Posts tagged Real Madrid
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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Spurs and Dortmund face off while Real Madrid's repeat bid continues against Ajax
Photo Caption: Bongarts/Getty Images

Photo Caption: Bongarts/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Borussia Dortmund

Given all the circumstances surrounding the club, it’s a miracle Tottenham Hotspur have been able to achieve what they have this season. A lack of summer transfers has greatly affected their depth, limiting Mauricio Pochettino’s hand when it comes to rotating his squad during the three domestic competitions and the Champions League. They’ve done a nice job maintaining positioning in the Premier League, currently five points off the top two and with nine points ahead of fourth place Manchester United.

Spurs almost missed out on the Round of 16, narrowly squeaking by thanks to a late draw against Barcelona in the Camp Nou. The injury bug hasn’t been kind to Tottenham this season either - Harry Kane and Dele Alli have missed considerable amounts of time with injury, and Ben Davies has picked up a knock as well. With the number of injuries they have had, it doesn’t help Spurs are facing one of the more offensive teams in Europe.

It’s been a youth revival for Borussia Dortmund so far this season. Behind the efforts of Jaden Sancho, Christian Pulisic, Achraf Hakimi, and Abdou Diallo, Dortmund have found themselves atop the Bundesliga and in the knockout stages of the Champions League. They breezed through the group stage, losing just one game and finishing first thanks to beating out Atletico Madrid on goal difference. Dortmund is still hanging onto a five-point lead in the league despite Bayern Munich gaining momentum fast.

It doesn’t help Lucien Favre’s team that they haven’t won in the month of February yet. They had two draws against Eintracht Frankfurt and an astonishing 3-3 result against Hoffenheim where Dortmund allowed three second-half goals to drop points. Those results sandwiched between a shootout loss to Werder Bremen in the DFB Cup has made it a sour start to the month, but doesn’t mean Dortmund will be pushovers.

Sancho has taken Europe by storm, capturing the world's attention as one of the generation’s future superstars. He’s scored seven times and dished out nine assists in his 21 games in the Bundesliga this campaign. With Davies out on the wing and Spurs already inconsistent play at the wingback spot, this could be a tricky matchup for Tottenham to handle. One wrong move and Sancho will be slinging passes into the box. Given Paco Alcacer’s career revival at Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund have a real threat in front of goal. While they will be without Marco Reus for this game, BVB still should be favorites in this one.

For Spurs, the offensive load has been carried by the duo of Cristian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son. The latter has been one of Spurs’ best threats in front of goal over the past three years, scoring 37 goals for the club. However, he hasn’t had much success in the Champions League this year, going scoreless in his four appearances. Son has missed some time due to international duties and he has still done well to get back acclimated with the squad. He can play on either the wing or up top at striker. With Son’s pace and Eriksen’s pinpoint ability to pick out passes, Spurs still are a threat to this Borussia Dortmund’s defense. Dortmund’s backline hasn’t had its fair share of good fortune when it comes to staying healthy as well. All it takes is one mess up and Spurs will have the advantage at Wembley.

Real Madrid vs. Ajax

This is an old school tie between two of Europe’s most historic clubs. Both Ajax and Real Madrid have enjoyed European success with the latter running the show in the Champions League as of late. No matter what their standing was domestically, Los Blancos always flipped the switch when it came to Europe.

It initially didn’t look like things would be this way for Real Madrid once again when you consider how their season started. After his controversial exit from being the manager of the Spanish National Team, the pressure was all on Julen Lopetegui when he took the Real Madrid job. It was also clear Real Madrid weren’t prepared for the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and the scoring output he brought to the Bernabeu. The offense suffered, Madrid fell severely behind in the La Liga standings and Lopetegui was sacked following a 5-1 thrashing in the Camp Nou against Barcelona in El Clasico. To make matters worse, they suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to CSKA Moscow on Matchday 6 in the group stage.

Santiago Solari has taken over and has since turned things around, revitalizing Real Madrid in the new year. They have since jumped up to second in La Liga, six points behind league leaders Barcelona. Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, and even Karim Benzema have seen an uptick in production. Vinicius Jr. has proven to be a real threat on the wing and has given opponents problems any time he steps on the pitch. Real Madrid got two key results in a draw in the first leg of their Copa Del Rey and got a 3-1 win on the road against Atletico Madrid. After a couple of months of turmoil, it looks like Real Madrid are back on track.

Ajax has been a surprise team in Europe so far. In a group with Bayern Munich and Benfica, Erik ten Hag’s squad got some fantastic results in the six matchdays. Two draws against Bayern, one draw and a win against Benfica later and Ajax were through to the Round of 16. Things are picking up in their domestic league as well. They are only six points behind PSV Eindhoven in a two-horse race in the Erividisie.

In terms of threats going forward, former Southampton Dusan Tadic has seen himself really become a key cog in the Dutch’s club attack. Starlet Matthias de Ligt and former Manchester United CB Daley Blind are the two main defenders in charge of making sure Bale doesn’t go rampant in the Amsterdam Arena. A 6-2 loss to Feyenoord and a 1-0 loss to Heracles weren’t the best results to have in the weeks leading up to this game, however.

A couple of weeks ago, this could have been the chance for a major upset. However, things have regressed to the mean. Real Madrid has gotten better while Ajax has been hit by the injury to De Jong. Madrid will be looking to make a statement and Ajax will be holding on to dear life to stay into this tie.

Predictions:

Vijay (@VJVemu): Dortmund 2 -1 Spurs, Real Madrid 3 - 1 Ajax
Josh (@HighBiscuits): Dortmund 3 -1 Spurs, Real Madrid 2 - 2 Ajax


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 27
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

2018-19 La Liga Power Rankings: Can FC Barcelona repeat as champs?
Photo credit: Aitor Alcalde / Getty Images

Photo credit: Aitor Alcalde / Getty Images

Spanish teams have had quite the decade when it comes to domestic football. La Liga teams have dominated both European competitions as Barcelona and Real Madrid have swapped Champions League honors while Sevilla has ran wild with Europa League in that span as well. With the Spanish Super Cup and the UEFA Super Cup completed, it’s time for the La Liga season to begin. There will be some changes in the hierarchy but nothing earth-shattering. Despite expectations for La Liga to go pan out exactly how many expect it to, it doesn’t mean it’s not a fun league to watch. Especially with the growing number of quality teams in the league.

Class 1: Title aspirations

Barcelona
Atletico Madrid
Real Madrid

If you have watched any of La Liga in the past couple of years, you already know which teams are going to be in this category. It’s the Big 3 of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. The battle between the three teams is always a slugfest. Each of these games is passionate and filled with excitement.

Barcelona is the expected favorites to repeat as La Liga champions and rightly so. The Catalans made some key reinforcements in the transfer market and held on to Ousmane Dembele as well. Keeping the young French winger was a huge move and credit to Barcelona for not giving up on him so easily. He struggled in his initial season and the injuries didn’t help either. Arturo Vidal, Lenglet, and Malcolm were all good additions despite the large transfer fees. None of the three will likely be starters but they will serve as depth signings. In the case of the latter two, they are young and hopefully can ease their way into the squad later on. Expect Ernesto Valverde to run with his patented 4-3-3 with Suarez, Dembele, and Lionel Messi up top. The real questions will be in the midfield as the backline/goalkeeper will likely be set as well. Who will the third midfielder be alongside Rakitic and Busquets? Arthur will have a shot at being in the starting XI and but his chances look grim. He faces stiff competition in Coutinho as the Brazilian now has the No. 7 shirt and had a great World Cup too. Valverde always seems to take the more stable option so expect Coutinho to be playing in the Iniesta role next season as a playmaker. He also adds his own own offensive threat of being able to curl one into the top corner from outside the box. The Catalans will be defensively compact and stable in possession like last season. While they won La Liga with ease, they still have the bitter taste of the Roma defeat in their mouths. A trophy or two should be in crosshairs for this team.

Both of the Madrid clubs had rather opposite summer transfer markets. Real, as we all know, suffered a huge loss in Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. Both are losses Madrid did not expect to occur and it set them back. It was evident in Madrid transfer plans this summer. No big names other than Thibaut Courtois came in and no replacement for CR7. Now it’s Gareth Bale’s team offensively. Florentino Perez’s favorite Galactico signing will have the full reins in Julen Lopetegui’s system. With Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio likely up top with him in the attack, expect a lot more of the Bale of old or the one we see play for Wales. A guy who is much more comfortable taking on guys 1 v. 1 and burning them with pace. Hopefully, for Madrid’s sake, he can step up and show the quality which commanded his humongous transfer fee. The rest of the lineup should be the same as the same crew who won their 3rd straight Champions League title. This will be a tough year for Real Madrid and their fans. Their core group is a year older and they lost one of their most influential players in Ronaldo. There’s a high chance Real Madrid could walk away from this season with zero trophies to show for it, which in their terms is chaos. The loss against Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup could be a telling sign.

Speaking of Atletico, they had an aggressive transfer market. Particularly in the midfield with the additions of Thomas Lemar from Monaco and Rodri from Villarreal. Both played in the UEFA Super Cup and played well in their competitive debuts. The Frenchman Lemar was a natural fit in his given role and showed how much of a playmaker he could be for this team moving forward. Diego Simeone now has some toys he can play with offensively so expect Atletico to open up just a bit more than they have in the past. With Griezmann and Costa still up top for, they still possess a potent strike force which can strike at any time. We all know about the defense led by Diego Godin and Jon Oblak has shown why he can be a top 5 goalie in the world when he’s on his game. The only question is the right-back position as 33-year-old Juanfran is currently holding the starting role. Simeone’s team is currently the second-best in Spain at the moment and with enough balance in the squad, they can make another run at the La Liga title. Plus they are a dark horse in Champions League play with the signings they have made. Watch out for Atletico Madrid this year, they still have the same grind-it-out/going into battle attitude but with more flair than ever.

Class 2: European competition contenders

Sevilla
Villarreal
Valencia
Athletic Bilbao
Real Betis
Getafe

The battle between the big three are slugfests and so is the rotating door of who will finish 4th behind them. It’s same cast of teams who battle for the right. Usually their seasons include an ok Europa League campaign along with the occasional upset against a giant. Most fans are familiar with the Villarreal and Valencia’s of the world but there maybe a new team challenging for a European spot. It’s lesser well known team from Seville: Real Betis.

Betis had a robust transfer market, showing all of Spain they wanted to continue the success they had last year in the league when they finished 6th and qualified for the Europa League as well. Coming into the Benito Villamarin this summer were the likes of William Carvalho, Takashi Inui, Pau Lopez, and Sergio Canales. Add the addition of Marc Bartra in the winter window and you have a splendid year of transfers for Betis. It’s going to be a challenge this season as they have to balance their energy with Europe. Most teams struggle with this adjustment but at the same time, many clubs didn’t make the transfers Betis did. They are going to be in the chase for Europe qualification spots again this season but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.

Despite knocking out Manchester United in the Champions League, Sevilla still had a troubling domestic season by their standards. They finished 6th in the table and have to play in the qualification rounds of the Europa League because of it. Sevilla also bring in a new manager as Pablo Machin arrives from Girona. His 3-5-2 system created some problems for Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup and it bodes well for how they will do in La Liga this season. Obviously, it was different from the style they played last season but change is good sometimes. Ever Banega will still be pinging passes around in the midfield and bringing in Andre Silva from AC Milan was a smart move. Muriel and Pablo Sarabia should be the main attacking threats with the ever speedy Wassim Ben Yedder ready to come off the bench. Losing their second stable presence in midfield in Steven N’Zonzi will really hurt as he left for Roma a few weeks ago. Sevilla will be hoping they can restore some of the quality in the middle but they might struggle to find a guy who can screen the backline like the Frenchman could. Overall Sevilla is still a talented side and always seem to outperform what their squad sheet looks like on paper. Machin will have his side invigorated and revving to go.

After finishing 5th, Villarreal was the best of the Europa League qualifiers in terms of points. Javier Calleja’s men weren’t talked about much this summer although it doesn’t mean they had a poor one. In fact, the Yellow Submarines had a solid transfer window and brought in some decent players. They strengthened their attack by bringing in the likes of Gerard Moreno, and Karl Toko Ekambi while also promoting youngster Daniel Raba from the B team. With Carlos Bacca now back at AC Milan, it was wise to give Enes Unai and Roberto Soriano more attacking support and depth up top. Ekambi will be the man to watch as he is brought in from Angers for a decent fee. Other transfers included Ramiro Funes Mori, Javi Fuego, Miguel Layun, and Santi Cazorla as he made his return back to the Estadio de la Ceramica. Losing Rodri to Atletico Madrid hurt and they will miss having a young CDM in the central area of the park. There were some smart signings by Villarreal and a Europa League spot is in sight. Maybe if they overperform, they can knock on the door of the 4th place Champions League place.

Valencia were the best of this group in terms of points last season, finishing with 73 points, 12 ahead of 5th place Villarreal. In his second summer, Marcelino made some solid additions to Los Che but also raised some questions with this moves as well. He got some depth at center-back with Mouctar Diakhaby arriving from Lyon and Cristiano Picci from Portugal to shore up the right back spot. Geoffrey Kondogbia, who played exceptional for Valencia in the second half of the season, had his loan spell become permanent from Inter Milan. Uros Racic and Daniel Wass were brought in to help the midfield in their own ways. Racic or Kondogbia may slot into the spot which was left by Nemanja Maksimovic who left for Getafe. It will be a fight to see who will play alongside captain Dani Parejo. Wass will have a much tougher time finding a starting role with the abundance of attackers Valencia now have on their hands. Despite losing Goncalo Guedes back to PSG, Valencia still has a lot of guys who they can play up top. They brought in both Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi. They join a group of Simone Zaza, Rodrigo, and Santi Mina. It’s going to be tough to distribute the minutes. It could be a rotating door up front at the two striker positions. Valencia obviously has talent but with some of the teams around them getting better, they will have to scrape to finish 4th again.

Disastrous was the one word to describe Athletic Bilbao’s season last year. After Ernesto Valverde left for the Nou Camp, things crumbled for the Basque side. They finished a surprising 16th in the table and although they weren’t in any relegation trouble (14 points ahead of 18th place), it was a big drop off from the same Bilbao we have seen. It’s clear this squad still has some quality in Inaki Williams but there are big problems when it comes to how they can bounce back. Their transfer policy doesn’t always allow for much movement but they brought in two Eibar players and Yuri Berchiche from PSG. This is Eduardo Berizzo’s first summer so business might be slow but he needs to figure out how this is all going to work. They won’t have any Europa League games to deal with so they can go all in on getting a solid league spot. There is also a worry of relying a lot on an aged striker such as Aritz Aduriz. Athletic supporters will have to hope Berrizo can come in and get things back on track. Last season may have been a fluke but it also exposed a lot of problems in the squad. They could be in trouble this year as well.

Another team to look out for here could be Getafe. They finished three points behind 7th place and nearly qualified for Europe. It was a final matchday day draw between Sevilla and Betis which sealed their fate. After being promoted in 2016, this was a big jump for Getafe. Most teams who go down after a long spell in the top flight don’t always bounce back. If there is a dark horse, it’s Getafe.

Class 3: Mid-table shufflers

Eibar
Girona
Celta Vigo
Real Sociedad
Espanyol
Alaves

This part is also a tricky one as it’s a shuffle each season between quite of a few of these teams. There are some interesting ones though.

Girona will be one to watch for as they now have lost their manager after having a fantastic season by their standards (10th place). It was a good finish considering they were playing in the Segunda division just two years ago. Now it’s up to see just how much they will miss Machin. Girona has made some very solid transfers by getting two Manchester City players in Aleix Garcia and Patrick Roberts on loan. They also brought in Marc Muniesa from Stoke to shore up their defense. They might not finish as high as the upper mid-table like they did last year but Girona has seemed to make enough moves to at least stay out of the relegation battle.

After two straight 13th place finishes in La Liga, Celta Vigo seem to be sleepwalking through La Liga. It’s odd considering how this club was in a Europa League semi-final not too long ago. They made some moves in the window by picking up Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal and a teenager from Rayo Vallecano in Fran Beltran. This is sort of the case we have seen with Southampton in the Premier League. Celta Vigo has let their best talent go to bigger clubs and haven’t exactly been able to replace them. They might not be as in trouble as the Saints are but they are just one bad stretch of games from finding themselves fighting for their La Liga lives

Real Sociedad are also an interesting figure to watch for. They recently picked up Theo Hernandez on loan from Real Madrid and Mikel Merino from Newcastle. The computers also seem to love Sociedad, as 538’s La Liga predictions have them finishing 6th in the table.

Class 4: Relegation zone

Leganes
Levante
Huesca
Rayo Vallecano
Valladoid

As always, the three promoted teams are the ones that should be the most worried about going down. Huesca, Valladolid, and Rayo Vallecano will have to claw their way out of the bottom three and I think one of them will do it. Leganes could be in trouble after finishing a spot out of the relegation zone. Same goes for Alaves as well but the gap between them and the bottom teams was pretty big. Espanyol could be the upset pick to be in trouble for relegation but their defense should be able to save them. Levante is a team which should be worried too. They finished with 46 points last season and it’s not a hot take to say they might not finish around that same range again. It won’t be like last season where the bottom three going down were decided by March or so. This year will be much tougher.

Official table predictions:

  1. FC Barcelona

  2. Atletico Madrid

  3. Real Madrid

  4. Sevilla

  5. Valencia

  6. Real Betis

  7. Villarreal

  8. Athletic Bilbao

  9. Getafe

  10. Real Sociedad

  11. Eibar

  12. Celta Vigo

  13. Girona

  14. Alaves

  15. Espanyol

  16. Leganes

  17. Rayo Vallecano

  18. Levante

  19. Valladoild

  20. Huesca

The Counter Press EP 22 - La Liga preview

After reviewing the EPL last week, the Counter Press boys are back with another guest in Jeremy Beren(@JBBeren). We talk about the Spanish Super Cup, preview the upcoming La Liga season along with our table predictions as well as talk about the UEFA Super Cup.

Follow Josh: @highbiscuits
Follow Vijay: @VJVemu
Follow Jeremy Beren: @JBBeren

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

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)

IMG_8588.JPG

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.

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.