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Champions League Final Preview

May 27, 2011 2 comments

By Harpreet S Dhaliwal

After the 2010-11 Champions League started rather unspectacularly on 29th June 2010 with the forfeited match between FC Santa Coloma and Birkirkara, I, for one, am glad that the Wembley showpiece final has the potential to provide a fitting end to the biggest club competition in the World as Manchester United face Barcelona. Both clubs have recently been crowned domestic Champions in the ‘best’ two leagues for the past five or so years (based on numbers of semi-finalists each of the leagues has provided in that period). This match also offers us the opportunity to see the greatest ever club manager do battle with arguably the greatest ever club team.

These two clubs are very well matched in several ways: both have a rich footballing history; both share the same footballing philosophy – outplay the opposition with attractive football rather than roll out the team bus; both share an inherent trust in the products of their academies; both of them have won the Champions League / European Cup on three occasions; and both share a European love affair with Wembley. In 1968, Bobby Charlton lifted Manchester United’s maiden European Cup. It was a similar story for Barcelona 24 years later, when a certain Josep Guardiola helped Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ to win the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

Unfortunately for one of them, this Wembley love affair will come to an end on Saturday.

The Greatest, defined

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

The fact that Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to become the most successful manager in English domestic history, despite reportedly nearly being sacked in January 1990, and continue to be in charge of Manchester United 21 years later is no accident. The fact that he has won every major club honour with Manchester United at least twice is no accident. The fact that Fergie has done it all and continues to get the most out of a side that were unfancied by many, including me, at the start of the season is no accident. It has been achieved through, inter alia, a complete overhaul at Manchester United; through faith in his youth players; and through exceptional man-management.

Sir Alex Ferguson will be hoping to lay his hands on the Champions League trophy for a third time (This image is the property of The Daily Telegraph)

Club Team: Barcelona’s current side

This Barcelona team, under Pep Guardiola, has won the league in five of the last seven years and for the past three seasons. Only Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team has won four in a row, which is detailed much better than I could ever explain in this article by Sid Lowe. This team has completed an unprecedented Spanish Treble. This team has managed to keep the fired up New Galácticos of Real Madrid – managed by Jose Mourinho, who is still cruelly referred to as ‘The Interpreter’  following his role at Barcelona under Sir Bobby Robson – from winning both the league and progressing past the Semi-Finals of the Champions League this season. This team is good. Pretty, pretty good.

Road to the Final

After ambling through the group stages, each has been tested alternatively in the knock-out stages on the road to Wembley. United had to play Marseille, who are a team very much on the rise; whilst Barcelona were up against Arsenal, a side desperate for revenge after having been humiliated by a Lionel Messi four-goal haul in the previous campaign. Whilst United coasted through, Barcelona had to overcome a 2-1 deficit from the first leg to beat an Arsenal side, who came extremely close to causing an upset.

In the Quarter-Finals, the tables were turned: Barcelona overcame Shakhtar Donetsk comfortably, whilst United had to come through a much sterner test in the shape of Chelsea.

Again, the Semi-Finals saw another swing in the difficulty of opposition. United got the kind draw of facing a Schalke side, which was widely regarded in Germany as one which had peaked in knocking out reigning champions Internazionale and were now out of
their depth. Barcelona earned the right to fight Mourinho’s Real Madrid for the chance to get to the final. It was not a pretty contest, with preposterous allegations and mind-games rather taking the gloss off the football, but one in which the better side ultimately prevailed.

Recent Head to Head History

Whilst most people seem to think – or at least give the impression – that football started in 2009 when Barcelona beat United in the final, they seem to forget that in 2008 a certain Paul Scholes scored a screamer to knock Barcelona out on United’s way to winning the trophy. The most impressive part of that United display was their defence, which managed to keep Barcelona from scoring in both matches.

The 2009 final is remembered by many as the one in which United were played off the park; however, few recall that it was only an
outstanding block from Gerard Pique which prevented Park Ji-Sung from putting United 1-0 up within a minute. After that though, as even Sir Alex admitted, Barcelona were dominant and ended up deservedly taking the trophy.

A few things worth noting here are: that Barcelona are a much better side than they were in 2008, when they finished third in La Liga, 18 points off the pace; and United will not give Barcelona as much time as they did in 2009. I fully expect them to play more aggressively and more attacking football than they did that day and to try to take the game to Barcelona in the same way that they did against Chelsea a few of weeks ago when they effectively wrapped up the Premier League title.

Form coming into the final

Ever since the clásico series of 4 matches in “19 incredibly tough days”  (Guardiola), Barcelona has looked like a team which has played a lot of football over the past few years with seven members of this side playing key roles in the victorious Spanish World Cup winning side last summer. Wrapping up the league title with two games to spare has, however, afforded Barcelona the luxury of resting several of these vital cogs in their machine. It had the unfortunate side effect of meaning that a certain Mr Messi was displaced at the summit of the scoring charts; that accolade was taken by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored an incredible, not to mention record, 40 goals in La Liga.

All eyes will be on the world's best player, Lionel Messi (This image is the property of The Daily Telegraph)

United come in on the ultimate high. After a potentially demoralising defeat against Arsenal at the start of May, they ended Chelsea’s late charge for the league with a comprehensive win at Old Trafford. A cause helped by virtue of their emphatic away  victory in Germany against Schalke, which allowed them to play a reserve side against them in the Old Trafford return leg. They then drew with Blackburn to seal an unprecedented 19th English league title and in the end won the league by an impressive nine points from Chelsea and their “Noisy Neighbours”, Manchester City.

Barcelona ended their season with an astounding goal difference of +74. Their supposedly dodgy defence having only conceded a miserly 21 goals in the league; whereas United’s normally assured defence has conceded an average of just under a goal a game – 37 in 38 games. Whether or not this figure is skewed by the relative strengths of the league is a debate for another day. One thing is certain: Barcelona’s defence will be tested by United this Saturday in a way that few other teams have managed to do in La Liga this season.

Key Players / Battles

I am not going to focus on the obvious talents of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi; but, rather, a potential problem area for Barcelona – their left-back position. Ever since Eric Abidal’s cancerous tumour was diagnosed (and successfully removed), Barcelona have been playing Carles Puyol as a makeshift left back with Javier Mascherano in the middle of the back four. I do not think this will be the wisest move against the threat of the Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia who recently dominated Ashley Cole, who has arguably been the best left-back in the world for several years. How well Abidal copes – if he plays – with Valencia’s pace and trickery will be crucial to Barcelona’s chances in this match, especially with Javier Hernandez around to get on the end of any crosses. Hernandez has been crucial to United’s success in the latter part of this season. He has, of course, scored lots of crucial goals, but his biggest asset to the team has been that he has, more crucially, allowed Wayne Rooney to play in his favoured withdrawn role where he can fizz Hollywood passes around the pitch, get involved in the match and find pockets of space in which to operate, all the while knowing that Hernandez has the guile to be able to keep good defenders sufficiently occupied.

Both defences will need to be wary of the opposition’s attacking instincts and will encounter different problems to those with which they are used to dealing.

Barcelona’s defence is not the fastest and might struggle with the pace at which United can counter attack. Carles Puyol will be instrumental at organising his colleagues to ensure they can curb the threat of Valencia, Park, Hernandez and Rooney on the break.

United’s defence, led by the exceptional Nemanja Vidic, is very good in the air but are less at ease when faced with players with quick feet, as demonstrated by Liverpool’s Luiz Suarez in March. Players like Iniesta, Messi, Villa and Pedro will be exactly what
United will not want to face. Whichever of the da Silva twins plays will have his hands full dealing with the aforementioned Barcelona roamers and will have to ensure he keeps a level head as both are prone to a wild tackle or two.

As is often the case, the game seems as though it will be won in midfield – whoever can better service their strike force will win.

This was where, to my mind, United fell down in 2009. They did not close down Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. They gave them too much time on the ball. They showed them too much respect. True, if you lunge in against these guys, they will make a mug of you more often than not. However, Paul Scholes showed within five minutes of coming on exactly what the United midfielders needed to do much sooner – make a tackle and let them know they are in a game. Barcelona have got even better at keeping the ball since then and have managed to retain an unbelievable 70% possession in several games this season with midfield maestro Xavi managing to complete over 100 passes in several matches – a phenomenal achievement.

United will, as in 2009, miss Darren Fletcher for this game – he has not recovered sufficiently from his virus – and he is a man Ferguson trusts on the big occasion. In his absence, much will depend on the resurgent Michael Carrick, who will be most likely to play alongside the evergreen Ryan Giggs in the centre of the park, flanked by the aforementioned Park and Valencia, whose work rates will help United to deal with Barcelona’s tika-taka football and might also prevent the marauding Daniel Alves from having too much influence on the game.

Prediction

I expect Barcelona to emerge victorious in a well-contested, exciting, open match by a margin of 3 goals to 1.

Categories: Guest Blogs

‘You’ll win nothing with kids.’ Stimmt nicht.

May 15, 2011 Leave a comment

When BBC football pundit Alan Hansen boldly proclaimed ‘you’ll win nothing with kids’ back in 1995, little did he know just how wrong he was. As everybody is aware, the ‘kids’ of whom he spoke (Beckham, Neville, Scholes etc) proved the former Liverpool defender spectacularly wrong as they powered their way to a league and cup double. Less well publicised however, has been the inexorable rise of Jürgen Klopp’s young Borussia Dortmund team, the newly crowned champions of Germany.

Die Schwarzgelben have unquestionably been the best team in the Bundesliga this term, sealing the club’s first title in nine years with two games to spare and eventually winning by a comfortable margin of seven points. Rather than assembling a squad of costly superstars, the club’s leadership opted (partly out of financial necessity) to place great faith in youth and how it has paid dividends. A look at Dortmund’s regular starters shows just how young this team is. Star man Mario Götze is only 18 years old, whilst Nuri Şahin, Sven Bender, Kevin Großkreutz, Shinji Kagawa, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski are all aged just 22. Add in 23 year old Marcel Schmelzer and it quickly becomes apparent why Dortmund’s title winning team is the youngest in Bundesliga history with an average age of just 24 years and 2 months. Even those considered to be the more experienced members of the team, such as Lucas Barrios (25), Lukasz Piszczek (25) and Florian Kringe (28) are relatively young. At the age of 33, Dede (who is leaving the club this summer) is a full two years older than the next oldest player.

Jürgen Klopp (left) and Michael Zorc's (right) faith in youth has paid dividends in the form of Borussia Dortmund's seventh league title (This image is the property of Maxppp)

The club has assembled such a team by both bringing youngsters through its own academy (Nuri Şahin, Mario Götze) and acquiring top young talent from elsewhere (Shinji Kagawa- Cerezo Osaka, Neven Subotic- FSV Mainz 05, Sven Bender- 1860 Munich). Particularly impressive is the fact that the club’s title victory has been a genuine team effort; there are no passengers in the team. Whilst Götze takes the plaudits and Barrios the glory of goal scoring, their league triumph owes much to a rock solid defence which has conceded 17 fewer goals than the next best backline. Much credit must also go to manager Jürgen Klopp, a 43 year old former Mainz player with a penchant for baseball caps. Much like Sir Alex Ferguson did in the mid-90s, he has demonstrated an unwavering confidence in his collection of starlets, refusing to enter the transfer market and replace them with expensive, established stars. Although the club itself is the obvious beneficiary of this policy, it is not alone. Germany’s national coach Joachim Löw has undoubtedly looked on with glee as Klopp has given his young charges experience at the highest level and all of a sudden, German football finds itself awash with top quality young players. Götze, Hummels, Schmelzer, Bender and Großkreutz have all made their debuts for the senior national team in the last year, and the likes of Şahin (Turkey), Subotic (Serbia) and Kagawa are all regulars for their respective national sides.

Having won many admirers and the club’s seventh Bundesliga title, Dortmund are now faced with a number of significant challenges. The likes of Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen are already working on strengthening their squads as they look to wrest the title from Klopp’s men and potential matches against the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Barcelona in the Champions League will be a test of the youngsters’ quality and mental fortitude. However the biggest challenge facing Klopp and General Manager Michael Zorc is the need to ward off the interest of more glamorous clubs and keep this highly gifted team together.

They have in fact already failed to do so on one count as Nuri Şahin has been snapped up by Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid for what looks like a bargain fee of €10 million* and big clubs in England and Italy continue to be linked with 18 year old wunderkind Mario Götze on a daily basis. If Dortmund are to really make the most of the young talent they have developed to this point and build a team capable of delivering trophies for years to come, it is imperative that they are able to resist offers and convince the players to stay at the Signal Iduna Park. If they can, Dortmund could very well become the powerhouse of German football for the next decade and perhaps even launch a serious bid to emulate Ottmar Hitzfeld’s 1997 Champions League winning side. If Zorc, Klopp and the rest of the club’s hierarchy are unable to keep the team together, they will be remembered as one of the most talented teams in Bundesliga history but also as a dynasty which was prematurely overthrown. Either way, it is unlikely that German football will see a team as good and as young as the current Dortmund one for quite some time.

*Transfer fee according to transfermarkt.de. Other sources quote fees of between €6 million and €16 million.

Final Bundesliga table: Bundesliga – official website

Categories: Football

Spotlight on…Kévin Gameiro

May 14, 2011 Leave a comment

In the penultimate edition of the ‘Spotlight on…’ series, Sport Report travels to France and runs the rule over Lorient’s much sought-after striker Kévin Gameiro.

Over the last two years, Lorient’s diminutive young striker Kévin Gameiro has been linked with almost every major club in European football. The reason for such transfer rumours is the sensational form he has shown in that time. With Gameiro’s form improving all the time and the transfer speculation intensifying, it will surely only be a matter of time until one of these clubs tests Lorient’s resolve to hold on to their star asset.

It surely will not be long until Kevin Gameiro (left) swaps the colours of Lorient for those of a bigger club (This image is the property of Sportinglife.com)

Gameiro’s ascension to the top of French football began in earnest when he was aged 13. It was then that he joined US Chantilly and whilst there, he caught the eye of scouts from Strasbourg. In 2004, he moved east and joined Le Racing as a youth player. He made his professional debut as an 18 year old in September 2005 and three months later he scored his first senior goal in a UEFA Cup match against Red Star Belgrade. Unfortunately, what should have been a breakthrough season for the young striker was cut short when he ruptured knee ligaments, an injury which put him out of action for six months. During his absence, Strasbourg were relegated and so Gameiro made his comeback in French football’s second tier. He struggled to hold down a regular place in the starting eleven as the club successfully gained promotion, but all that changed the following season as he finished with six league goals. Strasbourg were however relegated once again and so Gameiro opted to leave.

In June 2008, Lorient had a bid of €3 million accepted and after agreeing personal terms, the striker joined the Brittany-based club. Upon his arrival, Gameiro was handed the number nine shirt and was immediately installed as the club’s lead striker, a
responsibility he has relished. In fact, it has been at Lorient that Gameiro’s career has really taken off. His first season was a success as he scored 13 goals and added nine assists in 39 appearances. If that was good, his second season was even better as he notched up a very respectable tally of 19 goals. By this time there was much clamour for him to play at the World Cup but coach Raymond Domenech did not select him in the squad for South Africa, a decision he would ultimately come to regret as France crashed out at the group stage having scored a solitary goal.

This season (2010/2011) has been Gameiro’s most productive yet as he has netted 22 goals in 36 games, including a laudable hat-trick against Bordeaux. His performances have attracted the attention of French national coach Laurent Blanc who called him up for the Euro 2012 qualifiers against Belarus and Bosnia-Herzegovina, ending Portugal’s hopes of poaching him (Gameiro is eligible for Portugal through his grandfather). He has since made a further appearance for Les Bleus versus Brazil in February of this year.

Blanc is not the only one to have noticed the striker’s exploits in Le Championnat this season. A whole host of top clubs have been linked with the 24 year old’s signature and in January, it was even announced that he had agreed to join Valencia. Lorient officials countered the claims by stating that Valencia had discussed terms with the player without first agreeing a transfer fee. French media then announced that Gameiro was on his way to Bordeaux, a claim which was refuted by officials from Bordeaux who stated that the player wanted to join Valencia. When the transfer window slammed shut at the end of January, Gameiro was still a Lorient player and one has to admire the professionalism he has shown as he has put the disappointment of the transfer window behind him and continued to play to the best of his ability. More recently, Arsenal have been linked strongly with the player. Given Arsène Wenger’s scouting network in France and preference for small, skilful players, do not be surprised if this is one rumour that does materialise.

At only 5ft 7.5ins tall (1.72m), the Frenchman lacks the strength and physical presence of many modern strikers, but he makes up for his lack of size with technical ability. He offers versatility as he is able to play as an out-and-out striker (where he is most effective), in ‘the hole’ or even out wide. He plays on the shoulders of defenders ala Javier Hernandez and displays the same ice cold composure in front of goal. He uses his pace and football intelligence to take up excellent positions, as the number of goals he scores from inside the box shows. In short, he gives the impression of a natural-born striker.

He has just turned 24 and with three seasons at Lorient behind him, the time has probably come for Gameiro to test himself at a bigger club. Given the right stage on which to perform, he could become one of Europe’s most deadly hitmen.

Kévin Gameiro

Name: Kévin Gameiro

Place of Birth: Senlis,France

Nationality: French

Date of Birth: 9th May 1987

Career League Appearances: 147

Career League Goals: 55

Total Career Appearances: 178

Total Career Goals: 66

International Caps: 3

International Goals: 0

Key Attributes: natural born finisher, pace, excellent positional sense

Categories: Football

Spotlight on…André Schürrle

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

In this edition of the ‘Spotlight on…’ series, Sport Report stays in Germany and assesses Mainz and Germany striker André Schürrle.

André Schürrle is one of many young German players currently making waves in the Bundesliga. The 20 year-old striker has played an integral role in his club’s run to an impressive top five finish (could be fourth or fifth depending on results this weekend) and Europa League qualification.

Schürrle became a regular for the Karnevalsverein in the 2009/10 season, making 34 appearances and scoring five goals in all competitions. It has however, been this season that the youngster has really made his mark in the first team, netting 14 times in
32 Bundesliga appearances (25 starts) and adding four assists for good measure.

André Schürrle in action for current club FSV Mainz 05 (This image is the property of Getty Images)

He has demonstrated an excellent understanding of the importance of teamwork and has taken on responsibility by assuming penalty taking duties. The understanding he has developed with fellow prospect Lewis Holtby will give
Germany justified cause for optimism and it is something which has not escaped the attention of German national coach Joachim Löw, who gave Schürrle his first cap in November last year. He has since made one further appearance and looks
odds on to join fellow youngsters Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller as a regular in the Nationalelf.

Furthermore, the 20 year-old has caught the eye of bigger Bundesliga clubs and in September last year it was announced that Mainz had agreed to sell the player to Bayer Leverkusen for a fee rumoured to be in the region of €8 million. Leverkusen
had to beat off competition from several clubs and General Manager Wolfgang Holzhauser was barely able to contain his delight upon announcing the deal: “We are delighted to have been able to sign André Schürrle, one of the biggest talents in German football, on a long-term contract.”

So, what are the Werkself getting for their money? Schürrle is undoubtedly a fantastic talent. He has a thunderous shot, as shown by the number of goals he has scored from outside the box, and is also a more-than-competent finisher inside the 18 yard box. His football brain is similar to that of Manchester United star Wayne Rooney as he takes up similarly good positions deep behind the lead striker. He is a confident young man who relishes running at defenders with the ball at his feet, probably as a result of the fact that he is blessed with the very rare talent of being able to run with the ball at lightning pace. There are weaknesses in his game. Much like Rooney, he is very one-footed and he could also improve on the aerial side of his game, but make no mistake, Leverkusen can be happy with their investment.  They will feel that they have secured a real bargain and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to life at a bigger club and how he performs in the Champions League next season.

André Schürrle

Name: André Schürrle

Place of Birth: Ludwigshafen,Germany

Nationality: German

Date of Birth: 6th November 1990

Career League Appearances: 65

Career League Goals: 19

Total Career Appearances: 67

Total Career Goals: 19

International Caps: 2

International Goals: 0

Key Attributes: powerful shot, lightning quick with the ball, excellent work ethic

Categories: Football

Spotlight on…Lewis Holtby

May 9, 2011 Leave a comment

In this edition of the ‘Spotlight on…’ series, Sport Report returns to Germany and runs the rule over Schalke and Germany’s attacking midfielder Lewis Holtby.

Mention the name Lewis Holtby outside of Germanyand you are likely to be greeted with puzzled expressions. The young German is far from a household name at this early stage of his career but if he is able to continue the form he has shown in his short time as a Bundesliga regular, it will not be long until he is.

Born to an English father and German mother in Erkelenz near Cologne, Holtby joined the Borussia Mönchengladbach youth set-up at the age of 11. Despite the young winger’s obvious natural talent and technical ability, the club’s coaching staff decided that he was too slow and too small to succeed at the highest level and so released him. Undeterred by rejection in Mönchengladbach, Holtby joined nearby Alemannia Aachen, for whom he made his first team debut aged 17. The attacking midfielder found his feet with the Kartoffelkäfer and after 33 appearances and eight goals, he was sold to Schalke for a fee of €3.75 million in July 2009. The move, to one of the country’s biggest and most prestigious clubs, was testament to Holtby’s talent and performances in Aachen.

Schalke opted to loan out Holtby to allow him to build up experience and so he joined VFL Bochum. The youngster impressed in what was in truth a poor team, but with Schalke possessing a strong squad, he was once again loaned out for the duration of the 2010/11 season, this time to Thomas Tuchel’s FSV Mainz 05. Holtby has again turned in a string of highly impressive performances, helping Mainz secure a place in next season’s Europa League and bagging three goals along the way. More notably still, he has demonstrated his ability to play incisive accurate passes as he has racked up eight assists in the league alone. Having taken note of his performances for the Karnevalsverein, parent club Schalke has announced that he is to return to the Veltins Arena at the end of the season where he will look to join fellow young talents Julian Draxler, Kyrgiakos Papadopoulos and Joel Matip in the first team. If he, and the others, can fulfil their potential, the Königsblauen could very well become a force for years to come.

Lewis Holtby in action for Mainz (This image is the property of EPA)

Holtby will also look to break in to the German national team on a permanent basis having made his debut in a friendly against Sweden in November last year. He is still eligible for England, but having stated his desire to play for the country in which he was born, it is likely we will see him become a regular in Joachim Löw’s team.

Whilst he is predominantly left footed, Holtby is more than comfortable on either foot and can play through the middle or as an out and out winger. He belongs to something of a golden generation for Germany which includes fellow midfielders Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Toni Kroos. Holtby does not provide the goal throat offered by those three, but his strength lies in his footballing brain. He has the gifts of wonderful vision and the ability to pick the right pass, as shown by his eight assists this season. The 20 year old is not the quickest player, but he is able to beat defenders with skill and trickery before supplying the kind of crosses of which strikers dream. If he can add goals to his game, he will be well on the way to becoming an all-round attacking midfielder and, potentially, one of Europe’s hottest properties.

As captain of Germany’s under-21s, we can expect Holtby to star at this summer’s under-21 European Championship. If he performs well and breaks through to the senior side,England may just rue his decision to reject their overtures in favour of Germany.

Lewis Holtby

Name: Lewis Holtby

Place of Birth: Erkelenz,West Germany (nowGermany)

Nationality: German

Date of Birth: 18th September 1990

Career League Appearances: 85

Career League Goals: 14

Total Career Appearances: 91

Total Career Goals: 16

International Caps: 1

International Goals: 0

Key Attributes: skilful, excellent close control, ability to pick the right pass

Categories: Football