European Football Round-up/CL Preview: 13 Mar

Last Wednesday Juventus played their game in hand in Serie A. The Old Lady of Turin went to Bolgna, but in true style this season could only draw. This left them 2 points behind Milan whilst still being unbeaten.

This past weekend proved to be another good one for Milan, the defending champions hosted Lecce and put in a strong performance to run out 2-0 winners. Zlatan Ibrahimovic set up the first goal and scored the second, propelling him to the top of the Capocannoniere charts with 19 goals in the process. That Ibra’s quality is still questioned, especially in England, is beyond baffling. For the past eight years whichever club he has played for has finished top of their respective league (the two with Juventus were revoked after Calciopoli); the man is a born winner and he has a better than 1 in 2 goal to game ratio across his career.

How Juventus could do with someone so lethal in front of goal. They visited mid-table Genoa on Sunday but could once again only draw, this time a 0-0 affair. There was controversy again as Simone Pepe had a goal ruled out for a very questionable offside decision. This has led to Juventus to issuing a blanket press silence over the club due to a perceived bias against them from referees. Whilst they have suffered due to some poor decisions they should also remember only a couple of weeks ago benefitting against Milan when Sulley Muntari’s header crossed the line by at least 2 feet but wasn’t given as a goal. What goes around comes around. Juve really do need to look closer to home for the real problems they are suffering: they have scored only 39 goals from 502 shots in Serie A. When you see that Milan have 55 goals from 419, the difference becomes clear.

Elsewhere in Italy, Napoli sent a warning to Chelsea ahead of their Champions League 2nd leg tie. The Naples side hit 6 against Cagliari, a result that sees them leapfrog Udinese, 1-0 losers away to Novara, into 4th. Lazio spurned a great chance to move closer to Juve in second as they lost 3-1 at home to Bologna. A Fabio Borini goal helped Roma returning to winning ways, while Diego Milito and Walter Samuel scored to give Claudio Ranieri’s Inter a shot in the arm ahead of their clash with Marseille this week. Inter running out 2-0 winners over Chievo.

Whilst controversy reigns in Italy, Messi continues to reign in Spain. Barcelona visited Racing Santander and Messi scored his 49th and 50th goals of the season – from 43 games in which he also has 20 assists! – as Barca ran out 2-0 winners. There are no superlatives for the Argentine that haven’t been used already, he is truly remarkable. Much has been written this week on the argument about whether he’s the best player ever, but what people should be doing is just sitting back and enjoying the spectacle of this little genius making football look easy. Lionel Messi is 24 years old, in his 8th season with Barca and is already only 5 goals away from becoming their record goal scorer, a record that was set over 13 seasons by Cesar Rodriguez. Phenomenal.

With Messi going about his business in record breaking fashion, Madrid continue to look odds-on for the title. They overcame Betis 3-2 away from home, with Cristiano Ronaldo netting a double. They were his 39th and 40th goals of this season; in any other generation he would grab every single headline and he must curse his luck that he is the eternal bridesmaid to Messi’s bride.

Valencia meanwhile continue to do their best to make finishing 3rd a challenge for themselves, blowing a 2-0 lead at home to Mallorca and only ending up with a draw. Just below them, Malaga took 4th place from Levante, beating the early season pace setters 1-0 at the Rosaleda. Steadied under Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid moved to within four points of fourth by beating Granada at the Vicente Calderon. Falcao more than most has benefitted from Simeone’s return to the club and bagged the second goal. Plucky Granada’s cause wasn’t helped when Brazilian Henrique was dismissed just prior to Falcao’s clincher. After exciting the whole of Europe and surprising many English pundits on Thursday, Athletic Club Bilbao failed to build on the momentum gained by beating Manchester United. Marcelo Bielsa rested three of his key players, Fernando Llorente, Ander Herrera and Javi Martinez and the move backfired as they lost 2-1 away to Osasuna. Crisis club Zaragoza went to Real Sociedad looking to gain momentum after last week’s win but were crushed 3-0 and remain 9 points adrift at the bottom of the table.

On Tuesday, Bayern Munich will host Basel in the Champions League and will look to overturn the Swiss side’s 1-0 advantage. The German’s had the perfect confidence boost ahead of that tie with a 7-1 demolition of Hoffenheim, Mario Gomez bagging a hat trick. The other result that will have boosted the Munich club’s morale was leaders Dortmund struggling to 0-0 draw at relegation candidates Augsburg. Munich closed the gap on Dortmund to 5 points. Schalke tightened their grip on fourth by beating Hamburg 3-1 while rivals for the Champions League qualifying spot, Leverkusen fell 3-2 away to Wolfsburg.

In Ligue 1 PSG and Montpellier both claimed wins to keep the title race tight. Kevin Gameiro struck in the last minute to secure a hard fought 2-1 win with only 10 men away to Dijon. Olivier Giroud stretched his lead at the top of the scoring charts with his 17th of the season as Montpellier dispatched Caen 3-0 to ensure his team remain only a point behind the capital club. Lyon put their Champions League penalty defeat to APOEL behind them with a 2-1 win over champions Lille despite having Dejan Lovren sent off. Incidentally, Lyon’s loss to APOEL was the only one of my CL predictions last week to go awry, see below for this week’s tips! Marseille however continue to struggle, losing 1-0 away to Ajaccio on Friday night, not the best preparation for their visit to Inter this week. Bottom club Sochaux closed the gap on Auxerre and Dijon with a 3-2 win away to Evian.

Three defeats in a row and a slide down the table have seen PSV coach Fred Rutten sacked, former player Phillip Cocu has taken the reins until the end of the season. PSV had been sitting top of the table not so long ago but a run of poor form, concluding with a 3-1 loss to NAC Breda has seen AZ, Ajax and Twente move above the Eindhoven club. AZ remain top winning 2-0 away to De Graafschap, Rasmus Elm getting the scoring under way with a goal direct from a corner. Ajax’s resurgence continues, and has much to do with Frank de Boer switching to a 3-3-1-3 formation. The Amterdammers ran out 3-0 winners over RKC Waalwijk with club captain and Premier League target Jan Vertonghen opening the scoring, the 100th goal of de Boer’s reign. Arsenal have apparently moved above Tottenham in the pecking order for his signature in the summer, but much will depend on the two clubs relative finishing positions in the League. Heerenveen continue to impress this season, with Bas Dost grabbing a double as they beat bottom club Excelsior 4-2 to move level with Twente and PSV on points. Legendary striker Marco van Basten will coach Heerenveen next season and he will hope they can hold on to league leading scorer Dost to build on their successes this season.

Champions League Preview

Bayern Munich entertain Basel on Tuesday night. Basel hold a slender one goal lead and will need to be at their very best to hold that in Munich. Both clubs warmed up for the fixture with wins this weekend, Munich’s 7-1 win is mentioned above whilst Basel overcame FC Thun 2-0 to continue their march to another Swiss Superleague title. If Bayern play to their full potential, they have been somewhat inconsistent this season, they should overturn the Swiss club, although Manchester United will know that you write off Basel at your peril. Bayern should just edge this one for me.

Also on Tuesday Inter Milan host Marseille, the visitors again taking a one goal advantage into the tie. Both clubs are very much out of sorts at the moment although Inter did win at the weekend. Goals have been hard to come by for these teams in recent weeks and this game may be a war of attrition that goes all the way to the wire. I’m tipping Inter to take this, probably on penalties.

The following night, Napoli visit London. Chelsea are the Premier League’s last hope in the competition but face a difficult task with Napoli holding a 3-1 advantage from the home leg. Napoli are the finest counter attacking team in Europe and in Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik possess one of the most potent attacking tridents in the game. Chelsea will have to attack and this is likely to play right into Napoli’s hands. However as Arsenal showed last week, comebacks are possible and Napoli will hope they don’t freeze as Milan did. The first goal on the night will be crucial, if Chelsea get it, their tails will be up and they could pull it off, but if it goes the other way the Neapolitans will be confident they can hold on to what would be a spectacular victory for them. I’m backing Napoli to take the aggregate victory.

The final game of the round is in Madrid. Mourinho’s boys struggled in Moscow against CSKA to a 1-1 draw. They are however a very different proposition at the Bernabeu though and the away goal gives them the advantage. While it’s impossible to write CSKA off, I can’t see anything other than a Madrid win and progress to the quarter finals.

Il Capocannoniere