Devastation for Atletico as Real take title

An exhausted Real Madrid have taken their eleventh Champions League title in Milan, defeating bitter rivals Atletico Madrid in a penalty shoot-out at the San Siro. The game was pulsating as Real scored early and Atletico equalised late, and a missed penalty from Juanfran ultimately proved costly as Cristiano Ronaldo coolly slotted his penalty past Jan Oblak to seal the deal. Atletico started the game shakily, and Gareth Bale’s work early on nearly led to a goal when Oblak was forced to act quickly to save a deflection from Karim Benzema at close range. It was not long before Real’s early opportunities led to the first goal, and it came when Bale flicked Toni Kroos’ free kick on towards Oblak, allowing captain Sergio Ramos to tap it in. Real continued to cruise, passing the ball around and generally not allowing Atletico to have a sniff, but Atletico recovered and had the momentum going their way at the end of the first half.

Atletico continued to build on their momentum in the second half, and should have levelled straight after half time when Pepe fouled Fernando Torres in the box. The ensuing penalty, taken by Griezmann, was drilled into the underside of the bar, and Real escaped with their lead intact. Atletico continued to push, and Real manager Zinedine Zidane took the foot off the gas, allowing Atletico to control the tempo and the midfield. Real nearly had a goal on the counter-attack when Benzema found himself one-on-one with Oblak, and it looked as though Atletico had petered out. Real came incredibly close to doubling their lead in the 78th minute when Ronaldo went one-on-one in the six-yard box, and Bale’s shot was blocked on the goal line by a desperate Atletico defence. It was not to be for Real, however, and Atletico levelled through the dangerous Yannick Carrasco, who took advantage of an excellent cross from Juanfran to find the back of the net from close range. Carrasco continued to look dangerous for the remainder of normal time, but Atletico eased off and Real, for all the control of possession, never looked like scoring.

Extra time began with the same sluggish tempo, and neither side really looked like breaking the deadlock as the heat and fatigue began to get to the teams. Real still controlled possession, but Atletico held firm while Bale and Ronaldo seemed to crumble, the former making some very ambitious efforts on goal and generally ending up on the ground as a result. The game was destined for a tie-breaking penalty shoot-out, and it, much like the 120 minutes before it, was an excellent contest. The first seven penalties were scored, and Griezmann managed to redeem himself, but Juanfran could not put his penalty on target, as the ball hit the post and rolled away. Oblak tried hard to save Ronaldo’s final effort, but Ronaldo was unfazed by the pressure and hit it into the back of the net with ease, sealing the Champions League for Real Madrid.

San Siro – Milan
Real Madrid 1 (Ramos 15)
Atletico Madrid 1 (Carrasco 79) (a.e.t, Real Madrid won 5-3 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Real Madrid: Navas – Carvajal (Danilo 52), Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Casemiro, Kroos (Isco 72), Modric, Bale, Benzema (Lucas Vazquez 77), Ronaldo.
Atletico Madrid: Oblak – Juanfran, Savic, Godin, Filipe Luis (Lucas Hernandez 109), Saul Niguez, Fernandez (Carrasco 46), Gabi, Koke (Partey 116), Torres, Griezmann.

Top 5
1. Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid)
Carrasco entered the game at half time when Atletico were facing an uphill battle, and his pace through the middle and on the break changed the game and turned it against Real. The goal he scored late was a just reward for his performance, and he put more pressure on the Real defence than any of his teammates.
2. Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid)
The work of Luis was key to Atletico gaining a foothold in the game, and the Brazilian’s work putting long crosses into the box helped put some pressure on Real in a time of dominance. His work supplementing the attack was key, and while he went off injured in extra time he left a big mark on the game.
3. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
Bale’s best work was done early on in the game, but he remained a threat throughout despite limited supply. He won two early free kicks in dangerous positions early, and he provided the assist for Ramos’ goal from one of those set pieces. He was exceptionally dangerous and rounded out a solid game by slotting home his penalty in the shoot-out.
4. Gabi (Atletico Madrid)
Gabi played excellently throughout and was Atletico’s rock in the centre of midfield. He ran almost as hard as anyone on the field, and his determination to get the ball and ability to use it was a big issue for Real. He provided the ball that led to Carrasco’s goal, and was never far from the action for the full 120 minutes.
5. Casemiro (Real Madrid)
Casemiro played the whole game and was constantly plugging away for Real. He worked tirelessly in the centre of midfield, and while his forays forward were not always successful he nearly managed to set up a goal when he pinched the ball from Atletico in the centre of the park. His work-rate was excellent and he was a constant for Real for the whole game.

Stay tuned over the next few days for my team-by-team preview of UEFA Euro 2016, starting in France next month.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group C

SL Benfica (Portugal)

Head Coach: Rui Vitoria
Captain: Luisao
Ground: Estadio da Luz, Lisbon
Qualified: Primeira Liga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1960-61, 1961-62)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

Benfica won their 34th league title last season, edging out Porto by 3 points. The side performed very well, with Jonas and Lima scoring well and former Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar taking out the best goalkeeper award. In the Champions League the side did not fare so well, finishing fourth in a fairly tough group, but Benfica will be hoping that they can improve on previous results under new manager Rui Vitoria.

Strengths

Benfica were excellent in the league last season, scoring 86 times and conceding just 16 goals. The side is strong, and after 20 league goals last season Jonas will lead the attack, with support from new signings Adel Taarabt, Kostas Mitroglou and Raul Jimenez, as well as Filip Djuricic, Nelson Oliveira and Victor Andrade. Andre Almeida, Andreas Samaris, Talisca, Pizzi, Nico Gaitan and Ljubomir Fejsa patrol the centre of the park. Down back, Lisandro Lopez, Luisao, Nelsinho and Eliseu are very solid. While Julio Cesar may have had a poor World Cup, letting in 10 goals in the last 2 games, he showed that he is still a quality goalkeeper last season, conceding just 9 in 23 appearances.

Weaknesses

The departure of Lima, who netted 19 times in the league last season, to Al Ahli leaves a hole, which will have to be filled by one or both of Jimenez and Mitroglou. This extra pressure may not be helpful for the pair as they try to settle in, and Mitroglou has struggled since going on a goal-scoring spree in late 2013, being put on loan consistently by Fulham. He did score well in the Greek League last season, however, so there may be some room for optimism. The full back positions could also be an issue. At the moment Benfica are using Eliseu, who is fairly experienced, in conjunction with Nelsinho, who has recently been promoted to the first-team. Playing in the Champions League against the best in the world could be too big a step too fast.

Star Player: Jonas

With three league goals in three games already this season, Jonas is in great form. The former Valencia striker scored 20 league goals last season, and Benfica will need him to keep this kind of form going in the Champions League. It will be interesting to see how he handles the step up, and his goal tallies are likely to take a hit, but he still has a key role to play.

Key Player: Julio Cesar

Julio Cesar was unbeatable in the league last season, and he, unlike most of Benfica’s squad, is a Champions League winner, having been in goal when Inter took out the title in 2009-10. He has gone into something of a decline since then, with a barren spell at Queen’s Park Rangers nearly derailing his career, but he has found his feet again and will be key for Benfica.

Club Atletico de Madrid (Spain)

Manager: Diego Simeone
Captain: Gabi
Ground: Estadio Vincente Calderon, Madrid
Qualified: La Liga, 3rd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (1973-74, 2013-14)
2014-15 Champions League: Quarter-Finals

Form Guide

Atletico Madrid finished third in La Liga last season, although they probably picked up enough points to take first or second in any other league. They survived a dramatic last-day shootout with Valencia and Sevilla to take out automatic qualification, and they will be looking to emulate their success of a couple of seasons ago when they made the Champions League final. After making the quarter-finals last time around Atletico will hope to improve this season.

Strengths

Atletico’s attack of Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres and Jackson Martinez should prove a handful for defences everywhere, and if Torres can find his best form then he could be unstoppable. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco could also be damaging down the right, and Koke is a very exciting young prospect who can pass well and should provide good balls from midfield. Tiago Mendes and Gabi provide depth in the middle of the park. Down back, Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez and Stefan Savic should prove to be very solid, and Juanfran and Filipe Luis should form a very strong fullback combination. Diego Simeone has been a great manager for Atletico, and he is the man to bring this team as far as they can possibly go.

Weaknesses

The outfield positions may be fairly well covered, but there is a worrying lack of depth in the team. Oliver Torres, Saul Niguez and Thomas Partey are still young in midfield, and Angel Correa and Luciano Vietto are probably not reliable scorers. Since Thibaut Courtois was called back to Chelsea goalkeeping has been a potential achilles heel for Atletico, and questions remain over Miguel Angel Moya and Jan Oblak, the pair recruited to replace the Belgian star. Taking Fernando Torres from Milan is a bit of a gamble, and while the ex-Chelsea striker is a very good player he has, at 31, still not realised his great potential.

Star Player: Jackson Martinez

Jackson moved to Atletico this summer from Porto, where he had played for the last few seasons. He was top scorer in the league three seasons in a row, netting a total of 67 times in 89 games. He averages about a goal every two games in European competitions as well, and this is a very encouraging sign for Atletico, who will be hoping he can maintain his form.

Key Player: Diego Godin

Godin is a vastly experienced centre-back with a habit of scoring goals at critical moments. He scored an equaliser against Barcelona which gave Atletico the La Liga title, and scored in the Champions League final a week later. He marshals Atletico’s defence, and will play a crucial role in their Champions League campaign.

Galatasaray SK (Turkey)

Manager: Hamza Hamzaoglu
Captain: Selcuk Inan
Ground: Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul
Qualified: Super Lig, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Semi-Finals (1988-89)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

Galatasaray snuck past bitter rivals Fenerbahce by 3 points to take the Turkish title, their third in four seasons. The Champions League, however, was not such a success. Drawn alongside Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Anderlecht they finished fourth, a 1-1 draw with Anderlecht their only points for the campaign. Their side is not a strong as a couple of seasons ago, but they have the potential to succeed in a fairly tough but not impossible group.

Strengths

The signing of German international and World Cup winner Lukas Podolski should bolster the forward line, and he will provide good support for Burak Yilmaz and Umut Bulut. In midfield, Wesley Sneijder and Selcuk Inan should provide plenty of chances, and they should be able to chip in and get their names on the scoresheet. Aurelien Chedjou and Jason Denayer are both strong players, and should combine well with Hakan Balta, Semih Kaya and Koray Gunter in defence. The experience of veteran Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera should prove invaluable throughout the campaign.

Weaknesses

The transfer window has been fairly unsuccessful for Galatasaray. They lost Swiss international Blerim Dzemaili and Felipe Melo, both of whom could have formed a very solid base in defensive midfield. Bruma is now gone, along with Alex Telles, and while they picked up Lukas Podolski they managed to single-handedly bungle a transfer with Borussia Dortmund for Kevin Grosskreutz, who is now unable to play for the club until January, ruling him out of the group stage. If he comes into the side during the knockout rounds he will not have played for four months. As a right-back, he would have given a lot to a defence which could certainly be stronger.

Star Player: Wesley Sneijder

The Dutch international is a dangerous player from the centre of midfield, where he can provide assists and score some handy goals. He has been at Galatasaray for some time now, and having settled into the line-up he will be a very important player during the campaign. With the defence not as strong possible he will need to chip in.

Key Player: Aurelien Chedjou

Chedjou is the most experienced player in the defence, which has lost Dany Nounkeu and Alex Telles over the off season. The side’s success could well hinge upon Chedjou and his combinations with the rest of the defence, and they will need him to step up and call upon his experience to marshal the defence and keep clean sheets.

FC Astana (Kazakhstan)

Manager: Stanimir Stoilov
Captain: Tanat Nusserbayev
Ground: Astana Arena, Astana
Qualified: Kazakhstan Premier League, 1st (defeated NK Maribor, HJK Helsinki and APOEL FC in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: First qualification
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

Astana only came into being in 2008, following a merger between Megasport and Alma-Ata. Soon after their inception they started having success, and after winning their first Kazakhstan Premier League in 2014 they had their first go at the Champions League. They knocked out Maribor and HJK, and after Baurzhan Dzholchiev put them ahead against APOEL they held a 1-0 edge going into the return game in Nicosia. They went down after 60 minutes, but a late equaliser to Nemanja Maksimovic was enough to send them through.

Strengths

Astana have had plenty of money since their inception into the Kazakh league, and they have picked up some experienced players. Branko Ilic has been capped 59 times for Slovenia, and he joins Dmitri Shomko, Marin Anicic and Evgeni Postnikov in the defence. Baurzhan Dzholchiev, Nemanja Maksimovic, Foxi Kethevoama, Patrick Twumasi, Roger Canas, Tanat Nasserbayav and Georgy Zhukov provide goalscoring opportunities in what is a fairly attacking midfield and forward line. Their success in qualifying can only give them confidence, and they have absolutely no pressure upon them, which can only be a good thing going into a tough group.

Weaknesses

Astana simply cannot compete in personnel or financial terms with the best in Europe. Against the likes of Benfica, Atletico and Galatasaray they are not likely to succeed, a lack of experience likely to be a prime factor. Maksimovic has won the under-19 European Championships and scored the winning goal in the under-20 World Cup final, but the pressure of being one of the side’s key players could prove too much. Many of the Kazakh internationals in the team do not have much international experience and Kethevoama has only received 22 Central African caps, despite being the captain of the team. This lack of experience is quite worrying and may adversely affect their campaign.

Star Player: Nemanja Maksimovic

Maksimovic joined this season from Domzale in Slovenia, and he has already won big with the Serbian under-age sides. He scored the winning goal in extra time of the under-20 World Cup, and seems to have a knack for scoring big goals at key moments, given his 84th minute goal which sent Astana through to this tournament.

Key Player: Branko Ilic

He may be playing at right-back, but Ilic will be the key to the Astana defence. He is a versatile player who can also play centre-back or defensive midfield. He is experienced internationally, with 59 caps, and his experience at the 2010 World Cup will be very valuable. If he can stay calm then he can act as the person holding the defence together.

Prediction

This group is fairly strong, but Astana can probably be ruled out as contenders due to their lack of experience and weaker personnel. At the other end, I think Atletico are a cut above Benfica and Galatasaray, and with a strengthened forward line they should progress. While Benfica have never really prospered in the competition they should progress, mainly due to the defensive struggles faced by Galatasaray.
Prediction: 1. Atletico Madrid, 2. Benfica, 3. Galatasaray, 4. Astana.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 1 Preview

On Tuesday the UEFA Champions League begins again, with Europe’s best battling it out on one of the world’s greatest stages. This year we see Liverpool’s return and Manchester United’s departure from the elite, as well as the remarkable return of Monaco, who were just two years ago in the second tier of French football. Real Madrid will be on a high after becoming the first European side to win ten continental titles, but can anyone knock them off their perch? It will be very interesting to see. In this preview I will look in depth at the first matchday, providing predictions, key matches, players to watch and also key questions. Enjoy.

Matches: (Predicted winner in bold)

Tuesday September 16

Olympiacos vs Atletico Madrid, Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus (1-2)
Atletico should be too good despite recent losses in the transfer market.
Juventus vs Malmo, Juventus Stadium, Turin (4-0)
Newbies Malmo no match for the experience and class of Juve.
Liverpool vs Ludogorets Razgrad, Anfield, Liverpool (4-0)
Ludogorets will really struggle against the stronger opposition.
Real Madrid vs Basel, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid (3-0)
On a high after great success it is hard to see Real going down.
Monaco vs Bayer Leverkusen, Stade Louis II, Monaco (1-1)
A close contest that really could go either way.
Benfica vs Zenit St Petersburg, Estadio da Luz, Lisbon (1-3)
Zenit should have too much class for a slightly weakened Benfica.
Galatasaray vs Anderlecht, Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul (3-0)
Galatasaray should cruise past Anderlecht, especially at home.

Key Game: Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal, Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund
These two sides met in the group stage of last year’s tournament, with the odds split evenly over the two matches, in both cases the away side winning by a goal. With Dortmund losing centre forward Robert Lewandowski to rivals Bayern in the summer their attack has been weakened, and it is still to be seen how new recruit Ciro Immobile will cope with the pressure. On the other side, Arsenal have splashed out a bit in the transfer market, reeling in Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, both of whom will be key to the attack, as well as Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina in defence. This will be an extraordinarily exciting game, and it should be a very close one in the end.
Verdict: Both sides incredibly strong but home-ground advantage tips it slightly in Dortmund’s favour. Borussia Dortmund 2-1.

Wednesday September 17

Roma vs CSKA Moscow, Stadio Olimpico, Rome (3-1)
Roma return to the European stage and should knock off CSKA at home.

Key Game: Bayern Munich vs Manchester City, Allianz Arena, Munich
Whenever the champions of England and Germany collide, it is going to be a very big match. While these two sides picked up their titles in dramatically different fashions (Bayern cruised through while City snatched it from Liverpool with 5 straight wins late in the season) they are both brilliant sides. Bayern have lost young star Toni Kroos over the summer, but with players such as Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Xherdan Shaqiri, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, Bayern are a serious contender for the title. While Manchester City have under-performed in Europe in past tournaments they should not be underestimated, and now that their players have had some experience of the Champions League they are a good enough side to go a very long way.
Verdict: Manchester City are a good side but Bayern are just too good. Bayern Munich 2-0.

Barcelona vs APOEL, Camp Nou, Barcelona (5-0)
With Neymar and Messi fit again APOEL will be no match for Barca.
Ajax vs Paris Saint-Germain, Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (0-2)
Ajax are strong but PSG should out-do them.
Chelsea vs Schalke 04, Stamford Bridge, London (1-0)
Schalke will provide a challenge but Chelsea should meet it at home.
Maribor vs Sporting CP, Ljudski vrt, Maribor (1-1)
Interesting match-up, but neither side quite strong enough to win.
Porto vs BATE Borisov, Estadio do Dragao, Porto (2-0)
Porto have a strong enough team to cruise past the Belarusians.
Athletic Bilbao vs Shakhtar Donetsk, San Mames, Bilbao (2-2)
Shakhtar will provide a test but Athletic should match them at home.

Players to watch

Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)
After playing brilliantly during Germany’s World Cup triumph Kroos was picked up by Real. A very good provider of aerial chances from dead ball situations, he has the skills to fit perfectly into the system of Real Madrid and it will be very exciting to see how he performs at his new club.

Diego Costa (Chelsea)
After scoring 8 Champions League goals to help Atletico make the final of the tournament Costa has moved to London. He had a very disappointing World Cup and he will be looking to rectify this against Schalke. If he fires then Chelsea could mount a serious challenge.

James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
James picked up the golden boot at the World Cup, scoring 6 times in 5 games for Colombia. Such form was enough for Real Madrid to pay €75 million for his signature. They will be hoping for the versatile midfielder to repay them, and he is easily able to provide goals and assists for Carlo Ancelotti’s team.

Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
In Sterling both Liverpool and England have a player who could easily become a superstar. He has incredible pace and after a brilliant league campaign last season he is fully ready to showcase his talent upon the European stage. Expect excitement, and lots of it.

Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund)
After being offloaded to Torino by Juventus at the start of last season Immobile went on to shine, scoring 22 times. Having been bought by Borussia Dortmund to replace Robert Lewandowski, however, he has the weight of expectation on his shoulders, and it will be interesting to see how he copes.

Neymar (Barcelona)
As the host nation’s talisman in the World Cup, Neymar shone until a bad challenge from Juan Zuniga in the quarter-finals left him with a broken back. Now available after returning from his injury it will be very interesting to see how he fares against a relatively weak APOEL team.

Key Questions

How will Liverpool and Monaco fare on their return to Europe’s elite?
Liverpool have been drawn into a group that they should progress from, as Basel and Ludogorets are not good enough to really worry them. Plenty of players in the side have some experience at this level, and with young stars Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge both explosive players in attack Liverpool should be fine. Monaco, on the other hand, are a different proposition. They have offloaded Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez to Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively, and in a tough group containing Benfica, Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen they may struggle, as this side is not near the team that came second last season in class.

Will this be the season when English sides meet their potential?
It will be interesting to see how the English teams fare in this tournament, with Manchester City and Arsenal facing an early test this week. They face German powerhouses Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, and with Liverpool drawn into a group with reigning champions Real Madrid we should soon find out how these sides compare with the best in Europe. Chelsea have been drawn into a much easier group with Schalke, Sporting and Maribor and they should easily progress. Also, in terms of class and experience, Chelsea are probably the best of the English sides and I would be surprised if they did not at least reach the quarter-finals of this season’s tournament.

How will Atletico Madrid recover from their big losses over summer?
Atletico have lost some of the key members of the team that made the final of last season’s tournament, losing keeper Thibaut Courtois, left-back Filipe Luis and striker Diego Costa to Chelsea, as well as strikers Adrian Lopez (Porto) and David Villa (New York City) and attacking midfielder Diego (Fenerbahce). They have made extensive signings to compensate for this, mainly in attack where Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez, Angel Correa, Alessio Cerci and French winger Antoine Griezmann have been picked up. Miguel Angel Moya and Jan Oblak have been picked up to rectify the goalkeeper situation, but whether these signings can replace Courtois, who is one of the best keepers in the world, and Costa, who contributed 38 goals in all competitions last season, remains to be seen. If anyone can pull them through it is Diego Simeone, whose coaching feats were incredible last season, and they have a reasonable draw, but it would take a very special effort to replicate last season’s all-round success.

Can Real Madrid be beaten?
After a stunning 4-1 victory (after extra time) over Atletico in Lisbon a tenth European crown was claimed for Real Madrid. On a high after completing ‘La Decima’ the champions have signed three stars of the recent World Cup in Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas, Colombian attacking midfielder James Rodriguez and German playmaker Toni Kroos. Combine these players with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Isco, Sami Khedira, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric amongst others and you begin to see why Real are the best team in Europe. There are teams who can beat them, and Barcelona and Bayern Munich immediately spring to mind, but Real are looking like pretty strong favourites at the moment.