Friday, February 8, 2013

WIN (and then tie) OR GO HOME: 2012-2013 Champions League Preview Part II

Written by: Andy Chiang

Manchester United vs. Real Madrid
Leg 1: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu
Leg 2: Old Trafford

Let’s be honest. Manchester United got the worst draw of the UEFA Champions League 2012-2013 Knockout rounds. But it’s overcoming obstacles like this that make the stuff of legend. You become the best by beating the best. 

My last post was about how it won’t be the individuals that will be the key to this tie, but the performance of these 22 players as teams. Specifically, United’s midfield 5 (or 4) will need to rely on smart, organized, and unified team play to stifle Madrid’s counter attack and overcome their high pressure style. I fear that the usual Fergie tactic of turtle up and hit on the counter will not work against Madrid. As we saw recently against Tottenham, United must take the initiative. Madrid have too much speed and too many match winners on the field for United to be chasing the ball.

Today I am going to present the single exception. There are two individuals that do matter, but they aren’t Ronaldo or Van Persie... 

It’s going to be the two men standing between the sticks: De Gea and Adan/Lopez.

On paper, both these men face a daunting task. Something on the order of staving off an avalanche with a shovel. The amount of offense that will be on the field when the game starts makes a video game scoreline feel like a possibility. Both these keepers could make 6 or 7 saves a game and still give up 3-4 goals. I think everyone is looking forward to a goal-fest (even from a Mourinho team). So why do I say the crucial component to this tie is the keeper and not the offense?
Neither of these keepers are particularly dominant. Adan has already been benched in the wake of Iker’s hand injury after a horror start. Lopez has started the last two games, but only made 3 saves against Barca and was bailed out twice: once by the woodwork after being left for dead on a Xavi free kick, and once by a goal line clearance by the excellent Raphael Varane. An inch here or there and his record in that game would have been 3 saves 3 goals leaked. Meanwhile he only faced 4 shots against relegation bound Granada, of which only one was on target.
Meanwhile, De Gea has also had a rocky campaign. The young Spanish stopper with the up-sweeping-reverse-Bieber hair has finally enjoyed a run of consistent starts, featuring in the United’s last Champion’s League group loss to CFR Cluj and the last 10 United Premier League games. Unfortunately, his play has been erratic and, fair or unfair, has drawn much so much public criticism that his teammates have had to come out publicly to speak up for him. Trade rumors also abounded during the January transfer window. From where I am sitting, De Gea has played well over the last few games. His quickness and reactions are a major reason for United’s current comfortable league position. De Gea’s weakness is in his catching skills. Either he can’t catch, or he doesn’t trust himself to catch balls, and more than a few saves have rebounded to delighted opposition players. While he has improved in defending the cross and in set pieces (having Vidic back has also helped), he has not fully mastered the punch yet. In the end he will always be hounded by critics because he is not Van Der Sar and he is not Schmeichel. Pretty tough gloves to fill. As a youngster (he is just 22) I hope he will be mentally strong enough to continue to develop and perform into the world-class player he should and will one day be. My hope is that his piss poor English skills (I have never heard him speak a lick of English in interviews) prevent him from reading the papers and will protect his confidence.

Given the context, the man that makes the least mistakes, who keeps his concentration the longest, who marshals the defense at the critical time, may ultimately decide the victor. De Gea will have to confront the weaknesses in his game head on when he faces long shot specialists Ronaldo Essien, and Di Maria. Will he be able to minimize the number of times he punches or parries balls to a lurking poacher like Khedira, Benzema, and Higuain? Given their recent run of form, I don’t rate Adan or Lopez against United’s attacking unit of Van Persie, Welbeck, Chicharito, and Rooney. But can Adan not get himself sent off? Can Lopez limit United to 2 instead of shipping 3 or 4?
Doom and gloom aside, I think De Gea has a chance here to really shake the hater monkeys off his back if he can come up with solid performances against Madrid. De Gea is much more talented than either of the men on the other side of the pitch, and is the X factor for this tie without a doubt. Should he tame the Madrid attack, his place in the starting 11 and United lore will be assured and he can make a throw rug for his fireplace with the hides of the hater monkeys.

Pound for pound Real Madrid look to be the stronger side on paper, but as their La Liga record suggests they lack consistency and can be beaten. Some final thoughts on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the sides... 

Real Madrid’s strengths are in the Midfield and their major weakness is in Goal.
I will be the first to admit I do not know a lot about Diego Lopez. But a glance at his statistics so far this year reveals an uninspiring record that started at Sevilla. In his 9 rated matches in La Liga 2012-2013, he has logged ratings over 6.5 twice, and logged ratings under 6.0 four times (per One should also note that so far this season, he hasn’t played anyone. He was not a starter at Sevilla, and has played against top tier competition only 3 times this season. Besides the Barcelona Copa Del Rey meeting mentioned earlier (performance not rated) his ratings were ho-hum each time: (note: both these games were with Sevilla) 5.84 rating against Malaga where he faced 9 shots total, 2 on target and gave up 2 goals, 5.58 rating against Valencia where he faced 15 shots total, 4 on target, 7 blocked and gave up two goals.  Apparently he is a big framed player strong in the air and was a part of the Spain Euro 2008 Squad. It was also reported that he studied under the great Van Der Sar in 2007. Pundits point to his size and experience in international and European competition, but most of the plaudits Lopez has won were in the 2006-2009 time frame. Whatever he might have been in 2009, he might be an upgrade to the shaken Adan, but De Gea takes the edge in this matchup. On Madrid’s midfield advantage...I don’t think I need to write much here to support this statement of fact. I mean Kaka and Modric sit on the bench. Essien is often used as a right back. That’s just silly. Even Benzema and Higuain, while occupying a “lone striker” position on the team sheet and TV infographic, have attacking midfield tendencies.

Manchester United have an edge going forward and are hoping for a Real Madrid dip in form.

While it is true that United have a better scoring record in their respective domestic league - having scored 60 goals so far this season, almost a third coming against top 10 EPL defenses based on total goals against numbers - Madrid (on paper) can field more game changing goal scorers at once. Ronaldo, Benzema, Ozil, Di Maria, Higuain, even Khedira and Ramos, and who can forget Essien’s memorable strikes once upon a time. In reality, Ronaldo scores all the goals. CR7 has scored almost 40% of all of Madrid’s goals so far this year in La Liga. No one else on the team has reached double digits in goals yet (Higuain has 8). To contrast, Rooney and Van Persie have double digit goals (Hernandez has 8). I give the edge here to United based on the fact that we have a more balanced attacking threat in the forward positions. I think the goal scoring exploits of Van Persie and Ronaldo about cancel each other out. I think Rooney blows Benzema/Higuain out of the water. (Of course I also realize that Madrid’s offense is mainly generated and executed by the midfield, so of course United’s forwards have better stats...

If the Giant’s and the Raven’s NFL success has shown us anything in the past few years it’s come playoff time it’s not about which team is the best but which team is playing the best at the moment. World football has known this for years, conceptualized by talks of a teams “form”. In this sense, I think United have had a great run of form as late and haven't lost a meaningful contest since November 20th of last year. On the flip side, United haven’t played a meaningful Champions League game since beating braga in November of last year and duly lost the last two “gimme” games. United will face a tough Everton squad this weekend, a tie which is increasingly becoming our “bogey” tie. On the brightside, Rooney has enjoyed a stellar run of form in the last few games and will hopefully be peaking against Real Madrid. United will also enjoy a spell of easy league games between the first and the second legs - all our opponents in between ties are fighting relegation. If United can find its rhythm and beat Everton on Sunday, the squad will be in good shape for the trip to Madrid. Meanwhile, Madrid face an easy Sevilla matchup before meeting United, but will have to play four games before the two sides meet again (United will only be playing three), and two of those games will be against Barcelona. These two games against Barca will be back to back, the last being played 2 days before United and Madrid meet again. Given the rivalry, it will be difficult for Mourinho to bench his starters for these games, and fatigue may become a critical factor for this matchup - and the edge United need to go through! The odds may be against us, but the game isn’t played on a sheet of paper. When the whistle blows United will have a chance to re-establish itself in Europe after recent disappointments. To the holder of the biggest scalp goes the greatest glory! COME ON YOU REDS! Prediction Leg 1: MUTD 2:2 RMA Leg 2: MUTD 3:2 RMA

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

WIN (and then tie) OR GO HOME: 2012-2013 Champions League Preview Part I

Written by: Andy Chiang

Manchester United vs. Real Madrid

February 13, 2013
2:45pm Eastern
Leg 1: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu
Leg 2: Old Trafford

With the Knockout stages of the Champions League finally upon us, I and footy loving Americans everywhere are probably already planting the seeds for our impending Tuesday and Wednesday sickies. While one may opt for a more traditional “I woke up this morning and I don’t feel well” on a Tuesday, a more prudent fan may start quietly dropping hints of a cough or severe allergy/cold/flu/stomach virus throughout the week or so prior so that an innocuous Tuesday/Wednesday absence won’t seem out of the ordinary. Of course there is always the “morning traffic accident” that can buy you a half day, but that will really only work once, so you would have to choose. Regardless of which way you go, in my humble and biased opinion Manchester United vs. Real Madrid is by far the most intriguing matchup of the round followed closely by Porto vs. Malaga (two evenly matched and hungry sides with something to prove), and AC Milan vs. Barcelona (will Balotelli shine against a beatable Barca?).

The storylines between these two sides would be fit for a Peter Jackson trilogy. Mourinho vs. Ferguson, The Return of Ronaldo, Van Persie the Reincarnation of Cantona. The clash of the two biggest and richest clubs on the planet playing out in two of the footballing worlds’ most storied stadiums against a backdrop of hundreds’ of years of prestigious history between them. What more can a fan ask for? It’s a matchup like this one and the promise of those magical “European nights” that makes me ache for a mega millions jackpot win to be able to experience this tie in person. With the Superbowl only a few days past, it is also striking how different the feel of the Champions League is in comparison. In my eyes the Superbowl, even when taken as a weeklong football fest, pales when compared to a UCL final...but maybe that’s just because I live in Dallas? But I digress - the romantics of the Champions League aside, lets get into the key matchups of the tie.

Let me start by saying I will spare you all the historical matchup stats between United x Madrid or Fergie x Mourinho. I don’t know why European news outlets love to publish this information...but they are completely meaningless in giving us insight into next weeks’ match. Different time, different team, different players, different circumstances, etc. I don’t know why viewers would care about these stats. So...

Individuals and personalities steal headlines, but unit play is the key

Even by Champions League standards, the 2013 United x Madrid matchup features some of the biggest current personalities and names in the game. Sir Alex is enjoying a happy 2012-2013 season that has seen his much criticized United squad defy many of the critics and build a comfortable lead atop one of the most competitive leagues in the world. In between he has found time to abuse match officials, wine and dine with Pep Guardiola in NYC, and grace the halls of Harvard Business School. Just another year at the top for Fergie and United: more often than not finding ways to come back for the win, more often than not finding someone to step up.

At the other end of the spectrum is the roller-coaster-telenovela world of Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo is sad, but he won’t say why and he still scores goals (why are there no good memes on this?!). Mourinho is a genius, then he benches Iker and is an egotistical maniac. Iker and Sergio demand his ouster says Madrid’s media friend Marca, but then the players refute this story and the club counter-attack their former friend like a mid-table La Liga opponent. All of a sudden Mourinho can’t control his dressing room, but they go on a 21 goal 8 game tear to open welcome 2013.

While individuals may be stealing the headlines leading up to this tie, the key battle of the game will most likely play out between how well each side’s midfield unit can play organized and play together. CR7 came out on Monday saying that he thought Real Madrid were better than United. Especially in the midfield, I would heartily agree. Tongue in cheek, EA sports and FIFA13 do too. Real Madrid’s midfield rating on the game is 4 points higher than United (as of 5 Feb 2013 - it was higher the week prior). Especially for United, organization and intelligence will be the key to control the middle third, stifle Madrid’s attack, and provide service to Van Persie, Chicharito, and Welbeck. 

This will definitely be an uphill battle for United. Of all the teams they could have drawn, Real Madrid’s style may be one of the toughest for United to cope with. We have struggled this season when playing against teams with Real Madrid’s uptempo, speedy, pressing style. Like the last few times United have crashed out of Europe, teams have learned that pressing Michael Carrick is an easy way to disrupt United’s rhythm. Carrick is having a banner year, and the team relies on him more than ever to do a Xavi and pull the strings. Also, the safety net here is thin. We no longer have Scholes to bail us out and Cleverley and Anderson have been wildly inconsistent. Kagawa has been playing well, but has not been able to impact a game like he did at Dortmund. He is poor in defense, but his quickness will be important in getting into passing lanes and disrupting the Madrid defense-to-midfield transition. On the brightside Rooney has been on fire the last few games playing out of the midfield. Rooney’s willingness to track back and defend as well as his touch and vision will make him invaluable in the coming battle, but he can’t do it alone. It will take a true team effort.

Meanwhile, Madrid are one of the few teams on the planet that can boast a counter attack faster than Manchester United. Facing 4-5 players with world-class breakaway speed (Ronaldo, Ozil, Di Maria, Modric, Callejon?), United’s midfield will have to move up and down the field together, swarm the passing lanes, and be careful with their positioning, knowing that even a slight misstep can leave a teammate exposed and result in De Gea picking the ball out of his net.

That’s all for this edition. Feel free to smite me in the comments. Stay tuned for part 2 coming tomorrow!

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