Posts tagged Juventus
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
2018-19 UEFA Champions League Preview: Group Stage Edition
Photo Credit:  Reuters Photo

Photo Credit: Reuters Photo

We are inching ever so close to having Champions League football back in our lives. The draw a few weeks ago helped us take one giant step towards us hearing “The Champions” blaring across our TV screens. The results turned out to be quite interesting. Sure some of the groups are real cakewalks (looking at you, Manchester City and Bayern Munich) but the rest of the teams surely have their work cut out for them.

There are some amazing matchups we are going to get during the group stages. Let’s take a look at the narratives in each of the eight groups along with who will make it to the Round of 16.

Group A

This is a good group if you want to watch two clubs with some young talent on display. Monaco and Borussia Dortmund both are well known for developing some of the world's best young players and selling them for mass profit. Atletico Madrid got younger too with the signings of Thomas Lemar and Rodri in the midfield. Lemar will have a reunion game as he faces his former club when Atletico and Monaco collide on Matchday 1.

Both Dortmund and Atleti will be looking to bounce back in the Champions League after crashing out in the group stage last year. It didn’t turn out so bad for them in Europe as Dortmund reached the knockout stages of the Europa League while Diego Simeone’s team lifted the trophy when it was all said and done. Atletico looked stronger than ever in the UEL final and in the UEFA Super Cup, beating Real Madrid 4-2. Dortmund had a huge win against RB Leipzig last week then followed it up with a 0-0 dud against Hannover. Lucien Favre has this team playing better than last year but they need to step it up a notch if they want to impress in Europe.

Club Brugge are the team from Pot 4 in this group. The good news for the Belgian side is that they have basically two weeks off before their first matchday and the only game in between is against Lokren, who are 14th in the Belgian Pro League. Then things get a bit tough as they have to play in all three competitions right after. Dortmund in the UCL, Gent in league play, and a Round of 32 cup clash against Deinzel all come in quick succession. They will fight hard in group play to snatch points against the big guns. Their best bet is nabbing some against Monaco.

Madrid and Dortmund are the favorites and rightly so, they are the two most talented squads. Monaco should be expected to finish around third with Brugge coming in the final spot.

Atletico Madrid and Dortmund advance

Group B

After impressing in the group stages last season (remember that 3-0 scoreline against Real Madrid?) Tottenham will be looking to do the same in this group. A summer with no transfers gave a lot of worry as to the squad depth of Spurs but they have started out the season in top form. We will truly get a sense of how much their lack of activity in the summer costs them as they try to advance deeper into cup tournaments along with fighting for a top 4 spot in the Champions League.

After getting a come from behind win against Lazio to get into the UCL, Inter Milan was rewarded by getting into a group with two of the top clubs in Europe. Inter have gotten a lot better in the transfer market, picking up additions such as Radja Nainggolan, Stefan De Vrij, and Keita Balde Diao. With Mauro Icardi up top and Ivan Perisic on the wings, Inter has solid threats in front of goal. They will be a much tougher out than many think and are certainly capable of an upset result in the group stages, especially at home in the San Siro.

PSV Eindhoven has a great young player in Chucky Lozano and he will be someone to watch for in the group stage. Lozano and Steven Bergwijn both possess talent on the wings. Even with PSV likely to finish last in the group, they should provide some highlights.

It’s not hard to determine who the best team in this group will be and it’s Barcelona. The Catalans are ready for a deep Champions League run, especially after the collapse they had against Roma. One of the topics Leo Messi talked about in his captain's speech to the fans was about winning the Champions League. It’s clear they want the Champions League title and should be favorites. With a summer of bringing in talent to solidify the bench, Barca is a deep team. It also helps that young starlet Ousmane Dembele has gotten off to a fast start this season. He scored the game-winning goal in the Spanish Super Cup and has been a menace on the wings every time he has featured for the Catalans thus far. He looks a lot more confident and could show those promising steps in development many Barcelona fans hoped for when he first signed with the club.

This will be a tough road for the top three teams but Barcelona will make it out of the group as winners. The Catalans should get enough points early to see their way through. Inter Milan will put up a fight but ultimately Tottenham should finish second. We will get to see some drama in the later matchdays of this group, including the final one where Barcelona will play Spurs. This could possibly decide who finishes first in the group.

Barcelona and Tottenham advance

Group C

This features a group with three strong attacking teams so look for some really high score lines on their given matchdays. We all know about Liverpool and their potent attack. With Sadio Mane and Mo Salah on the wings, they are a constant threat to burn your back line on counter attacks. Roberto Firmino does a good job as the central striker and his pressing defensively helps make Jurgen Klopp’s system run more smoothly. Liverpool also ramped up their midfield with the arrivals of Naby Keita and Fabinho. Keita will be instrumental in their success against Europe’s elite. They shocked the world by reaching the Champions League final before running into the buzzsaw which is Real Madrid. While back to back appearances to the final is highly unlikely, they can make some noise. Their defense has seemed stable so far in Premier League but they will be facing two teams with explosive attacks of their own. Both Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli can punch a couple of goals into the back of the Liverpool net if they are not careful.

PSG have had a great start to the Ligue 1 season as they look to dominate the French league once again. Like Liverpool, they have a big three of their own in Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylian Mbappe. It will be a nightmare for the rest of the three to try and stop Paris. They cruised in group play last season despite having giants such as Bayern Munich in their group. The real goal for Paris however, will be in the knockout stages. They will be pushed in this group stage as there are three legit teams who all have a shot at advancing. Questions are going to be asked about their defense as well as their depth in the middle of the park. They still haven’t totally gotten over the loss of Blaise Matuidi and need a real box to box player to solidify things. While the Parisians should be favorites to win the group, as they have the best side, it’s not certain.

Napoli had their share of losses too this summer with Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho heading to Chelsea. It doesn’t mean they have taken numerous steps back, however. Carlo Ancelotti still inherits a very talented squad and despite crashing out of the group stage last year, they have a puncher's chance to advance. It was clear from the onset last season they were more focused on the league and decided not to pursue any other trophies because of it. We will see this season how Ancelotti rotates the squad in Europe. At the very least they are slotted at a solid third. Red Star Belgrade will be a tough place to play and the atmosphere will be great. Against these three teams, however, it’s hard not seeing them finish anywhere other than last.

Liverpool and PSG have the most offensive firepower while their defenses seem more stable than Napoli’s at the moment. The Partenopei will be right with them step for step, though. If either of them slips up, Napoli will be waiting to pounce at a chance of reaching the knockout rounds.

PSG and Liverpool advance

Group D

Out of all the groups in the Champions League, this is the one which is a toss-up. This is actually a pretty crazy group when you think about it as it’s not often you see four teams all with a shot at advancing. There aren’t any European giants or any real minnows in group D. It looks to be an all-out slugfest.

The four teams will be Porto, Schalke, Galatasaray, and Lokomotiv Moscow. If anything, it will be a group which requires a ton of traveling as both Porto and Lokomotiv will have to travel across Europe to play each other. None of these teams are particularly overpowering over the other so it will be hard to tell who is the favorite heading into the first matchday. Both Porto and Schalke have experience in the knockout rounds. Galatasaray and Moscow are tough away fixtures. If both are able to churn out a result or two on the road, it will go a long way in their hopes of finishing in the top two or even the Europa League spot. The team to watch out will be Schalke. They have gotten off to a shaky start in Bundesliga play with two losses to begin the season. Things could get even worse with a fixture against Borussia Monchengladbach awaiting them. A good start to their European season would calm down some of the voices of worry but you have to wonder if they will be able to handle both Champions League and Bundesliga simultaneously.

Out of all the teams in the group, Porto is the ones who are the most likely to advance given their pedigree in Europe. Hector Herrera still runs the midfield and Vincent Aboubakar will poach some goals in this group. Second place is honestly a toss up but in the end, talent tops all. Schalke should have enough to barely scrape by for second place. Lokomotiv will surely be in the battle for second too and are a dark horse to watch in this group. After making the Round of 16 in Europa League last year, it will be a big jump in talent for the Russian side. If there is a group where they can raise some eyebrows, this is the one.

Porto and Schalke advance

Group E

Now we enter the first of the two cakewalk groups. It’s a common joke to say the Bundesliga is essentially Bayern Munich and everyone else. It applies to Group E as well.

It’s clear the Bavarians are through and out the heavy favorites to win this group. Even after looking like they took a step back quality wise in the Champions League, Bayern still has enough depth in the middle of the field to keep things chugging along. Their 5-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt should ease concerns too. This will be the first real test for Niko Kovac, Bayern Munich’s new manager. Carlo Ancelotti was immediately sacked after their blowout loss to PSG so it shows you how seriously they view their form in Europe. Luckily for Kovac, there isn’t an opponent of the Parisians quality in their group. Bayern should comfortably finish first.

The battle for the second place spot probably won’t be a drama-filled one either. Despite both having to play in the playoff rounds to reach the group stages, there is a gap of quality between Benfica and Ajax. Like Bayern, this should be an easy group for the Portuguese side to navigate. Finishing second won’t be a hard task for Benfica.

This now leaves the third place spot between Ajax and AEK. The Greek side barely scraped by in the play-off round as well and Ajax fought in a tough two-legged battle against Dynamo Kiev. There are gaps in quality between everyone in Group E. The battle for third place is no different. Ajax is the better side and should make their way into the Europa League.

Bayern and Benfica advance

Group F

All you need to do for Group F is take one look at the teams lined up and know who will top it. Manchester City is far and above the best team and should have it all wrapped halfway through the group stage. Even with the injury to Kevin De Bruyne, the Man City machine keeps plugging along. Pep Guardiola’s side has played stellar and has done so despite the likes of Leroy Sane getting off to tough starts. With the addition of Riyad Mahrez and a healthy Benjamin Mendy, Man City have so much firepower to work with. Bernardo Silva looking more comfortable in the system is a boost too. Last year they got bamboozled by Liverpool in the quarterfinals and looked pedestrian during the tie. Guardiola should have this side motivated and ready to go from the start. They are favorites to not only win the league but are in the mix of teams who can win the entire competition.

Now for who will finish behind Manchester City in the second spot is another open-ended question. Shakhtar, Lyon, and Hoffenheim all have what it takes to rally a couple of strong results together and stumble into second. At the same time, there are numerous questions surrounding the consistency of the last two in the group in Lyon and Hoffenheim. You don’t know which versions of these teams will show up on a given matchday. Lyon, for example, has a very underrated attack with Memphis DePay at the helm but they can’t seem to find the back of the net often. A lot of times for Lyon it’s been a lot of low-quality chances from outside the box and on the counter. Hoffenheim have started their season on an ok note but the jury is still out on how they will stack up against tougher competition in Europe. Shakhtar Donetsk should be the leader of the pack in this race for second. Like Porto, Shakhtar has done well in Europe as of late. While they won’t necessarily trouble Manchester City, they should be favorites to finish second.

Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk advance

Group G

Last season was a magical Champions League campaign for both Roma and Real Madrid. It often illustrates the difference in the level of expectations for teams in Europe. While for Roma supporters it would have been grand to see them win the Champions League, just reaching the semi-finals was an amazing achievement. It was even sweeter considering how they reached there, on the heels of one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history. After being thrashed 4-1 in the first leg, Roma staged an epic comeback back home in the return leg. They beat the Catalans 3-0 and advanced thanks to an away goals tie-breaker. It was one of the best comebacks in a Champions League tie the soccer world has ever seen. Now Roma has to play another Spanish giant as it draws defending winners Real Madrid in their group. Apart from their numerous pre-season matches in the summer, 2016 was the last time these two teams played in a competitive game. It was the Round of 16 in the UCL and Real Madrid dominated the tie, earning back to back 2-0 victories to see off the Italian side.

After winning three straight Champions League titles, this will be a completely different Champions League campaign for Real Madrid and we all know why. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus this summer shocked the club and not splashing the cash for a superstar to replace him was perplexing as well. While they almost certainly will try to land a top ten player in the world next summer, it looks like Real Madrid are making Gareth Bale the star of this team. The Welshman is now the star and will be looked upon to bag more goals for Los Blancos. Bale does have the talent to be a star for Real Madrid. His blistering pace causes so many problems for defenders and will open up spaces in the defense for others. Guys like Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio will have more goal scoring opportunities because of it. The midfield and the defense will still be the same as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the middle of the park. Raphael Varane, who had an exceptional season for both club and country, will lineup along Sergio Ramos. With the loss of Zinedine Zidane factored in as well, it will be a tall mountain to climb for Madrid if they want to win the UCL for the fourth time in a row. They might not make it back to the final but a quarterfinal appearance isn’t an unreasonable expectation.

The two other teams in this group are CSKA Moscow and FC Viktoria Plzn. These two teams will battle for the third place spot of this group with the Russian side being the favorites. They are currently 6th in the Russian Premier League as Zenit and Spartak Moskova have gotten off to great starts domestically. Plzn are huge underdogs and despite being in the thick of things in the Czech league, it will be difficult for them to get results in this group. Their best shot comes on matchday one when they face off against CSKA.

It’s clear who the two best teams are in this group in Real Madrid and Roma. They’ll be the ones who advance to the knockout stages. Expect Madrid to finish at the top despite the transition to a life without Ronaldo.

Real Madrid and Roma advance

Group H

To say it’s been a turbulent season so far for Manchester United is an understatement. Between the comments made by Jose Mourinho and the two losses to start the season, the pressure is on in Old Trafford. Despite finishing second in the league last season, it was still defined as an “ok”. Losing to Sevilla in the Champions League Round of 16 didn’t help either. This is a big year for Mourinho as he enters in the heavily talked about "Year 3 Mou". It's usually around the time things implode and the Portuguese manager is let go. It will be an uphill battle in the league as both Manchester City and Liverpool are favorites to lift the trophy. The Champions League draw did no favors for the Red Devils either. Manchester United can’t afford to have performances like they did against Brighton if they want to do well in this group. They have made some upgrades and depth signings this summer, especially in the midfield with the addition of Fred from Shakhtar. Mourinho still has a lot of questions left to answer about this squad. Who will start on the wings is the first question. Defense is in question as well with Eric Bailly in and out of the lineup constantly. There is a lot of shuffling in those two areas for Manchester United and it shows on match days.

United’s biggest problem will be Juventus. The Italian champions had a fantastic summer picking up Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and some guy named Cristiano Ronaldo. Last season’s UCL campaign ended in infamy as a fantastic comeback in Bernabeu was canceled out by a late penalty awarded against the Old Lady. Juventus are bringing back a lot of their old squad but have replaced Gonzalo Higuain with Ronaldo, an obvious upgrade. The only real question for this squad will be the goalkeeping situation with Gigi Buffon now gone. The adjustment of Ronaldo on this Juventus team has gotten off to a rocky start but expect him to start scoring goals soon. Now it’s up to Max Allegri to see how he can field the best starting XI. Juventus will be very hard to stop in the Champions League this season.

Valencia is a sneaky underdog in this group. They have some young talent in attack with Michy Batshuayi and Goncalo Guedes, who made his move from Paris permanent this summer. They can catch teams on the counter with the pace on the wings too. After finishing 3rd in a group with Gent, Lyon, and Zenit last season they will be itching to make it back to the Round of 16. They certainly have the talent to make this happen.

Valencia has a chance to finish second in this group, especially if Manchester United slips up. However, Manchester United should have just enough to squeak into second. This is setting up to be a group to pay attention to.

Juventus and Manchester United advance

The Counter Press Serie A Preview

The Counter Press boys finish up their preview of the European leagues with a Serie A preview. They are joined by recurring guests @AvikarSaini and @GuerschonLynch. We go through all the Italian teams, give our predictions, including how Napoli will do as well as give some air time to SPAL

Follow Josh: @highbiscuits
Follow Vijay: @VJVemu

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

 

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

Champions League Round of 16 takeaways

After a month in between legs, the Round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League is over. 8 teams (Manchester City, Roma, FC Barcelona, Juventus, Sevilla, Real Madrid, Liverpool) all advanced to the quarterfinals. The quarter final draw will be announced soon but let’s take some time to reflect on some of the more interesting ties which took place in the Round of 16.

Allegri gets it right in the second leg

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After mismanaging the first leg in Turin which saw his team give up a 2-0 goal lead, Max Allegri made the right moves in the second leg in what was a impressive victory for the away side. In the first leg, Allegri was too conservative and didn’t make the right moves or tactics necessary in order to let Juve see out a two goal advantage. The 2-2 draw gave Spurs a whole new lifeline in the tie and had them the favorites to advance. Allegri did start off the second leg on shaky terms by going with three centre backs at the back and a formation which isolated Barzagli against Heung Min Son on the right hand side. The move clearly backfired as the winger ran circles around the 36 year old Barzagli, giving Juve trouble anytime he touched the ball. It reached a massive problem when Son scored the opening goal in the second leg and it looked Juve where headed for an exit.

Then with around 30 minutes left in the tie, Allegri made two key subs. He took off Mehdi Benatia and Blaise Matuidi in exchange for two wing backs in Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah. Bringing on a defensive right and left back switched Juve from a back three to a back four, with Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini in the middle. This change worked well for Juve as the two fullbacks not only brought defensive stability and allowed the Italian duo in the centre to do what they do best in the middle but they also pressured Spurs on the wings. It was the first time all game Spurs full backs had to deal with opposing pressure and they crumbled. Especially Ben Davies. Lichtsteiner was easily able to get past him and deliver a cross which would eventually end up in the back of the Spurs net thanks to Gonzalo Higuain. The changing of formation plus pressure from Lichtsteiner seemed to rattle Davies and it showed in the second goal. It was Davies who played Paulo Dybala onside as the Juve attack beat Hugo Lloris for an all important goal from the Juve side.

There was more to this than just the brilliant play of Juventus in the 10 minute stretch which sealed off the game but part of the credit should go to Allegri. He saw the mistakes he made in defense in the first half and wasn’t afraid to switch things up. The change of tactics confused Spurs, opening up a chance for Juventus to take advantage and the Italian side pounced. European football is cruel sometimes.

Mourinho mismanages Manchester United

Michael Regan

Michael Regan

While Allegri got his tactics right for Juventus, Jose Mourinho botched it again for Manchester United. At home against Sevilla with the scoreline being 0-0 after the first leg, many still felt like Manchester United would still pull out a win. But it turned out to be the complete opposite as two goals in quick succession from the Spanish side saw the Red Devils crash out of Europe in a rare defeat at home. Defeat at home in the Champions League isn’t something Manchester United fans are used to and it was a punch in the mouth when Wassim Ben Yedder curled a shot in the far right corner to give Sevilla 1-0 lead. Matters got even worse when Ben Yedder’s header off a corner bounced over the line and suddenly it was two away goals for Sevilla. Not even Romelu Lukaku’s late goal could spark Man U back to life and that was all she wrote.

It was a very defensive formation which Mourinho brought out, playing both Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini in the midfield. Two players who won’t give much to Manchester United moving forward. He also played Marcus Rashford out of position and also played Alexis Sanchez, an attacker who is massively out of form at the moment. The game plan should have been for Manchester United to go out and attack Sevilla. Get an early goal, take the life out of the opponent and then sit back to absorb pressure Mourinho style. Instead they let Sevilla’s two holding midfielders in Steven N’Zonzi and Ever Banega boss the midfield. Banega, who led the UCL in passes completed before the game, had a master class of a match alongside his French counterpart. They dictated play in the midfield and made life difficult for Manchester United’s backline from the start. The resistance was broken when Ben Yedder came on. Manchester United gave Sevilla one really good chance and the Spanish side took it graciously. But it shouldn’t have been like that to begin with. Given they were the home and better side, Manchester United should have been the ones attacking Sevilla but instead found themselves shelled in defensively. So when Sevilla struck twice, Manchester United had to quickly bring on two attacking subs but the damage had already been done.

Like with their English counterparts, Tottenham Hotspur, part of the blame goes to the Manchester United players but honestly they were put in a position to fail. Some of the guys were playing out of position and guys with similar playing styles were slotted right next to each other. There was no balance in the Manchester United team. They were way too conservative for it and paid the price for it.

Messi carries FC Barcelona

Twitter

Twitter

What will FC Barcelona do without Leo Messi? It’s a question worth asking in the future but for now, we should keep enjoying the greatness of one of the best ever. Messi was in a mood to get this tie with Chelsea over with from the get go. He scored 3 minutes into the match, following up some nice one-two play with his teammates before a deflection saw the ball go to Luis Suarez. The striker played it to Messi, who drilled it through the legs of Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois and instantly you could feel the tie fully shifted to Barcelona. Especially in a place like the Camp Nou, where only a few teams have came and won.

He also set up Ousmane Dembele for his first goal in a Barcelona shirt and it was the goal which ultimately sealed Chelsea’s fate. Once again, Messi evaded a defender and blazed past him. Getting inside the Blues penalty area with ease, he crossed the ball over to the French winger who then splendidly smashed the ball into the top left corner. It was a world class goal and one which Dembele needed. You could see it on his face and through Messi’s reaction just how much it meant to the team.

Then in the second leg with the game out of reach, Messi put salt on the wounds of Chelsea with another goal, again beating Courtois through his legs. It was his 100th goal in Champions League and was a performance which showed just how dominant he can be. Messi showed this side earlier in the Champions League against Juventus in the group stage in what was a 3-0 win for Barcelona at home.

Coming into this match, there was a little worry that Chelsea could get a result at the Camp Nou. With the way Barcelona played in the first leg, it was certainly possible. But Leo Messi had other ideas and made sure Barca would go through. Even if they weren’t at their best as a team through both legs.

Real Madrid are still a force to be reckoned with

Real Madrid

Real Madrid

Despite their struggles in La Liga, Real Madrid are still on another level when it comes to the Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo and company got through their big tie with Paris Saint-Germain and did so with relative ease. Knowing Paris were going to attack them, Real Madrid had to make sure the wings were secure and no chances were created from there. Both Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio made sure the likes of Angel Di Maria were limited offensively. They were tracking back and sat back when needed to provide support to Madrid’s fullbacks. Asensio and Vazquez were active all over the pitch especially the former who ignited the opening goal by Ronaldo which put the tie to bed. He stole the ball in the Paris half then drove into the penalty box. Seconds later Ronaldo climbed up near the back post and headed the away Madrid desperately needed. From there it was nothing Paris could do but wonder how this project went all wrong once again.

By putting away PSG with ease, Real Madrid once again continue to stake their claim as one of the most dangerous teams in this competition. The holders are still in it and seem to hit another gear when the Champions League team comes on. With a La Liga title completely out of the picture, Zidane and his squad can fully focus on the Champions League. A completely refreshed Madrid squad will be expected on most midweek games now. Who knows who they will draw in the Champions League quarter finals but they still will be favorites.

Champions League takeaways
Reuters

Reuters

We are officially halfway through the Champions League Round of 16 ties and there are a lot of storylines to take away from the chaos. There were blowouts (Man City, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich) and there were some interesting matches (Juve-Spurs, Barca-Chelsea). With the second legs happening next week, the Champions League is beginning to heat up as soccer heads towards one of the best stretches of the season. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines to take away from the eight matches over the course of two weeks.

 

Juve was too conservative and Tottenham made them pay

Alessandro Di Marco/AP Photo

Alessandro Di Marco/AP Photo

Aside from the masterful Spurs performance in the second half, the main takeaway from this game was Juventus losing the plot after starting off the match brilliantly. After the first 10 minutes it seemed like it this tie was already over thanks to a brace by Gonzalo Higuain. It was two mistakes by Spurs and two goals struck in the back of their net. But then Max Allegri decided to have his team sit back and absorb pressure for the rest of the 80 minutes. While it was something Juventus has done in the past, the tactic massively backfired. Even with the threat of the counterattack, Juventus failed to generate any serious chances for the rest of the game. They not only saw their lead get split in half twenty minutes later but they saw Spurs get a crucial away goal thanks to the brilliance of Christian Eriksen. A lot of the problems was Juventus allowed Spurs time on the ball and let the likes of Eriksen and Dembele boss in the midfield. They took advantage of a slower Sami Khedira in the middle and tested the Juventus backline for the entire match.

It’s easy to say in hindsight that this was a bad move but even during the game you see this was a bad move. Especially when he had some playmakers on the pitch such as Douglas Costa, who had a brilliant match, and Higuain. Juventus came out firing and grabbed a strong hold on the tie but then decided to absorb the pressure like a bubble. It blew up in their faces and now they have to go to Wembley and try to beat a red hot Spurs team.

Barcelona show lingering problems

AP

AP

In the first leg of the game of Barcelona vs. Chelsea, the team from London were the better side. They played a near perfect match with Antonio Conte getting the tactics and game plan for this his side to succeed down to a tee. However they made one key error and it led to how it usually does against Leo Messi and Barcelona, with the opposing team picking the ball out of the back of their own net. Other than the blunder it was a near perfect game from Chelsea and they showed how to bottle this Barcelona attack. Messi and company were scraping for space all night and other than the goal, had no real shots on target. At least none which caused any panic from the Blues.

Part of this is the great coaching from Conte and on the flip side, it’s on Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde. He played a more conservative side and probably could have gone with a more attacking side which focused on the wings. By playing his normal squad in Champions League, Valverde set Barca up to be vulnerable down the wings. By giving Chelsea space down the channels, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses had great games and were rock solid defensively.

This sets up for an interesting second leg and one which Barcelona should still be favored in. But given how more conservative Valverde’s Barcelona is compared to different teams in years past, things could get hairy if Chelsea grab one at the Nou Camp.

Mistake by Mourinho and Manchester United

Reuters

Reuters

While Antonio Conte thrived, his Premier League counterpart Jose Mourinho did not. Against La Liga side Sevilla, Manchester United got out shot 25-6 and 8-1 with shots on target. 25 to 6. If not for some amazing reaction saves by David De Gea and Sevilla somehow forgetting how to finish in front of goal, this could have been an ugly result for United.

Some of it goes towards the players with most of the attackers failing to look like threats all night but part of it should also reflect back on Mourinho. Manchester United didn’t come out all aggressive looking for the key away goal to shift the tie their way. They could have gotten one goal quickly and take the air out of the stadium. But instead they decided to sit back and let the game come to them and boy did Sevilla take it to them. They were hoping to just absorb pressure and get a goal while staying compact defensively in their own half. The plan did work in that they didn’t give up any goals but Mourinho’s side didn’t generate anything offensively. This was more on Sevilla not scoring than Manchester United defending.

Zidane made the right moves

Reuters

Reuters

Real Madrid have been horrible in La Liga and the Copa Del Rey but to their credit, they do shine in the Champions League. In a must-win match, Zidane played his cards right and rode his stars to victory. They took advantage of the inexperience of Lo Celso for the first goal and the bad substitutions by Unai Emery for the second and third. For every bad sub Emery made, Zidane made a good one. He brought on the energy boost winger Marco Asensio in exchange for Isco and Lucas Vazquez for Casemiro. They were offensive minded mood and a risk given the scoreline at the time was only 1-1. But Asensio specifically provided the boost Real Madrid needed and next thing you know, Los Blancos were up 3-1 and look to be cruising to a spot in the quarterfinals.