Football: Could There Still Be All-English Finals?

Via WikiCommons

It is crunch time in both the Champions League and Europa League, with the second legs of the semi-final fixtures approaching. Most advocates of the English Premier League would have been expectant of an all-English final in the Europa while being hopeful of one in the Champions League.

So far, it isn’t really going to plan.

Last Tuesday saw Tottenham fall to a 1-0 defeat at home to Ajax, and Liverpool lost 3-0 to Barcelona just a day later. Thursday saw both Arsenal and Chelsea put themselves in an advantageous position with decent results against Valencia and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively.

Let’s have a closer look at the four games coming up.

Champions League first!


Liverpool vs Barcelona

Barcelona hold a 3-0 advantage thanks to a goal from Suarez and two from Leo Messi.

Liverpool have a mountain to climb, which is incredible when you consider that they were the better team in the first leg. Not many teams can go to the Camp Nou and outplay the side from Cataluna, but that is exactly what Liverpool did. They had more of the ball and created the better chances. For majority of the game they even stifled the brilliance of Leo Messi. Yet, time and time again, the Argentine genius produced brilliance when it mattered most. Combine that with the amateurish finishing of the Liverpool strikers, and here we are.

Can Liverpool actually turn this tie around?

No!

I don’t see how it will be possible for them to keep a clean sheet against Barcelona.

Barcelona historically don’t travel well to England, and as destinations go, Liverpool’s Anfield stadium is not the nicest of places to visit. Expect Liverpool to come flying out the traps and if they can grab an early goal, anything could happen. The injuries to Salah, and Firmino have not helped the situation. Barcelona by no means are clear yet, but a goal will be more than enough. Expect an exciting game, full of drama and a lot of diving from both Suarez and Busquets. Whatever way you look at it, Liverpool have shown they are the better team, but Leo Messi, as he has done many times, will end up being the difference.

Images Via WikiCommons

Verdict: Liverpool 2 Barcelona 2 (Barcelona go through 5-2 on aggregate)


Ajax vs Tottenham 

Early goal from Danny van de Beek has the Dutch side 1-0 up. 

Tottenham’s manager, Mauricio Pochettino, came out after the game and admitted that he got it tactically wrong, and who am I to disagree. Spurs got overrun in midfield and never really competed. Expect a completely different game to take place in Holland.

Firstly, Spurs will definitely have one, possibly two of their star players back for the second leg. Heung-Min Son will definitely play and should be relatively fresh after being sent off just before half-time during the league game against Bournemouth. Also, Spurs’ captain and talisman, Harry Kane, may be fit enough to come off the bench for an important cameo in the last 15 minutes. If anything, Kane’s presence will provide the boost that the London side may need.

Ajax, on the other hand, have already surpassed expectation. They have been great for the neutral, knocking out Juventus and Real Madrid along the way thanks to some clinical finishing. They will go into the second leg as favourites, and if Spurs overcommit going forward, then the Dutch team will pick them off, just like they did the previous teams. So far Ajax hasn’t experienced a nervous final half-hour in any of the previous ties against Real Madrid or Juventus, so it will be interesting to see if they would be able to keep their discipline if they need to go searching for a goal with the game winding down.

This is definitely a game worth watching, as it will be full of attacking intent from both sides, and technically both teams can afford to concede a goal without the need to alter their game plans. The main advantage for Spurs is that a win at Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena will be good enough to take the game to extra-time at least, which makes it much easier. Unfortunately, an away win hasn’t been very common for Tottenham this year, who have won once in the five games they’ve had in Europe, which was a 1-0 win at Dortmund, in the round of 16. In that game, Dortmund absolutely battered Spurs!

Verdict: Ajax 3 Tottenham 2 (Ajax go through 4-2 on aggregate)


What about the Europa?

Valencia vs Arsenal

Arsenal currently hold a two-goal advantage thanks to a 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium in London. 

Defensively, Arsenal have been a completely different animal in Europe. In the last round, they were able to navigate past a Napoli side who were considered one of the favourites to win the competition. So, against a weaker Valencia team, you would expect them to have no major problems, especially when considering the two-goal advantage they have.

Valencia have shown themselves a worthy semi-finalist by getting rid of fellow Spanish team Villarreal in the last round. In the first game, they showed a lot of class and not for the first time in this article, they are a team who are ruing the chances that they missed.

As with every game in recent weeks, Arsenal’s defensive performance will determine the team that goes through. In Mustafi, Arsenal have a defender who leaves me scratching my head in disbelief.

As a youngster, I always heard my coaches tell the defenders;

“Don’t dive in.”

“Hold him up”

“Follow the runner”

“Play it simple”

All things which Mustafi doesn’t seem  capable of doing. He is by far the worst defender I have ever seen in the Premier League. Yet, he keeps getting picked. Just incredible. Going forward, Arsenal have a lot of quality, but it’s no surprise that they are much more prolific in home games and go a little missing on away days.

Valencia’s home form this season hasn’t been anything to shout home about either, but when you consider their recent form, the Spanish side have been much better. Making Valencia the more likely team to make it through, especially if Mustafi “plays.”

Verdict: Valencia 3 Arsenal 1, 4-1 after extra-time (Valencia to go through 5-4 on aggregate)


Chelsea vs Frankfurt

The tie is nicely balanced after a 1-1 draw in Germany.

The game in Germany will leave Chelsea the happier of the two teams. Even though Chelsea had the better of the game, Frankfurt definitely created the better chances and should have won. That lack of clinical finishing being a problem for another of the teams represented in this article.

Chelsea will be very confident going into game knowing that they have not lost a single game in this year’s Europa League (W:11, D:2) and furthermore, only lost twice at home all season, to Leicester City in the Premier League and to Manchester United in the English Football League Cup. Not looking good for Frankfurt.

Frankfurt will be heavily reliant on  Luka Jovic to repeat what he did in the first-leg and score at Stamford Bridge. The Serbian currently lies second in the scoring charts with nine goals to his name. Only player ahead of him will be visible on the night. Olivier Giroud is top with 10 goals. If Jovic has a poor game, Kostic and Rebic may offer alternative goal scorers on the night.

Frankfurt will definitely need to come out and play with confidence, but Chelsea are just too strong for them. Expect Chelsea to be very dominant from the off, and take a good lead into half-time, similar to the way that they did against Slavia Prague in the previous round.  But this time, I expect them to be a lot better equipped defensively, and make far fewer errors on the night.

Verdict: Chelsea 3 Frankfurt 1 (Chelsea go through 4-2 on aggregate)

My phone alarm is already set for 3am. Don’t tell my partner, though …

Europa League – Quarter Finals

Screenshot 2019-04-18 at 23.13.30
Via WikiCommons

Well, what an amazing couple of nights in Europe’s premier competition, the Champions League! As surprising as the semi-final lineup is for some, it’s not for me. After all I managed to somehow predict every result correctly. Usually at this point, most would accept the plaudits and not test their luck. I, on the other hand, am willing to risk it all just a mere day later.

First though, for anyone who missed my Champions League article, can feel free to check it out: Champions League – Quarter Finals

So onto today then!

The UEFA Europa League has been Europe’s second-tier competition since 1971, but has only been known by its current name since the rebranding in 2009. In the 48 years since its creation, this annual competition has changed a lot, both in name and format.

As a football fan, it is a competition I hold dearly because of Galatasaray’s success in 2000. Since 2009, UEFA (Governing body of football in Europe) has tried to make the competition more appealing to the elite teams who feel as though it’s beneath them, which seems to be working when you look at the recent winners list. Holders Atletico Madrid have won three times (2010, 2012 and 2018), which is a feat equalled by Sevilla (2014, 2015, 2016). While  Porto (2011), Chelsea (2013),  and Manchester United (2017) have taken home the trophy on one occasion. All because the winner of the Europa League is guaranteed a place in the Champions League for the following season. Something that is difficult to achieve via the league, especially if you are from England or Spain.

So, let’s take a look at the quarter final games that will be played tonight across Europe.

Napoli (Ita) vs Arsenal (Eng)

Arsenal will be heading to Italy with a two-goal advantage thanks to Aaron Ramsey and an own-goal.

This match is going to be very intriguing, because you have a team like Arsenal who ideally could defend solidly, try to nick a goal at the other end of the field and waltz into the next round. Yet, anybody who understands football knows that Arsenal never make it look as simple as it sounds. Plus, Napoli isn’t some joke team that has no chance. However, drawing a blank in England, in the first leg, is a huge negative against them.

In the end, it will come down to whether or not Arsenal can get the away goal because they are likely to need it. Napoli are a dangerous team at home. They are yet to lose at the atmospheric San Paolo Stadium in Naples, only conceding two goals in five European games – one goal each against Paris St. Germain and Red Star Belgrade. More impressively, earlier on in the season, Napoli kept a clean sheet against Liverpool in a Champions League game which they absolutely dominated.

Impressive, right? However, there is one important factor that needs considering. This is the first time that Napoli are going into a game trailing. Knowing that if Arsenal score a goal at any stage of the game, then they will need FOUR.

Verdict: Napoli 3 Arsenal 1 (Arsenal go through on away goals)

Eintracht Frankfurt (Ger) vs Benfica (Por)

Benfica won the first game 4-2 thanks to a hat-trick from their 19-year-old sensation, Joao Felix.

This has the potential to be a repeat of the first-leg with plenty of goals and drama thanks to Frankfurt’s resilience in Portugal. Despite playing with 10-men for 70+ minutes, they managed to score twice and keep the tie alive.

The biggest problem facing the German team is that they are playing a team that is absolutely lethal in front of goal! Benfica has scored four goals in each of their last three games, and only two months ago won 10-0, yes 10-0, in a Portugal Primeira Liga match against Nacional.

Yet, I have a sneaky suspicion that Frankfurt are going to be the ones laughing come the final whistle, as long as they can keep all 11 men on the field.

Verdict: Eintracht Frankfurt 4 Benfica 1 (Frankfurt go through 6-5 on aggregate)

Chelsea (Eng) vs Slavia Prague (Cze)

Chelsea lead one-nil thanks to a late goal from Marcos Alonso.

This tie, despite being the closest on score, should be the easiest one to predict. Chelsea are better than Slavia Prague in every area of the field but we could have said the same about Prague’s previous two opponents, Genk and Sevilla.

Chelsea will need an early goal to calm the nerves and I expect them to get it through the irreplaceable Eden Hazard. That will give them the confidence to go and get a few more goals and put the tie to bed.

Verdict: Chelsea 3 Slavia Prague 0 (Chelsea win 4-0 on aggregate)

Valencia (Spa) vs Villarreal (Spa)

Valencia hold a somewhat lucky 3-1 advantage after scoring two goals in the 90th minute of the first-leg.

This all-Spanish affair features a couple of teams that are searching for a way back to their glory days. Both Valencia and Villarreal regularly featured in the latter stages of the Champions League, with the prior making it to the final on a couple of occasions. If truth be told, neither have convinced that they will be back competing at the highest level anytime soon.

This is not a game for the neutral, as I expect Valencia to systematically foul the Villarreal players on every occasion in order to stop their flow. There will be plenty of yellow cards, and even a sending off in the game. After all, if the home team can stop Villarreal from scoring three or more goals, then they are guaranteed to progress. There is some hope though for Villarreal – a.k.a. The Yellow Submarine – who have managed to score at least one goal in 13 of the last 15 games they’ve played. In three of those games they hit the back of the net three times, and on one occasion played out a 4-4 draw against…Barcelona!

Verdict: Valencia 1 Villarreal 1 (Valencia to kick their way into the next round. 4-2 on aggregate)

 

 

 

Misunderstanding My A*#e

“Kepaze”

Surprisingly, the first word that came into my mind was the Turkish word for “shameful,” and/or “scandalous”. This word has the perfect letters and meaning to describe the actions of Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.

(Ironically, Kepa’s surname is very similar to the Turkish word Ariza, meaning “defect”.)

Look, we have all have moments in our lives when we haven’t wanted to do something our boss wanted us to do, but like most people, we end up doing it, because that’s what grown-ups do. Yet, football players seem to think that normal rules don’t apply for them.

What happened?

For the people living under a rock, or who have no interest in sport, the basics are that, during the Carabao League Cup Final on Sunday between Chelsea and Manchester City, the Chelsea goalkeeper, in an act of defiance, refused to come off the pitch in the face of head coach Maurizio Sarri’s clear annoyance. Roughly 82,000 fans packed into Wembley Stadium, and the millions watching on television, caught a glimpse of what can only be seen as disrespect.

With extra time coming to a close, and penalties beckoning, Maurizio Sarri and his team wanted to make a tactical substitution by bringing on Willy Caballero. This was clearly a pre-determined decision, and one that could definitely be vindicated when considering Caballero’s excellent reputation as a specialist at saving penalties. The only problem was that Kepa clearly didn’t get the memo, or more likely, didn’t care about the memo.

(Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

Maurizio Sarri was overcome with rage, and who could blame him? He was shown great disrespect in front of millions.

(Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

Sarri wasn’t sure what to do, and he ended up having to give in. This was yet another example of a player’s defiance paying off, and Sarri was not happy about it, to say the least. (The faces of the players on the Chelsea bench say it all.)

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 13.27.09

(Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

As soon as the final whistle went, it was clear which team was feeling more like a collective. Kepa wouldn’t even look at Sarri, and Sarri was out for blood. Most importantly, Caballero had to be consoled by the team coaches.

The Outcome and Aftermath

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Man City win the first of a possible FOUR trophies (Via SkySports Football’s page on Youtube)

Man City went on to win 4-3 on penalties. Kepa saved one penalty, but made a huge mess of another, which he should have saved from Sergio Aguero. But the talking point was clear, and the  press were waiting for Sarri with questions about his goalkeeper’s refusal to come off.

Sarri, as expected, came out and faced a bombardment of questions about the incident. He said that Kepa was right to want to stay on, but wrong to conduct himself in the way he did.

Sarri went on to say that it was a substitution based on injury, because he thought Kepa was injured, and he wanted a fully-fit keeper in goal for the penalties. Apparently, Kepa wasn’t injured and hence refused to come off.

Sounds plausible.

Yet, before the penalties, even after the doctor’s words, both Sarri and Caballero were very upset. Caballero was having to be consoled by team coaches, while Sarri was being held back by Anthony Rudiger.

It was clearly a tactical substitution.

Still not convinced?

There is footage before the penalties of Kepa studying information on a phone. I guess he got a very important message from his mother about something. Or, more likely, he was being given the information that Caballero would have memorised and trained for throughout the week leading up to the game.

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 17.36.07
Just some revision, maybe… (Via The Ultimate Chelsea Fan TV on YouTube)

After the loss, Sarri reportedly went back to the changing room and sat there by himself for a good amount of time before going to receive his runners-up medal.

What happens next?

Coming into the game, Sarri was under huge pressure. He made changes, and his team played fantastically. But that refusal has over-shadowed the entire performance. In professional football, when your number comes up, you go off and that’s it. What kind of message does this send to the rest of the footballing world?

The Chelsea board have some huge decisions to make regarding Sarri and Kepa Arrizabalaga. They seem to have sided with Maurizio Sarri at first glance, and rightly so. Kepa – Chelsea’s record signing at £71.6m –  has been fined a week’s wages (a reported £195,000), which will be donated to the Chelsea Foundation. An amount that is, truthfully, just a drop-in-the-ocean for the Spanish goalkeeper. But this will not be the end of this debacle, and many people will be interested to see who starts in goal in the next few games.

Next up for Chelsea is a big game against local rivals Tottenham in the league on Wednesday evening (Feb. 27). Tottenham are currently in third, while Sarri’s team – including Kepa, I guess – are in a battle for fourth (the final Champions League spot) with Arsenal and Manchester United. A defeat could signal the end for Sarri, especially after the incident on Sunday.

I guess if Maurizio was to depart, not everybody would be Sarri to see the back of him.