The last international break of the season is complete and it comes at great time for Barcelona.
The fixture list at the beginning of the season saw the Blaugrana endure a few hiccups but the toughest tests were successfully negotiated. And by a few hiccups I mean a shock loss to newly promoted Alaves, at home, and another loss, somewhat less shocking this time, against bogey team Celta Vigo.
Regardless, Luis Enrique’s side sit second in the table only two points behind an even less impressive Real Madrid side. Barcelona have negotiated tough trips to Athletic Bilbao, Celta, Valencia and Sevilla already this season. They dropped points in only one of those games. Their two toughest away games, against Madrid and Atletico, are all that remain but visits to Real Sociedad and Villarreal should be treated with caution. While injuries remain a concern the likes of Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba are on the verge of a return and there is now enough depth to cover for Andres Iniesta in midfield.
Barcelona’s first fixture upon their return sees them host Malaga and that game presents a great chance for Paco Alcacer to finally open his account with Luis Suarez out suspended. The remaining La Liga games in the year see the Blaugrana face Sociedad(away), Real Madrid(home) Osasuna(away) Espanyol(home). Barcelona should expect maximum points from all those encounters including the Madrid game. A home and away tie against Hercules in the Copa del Rey and Champions League matches against Celtic(away) and Borussia Mochengladbach(home) complete the calendar year.
Provided there are no further major injury worries or extreme drops in form among players then Barcelona will expect to be top of league entering 2017. There are still issues for the Enrique to fix defensively and a lack of control sometimes in games that can be attributed to no Xavi and an off-form Busquets. That’s why you have MSN though, and especially Messi on his current form.
Enrique will make sure his side is focused for every game until the end of the year and that should put Barcelona in a good position when 2017 begins.
We’re halfway through the group stages of the Champions League and the Premier League are yet to receive their usual dressing down by the media. Well, Manchester City are sure to get an earful in the next couple days after the loss to Barcelona but we’ll get to that later.
As things stand Arsenal, Leicester City, Tottenham and Manchester City are all in a decent positions to progress from the group stage. Leicester are, of course, the surprise of the bunch with three wins out of three. The last time all English teams made it out of the group stages was the 2013/14 season in which Chelsea made it to the semifinals and Manchester United made it to the quarterfinals. A similar return wouldn’t be too disappointing given the respective pre-tournament doubts about Leicester and Tottenham.
Right now the most likely opponents, meaning those in first or second in each group, are Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Besiktas, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Monaco, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, FC Copenhagen, Juventus and Sevilla. Other teams within touching distance in third place include Borussia Mochengladbach, Benfica, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Lyon. Admittedly, it is easier to see who will progress after four rounds but even that isn’t a given. The Premier League clubs wouldn’t face each other in the Round of 16 regardless of position or seeding given they are from the same league and who knows what form they or their opposition will be when the tournament returns next February. While the current standings means each team would face some unwanted opponents should they reach the knockout rounds, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Atletico Madrid stand out, it would be hard to fully count them out for a variety of reasons.
Leicester have, as expected, benefited from being a top seed as champions of the Premier League and were put in a manageable group. While their domestic form leaves little to be the desired, Claudio Ranieri’s side has produced some professional performances their first time on the European stage. Progression is expected at this point and there’s a high probability they will be seeded again after finishing first. As ESPNFC’s Iain Macintosh pointed out, the club’s focus on European football is admirable but a Champions League trophy to follow-up last season’s Premier League is out of the question. Leicester could certainly compete with many of the teams still in with a chance of progression but their preseason losses to PSG and Barcelona are indicative of what would occur should they face the elite. A soft draw could lead to a Cinderella run but this side’s inexperience and lack of real quality in midfield will be their undoing. That’s not the case for Tottenham.
With two home games remaining, Tottenham could very well end up first in what is currently a very tight group. Even if they don’t, their intensity and quality will be enough to unsettle any of their more illustrious opponents. Spurs want to join the elite in the Premier League and part of that will be showing they can compete on multiple fronts. Mauricio Pochettino’s squad now has some decent depth even if they don’t have the Champions League experience of Arsenal and Manchester City. Last season’s Europa League run will be beneficial despite the disappointing end and Spurs will hope to do one better than their London rivals.
Arsenal seem to be benefitting from finishing second last season and thus having a higher seeding in the draw. Funny how that works. Paris Saint-Germain, especially this work in progress version, aren’t the most daunting nouveau-riche side to face. If the Gunners don’t pull their usual deer in the headlights performances away against Basel and Ludorogets then the home game against PSG should decide first place. Oh, what a day that would be. This Arsenal side look a lot more focused and efficient up front with Alexis Sanchez leading the line, again, no surprise there, and they may finally get over the Round of 16 hump. We hope. It may come down to how tight things are in the Premier League race in February but this is the trophy missing from Wenger’s cabinet so Arsenal will be expected to give it their all.
And lastly, Manchester City.
The 4-0 loss to Barcelona was a blow, especially when coupled with Borussia Mochengladbach’s win over Celtic, but it’s not the end of the world. Were it not for Fernandinho’s slip and Claudio Bravo’s horrendous decision the game would’ve played out differently, and there may even have been talk of Manchester City finally becoming elite. That didn’t happen but they are on the way there. City finally has a manager to make the difference on this stage in Pep Guardiola. If he continues to get his tactics right as he did against Barcelona, and the players can cut out the mistakes and step up their game, then City have the best chance of the English quartet. A draw against Barcelona at home and win against Mochengladbach in their next two games and second place is all but assured. Of course, those aren’t the targets to set but the minimum needed. This team wouldn’t be huge underdogs against the elite like their fellow Premier League sides.
There’s no telling what’s in store for any of these teams with the group stages not finished but anything can happen. Of course, they could render all the above thoughts useless by failing to progress in the tournament but the odds do seem in their favour. Arsenal and City will expect to progress further given their experience and the quality in their squads. Both Tottenham and Leicester can revel in the fact that they are lesser know quantities, as much as can be in this digital age, and can use that to their advantage.
It’s unlikely that more than one of these teams will make it to the semifinal but stranger things have happened. The Champions League its still in infancy but these might turn out to be a good season for the Premier League clubs.
My piece for the Boot Room and Unai Emery at Paris Saint-Germain
Paris Saint-Germain have been one of the surprises of the season so far, and not in a good way. The French champions sit third in the Ligue 1 table and second in their Champions League group. It may just be October but there has been cause for concern already this season.
When a team goes through as summer of changes as PSG did then a bedding in period can be expected. Except, when you are PSG, winners of four straight Ligue 1 titles and spenders of countless Euros, that bedding in period is almost nil.
Laurent Blanc departed after his failure to progress in the Champions League and Unai Emery took his place. Add to that the departure of talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and his winning mentality, as well as David Luiz’s regular presence in defense and Emery has had a lot to contend with early on.
Still, a squad with this quality, and without much turnover in key departments, would expect to be humming along business as usual in a league they’ve dominated in the last few seasons. That hasn’t been the case.
Losses to Monaco and Toulouse as well as a draw with St. Etienne has already seen PSG lose some of its invincible aura domestically. Things aren’t much different on the continent either as Les Parisiens failed to finish off Arsenal and had to come from behind against Ludogorets in the Champions League amid some up and down performances. Of the key arrivals, only Thomas Meunier and Gregorz Krychowiak have contributed positively while Jese and Hatem Ben Arfa have yet to make an impact.
Those in charge at PSG wanted to head in a different direction and after Blanc’s tenure and Emery was certainly a good choice for that. The Spaniard has shown himself to be a very capable manager during stints with two of Spain’s storied clubs, Valencia and Sevilla. His three consecutive Europa League titles while at Sevilla would have played a major role in his appointment given PSG’s focus on European success. Yet, unlike Blanc, who won a title with Bordeaux before his stint at PSG, Emery has found silverware hard to come by domestically. While Blanc was perfectly fine continuing his predecessor’s work with some minor fine-tuning, with much success it must be added, Emery was to represent a significant change in style and mentality.
The Spaniard started the season trying to implement the 4-2-3-1 system he used at Sevilla but in recent games he has reverted to the 4-3-3 the side used under Blanc. Emery places less focus on possession and more on pressure of the ball than Blanc, and it seemed this was the way forward. According to Bleacher Report, several key players took issue with some of Emery’s tactical ideas which then led to the return to Blanc’s system.
While the formation may not have been the main issue Emery has put himself in a tough position. His acquiescence to the player’s preference weakens his position with a group of players used to winning a certain way. Conversely, a manager of his capabilities should see that a possession-based approach matched with his pressing would make PSG a more formidable prospect regardless of formation. If he can get the players to buy into both approaches then success should follow.
One positive for the Spaniard is the recent form of Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan has started to knock in the goals in a fashion similar to his Napoli days but, as shown by his display against Arsenal, there’s still a case of the yips in big moments and games. He has dealt with one of his major arrivals, Ben Arfa, quite strictly, something that may not have occurred under Blanc judging by his handling of Serge Aurier’s actions earlier this year.
The former Sevilla manager must be mindful that he’s in a different situation altogether, where increased expectations and egos mean much more will be demanded of him on and off the pitch. His three consecutive Europa League titles represent both a gift and a curse in that respect. While Sevilla dominated that competition, Emery has never done particularly well in the Champions League, PSG’s holy grail, while at Sevilla or Valencia. In fact, he’s failed to get past the Round of 16 with either side and was knocked out in the group stage last season with an abysmal record of two wins and four losses.
It may seem harsh to judge a manager so quickly into his reign but that is the status quo in football these days. Those in charge at PSG have spent millions to ensure their club becomes on of the biggest in the world. With that comes massive, and sometimes unrealistic, expectations. Emery has proved his capabilities with two of Spain’s well-known clubs but he faces a different beast here. His appointment, much like the transfers brought in after him, generated more curiosity than excitement.
Now it’s time for him to show that he’s up to the job.
Kind of amusing that everyone, myself included, wanted the Greeks to lose so badly. Good for them though.
They’ve bored me at times but still good to see Uruguay’s resurgence in recent years. They could get to another level if they didn’t rely on Luis Suarez so much. They’ve struggled in tournaments without him and that might continue in this Copa.
The Copa America Centenario starts tomorrow, June 3rd, and as we can see there’s plenty to talk about. We’ll do another similar big post before the Euros begin on June 10th even though there’s plenty of stuff already out there.
We’ll just touch on the articles below but they’re all worth a read. The fact that this is a centennial celebration tournament that occurs a year after the “real thing” does seem to take some glamour away from it but it’s still big.
I doubt Klinsmann will do much experimenting in this tournament, beyond trying the players he feel can make a difference if needed such as Nagbe and Pulisic. The US need a good performance in this tournament. It’s crazy to think that Rodriguez would need this tournament to alter what’s been a really bad season but that’s where he is. It’s also strange that this really could be Messi’s best shot at an international trophy. (I’m assuming Chile will still be the Confederations Cup representative regardless of who wins because they won the “real thing”.) We can hold out hope for 2018 but it’s tough to see Argentina repeating their 2014 feat in Russia. Brazil are trying to be low-key about things but this is big for Dunga. He may not be in the seat for the Olympics of Brazil fall flat. I wouldn’t mind that to be honest.
Looking forward to a great tournament.
Absolutely brilliant read. Oh, what a team that would have been. As the author said, none of this is to trivialize the horrific actions and effects of wars in Yugoslavia but from a purely sporting perspective one can’t help but wonder what might have been.
Nice read here. I liked that Turkey team from the 2002 World Cup and I think this side could do something similar. Good to see them back in a major tournament.
France are one of the national teams I like to support and I really like this group. Good piece here on what this tournament would mean for them and the country. I do hope they win it, and it’s a strong possibility, but overcoming Spain and Germany will be tough.
Good piece here on the Euro 2016 teams. Spot on with all the arguments presented. All the teams re being finalized today so we’ll see what happens. The article below gives compelling argument for both Rashford and Sturridge to be included. Maybe that’s what will happen. I can understand the author’s argument that Spain still finding its way stylistically since the World Cup but that’s been the case for all of qualifying. I think they’ll be okay.