Wednesday, 16 April 2014

5 talking points ahead of tonight’s El Clasico

Barcelona and Real Madrid face off in the Copa del Rey final this evening.
Gareth Bale has struggled to make an impact in the two Clasicos he's played in thus far.
Gareth Bale has struggled to make an impact in the two Clasicos he's played in thus far.
Spain Soccer La Liga
(Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick the last time the sides met)

In Barcelona’s recent all-important Champions League clash with Atleticio Madrid, Lionel Messi played much of the game on the right-hand side of the attack.

The Argentinian looked uncomfortable in the position, and failed to influence proceedings in the manner that he usually does.

Despite his usual array of goals, this season has been less than satisfactory for Messi so far, as the Copa del Rey now appears to be Barca’s only chance of silverware following their shock loss to Granada in the league at the weekend, while the 26-year-old has also had significant injury problems to contend with.

That said, he did perform extremely well the last time these two sides met, scoring a hat-trick and making an excellent all-round contribution.

He could flourish again tonight, but the extent of his success may be dependent on whether he gets to play in his favoured central role.

2. Gareth Bale has another chance to silence doubters
Soccer - La Liga - Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - Santiago Bernabeu
(Gareth Bale has tended to perform better when Cristiano Ronaldo’s been absent)

Suggesting this season has been anything other than an unequivocal success for Gareth Bale may seem somewhat harsh.

The Welsh attacker so far has 19 goals and 15 assists in 34 appearances. Last season, when he was the Premier League’s Player of the Year, he had an inferior overall record — 24 goals and eight assists in 41 appearances.

Yet if there’s one criticism of Bale, it’s that he has failed to perform to his usual impeccable standards in some of Madrid’s more high-profile matches — and in particular, their two previous fixtures against Barcelona, where he played on the game’s periphery for the most part.

However, a strong display tonight could banish these doubts and consolidate an already-excellent first season in Spain. And with Ronaldo’s expected absence, Bale could thrive with the extra responsibility he will inevitably be handed, particularly given that he will likely be granted an opportunity to play in his favoured position on the left wing.

3. Will Real Madrid cope without their maestro?
Spain Soccer Champions League
(Cristiano Ronaldo has been ruled out of tonight’s game)

Real Madrid have suffered a big blow ahead of this game, with news that Cristiano Ronaldo won’t take any part in proceedings.

Carlo Ancelotti ruled out his star player on Tuesday, explaining that he did not want to risk exacerbating a lingering hamstring injury ahead of next week’s Champions League tie against Bayern Munich.

Ronaldo has enjoyed a phenomenal season, winning the Ballon d’Or and scoring 45 times in all competitions. He also needs just one more goal to beat the all-time Champions League record he currently shares with Messi.

Moreover, he is sometimes unfairly accused of failing to make an impact in big games — with seven goals in six Clasicos, Barca will be relieved the Portuguese international hasn’t made a quicker-than-expected return from injury.

That said, Real actually have a slightly superior record without Ronaldo in their team this season, with others — most notably Bale — ostensibly raising their game in his absence.

4. Can Madrid expose Barca’s weakness at the back?
Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Quarter Final - Second Leg - Barcelona v AC Milan - Camp Nou

Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra have recently been deployed in the centre-back positions for Barca, and the duo have often looked unconvincing. Yet with Barcelona enjoying such dominance and territory in most matches, their defensive flaws are often masked.

Nevertheless, in big games, these issues become more apparent, and the Catalan side persistently appeared vulnerable whenever Madrid attacked the last time the sides met.

While Mascherano has been played in defence quite regularly in recent times, the suspicion remains that he is a makeshift centre-half who is a midfielder at heart. Bartra, similarly, is far from world class, and still relatively inexperienced, having made just 28 first-team appearances for Barca so far.

The 23-year-old missed the weekend’s clash with Granada through injury, with Sergio Busquets moving back into defence as a result, but according to AS, the similarly doubtful Carlos Puyol has said he will play if Bartra is deemed unfit for the encounter.

5. How will Barca handle the Neymar problem?
Spain Soccer La Liga
With Barca having paid €56million for Neymar, they will be disappointed that the Brazilian has had a difficult first season in La Liga.

He has scored nine goals in 25 appearances so far — a decent return for most 22-year-old strikers, but not quite up to Barca’s high standards.

He appears to be struggling to adapt to the physicality of Spanish football, as he is at times all too easily brushed off the ball and thus, often prevented from showcasing his array of unique skills.

Moreover, the youngster was particularly poor in the most recent Clasico, and while he did score the equaliser in the first-leg against Atletico, he was an insignificant presence in both games for the most part.

Barcelona seem reluctant to drop the Brazilian given how much money they paid for him, so the striker needs to flourish this evening to avoid further severe criticism.
MSN Sport Ireland

Factbox: Real v Barca - 'El Clasico' in numbers

Real Madrid and Barcelona meet in Wednesday's Copa del Rey final in the latest edition of 'El Clasico'.

Factbox: Real v Barca - 'El Clasico' in numbers - Football - LigaAFP
Here are some numbers behind one of soccer's most glamorous fixtures:
0 - The number of goals Real have conceded in eight matches on the way to the Cup final.
2 - The number of 'Clasico' games Real coach Carlo Ancelotti and his Barca counterpart Gerardo Martino have each presided over. Barca beat Real 2-1 at the Nou Camp at the end of October and won 4-3 at the Bernabeu last month, both in La Liga.
2 - The number of hat-tricks Barca's Argentina forward Lionel Messi has scored in 'Clasicos'. Messi netted a treble in his first 'Clasico' appearance at the age of 19, a 3-3 La Liga draw at the Nou Camp in 2007, and grabbed another in last month's league clash.
18 - The number of cards the most booked player, former Real and Spain defender Fernando Hierro, collected in official 'Clasicos' (17 yellow and one red). Current Real centre back Sergio Ramos has 14 yellow and two red.
21 - The number of goals Messi has scored in 'Clasicos'. The four-times World Player of the Year is the record marksman in the fixture ahead of Real great Alfredo Di Stefano on 18. Current World Player Cristiano Ronaldo has 13 for Real, including the extra-time winner in the 2011 final. Messi has not scored in five Cup matches against Real.
22 - The number of times Real and Barca have played each other in the Spanish Cup. Barca have 10 wins to Real's six.
26 - The number of King's Cups won by record winners Barca, three more than Athletic Bilbao in second with 23. Real are third with 18.
44 - The record number of 'Clasico' appearances made by Real's Paco Gento. Among active players, Barca playmaker Xavi has the most with 39, ahead of Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas on 34 and Barca defender Carles Puyol on 32.
90 - Real have beaten Barca 90 times in official matches, with 89 wins for Barca and 48 draws.
227 - The number of official 'Clasicos' played since the pair's first encounter in the last four of the Spanish Cup on May 13, 1902, which Barca won 3-1.
383 - The number of goals Real have scored in official 'Clasicos', 13 more than Barca.

Man Utd to sign William Carvalho in £35m deal - report

William Carvalho (credit: GREGORIO CUNHA/AFP/Getty Images)

Manchester United have reportedly agreed a deal to sign William Carvalho from Sporting Lisbon this summer.

United boss David Moyes is looking to strengthen his midfield this summer as part of a major spending spree, and last month it was reported that the Scot had instructed scouts to watch Carvalho on several occasions this season.

The 22-year-old, who has also been linked with Chelsea and Real Madrid, recently admitted he could make a big money move to Old Trafford when the transfer window reopens at the end of the season.

And according to talkSPORT, a fee of around £35million has been agreed between the two clubs.

According to Tuesday's report, Carvalho, a Portugal international, has agreed a five-year deal with the Red Devils, with the deal set to made official when the transfer window reopens at the end of the season.

Speaking to reporters last month, Carvalho had said: "It's nice being praised and to know there are some big clubs interested in me."

When asked about his future, he added: "It could be Manchester United or Real Madrid.

"It's just nice to have a great European club after me, but at the moment I'm just totally focused on Sporting and doing my best until the end of the season.

"At the end of the campaign, we will see what happens."

Liga - Cruyff urges Barcelona to bring back Guardiola

Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff has urged the club to bring back Pep Guardiola at the end of the season.

Liga - Cruyff urges Barcelona to bring back Guardiola
1974 Holland World Cup Johan Cruyff

The Blaugrana have endured a difficult last few weeks, being knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, and also, seemingly, out of the title following a defeat to Granada.

But ahead of the Copa del Rey final this evening against Real Madrid, the Dutch great has claimed that the best thing the Camp Nou outfit can do is re-hire the Bayern Munich boss.

“The best thing for Barcelona is for Guardiola to come back,” he told Mundo Deportivo.

“If Joan Laporta became president again I'd say that the best thing to do is to sign Pep, and as an intelligent person, I'm sure he would.”

Cruyff then went on to comment on the behind-the-scenes fiasco that has derailed the team this season, with former president Sandro Rosell standing down following the Neymar affair, and the club being banded from signing players for two transfer windows after being found guilty of flouting rules on under-18s.

“Those who know what to do are not the decision makers, it's those who want to take advantage of the football business.

“When Laporta was the President, he left those who knew football like [former director of football] Txiki Begiristain and Frank Rijkaard and then Pep to make football decisions. 

“Everyone can make mistakes, but they knew football motivated their decisions and Laporta was dedicated to being the president and protecting them. 

“That's why it worked. There were good and bad moments, but overall it was a great step for both sides.”

Three teams who could ruin Chelsea, Liverpool or City’s title dreams

View photo
It isn’t over yet.
As Steven Gerrard pointed out in the immediate aftermath of emotional victory over Manchester City on Sunday, nothing has been won.
To borrow Brian Moore’s words of 25 years ago, the title is up for grabs now. And we all know what happened when Moore uttered that line.
For sure, after their fantastic win over City on Sunday, Liverpool are clearly now the favourites. But only narrowly.
True, their destiny is in their own hands and their form is superb. Win all their remaining games and the title is theirs, the first in more than two decades. And winning is a habit they have embraced with gusto.
Since the turn of the year they have dispatched Everton, Arsenal, Tottenham and both Manchester clubs with an aggregate score of 19-3. Ten games they have won on the bounce.
In a sequence like that, winning their last four ought to be a formality. Especially as the closing straight begins on Sunday against the crumbling Norwich, Luis Suarez’s favourite opponents, the team he can’t stop scoring hat tricks against.
And their final game is at home to Newcastle. Which must count as the easiest way imaginable to accrue maximum points.
Yet, before too many lifelong Liverpool fans emerge from the woodwork to crow about success, it is worth pointing out they are by far the least experienced of the three contenders. Only three players (Kolo Toure, Glen Johnson and Daniel Sturridge) possess even the most peripheral knowledge of what it is like to lift the trophy.
And there is one serious obstacle to premature crowing. Never mind their game with Chelsea at Anfield, Liverpool have to play away at Crystal Palace.
Four months ago that might have seemed the simplest of tasks. But that was before Tony Pulis arrived to take charge, and transformed the south London club from relegation certainties into the toughest of opponents.
Pulis has never lost a home game to Liverpool. He is precisely the sort of spoilsport who would relish mucking up the Scouse party. And points dropped in south east London would allow either Chelsea or Manchester City to ease past to take the trophy.
Chelsea have the singular advantage that they are managed by the best. If you were looking for someone to steer your club to silverware there is simply no-one better than Jose Mourinho.
Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers might be astute tacticians, they might be more pleasant company, but neither of them comes close to matching Mourinho’s record of achievement.He has done it so often, a season without a trophy (like last year with Real Madrid) is the exception.
When his side travel to Liverpool next weekend, he will have them brilliantly organised, perfectly attuned to nullifying every possible threat. Three points there and Liverpool are effectively emasculated.
Sure, it might seem ridiculous that a side without strikers could win the title. But if anyone can find a way to skip round such a problem, it is Mourinho.
Like Liverpool, however, they face a significant block in the road to success. Their game at Anfield is sandwiched between the two legs of the Champions League semi final against Atletico Madrid.
Publicly, Mourinho would insist that he is as determined to win the Premier League as he is to succeed in Europe. But given the choice, he would surely prefer to become the first manager in football history to win the European Cup with three different clubs and only the second coach after Bob Paisley to win it three times.
And there can be no doubt that the priority of his boss is the European one. That might have sufficient psychological bearing to derail his efforts in the league at Anfield.
Of course he and his players will want to win both. But at the back of their minds, there will be the inevitable thought of holding something back to ensure they make the final in Lisbon.
Mind, if Chelsea to do something at Anfield they will not be the only beneficiaries. If the two sides share the points that meeting, then it opens up the path for City.
Seven points behind Liverpool they may be, but Manuel Pelligrini’s side have two games in hand. And such is their home form, the games they have left at the Etihad – starting tonight with Sunderland, then taking in West Bromwich, West Ham and Aston Villa – are as close to a guarantee of 12 points as you can get.
But then if the title had been solely dependent on home form, City would have been crowned champions weeks ago. It has been their travel sickness which has undermined their challenge. And City have two of the toughest fixtures possible away from their Etihad redoubt.
Right now Palace and Everton represent precisely the kind of opponents you would wish to avoid in the chase for points. If City were visiting Newcastle, Hull or even their ever-more subdued neighbours, then the swag workers of Manchester could have already the presses up and running with championship memorabilia.
But without a margin for error, City simply have to win every game remaining. It is not beyond their capabilities. Theirs is, however, the toughest task.
Which is why the probability is that the title will be Liverpool’s. But I’m not putting any money on it.
The chances are, like 1989, like 2012, this race is one that could go right to the very last second.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Arsenal hold fresh Alvaro Morata transfer talks with Real Madrid about summer deal

Spanish giants are believed to be ready to sell the striker - but want option to buy him back PLUS: Benfica full-back on Wenger's radar

Mo to say: Morata's potential transfer to Arsenal is back under discussion
Arsene Wenger is set to land Alvaro Morata – as long as he and Arsenal agree to a ‘buy-back clause’.
The Gunners have held further talks with Real Madrid about Spain Under-21 striker Morata and remain hopeful about a summer transfer.
Real are believed to be ready to do business for around £8million, on the condition they can buy Morata back at a fixed price in two years’ time.
Wenger rates the player highly and sees him as a future Emirates star.
The Londoners are likely to look at a big-name purchase as well as younger players, with Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic in the frame. Nuremberg striker Josip Drmic is another target.
Arsenal have also been looking at Granada full-back Guilherme Siqueira, who is currently on loan at Benfica after being linked with Liverpool last summer.
The Mirror