Europa League – Quarter Finals

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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)

 

 

 

Champions League – Quarter Finals

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Via WikiCommons

 

Sport is full of unpredictability, which seems like an understatement on a day when the Golden State Warriors squandered a 31-point lead, at the Oracle Arena (home court) against the eighth seed, L.A. Clippers. Yet, this may be the week of sporting upsets with four closely fought Champions League Quarter Finals about to take place over Tuesday and Wednesday across Europe.

Here’s a look at the four games, and where it may be won and lost.

Barcelona vs Manchester United

Barcelona lead 1-0 after winning in Manchester, thanks to an own goal from Luke Shaw. 

Manchester United are returning to the scene of their most memorable triumph in the Champions League (They beat Bayern Munich of Germany in the final of the 1998-99 competition thanks to two late goals from Teddy Sheringham, and current head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer). The English club will feel confident having knocked out Paris St. Germain in the last round despite losing the first leg in Manchester. However, even the most fanatic United fan could admit that they were a little fortunate in victory.

Similarly, Barcelona haven’t looked all that comfortable despite their 5-1 win against Lyon in the last round. What was once considered to be the best midfield in Europe is starting to show more and more cracks. They are more reliant on their talisman Lionel Messi – 13 goals in his last nine appearances against English sides in the Champions League – who hasn’t really had the support of his teammates. The only player who has played at a high level this year apart from the Argentine, is the Spanish defender Gerard Pique. Long gone are the days when teams would fear the Barcelona midfield. Yes, they can still play keep ball, but they don’t have the same penetration as they once had.

I realise that most people will have ruled out United in this game, and I can understand why, but this Barcelona side can be beaten as long as Solskjaer’s team don’t lose their cool. Barcelona will likely try to use the 90,000+ fans packed into their famous Nou Camp stadium to put pressure on the match officials, and before you know it, Sergio Busquets (Barcelona Midfielder) will start throwing himself all over the ground in his usual heinous way. If the English club can avoid frustration, then they may just be able to upset the odds again, as unlikely as it may be.

Verdict: Barcelona 3 – Manchester United 2 (Barcelona go through 4-2 on aggregate)

Juventus vs Ajax

First leg was a 1-1 draw in Holland. 

Ajax are proving to be the dark horses of the competition this year. They dumped reigning champions Real Madrid out of the tournament with an amazing display of clinical finishing in the previous round. A similar display would have put them clear against Italian champions Juventus in this round. The side from Amsterdam were absolutely fantastic in the first game, but ended up missing chance after chance against a lacklustre Juventus before falling behind to a goal from none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.

These two teams are the complete antithesis of one another, which makes for an interesting match. Juventus have the experienced players, who have proven themselves to be amongst the world’s elite. On the other hand, Ajax will supply the youthful exuberance and in Frenkie De Jong, a player who is seen as the next big player to come out of the Ajax factory.

Verdict: Juventus 1 – Ajax 3 (Ajax go through 4-2 on aggregate)

Porto vs Liverpool

Liverpool lead the tie 2-0 thanks to goals from Naby Keita and Roberto Firminho).

I expect the second-leg in Lisbon to be end-to-end. Both teams definitely favour an attacking style of football, so expect plenty of goals. Although Porto possess some excellent players, well three of them to be precise (Jesus Corona, Octavia and Moussa Marega), they are no match for Liverpool.

Porto, in the last round against Roma, notched up a total of 23 shots (11 on target and 12 off), but ended up needing extra time to make it through. All throughout this year’s competition, they have tried to suffocate teams with their relentless attacking display at home, but Liverpool will be licking their lips at the prospect of seeing the huge spaces that will be left for the likes of Mane, Salah and Firminho to exploit. I expect the tie to be all but over by half-time with Porto coming out to salvage some pride in the second-half.

Verdict: Porto 2 – Liverpool 4 (Liverpool win 6-2 on aggregate)

Manchester City vs Tottenham

Tottenham surprised everyone by winning the first leg 1-0. 

Man City came into the tie as the favourite but were completely outworked in the first leg by a Tottenham side that didn’t stop forcing their will on the opposition throughout the entire 90 minutes. Yet, they only take a slender one-goal advantage into the second-leg which will be played in front of a packed Etihad Stadium. Tottenham will be without captain and top scorer Harry Kane, meaning that the likeable Heung-Min Son will prove the biggest threat to the home side.

Manchester City will definitely come into the game the more nervous out of the two teams as they attempt to achieve a historic quadruple by winning the English Premier League, League Cup, F.A. Cup and Champions League. The omens are not in favour of Pep Guardiola’s team, though. Man City have been eliminated by English clubs on all three occasions and have never managed to over-turn a first-leg defeat.

This is definitely going to be nail-biting tie in which the lack of an away goal for Manchester City will prove costly.

Verdict: Manchester City 2 – Tottenham 1 (Tottenham go through on the away goals rule)

 

Title Decider?

We are only half-way through the season, yet the game tonight between Man City and Liverpool has the ring of a title decider.

A win for the Reds (Liverpool) will put them nine points clear of a very inconsistent Tottenham, and ten ahead of Man City, who are the only serious challengers. I realise that there are still 17 games after this one, with a total of 51 points to play for, but that will not be enough for the chasing pack to pass a formidable Liverpool side (that have only failed to obtain six of the 60 available points possible so far).

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Mohamed Salah

More importantly, Liverpool are playing with freedom, and a swagger that no other team seems to have this year. In Salah, Mane, and Firmino, they have goals. Defensively, they are stronger, and there is a lot of force and doggedness in midfield. Shame about the lack of quality on the bench.

Will a win secure the title with half the season to go?

Short answer: Yes, I believe so!

Looking ahead to Liverpool’s fixtures, they play both Chelsea and Tottenham at home, which is a great advantage. The only tough-looking away fixture is to Old Trafford – to face a rejuvenated Manchester United – on February 24th (a trip that Manchester City also have to make on March 16th).

So, if Liverpool win, the title is theirs.

Can Manchester City stop Liverpool?

Manchester City will be defiant going into the game, despite being on a bit of a bad run of late. Three defeats in the last five league games has put them in a bit of a precarious situation in terms of the title, yet they can go into the game knowing that they dominated Liverpool at Anfield. On that day, surprisingly the game ended goalless. The recent lack of points for Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola shouldn’t surprise anyone. Even at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, it was well-known that if you could get past the initial pressure exerted by Pep’s teams, you had a chance to catch the defence short-handed – something that Chelsea, Palace and especially Wolves have done.

Liverpool are a cut above all three of those teams, and have the ability to demolish what feels like an ageing Manchester City side. Fernandinho doesn’t seem to be able to recover as quickly. David Silva is missing more games than usual. De Bruyne isn’t quite fully fit yet, and Aguero isn’t his usual prolific self.

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No time like the present, Sergio!

Recent history isn’t looking favourably on Man City’s chances either. Liverpool beat their rivals three times during the last campaign, and have only lost twice in their last 11 meetings.

What will happen?

Whatever way you look at it, this is a huge game in the title race. Both Man City and Liverpool are gunning for the trophy, and if Liverpool win, they will all but secure it in my eyes. And yet, I see Man City showing up and closing the gap to the top with a convincing 3-1 win. Eventually, Man City will be able to grind down Liverpool as the season progresses. The expected cries from Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool’s coach) will be about how his players are tired, especially if they progress to the latter stages of other competitions. That’s the reason they weren’t able to secure the title.

Or …

Liverpool win tonight.

They then go on to lift the title …

… And I look like a fool!

 

Manfriend’s Mumblings | Sports Chat: The Champions League 2018

[Hey everyone! Manfriend, here. So, I’m sure people have been worried about my absence, but I decided to take a short break off from blogging after this summer’s awesome World Cup. I wasn’t really sure when to start back up again, but then I got a request from my partner about writing something for the Champions League, so here I am! Let’s get to it.]

The Champions League.

In 1955, what was originally named the European Cup was established. In 1992, the tournament changed its name to Champions League. Today (and in all the years of its history), this tournament is one that excites most football fans around the globe. It is Europe’s No. 1 club competition, and it gives every football club on the continent a “chance” to lift the trophy. Whether you are from one of the big footballing nations, such as, England, Spain, Italy or Germany, or from minnows like Luxembourg or Andorra, as long as you have a recognized domestic league, your clubs have an opportunity to be victorious.

Well, kind of.

Let me explain this thing.

First, how to qualify:

This takes care of itself, really. Every recognized European nation, apart from Liechtenstein (who don’t have a domestic league) will be assigned places in the two European competitions, the other being Europa League, Europe’s second-tier club competition. The allocations are based on the performances of that nation’s domestic clubs over the last five seasons. So, the better your teams perform in Europe, the better your ranking is as a nation, which leads to more spots in the larger competitions. As a result, England and Spain are given four spots apiece, whereas San Marino only get one.

Those allocated spots are filled by clubs who win their domestic leagues or finish in the top four. This all also depends on how many places you have been allocated. For example, the top four teams from England qualify, whereas only the champion from San Marino gets a spot.

On its surface, it may seem unfair. However, it may also be OK. Ultimately, though, the chances are that you will never see that team from San Marino compete, as they have to enter in at the qualification rounds. Think of it as a “getting rid of the trash” round. A nation with one qualifier will need that team to play three to five home and away matches in order to get to the competition proper, while three-quarters of the teams from England qualify automatically for the group stage, with the fourth team having to play just one home and one away tie to make it.

Alas, that’s just how it goes.

(Still don’t get it? Here’s my friend, Wikipedia, to help explain.)

Anyway, once you get to the group stage, that’s when the competition really sets in. Groups are decided with a random draw based on seedings. Once assigned, things kick off!

Eight groups of four teams play in a league format. Each team plays the other three teams both at home and away. The points system is as follows: 0 for a loss, 1 for a draw and 3 for a win. The games are played on a weekly or fortnightly (that’s every two weeks for friends in America) basis, with the top two teams advancing to the knockout stages. The third team drops down to play in the knockout phases of the Europa League. The fourth team is eliminated.

Then there’s a winter break from December to February.

Once we reach the knockout phase, all eight teams who finished first will play the eight teams that finished second, in accordance with another random draw. The games take place at home and away, with the advancing team being decided on by an aggregate score. Winners go into the quarters. The draw repeats, and things go on until there are two left for the final. This year, that match will take place in Madrid.

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Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid, where this season’s final will be held. (WikiCommons)

I realize the Champions League may sound no different to any other football tournament, and that’s partly true. But once again, the drama, talent and unpredictability makes this a great spectacle. The past has seen teams like Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Celtic, Red Star Belgrade, Feyenoord and Steaua Bucharest achieve greatness. Unfortunately, these teams will be very unlikely to repeat such triumphs again, as money has taken over. That doesn’t mean, though, that predicting the winner is easy. It’s predicting the country of origin that’s not so difficult. The last time a team from outside the top four nations (England, Spain, Italy, Germany) won was in 2003/04: Porto of Portugal.

Since then, the top four nations have monopolized victory:

  • England took home three, with Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool;
  • Spain nabbed eight, with Barcelona and Real Madrid each winning four times;
  • Italy took two, with AC Milan and Inter Milan;
  • Germany won one with Bayern Munich.

The last time a club outside one of those four countries even reached the final was in 2003/04, when Monaco lost to Porto. This year, the only chance of it happening will be if PSG (Paris Saint Germain) make it (which wouldn’t shock anyone, as they are filthy rich). Money has completely eradicated the “fairytale ending,” yet, as always, I’m excited.

Why?

Just look at the teams that are involved: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, and the list goes on.

More importantly, my team, Galatasaray from Turkey, are involved again, following some tumultuous years for the club.

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Galatasaray fans in London, cheering the team on in a 2004 match against Chelsea. (WikiCommons)

(Much to my partner’s chagrin,) I will be up at 3 a.m. with my club’s colors on, willing the boys on to victory through the screen of my iPad. I hope you will join me and my team from wherever you are, ideally all the way through the knockout phases (but more likely to the end of the group phase.)

The Champions League is exciting, with a caliber of football skill on show that’s no less fantastic than that of the World Cup. Matches can be full of drama. If that isn’t enough to hook you, then maybe you should listen to the best intro music of any sporting event!

I mean honestly, how could anyone not be a fan of the Champions League?


As of this article’s publishing (Sept. 18, 2018), the Champions League is set to begin. Find information on the tournament here. And from our little home in Beijing: Go Galatasaray!