Ibrahimovic cut a forlorn figure for most of the game and got substituted in the 2nd half. Barcelona brought him to make a decisive impact against defensive walls like the one mounted by Mourinho's Inter. But I dont he deserves all the blame. This is his first year in Spain and Barcelona, and he has scored in key games during the season. I suspect that the rest of the Barça squad is not trying enough to adapt to his style, his weaknesses and strengths. I dont believe he is as poor as he seemed in the 2 legs of this tie.
Another interesting aspect of this game was that Barcelona did not win many freekicks in dangerous positions eventhough Inter was defendig very very deep, practically in front of the box. Credit goes to the defensive scheme of Mourinho and more importantly the tactical discipline shown by the players of Inter. That Inter didnt have a shot on goal or anywhere near a goal is a telling stat. But today they didnt need to. They did their scoring in the first leg.
I think Inter X Bayern will be a very good final. I hope it is a more open game that what we saw today.
As for Barcelona, they are back to the drawing board. I think if Pep Guardiola has a weakness, it is his penchant to tinker with formations in key games. the 3-4-3 with Toure Yaya as the 3rd centerback and Alves and Busquets on the wing didnt work very well. Everytime Messi touched the ball there were 3 defenders closing him down. Only Pedro was stretching the field for the first hour or so. The entrance of Bojan in place of Ibra increased the threat of a goal but Barcelona simply couldnt create enough chances on goal despite of the numerical advantage.
As the Madrid daily "AS" puts it "Cibeles sleeps peacefully" Cibeles is the plaza where the Madrid fans celebrates their titles.
Quick Stats that come to my mind
- Barcelona, over the past 5 years won 2 European cups and made it to 4 semifinals.
- There are atleast 7 ex-La Liga players in these two finalists this year and most of the players are from either Barcelona (Motta, Etoo) or Madrid(Robben Sneijder, Cambiasso,Samuel) andMilito(Zaragoza)
- Inter as well as Bayern are on track for a Treble and if they achieve the treble they are on track for the 6-tuple, like Barça did last year. hmm Who would have thought about that 9 months ago :)
The good thing is that they are playing at home. The dice is loaded against them on pretty much every other aspect. Jose Mourinho doesnt lose many ties, let alone when he is carrying a 2 goal cushion from the first leg.
Barcelona's keys to success:
1. Play your game and cut out the errors. Look at it this way: Inter cannot play any better and Barcelona cannot play much worse than they did in the first leg. Despite all that + poor refereeing Barcelona bossed the game in the final 15-20 minutes.
2. 1-3 away is not as bad as it seems. Infact it is better than 0-1 on many counts. In either case, you need a 2 goal win in the return leg to advance. So if the score is 0-0 at half-time dont panic.
Inter will tire out.
3. If Inter score early, it gets a bit more complicated but not much worse or difficult that it already is. Keep your poise.
4. Score early, keep the crowd in the game.
5. Tactically, keep the shape and be patient.
6. Personnel, Toure over Busquets. Busquets looks like a push over among Inter midfield (althought Guardiola will most probably start Busquets)
Keys for Inter
1. Keep things simple and in front of you.
2. Play the same line-up. This will take some cojones from JM but this is his best chance to beat Barcelona. If he sacrifices one of the forwards for a midfielder, I say Inter will lose the game and the tie.
3. Hope Sneijder and Maicon recover soon enough to start the game.
4. Put someone on Xavi or whose sole job is to disrupt the Xavi-Messi link-up. This frustrates both these players and their patience will run out at some point and the Xavi tries to push up trying to do everything himself, and so does Messi who drops further back to get the ball. a Win-win situation for Inter.
Inter surprised me with their positive play in the first leg. If they do the same in Camp Nou and win the tie, they will be deserved winners.
We have a cracker in store for us. I cant wait for Wednesday.
1. Brazil: Ricardo Kaka is by far the biggest concerns of the Canarinha. His season has been plagued by hernia and the limited time he was on the pitch didn’t show much by way of quality. Real Madrid and their fans are impatient and are even accusing him of prioritizing the World cup above the club, a reaction to his prolonged absence from the pitch. Apart from Kaka, the biggest issue is the saga of Ronaldinho and whether he will be selected for the trip to South Africa. Smart money says he won’t make the summer trip to South Africa.
2. Spain: The injury list of Spain is very long. Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres are out for the season and are expected to make it just in time for the World cup. Another key cog of the reigning European champions, Marcos Senna is struggling after a lengthy injury lay-off. Team leader and first choice keeper Iker Casillas is having an ordinary season. At this point you have to say they are not favorites. Too many risks and over-reliance on a lot of key players returning from long injury layoffs
3. England: Ashley Cole is going through long injury layoff. Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand have had injury plagued past few months. England’s main worry is the lack of a high-quality goal keeper and a good 2nd striker to support Wayne Rooney. John Terry’s form is also a cause for worry.
4. Italy: The waters are still murky in the Azzurri. Coach Marcelo Lippi seems to be favoring the old guard and experience over youth. Iconic keeper Gigi Buffon is the main long term injury worry for Italy. The strike force is also not decided upon. The backline will look very different with the retirement of Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro is fading. Other fading stars include Alex Del Piero, Mauro Camoronesi and Andrea Pirlo. Totti might come back from retirement and although the public wants Antonio Cassano in the team, Lippi hasn’t budged so far.
5. Germany: No major injury worries for Germany but lots of question marks at a lot of positions. Goalkeeper, central defence and the strike partnership. Michael Ballack is having a lacklustre season at Chelsea. The good news is the young players like Muller, Ozil and Helmes are having great seasons in the German league.
6. Netherlands: Probably one of the few teams in a great situation as far as form of players and injuries are concerned. Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben are having spectacular seasons for their clubs Inter Milan and Bayern Munich respectively.
7. Argentina: Another team which apparently doesn’t have many injury concerns with the likes of Messi, Milito, Higuain and Tevez all scoring more than 20 goals in the season. The problem for Argentina is the lack of a good constructive midfielder who can piece together some passes and provide enough supplies to the players up front like Messi and Higuain. Maradona’s tactics (or lack thereof) will be one of the biggest hurdles for them at the World cup. They have to find a way to use the riches of talent they have upfront to cover up for the deficiencies at the back. A possession based playing style will solve the problem but Maradona has not been able to put an eleven on the pitch that can play possession football.
8. Cote D’Ivoire: Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire are the two best African teams in this World cup. Ghana is a balanced side missing their talismanic leader Michael Essien, but he should be ready for world cup. Cote D’Ivoire is very powerful with the Toure brothers (Kolo & Yaya), the deadly Didier Drogba and a slew of quality like Kalou and Zokora to name a few. There are no major injury concerns for these teams but a lack of tactical discipline has prevented the African teams from reaching a world cup semifinal so far. Looks like this could be the year Africa breaks their semi-final duck.
Bayern Munich is a much better team than your usual Bundesliga team. Here is stat that might surprise you. They were the 2nd highest spending team in all of Europe last summer next only to the $300 million spent by Real Madrid. But like many a great team, they started the season very slowly, mostly because of a lot of new faces in Robben, Mario Gomez to name a few apart from their new coach Dutchman Louis Van Gaal. Van Gaal is known to be a disciplinarian and the players initially had some trouble adjusting to his methods. Some bad results in the Bundesliga and a lackluster start to their Champions League group stage rang the alarms in Bavaria. But they held on, and needed a gutsy victory at Juventus in the final game of the Champions League group stage to get advance to the pre-quarterfinals.
They were distinctly lucky to beat Fiorentina in the round of 16, thanks to some bad refereeing in the home-leg and a wonder goal from Arjen Robben in the 2nd leg which broke the hearts of the team from Florence. A bit more of the luck and never-say-die attitude helps them to squeeze past Manchester United again through a wonder goal from Arjen Robben at Old Trafford.
The strength of Bayern is on the wings with Franck Ribery on the left and Arjen Robben on the right with their searing runs hugged to the line. Ivica Olic is a hardworking and persistent striker who is very dangerous with the rebounds and anything that is not saved cleanly by the defence. The midfield is manned by the hard-nosed Dutchman Mark Van Bommel and the tireless Bastian Schweinsteiger (now there is German worth his name :)). If they have a weak spot it is their central defence. Martin DiMichelis, Van Buyten and Badstuber are average at best and they have a lot of difficulty facing nimble and quick strikers.
Lyon a perennial winner of the Ligue 1, also started their season very slowly. They sold their best talent Karim Benzema to Real Madrid in the offseason, which the fans didn’t appreciate very much. Combine that with a sluggish start to the season, Claude Puel's team was under tremendous pressure to do well and advance from a tough group in Champions League. They delivered the goods in the Champions League dispatching the more famous Liverpool out of the group stages. Their reward for that accomplishment was a 2nd round tie with nine time champion Real Madrid, who despite their history hasn’t been able to get past the round of 16 for the past 5 years. They brought in Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Benzema to break the streak of disappointment. Lyon won the first leg 1-0 in a tight tactical game from a brilliant goal by Jean Makoun. The 2nd leg at the fabled Santiago Bernabeu started very badly with an early goal from Cristiano Ronaldo. The key moment arrived when Puel made some tactical adjustments to the Lyon midfield deploying an additional midfielder Maxime Gonalons in place of a central defender Boumsong. That completely threw Real Madrid off their game and the equalizer arrived in the form a great goal by the young Pjanic. One more year of disappointment for Madrid and ecstasy for Lyon.
Lyon beat another French team Bordeaux 4-2 aggregate over two legs. The first leg at Lyon was fairly one-sided 3-1 victory for Lyon. The game in Bordeaux was much more tactical as Lyon came to defend their lead and a 1-0 victory to Bordeaux wasn’t enough for Laurent Blanc's side.
How this game will play out?
If there is a weak point for Lyon, it has to be their defence. Cris & Boumsong are not top class and they will have trouble dealing with Ribery and Arjen Robben when the cut inside. Lyon has an unsung yet better midfield in Toulalan, Pjanic and Govou and the young Gonalons. They prefer playing a 4-5-1 with the powerful and intelligent striker, Lisandro Lopez upfront. Bayern normally employs a 4-4-2 with Olic paired with Gomez or Klose and Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel as the pivots in the middle. The Lahm-Ribery combination on the left side will be a constant threat. Robben, while an impressive player when fully fit isn’t built for the full 90 minutes. Bayern will try to use the width of the pitch and stretch the midfield of Lyon and the cut-ins of Ribery & Robben to unsettle the central defence. Lyon on the other hand will play on the counterattack, set up a midfield of containment and release Lisandro and Pjanic to catch Bayern in possession. This is a really difficult tie to predict as the teams are evenly matched overall but their strengths and weaknesses are in different aspects of the game.
A fun fact about this game is Karim Benzema who moved to Madrid, failed to get past the 2nd round again eliminated by his ex-team Lyon. Real Madrid sold Arjen Robben to Bayern to make way for Benzema, who has taken his new team to the semifinals with some sparkling performances.
- Lyon - won the French League, Ligue 1 6 years in a row until last season when Bordeaux finally dethroned them.
- This is the first semifinal for Lyon, who have been a regular in CL all these years but never got past the quarter-finals.
- This is also the first year where 2 French teams qualified for QF and one for the semifinals in a long long time.
- This is also the first time in 7 years where there is no English team in the semifinals.
- Bayern - Is known for their heartbreak loss to Manchester in the final of 1999 when they shipped in 2 goals in the dying minutes to lose the final 1-2. Although they won the cup a few years later, this year’s defeat of Manchester United is seen as some sort of revenge.
Last couple of weeks we witnessed a slew of great games in the quarter-final stage of the UEFA Champion League. This time of the year usually brings some of the best games and drama to all the football fans around the globe. This being a world cup year there is an extra buzz surrounding the superstars of the game, their form, and injuries etc., everything is magnified a few times over.
Reigning Champions FC Barcelona booked their spot in semifinals with some dominating and imperious display of flowing football against Arsenal over two legs. Leo Messi scored a ‘poker’ (hat-trick +1) against the Londoners in the return leg at Camp Nou.
Barcelona will face FC Internazionale aka Inter from Milan led by Jose Mourinho. Inter defeated one of the surprise teams of the tournament, CSKA Moscow. The other semi-final will be played between Olyimpique Lyonnais from Lyon and FC Bayern Munich from Munich Germany.
But there is no doubt that Barça X Inter is the marquee match-up with a lot of intrigue for various reasons. Firstly it is the reigning champions against the most high-profile coach in Europe. And they have already played each other in the group stages. Secondly Jose Mourinho was a part of the late Sir Bobby Robson’s coaching staff during when Sir Bobby used to be the coach of Barcelona. And finally because the Champions League final will be played at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, arch-enemy of Barcelona in the Spanish Primera Liga, who want Mourinho as their coach next year. Rest assured a lot of Madridistas will be rooting for Jose Mourinho and Inter during the semifinals.
And then there is the Etoo-Ibrahimovic angle. These two world-class strikers swapped the clubs at the beginning of the season and neither seems to have hit a purple patch with their new team.
Even though Barcelona dominated the meetings between the teams in the group stages, the semifinals will be a completely different ballgame for the following reasons.
1. Inter has improved a lot over the season, especially in the Champions League. Gutsy performance against Chelsea away from home where they employed the 3 out-and-out strikers in a 4-3-3 is just one example of their improvement in Champions League.
2. Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder has been very instrumental in the success of Inter in Champions League this season. His fits perfectly in the role behind the strikers and links very well between the defensive midfielders and the frontline.
3. Fatigue and injuries could be an issue for Barcelona. Most of their key players have been playing a lot of games at a high-level ever since August 2008, not just for Barcelona but for Spain in the Confederations Cup in the summer of 2009 and then the World club championships in December 2009. The effects are showing. Barcelona hasn’t been as dominant as last year. And just yesterday Andres Iniesta is injured in training and wont feature in either leg of the semi-final.
Although Barcelona has not been as dominant as last year, they have showed up to play in all the big games. Cases in point are the games against Arsenal, the Clásico over the last weekend at Madrid. They played their best football against their best opposition.
How will the semifinals play out?
The first leg is in Milan. Jose Mourinho has already suggested that he will gladly sign-up for a 0-0 at home, according to some Italian sports papers. I wouldn’t be surprised with that. 0-0 at home is not at all a bad result at home in Champions League due to the away-goals rule. I think Jose will be conservative. Play with just two strikers Etoo & Milito supported by Sneijder behind them. He will use an extra mid-fielder to cut the passing lanes of Xavi Hernandez. Samuel, Zanetti, Lucio and Maicon at the back will try to out-muscle the generally smallish attacking trident of Barcelona. The basic idea is to keep everything in front and crowd the midfield to disturb the flow of Barcelona’s game built around keeping the possession and slick passing. The might try to sneak a goal on a swift counter-attack catching Barcelona in possession but as Mourinho said their base set-up will be to smother Barcelona and will be satisfied if they don’t concede.
Barcelona will play their normal game of passing when in possession and pressing to quickly win the ball back for the most part. A 4-3-3 formation with the attacking trident of Pedro-Ibra-Messi. Messi will drop back to space between the frontline and the midfield trio a lot of times. This is something he has been doing a lot of late including starting in ‘the hole’ in a formatting resembling 4-3-1-2. This role gives him more freedom to run at the central defenders, who are more prone to make mistakes or a foul as well as who are less agile. It also allows him to get the ball from deeper areas, escape marking from the fullbacks because the fullbacks cannot afford to mark Messi in the middle of the pitch. If Ibrahimovic does play the game, Xavi will try a few long passes to beat the offside trap teams employed by moving the backline high.
If Barcelona manage to score early, Inter will be forced to open up and we could be in for a treat of goals. But based on how Barcelona & Inter have been playing of late I think this game will end in a 1-1 draw. I can’t see Barcelona not scoring, at the same time I think Inter will score as well.
The second semi-final between FC Bayern München and Lyon while not so glamorous will as interesting as Barça X Inter if not better. I will preview it in the next installment.