Classy Barça too much for Juve

FC Barcelona have taken out the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League in Berlin, stylishly defeating the Italian champions 3-1. An early goal to Ivan Rakitić was cancelled out by Álvaro Morata, but goals to Luis Suárez and Neymar ensured that Barcelona would take out their fifth European title. The match had the perfect start for Barça when Rakitić opened the scoring within 5 minutes. Lionel Messi, Daniel Alves, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta combined in a great passing move to get the Croatian on his own in the area, and Gianluigi Buffon had no chance to save it. Barcelona continued to get most of the territory, although Juventus made some dangerous looking counter attacks. Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci were being pulled away from each other by the width of Neymar and Messi, and Iniesta was a dangerous presence in midfield.

At the start of the second half the momentum started to shift towards the Italians, with Juventus playing more inside their half. Despite this Barça started the half well, with Buffon making an incredible reflex save to keep out Suárez. Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio were starting to get some control back for Juve, however, and Marchisio’s backheel was the catalyst for an equaliser. Marchisio played the backheel past two Barça defenders to right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, who was able to get inside the penalty area and pass to Carlos Tévez. Tévez made an accurate shot which keeper Marc-André ter Stegen had a hard time saving, and the ball spilled out to Morata, who was easily able to stroke the ball into the back of the net. Paul Pogba was denied a penalty after he and Alves tussled for the ball inside the box, and a few minutes later Suárez had scored after a ruthless counter-attack. The Catalans swarmed in numbers upon the Juventus penalty area, and after Buffon made a great save to Messi’s shot Suárez pounced, easily putting the ball away. The die seemed cast when Neymar appeared to score with a header, but the goal was disallowed as the ball came of the Brazilian’s hand before going into the back of the net. Juventus were desperate for a goal, and they attacked doggedly, but Luis Enrique’s approach left plenty of open space around the ground for his forwards to run in to. A couple of positioning errors at corners by ter Stegen were not capitalised upon by Juve, and Neymar was able to get a goal in the seventh minute of stoppage time when he capitalised on Juve’s last-gasp attack. The goal signalled the end of the match, sealing a league, cup and Champions League treble for Barça and providing a fitting end to Xavi’s career with Barcelona.

Top 5
1. Neymar (Barcelona)
Neymar had a great impact on the game in the first half, where he was a constant threat on the left wing. His pass to Iniesta was a key part of the first goal, as was the part where he drew two defenders out of the box to create extra space. He kept Stephan Lichtsteiner busy throughout, and scored a much deserved goal at the end of the game.
2. Paul Pogba (Juventus)
Pogba deserves credit for the way that he played, both in attack and defence. He was hard-working in defence, and was treated fairly harshly by the refs for his combative style of play. He stuck with this style despite being booked in the first half, and he was a key player in attack, assisting Andrea Pirlo from deep in midfield.
3. Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona)
Iniesta may have been subbed out of the game late, but his impact in the early stages largely contributed to Barcelona’s success. He provided an assist for Ivan Rakitić after a great burst of speed into space and then a clever pass to the unmanned player. He was incredibly dangerous throughout the first half and was a constant struggle for the Italians.
4. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Messi was very effective on the right wing throughout the first half, and during the second half he was dangerous on the counter. His shot was the spark for Barcelona’s second goal to Luis Suárez, and he was dangerous when he cut in from the wing during the second half. In that play he combined twice with Suárez, but his shot was just over the bar.
5. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)
Buffon kept Juventus in the game when Barcelona were pressing in the first half with some great saves. He couldn’t have done much to stop the goals that the Catalans scored, but he made great saves to both Daniel Alves and Luis Suárez, the first of which he made with his weight going in another direction.

Berlin – Olympiastadion
Juventus 1 (Morata 55)
Barcelona 3 (Rakitić 4, Suárez 68, Neymar 90+7)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakir (Tur)
Juventus: Buffon – Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Bonucci, Evra (Coman 89), Pogba, Pirlo, Marchisio, Vidal (Pereyra 79), Tévez, Morata (Llorente 85).
Barcelona: ter Stegen – Daniel Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Rakitić (Mathieu 90+1), Busquets, Iniesta (Xavi Hernández 78), Messi, Suárez (Pedro Rodríguez 90+6), Neymar.

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PSG edge out Barça in thriller

Paris Saint-Germain vs Barcelona  

Paris Saint-Germain have pulled off a 3-2 victory against Barcelona in an exhilarating contest. The Parisians held on for over half an hour to deny the visitors victory. The game started at a fairly quick pace, both sides looking to keep possession while attempting penetrative passing moves. A tenth minute free kick to the home side, however, changed the game dramatically, as David Luiz outdid Javier Mascherano in the air and put the ball past Marc-Andre ter Stegen into the bottom corner. Barça didn’t have to wait long for the equaliser, however, a perfectly constructed passing move allowing Lionel Messi to score past Salvatore Sirigu. The game continued in the same manner, Messi nearly sending through Neymar with an ingenious ball, but a Lucas corner again exposed Barça’s weakness at set pieces. Marco Verratti found space behind Ivan Rakitić and headed the ball past an out of position ter Stegen to again give PSG the lead. Both sides continued with their styles of play, PSG nearly catching Barça out on the counter-attack a few times, but the score was the same when the teams came in for the break.

The even contest of the first half continued after the break, and after Blaise Matuidi finished off Gregory van der Wiel’s cross PSG took a 3-1 lead and a clear advantage. The two-goal buffer didn’t last long, however, after Dani Alves’ cross flew over the contest to Neymar, who finished calmly. Barça continued to push, but were consistently knocked back by the Parisian defence, while Javier Pastore initiated a number of dangerous attacks from inside PSG’s defensive half. Manager Luis Enrique started to make changes, with Xavi and young guns Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramírez brought on. Jordi Alba had a perfect opportunity in the 82nd when his attempt from inside the 6-yard box was brilliantly blocked by a sliding Marquinhos. Munir’s long range effort hit the post, and Ramírez only just missed the target from just inside the area. Barça kept pushing, and PSG kept denying them. PSG started to take advantage of Barça’s defensive imbalance on the counter-attack, and Barça were not able to deny them victory on the night.

Paris – Parc des Princes
Paris Saint-Germain FC 3 (David Luiz 10, Verratti 26, Matuidi 54)
FC Barcelona 2 (Messi 12, Neymar 56)
Referee: Rizzoli (Ita)
Paris Saint-Germain: Sirigu – van der Wiel, Marquinhos, David Luiz, Maxwell, Verratti (Cabaye 71), Thiago Motta, Matuidi, Lucas (Bahebeck 90+1), Cavani, Pastore (Chantôme 86).

Barcelona: ter Stegen – Daniel Alves (Ramírez 83), Mascherano, Mathieu, Jordi Alba, Rakitić (Xavi Hernández 69), Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro Rodríguez (El Haddadi 69), Messi, Neymar.

Top 5
1. Javier Pastore (Paris Saint-Germain)
Pastore started the game slowly, but as the match went on his influence grew. In the second half he was one of the most influential players on either side, with his runs, sometimes starting deep in his own half, often fortuitously disrupting the momentum of Barcelona’s attack.
2. David Luiz (Paris Saint-Germain)
Playing in the heart of defence Luiz barely lost an aerial contest all day, and his early goal was influential in shaping the course of the match. As the pressure ramped up he stepped up, winning several key aerial contests and making many key blocks with his head.
3. Lucas (Paris Saint-Germain)
Lucas was the best player on the field from both sides in the first half, his pace far too great for anyone Barça could assign to him. His corners and free-kicks, two of which bore goals, provided the Barcelona defence with many headaches, and while he dropped off in the second half he was still one of the best on ground.
4. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Messi scored an early goal, and was one of the best players in the first half. He was Barça’s creative fulcrum, and the chipped pass he played over three PSG defenders was one of the best balls played during the match. In the end he provided a lot of trouble for the PSG defence.
5. Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Matuidi was one of the hardest working players on the ground, going from attack to defence and playing his role to perfection. His goal in the second half gave PSG a definite edge in the match, but his concise passing and hard-running was what set him apart.

In other matches:
Moscow: A Thomas Muller penalty was the only goal of the match as Bayern Munich defeated CSKA Moscow.
Manchester: Francesco Totti’s strike cancelled out Sergio Aguero’s early penalty as Manchester City drew Roma.
Nicosia: Ajax and APOEL drew 1-1 after Lucas Andersen’s goal was cancelled out by Gustavo Manduca’s penalty.
Lisbon: Nemanja Matic scored the only goal of the game as Chelsea beat Sporting.
Gelsenkirchen: Damjan Bohar’s first-half effort was cancelled out by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as Maribor drew Schalke.
Lviv: After missing an early penalty and going 2-0 down in the 85th two goals from substitute Jackson Martinez saved Porto from defeat at Shakhtar.
Barysaw: Goals from Dzyanis Polyakow and Alyaksandr Karnitskiy were enough to give BATE Borisov a 2-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Tables

Group E P W D L GF GA GD Pts
FC Bayern München 2 2 0 0 2 0 2 6
AS Roma 2 1 1 0 6 2 4 4
Manchester City FC 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
PFC CSKA Moskva 2 0 0 2 1 6 -5 0
                 
Group F P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Paris Saint-Germain FC 2 1 1 0 4 3 1 4
FC Barcelona 2 1 0 1 3 3 0 3
AFC Ajax 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
APOEL FC 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
                 
Group G P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Chelsea FC 2 1 1 0 2 1 1 4
NK Maribor 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
FC Schalke 04 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
Sporting Clube de Portugal 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1
                 
Group H P W D L GF GA GD Pts
FC Porto 2 1 1 0 8 2 6 4
FC BATE Borisov 2 1 0 1 2 7 5 3
FC Shakhtar Donetsk 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 2
Athletic Club 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 1

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.