(I liked Villarreal back in the days of Manuel Pelligrini and Riquelme. Glad to see them doing well again) My Thoughts on The Matter Along With A Nice Piece from ESPN FC
Villarreal are one step closer to a European final after their 1-0 victory over Liverpool.
The Yellow Submarines have been on an upward trajectory ever since returning to La Liga in 2013/14. Long-time owner, Fernando Roig, has established a structure that allowed them to quickly bounce back from relegation and may soon reap the rewards.
Villarreal are now fourth in La Liga and have one foot in the Europa League final after the win against Liverpool. Either winning the Europa League or solidifying fourth place would result in a return to the Champions League. Achieving both would further cement the club’s remarkable resurgence.
The Yellow Submarine finished sixth in La Liga in 2013/14 and 2014/15, with a trip to the Copa del Rey semifinal’s and a Round of 16 exit also occurring last season. They’ve improved their fortunes in Europe this season while facing even tougher opposition. The road to the semifinals included ties against Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen, two sides who certainly have the quality to be in their position. Results have been equally if not more impressive domestically. Wins against Valencia and Atletico Madrid in the last few seasons were coupled with a fantastic 1-1 tie at the Bernabeu with arguably a second string side. This season has seen them add Sevilla and Real Madrid to the list of the vanquished while handing Atletico one of their few defeats. Only Barcelona continues to find a way to elude them. The days of relegation are long forgotten.
Manager, Marcelino Toral, has built an organized, resilient team capable of some good football.
It’s reminiscent of the early 2000’s with Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, though there’s less creativity in attack. The Argentinian manager called upon the likes of Riquelme, Diego Forlan, Marcos Senna, Joan Capdevila, Santi Cazorla and Cani, as well as a few others, during his time at the club. A 2005/06 Champions League semifinal was arguably the highlight but there’s no doubting getting second place in 2007/08 was up there as well.
Now the club has veterans like Roberto Soldado and Bruno Soriano to go with talents such as Jonathan Dos Santos, Mateo Musacchio, Eric Bailly, Denis Suarez and Cedric Bakambu. In Sergio Asenjo they have a goalkeeper that, were it not for injuries, would’ve battled David de Gea to replace Iker Casillas as Spain’s goalkeeper. The mixture of youth and experience has been a constant throughout Roig’s time in charge, and so has the approach on the field. This current crop may lack some of the incisive finishing and outright playmaking ability of Pellegrini’s side but the talent is there for all to see.
The tie against Liverpool wasn’t a perfect display but, in keeping the English side and smartly dealing what could be a killer blow at the end, the Yellow Submarines showed just what they are capable of.
The club’s ascendance may continue with the return to the Champions League but things can change quickly in football. Villarreal will never be able to compete financially with their more illustrious La Liga opponents, and the financial boom in the Premier League means anyone can fall prey to those teams. Holding unto key personnel, manager included, will be extremely important heading into next season.
With the first leg complete, Villarreal now turns its attention to what will be a tough battle against a renewed Valencia side. That game at the Mestalla will be vital not just for the three points at stake. Villarreal has suffered some of it’s worst defeats away from home, losing 3-0 to both Barcelona and Real Madrid along with a slightly embarrassing 2-0 loss to Getafe. Gaining a positive result against Los Che will give the players confidence they can get a similar result at Anfield a few days later. That would be another in a long list of impressive results.
The Yellow Submarine have risen from depths in the past and are on the rise again.
My piece for the Boot Room on the Champions League and Europa League semifinals. I don’t think there’s one clear winner for either. We are in for, hopefully, some really good football.
The Champions League and Europa League return this week and nothing is guaranteed. Manchester City play Real Madrid while Bayern Munich face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. The Europa League sees Liverpool take on Villarreal as Sevilla battle Shaktar Donetsk. Each tournament has its favourites but their competitors are just as likely to progress. Each tie has its own fascinating tactical battles and the story lines for each team to consider as well. Barcelona’s defeat at the hands of Atletico mean that Bayern are the favourites for the Champions League. It’s certainly ironic that they face the team best-placed to stop them short of that goal.
Bayern will expect to dominate any of these teams in possession but the level of defensive intensity they face against Atletico will be huge test – just ask Barcelona. Pep Guardiola certainly has the options to match Diego Simeone’s team physically but the Spaniard won’t want to deviate from his preferred method of play unless absolutely necessary. Atletico are one of the few sides that are well-prepared to give up possession as part of their game plan yet pose a dangerous threat in attack. If the likes of Antoine Griezmann or Fernando Torres make the most of their chances then Atletico could be headed for another upset. The worry for the Spaniards is that too much focus on defensive endeavours will leave them toothless in attack. Bayern may well have preferred to face Real Madrid or Manchester City despite their more potent attacking threats as both have had their defensive issues this season.
The tie between City and Real Madrid could be an open affair. City may be more comfortable with the ball in their possession, but their performances against Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round show just how potent they can be on the counter, especially with Kevin De Bruyne leading the way. Madrid have been in really good form since the victory over Barcelona in the most recent Clasico. A comeback victory against Wolfsburg in the recent round and domestically against Rayo Vallecano this past weekend means Zinedine Zidane’s side will be full of confidence. Madrid haven’t particularly impressed when favoured to win a tie, as their victories over Wolfsburg and Roma could well have ended up in defeat with better performances from their opponents, but City will like being the underdog. Throw in Manuel Pellegrini’s interest in getting one over the club that unceremoniously let him go, and they most certainly will not lack motivation.
The Europa League is Europe’s second tier competition but there was some quality play in the knock-out rounds. The four teams in the semi-finals were key to that quality and deserving of their current position. Sevilla will be favourites, they are looking for a third straight tournament victory after all, but there’s plenty to be excited about as the tournament comes to a close.
Sevilla face a winner of the predecessor of the Europa League; the UEFA Cup, in a Shakhtar side that had become much more accustomed to life in the Champions League. Their experience in that competition, generally reach the knockout rounds, has shown in their run to the semifinals. Attacking talents such as Taison, Wellington Nem and Bernard along with experienced heads such as Darijo Srna and Eduardo make them tough opposition. Sevilla will be well-prepared with Unai Emery at the helm but this has the looks of a very tight tie.
Nobody would have seen Liverpool and Villarreal as European semi-finalists at the beginning of the season. Jurgen Klopp has come in and transformed this Liverpool side, culminating in 4-3 second leg victory of Borussia Dortmund that vaulted them to this stage. Marcelino Toral’s Villarreal has progressed well in the last few seasons domestically, and are now reaping those rewards on the European stage. It will be the case of a well-organised, tactically sound Villarreal side against Liverpool’s ‘heavy metal’ football. Surely, it will be fun to watch and we are in for a feast of football.
All the semi-finalists are going through relatively good periods of form or recently picked up vital confidence-building results. Each team also has defining story-lines playing a part in their motivation.
Liverpool and City will feel the pressure of carrying the torch of the Premier League, having seen the league dramatically under-perform in recent seasons. A trip to the final would be a solid platform for a Liverpool resurgence while City will want to truly join the European elite. Shakhtar Donetsk have plenty of European experience but have ultimately failed to have success. Sevilla chase history while Bayern Munich look; hopefully, to repeat it and cement Guardiola’s legacy at the club. Atletico will want further vindication that their approach will work while Madrid can improve upon an astounding European legacy. Villarreal will see this as another step forward in their return to upper level of La Liga.
The final four of the Champions League and the Europa League will provide plenty of excitement. Despite supposed favourites, no team is a clear winner of their tie or the tournament. We’ve seen what happened to the teams previously in that category, Barcelona in the Champions League and Dortmund in the Europa League. European club football is considered the best in the world and the challengers in the continent’s two premier competitions have a chance to prove just that.
And another piece of mine on Atletico Madrid and Their Problems in Attack
Atletico Madrid fans will breathe sighs of relief upon seeing their club return to the Champions League quarterfinals once more. This is Atletico’s third consecutive season appearing in the quarterfinals, adding strength to their growing claim as one of Europe’s best teams.
It took more than three hours for Atletico to breach PSV Eindhoven in their Round of 16 clash. That moment came in the form of Antoine Griezmann‘s penalty in the penalty shootout. Atletico, the favorites to progress, never truly lived up to the billing in either leg.
Diego Simeone has, quite appropriately, been praised in many corners for revitalizing the Spanish club. Atletico did the unthinkable in winning La Liga two seasons ago while making it to the Champions League final. The 2014-15 season saw a bit of sophomore slump, but Los Rojiblancos are back again, keeping things somewhat competitive in La Liga and returning to the latter stages of club football’s elite competition.
Despite these successes, the fact remains that Atletico will never be truly elite unless their attacking style improves.
Simeone has built a team in his image. Hard-working, tenacious, passionate, team-oriented and with a never-say-die attitude. Atletico have quality footballers in every department, yet they are still better in the underdog role. Tasked as they were against PSV, with the aim of controlling both games, Simeone’s charges mainly failed to sparkle. There were chances aplenty, especially for golden boy Fernando Torres and new talisman Greizmann, but it never seemed that PSV were ever really threatened. The images of Simeone consistently active and flailing his arms on the sideline, waving the crowd on and yelling “vamos” suggested a manager who could think of little else to get past a well-organized opponent.
Passion, hard work and teamwork can get you so far, but a clinical edge or useful strategy in attack is needed to be truly elite. When the usual avenues, counter-attacks and set-pieces in this case are closed, then a team needs something more. Atletico are still missing that. They are one clinical striker away from being truly feared across Europe. Torres used to be that player, and Griezmann seems to be heading down that path so there is some hope. In the interim, Simeone needs to get his side to the point where controlling games comes as naturally as playing the underdog.
Atletico did not have full control in either leg, and the failure to score against 10-men in latter part of the first leg showcased their weakness. The Spanish side did create chances, but the failure to find the finishing touch almost came back to haunt them.
Simeone does have the tools at his disposal to produce a team that is dominant in both aspects. Griezmann and Torres are backed by the likes of Koke, Saul and Oliver Torres in midfield. All those players possess the unique blends of creativity, skill and vision necessary, and Gabi, too, possesses the ability to play in a more refined manner. Atletico need not alter their hardened mental attributes but further progress requires, well, progress.
It matters little now.
Atletico head into the quarterfinals likely to regain their underdog status given the teams they will face. The majority of teams remaining will prefer to control the ball. That means Atletico can get back to their best, harrying teams that prefer possession and delivering the killer blow when given the chance. Simeone will need to go back to the drawing board when the summer comes, though. Many thought this season would result in a change in style for the Argentine manager’s squad considering the recruits brought in. That didn’t occur, but these two games against PSV, and indeed last season’s tight Round of 16 clash with Bayer Leverkusen, means that process needs to happen sooner than later.
Simeone has gotten his charges to this point by harboring a mentality and style very much in the mold of Simeone the player. Having shared the pitch with the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron and Youri Djorkaeff, among others, he knows there is more his players can do. He will need to add that level of control and creativity to his squad if he is to really put Atletico among the elite.
And we’re back. Here’s my piece for the Boot Room on John Obi Mikel minus pictures.
Ten years have passed since one of the most dramatic transfer sagas in football.
John Obi Mikel, then an 18-year-old star in the making, was the main protagonist. Manchester United were reportedly set to sign the Nigerian youngster from Lyn Oslo in the summer of 2005. That began a year-long saga involving tales of agreements made without consent, rival clubs, Chelsea in this case, “kidnappings” and, finally, a year later, resolution. The inner details of the saga are quite intriguing and could even make for a small movie. That is of much less importance than where we are today in Mikel’s journey though.
Mikel, now 28, has played his entire senior career with Chelsea. Whether or not that was the right decision remains to be seen.
The Nigerian midfielder has a trophy haul that is surely the envy of many of his colleagues. Yet, some would venture to wonder how he even got such accolades at all. He has, after all, never been the standout player for any successful Chelsea side. He has been efficient and generally solid when called upon but never more than a squad man. Or maybe this is a common misconception given that in Jose Mourinho’s most recent stint in charge you almost forgot he played for the Blues.
Mikel has played for Chelsea over 350 times so he must have done something right. In his almost 10 years at the club he has become almost as much a part of the tapestry as the homegrown John Terry, and is the second longest-serving player in the side. He’ll have the number one spot when Terry leaves this summer. Third-string goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, also homegrown, has been around as long as Mikel but only ever entered the first-team setup in 2012.
Still, Mikel’s recent comments about life under second-time interim manager, Guus Hiddink, speaks volumes. He hasn’t felt part of the team in the last few seasons and being trusted by the Dutch manager has lifted his confidence. Indeed, it has been a surprise to see him constantly in the lineup nowadays. Which is strange considering his high number of appearances suggest he was, more often than not, a regular.
The numerous trophies garnered during his time at the club detracts from one important question, though. Would Mikel have been a different player, a better player, had he signed for Manchester United?
Before “Mikel-gate” he was regarded as an extremely talented attacking midfielder. Incisive passes, quality service from crossing and some nifty dribbling were in his arsenal. His level of play was such that he was acknowledged as the second best player at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The first? A fellow named Lionel Messi. Fans of the Super Eagles were hopeful the nation found a new talisman to replace the departing Jay-Jay Okocha. The news that two big name clubs were interested in his services would only have heightened that optimism. If only. What we now see at Chelsea, in the moments he’s been on the pitch is a very bland defensive midfielder.
Mikel does the simple things well and has been used by Hiddink to add, as the Dutch coach says, some balance to the side. Simple passes are the norm, assists are rare, goals even rarer, tackles are crucial and positional discipline is essential. Mikel does produce more adventurous passing at times but that’s as creative as it gets for the Nigerian. He is capable of so much more.
The Chelsea squad he joined in 2006 already had attacking talents such as Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. The likes of Michael Ballack and Michael Essien could fill box-to-box roles. Who did Jose Mourinho decide was to be young Mikel’s mentor? Claude Makelele. The Frenchman was the world’s best defensive midfielder at the time and Mourinho presumably saw Mikel as his heir.
Though Mourinho left a season after, none of the seven managers to arrive since his departure saw fit to use Mikel elsewhere, including Hiddink. It seemed a different path would’ve been in store for Mikel at Manchester United.
The Red Devils were in need of, and arguably still need, a replacement for Paul Scholes. Mikel showcased the requisite attributes to fulfil that role. Michael Carrick had arrived in 2006 to replace Roy Keane in defensive midfield while Owen Hargreaves arrival in the next season. That meant Mikel would have been used elsewhere. The arrival of Brazilian boy wonder, Anderson, in 2007 may have prompted some competition but Mikel would have had a head start.
In hindsight, Mikel could very well have blossomed into Paul Pogba, before Paul Pogba. He had the physical tools and the necessary skill but never received the direction.
Nigerian fans are treated to glimpses of the creative Mikel when he plays for the Super Eagles. He is unshackled from his Chelsea duties and performs the role of creator-in-chief for his nation. His recent performances at the 2013, African Cup of Nations, 2013 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup provided further evidence of a talent mismanaged. His well-taken goal against Uruguay in the Confederations Cup both delights and saddens as it reveals just what Mikel could be capable of. His 73 caps show just how important he is to his country.
Only Mikel will know if regrets ending up in London.
Eleven trophies in almost 10 seasons represents great success. Manchester United picked up 14 in the same period. The 28-year-old defensive midfielder is now in his prime and at somewhat of a crossroads. He could wait and see what his role is with Chelsea’s new manager. Or, he could venture out and hopefully find a new lease on life with a chance to express himself fully.
It’s official. Arsenal are headed to the Europa League.
Okay, maybe that’s a premature conclusion. They are, after all, bottom of their Champions League table with a massive zero points. It seems more likely that there won’t be any Europe at all after December. Progress at it’s finest.
Still, it is more likely that the Gunners will at least make the Europa League spot at this stage.
Bayern Munich has the group wrapped up and should really make it six wins out of six even when Pep Guardiola decides to have Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer switch positions mid-game for the hell of it. Arsenal, because this is just simply how the Arsenal works, should get six points in their last two games. Just enough to make it seem like they may get second place. The hope will that be that one of Olympiakos or Dinamo Zagreb gets less than three points from here on out.
While those two exchange notes on how easy it was to beat Arsenal and, hopefully, take points off each other, the Gunners have to deal with Bayern Munich.
Grabbing a point off the German giants should be seen as victory and if all goes horribly wrong for the other two, draw their two games and lose to Bayern again, then second place is a possibility for Arsenal. That would leave the Gunners with seven points and those two with five presuming all the other results end up as previously stated. There’s little chance of that though. In this scenario, it would have been better had one of these first two losses come against the German giants. Now Arsenal has to face Bayern back-to-back in the two games they’ll be wanting to ensure qualification for the next round before cruising to first place in the next two.
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich then Bayern vs. Arsenal. Sound familiar? Not in a good way for the Gunners. Arsenal fans, at least the more optimistic ones, will state the club still has a chance and shouldn’t give up so easily despite the consensus being otherwise. Sure, the Gunners shouldn’t give up but realistically the chances of progression are slim.
There’s no point talking about how the Gunners got to this point. Those issues have been beaten to death during the last few seasons. The recent losses to Dinamo Zagreb, Chelsea and now Olympiakos have only managed to highlight those weaknesses even more. There is
So, on to the Europa League and a new exciting adventure from the most enigmatic team in all of Europe.
Dare it be said that this side has the quality to go all the way. Not to mention they won’t have to suffer the ignominy, as far as English clubs are concerned, of those brutal group stages. Arsenal should make the most of a Europa League campaign if occurs. If being pretty close to when in this instance. A strong squad and good selections would make the Gunners big favorites. The Premier League is so topsy-turvy this season that a top four place is still very much on the cards so there’s no excuses in terms of selection. And no, the title was never a possibility. If disaster strikes domestically then a win in the Europa League assures a spot in the next season’s Champions League. It would be highly disappointing if the club doesn’t win it.
Arsenal will face no shortage of quality teams on such a journey should it occur. Their fellow Champions League failures and a host of solid sides already in the Europa League, oh hello Monaco, should make sure of that. Maybe, just maybe it may even entice Alexis Sanchez to stay. Maybe.
Oh, to be an Arsenal fan.
My piece for RantSports Predicting the Group Winners for the Champions League
AC Milan and Inter Milan faced off in an early-season version of the Milan Derby.
Inter, hosts on the night, came out on top 1-0 courtesy of a Fredy Guarin strike. It was well deserved. Inter were the better team from start to finish and now have three wins out of three. Milan suffered their second loss of the season and have plenty to ponder.
A summer of upheaval in both camps generated some much-needed excitement before the season began. Rather than rebuild from the ground up, both Milan and Inter waded into the transfer market to speed up their recovery. The fact that neither team will take part in European competition didn’t dissuade the likes of Carlos Bacca, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Stevan Jovetic from joining.
While both sides made some solid moves, it remained to be seen just how well they would work out. Inter, it seems, are ahead of their rivals.
The home side were better in all thirds of the pitch. The match was generally controlled by an Inter midfield fielding three new signings in Felipe Melo, Ivan Perisic and the aforementioned Kondogbia. Elsewhere on the pitch, Jeison Muirillo stood tall for Inter in defense and Stevan Jovetic was again a menace in attack. The same couldn’t be said for most of their opponents. For the third game running, Milan’s midfield were second best, and the attack and defense suffered as a result.
A mixture of questionable selections, substitutions and under-performances from new signings played a part in all that. With the two sides playing a similar formation, the battle for control in midfield was even more important. That makes some of the personnel decisions even more baffling for Milan.
An injury to new midfielder Andrea Bertolacci meant one change was necessary, but Nigel De Jong stayed on the bench for Milan when his physicality and defensive nous was needed. Instead, Sinisa Mihajlovic chose the trio of Riccardo Montolivo, Juraj Kucka, another new signing, and Gaicomo Bonaventura. That group didn’t have the requisite power to match Inter’s midfield, and the fact that Inter’s Melo controlled the game says it all. Kucka and Bonaventura both tried to make things happen, but both came up short in their individual duels, or failed with their end product.
Montolivo spent more time trying to track the movements of Jovetic and Perisic than being the creative force Milan needed from deep. That problem was exacerbated by the fact that Keisuke Honda was almost non-existent in the attacking midfield role. The lack of defensive protection Montolivo provided was evident as Guarin was sent on his way to score the eventual winner. Montolivo didn’t put himself in a good position to intercept the pass to Guarin and failed to catch up to the Colombian before he unleashed his shot.
With the lack of service from midfield, newly signed forwards Luiz Adriano and Carlos Bacca were left to fend for themselves. Bacca, surprisingly, took on the role of creator with two great passes for his partner. Adriano then contrived to miss those chances and was otherwise anonymous minus some tireless running. Those things considered, it was strange to see Adriano last the full 90 minutes while Bacca was substituted.
All these issues meant an easier time for an Inter side also adjusting to new players. There was one positive for Mijhalovic, though.
Mario Balotelli‘s introduction midway through the second half almost turned the game for Milan. The enigmatic forward immediately became Milan’s biggest threat. A couple of skillful dribbles and a few rasping shots to test Samir Handanovic led to increased interest from Inter’s defense. Balotelli showed in his cameo that he could be the man to play behind the two forwards, even hustling defensively a few times. If this is the Balotelli that Milan are getting, then he will be key to their hopes of success.
With no Europe to contend with, and added time to prepare in between games, the midfield issues should be rectified. According to WhoScored, Milan has an average of 47.6 percent possession each game. That needs to be fixed. Mihajlovic may continue to experiment, but some decisions will be easier than others. What to do with Balotelli will be one of those tough questions. If he can keep him engaged, then it’s possible he has the man he needs to spark the attack. It won’t make a difference if the midfield doesn’t work though.