Barcelona and Chelsea Prevail

April 9, 2009

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With two draws on the first day, yesterday’s matches were surprisingly, even shockingly one-sided. Starting at the Camp Nou, Barcelona thrashed Bayern Munich 4-0. Amazingly, that was the half-time score. Lionel Messi scored twice and assisted on Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry’s goals. Messi almost had his hat trick but a fantastic save by Bayern keeper Hans-Jörg Butt kept the fifth goal off the scoreboard.

So what does this all mean? Well for starters it completely confirms my thoughts going into the match that recent domestic success (or failure) has a big impact on how a club plays in Europe. With a full month in between matches, this Bayern side was simply not the only that clubbed Sporting Lisbon over the head. Barcelona have the most explosive offensive output in this tournament. Bayern are not as good as some of the English clubs but I think we have to consider Barcelona the favorite going forward.

Meanwhile, at Anfield Chelsea came back from an early deficit to rout their English rivals in Liverpool, 3-1. Fernando Torres scored in the sixth minute for the Reds, but that was all they would muster against the more competent Blues. Branislav Ivanovic earned goals on headers six minutes before half and again twenty-five minutes later. In the 67th minute, Didier Drogba put Liverpool out of their misery with a third away goal and a comprehensive victory. Really, only Torres played well for the Reds. Everyone else on the pitch found himself outmatched by his Chelsea counterpart. Particularly strong for Chelsea was Michael Essien.

So I ask again, what does this mean? Liverpool have a huge uphill battle if they want to reach the semi-finals. Trailing by two goals on aggregate and having given up three away goals is no way to make a strong case. It is possible though, to win at Stamford Bridge, especially as the Blues will be without skipper John Terry whose accumulated yellow cards will keep him out of the return leg. But interestingly the idea I put out yesterday that the first home side have been at a disadvantage in recent Champions League meetings between Liverpool and Chelsea has held true, at least so far.

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Champions League Quarterfinals First Leg Day Two

April 8, 2009

After yesterday’s draws, two more Champions League matches grace us with their presence this afternoon.

Chelsea @ Liverpool
We’ll start in England where Chelsea will travel to Liverpool in an all-England clash at Anfield Road. Both clubs have been playing well lately and are currently third and second place in England. This is the fifth consecutive year that these two clubs will meet in a knock-out round of the Champions League. Last season of course Chelsea won in the semi-finals and advanced to Moscow where they would lose to Manchester United. Liverpool had won previously in semi-finals including 2005 when they defeated AC Milan in Istanbul.

So what of this match? In each of the past two years the home side in the first leg has been at a disadvantage, allowing away goals and eventually losing on aggregate in the second leg. So can Chelsea get on the scoreboard more than once at Anfield, even if they don’t win the match? Odds are yes. Liverpool are a strong side but they won’t be able to give the home fans a clean sheet and thus put themselves in jeopardy for the second leg.

Prediction: Liverpool 2 – Chelsea 2

Bayern Munich @ Barcelona
The other quarterfinal today is an odd case. Bayern unmercifully thrashed Sporting Lisbon in the last round and were hailed as favorites to win the cup. But a very poor run of form lately in Germany have seen Bayern fall off the pace near the top of the Bundelisga, including a 5-1 destruction at the hands of Wolfsburg just last weekend. Barça have been playing very well and are in firm control of La Liga, having withstood a strong, late challenge from Real Madrid.

With today’s match at the Camp Nou, expect the fireworks to be on display from Barça. Bayern are a strong club for sure but they can’t possibly play as well as they did in the round of sixteen. And however much Liverpool apologists would like to claim, current domestic play does make a big difference in mid-week Champions League matches.

Prediction: Barça 3 – Bayern 1


Porto!

April 7, 2009
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Mariano's Equalizer for Porto, a Stunning Result

Is this the spirit of 2004? Mariano’s 89th minute equalizer gave the Portuguese side a 2-2 draw at previously impenetrable Old Trafford against Manchester United. Cristian Rodríguez and Wayne Rooney traded goals in the first fifteen minutes, setting up a long spell of 1-1 football. Late substitute Carlos Tevez scored what appeared to be the match-winner in the 85th minute. But somehow Mariano appeared unmarked in the waning moments, knocking in the tying goal.

While Porto could easily lose at the Estadio do Dragão in the return leg, this draw does set them up very nicely. The two away goals especially will give them a lot of ground to work with in the return. But for United, what happened. Did they just expect a victory at their hallowed ground? Did they fall asleep after the Tevez affair appeared to send them to glory?

Meanwhile, in a simultaneous match at El Madrigal, Arsenal used Emmanuel Adebayor’s incredible volley to draw 1-1 with Villarreal in Spain. Though star Marcos Senna had given the Yellow Submarine an early lead on ten minutes, the Gunners’ response via Adebayor gives the English side great hope in the return leg. Not only did they acquire the much-needed away goal but the quality of the strike that did it should be inspiring going forward.

Tomrrow’s matches feature Barcelona at the Camp Nou against a very much out of form Bayern Munich as well as the vastly intriguing Chelsea-Liverpool front leg from Anfield Road. So far no side has emerged as favorite so we’ll have to see what happens tomorrow.


Champions League Quarterfinals

April 7, 2009

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The Champions League returns this afternoon with the first set of first legs of the quarterfinals. I’ll preview the other matches tomorrow. But for now:

FC Porto @ Manchester United
United have not been playing anywhere near the level they were playing when they last played in the Champions League. Over the past few weeks they have lost twice and given up a bevy of goals. They are still atop the English table but there are some weaknesses that are finally being exposed. Additionally, Rio Ferdinand is not expected to be match fit which greatly diminishes the United defense.

On the other side, Porto have been on a fantastic run domestically. They’ve won almost all of their past twenty matches and are playing in high form. While they slipped into this round compliments of a nil-nil home draw against Atlético Madrid at the Estadio do Dragão, Porto are a side that is very dangerous for Man United. Yet it is still very difficult to win at Old Trafford, especially for European foes.

Prediction: United 2 – Porto 1

Arsenal @ Villarreal
This match will be at the Estadio El Madrigal, a tough place for visitors to play. The Spanish side had a lesser opponent in the first knock out round against Panathinaikos and so their relative strength remains to be seen. Domestically, Villarreal have won just nine home matches this season (and just thirteen overall), good for a distant fourth place in La Liga.

Arsenal have been playing much better in England than they were when the Champions League last took place. They barely made it by Roma, winning on penalties in Rome four weeks ago. Since then the Gunners have made their case as a serious club in England, pushing solidly into a Champions League qualification spot for next year. But starting this round away could prove difficult for Arsenal, even as they have improved greatly in England.

Prediction: Villarreal 2 – Arsenal 2


Champions League Moving to FOX

March 31, 2009

fscAfter this season is completed, the Champions League will be moving to the FOX Soccer Channel for the foreseeable future.

It’s not that ESPN has done a bad job. In fact I’ve been happy that ESPN has started covering more than one Champions League match per week (one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday) and always shows the final. For five years now I’ve watched as many of the matches as are available here in the States. And I even really enjoy the back-and-forth with Derek Rae and Tommy Smythe from the ESPN studios where the remotely call the games. That will be missed. And ESPN has in a way pioneered soccer on tv here in the States having held the rights to the Champions League (and its earlier equivalent) since the 1994-95 season.

But I’m happy any time ESPN loses out on even a tiny piece of the monopoly they’re trying to build across all sports. With Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, NBA, Monday Night Football and damn near every major conference’s college sporting events, not to mention the World Cup, early round Masters and myriad other events, ESPN has more than enough to get by. The FOX Soccer Channel does an excellent job of covering many different international leagues, including the English Premier League. Their matches are well-covered, the analysis is nice and unlike ESPN, available. FOX has pre-game, half-time and post-game shows where fans, especially casual ones, can learn a lot about the teams playing and the league in which the play. ESPN does none of that in this country.

One downside to this move is the availability of FSC is nowhere near that of ESPN or ESPN2. FSC appearing in around 35 million homes while ESPN reaches about 100 million (again, just in the US). But pure numbers of households does not automatically translate to viewership. In the 27 Champions League matches during last season, ESPN averaged about 255,000 households (I’m assuming that includes bars). The final in Moscow between Chelsea and Manchester United drew in about 800,000 households (and just over a million individual viewers). Of course any final between two English teams is going to be more highly viewed in this country. I’d love to see the numbers for the 2004 final between Porto and Monaco.

If FOX can get even 1% of its total households in the US to view Champions League matches each week, it will average almost 100,000 more viewers than ESPN ever had. The truth is that millions of people get ESPN but almost none care about soccer. That is evident in the numbers. 0.0026% of ESPN receivers actually tune in for the average Champions League match (which almost always includes at least one English club). People who get FSC are much more likely to watch it because there is no chance of seeing anything other than soccer on the network. In other words, you can’t be flipping through the channels and stumble on the FOX Soccer Channel and expect anything less.

I’ll be interested to see how the new coverage comes out. I’m happy that ESPN has carried the torch thus far. Let’s all hope that FOX can do an even better job of bringing us the world’s game.


Champions League Quarterfinal Draw

March 20, 2009

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In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s how the draw for the quarterfinals of the Champions League turned out:

Villarreal v. Arsenal
Manchester United v. Porto
Liverpool v. Chelsea
Barcelona v. Bayern Munich

All interesting match-ups that I’ll detail further before the first legs but needless to say, Man United lucked out by drawing Porto. Perhaps the stars really are lining up for United to accomplish the record five trophies this year. Or perhaps not, but at least they have a slightly easier draw than they could’ve been given.


Who Will Win the Champions League?

March 12, 2009

The Champions League final is not for another two months but now that we’re into the quarterfinals we have a much clearer idea of who is capable of what. It’s always a big mystery as to who will reemerge after the long winter break and catch fire in the knockout rounds. Now that the Round of 16 is past, what do you think?