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Toni Kroos display against Ukraine showcased he may control Germany’s Euro destiny

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Toni Kroos of Germany runs with the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group C match between Germany and Ukraine at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on June 12, 2016 in Lille, France. June 12, 2016| Credit: Alexander Hassenstein

Toni Kroos made it his mission to persuade Germany manager, Joachim Low, to start the 26-year-old in their Euro 2012 semi-final exit against Italy.

Consistently displaying his displeasure from the bench throughout the tournament, Kroos received extreme faith from his manager to aid Mesut Ozil in combatting with Italy’s abundance of ball-playing midfielders. On the day, Low’s men were considerably outplayed, whereas Kroos failed to impress in a right-sided attacking midfield role that ultimately limited space in the final third for either German to maximize their talent.

Four years later, in a completely different midfield role, Kroos has transitioned into key component in Low’s setup.

Where the German excelled in an advanced playmaker role prior to Euro 2012, now, Kroos is at his utmost best in a midfield trio as the designated passer, rather than a destroyer or a chief creator. Ultimately it wasn’t an entirely new prospect for the Real Madrid star considering he’s always showcased his ability to fulfill various duties in central areas – put simply, Kroos is the ideal all-round midfielder that can meticulously dissect the opposition with his metronomic passing, yet is also capable of utilizing his physical stature to dominate the centre of the pitch.

However, the evolution of Kroos’ game didn’t occur overnight. Since that tragic defeat to Italy in Warsaw, Kroos has played a significant role in Germany’s World Cup success, and most recently, Real Madrid’ eleventh Champions League title. From open play, Kroos sets the tone of the match with his composed passing and willingness to locate open space to receive the ball. And from set-pieces, the German’s deliveries have been the catalyst to several pivotal goals for both club and country.

To be frank, his impact in midfield is unparalleled from a stylistic standpoint, as Germany are now suited to play on the counter-attack, but equally adopt a false-nine system that heavily emphasizes quick movement, constant interchanging, and possession dominance. But Kroos faced a different task in Germany’s Euro 2016 opener against Ukraine, where he was responsible for directing the route of attack, but also offering protection for a backline without the injured Mats Hummels, and the retired Phillip Lahm.

Essentially, German supporters and Low would prefer Kroos perform superbly in both phases, but here, his limitations were on display. From an attacking perspective, he was one of Low’s best performers – which isn’t saying much due to several average performances from his teammates – as he recorded the most passes, created the most chances, whilst winning all of his take-ons.

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In other words, Kroos did what he does best, and that’s passing his side to victory. Whether it was quick combination plays to evade defenders, an inch-perfect free-kick that resulted in Shkodran Mustafi’s opener, or the splendid ball over the Ukraine defence for Sami Khedira, Kroos provided penetration and invention to a German side struggling to create chances from open play.

Yet, out of possession – mostly in the opening half – he was left with too much space in midfield to cover, thus enabling Ukraine to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks.

Nevertheless, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s late cameo and insurance goal suggests he’s nearing full-fitness, which provides Low with the midfield trio that starred in Brazil two-years ago. Schweinsteiger offers additional muscle in central areas, and a defensive shield that will enable Kroos to play within closer proximity of the interchanging attackers.

Low’s attack was at their best when they played quick intricate passes amongst each other, and while the German manager may insist several shots from outside of the box was a tactic to limit counter-attacks, in truth, they simply lacked runners behind the defence. Mario Gotze didn’t offer much as a false nine, Mesut Ozil’s appreciation of space was evident, but he lacked runners to supply passes, whereas Thomas Muller’s movement from the right was lacklustre. At times, the reigning world champions were simply guilty of circulating possession casually, opposed to quickly moving forward and combining in tight spaces – they were dangerous when doing the latter.

On the other hand, apart from Mustafi’s winner, and Jerome Boateng’s distribution, Germany’s defence were vulnerable when Ukraine pushed men forward to deliver crosses into the box. In fairness, Low is forced to play an inexperienced make-shift back-line, which once again emphasizes the risk of presenting Kroos with such significant defensive duties.

Although Germany have developed a ‘getting the job’ done identity in recent years, there were too many underwhelming performances in one night to assume they won’t improve as the tournament progressed. Schweinsteiger’s return to fitness offers a new dimension to Low’s midfield, while Mario Gotze’s role as a false nine could be sacrificed for a classic centre forward in Mario Gomez.

What can’t be denied is the numerous options available to Low, and similar to Brazil, regardless on whether he persists with the same XI or makes various changes, anything less than a winner’s medal will be deemed a failure. But unlike four years ago, Low can now rely on Kroos’ passing to control the tempo and outcome of a nations fate.

 

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Dimitri Payet’s attacking third wizardry allows Didier Deschamps France to dream

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France’s forward Dimitri Payet celebrates scoring France’s second goal during the Euro 2016 group A football match between France and Romania at Stade de France, in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on June 10, 2016. / AFP / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

It was a strike Dimitri Payet will tell his grandchildren about.

When it appeared that the France hype machine was approaching an unexpected halt, a moment of sheer individual brilliance left the Stade de France crowd in jubilation. What many believed would be a forthright result turned into a physical battle against a resilient Romanian side that were minutes away from a valuable point.

Didier Deschamps opted for Payet’s creativity over youngster Anthony Martial, and the West Ham midfielder justified the French manager’s selection by creating the opener, and scoring the late winner. Opening matches of tournaments are usually the toughest, and despite France’s positive performance on the night, Deschamps’ men didn’t meet their peak form, which in fairness shouldn’t be a surprise.

France maintained their traditional 4-3-3 formation throughout, but at times it appeared to be a 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann playing close to striker Olivier Giroud. When Griezmann was caught in advanced zones, Paul Pogba would drift to the right flank to ensure the French maintained a solid shape out of possession. But for all the promise regarding a possible partnership, they rarely formed combinations that pestered the Romanian defence.

Apart from a few scares defending set-pieces – French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced into a key save within the opening two minutes – Deschamps’ men imposed their territorial dominance throughout the first half. The surprise, however, involved Romanian coach, Anghel Iordănescu’s, decision to have his side play further away from their 18-yard box to compress space in midfield.

Deschamps may have anticipated the Romanians would congest space around the 18-yard box by employing a low defensive block, but limiting space in midfield was a logical approach by Iordănescu considering the personnel included in the French XI. While Deschamps’ side is filled with several direct ball-carriers, Martial’s dribbling and willingness to run beyond the defence may have posed a greater threat, as France rarely charged beyond the opposing defence.

Nevertheless, despite France’s misfortunes in the opening half, they demonstrated natural balance across the pitch. Pogba dropped deeper on the right to spread play towards the flanks, while Payet received license to drift centrally to create space for Blaise Matuidi and Patrice Evra to charge into on the left. Yet, for all of France’s midfield players floating around central zones, the hosts’ main attacking threat surprisingly stemmed from wide areas. Payet’s crossing from both flanks saw Giroud and Griezmann direct efforts inches wide of the goal, while the latter also nodded a loose ball off the post following a Bacary Sagna cross.

Similar to the fit opening half, Romania enjoyed a dynamic start to the second, but still struggled to spark quick counter-attacks when they regained possession. Romania striker, Florin Andone’s tireless work rate and strength flustered France’s back-line, but he lacked pace and proper holdup play to enable his teammates to join the attack.

The scrappy nature of the second half witnessed a combative Romanian side spending more time in France’s half, but they unfortunately lacked the quality to test Hugo Lloris from open play, despite that Bogdan Stancu coolly converting a penalty following Patrice Evra’s clumsy tackle on Nicolae Stanciu. But even though Romania’s threat in the final third was scarce, France couldn’t afford to push multiple bodies forward without conceding space for Iordănescu’s men to exploit on the counter-attack.

Where Romania persisted to push forward and fluster France out of possession, the hosts relied on Payet’s crossing to create chances. Payet was the most active player in the final third and once again crosses from both flanks created Giroud’s opener and a Pogba volley that resulted in a remarkable Ciprian Tătăruşanu save.

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Deschamps attempt to win the match saw Kingsley Coman replace Griezmann and Pogba sacrificed for Martial. France transitioned into a standard 4-2-3-1 with Coman and Martial in wide positions, and although neither substitute significantly influenced the match, the tactical alteration positioned Payet in a central role. In fairness, the pivotal aspect of Deschamps’ formation swap solely rests on Payet receiving the ball between the lines seconds prior to scoring the winner, but had he persisted with his initial approach, the Frenchman would likely be positioned on either flank.

Payet will rightly receive plaudits for his overall display, which equally signifies the lack of creative ball-players included in the XI. Although France’s general play was positive for large portions of the match, it’s slightly worrying that Payet’s crossing was their sole method of attack. France don’t necessarily need to tinker with the current XI, but an array of offensive combinations in the final third will be required as the tournament progresses.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Euro 2016 Preview: How the tournament may be dull but ridiculously unpredictable

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There’s a contrasting feeling looming around the upcoming Euro 2016 tournament following the decision to include eight additional teams.

Although it offers an increased viewership due to a larger tournament, the overall quality drastically decreases due to a limited amount of great sides.. Now, the inclusion of eight teams paves an easier route to the knockout stage, and can arguably hinder the tournament from a footballing perspective.

Frankly, that belief hinges on the true definition of ‘entertaining football’ – while one used to associate the term with Spain’s ability to retain possession and pass their way through opponents, the sudden shift in success involves organized defending and quick transitions on the counter-attack. Leicester City’s Premier League triumph, combined with another successful Atletico Madrid campaign – despite finishing the season trophy-less – suggests teams may attempt to replicate their approach considering the tournament favourites’ insistence on possession dominance.

More importantly, despite the inevitable likelihood of several limited sides reverting to deep defensive blocks and solely attacking on the counter-attack, realistically, the ploy is fairly logical. Defensive solidity is essential in a knockout competition, and considering avoiding heavy defeats should guarantee progression beyond the group stage, tight games could surface throughout the tournament.

This reactive approach, however, should favour several tournament underdogs if executed properly – the best teams in the world possess various attacking options, and would clearly prefer to operate in space opposed to probing until they find an opening. Likewise, the lack of a genuine great side or tournament favourite equally increases the tournament’s overall interest. The quality is fairly scarce, but ahead of the opening match, it’s difficult to fully justify a clear favourite.

Spain, Germany and France dominate the conversation, but the European giants all possess positional deficiencies that inhibit the belief that they’re superior to their rivals.

Reigning world champions Germany and two-time defending Euro holders Spain can no longer turn to reliable goal-scoring centre-forwards and may both encounter issues providing penetration in the final third. Mario Gomez, Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz will be responsible for the goals despite the possible stylistic inadequacies, whereas Mario Gotze and Cesc Fabregas have featured as significant false-nine options in past tournaments – the former is arguably better in midfield, whereas the latter’s role requires out-of-form wide players David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez to offer penetration.

The reigning world and European champions pose different tactical dilemmas ahead of their opening group games, though. Often accused of over-possessing the ball, Spain have additional direct options in Lucas Vasquez and Nolito to offer variety to their patient possession-based football. Germany, on the other hand, have the option of utilizing Gomez as a legitimate target-man, but will be without key players in Ilkay Gundogan, Anthony Rudiger, and Marco Reus.

Meanwhile, hosts, France aim to hoist their first major tournament in 16 years, and the talent Didier Deschamps’ possesses suggests Les Bleus may never receive a better opportunity to end the drought. The hosts have several direct options like Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba that can play off Olivier Giroud’s impressive linkup play, but defensive absentees Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho, and Jeremy Mathieu leaves the French with very few options in defence. It’s also difficult to overlook that France’s recent tournament exits have come against Spain and Germany, and Deschamps’ men still look devoid of the experience to overcome their rivals in a head-to-head showdown.

Elsewhere, the same issues arise amongst the remaining notable contenders.

Italy possess the best defence and goalkeeper in the tournament but offer no creativity in midfield due to injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, while their attacking options are extremely underwhelming. Antonio Conte has been heavily criticized for his selection prior to the tournament, but from an optimistic perspective, the Italian manager’s first two seasons at Juventus were fairly similar, with various players from midfield players scoring goals. Conte’s attention to detail, and overall cohesion in attacking moves will define an Italian side that appears sturdy at the back.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player at Euro 2016, and a free role upfront ensures Portugal won’t be overloaded down the left. Fernando Santos midfield is one of the best in the tournament, and though they also lack major tournament experience, they’re capable of outmuscling and dominating most sides in central areas. The movement of the Portuguese attackers will be interesting, but the defensive options at Santos’ disposal places significant responsibility on the midfield to ensure their shape isn’t disjointed – Ronaldo’s role will always be the difference-maker but Santos must find balance quickly.

Oddly, it’s difficult to identify better striker options in this year’s tournament than the four men Roy Hodgson possesses in Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford. However, with England straying away from a flat 4-4-2, and the rapid growth in youthful, highly-technical players amongst the ranks, England currently suffers from the same issue that’s plagued them for years – striking the right balance and fielding his strongest XI. Needless to say, while many other teams would welcome England’s striking issues, like Portugal, their back-four is undoubtedly the clear weakness.

While this was expected to be the tournament Belgium evolved into world beaters, the same questions are being raised regarding their role amongst Europe’s elite. It still feels like Belgium’s success rests on the form of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne as the front line hasn’t substantially improved, whereas Marc Wilmots is still without natural full-backs. While Belgium’s individual talent still remains – they can count on a rejuvenated Moussa Dembele, possibly the best Premier League’s best centre-back partnership in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and two top-class attacking midfielders in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – the pressure is now on Wilmots to put the pieces together to launch a deep tournament run.

The tournament is still filled with stars like Gareth Bale, Robert Lewandowski, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic that will be aiming to overcome a lack of genuine support to make a statement, whereas Croatia’s impressive midfield – that still lacks a holding midfielder – is unlikely to make up for a tireless, yet often frustrated Mario Mandzukic and an unconvincing back-line. With more room for error, and no real powerhouses – this is possibly the antithesis of this year’s Champions League – it really leaves the tournament up for grabs.

Denmark (1992) and Greece’s (2004) triumphs – in much difficult circumstances – offers every team a sense optimism, and with the likes of Iceland, Turkey, Austria and Slovakia also involved, this is possibly the most open tournament in recent memory. It certainly may be a truly dull spectacle from a football standpoint, but the possibility of several winners guarantees a high-level of excitement.

So many questions remain unanswered.

So many teams look far from the finished product.

And with the international game drastically suffering with every passing tournament, the level of unpredictability presents a breath of fresh air that many will appreciate.

EURO 2016 is unlikely to be remembered as the best tournament of our lifetime, but the inaugural 24-team format has potential to usher in a new era courtesy of several shock results.

Perhaps now is the time where the impossible becomes possible.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Real Madrid – Atletico Madrid: Champions League final preview

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Courtesy of Flickr/avalaisure

A year ago, Diego Simeone’s side defeated Real Madrid for the first time in 14 years at the Santiago Bernabeu to claim the Copa del Rey. After winning their first La Liga crown in 18 years with a draw at the Camp Nou last weekend, Atletico Madrid travel to Lisbon to participate in the first-ever local derby Champions League final against Real.

Although Real are in search of La Decima, an Atletico victory would complete an unprecedented double, and be classified as one of the greatest triumphs in football history. But Carlo Ancelotti’s men will arrive in Lisbon as favourites with Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo aiming to claim his second Champions League crown, and increase his record-breaking 16-goal tally.

This is expected to be a high-octane, scrappy affair, between two sides that thrive on the counter-attack. Stylistically, Atletico’s ability to maintain a high level of play and compete with Europe’s richest clubs is remarkable, and it’s fair to say that they’re not underdogs.

Atletico possesses one of the best defensive records in Europe, and they prove to be a difficult outfit to beat when their back four is fit. Equally, they shift and press as a unit, and quickly transition into attack with quick intricate combination passes.

Simeone’s men drop into two banks of four without the ball and the two strikers stick goal-side to the opposition’s deepest midfielder’s to close down passing lanes. The wide men –– Koke and Arda Turan –– adopt narrow positions to limit space between the lines and central areas. Full-backs, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, also decrease space between themselves and the centre-backs, and encourage the opposition to play through the flanks, as Miranda and Diego Godin consistently dominate aerial duels.

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Atletico’s shape when Madrid maintain possession. The wingers tuck in centrally, and the two forwards allow the Madrid centre-backs to circulate possession.

Atletico are capable of winning the ball higher up the pitch, or sticking to the aforementioned tactic, but under both circumstances their ability to quickly break into attack is pivotal. Both wide players are technically astute, hardworking players, with Koke drifting infield to express his creativity, while Turan evades challenges and motors forward. The positioning of the two forwards usually enables them to receive the ball while running towards goal, or dropping off to receive the ball and pull defenders out of position.

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Atletico maintain the same shape, but Turan is ready to press Arbeloa when he receives the ball. Diego Ribas and Diego Costa have closed down Xabi Alonso’s passing lanes and Juanfran has also adopted a narrow shape closer to Miranda.

Diego Costa and Turan, however, are both injury doubts ahead of Saturday’s final following their early first half departures against Barcelona. While the latter is likely to feature against Madrid, Atletico are working hard to ensure the former is also fit. In both league fixtures this season, Costa worked the channels admirably and consistently tormented Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Likewise, Costa’s physicality, and eye for goal –– scoring 36 goals in all competitions –– is unmatched.

Adrian Lopez or Raul Garcia will be the likely replacement for the 25-year-old striker, and both men offer different threats. Similar to Costa, the former relies on pace, but in terms of strength and finishing he’s not quite at the Spaniard’s level. Still, when called upon Lopez has delivered, scoring goals against Barcelona and Chelsea en route to the final. The latter, on the other hand, could field on the right flank or upfront, and his physical presence would see Atletico play direct. In previous rounds he targeted Jordi Alba and Ashley Cole to utilize his aerial superiority, and the Spaniard’s 17 goals in all competitions is only bettered by Costa.

Atletico, though, isn’t the only side heading into Saturday’s final with personnel concerns. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo passed fitness tests earlier this week, but Pepe and Karim Benzema are both unlikely to feature, meaning Raphael Varane and Alvaro Morata will be included in the starting XI. Carlo Ancelotti will also be forced to decide between Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi to complete a midfield trio for the suspended Xabi Alonso.

Khedira has featured in Madrid’s final two games of the season –– 117 minutes –– after tearing a cruciate ligament in his knee six months ago. Khedira was in the midfield that lost to Atletico in at the Bernabeu in October, but he failed to trouble Simeone’s midfield. Illarramendi, 20, has struggled against physical sides that intentionally target the Spaniard, and it’s likely that Ancelotti may go for Khedira’s dynamism and tenacity, despite the German’s scarce match fitness.

Madrid have been at their utmost best in this tournament when given the opportunity to play on the counter –– most recently displayed against Bayern Munich –– but Ancelotti’s men will likely dominate possession, and the pattern of the match will be identical to previous encounters this season.

In three matches of significant value this season –– the tie was over in the second leg of the Copa del Rey –– Madrid struggled to break down and create legitimate goal scoring opportunities against Simeone’s men. The one match that Madrid won two goals stemmed from major deflections, and a well-worked move from Angel Di Maria and Jese Rodriguez. Atletico, on the other hand, pose a legitimate threat through set pieces, and if Costa is unavailable, Simeone’s men will aim to exploit Madrid in these situations.

Considering the circumstances, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria will be the key men for Madrid. Both men provide the dynamism and creativity in midfield that steered Madrid to the Copa del Rey final, but were equally nullified in their second league encounter at the Vicente Calderon. With Ronaldo and Bale keen on drifting into central areas, Atletico’s narrow defending nullifies space for the wide players to cut into. Both men have failed to produce quality performances against the newly-crowned Spanish champion, with Bale struggling in 1v2 situations, and Ronaldo lacking service and space to create shooting angles. With that being said, Modric’s ability to dictate the tempo of the match, and Di Maria’s willingness to spring forward and provide a goal-scoring threat will be key.

In eight of the last nine fixtures between the two sides, a goal has been scored within the opening 15 minutes. And while an early goal is expected, it won’t necessarily alter the predicted pattern of the match. Atletico’s system solely focuses on limiting space in their third, defensive solidity, and quick transitions, and Simeone is reluctant to stray away from his philosophy.

With Madrid’s recent issues in open play against Simeone’s side, and their tendency to switch off during matches, one goal may be the difference between success and failure. In 12 months, Atletico have snapped various droughts against their cross-town rivals, and on the biggest stage in world football, they’ll be seeking to avenge their loss to Bayern Munich –– in which the late Luis Aragones scored –– 40 years ago.

With Atletico’s limited financial resources and diminutive squad, Simeone’s ability to get his side to sustain maximum levels and challenge on both fronts –– domestic and European –– serves as a triumph for modern football. Meanwhile, Madrid’s return to the final for the first time in 12 years will be considered a failure if they don’t claim La Decima.

The sky is the limit for Atletico, whereas Real have everything to lose.

 
 

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AC Milan 0-2 Juventus

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Courtesy of Flickr/ All rights reserved by shakatak11

Despite being the inferior side for large portions of the match, Juventus’ clinical finishing proved decisive in their road victory at the San Siro.

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Clarence Seedorf was forced to make a few changes to his starting XI that defeated Sampdoria last week. The Rossoneri were without the suspended Sulley Muntari and the injured Mario Balotelli, so Nigel de Jong and Andrea Poli slotted into midfield. Also, Christian Abbiati, Urby Emanuelson and Daniele Bonera featured in Seedorf’s back line.

Antonio Conte was without the suspended Arturo Vidal, while Giorgio Chiellini was sidelined due to injury. Claudio Marchisio and Martin Caceres slotted into Juventus’ rather predictable XI.

Great teams find ways to win even when they’re not playing particularly well, and ruthless finishing enabled Juventus to replicate this feat.

Milan’s approach without the ball

One of the peculiar feats regarding this year’s Milan side has been their tendency to perform against the top-sides, yet underachieve against lesser opposition. Despite the vast gap between both sides in the table, Milan was expected to raise their game at the San Siro, and their approach without the ball was pivotal towards their dominance for lengthy periods.

Seedorf instructed his men to press Juventus’ back line when they played out of the back. Giampaolo Pazzini, Kaka and Adel Taarabt pressed Juve’s back three, while Poli man-marked Andrea Pirlo. With Milan’s fullbacks quickly closing down Juve’s wingbacks, Conte’s men were unable to build attacks from midfield, and Milan were able to dominate possession.

Milan negated Juve’s midfield by stifling Pirlo, and ensuring that distribution from the back was limited – without Vidal’s energy in midfield, Juve struggled to compete in central areas.

Midfield battle

The biggest surprise was Juve’s poor display in midfield. The aforementioned absence of Vidal was clearly a massive loss, and with Pirlo shackled, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba were expected to carry the weight. Pogba, however, was languid in midfield, thus producing arguably his worst performance this season, whereas Marchisio’s runs from midfield were promising – it was vital in the build up – but his overall impact was minimal.

In stark contrast, Milan physically imposed their authority in midfield. De Jong was fielded higher up the pitch, aiding Milan in retaining possession through pressing in Juventus’ third, whereas Riccardo Montolivo produced an extraordinary performance. He recovered the most balls in midfield (12), while his five interceptions and four tackles in midfield typified his overall impact.

Milan attacks

With Seedorf fielding Poli as his no.10, Milan’s creativity came from wide outlets. The movement from Milan’s wide men created space for Milan’s fullbacks to push into advanced positions, despite early pressure from Juve’s shuttlers. Ultimately, there were three elements to Milan attack.

  • Fullbacks push forward: Emanuelson and Ignazio Abate’s advanced positions posed a threat for a short period. Buffon comfortably saved Emanuelson’s shot from outside the box, and later on, Taarabt overloaded the right flank with Abate, but the Juventus goalkeeper easily coped with his cross. Emanuelson continued to push forward throughout the half, and his ball into the box evaded Pazzini, and fell to Poli, but the Milan striker skied his shot over the net.
  • Direct balls into Pazzini: Over the course of the first half, Juventus’ back three failed to cope with Pazzini’s movement. In the 8th min, Pazzini nodded down a long ball to Kaka, but his shot flashed wide of the net. Minutes later, Taarabt’s ball from the right flank were flicked on by Kaka towards Pazzini, but his header flew over the net. Towards the end of the half, the Italian did well to hold up the ball and turn on Andrea Barzagli, but Buffon comfortably held his tame effort.
  • Kaka direct runs: Pazzini was behind Kaka’s first legitimate goal-scoring opportunity, as he beat Leonardo Bonucci to a loose ball and drove towards goal, thus leading to Kaka forcing Buffon to make a key toe save, and his rebound was cleared off the line by Bonucci. The Brazilian tormented Juventus later in the half, when he drifted infield from the left flank, but his curling effort was pushed aside by Buffon, and Poli blasted the rebound over the net. Lastly, his direct running from the left created space for teammates as well, as he squared a pass to Montolivo, whose effort was also saved by Buffon.

Milan created an abundance of chances to take the lead, but a terrific showing from Buffon, along with woeful finishing prevented Seedorf’s men from taking the lead.

Juventus goals

While Milan struggled scoring goals, Juventus’ ruthless finishing signified the difference between both sides. Fernando Llorente’s opener stemmed from a simple long-ball that Adil Rami couldn’t clear, in which it fell into space that Marchisio ran into. The Italian located Tevez in the box, while Stephane Lichtsteiner’s forward run enabled him to latch onto the Argentine’s clever forward pass, and complete his cross for an unmarked Llorente to tap the ball into an open net.

Juventus found more space in midfield in the second half, and it was evident when Tevez received time to fire a venomous shot off the crossbar to secure three points. Tevez, in general, displayed his significance to the side – his creativity created Llorente’s opener, and his goal-scoring prowess led to his fantastic strike for Juve’s second.

In truth, he epitomizes a striker fit for Conte’s system. His willingness to press Taarabt in Milan’s third, thus creating a chance that Lichtsteiner shockingly missed, along with using his strength to easily brush aside Rami and force Abbiati to make a save illustrates what he offers Juventus. The Argentine’s remarkable goal was his 15th in 26 Serie A appearances, and it’s fair to say that not only was Tevez the best striker in the match, but he’s possibly the best in the league.

Conclusion

Usually matches between two top-sides – disregarding the Milan’s position in the table – are decided by the narrowest margins. Although, Milan produced a positive performance, their inability to beat an impressive Buffon haunted the Rossoneri.

The win puts Juventus in pole position to claim their third consecutive Scudetto, and this match indicated the significance of Llorente and Tevez’s arrival. The strike duo has formed an unparalleled partnership this season, as they combine superbly within the final third, while providing flexibility, consistent performances, and goals.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Atletico Madrid 2-2 Real Madrid

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Courtesy of Flickr/All rights reserved by Notyfarandula

Atletico missed a golden opportunity to overtake their city rivals, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s late equalizer earned Madrid a vital point at the Vicente Calderon.

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The one major change in Atletico’s XI was the inclusion of Raul Garcia behind Diego Costa. Koke and Arda Turan were fielded on the flanks, while Gabi and Mario Suarez sat in the double-pivot.

Carlo Ancelotti made no changes to the side that blitzed Schalke in midweek.

Atletico dominated majority of the match subsequent to Karim Benzema’s early opener, but woeful finishing, and Simeone’s reluctance to turn to his bench allowed Madrid to dominate the latter stages of the derby.

Real Madrid’s great start

One of the worries many Madrid fans endured at the start of the season was the lack of depth upfront. With Gonzalo Higuain sold to Napoli, Karim Benzema was the sole senior option upfront, and his lackadaisical demeanour, along with his tendency to squander legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, left many skeptical regarding Ancelotti neglecting to find a replacement for Higuain.

Benzema, however, has improved over the last few weeks, and was Madrid’s most proactive attacker. Likewise, the French striker confidently guided Angel Di Maria’s cross from the right flank past Thibaut Courtois from point-blank range. The early goal was exactly what Ancelotti wanted – yet surprisingly it led to Atletico’s dominance.

Atletico shape

The key to Atletico’s dominance was their approach without the ball. The first significant feat was the role of Raul Garcia. Garcia worked hard to press Xabi Alonso, forcing him to play sideways passes in his third, opposed to the long diagonal’s he prefers to make. Garcia’s inclusion was logical, and the midfielder successfully completed his required task.

Secondly, Atletico maintained a narrow shape in midfield when Madrid tried to play out of the back – they simply couldn’t play passes through midfield or to their two best players. On the contrary, this was down to the great work of Atletico’s wide players. Koke and Turan quickly closed down Luka Modric and Di Maria, when the fullbacks pushed towards Gareth Bale and Ronaldo. Yet, there were times when Koke and Turan dropped deeper and prevented the Madrid wide players from receiving the ball.

Ronaldo and Bale were peripheral figures for large portions of the match. Both players drifted infield, but Alvaro Arbeloa was likely to break forward, while Fabio Coentrao was wary of being exposed, despite his involvement in the buildup to Benzema’s opener.

Equally, the Atletico wide men were pivotal in Atletico’s attack, as they tucked in to ensure Simeone’s men dominated midfield. Modric was unable to impose his authority on the match, and the Argentine’s threat in midfield was negated, apart from Di Maria’s long diagonal ball to Benzema that forced a Courtois save.

Atletico’s overall approach without the ball was exceptional – Garcia limited Alonso’s impact, the wide players aided the fullbacks in nullifying Bale and Ronaldo, while as a whole they ensured there was no link between midfield and attack in a scrappy match, which on their standards was beneficial.

Costa

In general, the match suited Costa, as once again he was involved in all the controversy. Surprisingly, the Spanish international was Atletico’s key man, but he can also be held responsible for their inability to secure maximum points.

It took 10 minutes for Costa to make a statement, as he played a pass to Turan and made a run into the left channel, where Sergio Ramos committed a clumsy tackle on the Spanish international, which should’ve resulted in a foul. The Atletico striker’s runs into the channels, and willingness to find space in the final third tormented Madrid’s centre backs.

Nonetheless, he was effective when he dropped deeper and dragged Pepe and Alonso out of position, then charged into space – although, he was usually fouled when doing so. Costa was the games most dangerous player, but his wastefulness in front of goal kept Madrid in the match.

For the most part, world-class strikers always finish 1v1 situations with the goalkeeper, and here he struggled to complete that job. A shot from the right side of the box ricocheted off the side netting, and a failed chip attempt minutes before Gabi’s thunderous goal, summed up Costa’s first half.

However, his best opportunities were spurned in the second half. He cleverly hit a free kick at the edge of the box under the wall but it fell straight into Diego Lopez’s arms. Afterwards, Garcia played him in free on goal, but Pepe’s presence forced Costa to force his shot wide of the net. While that was his best opportunity to double Atletico’s lead, Costa’s header from a corner kick went inches wide.

It’s not often that your most proactive player equally leads to your downfall, but on this occasion, Costa played this role to a tee.

Ancelotti substitutions

With the match drifting away from Madrid, Ancelotti’s substitutions enabled his side to dominate the latter stages of the match. Here, the Italian was wise with the timing and personnel selection, while Simeone’s reluctance to turn to his bench saw his side’s energy levels dramatically decrease.

Although the decision to introduce Marcelo and Dani Carvajal was peculiar, it enabled his side to peg Atletico into their own half – although, fitness levels also played a factor. Unlike Coentrao and Arbeloa, the duo bombarded forward and created chances. Carvajal created two chances for Ronaldo – which ultimately led to his equalizer – and Marcelo’s ball to Modric saw the Croatian sky his shot inches over the bar.

Isco, on the other hand, provided the energy that Di Maria lacked in the second half. He provided a link between midfield and attack, and intelligently found pockets of space in the final third to circulate the ball. The two fullbacks provided more thrust in the final third, whereas Isco was the link that Madrid desperately lacked in the first-half.

Simeone made one substitution by introducing Christian Rodriguez for Turan, but at that point, Atletico were already teetering. Atletico required energy and pace in wide areas – as their pressing decreased – and Simeone’s lack of options, along with his reluctance to make a change gave Madrid the upper hand in the second half.

Conclusion

Atletico dominated majority of the match, but Costa’s wastefulness in front of goal, and Ancelotti’s substitutions merited a draw.

While Atletico lost two points, they now possess the tiebreaker, if the duo were to possibly finish the season level on points. Simeone’s initial game plan was logical and successful, but his inability to identify that substitutions were required led to his downfall.

This may be one of Madrid’s worst performances since the turn of the year, and while their trip to Europe may have played a part, they were outmatched in midfield for large portions of the match. While their lead at the top is now trimmed to a sole point, Ancelotti’s ability to obtain a point when his side was thoroughly outplayed could prove beneficial in May.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Manchester City 0-2 Barcelona

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Courtesy of Flickr/Some rights reserved by Globovisión

Barcelona took a big step towards the Champions League quarter-finals, as they recorded a comfortable victory over Manchester City.

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Manuel Pellegrini made several changes to his starting XI with Alvaro Negredo leading the line ahead of David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jesus Navas. Fernandinho returned from injury to partner Yaya Toure in midfield, while Martin Demichelis slotted in at centre-back.

Gerardo Martino made three changes to the side that defeated Rayo Vallecano over the weekend. Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano and Xavi returned to the starting lineup, while Neymar was available for selection.

Pellegrini’s tactics contained Barcelona’s attacking threats, but a defensive error shifted the tactical battle.

City without the ball

One of the interesting components regarding Pellegrini’s tactics was Manchester City’s shape without the ball, as there were two distinct features in their overall approach.

In the early moments of the match when Barcelona tried to play out of their third, City maintained a high-block and pressed Martino’s side as a unit. Fernandinho closed down Xavi, Toure stuck tight to Fabregas, and the wingers closed down Barcelona’s attack-minded full-backs. Barcelona usually played through it due to their 3v2 situation at the back with Sergio Busquets being the key man in midfield, but their was one incident in the first half that nearly led to a goal.

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Fabregas won possession at the edge of Barcelona’s box and tried to play out of the back, but City’s high-block quickly pressed the Spanish champions, and Xavi conceded possession, thus resulting in Negredo firing a shot directly at Victor Valdes.

However, City often sat deeper, and focused on limiting the space between the lines. Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta stuck tight to Barcelona’s wide men, and Martino’s full-backs rarely ventured forward. Kolarov’s role on the left was to prevent Dani Alves from pushing forward, while Alba feared that Navas’ pace could harm Barcelona on the break.

City contained Barcelona’s threat for majority of the first half. Apart from a Xavi shot from distance, the away side failed to pose any threats in the final third. Messi’s involvement in the first half was also limited: he often dropped deeper in search of possession, and when he drifted towards the right, Martin Demichelis intercepted key passes and won tackles.

Barcelona dominate midfield

When assessing Barcelona’s XI pre-match, the inclusion of a fourth midfielder highlighted Martino’s intent on dominating central areas. Andres Iniesta was fielded on the left, but throughout the match he subtly interchanged positions with Fabregas.

As I stated earlier, Busquets was the key reason as to why City’s high-block wasn’t effective. With Negredo and Silva leading the press, their aim was to close down Barcelona’s centre-backs. Busquets, however, dropped in between Mascherano and Gerard Pique to create a 3v2 situation at the back, which helped Martino’s men push into City’s half.

Barcelona continued to maintain a numerical advantage when they pushed into City’s half, as their midfield trio passed around Fernandinho and Toure. Silva moved into midfield to help City cope with Barcelona’s trio, but Iniesta often drifted infield to offer an additional passing option.

With Xavi and Busquets often sitting deeper, the key men in attack were Fabregas and Iniesta. The duo repeatedly combined and attempted to pull City defenders out of position, as they offered guile and a pinch of penetration with their quick, incisive passes, and nonchalant runs towards the box.

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Despite not creating many clear-cut chances in the first half, Barcelona created overloads on both ends of the field to ensure that they would dominate possession.

Silva

Although Barcelona dominated possession, Pellegrini’s men created the better chances in the first half. Their key player was Silva – who’s referred to as one of the game’s best space invaders – and here, he drifted into space between the lines, and key areas in Barcelona’s third.

Vincent Kompany’s well-weighed pass to Silva – the Belgian played an identical pass to Nasri in the buildup to Samir Nasri’s goal against Chelsea over the weekend – allowed the Spaniard to slip a ball into Negredo, and although Pique ushered him towards the byline, the City striker’s chip shot flashed across the six-yard box.

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Silva was the link between midfield and attack – he often won possession in deep positions prior to making a key pass, and constantly received the ball in a pocket of space before playing it into wide areas. His pass to Navas towards the end of the half led to Negredo guiding his header inches wide of the far post.

The one issue City and Silva encountered was the tempo of their counter-attack, along with the fact that Barcelona always had numbers behind the ball. Xavi and Busquets protected the back four, while Alves and Alba’s cautious positioning ensured that Martino’s men wouldn’t get caught out of position.

1-0

Ultimately, for all of City’s admirable work both in and out of possession the tie shifted in the buildup to Messi’s opening goal. Silva once again did well to break out Barcelona’s half with the intent of launching a quick counter-attack, but with a lack of runners, he opted to play a pass to Navas on the right flank.

Busquets quickly retreated and sat alongside Alba to prevent the full-back from being isolated, thus creating a 1v2 situation. The ideal move would be to sustain possession and push forward as a unit, but Navas attempted to take both players on and was dispossessed.

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This left City in an awkward position, with Toure and Fernandinho, along with their full-backs and Demichelis caught higher up the pitch, Messi moved into an onside position alongside Kompany. With fears of Barcelona’s attackers running behind the defence, Kompany dropped deeper, thus playing Messi onside.

Subsequently, Iniesta played an exceptional ball to Messi, and Demichelis’ split-second decision to prevent Messi from shooting resulted in a penalty. While many will hammer Demichelis for his decision-making, it’s difficult to name a defender that would allow Messi to shoot in that position, especially when slow-motion replays show that initial contact was made outside of the box.

Nonetheless, it was the one of the few mistakes City made prior to Demichelis’ dismissal, and a moment of brilliance from Iniesta handed Barcelona the lead.

Pellegrini makes substitutions as City go 10v11

Pellegrini quickly reacted to Demichelis’ dismissal and opted to introduce Joleon Lescott for Kolarov, and Nasri for Navas. City was now a 4-4-1 without the ball as Silva drifted to the left to protect Clichy, while Barcelona dominated possession.

Nasri’s inclusion handed Pellegrini another creative option that could expose pockets of space with Silva, and push City’s full-backs forward. Nasri exploited space in midfield after being played in by Silva, and his one-two with Negredo presented the Frenchman with space to shoot, but Mascherano blocked his attempt.

Afterwards, Silva played in Clichy down the left but his cross went directly to Valdes, and the Spaniard’s delivery from the right flank in the 86th minute was pushed away by Valdes for a corner. City’s best chance came from a Toure cross-field diagonal pass to Zabaleta, whose one-timed pass to Silva allowed the Spaniard to control the ball on his chest and volley his shot at Valdes, but the Spanish keeper made a great save to preserve Barcelona’s lead.

City continued to create chances due to Barcelona’s cautious approach, but Pellegrini’s men lacked quality in the final third.

Alves down the right

The key feat subsequent to Demichelis’ dismissal was Alves’ proactive role. The Brazilian became Barcelona’s key player in the second half, and scored the all-important second goal.

With Silva drifting into central positions to help City manufacture attacking moves, Alves capitalized on the space ahead of him, as Silva didn’t possess the energy to get back into position. This forced Clichy to defend Alves, while Lescott shifted over to cover the right-winger. Lescott’s passing from defence, positioning, and man marking was poor, as the City centre-back endured a difficult second half.

  • 66th min: Iniesta plays a ball out wide to an unmarked Alves and he squares his pass to Xavi inside the box, but the Spaniard guides his shot over the net.
  • 68th min: Iniesta once again supplies Alves, who then plays a one-two with Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez drags Lescott out of position and Alves runs by Clichy to receive the ball, and is free on goal but his shot glides inches wide of the post.
  • 89th min: Alves plays a pass into the right channel for Neymar to chase, and the substitute plays in Alves at the edge of the box. The right-back’s first touch guides him past a leggy Clichy, and he slid his shot past Hart.

Kolarov’s departure was massive in the sense that the Serbian provided astute cover for Clichy, and prevented the left-back from being isolated against an advancing Alves. Silva didn’t have the energy to track Alves’ runs, and Lescott was easily dragged out of position, which allowed the Brazilian to dominate the right flank in the second half.

Conclusion

Barcelona dominated possession for large portions of the match, and their patient approach paid dividends as they pounced on Navas’ mistake, while Alves dominated the right flank in the latter stages.

“Barcelona had a lot of the ball but they had it where we wanted. They were not near our area; that’s what we wanted. The team played with courage, with personality, and tried to draw the match with ten men,” Pellegrini said.

Pellegrini’s logical approach was correct as it negated Barcelona’s threats in the final third. However, two-away goals puts City in a difficult predicament ahead of the second leg, and Pellegrini will rue the fact that a simple error disrupted the natural tactical battle.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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