The Return of the Champions (League)

Oh yes! Seems like it was years ago when I was pounding my fist into my thigh in futile frustration as Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League. Fast forward a week to the draw for the Round of 16. Barcelona v Bayer Leverkusen, AC Milan v Arsenal, Chelsea v Napoli, Marseille v Inter, Basel v Bayern Munich, Zenit v Benfica, CSKA Moscow v Real Madrid, and Apoel v Lyon are the ties that we have to look forward to in the next two weeks. The two games today are Bayer Leverkusen vs Barcelona and Lyon vs Apoel Nicosia. The match that the vast majority of the footballing world  will have our eye on is undoubtedly the Barca game. 
   The reigning champions of Europe have been in rather woeful La Liga form, falling to an all time (in my memory) high of 10 points behind leaders Real Madrid. This past weekend they lost 2-3 away at 8th placed Osasuna despite having their customary 68% possession and taking more shots on target than Osasuna had shots at all. Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc all started on the bench presumably to rest them for today’s match.
   Leverkusen haven’t been faring too well in das Bundesliga either. They started the most recent round in 6th place and were felled 1-0 by a Dortmund team in fine fetter. Despite a rather even possession game, Leverkusen somehow only mustered up 3 shots, 1 on target. Talisman Michael Ballack has been in atrocious form this season, earning public criticism from both club owner and manager. He won’t be playing today though so all eyes will be on the newly capped German internationals Andre Schurrle and Stefan Kiesling to work some magic. The two of them, along with Eren Derdiyok have been bearing the brunt of Leverkusen’s goal scoring burden in a season where goals have been harder to come by than the Easter Bunny. 
   Realistically while Leverkusen are potent in attack with their direct style, high intensity, and fast pace football, their midfield lack the quality (like the rest of the world) to compete with Barcelona. Expect them to hassle and harry and hope to hit on the break. expect goalkeeper Bernd Leno to earn his pay today when Messi and his merry men come looking to smash and grab an away victory. Barcelona aren’t winning La Liga but you can be sure they’ll be gunning to be the first team to win the UEFA Champions League in back to back seasons.

Manchester United v Liverpool preview

Its 12:18 am here in southern California. Just about 4 hours before the undisputed match of the weekend kicks off. In the media frenzy surrounding Harry Redknapp’s acquittal, and subsequent baptism as the (next) savor of the England national team, some of the attention has been drawn away from what would have otherwise been the story on every newspaper’s back page. Manchester United play host to Liverpool just 15 days after being knocked out of the FA Cup by their eternal rivals Liverpool in a game that they had no business losing. On that day two weeks ago Patrice Evra received boos, hisses, jeers, and ironic cheers whenever the ball even looked like being played by him. Today, Luis Suarez is widely expected to make his return to the starting lineup for the first time since his ban was served. In recent days members from both clubs have tried to play down the hype surrounding the whole affair but it really is pointless. As fans, we have long memories and no mercy for those we deem worthy of our scorn. The Uruguayan international is public enemy no. 1 at Old Trafford and he will be made aware of that from before the first whistle to after he gets stretchered off with a cruciate injury (fingers crossed).

The team news for United is certainly heartening with Cleverley due to take “some part” in the match, most likely off the bench, and Chris Smalling listed as likely. Sir Alex has a tendency to surprise us with his team selection but for me I’d imagine that De Gea starts, along with Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra, Carrick, Scholes, Valencia, Giggs/Young/Park, Rooney and Welbeck. Rooney was instrumental in our comeback last weekend against that team from London and the outcome of this game largely depends on him finding the space he needs to pull the strings. I’m loving the link-up play of Welbeck in the build-up play and I prefer he starts with Chich to come off the bench as an impact sub if need be. Welbeck’s intuitive understanding with Valencia, Rafael, Rooney, and Cleverley in particular gives me all the hope in the world that if United can be clinical in their finishing, this game will be won in the 30th minute. I expect Kenny to attempt to pack the midfield with 5 men and use big Andy Carroll to trouble De Gea but with Scholes conducting this dance at his own pace and the drive of Rooney, I’m really not concerned with whatever Liverpool may have prepared.

I could wax on and on about the lineups and tactics but at this point I just want to sleep. Analysis to come here after the match. Commentary via twitter (@earthsportsnews)
Ta ta for now.

Farewell Fabio

Capello has called it quits. What does this mean for England in the immediate future? Assuming Redknapp takes the job as it seems he will, you can bet that there will be a clear-out of certain players. Whether Harry sticks with the 4-2-3-1 that Fabio prefered or shifts into the more attacking 4-4-1-1 that Spurs have put to such excellent use thusfar this season remains to be seen. I’m inclined to think that we’ll see a shift in tactics.

Harry’s ideal team is a tough one to predict. Does he stick with his English players from Spurs that he knows so well, or branch out? I imagine he’ll be content to leave Defoe out of his starting lineup, but will he stand with Aaron Lennon, Scott Parker, Michael Dawson, Ledley King, and Kyle Walker? All these players have figured prominently in Harry’s Spurs team this season when fit. We can drop King from the argument. His well documented  knees won’t let him play a major tournament. That still leaves us with 4 potential starters for England’s push for European glory. The potential permutations and combinations of a starting lineup are seemingly endless but this is how I see Mr Redknapp picking his squad:

The full 30 man squad as I see it is Hart, Foster, Stockdale, (GK) Richards, G. Johnson, Dawson, Walker, Cahill, Shawcross, Jones, Smalling, Lescott, A. Cole, Baines, (DEF) Cleverley, Carrick, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lampard, Milner, Parker, Barry, Gerrard, Young, A. Johnson, Walcott, (MID) Rooney, Sturridge, Welbeck, Defoe, and Bent as the strikers.
Who stays and who gets cut will likely be determined mostly by form and fitness at the time of the tournament, but I see the first XI from this 30 as:

Joe Hart in goal, Richards on the right, Lescott and Cahill in the center, with Ashley Cole on the left. In central midfield, Its Parker and Barry, flanked by Young and Lennon, with Gerrard in behind Welbeck until Rooney’s two match ban is served. Michael Carrick is making a strong push to start alongside Scott Parker who has to be the first name on the teamsheet. 

Chelsea vs Manchester United Highlights and Analysis

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xodevf_chelsea-vs-manchester-united-3-3_sport

Where to begin?
Every football match has its own life. A heartbeat. A pulse. Lord only knows what the blood pressure readings were during this match but its certain that this game was alive and kicking from start to finish. Great saves from both keepers, scintillating build up play, soft goals conceded, clear penalties not given, softer penalties awarded and then promptly guided into the back of Petr Cech’s net with a savage precision usually only seen in Fifa12… the list goes on.
On the whole I imagine United will be content with that point recovered although once again they dug themselves the whole that they so valiantly clawed their way out of. with 14 games to play and now (once again) 2 points behind City, the title race is as alive as ever. Next up is Liverpool at home. Onwards and upwards I say!