24/04/13 – Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid (Champions League Semi Final)

Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid (Champions League Semi Final)Mats Hummels is finally fit enough to return to Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League starting XI at the expense of Felipe Santana. Elsewhere Sven Bender is likely to play ahead of Sebastian Kehl in what should be Jurgen Klopp’s first choice line-up.

A suspension to Alvaro Arbeloa will mean Jose Mourinho is in need of a full back: Sergio Ramos may move from centre back rather than Michael Essien coming in. Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain continue to tussle for the forward position, although the Frenchman’s weekend goal may give him the edge.

These sides met in the group stage, Dortmund winning 2-1 at home before earning a 2-2 draw in the Bernabeu with a mixture of intelligent defence and quick counter attacks… (Read more)

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Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid (Champions League Semi Final)

24/04/13

Mats Hummels is finally fit enough to return to Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League starting XI at the expense of Felipe Santana. Elsewhere Sven Bender is likely to play ahead of Sebastian Kehl in what should be Jurgen Klopp’s first choice line-up.

A suspension to Alvaro Arbeloa will mean Jose Mourinho is in need of a full back: Sergio Ramos may move from centre back rather than Michael Essien coming in. Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain continue to tussle for the forward position, although the Frenchman’s weekend goal may give him the edge.

These sides met in the group stage, Dortmund winning 2-1 at home before earning a 2-2 draw in the Bernabeu with a mixture of intelligent defence and quick counter attacks.

Probable line-ups.

Probable line-ups.

Both Sides Ceding Possession

In their group stages meetings Dortmund triumphed by allowing Real Madrid possession before breaking quickly. This allowed Klopp to do two things: exploit his own side’s excellence on the counter whilst denying Madrid the opportunity to counter themselves. Such was their success that it would be a huge surprise if Dortmund were not to pursue this plan again. This also supports a wider point – these two sides may be the best counter attacking teams in Europe.

The result is that the game is likely to become a contest of counter-possession. Mourinho will be aware of the problem caused by Dortmund, and Manchester United earlier in the knockout stages, and surely adjust his side accordingly. It has been accepted for a couple of years that Madrid are at their most dangerous without the ball, yet a combination of footballing arrogance and lack of genuine opposition – with the notable exception of Barcelona – has allowed Madrid to continue to dominate possession. Yet with Mourinho’s final season at the club supposedly winding down it may be time to fold to necessity and instruct his players to yield possession more readily.

Xabi Alonso

Since their previous meetings Klopp has talked openly about the importance of stopping Xabi Alonso rather than Cristiano Ronaldo in order to stifle Madrid. While the plan was pretty evident from the two games, the willingness that Klopp has spoken about his tactics suggests that he didn’t expect to play Madrid again. With their plan seemingly in public view, the emphasis will be on either Madrid adapting to it, or Klopp changing it.

Whether Dortmund develop a different approach or not, pressing Alonso will surely still play a major part. Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski will look to occupy Madrid’s playmaker at every opportunity, meaning the emphasis will turn to others – notably Sami Khedira and the centre backs – to play vertical passes to the attack quartet. There is a precedent here: Danny Welbeck successfully pressed Alonso out of the game at Old Trafford until Nani’s red card and the introduction of Luka Modric gave Mourinho two incisive passers from deep midfield. There is no suggestion that Modric will start ahead of Khedira, but should Alonso struggle to escape Dortmund’s attention Mourinho will now feel he has a proven Plan B.

Midfield Movement

When 4-2-3-1 systems meet, the space between the midfields is crucial. The formation is tiered in such a way that teams can often become broken: six defensive players looking to feed the front four. To make the sides more fluid requires movement between these tiers, preferably from each end of the midfield triangle.

At the top of the midfields Gotze is more willing than Mesut Ozil to drop deep in search of possession. Both German playmakers have excellent movement but in different ways. Ozil’s movement is mostly lateral, preferring to remain upfield but drift from flank to flank in search of space. In contrast Gotze is more vertical, and like another young German playmaker, Toni Kroos, he is able to adopt positions from any tier between midfield and attack. Last season Ozil and Kroos met in the Champions League Semi Final, when Madrid met Bayern Munich, and Kroos’ movement back into midfield was considered to give Bayern an advantage. Gotze is similar to Kroos in his willingness to drop deep into midfield. Not only does this allow him to find space deeper, but it also entices either Alonso or, more likely, Khedira away from their station in front of the defence.

Attacking Full Backs

The other way to link defence and attack in a 4-2-3-1 system – and indeed any 4-4-2 variation – is with aggressive full backs. All four full backs enjoy getting forward, so rather than the emphasis on them to influence attacks, instead it will be whether they are adequately tracked by the opposing winger.

Dortmund have a large advantage in this respect. Both Marco Reus and Jakub Blaszczykowski are diligent defenders and work hard to track their opponents, often turning Dortmund into a 4-4-1-1 without the ball. In contrast Madrid are less disciplined – Angel Di Maria will often engage his full back but Ronaldo cannot be relied on to track Lukasz Piszczek’s runs from right back. The Polish full back has an excellent understanding with compatriot Blaszczykowski in front of him, and the two of them may find plenty of opportunities to isolate Fabio Coentrao on Dortmund’s right flank.

Summary

Despite failing to beat Dortmund in the group stage, Madrid come into this tie as the favourite. The general opinion appears to be that Madrid ultimately have too many top class players, including the brilliance of Ronaldo, to get past an inexperienced Dortmund side. Mourinho is also a fine tactician, and the likelihood is he will have a redesigned a plan based on their previous meetings.

This may be true, and yet Mourinho’s side are not infallible. Dortmund are a far more coherent side than Manchester United, and yet Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were looking relatively comfortable prior to Nani’s dismissal. They are likely to play on the counter again, so much will depend on the form of Roman Weidenfeller to keep Madrid’s attacks at bay. Dortmund’s goalkeeper was excellent against Malaga in the last round, and may have to be again.

23/04/13 – Bayern Munich vs Barcelona (Champions League Semi Final)

Bayern Munich vs Barcelona (Champions League Semi Final)Bayern are missing a few first team players, but their strength in depth should allow them to replace quality with quality. Jupp Heynckes is without the injured Toni Kroos, meaning Thomas Muller will continue in the central role and Arjen Robben will play on the right wing, while in attack Mario Gomez will replace the suspended Mario Mandzukic.

Tito Vilanova has more troubling absentees. Injuries to Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano and a suspension for Adriano deprive Barcelona of three senior centre backs, meaning either young Marc Bartra will deputise or Eric Abidal will make only his second start of the season after returning from injury. Meanwhile Lionel Messi is likely to be risked despite not being fully fit.

With Bayern on course for a record points haul in the Bundesliga and a possible treble of German League and Cup to go with the Champions League, Barcelona are aware that they enter a European tie as underdogs for the first time in four years… (Read more)

Bayern Munich vs Barcelona (Champions League Semi Final)

23/04/13 

Bayern are missing a few first team players, but their strength in depth should allow them to replace quality with quality. Jupp Heynckes is without the injured Toni Kroos, meaning Thomas Muller will continue in the central role and Arjen Robben will play on the right wing, while in attack Mario Gomez will replace the suspended Mario Mandzukic.

Tito Vilanova has more troubling absentees. Injuries to Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano and a suspension for Adriano deprive Barcelona of three senior centre backs, meaning either young Marc Bartra will deputise or Eric Abidal will make only his second start of the season after returning from injury. Meanwhile Lionel Messi is likely to be risked despite not being fully fit.

With Bayern on course for a record points haul in the Bundesliga and a possible treble of German League and Cup to go with the Champions League, Barcelona are aware that they enter a European tie as underdogs for the first time in four years.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Pressure In Midfield

As in most games, the key tactical battle will be in midfield. Both sides are accustomed to pressing, and yet the respective depths of their midfields make this an awkward contest.

At the top of Bayern’s triangle, Muller will find himself directly competing with Barcelona’s holding midfielder Sergio Busquets in what will be the only straightforward match-up (to be discussed later). This leaves Bayern’s deep pairing of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger against Barcelona’s central partnership of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. In theory these pairings would directly engage each other – Schweinsteiger would press Xavi, whilst Martinez would track Iniesta. Yet this really goes against each players’ role, as in reality the two pairing want to position themselves 10 yards apart.

Heynckes uses Martinez and Schweinsteiger in a mobile screen, similar to the way Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira sit deep for Real Madrid. Their purpose is to occupy space between the lines – imperative against Barcelona – and withdraw from the midfield contest to find time to dictate play. Should Bayern’s pairing be drawn upfield in pursuit of Xavi and Iniesta, they would leave space for Messi to drop into and lose time on the ball when in possession.

Barcelona have the same problem. Xavi and Iniesta are both energetic without the ball, yet with Muller, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben all looking to receive the ball in advanced central areas, Vilanova will be reluctant to cede space in midfield.

All four players are excellent in their roles – they all have a fine appreciation of space, are committed in defence and capable of incisive passes when in possession. The contest between these four should be fascinating.

Thomas Muller vs Sergio Busquets

Muller’s inclusion in place of Kroos makes his contest with Busquets intriguing. Kroos is more willing to compete in midfield, and had he played would be likely to energetically press Busquets when the Spaniard is in possession, but also occasionally drop deeper to engage Xavi and Iniesta. Ultimately Kroos would have stayed goal-side of Busquets in an attempt to pin Barcelona’s pivot in his own half.

Muller is likely to play the role differently, having been converted from a forward to play an advanced midfield role. His positioning is generally far more advanced than Kroos, although he can still be relied on without the ball. Nevertheless Muller may decide not to always stay goal-side of Busquets, especially when he moves forward into midfield. This would offer Bayern the option of playing 2vs2 in attack and force Barcelona’s central defenders to mark an opponent. Not only does this give Bayern the option to play directly on the break, but also the chance to isolate Bartra (or Abidal) should they perceive him to be a weak link.

Attacking Width

Part of the success of Jordi Alba and, particularly, Daniel Alves marauding forward from full back has been the scarcity of quality wide players that they have been faced with in the past few seasons. Many have tried to attack them, and even stay upfield when they go forward to offer a target on the break, but more often than not the risk of allowing Alba and Alves to advance untracked is not adequately offset by the threat of the wide attackers themselves.

Ribery and Robben should be different. Both will be reluctant to track the opposing full backs, so will often find themselves loitering upfield in space. Yet the risk of allowing Alves and Alba space in attack may be one Bayern are willing to take, as the option of their wingers running at Barcelona’s defence on the break is surely one to pursue, if only on occasion.

Lionel Messi

It’s difficult not to discuss Messi, especially after the Paris Saint-Germain tie revealed just how important he was to this Barcelona side (even if that may have already been evident). Messi is not fully fit, but it is unlikely that he is in a worse physical state than when he came off the bench to rescue his side in the last round and it seems inconceivable that he won’t be risked. Cesc Fabregas is a fine player, and a capable replacement, but with Messi Barcelona lose more than just their best player – they lose the focal point of what can occasionally be a directionless system.

To list what Messi can add seems frivolous. Apart from his goals, his dribbling at pace will threaten the speed (or lack thereof) of Daniel van Buyten, his deep positioning will add to the midfield battle – not to mention his favoured right channel will test the young David Alaba – and his energetic pressing will cause Martinez and Schweinsteiger problems. With him this is an extremely even contest between a team of constant quality against one designed around an individual’s genius. Without him it is reasonable to suggest Bayern would be heavy favourites.

Summary

Competing with Barcelona is not the mystery it once was. Whereas just a couple of seasons ago every other side in Europe would develop a gameplan for Barcelona alone, now teams rightly feel they can stand toe-to-toe with them.

Whatever the result of this tie, two things may happen that could irreversibly shatter Barcelona’s mystique: Bayern could dominate possession, and Barcelona may adapt their system for an opponent. That should say everything about the German champions’ chances.

15/04/13 – Lazio vs Juventus (Serie A)

Lazio vs JuventusVladimir Petkovic is without several first choice defenders, with Abdoulay Konko, Andre Dias and Bruno Pereirinha injured and Giuseppe Biava suspended, so Alvaro Gonzalez is likely to continue at right back. His place in midfield will be filled by either Stefano Mauri or Honorato Ederson. Lazio have struggled without Miroslav Klose in attack following the German’s long injury layoff, but after appearing from the bench in midweek the forward may return to the starting XI.

With Lazio having knocked Juventus out of the Coppa Italia, and their Champions League dream ended by Bayern Munich, Antonio Conte only has Serie A to play for and can field his strongest side. Fabio Quagliarella and Mirko Vucinic are the current incumbents of the forward positions.

Lazio will be desperate to recapture the form they showed prior to Klose’s injury, having won just 1 of the 6 league games without him. This run has seen them drop out of the Champions League places, and with Roma and Inter Milan not far behind there is a chance they could fail to qualify for Europe all together. For Conte the league is not yet assured. Having suggested that Italian football needs to adapt to challenge in Europe, it is surely in Juventus’ interest to secure the title as quickly as possible to allow for experimentation towards the end of the campaign… (Read more)

 

Lazio vs Juventus (Serie A)

15/04/13

Vladimir Petkovic is without several first choice defenders, with Abdoulay Konko, Andre Dias and Bruno Pereirinha injured and Giuseppe Biava suspended, so Alvaro Gonzalez is likely to continue at right back. His place in midfield will be filled by either Stefano Mauri or Honorato Ederson. Lazio have struggled without Miroslav Klose in attack following the German’s long injury layoff, but after appearing from the bench in midweek the forward may return to the starting XI.

With Lazio having knocked Juventus out of the Coppa Italia, and their Champions League dream ended by Bayern Munich, Antonio Conte only has Serie A to play for and can field his strongest side. Fabio Quagliarella and Mirko Vucinic are the current incumbents of the forward positions.

Lazio will be desperate to recapture the form they showed prior to Klose’s injury, having won just 1 of the 6 league games without him. This run has seen them drop out of the Champions League places, and with Roma and Inter Milan not far behind there is a chance they could fail to qualify for Europe all together. For Conte the league is not yet assured. Having suggested that Italian football needs to adapt to challenge in Europe, it is surely in Juventus’ interest to secure the title as quickly as possible to allow for experimentation towards the end of the campaign.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Defensive Surplus

Both teams field five midfielders in a similar arrangement, so the differences are felt at either end of the pitch as both managers enjoy a two-man advantage in defence. Lazio customarily play with a lone target man, but he will find himself watched by Juventus’ excellent defensive trio. The host’s centre backs Lorik Cana and Michael Ciani will find themselves marking Vucinic and Quagliarella with Gonzalez and Stefan Radu free at full backs.

Either side can use this advantage for in differing ways. Lazio will look to get their full backs forward to support attacks and create an advantage on the flanks; Juventus’ central defenders, especially Giorgio Chiellini, will use the time afforded them to advance into midfield or make direct passes to the forwards. Neither manager will be comfortable leaving their defenders without a numerical advantage, but the tactical arrangement allows both manager to use a defender in an attacking capacity.

Lazio’s Width Advantage

Following on from the last point, Lazio’s main source of success against 3-5-2 variations should be their advantage out wide, being one of the few Serie A sides that play with genuine wide midfielders and attacking full backs. Senad Lulic and Antonio Candreva will be tracked by Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner, but both Radu and Gonzalez should be able to advance relatively freely. Juventus are far stronger individually, but the wings are an area Lazio should be able to exploit.

This is also where Miroslav Klose is such an advantage, as few players could compete with three defenders in the air like the German is capable of. Should he continue to miss out, he would be a massive loss.

Free Midfielders

The midfield arrangement leaves two players free: Cristian Ledesma and Andrea Pirlo. Clearly these players are fielded for separate purposes. Ledesma protects Lazio’s defence, while Pirlo looks to find space from where to play penetrating passes. Their influence will depend on how the game is played. Should Lazio’s midfield advance into Pirlo’s space, either in an attacking or defensive capacity, the playmaker may be blunted. Contrastingly if midfield space is at a premium and Ledesma is required to move the ball forward, the limited Argentine and his team may struggle.

Summary

As in any Serie A match at present, Juventus start as favourites. The home side’s width does give them a means to attack the league leaders, but they are unlikely to use it as well as the possible space granted Pirlo. Lazio looked a little stronger against Roma last weekend, and certainly seem uplifted by the return of Klose, but they still resemble a team waiting for the season to end. Petkovic will know that European qualification is a must, and any points gained against Juventus will be a bonus.

14/04/13 – AC Milan vs Napoli (Serie A)

AC Milan vs NapoliMario Balotelli’s suspension will see Giampaolo Pazzini lead the line for AC Milan, while Kevin-Prince Boateng continues to be preferred to M’Baye Niang on the right side of attack. Aside from Riccardo Montolivo, Massimiliano Allegri has rotated his midfielders throughout the season but Sulley Muntari and Mathieu Flamini currently appear to be in favour. Similarly Mattia De Sciglio now appears to be first choice left back ahead of Kevin Constant.

Walter Mazzarri has no absentees, but will continue to choose between Miguel Britos and Alessandro Gamberini in defence, and Blerim Dzemaili and Gokhan Inler in midfield.

With seven games to go in Serie A both sides appear secure in the remaining Champions League places, with Milan possessing a 6 point lead over 4th placed Fiorentina, yet neither team can either expect to mount a serious challenge to Juventus, who have a 9 point lead at the top. Nevertheless Napoli will hope a victory can take advantage of any negative reaction to Juventus’ Champions League exit, whilst Milan won’t want to lose ground to the chasing pack… (Read more)