Sunday, 27 February 2011

Match Report: Levante 2 Osasuna 1

José Luis Mendilibar proved he has all it takes to be an Osasuna manager with a 2-1 defeat away to relegation rivals Levante.

The former Athletic Bilbao coach saw his side produce a typically strong performance at home on his debut in last weekend’s 4-0 win over Espanyol. However, he saw the other side of being los rojillos manager in this performance as his side slumped to defeat thanks to a goal either side of half-time.

The home side started strongly, Juanlu’s effort touched onto the post by Ricardo inside the first 10 minutes.

The game then descended into a typically fierce relegation battle with neither side posing much threat until the visitors went ahead with their first effort on 41 minutes. Walter Pandiani with a trademark header from Masoud’s cross.

But Levante responded immediately and were level before half-time. Sergio Ballesteros with the final touch after Ricardo had again diverted an effort on to the post, this time from Xisco Muñoz.

And four minutes after the break Los Granotes were in front. Top scorer Felipe Caicedo taking advantage of poor defending by Nelson to fire past Rixcardo from the edge of the area.

Lekic then past up two chances to save a point for the visitors. Firstly, heading over a Camuñas cross after Osasuna had broken effectively for the first time in the match, then in stoppage time the Serbian hit the woodwork after more good work from Camuñas.

A massive victory for Levante took them above their opponents to 13th position, three points above the releagtion zone.

FT: Levante 2 (Ballesteros 44, Caicedo 49) – Osasuna 1 (Pandiani 41)

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Match Report: Mallorca 0 Barcelona 3

Barcelona moved provisionally eight points clear at the top of the league with a comfortable 3-0 win at Mallorca.

Much of the talk pre-match had been about whether Barca’s bench had the strength in depth to cope with the absence of Carlos Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Dani Alves and Victor Valdes. However, concentration on those who would be absent from the Barca line-up overlooked the fact that the champions deadly triumvirate upfront were still available, fit and firing.

Last weekend El Mundo Deportivo’s front cover called on the MVP to boost Barca’s mojo back into to gear. The MVP was of course not Lebron or Kobe but the Messi-Villa-Pedro combination that has carried almost the entire goalscoring weight for Pep Guardiola’s side this season. Last weekend Messi and Villa got the goals, this week all three frontmen were back on target.

Mallorca had started the match well. Aware that without their passing metronome in Xavi Barca’s fluidity may suffer they pushed high up the field, closing the lines between the Barca midfield and attack and forcing the visitors back four to hold a lot of the possession. The home side also broke well and in numbers but too often the chance was wasted by a poor final ball.

Michael Laudrup’s came closest to scoring on 16 minutes when De Guzman’s corner was headed narrowly over by the unmarked Webo.

However, after a tricky opening quarter Barca began to find their rhythm thanks in particular to Messi’s movement and ability to go past defenders time and again.

Firstly, the Argentine was denied by a brilliant challenge from Ruben as he sped into the area, and then amazingly he fired over after a wonderful one-two with Iniesta.

Yet, it wasn’t long before he hit the front, scoring the opener on 37 minutes. A cute chipped ball through from Keita saw Messi just onside and able to control and awkwardly bouncing ball on his chest before looping a header over Aouate and into the net.

The visitors were in full flow now and nearly doubled their lead before the interval. Villa just unable to reach a defence splitting pass from Iniesta before Messi found more space in the box but after rounding Aouate his effort was cleared off the line.

Villa did add a second and end the game as a contest 10 minutes into the second-half. The Spanish international racing onto Sergio Busquets’ wonderful through ball to round Aouate and slot home from an acute angle.

Not to be outdone, Pedro then added his own special effort with a fierce dipping shot from just outside the box that gave Aouate no chance.

Barcelona were then happy to see the game out, Guardiola giving a rest to Villa and Pedro and some much needed game time to Bojan and Affellay. Iniesta coming closest to a fourth goal but he saw his effort fly across the face of goal.

Mallorca meanwhile kept to their task but never threatened to get back into the match. The depressing scenario for the league played out here as a team 3-0 down at home to one of the big two settled for damage limitation rather than attempting to get back into the game.

FT: Mallorca 0 Barcelona 3 (Messi 37, Villa 56, Pedro 66)

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Match Report:Lyon 1 Real Madrid 1

Real Madrid took a significant step towards qualifying for the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in seven years with a 1-1 draw at the Stade Gerland.

Former Lyon favourite Karim Benzema had given Madrid the lead with his first involvement in the game after coming on as a sub but Bafétimbi Gomis’ late equaliser could yet prove vital.

Jose Mourinho had made his intentions to go for the away goal clear in his team selection; Angel Di Maria selected as the Portuguese coach went for his normal 4-2-3-1 rather than switching to a more defensive 4-3-3 with an extra holding midfielder.

But it was the hosts who started on the front foot. Gomis, starting in place of the injured Lisandro Lopez, and Michel Bastos firing early warning shots before centre-back Cris went narrowly wide with an improvised overhead kick.

The visitors’ main threat was to come from set-pieces, Cristiano Ronaldo’s first effort from a free-kick beaten away by Hugo Lloris

Gomis then passed up the best opportunity of the first half. Iker Casillas spilled a relatively simple Bastos cross and the French striker blazed over from 12 yards.

Real were much stronger after the break and hit the woodwork twice in a matter of minutes. Firstly, another Ronaldo free-kick from a narrow angle smacked against Lloris’ left-hand post before Sergio Ramos’ looping header came back off the bar.

The game’s major moment of controversy arrived on 63 minutes when a third Ronaldo free-kick was handled by Yohann Gourcuff in the Lyon wall. The French international will plead his innocence but his arm was raised in an unnatural position and afterwards Mourinho was, not for the first time, furious at the officials for not awarding a penalty.

However, his side didn’t have to wait long for the opener and it was the returning hero who silenced the home fans. Benzema had been given a rapturous welcome by the home fans on his entrance to the field in place of the ineffective Emmanuel Adebayor, but within a minute he had reminded them why Florentino Perez had splashed €40million for his services. Neat footwork from Mesut Ozil and a simple pass from Ronaldo saw Benzema through on goal and after sidestepping across the six-yard box he slotted the ball beneath Lloris.

The hosts responded well and began to regain the initiative that they had held for much of the first period. And with seven minutes remaining their perseverance was rewarded with an equaliser. Miralem Pjanic’s deflected free-kick headed down by Cris and volleyed home first time by Gomis.

The draw was no more than the hosts deserved but was also a satisfactory result for Madrid given that they had lost all three previous meetings on this ground. Moreover, the away goal, that proved so vital in the tie between these two last year, allows Mourinho’s men a degree of freedom in the return. Lyon will have to come a look for a goal in three weeks time rather than just being content to defend as most teams have been at the Bernabeu this season.

FT: Lyon 1 (Gomis 83) – Real Madrid 1 (Benzema 64)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Match Preview: Lyon vs Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s attempt to break their Champions League last-16 hoodoo takes them back to a ground they have never won at to play opponents they have never beaten before this evening.

On the face of it they should be fearful. Without a victory in a Champions League knockout tie in six years, up against the team that dumped them out at this stage last year and one that has an impressive record in Europe’s premier club competition in recent times.

Yet fear is not the Real Madrid way. Even more so, it is not the Jose Mourinho way.

This is the competition Mourinho was brought to Madrid to succeed in. It is the one that defines Real Madrid and, despite the desperation amongst some in the Madrid press to usurp Barcelona in the domestic stakes, it is the one they really want back.

To this point the Portuguese coach has been steady if not spectacular. This time last season Manuel Pellegrini’s side had 59 points and trailed Barcelona by one point, having lost to them narrowly in the Nou Camp 1-0. Currently Mourinho’s Madrid have 60 points and lie five points adrift, having been hammered in Barcelona. Many will point to Mourinho’s success in the Copa Del Rey where they will meet their rivals in the final compared to Pellegrini’s nightmare against Alcorcon last year but the domestic cup is merely a sideshow to this main event. If Mourinho is to live up to his billing as the first Galactico coach he must win the Champions League. Even if he is not to win it this year he must go beyond this round to be given a second chance.

So how will the self-titled ‘special one’ approach the game in a stadium where Real have lost on all three of their visits in the past five years?

He is expected to tinker slightly from his favoured 4-2-3-1 with Angel Di Maria dropping out for the security of an extra holding midfielder in the form of Lassana Diarra in a 4-3-3 – the system most used by Mourinho in his success with Inter in this competition last season.

Left-back Marcelo, who has been impressive in recent weeks, is also likely to be replaced by the more defensively sound Alvaro Arbeloa.

The more cautious 4-3-3 has been used by the Portuguese consistently in tough away fixtures since that defeat in the Camp Nou, most notably in the Copa Del Rey semi-final against Sevilla, and has generally met with success.

The only question mark may be on how aggressive the visitors will be in looking for the away goal. In last season’s encounters with Lyon, Pellegrini was criticised for being too passive, firstly, in not going for the away goal in the 1-0 defeat at the Stade Gerland and then for not changing things when events started to turn against his side in the 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu.

Mourinho will not be so passive; his ability to react is one of his most fabled characteristics. Yet, despite their progress to the semi-finals last season, this is not the Lyon team of 2004-05 with the likes of Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Juninho Pernambucano and Eric Abidal. Their main threat should come from the gyle of Yohann Gourcuff in the playmaker role and the pace of Michel Bastos on the left but defensively they can be exposed, despite the excellent Hugo Lloris in goal. Real’s best form of defence will be to attack and get at least one goal away from home.

As they learned to their cost last year, without it things can get extremely tricky.

Probable Line-ups

Lyon (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Cissokho, Cris, Lovren, Reveillere; Kallstrom, Toulalan; Bastos, Gourcuff, Briand; Gomis

Real Madrid (4-3-3): Casillas, Arbeloa, Pepe, Carvalho, Ramos; Khedira, Alonso, Diarra; Ozil, Adebayor, Ronaldo

Monday, 21 February 2011

Celtic’s left-wing coalition powering to victory

Celtic took a firm grip of the SPL title race with a dominant 3-0 win over Rangers at Celtic Park.

Two goals from Gary Hooper and another from Kris Commons, his second in two old firm appearances, moved the hoops eight points clear of their rivals at the top of the league, although Rangers still have two games in hand.

The points are of course vital but with 12 games and three more old firm encounters to come in league and cup, this was more of a psychological victory for Neil Lennon’s young side.

The contrast between the clash yesterday and the last time the sides met at Celtic Park five months ago was staggering. On that day Celtic, like yesterday, went ahead thanks to a Hooper strike. However, they were pegged back early in the second-half and crumbled. The visitors cruising to a 3-1 victory.

What cost Celtic that day was inexperience. A veteran Rangers side able to seize the initiative when it was handed to them through a combination of Celtic errors and penalty so soft fairy liquid tried to sue for copyright.

Yet, yesterday there was never any doubt of that possibility once Hooper had hit the front this time round. Again experience was the key factor. This time, though, it was Celtic’s young legs and vibrancy that outpaced and outclassed a weary looking Rangers side.

Much attention had been paid pre-match to the surprising selection of Georgious Samaras to partner Hooper in attack. Anthony Stokes can count himself very unlucky that nine goals in his last seven games was still not enough to guarantee him a starting role. Samaras’ selection, however, does underline the difference in both squads. Lennon able to choose horses (and in Samaras’ case this term is sometimes more than appropriate) for courses.

Apart from the ever excellent Hooper, it is Celtic’s left side that has caught the eye in recent weeks and did so again here.

The formation of the quartet that has caused so much damage has been brought together through a combination of luck and judgement from Lennon. Emilio Izaguirre has been an absolute steal and arguably Celtic’s player of the season from left-back, whilst the introduction of Commons in January has proved to be another piece of shrewd business from the Northern Irishman.

But the introduction of Charlie Mulgrew at centre-back, brought about only by injuries to Daniel Majstorovic and Glenn Loovens, has proved to be a revelation. Similarly, Joe Ledley, after an alarming dip in form, had lost his place in the side to Ki-Sung-Yeung. The Korean’s involvement in the Asian Cup throughout January and February allowing the Welshman to reclaim his place and he has shown his best form in a Celtic jersey over the past month.

The movement of Izaguirre, Ledley and Commons caused Rangers all sorts of problems, whilst Mulgrew’s distribution from the back adds a much needed dimension to the build-up play from the back.

It was Izaguirre, Ledley and Commons who combined for Celtic’s first goal at Ibrox a fortnight ago. Yesterday it was Mulgrew, Izaguirre and Commons who set up Hooper to score the opener. The English striker powering past 40-year-old David Weir before slotting under Allan McGregor. One commentator described the move as like an express train blowing past an old-puffer. The difference in pace so alarming it was more like an express train bypassing the platform.

11 minutes later the flying Honduran Izaguirre went on another rampage, played in beautifully by Samaras he measured his run and pass to perfection, breaking the offside trap and laying the ball across for Hooper to slide in.

The advantage of having Mulgrew, a left-back by trade, and Ledley, who played there earlier in the season, is also apparent on the few inevitable occasions when the Honduran is caught up field and out of position.

It is this fluidity, teamwork and energy that has characterised Celtic’s run of 11 wins and two draws since Boxing Day. Tearing into opponents from the off and not waiting for the cavalry charge in the final minutes as they have under other managers in recent times.

More importantly, the young naïve side that was swept aside early in the season by Rangers’ experience now believes. Believes in themselves, believes they can beat Rangers and believes they can win titles.

Commons added the third 20 minutes from time with a swerving right foot shot from the edge of the area that in truth McGregor should have dealt with.

With a third of the season still remaining there is still time for Walter Smith’s side to regain the advantage and for a Celtic side who haven’t been down this road before to freeze with the finishing line in sight – it shouldn’t be forgotten that if Rangers win their two games in hand they will only be two points off the top with the final old firm game of the season to come at Ibrox – but for now the momentum is only powering in one direction. With two cup ties between the two to come in the next three weeks as well, Rangers need to arrest their slide quickly if they are to avoid Lennon replicating his mentor Martin O’Neil’s achievement of a domestic treble in his first full season in charge.

Match Report: Barcelona 2 Athletic Bilbao 1

Pep Guardiola and his men endured a nervous evening before eventually breaking down a determined Athletic Bilbao to win 2-1 and move back five points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.

With much of the build-up dominated by Barca’s so called crisis after two games without victory both managers successfully pulled the wool over media eyes into their thoughts with surprises in both line-ups.

For Barcelona, Maxwell was selected as the scapegoat for the defeat to Arsenal in midweek and was dropped to the bench with Sergio Busquets a surprise choice at left-back and Javier Mascherano moving into the Spanish international’s position in midfield.

Jaoquin Caparros also defied his own pre-match talk by starting with the 4-5-1 system that met with success against Barcelona in the two Copa Del Rey ties in January. The surprise coming more in the personel selected to deploy this system with Gaizka Toquero, Iker Muniain and Daivd Lopez all dropped to the bench. Igor Gabilondo, Ander Iturraspe and Markel Susaeta supporting Fernando Llorente in attack.

Yet, no sooner had Caparros set out his stall than his side were behind. Danni Alves – who was to prove Barca’s key attacking threat in the final third – receiving a ball over the top from Xavi and laying the ball back first time for David Villa to fire home.

The early goal seemed to settle any nerves that Barca may have been suffering, their natural passing game coming to the fore but on many occasions overplaying in and around the box cost them the chance of a second goal.

However, Athletic also posed a threat on the break. Llorente showing good skill to turn Gerard Pique and send in a cross that Susaeta headed wide at the near post.

Villa nearly had his second when his wonderful chipped effort – a very similar effort to the one he scored with last week against his beloved Sporting Gijon – came crashing off the bar.

Llorente was then denied by a brilliant save from Jose Pinto in the Barca goal, the reserve goalkeeper making the most of his outing in the absence of Victor Valdes through injury. To be fair to the Spanish international striker he could have done little more with his towering header that Pinto beat away with a strong left hand.

At the break Caparros went for a more aggressive approach, replacing Iturraspe with Toquero. And his boldness was immediately rewarded. Slack defending between Eric Abidal and Busquets saw the Frenchman put his colleague in all sorts of problems with a pass into his own area and on the stretch Busquets brought down Llorente for what was a stonewall penalty.

After Llorente’s miss against Atelti a fortnight ago and with David Lopez and Muniain off the pitch, the penalty duties were handed to right-back Andoni Iraola and he dispatched it with ease, sending Pinto the wrong way.

Two minutes later Barca were lucky to still have 11 men on the field, Pique hauling down Toquero when the visitors had a clear two on one on the Barca goal. Pique more than happy to see the referee produce only a yellow card.

The home fans and more obviously their manager were now very much on edge, their mood not improved 10 minutes later when after a mesmorising Leo Messi run past four players he was upended in the box by Javi Martinez. Referee, Ramirez Dominguez, this time waving away the penalty appeals.

Messi looked bemused, Guardiola infuriated, Sandro Rossell, just about maintaining his manners in the palco, looking more disgusted than he did at the thought of minimum wage standards for Nike factory workers.

Yet, the most interesting factor in the match to this point had been the performance of Barca’s two Argentineans. Messi had been far from his best - too often running down blind alleys and trying the through the eye of a needle pass - whilst, in contrast, Javier Mascherano had been having one of his best games in a Barcelona jersey. The Argentine captain breaking up play well without conceding too many fouls and distributing the ball more quickly and effectively than he has in other appearances.

But all that was about to change.

With Barca desperately in search of a winning goal, Guaridiola resorted to his strongest available starting XI. Off went Mascherano and on came Maxwell, Busquests moving back into his more familiar role. More importantly for the outcome of the match it was about to become the Messi show.

Slaloming between desperate Athletic legs time and again la pulga saw an effort fly over before Villa was denied by a quite brilliant save from Gorka Iraizoz.

The pressure was beginning to pay, Athletic were no longer breaking with purpose as the invited waves upon waves of Barca attack and eventually Messi did make his mark. Again the long diagonal ball over the top from Xavi for Alves was the key; the Brazilian then squaring for Messi to stroke home at the near post.

Alves and Messi should have added a third as three times Barca caught the visiting defence exposed in the final minutes but in the end it mattered little as the champions comfortably held on the for the three points.

Three points that meant more than their raw value. The faces of Guardiola, Puyol and Rossell told of their relief at the final whistle. If February is to be the nadir of Guardiola’s Barca then they have successfully negotiated their penultimate hurdle.

Oddly it was also a good weekend for Athletic. Defeat for Espanyol and disappointing draws for Villarreal and Valencia leave them still very much in the hunt for a fourth place finish.

Barcelona 2 (Villa 2, Messi 78) – Athletic Bilbao 1 (Iraola (pen) 50)

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Match Preview: Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao

Crisis, tiredness, defeat, pressure; not words Pep Guardiola has become accustomed to hearing in his time as Barcelona manager but ones he has had to rebut in the past week.

A respectable draw away from home (whilst resting some key players) followed by a 2-1 defeat on the road in the last-16 of the Champions League may not be a crisis for most, if any, other clubs in the world right now.

But for Barcelona – Guardiola’s Barcelona in particular – things are different.

With all the superlatives, eulogies and praise also comes the criticism and questioning when the cruise through the season takes the odd bump in what has been to this point a road so smooth that the tarmac should have its own Nivea advert. And so it is that Barcelona must prove the doubters wrong again.

The pressure continues to be imposed by Real Madrid who disposed of Levante 2-0 on Saturday night to cut the gap at the top to two points.

Guardiola is expected to release his full artillery to ease the strain of two games without a win. The 11 that started against Arsenal expected to do so again here, David Villa the only doubt after missing training in the week.

However, even a full strength Barca may find it hard to get back on track against a young side with confidence and ambition very much on the up.

Before Monday night’s disappointing 1-0 defeat to Mallorca, Athletic had strung together four consecutive victories in the league, moving them up to fifth position. And with Villarreal struggling in recent weeks the Basque side still harbour hopes of Champions League qualification for next season.

The question for coach, Jaoquin Caparrós, will be whether to retain Gaizka Toquero alongside Fernando Llorente in attack or opt for an extra midfield player to try and disrupt Barcelona’s rythym. Caparrós has outlined his intention to go with the former option which is surprising given his success in using a 4-5-1 in the 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp in the Copa Del Rey in January.

A run out at the Nou Camp also gives the hugely impressive Iker Muniain the chance to showcase his skills on the big stage.

Probable Line-ups

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Maxwell, Abidal, Pique, Alves; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro

Athletic Bilbao (4-4-2): Iraizoz; Koikili, Ekiza, Jose, Iraola; Muniain, Martinez, Jose, Lopez; Toquero, Llorente

Match Report: Real Zaragoza 0 Atlético Madrid 1

Real Zaragoza 0 - Atlético Madrid 1 (Aguero 65)

If last weekend’s defeat to Valencia was supposed to be the final nail in the coffin for Quique Sanchez Flores then this was his and his side’s resurrection as Atelti ended a run of four straight defeats with a 1-0 win at Real Zaragoza.

Kun Aguero got the only goal of the game but will also have caused concern for his under fire coach when limping off five minutes from time. But the biggest surprise, away from the result, was that there was only one goal and not more injuries in what was a fiercely contested and entertaining match.

The classic game of two halves saw the visitors control the opening period. The home side’s physical pressing game was enough at times to unsettle Atleti’s technically gifted players – youngster Koke given a starting role ahead of new signing Elias on the left, Reyes on the right with Aguero and forlan up front – but when they got the ball La Real did little with it in the forward areas.

As the half wore on Atelti’s dominance of possession began to pay. Yet, the last thing Atleti fans needed, or more to the point expected, was a solid display from Leo Franco in the Zaragoza goal. Twice the Argentine goalkeeper denied Aguero before home captain Gabi made a fantastic goal line clearance from Thiago.

Ironically it was to be in the second-half – when the home side were much more in control – that Atleti’s winner should arrive. Indeed it came straight from a Zaragoza attack as after a scramble in the Atleti box they ball found its way to Aguero who showed Ponzio a clear pair of heels and fired impressively across Franco and into the net.

Zaragoza had posed much more of a threat in the second period. Coach, Javier Aguirre, had replaced old Atletico ‘favourite’ Florent Sinima Sin-Gol…sorry Pongolle with the lively Nicolas Bertolo who gave Thomas Ujfalusi a torrid time down the Zaragoza left.

However, after the goal with the visitors much happier to sit in and wait for another counter-attack the home side found it difficult to make their possession count until the final two minutes when they came desperately close to an equaliser.

Firstly, Ikechukwu Uche nearly marked his return from a seven month injury lay-off with a goal – his shot rattling the bar. And moments later Bertolo replicated the Nigerian’s effort as his shot clipped the woodwork on the way over.

But there was to be, for once, a feeling of blessed relief for Quique and the Atelti fans who are now back in the race for a Europa League spot only four points off Espanyol in sixth. Zaragoza’s first home defeat in 2011 leaves them just a point above the drop-zone.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Match Report: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1

Goals from Robin Van Persie and Andrei Arshavin helped Arsenal come from behind to beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Emirates.

In a game that mirrored the first-leg of the tie between these two sides last season, Barcelona dominated the first-half whilst two goals in the final quarter brought Arsenal very much back into the tie.

In contrast to that last encounter at the Emirates though, Arsenal started very much on the front foot. Van Persie with the first chance of the match on six minutes. Cesc Fabregas’ sublime lofted pass finding the Dutchman on the left edge on the area and his first time volley was well parried by Victor Valdes.
Barca’s response was imminent as their midfield began to gain the control many had expected pre-match. And they created their first chance on 15 minutes, Leo Messi played a trademark one-two with David Villa before dinking the ball over Wojciech Szczęsny in the Arsenal goal but agonisingly wide of the post.

The visitors were bossing the game both in territory and in possession but Arsenal were always a threat on the counter-attack. The positioning of Sergio Busquets in the Barcelona midfield, which had been the subject of much pre-match speculation, playing a significant role in this development. Rather than playing very deep between the two centre-backs, as he has done many times this season, Busquets pressed the ball constantly, particularly when Fabregas was in possession. As a result once the Barca midfield was bypassed the Arsenal front three was free to run at the Catalans’ back four.

On one such break the Gunners nearly took the lead. Theo Walcott galloping from the half-way line to release Fabregas and his cross across an open goal was just nicked away from Van Persie by Eric Abidal.

But Arsenal’s high line was now being regularly exposed and it was only a matter of time before the visitors took the lead. When they did it came from more wonderful link-up play between Villa and Messi. This time the Argentine freeing the Spaniard who made no mistake.

Van Persie spurned another opportunity by delaying his shot and skewing wide before Barca ought to have taken a two goal lead. Messi’s diving header after Szczęsny had denied Pedro wrongly ruled out for offside.

The second-half had a far more even and somewhat strange flow to it. Arsenal had much more possession than they enjoyed in the first but without the same level of threat in front of goal – principally because with more possession their counter-attacking opportunities were limited.

Pedro and Messi could have finished the tie when put through on goal but the Canarian dallied and the World Player of the Year uncharacteristically went for goal when he should have squared for Villa.

Barca were beginning to make mistakes all over the field, not retaining possession in the manner we have become accustomed to witnessing. And it wasn’t just on the field they were making mistakes. Pep Guardiola wrongly erring on the side of caution by substituting Villa for Seydou Keita.

In contrast, Arsene Wenger was brave with his changes. Taking off his principal holding midfielder in Alex Song for another forward player in Arshavin.

Van Persie eventually made them pay but in truth the goal owed more to another Barcelona error. The Dutchman’s sweet left-foot volley ghosting in at Valdes’ near post. A fine strike it was but no goalkeeper at this level should be beaten so badly at his near post.

However, if there was an element of fortune about the Gunners’ first goal, their second was absolute quality. After a Messi pass was intercepted on the edge of the Arsenal area; Laurent Koscielny, Nicklas Bendtner and Fabregas combined to send Sami Nasri storming down the right wing. As the Frenchman approached the box he didn’t panic and cooly rolled the ball back to the opposite end of the area for Arshavin to fire home .

Barcelona rallied in the final stages but the closest they came was an angled drive from Dani Alves that Szczęsny parried away.

A rare difficult few days for Barcelona has seen them not win in two consecutive games for the first time in over five months. After their draw in Gijon and Real’s victory at the weekend ‘hay liga’. After a disastrous final 12 minutes this evening ‘hay eliminatoria’.

FT: Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 78, Arshavin 83) – Barcelona 1 (Villa 26)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Match Preview: Arsenal vs Barcelona

Arsenal and Barcelona meet again in the Champions League tonight in what has been undoubtedly billed as the tie of the last-16 round.

At times the repetition of fixtures in the Champions League can lead to boredom; anyone who sat through 10 meetings in five seasons between Liverpool and Chelsea will testify to that.

But this tie is different. It has the magic, the style, the glamour and most importantly justified hype and expectation. There is a reason why, despite now having met three times in six seasons, the anticipation of the next screening of Arselona is greater than the last. It never disappoints.

In 2006 Barcelona edged the final in Paris 2-1, just, despite playing against the 10 men of an inexperienced Arsenal side for over 70 minutes.

Last year’s ties saw the banner raised another level. A scintillating 2-2 draw at the Emirates saw Barca at their best for 45 minutes before a dogged Arsenal fight back in the final quarter brought them back on level terms.

An injury savaged Gunners side then took the lead in the Nou Camp before a certain 5ft 7in figure of genius took over the tie with four goals without reply.

So, what can we expect this time round? Well, last season’s ties offer a number of interesting points of analysis.

1. The first 20 minutes

As strange as it may seem given that of the nine goals scored in the tie only two came in the first 20 minutes of both legs (one apiece in the opening stages at the Nou Camp), the opening quarter on both occasions last year were the key to the tie.

At the Emirates, Barcelona tore into their opponents in a manner rarely ever seen in any match, let alone in a Champions League quarter-final. The Catalans monopolised possession, attacked down the wings with blistering pace and won the ball back instantly with a frightening intensity of pressure on the opponent in possession. It was one of the finest opening passages to a game I’ve ever seen.

In the end Barca didn’t even get on the scoreboard with their dominance in that period. But that didn’t matter as much as the feeling of confidence and superiority it gave them. A feeling that became much more important in the second-leg when remarkably Nicklas Bendtner put Arsenal ahead 3-2 on aggregate.

Moments later Arsenal broke again, had Abou Diaby played the right pass into Theo Walcott rather than looking for Bendtner that tie and this analysis may have looked very different. As it was Messi battered Barca back on level terms a minute later and that sense of confidence and superiority soothed back into the Spanish Champions. This time they made it count.

The key for Arsenal this time is not to let Barca get into their rhythm, not to let themselves be so overawed. If the home side can get through the opening 20 on level terms, both on the scoreline and in the pattern of play, some of that inferiority complex will wear away and the confident free-flowing Arsenal we know may come to the fore.

2. The Walcott Factor

So who do you think will be the key player in the tie? Xavi or Fabregas? Vila or Van Persie? Messi or Nasri? The answer is it could be any one of them but the one who will be the focus of both side’s game plan is possibly a surprising one, Theo Walcott.

I did have a whole spiel prepared on why Walcott is the dangerman but then Leo Messi said this and he knows a thing or two more about this stuff than me:

“I can only speak from experience but Walcott was one of the most dangerous players I have ever played against.

“Barcelona players are not scared easily but I can tell you that when we played Arsenal last season Walcott truly worried us.”

So why does the man who couldn’t make England’s 23-man World Cup squad worry Barca so? Well it’s quite simple; Barca’s pressing game is based on defending from the front. When you do that the midfield must step forward to prevent the easy pass from the opposition defence into midfield and similarly the defensive line must also step forward to ensure there is no easy space for the opponents to play in. The result? A very high, sometime ludicrously high, defensive line that can at times be got at. Witness this against Inter last year and this against Espanyol this (at 6.30).

Walcott’s pace is made to expose this line and he did so for two of Arsenal’s goals last year.

Added to this problem with Carlos Puyol out injured, Eric Abidal will have to play at centre-back and Maxwell at left-back. The Brazilian full-back is excellent on the ball and usually suits Barca’s style but against a flying winger he can be exposed. Again, as Walcott did to him last year.

Pep Guardiola has two obvious solutions to this problem. One, ease off the intensive pressing game and play a deeper defensive line. This would be to go against all that Guardiola has preached since he became manager two and a half years ago and seems highly improbable at best.

The other, more reasonable, solution is to drop Sergio Busquets deeper as Guardiola has done on a number of occasions this year. This allows Busquets to act as an auxiliary third centre-back and consequently would allow Abidal to shift a little further left to cover any space in behind Maxwell that Walcott will look to exploit.

For Arsenal the best way to spring Walcott may be by playing more direct than normal with long diagonals in behind the Barca defence. This may be best achieved by Robin Van Persie operating to the left of centre as the main striker, pulling the defence to one side before releasing the ball into the open space on the other flank.

3. Possession

This may seem obvious with two sides that like to hold the ball but if possession is normally nine tenths of the law then in this case it is probably 99 hundredths.

Last year Barca hustled Arsenal out of their normal game. This time round Arsenal must keep the ball when they get it. To this extent the introduction of Jack Wiltshere to the side over the past 12 months will be a big help. Having another player so comfortable on the ball close to Fabregas is vital if the Spaniard is to dictate play by playing passing triangles around the midfield.

The issue for the home side tomorrow will come in playing the ball out from the back. Last year they struggled with Thomas Vermaelen, William Gallas and Alex Song all playing at centre-back at different times throughout the two ties. This time round Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny are even less likely to provide a stable platform on which to build. They ain’t very good when they don’t have the ball either.

Verdict: Arsenal a bit too Barca like to give them the heave-ho. If someone is to eliminate the Spanish Champions it will be by building a fortress around the 18-yard box, a la Inter last season. The Gunners just don’t have that in their nature. Barca 5-2 on aggregate

Probable Line-ups

Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Clichy, Djourou, Koscielny, Eboue; Song, Fabregas, Wiltshere; Arshavin, Van Persie, Walcott

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Maxwell, Abidal, Pique, Alves; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro

Monday, 14 February 2011

Match Report: Espanyol 0 Real Madrid 1

So, at the end of an amazing weekend ‘hay liga’ - but how Real Madrid had to fight to make it so.

1-0 away to a side struggling since the loss of key players in January may not seem that impressive. But given the circumstances this was undoubtedly the biggest result and performance of Jose Mourinho’s time as manager at the Bernabéu.

After Barcelona’s 1-1 draw in Gijon last night the pressure was on Mourinho’s men to cut the gap at the top to five points. After two minutes the pressure had been ratcheted up at least another five points. A long ball through the middle found José María Callejón who poked the ball past Iker Casillas and in traditional Callejón style fell to the ground. Contact was minimal but probably just enough to deserve a foul and a red card for the Spanish captain.

Yet, with 10 men for 91 minutes Real were resilient in defence (protecting their young substitute goalkeeper, Antonio Adán, exceptionally well), broke with vigour and pace and if it hadn’t been for Carlos Kameni in the Espanyol goal (or arguably more accurately Emmanuel Adebayor’s finishing) Real could have had as many goals as they had players.

In the end it was stand-in captain Marcelo who got the only goal as Espanyol struggled to make the extra man count throughout the 90 minutes.

However, they could have been ahead on 13 minutes. Javi Marquez’s volley from the edge of the area deflected just wide, and from the resulting corner the same player’s drive was spooned over his own crossbar by Adebayor.

Real then began to take control. Marcelo and Sami Khedira fired in warning shots that deflected just over and Kameni bundled wide respectively, before the Brazilian full-back made the breakthrough on 24 minutes.

Cristiano Ronaldo, doing what he so often doesn’t, faking the shot to pull the defence out of position and playing in Marcelo who fired forcefully past Kameni at the near post. The goalkeeper may be slightly disappointed to have conceded given the angle of the shot but it was hit with such ferocity it is hard to be critical.

And within a minute it was nearly two. Adebayor passing up the first of his many chances with a drive that Kameni parried away to safety.

The Togolese was released in behind the Espanyol defence again eight minutes before half-time by a wonderful pass from Xabi Alonso. However, after seeing off the defender and settling himself Adebayor only contrived to spoon the ball up onto the top of the bar.

Kameni had to be on guard again to deny Ronaldo just before the break as Real’s pace on the counter was proving too much for a makeshift Espanyol backline.

In the second-half the pace and intensity of the game remained but without the same level of incident and goalmouth action. Real seemed happier to sit deep and less quick to throw bodies forward on the counter. Meanwhile, despite having more possession Espanyol lacked any sort of cutting edge in the final third. After all the talk about his contract situation in the week, Pepe more than earning his money with a fine display of aggressive defending.

Both Callejón and Ronaldo then fired across goal when a cut back to teammates in better positions might have been the better option.

With 10 minutes to go Mourinho sent on Lassana Diarra for Mesut Ozil. The Portuguese coach obviously hoping that an extra destroyer in the midfield could see the game out. The only problem for Mourinho was that his real destroyer was playing as the frontman as time and again good work by Ronaldo was not capitalised on by Adebayor.

With nine minutes to go the Portuguese winger exchanged passes with the Manchester City loanee before laying the ball across the six-yard box; Kameni getting down well to block Adebayor’s attempt to pass the ball into the net. Judging by Mourinho’s reaction he just wished he had got that number 9 in January…..oh wait.

Two minutes later and it was confirmed that Adebayor was trying to give his Portuguese teammate and coach a coronary. More good work by Ronaldo (maybe this is why he doesn’t normally pass) setting the former Arsenal man free on goal but again he was denied by the body of Kameni.

Joan Verdú then nearly nicked a point for the hosts with their best attempt of the second-half. His fine attempted chip though was well pouched by Adán.

While the plaudits will rightly go to the visitors this was a huge missed opportunity for Espanyol. Villarreal’s defeat earlier in the day had opened the door back into the Champions League race but without Osvaldo in attack and Victor Ruiz in defence they look a pale shadow of the side that did so well through the first 19 games of the season.

Not that Mourinho, Marca or the rest of the Madristas will care about that. Should the 31 times Champions somehow make it 32 come May, this weekend will have been the turning point.

Match Report: Deportivo La Coruña 1 Villarreal 0

Depor eased their relegation worries with a well deserved 1-0 win over Villarreal at the Riazor.

Lopo got the only goal of what was a fairly poor game with Champions League chasing Villarreal especially disappointing.

After a similarly disappointing 1-0 defeat to Levante at home last weekend, Juan Carlos Garrido, had rung the changes both in personel and formation for the visitors.

With Giuseppe Rossi unavailable due a fever and Bruno dropped to the bench in came Mateo Mussachio and Javier Matilla. Garrido also changed from his normal 4-4-2 to a defensive 4-2-3-1.

The consequnce of these changes was that the visitors were even more narrow than normal with Cani and Cazorla the wide players in midfield coming inside into an already crowded midfield area. Up front Nilmar was isolated without his usual partner in Rossi and continued to look very rusty on the ball following his recovery from injury.

In contrast Depor were good on the break, utilised the space the worked well and could have added to their solitary goal.

The home side should have been ahead of the half hour when Adrián got in behind a slow Villarreal backline but was denied by Diego Lopez; Riki firing another chance on the rebound wildly over the bar.

Without their normal fluidity, Villarreal only looked dangerous from set-pieces. Gonzalo’s header saved by Aranzubia their best effort of the first-half.

Depor eventually took the lead on the hour mark. Antonio Tomas’s deep free-kick was won well by Juan Rodriguez but questions must be asked of a static Villarreal defence who allowed Lopo acres to room to slide in ahead of Lopez for the vital touch.

Moments later Carlos Marchena was lucky to stay on the field for a foul more than worthy of a second yellow card. The home crowd’s mood not helped when Garrido immediately subbbed the World Cup winner for the returning Marcos Senna to ensure he didn’t see red.

Rodriguez tested Lopez again with a fierce drive from distance and had a goal marginally ruled out for offside as the home side continued to dominate.

Villarreal’s response was poor and again came closest in the second period via a set-piece. Senna’s wicked delivery found substitute Marco Ruben with a free header but he headed over.

Overall a fine win for Depor who move up to 14th, three points clear of the relegation zone. For Villarreal, two chances from set-pieces says it all, thier creative cogs never got going and they now look under threat from Athletic Bilbao for that fourth Champions League place.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Match Report: Dundee Utd 1 Celtic 3

Another game, another happy Sunday lunch for Neil Lennon as Celtic came through a tricky test at Tannadice to win 3-1.

Anthony Stokes, Mark Wilson and Daniel Majstorovic got the goals for the visitors. David Goodwillie with United’s response.

Lennon made one change from the side that had impressed last weekend in the 2-2 draw at Ibrox. The formidable partnership of Stokes and Gary Hooper restored after the Irishman had missed out last time out; Ki Sung-Yeung made way.

The most striking feature of Lennon’s line-up was the positioning of Hooper. The Englishman playing much deeper than Stokes in a 4-4-1-1 formation and constantly linking the play to good effect.

But it was his strike partner who got the opening goal on 16 minutes. After collecting a loose ball in midfield Stokes surged in the box and saw his shot across goal deflect in off Gary Kenneth.

Deflections were to play a big part in the result and came to Celtic’s aid again for the second goal. More good work from Hooper and Scott Brown in the build-up found Wilson free in the area to fire in his second goal in three games. The final touch this time coming off United’s other centre-back, Shaun Dillon.

The visitors could have extended their lead before half-time. After another wicked delivery in from Hooper, Stokes appeared to be felled before Dusan Pernis parried Joe Ledley’s effort and Stokes’s second attempt was deflected wide.

After the break the home side fought back with Celtic unable to retain possession in the same manner they had in the first period on a deteriorating pitch.

And on 64 minutes they were back in the game. Wilson was lucky not to see a second yellow card for a foul on Craig Conway. But from the resulting free-kick a deflection off Emilio Izaguirre forced Forster into a fine reaction save before Goodwillie fired in the rebound. It was the first time the Rangers target had scored at home since 12th January.

And he nearly had an equaliser minutes later when his powerful low shot was wonderfully saved by Forster. Ki at fault for losing the ball cheaply in midfield.

Hooper nearly restored the two goal advantage when his scuffed shot struck the base of the post before Lennon’s nerves were calmed by the arrival of a third goal.

Charlie Mulgrew’s free-kick bulleted home by Majstorovic’s header.

Celtic should have added to their lead in the final minutes. Firstly, Hooper fell over his own feet with the goal at his mercy and then was unlucky to have a goal disallowed after slick build-up play from substitutes Freddie Ljungberg and Georgios Samaras.

All in all, a satisfactory afternoon for Lennon as his side extended their lead over Rangers to five points with the two to meet next Sunday at Celtic Park.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

From Alonso to Adam: the reason Torres had to leave Liverpool

10 days on the dust has just about settled on the ashes of those, once treasured, Fernando Torres jerseys on Merseyside.

The hurt the fans felt was justified. The Spaniard admitted as much himself:

“I am a fan of Atlético and couldn’t understand when some of the top players left. Football is like this: from one day to another, people love you and then hate you.”

He was undoubtedly the most adored adopted son of the Liverpool faithful. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are their own, Liverpool born and bred, but in Torres they had a foreigner with a similar upbringing.

The comparison between the five time European Champions and Torres’s first love, Atlético de Madrid, aren’t as clear-cut as El Niño often tried to make us believe. After all Liverpool are still, just, England’s most decorated club.

However, in the past 20 years they have taken on the shadow of their Rojiblancos brothers. That shadow being the one they have lived in, dominated by their fiercest rivals. For Atlético it is cast from across the city. For Liverpool, it comes from 33 miles down the M62.

It is the shadow that Torres thought he was stepping out of when he left his homeland for England four years ago.

As a fresh-faced, highly rated 23 year-old, Torres was coveted but not yet proven on the biggest stage. He hadn’t played in the Champions League and his achievements with the national team consisted of defeat in the last-16 of the 2006 World Cup and elimination in the group stages of Euro 2004.

I, for one, questioned whether Liverpool had bought the wrong Spanish striker. In the end I was very wrong but very right – the man I had called for Rafa Benítez to make a move for was David Villa.

Yet, in his first season it seemed as if nothing could go wrong for El Niño – he had finally developed into a man for both club and country.

He scored 33 goals as his new side got to the semi-finals of the Champions League, eventually losing out to his new employers.

He then went on to score the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final. Spain had finally won a major championship and Torres finally had a trophy.

At the beginning of the 2008/09 season he started as he had finished in Vienna. Liverpool started like a train, winning nine of its first 10 matches. A first league title in 20 years looked like a realistic possibility. Most importantly they had a spine capable of challenging for years to come. In Reina, Carragher, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard and Torres, they had a sextuple capable of beating anyone.

And they did. They beat Manchester United twice, Chelsea twice, most importantly for Torres, they beat Real Madrid twice – a feat he had never managed with Atleti.

Yet, it wasn’t enough. Chelsea had their number again in the Champions League and United had just enough to see them off in the league.

This, as it has turned out, was the crucial moment in Liverpool’s modern history. Instead of building on the so near, they fell back into the so far. The consequences of incompetent ownership, which had been glossed over in the early years of George Gillett and Tom Hicks’ reign, began to unravel.

Unable to strengthen, Liverpool only got weaker. In August 2009 the heartbeat of the side was ripped out. Xabi Alonso was sold to Real Madrid and that impressive spine began to crumble.

Their fall was as sudden as it was dramatic. Last season without Alonso and other key players, notably Gerrard and Torres through long spells with injury, they crashed out of the Champions League at the group stages and finished seventh in the league.

The manager who had guided them to two Champions League finals, another semi-final and to the closest they had come to the title in over a decade had taken them as far as he could.

The final insult for Torres delivered when the club he left to step out of the shadows came back to finish off Liverpool’s season. The man Atelti signed to replace him, Diego Forlan, scoring the two crucial goal to send Atelti past Liverpool and on to their first European trophy in 48 years.

A second member of that spine, Javier Mascherano, moved on to Barcelona. If Torres knew what it was like to lose your best players as an Atleti fan, he was beginning to get a similar feeling as a Liverpool player.

His own departure seemed an almost certainty. Yet, more success on the international stage in the form of World Cup victory, if not personal glory, pacified him slightly and the potential of a takeover at Liverpool blocked any chance of a deal in the summer.

When the opportunity did arrive it was one he felt he had to take. Chelsea, with their team of ageing stars and retched form over the past three months may not seem like an appealing option to many. But, on the fact of it, even after the defeat to Torres’s former employers last weekend, Chelsea are still six points ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand. They are still in the Champions League (and Torres is eligible to play having only played in the Europa League this season) with the closest thing to a bye you will get in the Champions League last-16 and have a squad full of players with one burning ambition – to win the European crown.

Some will rightly argue that Torres's planning has been incredibly short-termist. That is fair enough. But as short-termist as blowing £35m on Andy Carroll? As short-termist as spending £20m on a well-known crock, Alberto Aquilani, to replace Alonso? As short-termist as bidding £14m for a midfielder in Charlie Adam who cost £500,000 18 months ago?

Clearly Liverpool fans won’t like it, but, for once, this wasn’t a move motivated by money. The Liverpool Torres left was not the same one he joined. Two years ago they had Alonso. Last week they couldn’t even get Adam.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Colombia looking for inspiration

Following recent heavy defeats to Portugal and Argentina, the pressure will be on Vicente Del Bosque’s World Cup winners to get back to winning ways against Colombia, so what can they expect from their South American opponents?

It is fair to say that La Selección shouldn’t be on the end of a four goal drubbing this time round. Colombia are not as strong as Spain’s recent friendly opponents and have struggled in recent times.

The golden generation of the 1990′s that featured Carlos Valderama, Faustino Asprilla and René Higuita has long gone. Without them so have the results and success on the international stage. Colombia haven’t qualified for the last two World Cups and have slipped considerably down the hierarchy in South American football. In particular, they, along with Bolivia and Peru, have been caught up and in some cases usurped by the one time whipping boys Venezuala and Ecuador.

However, the national side still has a smattering of talent plying their trade around Europe. Indeed a couple of players who will line up at the Bernabéu will be very familiar to fans of La Liga. Hércules’ Abel Aguilar and Atelti’s Luis Perea (warning Atleti fans, they are NOT as bad as this makes them sound) are expected to start for Los Cafeteros.

There are also some signs that Colombian football is beginning to find its feet after a period in the doldrums. The under-20 side have made it thorugh the first group stage at the South American Championships currently being held in Peru and manager, Hernán Darío Gómez, has selected a very young squad for the meeting with the World and European Champions. Perea and veteran Mario Yepes the only members over 30 from an 18-man squad. Indeed, excluding Perea and Yepes, the inexperience of Gómez’s squad is quite staggering with an average age of only 24 and an average of 16 appearances for their country.

Those most likely to make an impact at the Bernabéu - and at the Copa America later in the year - for the Colombians are Porto’s Fredy Guarín and Wigan Athletic’s Hugo Rodallega.

Guarín should start alongisde Aguilar in the centre of midifeld, although slightly deeper in what has become best known as the ‘Xavi role’. He first came to prominence in his native land with Envigado before short spells with Boca Juniors and St. Etienne saw him arrive in Portugal where he has made a real impression this season. Aided by the departure of Raul Meireles to Liverpool, Guarín has had significantly more playing time this season than the previous two as a resurgent Porto side have cruised through the first half of the season unbeaten.

And with Guarín’s Porto colleague, Radamel Falcao, missing out through injury it will be left to Wigan’s Rodallega to lead the line. With eight goals in 35 games for his country, Rodallega’s form at international level mirrors that of his time in England - not always consistent but very good on his day. His pace and strength could cause problems for a Spanish defence missing Carlos Puyol.

With Gómez outlining his intention to keep things tight, Rodallega will probably have to plough a lone furrow up front with Aguilar and Giovanni Moreno expected to support the attack on the rare occasions that the visitors have the ball.

Prediction: With the ageing legs of Yepes and the wobbly legs of Perea at the back, Villa, Torres and Pedro should have a field day. After a string of decent results in friendlies, positive progress towards the Copa America is likely to come to an abrupt halt for Gómez’s men. 3-0 Spain.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Match Report: Valencia 2 Hércules 0

FT: Valencia 2 (Aduriz 43, Tino Costa 53) – Hércules 0

Valencia consolidated their position the race for Champions League football next season with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Hércules.

Another Tino Costa wonder strike and an altogether more scrappy effort from Aduriz were enough to give Unai Emery a confortable evening – for once victory assured without any need for last minute heroics.

Both managers had surprised with their team selections. Emery again utilising his squad, five changes this time from the side that started in Santander on Monday night, however, it was a surprise to see Aritz Aduriz paired with Roberto Soldado. Los Che’s two principal frontmen have proved good buys this season but have rarely been given the opportunity to form a partnership. Emery also surprised by excluding all of his natural wide players, a midfield diamond of Costa, Ever Banega, Mehmet Topal and Chori Dominguez chosen instead.

Esteban Vigo also made a change up front with top scorer David Trezeguet dropped to the bench. In fairness to the Hercules boss the Frenchman has yet to score on the road this season but Nelson Valdez looked far less effective playing as the main striker than he has in a supporting role for most of the season.

The early stages were, like most derby matches, littered with fouls and a number of yellow cards. Amazingly the second-half passed without a single card after five in the first had appeared the make the possibility of a red a matter of when, not if.

Unsurprisingly, Valencia were suffering from a lack of width whilst Valdez was left too isolated when the visitors had possession high up the field.

The first real chance didn’t arrive until the 38th minute. Topal’s effort striking the post after a poor clearance from Abel Aguilar had given him the opportunity from Costa’s corner. Yet, the hosts had to wait only five minutes before they did break the deadlock. Soldado for once providing some width on the right-hand side and his low cross into the near post was hooked into the net by Aduriz.

The hosts were considerably better in the second period and killed the game off within seven minutes of the restart. Aduriz had already been denied by Juan Calatayud before Costa fired in the second with a trademark, curling free-kick from 25 yards.

Vigo turned to Royston Drenthe, after his (hardly unjusitifed) strike action had seen him excluded from the side in recent weeks, and old Valencia favourite Rufete to try and turn the tide but strangely left Trezeguet on the sidelines. The introductions did offer more width and support to Valdez in attack but also opened up the visitors to a number of effective counter-attacks from the hosts.

Juanra denied the home side a third on two occasions, firstly, stopping Aduriz in his tracks after a wonderful through ball from Banega and then clearing off the line from Soldado.

In between Vicente Guaita had to make his first decent save of the game, beating away a fierce Matias Fritzler drive.

Overall, a deserved win for Los Che who closed the gap on Villarreal to just the one point. Hércules continue their abysmal run on the road – just the one victory away all season (and yes it was that one) – and now find themselves very much in a relegation fight, now locked in a group of five sides only a point outside the relegation zone.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Match Report: Villarreal 0 Levante 1

FT: Villarreal 0 – Levante 1 (Valdo 47)

Levante produced one of the shocks of the season to defeat local rivals Villarreal 1-0 at El Madrigal.

Valdo scored the only goal for the visitors who fully merited only their second away win of the season against a lethargic and extremely disappointing home side.

The hosts welcomed back Brazilian striker Nilmar and Carlos Marchena started at centre-back but both demonstrated a severe lack of match sharpness after long spells out with injury.

Villarreal had come into the game with the league’s second best home record, 10 victories and one draw from 11 games, but you couldn’t have guessed which side was going for the Champions League and which was fighting relegation in the opening 20 minutes.

The visitors, inspired by last weekend’s 2-0 victory over Getafe, started very positively. Christian Stuani headed wide and Juanfran was denied by Diego Lopez before Valdo had a goal rightly disallowed for offside.

Villarreal began to get going as the half went on, Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar beginning to get their partnership back up and running, and it was some good link-up play between the two that created the home side’s first real opportunity. Gustavo Munua in the Levante goal doing exceptionally well to parry Rossi’s volley.

Levante started the second-half like they had the first and used their pace up front to particularly good effect. Stuani got in behind the struggling centre-back pairing of Marchena and Gonzalo but his chip didn’t quite have the legs to arch over the giant frame of Lopez. However, less than a minute later the visitors deservedly had their lead. This time it was Valdo who left Marchena in his wake to round Lopez and fire high into the empty net.

The reaction from Villarreal following the goal was particularly disappointing for those that have seen them shine this season. Levante did exceptionally well to maintain their pressure on the ball high up the field, particularly on Bruno and Borja Valero in the midfield. This had the major advantage of asphyxiating the service that those two normally provide for Cani and Cazorla ahead of them. Consequently Rossi and Nilmar didn’t get the normal, accurate balls into the channels to run into or even allow the front two to get involved in the intricate play around the box that the yellow submarine have used to such great effect at home this season. Moreover, the Villareal full-backs, Joan Capdevila and Mario, (their only source of width given how narrow Cani and Cazorla play) didn’t provide the attacking threat they have done regularly this term.

Indeed, recognising the dual problems of Marchena’s lack of pace being exposed and the disappointing performance of his full-backs, Juan Carlos Garrido substituted Marchena and Capdevila and moved Mario to centre-back with Cicinho coming on to play at right-back.

Yet, the changes made no real effect as remarkably Villarreal didn’t register a single shot on target in the second-half.

Levante should have made the game safe on a number of occasions but a combination of a lack of composure and confidence saw promising counter-attacks wasted time after time. The impressive Xavi Torres coming closest on 73 minutes when his low effort forced Lopez into a smart save.

Those being critical of Levante’s display would rightfully say that they managed to destroy the spectacle with constant tactical fouling and time-wasting. Problem was that Villarreal’s performance meant there was no spectacle to destroy. A rare off night for Garrido’s men costing them the chance to close the gap on Real Madrid to just three points.

Levante won’t care about that or indeed any criticism of how they went about their business. A second consecutive victory allowing them to climb to within one point of safety.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Match Report: Real Madrid 2 Sevilla 0

FT: Real Madrid 2 (Ozil 80, Adebayor 90 +3) – Sevilla 0
Real Madrid ensured that for the first time in 21 years the Copa del Rey final will be a Classico with a breathless, if not breathtaking, 2-0 victory over Sevilla.

Following a 1-0 win for the 17-time winners at the Sanchez Pizjuan last week many thought tonight’s encounter would be nothing but a formality. Yet, it was anything but in a hard-fought first half.

Real started the game with a high-tempo synonomous with Mourinho’s most successful sides over the past few years. The return of Xabi Alonso alongside Sami Khedira in midfield helping to put the Sevilla midfield under pressure and the hosts should have been ahead inside five minutes.

After Angel Di Maria’s left foot shot had been parried by Javi Varas, Karim Benzema was left with an open goal. However, in what was to be the first miss in a night of comically poor finishing by the Frenchman, he managed to stroke the ball wide.

Thereafter, Sevilla grew into what became a half litered with free-kicks and yellow cards. Alvaro Negredo coming closest for the visitors when his smart finish was ruled out for offside on 10 minutes – replays showing it was an extrmely close call.

At the other end, Sevilla had Varas to thank again for keeping the scoreline blank, this time denying Ronaldo from a one-on-one following a flowing counter-attack involving Ozil, Benzema and Di Maria.

The second half was a very different affair as both sides evacuated midfield – allowing the match to take on the appearance of a game between school kids, played at 100 miles an hour. However, the pattern was to prove much more to the home side’s liking as they consistently exposed Sevilla’s ludicrously high line.

Benzema further displayed his exhibition in how not to finish; firstly, by running the ball out of play after turning Sergio Sanchez, then firing over after a long ball had found him behind the Sevilla defence and, finally, by somehow manging to turn the ball over from three yards after Ozil and Ronaldo had done brilliantly in the build-up.

Ronaldo was then unlucky to be ruled offside from another Ozil slide-rule through ball but eventually the holders suicidal offisde line caught up with them. After seeing those in front of him fail time after time, Ozil showed his strikers how to do it. Played through by compatriot Khedira, the German cooly rounded Varas and tapped into the empty net.

With the Bernabeu now in party mode Benzema was removed (arguably, putting the Madristas in even greater party mood but that would be too harsh after all he did do this in the first-leg) to allow Emmanuel Adebayor his home debut. Within two minutes the former Togolese international had been cynically taken out by Sanchez and the game had what it most deserved – a red card. Sanchez’s second yellow the seventh of the evening in what was an ill-tempered affair.

Only a further two minutes had passed when Adebayor showed Benzema the way to goal (and it should be noted made Mourinho a very happy and smug man of the touchline - yes, even more than usual). The Manchester City loanee controlling Lass Diarra’s cross expertly on his chest before firing a thunderous volley into the roof of the net.

The 3-0 aggregate win allows Mournho to continue his excellent record in domestic cup competitions and his current employers to head back to the final after an eight year absence. Set your diary for April 20th, another meeting of Spain’s two titans awaits.