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.

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.


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)


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.


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.

Lazio vs Juventus (Serie A)


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.


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.

AC Milan vs Napoli (Serie A)


Mario 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.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Mirrored Formations

Few teams in Europe could mirror each other so closely whilst using such diverse systems as Milan and Napoli. Both sides have opposing midfield triangles: Muntari and Flamini will compete with Dzemaili and Valon Behrami in the centre of the pitch, whilst Montolivo will occupy the same space as Marek Hamsik. Milan’s relatively narrow attacking trio – Stephan El Shaarawy looks to attack through the middle whilst Boateng is more accustomed to playing centrally – find themselves matched by Napoli’s back three. At the other end Napoli’s forward pair are marked by Milan’s central defenders, and on the flanks the home side’s full backs can engage the opposing wing backs.

The question is will this arrangement be sought by either manager? Allegri will certainly be happy to engineer 3 vs 3 in attack, but will be less keen to allow Edison Cavani and Goran Pandev to isolate Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata, whilst Montolivo may not be the best defence against Montolivo. By contrast Mazzarri will want his wing backs to help contain Milan’s wide forwards. This need for tactical adjustments is precisely what makes this particular contest fascinating.

Napoli’s Wing Backs

Mazzarri’s positioning of Juan Zuniga and Christian Maggio will be the most influential adjustment. Should they drop goal side of El Shaarawy and Boateng, Napoli would have a 5 vs 3 advantage in defence, but Milan’s full backs would have license to advance unopposed. Should Zuniga and Maggio advance themselves and engage De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate they would be able to press the home side’s back four, but leave themselves vulnerable in defence.

In reality Mazzarri will probably use a mixture of these two options initially, with both wing backs alternating who goes forward and who stays back, before adapting the plan as the game situation dictates.

Montolivo vs Hamsik

The direct contest between Montolivo and Hamsik will be a key factor in determining which side comes out victorious. The two players represent the two types of modern playmaker. Montolivo looks to dictate the tempo from deep whilst also offering a defensive shield, whilst Hamsik is a mobile creator capable of energetic pressing and intelligent lateral movement.

Montolivo may have more players ahead of him, and therefore more targets for his incisive passing, but Hamsik surely has the advantage. Both players have defensive responsibilities, but Montolivo is required to be more disciplined by remaining ahead of his centre backs, and therefore is unlikely to follow Hamsik when he drifts to the flanks. Even if he were permitted to do so it is unlikely he would have the energy or pace to stay with the Slovakian.


A game of arguably more interest than importance. Even so, Napoli will want to maintain pressure on Juventus until the very end, possibly in the hope of convincing Cavani to stay for another season. Milan can continue an unlikely season in which they lost half a team and yet have stumbled on a functional, cohesive unit. Finishing in their current position of 3rd would be an excellent return for a side that won only 2 of their first 8 games, so to better that would be even more impressive.

Schalke vs Bayer Leverkusen (Bundesliga)


Jens Keller is without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, Tranquillo Barnetta and Ibrahim Afellay, so Raffael should come in behind Ciprian Marica in attack, with Julian Draxler moving to the right wing. Marco Hoger will replace the suspended Roman Neustadter in midfield.

Bayer Leverkusen’s management team of Sami Hyypia and Sascha Lewandowski are without the suspended Stefan Reinartz, so Gonzalo Castro is likely to drop back into midfield, with Sidney Sam replacing him in attack. In defence, Michal Kadlec will replace the also suspended Sebastian Boenisch at left back, while Daniel Schwaab may continue to get the nod ahead of Omer Toprak.

With six games to go in the Bundesliga the title may be over but the competition for Champions League places is still alive. Leverkusen in 3rd currently have a 4 point lead over 5th placed Freiburg, who are level on points with Schalke but trail on goal difference. With Freiburg having played a game more, Schalke can put clear air between themselves and 5th place with a victory, whereas a win for Leverkusen would give them a 7 point cushion and all but confirm their place in the top four.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

4-2-3-1 vs 4-1-2-3

This has become a common tactical contest, with 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3 now Europe’s most popular formations. However due to the tactics’ popularity they are frequently misused or poorly implemented. Yet Schalke and Leverkusen are well rehearsed in their systems, and more importantly that have the attacking players to fulfil required roles. With two opposing midfield triangles space is in the middle of the pitch is at a premium, so these contests are usually decided by the quality of the wide players.

Playing style is also important, and in this respect the pattern of the game will be decided – Schalke, as the home side and the natural aggressor, will see more of the ball and take the game to their opponents, whilst Leverkusen predominantly play on the counter attack. Their selections reflect this – Schalke’s full backs are far more ambitious than their opposite numbers. Similarly Jermaine Jones and Raffael will look to get forward for the home side, whereas only Castro is likely to support attacks from Leverkusen’s midfield.

Attacking Width

Neither team is at full strength in this area. For Schalke, Farfan’s injury has necessitated Draxler returning to the wing, whilst Castro is likely to be needed in midfield and replaced by Sam on Leverkusen’s right. These changes, coupled with the identity of the players involved, should result in an interesting mirroring of width.

Schalke usually possess direct wing play on both flanks, but will miss Farfan’s pace and goalscoring threat. In his place however Draxler may offer a greater threat between the lines having become adept in his new central role. This should give Schalke a separate threat – width and pace on the left and narrowness and interplay on the right.

Leverkusen also possess pace in Sam and Andre Schurrle, although both players again offer different threats. Sam is a natural winger and will look to attack Christian Fuchs, whereas Schurrle has become more used to taking up central positions to maximise his influence. This should mirror Schalke – width down Leverkusen’s right flank and narrowness on their left.

As a result expect Kadlec and, particularly, Atsuto Uchida to provide an attacking influence.

Midfield Control

This is only a factor for Schalke, with Leverkusen content with moving the ball forward quickly rather than concentrating on ball retention. Nevertheless the away side’s tactics only make the task more important, as giving away possession easily gives Schalke’s opponents the chance to attack. Therefore Hoger has a great deal of responsibility alongside Jones. Neustadter, the man Hoger replaces, is Schalke’s most frequent passer of the ball and the man that helps them control possession in the opponents half by offering an outlet to the attacking players ahead. Hoger is less refined but will be required to perform a similar task – reliable ball retention from the base of midfield.


Both teams are in decent form which makes this a difficult game to predict. The six most recent games between the sides has seen three victories apiece, all to nil, which demonstrates the importance of the game’s pattern – if Schalke can maintain a threat in attack they can pin their opponents in and cause them problems, yet if Leverkusen’s defence hold firm and they find direct passes to their attacking trio, the visitors could succeed on the counter.

There is a wider context to this game. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are the league’s ‘big two’, and unlikely to be challenged any time soon, so Schalke and Leverkusen are competing to be recognised as the best of the rest.

Basel vs Tottenham (Europa League Quarter Final)


Basel can welcome back Marcelo Diaz, Park Joo-Ho and Phillip Degen from suspension and all three are likely to come in for the second leg against Tottenham. Murat Yakin will have to choose between the 4-2-3-1 shape that succeeded in securing an impressive 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane or reverting to a more conservative 4-1-2-3 shape.

In contrast Tottenham are currently struggling with injuries, most notably to star man Gareth Bale, although the loss of Aaron Lennon is equally destabilising. Andre Villas-Boas’ lack of wide options means a narrow trio of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Lewis Holtby and Clint Dempsey behind Emmanuel Adebayor. In defence Villas-Boas has a dilemma – does he persist with selecting Benoit Assou-Ekotto at full back, when Jan Vertonghen has looked so dangerous going forward in the Premier League or leave the Belgian at centre back alongside Michael Dawson? A similar problem may be in goal. Villas-Boas has remained loyal to Brad Friedel through the Europa League campaign, but as Tottenham reach the business end of the competition there must be an urge to start selecting the impressive Hugo Lloris.

Anybody who remembers Basel’s impressive displays in the Champions League against Manchester United a few years ago will understand what an accomplished side they are, and Tottenham face a tough ask if they are to advance.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Wings Clipped

While all the focus is on Gareth Bale’s injury, the reality is the loss of Aaron Lennon in addition to the absent Welshman has removed Villas-Boas’ main attacking weapons. Tottenham’s successful campaign has been built around the creative wing play of both players, but without them Villas-Boas lacks natural replacements. Sigurdsson, Holtby and Dempsey are all fine players, but operate in more central areas and lack the explosive pace that made Tottenham such a threat on the break.

In Bale and Lennon’s absence Tottenham are far more narrow and look to create chances in central areas. Unfortunately this plays into the hands of their opponents, who will have a solid three-man midfield protecting their back four. Therefore there will be a greater emphasis on full backs Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker stretching the play and providing dangerous crosses into the box.

Scott Parker

Since Sandro’s injury coincided with Parker’s return to fitness a few months back, many onlookers believed that Villas-Boas was being reunited with his first choice midfield. In reality Parker has done little to suggest that he will hold down a place upon the Brazilian’s return. The English midfielder’s lack of positional discipline has robbed Tottenham of their early season fluency, when Moussa Dembele felt able to make forward runs without worrying about leaving spaces behind. Today it is Parker that is the more likely of the midfield duo to burst forward in support of an attack.

Considering the vast difference in technical quality between Dembele and Parker, coupled with the fact that until last season the Belgian was an attacking midfield, this situation is a tactical failure. If Tottenham are to threaten Basel without their wingers, Dembele will be a major creative asset, but only if he can be sure that Parker will remain stationed behind him. Thus far Villas-Boas has seemed unable to dissuade Parker from recklessly vacating his space, and Dembele appears remarkably willing to cover for his partner, but in such an important game it is vital that the pair stick to what they do best: Parker tackling, Dembele attacking.

Congested Midfield

With Basel playing with a midfield triangle and Tottenham lacking wingers there are likely to be up to eight players contesting the midfield zone, with the visitors possessing a 5-3 advantage. This would usually put them in good shape to dominate possession, except that both Sigurdsson and Dempsey are largely direct players intent on forward runs into the penalty area, whilst Yakin has a team filled with players comfortable in possession. At times in the first leg Basel’s interplay between their midfield and forward line was excellent, so to retain possession in a similar manor Tottenham need Sigurdsson and Dempsey to have a bit more patience.

Holtby is also due a big game. The German playmaker was widely lauded prior to his move from Schalke, but thus far has lived in the shadow of Bale as he has looked to adapt to his new team and the Premier League. This is completely understandable, but the quick technical football of Basel should be similar to that which he was accustomed in the Bundesliga, and with Bale missing Villas-Boas will be desperate for his January signing to justify the extra expenditure required to secure his services prior to the summer.


Even with a fully fit squad and no other distractions, this would be a difficult challenge for Villas-Boas new and inexperienced side. Nevertheless, with the battle for the Champions League lurking in the background, Tottenham will want to give a good account of themselves. Their manager has a fine Europa League pedigree having won it with Porto, and the ambitious Portuguese is likely to be motivated by the chance to win a trophy in his first season.

For Basel, Yakin will see this as a chance to achieve European glory. Having taken over from Heiko Vogel, victory in the Europa League would culminate a successful few years that has seen the construction of an impressive side. They will believe that they can overcome Tottenham, and probably have the ability to do so.

Rubin Kazan vs Chelsea (Europa League Quarter Final)


Kerban Berdyev’s Rubin Kazan can field the same team as in the first leg, although Salomon Rondon is likely to replace Vladimir Dyadyun.

Rafael Benitez continues to rotate in Europe, and may feel that progression should be comfortably secured. John Terry, Frank Lampard and Victor Moses have all become regulars in the Europa League and are likely to come in again.

Chelsea’s two goal lead forces Rubin to attack, although they are a naturally conservative side, as only 29 goals in 23 league games will testify. Berdyev will either need to hope for a stand-out performance from his players or look to identify weakness in Chelsea that his team can exploit. Benitez will surely feel an away goal will be enough to guarantee progress to the semi final.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Midfield Energy

If as anticipated, Ramires is left out in favour of a central midfield pairing of Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel, then Rubin may feel they can overrun Chelsea in the middle of the pitch. Both players are entirely suited to a specific role: Lampard as a rotator of possession now that age has slowed his buccaneering runs, and Mikel as a holding midfielder stationed ahead of the defence.

Mikel and Lampard ultimately lack dynamism, a quality usually provided by the energetic Ramires. If Rubin can disrupt Lampard’s passing rhythm and get bodies around Mikel they can prevent Chelsea’s attacking players from receiving the ball and also attack Benitez’s back four. Should Roman Eremenko continue in an advanced role he should have the defensive quality to apply pressure from an advance position, given that he has spent most of his career in a move defensive role.

Overlapping Full Backs

Chelsea’s biggest area of weakness under former manager Roberto Di Matteo was their weakness out wide, largely due to the failure of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar to adequately protect their full backs. Benitez initially look to remedy this weakness by switching to a 4-4-1-1 and using more reliable players out wide – both Ryan Bertrand and Ramires were used on occasion, and Hazard, the lest responsible of Chelsea’s playmakers, was moved into a central role.

However, possibly due to the realisation that he has no long term future in the job, Benitez dispensed with this plan fairly quickly and reverted to quite an open, attacking system, completely at odds with the conservative and calculating style that he had been known for. As a result Chelsea’s full backs still remain vulnerable, especially on the counter attack. In the first leg Berdyev selected full back Oleg Kuzmin on the right side of midfield, but with goals needed Rubin are likely to revert to two natural wingers, Gokdeniz Karadeniz and Alan Kasaev.


Unlike many other Russian sides, Rubin lack the attacking qualities to really trouble Chelsea’s lead, being as they are much more accustomed to keeping clean sheets and winning by narrow margins. Benitez’s ambition will be interesting – he has all the tools to play for a goalless draw, although the temptation of an away goal will be of some encouragement. Nevertheless the Spaniard is not one to expect undue exertion from his players, especially with an FA Cup semi final on the horizon and the battle for a Champions League place very much alive. Don’t expect a classic.

Newcastle vs Benfica (Europa League Quarter Final)


Newcastle’s victory over Fulham at the weekend was a large step towards guaranteed Premier League survival, although many will feel the limitations of their relegation rivals already makes this a formality, so Alan Pardew should be willing to gamble on some of his half-fit squad members for a must-win European tie. Newcastle’s injury list remains extensive, but Cheick Tiote may be risked in midfield alongside Yohan Cabaye and Massadio Haidara should come in at full back. With Yoan Gouffran cup-tied Jonas Gutierrez and Sylvain Marveaux are likely to play out wide.

Jorge Jesus has no such problems, meaning Benfica can name an unchanged side from the first leg, although Lima may push Rodrigo for a place in attack.

In a battle of two fairly traditional 4-4-2 variations the tie is likely to be decided between the lines and by the depth of the respective midfields.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Moussa Sissoko vs Rodrigo

The two main exponents of the space between the lines will be Sissoko and, should he start, Rodrigo. Both play alongside a natural striker and are tasked with linking with midfield to create chances for their attacking partner. In theory both teams play a 4-4-1-1 shape, with split strikers, but whereas Benfica line up in an old-fashioned manner more reminiscent of the 1990s, Newcastle’s more conservative arrangement is far more contemporary.

When the 4-4-2 system started to appear too rigid and inflexible in the Premier League 15 years ago teams began forming forward partnerships not from two out-and-out strikers but with a ‘Number 10’, a forward capable of dropping deep and creating chances – think of Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola. Essentially this is what Rodrigo offers, a forward presence but one capable of finding space in deeper positions. In contrast Newcastle have adopted the more modern approach, and their 4-4-1-1 is very much a 4-5-1 variation. Sissoko is a central midfielder by trade but offers strength and power in an advanced role in the same way as Yaya Toure is occasionally used for Manchester City, or Steven Gerrard was used behind Fernando Torres at Liverpool. Whereas Rodrigo starts high and drops deep, Sissoko does the opposite.

Slightly unusually for a European fixture neither team deploy a recognised holding midfielder, so both players will be key to find space from which to create chances.

Midfield Depth

Continuing from the last point, both Pardew and Jesus will be wary of the need to structure their midfield properly. Both teams pair a destroyer (Tiote and Nemanja Matic) with a passer (Cabaye and Enzo Perez), but the combinations are positioned in different ways. Assuming both managers instruct one midfielder to play deeper to occupy space between the lines, Newcastle are likely to use Cabaye for the role, whereas Benfica will turn to Matic.

This subtle difference has large implications. Cabaye is a playmaker capable of dictating play from deep, not dissimilar in the way Michael Carrick does for Manchester United and Xabi Alonso does for Real Madrid. Like both players he is also strong defensively and adept at marking space, making him an option to play in a deep role ahead of Newcastle’s back four. His partner Tiote is more dynamic but less disciplined, and cannot be trusted to hold his position between the lines. However what this combination offers Pardew is a ball-winning presence in the middle of the pitch and a playmaker capable of finding space in a deep midfield zone. Benfica’s combination is the opposite – Matic operates as a defensive midfielder and is as comfortable occupying space between the lines as he is engaging the opposition in midfield, whereas Perez looks to move the ball forward from the middle of the pitch. This gives Jesus a primarily defensive player guarding his defensive, and a more creative one further upfield.

Neither combination is specifically better than the other, but rather they can suit different sitautions. If both ‘Number 10s’ have influential games, Benfica may benefit from having a naturally defensive player in that zone. If space is at a premium in midfield, Newcastle may prosper by having Cabaye find space in deeper areas.


An interesting tactical contest between two teams that play relatively uninteresting systems. The subtle differences in personnel used in specific roles gives this game a degree of intrigue that may otherwise have been absent.

With respect to the outcome, Benfica are in a strong position and clearly benefit from Newcastle’s injury disruption. The Portuguese side are the far more settled and experienced side and should qualify, but Newcastle at St James Park are not to be taken lightly and in Cabaye, Sissoko and Cisse Pardew has players capable of causing a shock.

Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain (Champions League Quarter Final)


Tito Vilanova has two major selection concerns ahead of the visit of Paris Saint-Germain. Lionel Messi is recovering from injury and may be replaced in attack by Cesc Fabregas, who scored a hat-trick at the weekend against Mallorca. In defence Javier Mascherano’s suspension, coupled with Carlos Puyol’s injury, means Vilanova will choose between Adriano, Sergio Busquets and Marc Bartra to partner Gerard Pique.

For Carlo Ancelotti, Blaise Matuidi’s suspension means that David Beckham is likely to continue alongside Marco Verratti, with the semi-fit Thiago Motta offering reinforcements from the bench. In attack Ezequiel should continue in his support role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, occupying Busquets before moving forward in attack. Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore will offer invention in the channels.

Barcelona’s injury problems surely give PSG hope, and Ancelotti will believe that the system that stifled the Catalans for much of the first leg and posed an aerial threat throughout can have more success against a side missing their star player and liable to field a makeshift centre back.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Adriano, Alex Song or Marc Bartra?

Barcelona have never been particularly strong in the air, and neither Javier Mascherano (5’8’’) nor Carlos Puyol (5’10’’) are sizable defenders, but replacing them with 5’7’’ Adriano for a game containing one of the game’s best crossers (Beckham) and headers (Ibrahimovic) is a risky prospect. Adriano is seen as Vilanova’s best alternative, but even he may be deemed too unfit to play. If that is the case, then young Bartra – seemingly out of his depth in the first leg – or, more likely, Busquets will come in. In theory Busquets at 6’2’’ would offer a decent option, but his loss would be felt further upfield where Song has failed to offer the same reliable distribution of his Spanish colleague.

Whoever Vilanova settles on will expect a difficult time. PSG had a clear plan of attack in the first leg and both goals came from crosses into the box – the first a rebound from Thiago Silva’s header and the second a long diagonal ball from right to left that Ibrahimovic headed into the path of Matuidi.


Even when the understudy scores three goals at the weekend, the possibility of Messi’s absence is still cause for concern. Fabregas is a fine player and possesses comparable passing and finishing ability, but lacks the Argentine’s direct running and dribbling skills that add so much to Barcelona’s play. At times, as in the first leg against AC Milan, Vilanova’s side can look quite one-dimensional, a team full of passers seemingly more intent on ball retention than threatening the score sheet. A handful of players change that: Pedro’s diagonal runs have long been a source of penetration, as has the directness of David Villa and Alexis Sanchez – Vilanova has admittedly been more eager to include these players since the Milan defeat – but Messi is the player that fuses the two, a passer and a runner.

Messi adds something else – a near-constant presence both between the lines whilst somehow always remaining in goalscoring possessions. In contrast Fabregas tends to interpret the role differently and remain further upfield, denying Barcelona that threat in front of the opponent’s defence. Andres Iniesta can fill this area but has now moved to a central midfield role, and therefore does so at the risk of leaving Xavi exposed in the middle of the pitch. Out wide neither Pedro nor Villa have the creativity or technical skill to prosper in the same way Messi can.

Should the Argentine fail to make the starting XI Barcelona aren’t just missing their best player; they are also losing the biggest cog in their tactical machine.

PSG Width

Ancelotti’s system at PSG has echoed the Brazil side of the 1990s – a 4-2-2-2 shape with little natural width but plenty of movement from midfield. Against Barcelona this system changed slightly, with Lavezzi dropping off the front line to offer an attacking trio in midfield and maintain pressure on Busquets throughout. The plan is likely to be repeated, but PSG’s other creators, Pastore and Moura, will have to decide about how wide to play.

Pastore will be particularly important as he will be faced with Dani Alves, who will be happy to run passed him at every opportunity. Pastore is not known for his defensive work but will need to be willing to help Maxwell down the left, before breaking forward in the channels as he did so successfully in the first leg. Moura is more natural out wide and has the pace to engage Jordi Alba. Both players will want to find pockets of space in the channels from where to carry the ball forward and deliver crosses.


Ancelotti’s gameplan and key absentees to their opponents arguably gives PSG a chance that few would have predicted when the draw was made. The reality is though that a win will be necessary given Barcelona’s two away goals, and so Beckham will likely be key from a quarterback position, drilling long diagonal balls for Ibrahimovic to head down and Lavezzi to chase. Set pieces will also be targeted, so a direct and scrappy gameplan should be expected from the visitors.

Barcelona will believe that they still have the players and the style to secure a home victory – they have already dispelled doubts against Milan in emphatic fashion. However with Messi possibly missing and a vulnerability at the back, a comfortable home win against an emerging PSG side would arguably be an even greater statement of intent ahead of the semi-finals.