a lot more easier said than done. I don’t know if the Liverpool midfield is up for that challenge.

Can Liverpool’s back line control Ronaldo?

While it’s fair to question Madrid’s back line at times, it’s also valid to look at Liverpool’s defense in the same lens. Real Madrid have seemed to get a lot of contributions out of their attackers, but as always, everything still goes through Cristiano Ronaldo. And with this being a final, you would expect him to show up.

He did against Juventus, scored the winning penalty against Atletico, and will probably give Virgil Van Dijk nightmares in this game. Ronaldo typically shows up in this game so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get on the score sheet. The only hope for Liverpool is to hopefully force him to take long distance shots and miss some sitters. Because given Liverpool’s defense, he’s going to get a chance and there is an even greater chance he takes it.

Prediction

I really want to say Liverpool has a chance in this match but this Madrid team was built for matches like this. If Klopp and company even want a chance in this match, they are going to need to strike early and often. Salah and Mane need to make life crazy for the defenses. But I don’t think this will happen. Real Madrid are too powerful.

3-1 Real Madrid

The Counter Press ep. 11

Josh Springs (@HighBiscuits) and Vijay Vemu (@VJVemu)brings their soccer podcast to the Barber's Chair Network: the Counter Press! This episode they are joined by special guest Avi Saini (@AvikarSaini) to talk about Inter Milan barely making the Champions League, Managerial changes around Europe, what we think about Zidane as a manager, and much more.

Champions League semifinal recap - first leg

Roma’s initial tactics backfired

Getty Images

Getty Images

As you may have known, Liverpool put five goals past Roma.

That’s right, five.

It was an utter shellacking, and if not for two late goals by Roma, this tie could have been done and dusted already. It was a classic Liverpool performance defensively as some lapses led to two away goals by the Italian side, but it shouldn’t take away from the absolute masterclass display they delivered on the other side of the ball. Their strength offensively took away or minimize the damage their defense had done in the last 20 minutes of the match. You could say Liverpool’s best defense is their offense itself. It also helped Jürgen Klopp and his side that Roma played right into their hands.

To begin this match, Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco went with a very interesting formation to counter Liverpool’s attack. Going with a 3-4-2-1, it was clear Di Francesco hoped that the middle of the park would be secured thanks to the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman, and Daniele De Rossi. More specifically he was hoping the later two would provide stable blocks in front of Roma’s back three. However, the plan didn’t turn out quite well as it left Roma’s 3 centre backs on an island against Liverpool’s potent front three. Having your defenders on an island against the likes of Salah, Mané, and Firmino is a matchup which is going to end up burning you more often than not. With the Reds pace they were able to generate multiple A+ chances and converted on five of them.

But to EDF’s credit, he did end up changing the formation, going with a back 4 for the last chunk of the second half. It left Roma with a little bit more defensive stability and as a result it garnered two goals.

A comeback might not be in the cards this time

This won’t be the first time Roma are headed back to a home leg with a major deficit. They faced the same problems in the last round when they welcomed Barcelona and shocked the Catalans with a 3-0 defeat. They’ve made this comeback before and obviously grabbing the two away goals makes a huge difference.

But this isn’t Barcelona.

Klopp’s men won’t sit back like Ernesto Valverde had his side do and you will likely see a semi-aggressive Liverpool side. Remember, all Liverpool need are one goal and this tie gets every farther away from Roma.

Chances go begging for Bayern at the offensive end

K. Pffefenbach/Reuters

K. Pffefenbach/Reuters

Sometimes a stat can tell the whole entire match and sometimes they can also tell us nothing at all. This is sort of what happened when you looked at the expected goals chart (xG) for this Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid first leg in Germany. Despite the scoreline being 2-1 to Los Blancos, the xG chart showed something else (via Michael Caley who does a lot of great work on stuff like this).

It’s honestly a much different scoreline that what the chart shows. But it also could give us some insight and how this match played out. Two things are very true though and the graph shows it. Bayern had a lot of chances but couldn’t cash it in while Real Madrid on the other hand converted on a rare goal and then took advantage of their biggest chance of the night for the second goal. Let’s talk about Bayern for a bit.

They controlled possession (60%), had more shots on goal and in general along with forcing the Real Madrid defense to concede 10 corner kicks. Yet they still had only one goal from it and it came off a lapse by the Madrid defense which was converted by Joshua Kimmich’s cunning shot which fooled Keylor Navas. It looked at the time like the perfect start for Bayern but it turned out to be the only chance they had go in.

That’s not to say some of their players didn’t play well offensively. James Rodriguez was spectacular and Thomas Muller had some great chances in front of him to pounce on. Franck Ribéry also put in a shift. But at the end of the day goals matter and Bayern just didn’t have it. In an era where they have failed to get back to the Champions League final, putting on the performance they did in the first leg and still losing will only make the voices louder.

Zidane’s lineup choices in Champions League turns gold again

On the other side, Zinedine Zidane once again had the magic touch when it came to selecting his lineup and his subs. First he made a good choice by dropping both Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale from the lineup in favor for Lucas Vazquez and Isco with Ronaldo playing striker. Zidane choose to go with two guys who were in from instead of two regulars who aren’t playing so well. Vazquez and Isco both played their roles really well with the former providing defensive stability and Isco dipping inside to provide offensive support.

Then Zidane brought on Marco Asensio for Isco and it pay dividends for Real Madrid. Asensio took advantage of some shaky choices made by the Bayern backline and fired a shot into the net for Real’s 2nd goal. It was a great move by Zidane and even Mateo Kovačić played ok when he came on for Casemiro.

Despite some of the criticisms about him, there is no doubt about it, Zidane has his tactics and decisions on point when it comes to the Champions League. In two legged ties, Zidane has proven to be one of the best and could be one of the main forces to Real three-peating.

Champions League QF second leg preview

After a world wind of first legs in the Champions League quarter finals, all eight teams must quickly get back into the swing of things. Unlike previous rounds, the ties are beginning to be played back to back as the Champions League revs up towards the final in Kiev. Despite some lopsided score lines (3 teams are up 3 goals on aggregate), there are still storylines and themes to discuss. Let’s get started

FC Barcelona vs. Roma (First leg: 4-1 Barcelona)

(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Although they didn’t look like they were playing their A game, Barcelona still cruised to a 4-1 win over Roma in the first leg at the Nou Camp. It was an interesting strategy from the Italian club in the first leg to go out and press Barcelona, unlike most teams. But the Catalans had two slices of luck fall their way as the two opening goals in the tie were Roma own goals. They were bitter pills to swallow for the away side and things got even worse when Gerard Pique made it 3-0. The scoreline didn’t reflect how the game was being played on the field. Roma were able to generate somes chances throughout the game but only were able to capitalize on one of them, scoring a crucial away goal thanks to Edin Dzeko. Despite being the only player who was consistently in Barcelona’s half, the striker found a chance to pounce and did just that. Even with Barcelona up 3-1, an away from Roma at least made things a little interesting heading to the second leg in Rome. But Luis Suarez put all hope away as he knocked in a 4th for the Catalans before the referee blew the final whistle.

Heading back home for the return leg, Roma will surely have to go out in attacking mode. But they have to be wary of a Barcelona counter attack, especially if Ernesto Valverde plays the likes of Ousmane Dembele on the wing with the usual pairing of Messi and Suarez. Having Sergio Busquets back in the midfield should help normalize the Catalans, who often looking shaky in the midfield without the 29 year old. Valverde made some interesting choices in his starting XI in the first leg so who honestly knows who he is going to put in the midfield or up top on the wing.

Roma will obviously come out and attack to make Barcelona sweat. Also given how Valverde’s tactics ensure Barcelona don’t get exposed, they may be more willing to let the Romans have possession. Valverde’s Barcelona preaches defensive structure than anything else and it likely be on display in the second leg. But that doesn't mean they still can’t get up in attack. Given the form Leo Messi is in, all Barcelona need are a couple of chances on the counter and that’s it.

Prediction: 2 - 1 Barcelona

Liverpool vs. Manchester City (First leg: 3-0 Liverpool)

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This was one of the bigger shockers in the first legs. Liverpool thrashing Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, scoring 3 goals in the first half and never looking back. It was clear Guardiola’s side did not look ready for this game at all. This was also another example of Guardiola’s downfall as he went away from the successful gameplan which has his side basically led his side to run the English Premier League. Putting a midfielder like Kevin De Bruyne on the wing didn’t help Manchester City either as it opened up their midfield to be exposed. However, credit should be given to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side, who took advantage of the opportunities given to them. The likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino had a field day with acres of space to work with. Manchester City opened themselves vulnerable to speedy wingers which is Liverpool’s strength.

We have seen mistakes like this from Guardiola before as he played 3 at the back against Luis Enrique’s Barcelona side a couple of years ago in the first leg and it costed him dear. Like in Merseyside, Guardiola’s tactics backfired and it led to the same result he suffered at the hands of his former club, 3-0.

Now returning back to the Etihad for the second leg, Manchester City have a mountain to climb. But as long as Guardiola realizes his mistakes and runs with City’s normal lineup. Expect the Citizens to control a lot of the possession and generate a ton of chances. Get a goal early and it’s game on. It’s no secret that Liverpool’s defense has been suspect this whole season and don’t expect things to change over night.

But with all the controlling Manchester City will do in this game, they do play into Liverpool’s game plan of counter attacking and pressing. Klopp’s side is fine without the ball and if Manchester City slip up one moment, they could be picking the ball out of their own net in the next.

This second leg will be so hard to predict given how powerful City have shown to be but also at the fact of Liverpool being up 3-0. I say Manchester City will make this an interesting tie but Liverpool strike back with an away goal and it proves to be vital for them.

Prediction: 2-1 Manchester City

Real Madrid vs. Juventus (First leg: 3-0 Real Madrid)

AP

AP

Usually you hate to say ties are finished after the first leg but this one might as well be all but over.

It was a horror show for Juventus during the first leg in Turin. Despite controlling a lot of the action, the reigning Italian champions were bamboozled by Real Madrid and were witnesses to the one man wrecking crew of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo had his way with Juventus the whole night and took advantage of two horrible defending mistakes by Juve centre backs for both of his goals. First, Barzagli failed to mark him in the box and Ronaldo pounced to poke home a cross for Real’s first away goal. Then a mistake by Chiellini spraked a crazy sequence with forced Gigi Buffon to make a sprawling save on Lucas Vazquez. Then the ball came to Dani Carvajal who crossed it into the middle of the penalty area. Ronaldo then went up and performed a bicycle kick to a tee. The ball landed in the corner of the Juventus net and it was the one which buried the spirits of the Old Lady. Marcelo added a third to add salt to the wound and then a red card by Paulo Dybala all be sealed Juventus’s fate.

Unless Juventus can go out and attack without fear, they won’t have a chance in this second leg. Problem is that it’s against their DNA to senselessly attack. But their backs are against the wall and they need 4 goals to advance. Time for Allegri to put Juve’s tactics on all out attack. But it will leave them more vulnerable at the back and with a hungry Ronaldo ready to pounce.

Prediction: 1-1

Bayern Munich vs. Sevilla (First leg: 2-1 Bayern Munich)

This was closest first leg out of all the ties and it was also the wackiest. Like Barcelona, Bayern Munich came out of the gate looking out of sorts and it costed them. Sevilla pounced on Bayern’s weariness with a goal and sprung the tie into life. But Bayern quickly responded as an own goal from Jesus Navas came about as a result of great build up play by the Bavarians. They then picked up a second goal in the second half thanks to Thiago. It left Bayern with two away goals but the early goal does Sevilla some hope.

As bad as Bayern have been away from home, they have been dominant in the Allianz Arena. That place is a fortress and very few teams come away from there the victors in a two way tie. The good news for Sevilla is the past three teams which have been successful at Allianz Arena have been Spanish teams. Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid all had good performances to defeat Bayern in their own labyrinth and advance. Problem is that Sevilla isn’t like those other teams.

They also won’t have the luxury of walking into a two legged tie with the scoreline 0-0 like they had against Manchester United. But Sevilla have shown some resilience and won’t quit, it just likely won’t be enough. Bayern aren’t about to sit back and let Sevilla back into this tie, they will go for the jugular immediately and then open the flood gates. Or we could be in store for another La Liga team knocking out Bayern.

Prediction: 3-0 Bayern Munich

Takeaways from the first leg of Champions League quarterfinals

After a couple of weeks hiatus, the first leg of the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League finally got underway. We had four grand matchups on the cards. Two which featured two Spanish teams taking on Italian sides along with a matchup of two English squads while Bayern faced off against underdogs Sevilla. All four first legs provided us with some top entertainment while also leaving some questions to be answered for the second leg next week. Here are some takeaways from the first leg.

Real keep rolling

AFP Photo

AFP Photo

Like I’ve continued to say after each Real Madrid victory in the Champions League so far, they continue to play in Super Saiyan form in the Champions League. Forget what they are doing in La Liga but Real Madrid are flying in Europe. It was a dominant performance by Los Blancos as they thrashed Juventus and gave Gigi Buffon even more nightmares. Although Juventus controlled much of the possession and at most times much of the game, it was Real Madrid who generated the most chances and struck. They got off to a quick start as Juventus failed to mark Ronaldo in the box and we all know what happens if he gets a free chance. Just like that Juventus conceded an away goal. Things only got worse for Juventus as the game went on. Despite seeming to control the tempo of the game, they failed to generate more than one A+ chance. It was off a free kick and it was brilliantly saved by Keylor Navas.

Then the game stopped still as Ronaldo scored arguably one of his most brilliant goals of his career. It was a beautiful bicycle kick and it came off one of the wackiest sequences. A mistake between Giorgio Chiellini and Buffon led to Ronaldo almost scored on an open net but had his angle cut off by Buffon. Then Lucas Vazquez had his shot saved by Buffon before it fell to Dani Carvajal, who then lobbed up a cross to Ronaldo and the rest was history. Marcelo then added a third and added to the misery for Juventus.

Despite it being only the first leg, you have the feeling that this tie is already over. With 3 away goals and already in superstar form, Real Madrid are running away with this tie.

Barcelona and Bayern endure shaky starts to get results

While Real Madrid ran away, Barcelona and Bayern stumbled out of the gate at the beginning of their first legs. Both Bayern and Barcelona had slow starts to begin and looked off from the get go. Things got worse for the Bavarians as Sevilla scored a goal to get things going. At least for the Catalans, they got an own goal to start things off. Despite both of them winning in the first leg, it wasn’t the most convincing performances. Both teams relied on own goals and mistakes from the defenses. They were really shaky performances.

These first legs are tough pills to swallow for both Roma and Sevilla. Both teams played hard, especially the Italians who had two valid penalty shouts not called. The two losing sides had a combined 3 own goals and against the giants like Bayern and Barca, you can’t afford mistakes like that.

Man City’s meltdown

AP

AP

The biggest shock of the first leg results was at Anfield where Liverpool ran riot on Manchester City. At the end of the day, it was a 3-0 destruction of Pep Guardiola’s team and made Man City look average. Goals from Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Mane in the first 30 minutes bamboozled the Citizens and had Anfield rocking.

Guardiola made some questionable decisions with this lineup, playing a midfielder like Kevin De Bruyne on the right wing. It left City’s midfield open and add that to the centre back pairing of Kompany and LaPorte, Liverpool attackers had a field day. They looked out of sorts and this rock solid team was smashed to pieces. Guardiola ended up switching KDB back into the midfield but it was too little too late. It also hurts Manchester City that they failed to score an away goal. Now they have to score 4 goals in the Etihad, which sets up for a crazy attacking second leg. There will be plenty of action next week.

This seemed like a perfect pairing for Liverpool. They love to counterattack and against a team which controls possession, this seemed like a matchup where Liverpool could expose City. But nobody expected them to do something like this.

Early contenders to win the World Cup

100 Days. The wait for the next FIFA World Cup is ending. While the United States failed to make the tournament for the first time since the Reagan administration, the sports’ popularity in the country continues to grow. Although the tournament offers one game elimination matches in the knockout phase, we know which teams are considered the favorites for the tournament. Let’s take a look at how each contender fares. (Alphabetical Order)

  Fernando Vergara/AP

 Fernando Vergara/AP

Argentina

They were viewed as one of the two favorites heading into the tournament in 2014, according to Skybet, and are listed at fifth by the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook for the 2018 tournament at 8-1 odds. Headed by Lionel Messi, still at the peak of his powers, and surrounded by Sergio Aguero, who is rejuvenated under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, the rising Mauro Icardi, veterans Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano, the country should have belief in their squad. However, they have only won two games in their qualifying matches since 2017, and recently suffered a loss to Nigeria. Coach Jorge Sampaoli will be on the hot seat, and Messi’s National Team legacy will also be on the line as he looks to capture his first major trophy with Argentina.

  Pedro Vilela/Getty

 Pedro Vilela/Getty

Brazil

The Selecao are listed at second in the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook to win it all and deservedly so. They are looking to add to their already record-leading 5 World Cup titles. Led by Neymar, the team looks to rebound from a disastrous exit from the 2014 tournament as they were trashed 7-1 by the eventual champions, Germany. The midfield of Brazil has changed dramatically since the last tournament with the addition of La Liga stars Casemiro and Coutinho to the starting line-up and the maturation of players like Paulinho and Willian. Having easily qualified to the tournament, Brazil will wish for the health of their star players as the club seasons begin their last months of action.

France

Manager Didier Deschamps seeks to bring the World Cup trophy to France for the first time since 1998 when he captained the French National Team to victory. Les Bleus will boast one of the youngest rosters coming into the tournament as they are led by a combination of stars including Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Corentin Tolisso, Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, and Raphael Varane. Griezmann, the oldest of that group, is one of the best players in all of Europe, and if the team seeks to go far in the tournament, they will have to rely on his production heading the attack, along with Pogba leading the midfield, and Varane commanding the defense. This roster will be competitive in this 2018’s tournament and the 2022 tournament led by this young core.

AFP

AFP

Germany

Still the favorites and looking to become the first country to repeat since the 1930’s Italy teams. Germany is arguably the most successful country in World Cup history with eight finals reached, and they appear to be the team to beat in 2018 as well. The 2014 World Cup Champions are the deepest team in the tournament, and have not suffered a defeat since the 2016 Euro semi-final to France. The won the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup with a roster largely consisting of youth players. The 2018 Germany team will maintain many of its players from its previous World Cup campaign with Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, and Mat Hummels likely maintaining prominent positions in this year’s team. Muller will seek to continue his way up the ladder to becoming the tournament’s all-time top goal scorer, as he has scored 10 goals in only 13 appearances. The German squad  will likely include several young stand-out players such as, Joshua Kimmich, Leroy Sane, and Timo Werner. The previous World Cup roster had to casualties due to injury in Ilkay Gundogan, who is beginning to play some of his best football since the nagging injuries he suffered over the previous years, and Marco Reus, who is a dangerous player on the wing. Germany will face several challenges in the tournament, but this team is best equipped to handle the rigors of the tournament as the deepest team of 2018.

Spain

Following the retirement of Vicente Del Bosque, the tiki-taka style Spain played the past 10 years has officially ended. The team still maintains several players from that era including Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in the midfield. Spain’s starting XI and the majority of the roster who will travel to Russia will be of Barcelona and Real Madrid. The 2010 Champions failed to qualify to the knockout phase of the 2014 tournament in disappointing fashion. They will seek to bounce back relying on the creativity of Isco and the veteran leadership of Sergio Ramos and David Silva. The tournament will be interesting for Spain as the country’s politics has divided several players on the roster who seek independence for Catalonia. Regardless, this is a roster consisting of players who are tremendous with the ball, and will likely be the farewell tournament for the remaining players from the 2010 Championship roster.