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Relentless Monaco dream on after reaching semis

April 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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A brilliant Monaco side that has taken Europe by storm will not relent in their bid for glory after beating Borussia Dortmund to reach the Champions League semi-finals, promised coach Leonardo Jardim.

Monaco

The team from the Mediterranean principality were too good for their German opponents in Wednesday’s quarter-final second leg, winning 3-1 at the Stade Louis II to advance 6-3 on aggregate.

“We have won nothing, but we have made history,” declared Portuguese coach Jardim after the game, as his side extended a run that began in the third qualifying round against Fenerbahce last July, nine months ago.

Teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe, skipper Radamel Falcao and substitute Valere Germain got their goals with Marco Reus netting for Dortmund on a memorable night for the hosts.

The last team to come through two qualifying rounds to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League was Dynamo Kiev in 1999, although the format was different in those days.

Nobody expected Monaco — conquerors of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the last round — to get this far but they have done it playing a superb brand of football that has yielded 141 goals so far this season.

Now they are preparing for their first semi-final appearance since 2004 as they join Juventus, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the draw.

None of those teams will fancy playing Monaco, who for all Paris Saint-Germain’s efforts in recent years will be the first French representative in the last four since Lyon in 2010.

“We have taken France into the semi-finals. We want to go out and enjoy it but all four sides are capable of winning the competition,” warned Jardim, whose team were visited by Prince Albert in the dressing room afterwards.

Monaco are not just fighting for glory in Europe — they are also top of the French league and in the French Cup semi-finals, but fatigue is their biggest foe now.

“It’s not easy to play in Europe and try to win the league. We are the team that has played the most games in Europe, so it’s tough,” added a coach who has been linked to Arsenal in the British media.

“Maybe if we had lost in the last 16 we would be fresher now, but we won’t ask our players to change their mentality. We just need to recover well.”

A crunch game at Lyon awaits in the league at the weekend as they look to keep going on all fronts.

“If I have to choose, it’s normal to prefer to win the Champions League, but maybe our chances of winning it are slimmer than winning the league. We will give everything in both,” added the coach.

For Dortmund, elimination was hard to take but the tie was overshadowed by the bomb attack on their team bus en route to last week’s first leg which left Marc Bartra with a broken wrist.

Bartra was there to support his teammates in Monaco but it was another difficult night as their bus was delayed in leaving for the ground, held up by police for security reasons.

“It was the worst thing that could happen a week after the attack — everyone was on the bus ready to go but we were not allowed to,” said coach Thomas Tuchel.

The kick-off was delayed by five minutes but Dortmund’s concentration was again affected.

“It’s only eight days after the terrible attack so we shouldn’t lend too much significance to the team’s performance,” added Tuchel, who was taking charge of Dortmund for the 100th time.

“It was very difficult for the players so I can’t be too critical. We felt ready to push for a semi-final place before the tie but things changed dramatically.”

Dortmund are fourth in the Bundesliga and Tuchel added: “Our path does not end here. We will not be favourites next year but we need to qualify first and then be as unpleasant to play against as possible.”

Steely Juventus shut down Barca to kill off comeback hopes

April 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona’s hopes of staging another sensational Champions League comeback fell flat against a hardened Juventus side who held the Catalans to a 0-0 draw on Wednesday at the Nou Camp to reach the semi-finals 3-0 on aggregate.

TOPSHOT-FBL-EUR-C1-BARCELONA-JUVENTUS

The Italian champions barely gave Barca a glimmer of hope of repeating their historic turnaround against Paris St Germain in the last 16 and protected their healthy advantage from the first leg by starving the hosts of space and clear sights of goal.

Lionel Messi came closest to giving Barca a route back into the contest with four strikes at goal but failed to hit the target with any of them and frequently came up short against Juve’s intimidating centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

Twice European champions Juve lacked the spark and power of their thrilling first-leg victory in Turin, but there was rarely any doubt they would exact revenge for their defeat to Barca in the 2015 Champions League final by reaching the semis for a 12th time.

Barca coach Luis Enrique had said before the game that if Barca managed to strike early then the noise of the Nou Camp would suck the other goals in.

Juventus, however, showed in the opening stages that they are made of sterner stuff than PSG, who gave up a 4-0 first-leg advantage Massimiliano Allegris side pressed Barca in their own half and limited the supply to the front three.

Messi almost managed to pick out Jordi Alba with a hooked pass and later played a one-two with the Spaniard before dragging narrowly wide of the far post.

Ivan Rakitic and Neymar also missed the target with hopeful efforts but Juventus’ aggressive gameplan limited how much attacking Barca could do without leaving themselves exposed.

Gonzalo Higuain cracked a shot over the bar before the break while the probing Juan Cuadrado almost picked out the Argentine striker in the middle, but was thwarted by a brilliant block from Gerard Pique.

Barca increased their grip on possession after the break and spent most of the remainder of the game in their opponents’ half trying to carve out chances, but Juve were always ready for them.

Messi whipped a free kick onto the roof of the net and slammed another shot wide before spurning his best chance, a volley which fizzed over the bar.

Barca right back Sergi Roberto attempted a repeat of his heroic strike against PSG, but also missed the target, unable to prevent his side’s second successive elimination at the quarter-final stage, which will provoke much soul-searching at the five-times European champions.

Ronaldo hat-trick fires Real into semis

April 19, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo scored a controversial hat-trick to become the first man to reach 100 Champions League goals as Real Madrid overcame 10-man Bayern Munich 4-2 after extra time in Tuesday’s thrilling quarter-final second leg.

Ronaldo

The holders surged through 6-3 on aggregate at an exhilarated Santiago Bernabeu to take their place in Friday’s semi-final draw for a record seventh consecutive year.

But Real were pushed all the way by Bayern, who battled back from a 2-1 first-leg deficit to send the tie into extra time thanks to Robert Lewandowski’s penalty and an own goal from Sergio Ramos.

However, after Arturo Vidal was sent off, Ronaldo hit the century mark in Europe’s top club competition on 104 minutes and completed his hat-trick five minutes later.

Bayern were left incensed, though, as Ronaldo’s second and third goals were clearly offside.

“To score six goals against a team like Bayern Munich isn’t easy so we deserved to go through,” the Portuguese striker told Spanish TV station Antena 3.

“Real Madrid is Real Madrid, we are used to suffering and we are happy to be in the semis once again.”

Marco Asensio gave a night of high-class action the finale it deserved with a sensational solo goal to rub salt in Bayern wounds.

“The (red) card for Arturo wasn’t a card and then the two goals from Cristiano are offside so clearly we are not happy,” said Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti.

“In a quarter-final you have to put a better referee, or it is the moment to introduce video refereeing, which is what UEFA are trying because there are too many errors.”

The German champions had been beaten on their previous four trips to Spain without even scoring a goal.

However, knowing they needed at least two to progress, Ancelotti’s men started on the front foot and were left to rue a huge opportunity just eight minutes in.

Marcelo made a miraculous block to deny Thiago Alcantara before former Real winger Arjen Robben scuffed into the side-netting on his trusted left foot.

Much like the first leg, Madrid weathered the early storm and had plenty of chances to go in front before half time.

Jerome Boateng bailed out a rare mistake from goalkeeper Manuel Neuer as he cleared off the line from Ramos after Neuer fumbled a simple cross.

The half-time whistle brought some respite to proceedings on the field, although the Bayern fans were involved in a minor clash with police at the break.

The disturbances quickly died down and Bayern soon gave the travelling 4,000 from Germany something to cheer when play resumed.

Another goal-line clearance by Marcelo from Robben’s dinked effort temporarily saved Madrid.

But the hosts didn’t escape moments later when referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot as Robben went down under a challenge from Casemiro.

Lewandowski stayed cool under the pressure and converted from the spot for his 39th goal of the season.

Ronaldo looked to have eased Madrid’s nerves when he steered Casemiro’s cross into the far corner 14 minutes from time.

However, Real’s celebrations were very short-lived as just a minute later the ball ricocheted around their box and Ramos turned into his own net.

The balance of a topsy-turvy tie turned Madrid’s way again with five minutes remaining as just as in the first leg, Bayern were reduced to 10 men when Vidal saw a second yellow card for chopping down Asensio.

The extra man proved decisive as Madrid settled the tie with a three-goal burst either side of half time in extra time.

Ronaldo took advantage at not being flagged for offside as he controlled and fired low past Neuer to become the first man to reach a Champions League century.

Four minutes into the second period of extra time he had Marcelo to thank for a brilliant run and unselfish pass that allowed the Portuguese the simplest of finishes to complete his hat-trick despite again being in an offside position.

And Asensio sealed victory in sensational style with a stunning solo run and low right-footed finish as many Bayern players sank to their knees knowing Champions League glory had passed them by for another year.

Vardy in vain as Atletico end Leicester fairytale

April 19, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Jamie Vardy scored in vain as Leicester City’s Champions League fairytale came to a valiant end following a 1-1 quarter-final draw at home to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.

Atletico

Seeking to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit, Leicester fell further behind to Saul Niguez’s first-half header, before Vardy’s 61st-minute strike gave them hope.

But despite heavy Leicester pressure and furious noise inside the King Power Stadium, Atletico completed a 2-1 aggregate win to reach the semi-finals for the third time in four seasons.

“We had them rattled with the effort and commitment we showed. It’s no discredit to lose to a team of that calibre,” Leicester manager Craig Shakespeare told BT Sport.

“The whole club, from the supporters to the players to the owners can be immensely proud, but I’ve just said to the players that they should want more of this and they’ve agreed that that’s what they want.”

Leicester had hoped to become the competition’s first debutant semi-finalists since Villarreal in 2006, but they were unable to engineer a repeat of their last-16 triumph against Sevilla.

Their exit brings to an end a golden adventure sparked by last season’s stunning Premier League title win.

Having successfully staved off the threat of relegation under new manager Shakespeare, the rest of their season now holds nothing more than a return to pre-title normality.

It is the third time Atletico have eliminated Leicester from continental competition, after previous triumphs in the 1961-62 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1997-98 UEFA Cup.

Beaten by city foes Real Madrid in the 2014 and 2016 finals, Diego Simeone’s side can continue to dream that this will be the year they finally end their wait for European football’s biggest prize.

“I’m full of emotion and pride at the performance of my team,” said Simeone.

“I also have to say, what a great performance from our opponents. It was almost a pleasure to compete against them.”

Leicester’s desire to make the most of the occasion was clear from the start, pyrotechnics greeting the players as they came out while fans twirled blue, white and gold foil flags distributed by the club.

But whereas Leicester had quickly taken charge of their second-leg match against Sevilla in the previous round, Atletico made it clear they would not be pushed around.

They defended with their customary tenacity, while two dangerous crosses from Yannick Carrasco — preferred up front to the fit-again Kevin Gameiro — demonstrated their threat on the counter.

It was just as Leicester were threatening to make inroads, Shinji Okazaki stabbing wide at the near post from Vardy’s cross, that the visitors tightened their grip on the tie.

Filipe Luis was given space to shape a cross into the box from the left and the unmarked Saul expertly guided a header past Kasper Schmeichel’s outstretched right hand.

Riyad Mahrez volleyed straight at Jan Oblak at the other end after Marc Albrighton’s cross was headed away, but it was the voices of the away fans that rang loudest as the half-time whistle sounded.

The second half brought with it drastic changes for the hosts, with Ben Chilwell and Leonardo Ulloa replacing Yohan Benalouane and Okazaki as Shakespeare switched to a bold 3-4-3 system.

Antoine Griezmann gave them a scare with an early dart into the box, but Atletico soon found themselves on the back foot.

After left wing-back Chilwell thrashed over, Leicester levelled, Vardy slamming in from inside the six-yard box after Chilwell’s shot had been charged down by Stefan Savic.

The final half-hour was virtually one-way traffic, but Atletico repelled everything Leicester threw at them.

Ulloa and Vardy both had shots blocked, while Vardy’s flick was caught by Oblak and Mahrez whipped a free-kick narrowly over the bar.

Leicester captain Wes Morgan, passed fit to play after six games out with a back problem, succumbed to injury late on, symbolically hobbling off as Leicester’s European dream faded away.

Barca need five to beat Juve – Luis Enrique

April 18, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona will need to hit at least five goals past Juventus to produce another miracle Champions League comeback, but have nothing to lose according to outgoing coach Luis Enrique.

Barcelona news conference - UEFA Champions League Quarterfinal

The Catalans made Champions League history by overcoming a 4-0 first leg deficit to beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the last round, but have another mountain to climb at the Camp Nou on Wednesday as they trail their quarter-final tie 3-0.

“We need to score fewer goals,” said an upbeat Enrique facing what could be his last European game in charge. “But bearing in mind the opponent could have chances and the goal can come at any moment, our objective is to score five.”

Enrique foresaw Barca’s recovery in the last 16, claiming an attack laced with the potential of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar was capable of scoring six against the French champions.

And he called for an expected near 100,000 crowd to play their part as they did against PSG.

“We don’t have anything to lose. We are free from pressure. Juventus have the semi-finals in their pocket and will have to decide whether to sit back or attack,” he added.

“We only have one option which is to attack, attack and attack again.

“I am sure that if we score the first goal, the Camp Nou will score the second and the third will come of its own accord.”

Barca captain Andres Iniesta was more cautious in his optimism, recognising the first leg in Turin had been “a terrible result.”

However, he believes Barca have the potential to at least create some doubt in Juventus minds.

“Nowadays teams respect us a lot. I am convinced they know we can cause them problems,” said Iniesta.

“We have the potential, the players and reason to believe we can turn this tie around or at least get close to it.

“We need to create doubts so at some point they see the tie is in danger.

“Everything depends on playing a perfect game in every sense.”

Barca scored three times in the final two minutes plus stoppage time as PSG froze in a grandstand finish six weeks ago.

And Enrique insisted Barca can’t lose belief even if the goals don’t come early against a Juventus defence that has conceded just two in nine Champions League games this season.

“Don’t leave in the 80th minute,” he said in a message to the fans.

“We are going to try until the end. Those of us who experienced the game against PSG have another chance to experience a historic night.

“We have seen that Barca can score three goals in three minutes so we will stay together until the 95th minute.”

Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini won his latest battle with Luis Suarez in the first leg after the Uruguayan famously bit the Italian at the 2014 World Cup.

Chiellini scored his side’s third goal a week ago after Paulo Dybala’s early double and insists Juventus will need all their experience to stand up to Barca’s “sharks”.

“We will have to play without fear because they are like sharks – they smell blood and they finish you off,” he told Sky Sports Italia.

The visitors were handed a big injury boost as Dybala has been passed fit to play despite picking up an ankle injury in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Pescara.

Barca will welcome back Iniesta and Neymar from the side that beat Real Sociedad 3-2 at the weekend with Messi’s double in that match taking him within two of 500 goals for the club.

Barcelona eye another famous comeback with semis in sight

April 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Little over a month after producing the greatest comeback in Champions League history, Barcelona need another special turnaround as they face Juventus in the second leg of their quarter-final on Wednesday.

Barcelona

Luis Enrique’s side were taken apart in the first leg in Turin, losing 3-0 to a Juve team inspired by Paulo Dybala, who scored twice.

In the last 16 they became the first team ever to overturn a 4-0 deficit when they beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the return at the Camp Nou, so fans are hoping for a similar “remuntada” this time.

“We are going to take as many risks as we need to the point that we could go out with eight strikers, as we have nothing to lose,” said Luis Enrique after Saturday’s 3-2 defeat of Real Sociedad.

The Barcelona coach also called for supporters “to have faith in these players who have won everything. This is a squad of champions.”

But he added: “The thing is that we are used to always eating beluga caviar. That can’t go on forever.”

Barca welcome back midfielder Sergio Busquets from suspension, while Juve are hopeful Dybala will be ready after he came off in the 2-0 weekend win at Pescara with a sprained ankle.

“We have four days and we need to be optimistic,” declared coach Massimiliano Allegri.

In contrast to their fierce rivals, Real Madrid are very much on course for a semi-final berth after their 2-1 win away to Bayern Munich last week.

The sides clash at the Santiago Bernabeu in Tuesday’s second leg with the Germans looking to become just the third side to overturn a first-leg home defeat to win a Champions League tie.

Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti has fitness concerns with leading scorer Robert Lewandowski hopeful of returning from a shoulder injury.

Defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are also fighting to be fit, while Javi Martinez is suspended.

“We go to Madrid well aware of the fact that nothing is impossible,” Thomas Mueller told Bundesliga.com.

“We’re annoyed any time we don’t win, but we have our own way of playing. No matter what problems or injuries we have to deal with, we’re always able to put a strong team out there on the pitch.”

Gareth Bale is struggling to shake off a calf problem for Real, who have lost just twice in 12 past home meetings with Bayern.

Borussia Dortmund go to Monaco still shaken by the events of last week, when the first leg between the clubs was postponed by 24 hours following the bomb attack on the German team’s bus en route to the game.

Dortmund went on to lose 3-2 to the French league leaders but morale was lifted as they got back to winning ways in the Bundesliga at the weekend, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 3-1.

After that game, the Dortmund players paid tribute to defender Marc Bartra by holding his number five shirt aloft as they celebrated in front of their fans.

Spanish international Bartra had earlier been released from hospital after having surgery on a broken wrist suffered in the attack.

“This gesture shows how important the things off the field are to us at this moment, and that Marc gets better soon and that we are all still here,” said Dortmund captain Marcel Schmelzer.

Monaco, looking to become the first French side in the Champions League semi-finals since Lyon seven years ago, are missing the banned Fabinho as well as Djibril Sidibe, who is recovering from appendicitis.

Leicester City have defensive concerns as they look to turn around a 1-0 deficit when they host last season’s runners-up Atletico Madrid.

Robert Huth is suspended and the Foxes are hoping Wes Morgan can return from a back injury as the English champions look to extend their run in Europe. Atletico have French striker Kevin Gameiro back from a groin injury.

Ronaldo hits 100th European goal as Real Madrid win at Bayern

April 13, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo netted his 100th European goal on Wednesday to give holders Real Madrid a 2-1 comeback win at 10-man Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final, first-leg.

Ronaldo

“I wanted to reach this record. To be able to reach this mark is an honour and against a team like Bayern it is even better,” Ronaldo, who scored both goals, told BeIN Sport Spain.

Arturo Vidal headed Bayern into a first-half lead, but then skied a penalty attempt on the stroke of half-time before Ronaldo volleyed the defending champions’ level.

Bayern played the last half an hour a man down after centre-back Javi Martinez was sent off for two fouls on Ronaldo within three minutes of each other.

Four-time world player of the year Ronaldo then slotted in the winner between goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s legs for the winner 13 minutes from time.

“We believe we can still do it, we were the better team in the first half, could have made it 2-0 or 3-0,” Neuer told ZDF.

But Bayern were outplayed in the second-half and most of Real’s 23 shots on goal came after the break.

“We had everything under control in the first half, but didn’t use the room consistently,” said captain Philipp Lahm. “The tipping point was the red card.”

Security was tight at the Allianz Arena in the wake of Tuesday’s attacks on the Borussia Dortmund team bus and both teams arrived with a heavy police escort.

There was a large police presence and inside the stadium there was polite applause when the announcer made reference to Dortmund’s ordeal in the preceeding 24 hours.

Bayern suffered a blow before kick-off when top-scorer Robert Lewandowski, who has netted 38 goals this season, dropped out with a bruised shoulder and Thomas Muller deputised as striker.

Bayern were also missing injured Germany defender Mats Hummels against Real’s formidable BBC attack – Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo.

Bayern went ahead on 25 minutes when playmaker Thiago Alcantara swung in a corner from the right which Vidal powered through Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas’s hands.

The Chile midfielder could have added a second when he headed Arjen Robben’s cross wide of the post soon after.

Real made a poor start, rarely threatening Germany’s goalkeeper Neuer, back after minor foot surgery a fortnight ago.

A strong drive from Ronaldo on 41 minutes which Neuer blocked having palmed a Benzema header onto the woodwork with 18 minutes played were their best first-half chances.

Vidal could have finished with a first-half hat-trick when he stepped up to take a penalty after Dani Carvajal’s handball from a Franck Ribery shot.

However, the Chilean smashed the spot-kick high over the crossbar.

It was a miss Bayern were soon to regret.

Real were level two minutes after the break when Carvajal found space on the right and fired in a cross which Ronaldo volleyed past Neuer.

Bale, who has laboured with an ankle injury recently, came off on 58 minutes and Real raised the tempo after he trudged off.

Having already picked up a yellow card for pulling Ronaldo back on 58 minutes, Martinez was shown a red for again fouling the Portugal captain just three minutes later.

Real’s superstar then hit the winner as substitute Marco Asensio, on for Bale, put in a low pass for Ronaldo to tap the ball home between Neuer’s legs.

Real defender Sergio Ramos had the ball in the Bayern net with time running out, but the goal was ruled offside but the Spaniards have the upper hand for the second leg at home next Tuesday.

Barca complete incredible comeback to sink PSG

March 9, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona became the first team in Champions League history to overturn a four-goal deficit in a knockout tie as a stoppage-time goal by Sergio Roberto completed an extraordinary 6-1 victory over Paris St Germain on Wednesday.

Barcelona's Sergi Roberto celebrates scoring their sixth goal with team mates and fans

Edinson Cavani looked to have wrecked Barcelona’s dreams by volleying in an away goal to make the score 3-1 but two late strikes from Neymar set up a thrilling finale before Roberto scored to seal a 6-5 aggregate win for the Spanish side.

Barcelona began to believe in the impossible dream of clawing back their shock 4-0 loss from the first leg when Luis Suarez headed over the line in the third minute and a Layvin Kurzawa own goal gave them further hope before the break.

Lionel Messi’s penalty five minutes into the second period had the Nou Camp on its feet but Cavani’s strike in the 62nd was a sucker punch to Barca’s ambitions from which Luis Enrique’s side took a while to recover.

A curled free kick from Neymar in the 88th minute gave them hope and the Brazilian converted a penalty before substitute Roberto slid in to knock the ball beyond Kevin Trapp from a chipped free kick and send Barca through to the last eight.

An electric atmosphere gripped the Nou Camp before kick-off after Suarez and Luis Enrique had said they truly believed a comeback was on and the players caught the wave of optimism by swarming all over PSG from the first whistle.

Trapp struggled to cope with the early pressure and flapped at a high ball, allowing Suarez to jump ahead of him and force the ball over the line.

PSG had a penalty appeal turned down when Julian Draxler’s low cross struck Javier Mascherano’s arm but it was one of few forays forward from PSG in the first half as Barca did all the attacking.

The Catalans owed their second to another piece of slack defending, however, as Iniesta nudged his way past Marquinhos in the area to knock the ball back into the danger zone and it bounced off the swinging leg of Kurzawa and into the far corner.

PSG riled Barca supporters by coming back on to the pitch after the break a few minutes late but the Nou Camp was soon celebrating a third as Messi powered a penalty past Trapp after Neymar had been tripped by Thomas Meunier.

Cavani hit the post but made amends by smashing a loose ball home, although he should have added another but was denied by the feet of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

At the time it did not look to be a crucial miss but Barca had other ideas, scoring three times in six minutes to complete an incredible comeback.

Barcelona seek miracle as Bayern, Real eye Champions League quarters

March 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona striker Neymar vowed his side will throw everything at Paris Saint-Germain in their bid to overturn a four-goal deficit in the Champions League last 16 this week.

Barcelona

PSG fired a significant warning of intent throughout Europe with a 4-0 rout of Barca in the French capital three weeks ago and will aim to complete the job in the return leg at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.

But the Catalan giants go into the game buoyed by thumping 6-1 and 5-0 wins in their past two league matches and haven’t given up hope of staging an unprecedented comeback.

No side has lost 4-0 away from home in Europe and gone through in a two-legged tie, but with Barca’s prolific front three of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez they cannot be entirely discounted.

“Against PSG we will run and fight and then we will see what happens,” said Neymar.

“It’s really important that our spirit is on the way up and our confidence too. I see us on the up and with confidence. On Wednesday we are going to play really well.”

Barca knocked PSG out at the quarter-final stage in both 2012-13 and 2014-15, but the reigning French champions have the upper hand this time and January signing Julian Draxler is confident of reaching the last eight for the fifth year in succession.

“Many teams have lost 5-0 at the Camp Nou, we know that anything is possible,” Draxler told PSG’s club website. “But deep down I’m convinced we’ll qualify for the quarter-finals.

“I think it will be important to attack and not just think about defending.”

Bayern Munich have one foot in the next round after thrashing Arsenal 5-1 at the Allianz Arena and look set to eliminate the Gunners in the last 16 for the third time in the past five seasons.

“We have a big advantage, but Arsenal are dangerous, so we have to go full throttle to win,” said Spain international Javi Martinez, who netted his first goal of the season in Saturday’s 3-0 victory at Cologne.

Philipp Lahm will miss the game through suspension, but the Bayern skipper said his team-mates would aim to extinguish any lingering hopes Arsene Wenger’s men have right from kick-off in London.

“We have to be highly focused and, most importantly, show Arsenal in the first quarter-hour they can forget the next round,” Lahm said ahead of Tuesday’s clash, with the Premier League side staring at a seventh straight last-16 exit.

Holders Real Madrid head to Napoli as clear favourites after a 3-1 win in the Spanish capital, but such an advantage has not always proved a guarantee of success for the record 11-time champions.

Real have held a similar lead on eight previous occasions in European competition but only progressed half of the time, providing Napoli with reason to dream they can pull off a shock.

“We believe in it. We know we can score two goals at the San Paolo. We also know it will be quite a job for our defenders,” Senegalese centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly told AFP following Saturday’s 2-1 win at Roma in Serie A.

Borussia Dortmund trail 1-0 ahead of the visit of Benfica to Signal Iduna Park on Wednesday.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed a penalty as Kostas Mitroglou’s second-half strike in Lisbon last month gave the Portuguese outfit the edge in their tie.

But the Gabonese striker netted his 20th and 21st goals of the Bundesliga season in Saturday’s 6-2 drubbing of Bayer Leverkusen to move back in front of Bayern marksman Robert Lewandowski at the top of the scoring charts.

However, the victory came at a cost with Germany international Marco Reus ruled out for four weeks after tearing his hamstring.

“It’s sad news, he (Reus) has been playing very consistently for weeks and at a high level,” said Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel.

“It’s an enormous loss which tarnishes the win.”

Reina out to stop old Premier League foe Ronaldo

March 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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If Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina reproduces the kind of form that was key to Saturday’s 2-1 win over Roma against Real Madrid in midweek, a Champions League upset could be on the cards.

Raina

But the former Barcelona and Liverpool shot-stopper would be forgiven for also hoping Cristiano Ronaldo forgets his shooting boots Tuesday when Napoli bid to overturn a 3-1 first leg, last 16 defeat against the 11-time European champions.

At the Santiago Bernabeu last month, Reina and Ronaldo were meeting for the first time since the 2008-2009 season, when they both played Premier League football.

In England, they met a total of six times and, with three victories, a draw and two defeats while playing for Manchester United, Portugal’s four-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo comes out on top.

Ahead of Tuesday’s clash at what Reina hopes will be a “red-hot” San Paolo, the odds, and statistics, are firmly stacked against Maurizio Sarri’s hosts.

If Napoli are to go through on away goals, they will have to do what no team has managed since Wolfsburg beat Madrid in the quarter-finals nearly a year and 46 games ago — keep a clean sheet against Los Blancos.

As Napoli look to reach the quarter-finals for the first time, Madrid are poised to reach their seventh in succession.

Yet even defeat last time out, Reina was defiant in their chances, saying post-match: “We have to believe in the comeback, because we can beat Madrid 2-0 at home.

“A goal away from home is very important. We have nothing to lose. Real were and are the favourites, but they can expect a red hot reception at the San Paolo.”

If Reina’s performances for a slick Napoli side currently being inspired by the goalscoring exploits of Dries Mertens are anything to go by this season, he could provide the much-needed X factor.

Reina was superb in a thrilling 2-1 win over Roma on Saturday that saw him deny Diego Perotti at the death with an acrobatic, one-handed save he pushed onto the crossbar before sweeping the ball away away with his leg.

It was an inspired stop that secured the win for Napoli and reduced the gap on second-placed Roma to two points, but Roma, who are already eliminated, are not Real Madrid.

Quantifying past meetings between Reina and Ronaldo is a difficult task: although United came out on top, Ronaldo has now only beaten Reina twice in seven encounters, once from the spot.

It took until his fifth match against Reina, during the 2007-008 season, for Ronaldo to beat the Spaniard, hitting United’s second in the 79th minute of a comprehensive 3-0 win at Old Trafford.

The second, and last time Ronaldo beat Reina was from the penalty spot in the 23rd minute of a 4-1 league defeat late in the 2008-2009 campaign.

Although both Ronaldo and Bale sat out Real’s 4-1 win at Eibar at the weekend due to injury, the Portuguese star is expected to be fully fit on Tuesday when Madrid will look to extend their impressive form in Europe.

Zinedine Zidane, who is expected to make five changes in all with Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Toni Kroos joining Bale and Ronaldo, insisted Ronaldo’s injury “isn’t serious”.

Ronaldo may not have been on target when Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Casemiro all beat Reina last time out.

But Reina’s familiarity with the Portuguese star will be welcome. Even when he didn’t play against Ronaldo, he offered advice to others on how to stop his “spear-like” shots in dead ball situations.

“You have to be careful, and watch them all the way because you don’t know until the last moment where the ball is going to go,” Reina advised then Barcelona ‘keeper Victor Valdes prior to the Champions League final against United in 2009.

“Ronaldo’s free-kicks are like a spear.”

Ronaldo didn’t score on that occasion, when Barcelona triumphed 2-0 in Rome.

Manchester City will learn from Monaco thriller – Guardiola

February 22, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said the experience of Tuesday’s exhilarating 5-3 Champions League victory over Monaco would stand his side in good stead in the competition.

Aguero

City are in control of the last-16 tie ahead of the return leg on March 15, but at several moments during the first leg their European destiny appeared to be hanging by a thread.

Guardiola’s side went ahead, fell 2-1 and then 3-2 down, but finally rallied with three goals in the last 19 minutes from Sergio Aguero, who scored a brace, John Stones and Leroy Sane.

“A lot of things happened, but in the moment we were lucky. We were stable mentally,” Guardiola told BT Sport at the Etihad Stadium.

“The old and young guys in the team played amazing. To live this experience helps us a lot in the future.

“Monaco has more history than us in the competition and you need this kind of experience to learn and improve.

“Of course anything can happen in Monaco and we have to score goals. We think in attack: attack, attack, attack.”

He added: “The result is OK. It could be better, could be worse, but it is what it is.”

Radamel Falcao scored twice for Monaco, in addition to a goal by 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe, but saw a second-half penalty saved by City goalkeeper Willy Caballero with the visitors 2-1 up.

“The first thing I say is today is one of the most exciting games in the Champions League this year,” said Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim.

“For the supporters it’s very good. I think everyone stayed happy, watching the two teams.

“There was lots of attacking quality, eight goals. I think today Monaco played a great game. I’ve congratulated the players. But there were little defensive errors.

“The key moment of the game was the chance to go 3-1 up that we missed. Then our opponents made it 2-2.”

Guardiola’s Man City face Monaco reckoning

February 21, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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A hotly anticipated staging post in Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola era arrives on Tuesday when Monaco visit the Etihad Stadium in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.

Manchester City

Guardiola was appointed to take City to the next level on the European stage and he has already masterminded a stirring 3-1 win over his former club Barcelona in the group phase.

But Monaco have been rampant this season, powering to the Ligue 1 summit with a tally of 76 goals that is unsurpassed in Europe’s five major leagues, and Guardiola is keenly aware of the danger they pose.

“I am really impressed by how good they are,” Guardiola told Monday’s pre-match press conference.

“They are physically strong. The full-backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders.

“The two strikers — (Radamel) Falcao and (Valere) Germain — are killers in the box.

“It is the most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals. I’m looking forward to playing against them because they are a really, really good team.”

Guardiola and his assistant Mikel Arteta watched Monaco’s game at Paris Saint-Germain last month, when a 92nd-minute equaliser from Bernardo Silva rescued a 1-1 draw.

Another Silva equaliser secured another 1-1 draw in Monaco’s last outing, at Bastia on Friday, but in the main they have encountered scant resistance in the French top flight this season.

Monaco have averaged 2.92 goals per league game, scoring four or more on no fewer than 10 occasions, and have already prevailed on English soil, winning 2-1 at Tottenham Hotspur in the group stage.

Three successive wins have lifted City to second place in the Premier League table, eight points below leaders Chelsea, but they remain a work in progress.

It is just over a month since their scarring 4-0 defeat at Everton — their fifth defeat of the campaign — and Guardiola’s selection decisions continue to raise eyebrows.

Claudio Bravo, signed amid great fanfare to replace Joe Hart, has been axed after a string of weak displays, meaning Willy Caballero, City’s nominal third-choice goalkeeper in August, is now the number one.

What City’s defensive configuration will be against Monaco, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess.

A rotating cast of full-backs has seen midfielder Fernandinho fill in on both flanks of the defence of late, while Aleksandar Kolarov continues to flit between left-back and centre-back.

Guardiola has confirmed captain Vincent Kompany will miss Tuesday’s game with a leg injury that kept him out of Saturday’s 0-0 FA Cup draw at Huddersfield Town.

Sergio Aguero is expected to keep his place up front after Gabriel Jesus’s impressive start to life at City was cut short by a broken foot that could keep him out for the rest of the season.

While uncertainty abounds regarding City’s best XI, Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco team largely picks itself.

Joao Moutinho, a European champion with Portugal, cannot get into the team and 18-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe, whose 11 goals this season include two hat-tricks, begins most games on the bench.

Both could start, however, if Jardim elects to ditch his habitual 4-4-2 formation in favour of a 4-3-3.

With Jemerson suspended, Andrea Raggi is expected to start at centre-back.

The trip to Manchester will have special significance for Falcao, who has relocated his shooting boots after two dismal years on loan in England with Manchester United and Chelsea.

‘El Tigre’, 31, no longer bites with the force of his Porto and Atletico Madrid days, but, aided by a customised playing schedule, he has scored 22 goals in just 28 games.

“I manage him differently to the others,” says Jardim.

“Because he’s a top-level player. I said at the start of the season that I was sure he’d succeed. Quality is permanent.”

City are favourites to progress, but as PSG’s 4-0 evisceration of Barcelona last week showed, France’s top clubs are no longer content to make up the numbers in the Champions League.

Real Madrid bounce back to beat Napoli

February 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Real Madrid shrugged off conceding an early away goal to take a huge step towards a seventh straight Champions League quarter-final as goals from Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Casemiro sealed a 3-1 win over Napoli on Wednesday.

Kroos

Lorenzo Insigne’s stunning 40-yard strike had the travelling hordes in dream land after just eight minutes of the last 16 first leg.

However, Benzema soon headed home an equaliser before Kroos and Casemiro fired home from outside the box early in the second half to give the holders a commanding lead ahead of the second leg on March 7.

“We played a great game, above all at the start,” said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.

“The shame was to concede given the start we made, but we equalised quickly to get back in the game and in the end it is a logical result.”

Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri lamented his side’s slackness in possession, but believes they still have a chance back at the San Paolo given it had taken what he considered Real’s best performance in three months to beat them.

“Clearly Madrid played their best game of the past three months and we didn’t play our best,” said Sarri.

“If we manage to play at our best we are not that far away. We may lose (in the second leg) but we can go for it.”

With former Napoli great Diego Maradona watching on, the atmosphere reached fever pitch before kick-off as up to 10,000 travelling fans were estimated to have made the trip from Naples for only their side’s second ever appearance in the last 16.

By contrast, Real are in the knockout stages for the 20th straight season and it was the home fans who nearly had something to cheer inside 30 seconds as Benzema’s shot from close range was parried by Pepe Reina.

However, it was Napoli who got off to the perfect start just eight minutes in when Insigne took aim from 40 yards and caught Madrid ‘keeper Keylor Navas out of position with a superb effort that curled around the Costa Rica international.

Madrid, though, showed the response of champions to level just 10 minutes later when Dani Carvajal’s cross with the outside of his right boot picked out Benzema to power home a header from close range.

Cristiano Ronaldo should have had one of the two goals he needs to reach 100 in European competition on 27 minutes when great work from Benzema and Luka Modric freed the World Player of the Year inside the area, but he blasted well over the bar.

Madrid’s control of the first 45 minutes grew as the half went on and only a combination of Reina and the post denied the hosts a lead at the break.

This time Ronaldo was inch-perfect with his low cross for Benzema, but his effort was tipped onto the woodwork and behind by Reina.

The tie did swing decisively in Madrid’s favour within 10 minutes of the restart however.

Firstly, Ronaldo played provider once more with a fine run down the right and measured cut-back for Kroos to slot home from the edge of the box.

Then Napoli were struck by a thunderbolt from the most unlikely source as defensive midfielder Casemiro pounced on a looping clearance to volley first-time past a helpless Reina.

Napoli had the chances to set up a thrilling return leg as Dries Mertens, who had scored 14 goals in his previous 11 appearances, fired over with the goal at his mercy from former Madrid winger Jose Maria Callejon’s fine lay-off.

Mertens also saw another effort smothered by Navas from close range and Callejon a goal ruled out for offside as Napoli slumped to their first defeat in 19 games.

Thiago-inspired Bayern hand Arsenal 5-1 rout

February 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Arsene Wenger’s future was plunged into further doubt on Wednesday as Thiago Alcantara inspired Bayern Munich to a 5-1 rout of hapless Arsenal to leave the Gunners facing a seventh straight Champions League last-16 exit.

Bayern Munich

Bayern extended their Champions League record to 16 straight home wins by flooring the Gunners with three goals in ten second-half minutes.

“That was a good performance, which perhaps wasn’t so expected,” said Thiago, who scored twice.

“We were playing at home, knew we had to score a few goals and everything worked very well after the break.”

Bayern knocked Arsenal out at the same stage in 2005, 2013 and 2014 and look comfortably placed to make it four times after romping through Wednesday’s first leg.

The Allianz Arena defeat raises the pressure on Wenger for the return leg on March 7 with only Alexis Sanchez’s away goal for comfort.

The result matched the 5-1 group-stage thrashing Arsenal received in Munich in November 2015 — the club’s joint record away defeat in Europe.

Arjen Robben’s superb curling shot gave Bayern the lead on 11 minutes, but Sanchez levelled by drilling home after Manuel Neuer saved his penalty on 30 minutes.

Robben also admitted he was surprised by the big win.

“Things worked very well,” said the Dutch winger.

“I am a bit surprised that we played so well, but on the other hand, I know the team has great character and can move up a gear when it matters.”

Bayern hit top gear after the break with a flurry of goals in quick succession.

Robert Lewandowski headed Bayern back into the lead on 53 minutes before Thiago added two in quick succession while Thomas Mueller came off the bench to complete the rout.

Bayern spent the opening minutes camped in the Arsenal half and took the lead on 10 minutes through Robben’s wonderful strike.

The Dutch winger cut in from the right and curled home a superbly-weighted shot off his left foot from outside the area.

Arsenal then raised the tempo and started pressing the hosts.

Bayern defender Mats Hummels was given a yellow card for fouling Sanchez just outside the box.

Mesut Ozil drilled the resulting free-kick at Neuer, but moments later Arsenal were awarded a penalty.

Lewandowski mistimed a clearance in the area and struck Laurent Koscielny’s raised leg.

Despite Bayern’s furious protests, Serbian referee Milorad Mazic pointed to the spot.

Neuer saved Sanchez’s penalty, but the Chile international drilled home the rebound at the second attempt.

It was the valuable away goal Bayern had talked about not conceding in the match’s build-up.

There were equally furious Bayern protests at the other end when David Alaba’s cross struck Hector Bellerin on the hand, but the referee waved play on.

It was 1-1 at the break, but Bayern stepped up the pressure in the second half.

Robben released Philipp Lahm who put in a perfect cross and Lewandowski twisted to tuck his header past David Ospina’s reach.

The Poland hot-shot then flicked Xabi Alonso’s pass into Thiago’s path and the former Barcelona midfielder fired past Ospina.

Lewandowski hit the crossbar on 61 minutes, but Thiago added his second when his shot from the edge of the box deflected past the Arsenal goalkeeper on 63 minutes.

Mueller came on for Lewandowski on 86 minutes and added Bayern’s fifth two minutes later after Thiago squared the final pass.

Angel di Maria reborn in Champions League thrashing of Barca

February 15, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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One month ago, Angel di Maria was an outcast on the Paris Saint-Germain substitutes’ bench, but the striker was reborn in the Champions League demolition of Barcelona.

PSG

Two goals in the 4-0 thrashing of Argentina teammate Lionel Messi’s Barca saw birthday boy di Maria hit near perfection in a way that he rarely managed at Manchester United or Real Madrid. Superstar Messi has rarely looked so poor.

Long-suffering PSG players and fans, so often at the receiving end against the Spanish giants, still could not believe the scoreline when they woke up on Wednesday.

“You saw 14 warriors out there, people who wanted to help each other. And when you play like that you have nights like that. It was fabulous,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi.

Di Maria hit a goal in each half on his 29th birthday and each time gave his traditional celebration, forming a heart with his hands.

But di Maria’s heart has not really been in the PSG game this season. Last month, coach Unai Emery banished the second most expensive import into the French league — 63 million euros paid to United in 2015 — to the substitutes’ bench.

Julian Draxler had arrived from Germany and Lucas was playing well. Being out in the January cold jolted di Maria into action.

Already against Bordeaux last Friday, he scored one in the 3-0 win that kept PSG in the French title race against Monaco.

PSG back Thomas Meunier said di Maria hated being on the bench and hailed di Maria’s game against Bordeaux as “an Angel who has gone through a metamorphosis.”

Di Maria said he had problems with the tactics brought in by Emery last year.

“Those who know me know that I like to run everywhere, a bit haphazard. He wants every player to take care of his own space and press from that position. It was a problem at the start, but I understood and now I like it,” di Maria told the Spanish sports daily Marca after the Bordeaux game.

Di Maria forced Lucas out of the starting line up for the Barcelona game and received a standing ovation from the Parc des Princes crowd when he left in the 61st minute.

He scored with a curling free kick and a second half shot, both attempts from outside the penalty area. Di Maria now has nine goals for the season and hopes it will set him up for a spectacular finale.

“It was a very special day. It’s impossible to have a better performance and birthday. It was a wonderful display and fully deserved,” he said on BeIn TV after the match.

“We controlled the game for 90 minutes. It was hard to control Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi but we managed it in the end.”

PSG had twice been eliminated from the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona in the previous four seasons. Barca also had a fearsome record in games against sides coached by Emery, losing just one of 23 games before being put to the sword on Wednesday.

PSG’s Qatari owners have set Emery the task of at least reaching the Champions League semi-finals. The Spaniard has now had a lot of pressure taken off his shoulders. But he warned that the players must make sure they finish the job in the second leg in Barcelona and reach the quarter-finals.

“The only feeling I have is that the team produced a massive effort against the great Barca,” Emery said after the triumph.

“I respect Barca and the message was clear in the dressing room: there is still 90 minutes to go and we are going to suffer there in Barcelona.

“So, prudence, satisfaction, concentration on the second match and respect for the great opposing team and its players.”

Pressure on Wenger to break Bayern curse in Champions League

February 14, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Arsene Wenger is once again under pressure to end Arsenal’s Champions League last-16 misery as the Gunners travel to bogey team Bayern Munich in Wednesday’s first leg.

Arsenal

Bayern are riding a record 15-match home winning streak in Europe with the midweek clash marking the 11th meeting between the sides at Munich’s Allianz Arena in the Champions League.

Arsenal have suffered last-16 defeats in each of the last six seasons, losing to Bayern in both 2013 and 2014, and another early exit would further ramp up the pressure on 67-year-old Wenger to quit after 20 years in charge.

The teams know each other well, having met six times in the last four years, and Bayern thrashed the Gunners 5-1 in Munich in their previous meeting in November 2015.

Arsenal warmed up for their trip to Germany with a 2-0 win over Hull as Alexis Sanchez scored both goals to stop the rot following back-to-back league defeats to Chelsea and Watford.

The Gunners are confident for the Allianz Arena leg with the return in London on March 7.

“If we put in our best performance, then we can beat Bayern as well,” Arsenal’s German defender Shkodran Mustafi told Sky.

“It’s down to us and it’s in our hands.”

Arsenal beat Bayern 2-0 in Munich in 2013, but still lost the last-16 tie following a 3-1 defeat in the first leg in London as the Germans went on to win that year’s final at Wembley.

“We have already won there and I feel we have a chance to go through,” said Wenger.

Midfielder Mesut Ozil, another Germany international, is enduring a dip in form, though, and has not scored since early December.

“It’s time for him to score again,” said Wenger. “I felt he did not feel confident (against Hull).

“It’s always a problem because you think he can deliver something special.”

Arsenal are third in the English Premier League, 10 points behind leaders Chelsea, while Bayern are seven clear in Germany’s top flight.

The Bavarians have reached the semi-final stage in Europe in each of the last three years, but Bayern are itching to go one better and reach the Cardiff final on June 3.

Despite their lead in the Bundesliga, Bayern have turned in below-par performances in recent weeks and needed two late goals to earn a 2-0 win at relegation-threatened Ingolstadt on Saturday.

Xabi Alonso suffered an injury scare in training on Monday, while Bayern will be missing defender Jerome Boateng and winger Franck Ribery, who are recovering from shoulder and thigh injuries respectively.

Germany forward Thomas Mueller is enduring a goal drought with just one goal in 17 league games this term, but Robert Lewandowski has hit 23 goals in all competitions and is relishing the Arsenal showdown.

“Everyone is waiting for this game and it’ll be a big challenge for us,” said Lewandowski.

“Arsenal have very good players, but we need to concentrate on ourselves and if we play our best football, Arsenal probably won’t have many chances.

“We need to score at least once and concede nothing, then it’ll be a good evening for us.”

PSG host Barcelona in Champions League last-16 first leg tie

February 13, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Paris Saint-Germain host Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday with their Spanish coach Unai Emery desperate to improve his awful personal record against the Catalans.

PSG

Emery was brought to the French capital last year as the successor to Laurent Blanc in order to help take PSG to the next level in Europe after four consecutive quarter-final exits in the Champions League.

But finishing second in their group behind Arsenal exposed PSG to a tougher draw in the first knockout round and now they must beat the Spanish champions — the second leg will be at the Camp Nou next month — just to make it to the last eight again.

Emery, the former Sevilla boss, has come up against Barcelona 23 times in his coaching career and won just once, in La Liga last season.

Paris, meanwhile, have been knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona twice in recent campaigns, losing in the quarter-finals in 2013 and again in 2015 to Lionel Messi, Neymar and co.

But there is a new-found confidence at the Parc des Princes after a fine start to 2017 which has seen them win 10 and draw one of their last 11 games in all competitions.

“We believe in ourselves and this game comes at a good time for us. If it had come at the start of the season I would have been more worried, but everything has changed,” PSG’s Italian midfielder Marco Verratti said after Friday’s 3-0 win at Bordeaux in Ligue 1, in which Edinson Cavani scored twice.

The French champions have beaten Barcelona in the recent past, claiming a 3-2 win in the group stage in September 2014.

They are also a formidable proposition at the Parc des Princes, having lost just once there in Europe in the last decade.

“It’s a huge challenge. Simply put, we will have to play two huge matches,” Brazilian left-back Maxwell, a former Barcelona player, told PSG’s website.

“No-one enters this competition hoping to cross paths with them. Still, it’s up to us to make the difference.”

Emery will be unable to utilise veteran midfielder Thiago Motta, another ex-Barcelona player, due to suspension. Meanwhile, one winger from Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura and January signing Julian Draxler will have to settle for a place on the bench.

Barcelona travel to France buoyed by a crushing 6-0 win at Alaves in La Liga at the weekend in which Luis Suarez scored twice.

That result means Luis Enrique’s side have now lost just once in 22 games although it was overshadowed by an awful ankle injury suffered by right-back Aleix Vidal which rules him out for the rest of the season.

Javier Mascherano and Arda Turan are sidelined too, although one man who could feature is Rafinha, who was named in the squad but will need a mask to protect a broken nose.

Barcelona are still fighting on three fronts, keeping alive the prospect of another La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble to match those achieved in 2009 and 2015.

“It’s not really something we talk about amongst ourselves but all the players have it in mind,” the club’s former PSG defender Lucas Digne told AFP.

“As long as we are still in every competition, it is very important. This club is born to win trophies.”

Rested Real Madrid wait on Gareth Bale return

February 10, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane hopes to have Gareth Bale back before the second leg of his side’s Champions League last 16 clash with Napoli.

Bale

The postponement of Madrid’s visit to Celta Vigo last weekend due to storm damage caused to Celta’s Balaidos stadium has allowed Zidane to recover a fully-fit squad bar Bale, who is still working his way back from ankle ligament damage.

The Welshman hasn’t featured since late November and whilst Wednesday’s first leg against the Italians is likely to come too early, Zidane is confident of having Bale back well before the return in Naples on March 7.

“The return isn’t till March 7 so hopefully he is with us before then,” Zidane said on Friday.

“He is back on the field and the only step he has left is to train with the rest of the team.

“He is working very hard and I can see the desire he has.”

The suspended Toni Kroos is Madrid’s only other absentee for Saturday’s visit to rock bottom Osasuna.

Marcelo, Luka Modric and Dani Carvajal are among those to return from injury

However, Madrid have only won one of their past six league meetings away at Osasuna and Zidane is not expecting an easy ride despite the fact the Navarrans are yet to win at home in La Liga this season.

“We have had time to work, physically we are good and ready to play,” added Zidane.

“It is a very difficult place to go and we know that it is top against bottom, which I don’t like at all.

“It has always been difficult for us at El Sadar and that isn’t going to change.”

‘Naive’ Spurs nurse Champions League wounds

November 24, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Tottenham Hotspur were accused of being “naive” and manager Mauricio Pochettino of having made a reckless “gamble” following their embarrassing group-stage exit in the Champions League.

Spurs

Despite boasting the biggest wage bill in Group E, Tottenham were bundled out with a game still to pay following Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat at French Ligue 1 title-chasers Monaco.

Pochettino’s youthful side came close to pipping Leicester City to Premier League glory last season, but former England international Phil Neville said their callowness had been exposed in Europe.

“They’ve made naive decisions in the Champions League and Tottenham are being punished,” the former Manchester United and Everton player told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“Positions you take in the Premier League don’t get punished. Here they do.

“They were wide open at the back, disorganised in midfield. The Champions League has been a real learning curve and they’ve been found out.”

Wednesday’s sports headlines in the British newspapers will have made grim reading for Pochettino, who was said to have made unnecessary changes to his starting XI.

The Times branded Tottenham “toothless”, while both The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph accused Pochettino of taking a “gamble” that had not paid off.

The Argentine raised eyebrows by pairing Eric Dier at centre-back with Kevin Wimmer, leaving Toby Alderweireld on the bench, and picking Kieran Trippier over England’s Kyle Walker at right-back.

Midfielder Dele Alli played with heavy strapping on his leg after only recently overcoming a knee injury and Neville felt he was “not fit”.

Dier, who usually plays in midfield, conceded an early penalty for a clumsy foul on Fabinho and although Hugo Lloris saved Radamel Falcao’s spot-kick, it was to prove only a stay of execution.

After falling behind to Djibril Sidibe’s 48th-minute header, Spurs equalised four minutes later via Harry Kane’s penalty, only for Monaco to re-take the lead within 39 seconds through Thomas Lemar.

“We got ourselves back in the game at 1-1 and it was schoolboy to concede straight after that,” Kane told BT Sport.

While Spurs’ Champions League fate was settled at Stade Louis II, it is at Wembley that their shortcomings have been truly exposed.

Spurs agreed to play their home games in the competition at England’s national stadium due to rebuilding work at their White Hart Lane home.

But despite attracting vast crowds they have not looked at home in their temporary abode, losing 2-1 to Monaco there in their first game before going down 1-0 to Bayer Leverkusen.

“I think we made too many mistakes at home at Wembley,” Pochettino conceded.

With Monaco and Leverkusen now assured of knockout-stage places, the best Spurs can hope for from their final game against CSKA Moscow is the dubious consolation of a Europa League berth.

Spurs have an option to move into Wembley for the entirety of the 2017-18 season, when they will need to vacate White Hart Lane, but six straight defeats there have prompted talk of a ‘Wembley curse’.

“Yes, we played at Wembley this year, but it has to be a fortress at home,” Kane said.

While Spurs remain the only unbeaten team in the Premier League, they are currently in something of a rut, having won only one of their last nine fixtures in all competitions.

They visit league leaders Chelsea on Saturday in a fixture that will rekindle painful memories of their 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge in May, which ended their bid for a first league title since 1961.

Widely lauded for his work at Tottenham so far, Pochettino needs to show he still possesses the power to inspire.

Tottenham injuries test Pochettino’s patience

November 1, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Mauricio Pochettino insists the frustration of Tottenham’s recent barren run won’t become a distraction as his injury-plagued side look to get back on track in the Champions League.

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A 1-1 draw against Leicester on Saturday left Tottenham manager Pochettino counting the cost of five games without a victory.

West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth and Bayer Leverkusen also held Tottenham to draws, while Liverpool knocked them out of the League Cup.

Those setbacks have punctured the buoyant mood at White Hart Lane since their impressive win against Manchester City.

But Pochettino knows injuries have been at the root of Tottenham’s problems and he hopes the results will pick up once the wounded return to action.

Harry Kane and Toby Alderweireld are still recovering from ankle and leg injuries respectively, while Moussa Sissoko is out suspended and Erik Lamela has been ill.

Kane and Alderweireld could return either against Leverkusen in the Champions League at Wembley on Wednesday or in the north London derby at Arsenal at the weekend.

Asked if he had endured a spell in management as frustrating as this, Pochettino said: “I don’t remember having one.

“It is hard because the players come, maybe not injured, but with many problems and maybe play two games and with the small problems we have with Toby Alderweireld, Harry Kane, Sissoko’s suspension and Erik Lamela on Saturday.

“Yes it is true it is a tough period when you play, play, play that you need all the squad available, but you need to adapt to the competition and we are happy.

“It is true we are disappointed with the last few results but in the same way we need to take positives in and keep working.”

Tottenham remain unbeaten in the Premier League and are second in Champions League Group D, but they have a tough month ahead that will play a major role in determining the course of their season.

The crunch games against Leverkusen and Arsenal come before two more grudge matches against London rivals West Ham and Chelsea, either side of a trip to Monaco in the Champions League.

“I never panic,” Pochettino said. “In football, no. When I go to the streets sometimes I am scared to walk on the street because you never know there are crazy people there, but in football never.

“In a bad period we are also very positive because we are unbeaten. Maybe we don’t win but we don’t lose and that is important.

“But we have ahead two very important games Leverkusen will be key for us and Arsenal too because it is the derby.”

Kane’s return cannot come soon enough for Tottenham, who have struggled for attacking fluency and penetration without their first-choice striker.

Vincent Janssen scored his first Premier League goal from the penalty spot against Leicester but the Dutchman is yet to register from open play for his new club and would appear to need more time to settle.

Pochettino was also keen to stress his midfield’s contribution.

In the five league games since Kane’s injury, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min have each scored twice but the likes of Christian Eriksen, Lamela, Sissoko and Mousa Dembele have all failed to find the net.

“Dele, Christian, all the players in the second line, need to be more determined to score,” Pochettino said.

“We cannot only have all the pressure on our striker. Our second line need to score more and maybe we are lacking that goal this season.

“We don’t concede but we don’t score too much and I think we need to because we are creating enough chances but we need to be more determined to score.”

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