Barcelona v Man Utd Preview

When club sides Barcelona and Manchester United take the pitch tomorrow it will be the most watched sporting event of this year outside of the 2010 World Cup.  Should it not be considering it’s the biggest club match of the year in the world’s most popular sport?  The encounter will take place two years after these sides met in the Champions League final in Rome.

That match was pitted as United’s all-world player Cristiano Ronaldo versus Barcelona star Lionel Messi.  Ronaldo, is now gone.  But Messi will look to stake his claim once again as the world’s greatest footballer.

United was running rampant the first ten minutes of the match with Ronaldo smashing the crossbar early on.  However, Samuel E’to’o’s goal in the tenth minute quickly turned the game around and the Catalans never looked back as they cruised to a 2-0 victory.

The Red Devils now get a chance at redemption, although heavy underdogs.

What makes this spectacle of an event so intriguing?

How often is it that you get the two best teams in a sport competing for the ultimate prize?  Rarely do the top seeds from the NFL, NBA, and MLB square up against each for the championship.  The NCAA tournament hardly features that.  The BCS surely has its flaws.

But in this Champions League final matchup, Manchester United and Barcelona have proven they’re a step above the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game.  They each won their respective leagues with games to spare.  Both cruised through the knockout stages of the Champions League with relative ease.

Tactically, some say United manager Sir Alex Ferguson got it wrong 2 years ago.  It didn’t help the cause that mid-fielder Darren Fletcher missed the match due to suspension.  Thus causing Ferguson to start Anderson in his place, who quite frankly didn’t play well.  So the question for Sir Alex this year is not only who to start, but what formation to play them in.

For Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, the decision is much easier.  He’ll have the best midfield pair in the world with Xavi and Andres Iniesta.  David Villa and Pedro Hernandez will play up front out wide.  Sergi Busquets will act as the holding midfielder with Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, and possibly Javier Mascherano at the back.  Messi will act as the “false nine” dropping back from the center foward position picking the ball up all over the United half of the pitch.  Victor Valdes will hope to continue his outstanding season as the Barca keeper.

If Flethcer is fit, he’ll surely get the nod for United.  However, he’ll have the daunting task of trying to halt the pairing of Xavi and Iniesta.  The other midfielder will be Michael Carrick, who simply was left chasing the Barcelona midfielders in ’09.

Ji-Sung Park should start on the left wing to combat and track Dani Alves, although watch for him to be all over the pitch trying to disrupt Barca’s fluid passing.  The back four for United is strong featuring arguably the best center pairing in the world with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.  Patrice Evra will look to make his usual bursting runs down the left side of the pitch.  The right back position should feature Rafael da Silva, who will be wanting to makeup for his sending off last season in the Champions League versus Bayern Munich.

Wayne Rooney is a must up front for United.  Look for him to be all over Barcelona’s half trying to breakup the rhythm of their passing.  The two remaining outfield players will be a tougher decision for Ferguson.  If he decides to go 4-2-3-1, that will most likely leave the young Mexican Javier Hernandez out of the lineup.  This would be a difficult decision for Ferguson considering “Chicharito” has scored 20 goals in all competitions this season.

Leaving Nani out of the starting lineup would also be hard for Ferguson.  The Portuguese international has been one of the side’s best players this season.  However, the boss seems to favor Antonio Valencia who has come back very well after his gruesome leg injury in September.

In goal for United will be the Dutch veteran Edwin van der Sar.  The 40-year-old will be making his last appearance in club football as he has announced his retirement at the end of the season.  Despite his age, he is still one of the top keepers in the world.

United will definitely be comfortable with the ground they’re playing on, Wembley Stadium in London.  This is the home turf for the English national team, a pitch players like Rooney, Carrick, and Ferdinand have played on numerous times.  Not to mention this is where the FA and Carling Cups are played, finals which many United players have played in.

In the end, the final score will be determined by the 22 players on the field.  And regardless of that score, Barcelona will almost assuredly have more possession of the ball.  Since 2006, their possession percentage has risen every year in the Champions League.  It’s at an astounding 73% this year.  What United must not do is concede early as they did two years ago.  While Ferdinand and Vidic are rocks at the back together, if one of them gets caught one on one with a Barcelona attacker, it could spell trouble for United. 

United will hope to find breaks on the counter attack and expose Barcelona’s back four.  This is easier said than done, but Carrick and Valencia do have the ability to move the ball up the field quickly.  And if Ferguson decides to start Hernandez, he has more than enough pace to get behind either Puyol or Mascherano.  Not to mention Barca are a team who like to bring players foward, thus making them susceptible to the counter.

For me, the X-factor for Barcelona is Busquets.  Xavi has called him the best one-touch player on the team.  A very high compliment considering how much quality is in their side.  He’ll be in charge of starting Barca’s attack, moving the ball forward to players like Iniesta and Xavi.  Messi will try and make his usual runs towards the penalty area, a spectacular sight to see.  One pundit said the Argentine “can walk on the beach and not leave a single footprint.”  Alluding to the star’s spectacular control with the ball at his feet.

Ultimately there is something monumental at stake for both sides.  United, who secured their 19th domestic league title this year can solidify their position back atop European soccer.  A win for Barcelona means this Catalan side has a legitimate argument of being one of the top club squads to have ever stepped on the field together.

(Kick-off is set for 1:45 p.m. central on FOX from Wembley Stadium in London, England)

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MLS stars square off against Manchester United

There are very few teams that have fans around the world.  When Manchester United take the field tonight against the MLS All-Stars at Reliant Stadium, expect a sea of red jerseys.  United are the world’s most popular team in any sport with an estimated fan base of over 100 million.

Tonight, they will try and do something no other team from Europe has accomplished.  That is defeat the MLS All-Stars.  Since the game was switched to its current format in 2005, the MLS have defeated every one of their foreign oppositions with the exception of Everton a year ago who won in penalties (because Everton won on penalties the game goes down as a draw with them then winning on pk’s).

Landon Donovan

Although this is an exhibition match, something tells me United boss Sir Alex Ferguson wants to leave with a victory.  The Red Devils will have to do so without the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ji-Sung Park, Nemanja Vidic, and Patrice Evra who are being rested after recently playing in the World Cup.  Rio Ferdinand is also a no-go due to injury.

United still have plenty of quality players though with veterans Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.  Portuguese winger Nani will also be available after missing the World Cup due to injury.  There’s also talented youngsters Danny Welbeck, Gabriel Obertan, and Federico Macheda.

The biggest signing for Manchester United this summer was Mexico International Javier Hernandez.  He linked up with the team this Tuesday in Houston to train for the first time.  The up-and-coming forward scored twice for Mexico in the World Cup.  Sir Alex Ferguson is still unsure whether Hernandez will debut tonight.

“We’d like to use him part of the game,” Ferguson said. “We’re trying to integrate him into the team as quickly as possible. … But we want to have a chat with him to see what he’s been doing physically, because I don’t think it would be wise to play him without any physical preparation.”

Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy should feature later in the match.  Donovan and teammate Donovan Ricketts flew in this morning after playing a CONCACAF Champions League match in Los Angeles last night.

Unhappy Torres a problem for Liverpool

After finishing a disappointing seventh last season in the Premier League, star striker Fernando Torres is uneasy with the club.  Captain and long-time Liverpool man Steven Gerrard recently committed his future to the club amidst speculation he may be heading to Spain.

New manager Roy Hodgson is hoping Torres will follow Gerrard’s lead and remain at Anfield.  However, he knows that he has little say in Torres’ future plans.

Hodgson told the News of the World: “Unfortunately, I cannot do much more. His beef is with the club and not me. Fernando’s situation has nothing to do with me, he made that perfectly clear over the phone during the World Cup and when I met him face-to-face.”

“He knows what I would like to do with the club. He knows how much I value him. But his issues are with what has gone on in the past rather than the future. If he has problems with the club for things in the past, it is difficult for me to dismiss that.”

Former Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish is confident the signing of Joe Cole this summer and the retention of Gerrard will persuade Torres to stay put at the club.

Dalglish, said: “When Torres sees that [Cole signing] and talks with Roy I am sure he will give us good news. I hope Torres stays. Only Fernando knows what is going to do. Unfortunately for him he is injured, but he is a fantastic player and is very happy around the club and the city.”

Fernando Torres isn't sure where he'll be this season

Last season, Torres signed a four year contract extension.  Since arriving at Liverpool in 2007, he has been outstanding.  While he flopped at the World Cup this summer, Torres is still one of the most feared strikers in the world.

Should Torres be heading out of Anfield, Chelsea are rumored to be a destination for him.  Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich isn’t afraid to spend money to become the best.  In late May, Chelsea were believed to launch a bid worth over 80 million pounds.

With a debt of around 350 million pounds, Liverpool owners may sell Torres regardless of Hodgson’s wishes.  And with no Champions League soccer this season, their income will be less than normal.

The bottom line is Liverpool can’t afford to lose Fernando Torres.  Outside of Steven Gerrard, Torres is the only real consistent goal-scoring threat.  The addition of Joe Cole will help replace Yossi Benayoun who is now ironically with Chelsea.  However, Cole has been plagued by injuries recently.  Something Torres knows too much about as well.

For now it appears as though Liverpool will remain outside the top four in England.

Thierry Henry joins Red Bulls of MLS

Compared to foreign leagues, the MLS might as well stand for Minor League Soccer.  Watching the Premier League or the Italian Serie A makes the MLS look amateur.  For soccer to become bigger in America, our own league must become more popular.

On the field, the MLS took a gigantic step forward with the New York Red Bulls signing of French striker Thierry Henry to a multiyear contract.  This isn’t David Beckham coming to the states to parade around L.A. and grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Henry is a far better player than Beckham, and at 32, still has the desire to win.

“Some people might think I am going to go there for vacation — I do actually go there for vacation — but it won’t be for vacation this time,” Henry said in a video interview on the club website. “I’m a competitor and I don’t like to lose.”

Henry is Arsenal’s (of the English Premier League) all-time goal scorer having played there from 1999-2007.  He helped France win the 1998 World Cup on its home soil.  His briefest stint came with FC Barcelona where he helped them knock off Manchester United in last year’s Champions League Final.

Henry for his most recent club Barcelona

Red Bull fans will hope the combination of Henry and leading scorer Juan Pablo Angel can lead them to their first MLS title.

“I think it means everything for the industry in this country,” Angel said. “He’s arguably one of the best players in our generation. He’s a player that has won everything he could possibly win in this sport and he’s still fit. I think it’s an honor to have him here. He’s going to be a tremendous addition to the league, to the Red Bulls.”

Henry’s playing style will bring a flare the MLS lacks.  His ability to score from one-on-ones (meaning when he is one-on-one with a defender) will be exciting for spectators of the game.  While he does not have the pace he possessed in his prime, Henry still has the tenacity and skill to be one of the best players in the league.

Fans will not have to wait long to see the debut of Henry.  He is scheduled to take the field in an exhibition match on July 22 against the Premier League’s Tottenham.

Final Thoughts on the World Cup

Best Game

Uruguay vs. Ghana.  Quarter-final match ups in World Cup play usually produce some of the best games.  This one was full of open play from the start.  Diego Forlan equalized in the second half from a free kick.  This game will be remembered however for the Luis Suarez handball.  With virtually no time left in the second period of extra-time, the Uruguayan forward showed his lack of defensive skills by handling the ball just before it crossed into his own net.  The rest, was well history.  Asamoah Gyan stepped up to the penalty spot with a chance to send Ghana to the semi-final.  His subsequent miss and Ghana’s loss on penalties shattered the continent of Africa’s hope.

Best Player

No player meant more to his team in this World Cup than Uruguay striker Diego Forlan.  He was by far the best player on an average team.  Without him they do not make it out of the group stage.  Forlan constantly kept his team in games by scoring goals (against Ghana and The Netherlands).  He tied for the lead in goals at this World Cup with 5.  His outstanding performance in the World Cup added to his stellar season for his club team Atletico Madrid.

Biggest Flop (player)

I’ll go ahead and give two names, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.  Outside of Cristiano Ronaldo’s garbage time goal vs. North Korea, the former Manchester United teammates were MIA throughout the whole tournament.  Rooney played on a much hyped England team that barely made it out of arguably the easiest group in the tournament.  There were stretches of several games where Rooney went without touching the ball.  He actually was involved in less goals than the U.S. group of forwards.

In fairness to Ronaldo he played two of the tougher teams in Brazil and Spain.  However, the Portuguese defense only allowed one goal in the tournament.  Thus, they needed only a little magic from Ronaldo for them to advance.  He stayed true to his previous form though, and provided little firepower for his country.

Cristiano Ronaldo (left) and Wayne Rooney provided little for their countries

Biggest disappointment (team)

So many to choose from here.  Will it be Italy, France, or England?  For my money it has to be Italy.  I know France caused the biggest news of the tournament with their internal problems.  However, they got to the World Cup based on some controversy of their own with Thierry Henry’s infamous handball.  England never played as a team and was embarrassed by Germany, but so was Argentina.

Italy came into this tournament as the champions from 2006.  They qualified relatively easily and were put into one of the easier groups.  However, their defense which helped them lift the trophy four years ago was ultimately their downfall at this tournament.  2006 MVP Fabio Cannavaro, the anchor of the defense, looked slow and off pace.  Italy was not a favorite to repeat as champions.  Many experts predicted they would fall in the quarter-finals.  No one saw them making an early exit in the group stage.

Best moment

As an American spectator, how could it not be Landon Donovan’s goal to send the U.S. past the group stage.  Donovan became only the second player in World Cup history to score a goal that late to send his team to the next knockout round.  The U.S. easily deserved to go through from their group.  They played with England in a 1-1 draw, should have beaten Slovenia had it not been for a disallowed goal, and outplayed a defensive minded Algeria in their final group match.  As joyful as the Donovan goal was, equally heartbreaking was Asamoah Gyan’s goal in extra time which ultimately put the U.S. out of the tournament.

Deserving Spain Wins Its First World Cup

They weren’t flashy.  It wasn’t always pretty to watch.  But the best team in the world won today.  Scoring only 8 goals throughout the tournament, Spain was the first team to win the cup scoring that few of goals.  At times, they weren’t enjoyable to watch because of how methodically they passed the ball around the midfield.  Make no mistake about it though, they controlled every game they played in South Africa.

Since their Euro win two summers ago, Spain has been the best team on the planet.  Following a draw against Italy in the quarter-finals (which they won in penalties), the Spanish went on a record breaking run of 15 consecutive wins.  Their win today was a microcosm of the way they’ve played the last couple of years.  Pass, pass, pass, and keep possession of the ball.

They also relied heavily on arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas.  Xavi was again excellent in the midfield and Andres Iniesta provided a clinical finish to put the Dutch away in extra time.  All of this was accomplished without much of a contribution from star striker Fernando Torres who was one of the bigger disappointments at this World Cup.

After falling to Switzerland in their opening match of the group stages, virtually every game from then on was a must win for Spain.  And after allowing one goal versus the Swiss, Spain did not concede the rest of the tournament.  They blanketed Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and controlled the tempo of the games against Chile and Germany.

Iker Casillas captained Spain to its first World Cup title

As I’ve said before Spain was probably the most complete team in this tournament.  Outside of Fernando Torres struggling it was hard to find a weakness to this side.  Their midfield play is easily the best in the world.  Striker David Villa tied for the lead in goals with 5.  Carles Puyol was a rock at the center of the defense, and Sergio Ramos proved time and time again his offensive presence from the right back position.

Spain is not always listed with the other great footballing nations such as Brazil, Germany, or Italy.  However, they have a talented pool of youth which should keep them at the top of the world’s most popular sport.

The Future of U.S. Soccer

Since the Unite States made their spectacular run to the quarter-finals at the 2002 World Cup, optimism about the future of soccer in the states has risen.  A much anticipated squad at the 2006 finals failed to live up to expectations after falling to Ghana in the final group stage match and only mustering one goal (the other was an own goal provided by Italy).  After the heartbreaking lost to Ghana this summer, there are many questions about the future of U.S. soccer.

Will Bob Bradley be the coach in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup?  Only two coaches at this World Cup were with their teams at the 2006 World Cup (France’s Raymond Domenech and Italy’s Marcello Lippi).  What the U.S. Soccer Federation has to decide is if Bob Bradley is the right guy for the future of this team.  There is no question he has met expectations in reaching the round of 16 at this World Cup.  His team also knocked off Spain at last year’s Confederations Cup.

The U.S. is booming with youthful talent with the likes of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Jose Torres.  Whether Bob Bradley is fit to groom this youth is still up in the air.  Before hiring Bradley, the U.S. pondered hiring German Jurgen Klinsmann, who coincidentally has lived in Los Angeles for 12 years.  In my opinion, this would be a great hire for the future if he is interested.

Questions will arise about the status of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey at the next World Cup.  Based on their ages, Donovan 28 and Dempsey 27, they should be able to play in another World Cup.  However, Dempsey’s vigorous style of play may limit his future.  Landon Donovan is now the most decorated American soccer player.  One thing I do not want to see is him rewarded a spot at the 2014 World Cup based on that virtue.

Up top, I like Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies a lot.  I can’t stress that enough.  While Altidore did not have a great tournament, at 20 he is still very raw and will only get better playing overseas.  Davies has the fantastic pace you like from a forward and has shown the ability to get behind defenses.

The midfield may be the strength of this next wave of U.S. players.  Virtually everyone who featured at this World Cup will be at the next one.  Michael Bradleyand Jose Torres are still young and will certainly keep developing.  Benny Feilhaber also provides an offensive presence from the midfield position.  The 2010 World Cup is likely the last time we will see DaMarcus Beasly in a major tournament for the U.S.

The biggest uncertainty facing the U.S. in the next World Cup will be the defensive line.  Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, and Jay DeMerit are all over 30.  Oguchi Onyewu will anchor the defense for the next years.  The right back of the future appears to be Jonathan Spector who features regularly for West Ham United of the English Premier League.

The left back position will be up for grabs with the likes of Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce.  Keep an eye on Edgar Castillo.  The 23 year old has a dual citizen-ship for the United States and Mexico.  After being passed over by Sven Goran Erikkson for the Mexican National team he switched his allegiance to the U.S. and earned his cap against Denmark last November.  He provides the pace and skill from the left back position to be a real offensive threat, something the U.S. has always lacked.

At goalie, Tim Howard is without question the number one man.  He is arguably the best player on the roster.  Playing in the Premier League at Everton he will only get better with age.  This is the safest position on the squad.

Will Clint Dempsey (left) and Landon Donovan be seen at the next World Cup?

Make no mistake about it, the U.S. lived up to expectations at this World Cup.  They not only made it out of the group stage, but attained first place.  Soccer starts at the youth level.  In some ways it is a sport for poverty.  It requires only a round object to kick around.  The goals can be made using virtually anything, and the field well, you get the picture.  All you need is some grass.  For soccer in the United States to keep blossoming, kids need to start playing it like a bad habit after they get home from elementary school.  There is plenty of talent in the states for the U.S. to become a footballing nation.

Predicted starting line-up for Brazil 2014: Tim Howard, Edgar Castillo, Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Oyewu, Maurice Edu, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies

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