Category Archives: European Football

The Club World Cup is already forgotten — Here’s how it could be awesome

The Club World Cup came and went last week, with Bayern Munich winning the trophy and officially confirming what many long believed: the Bavarians are the best club football team in the world. It was Die Roten’s fifth trophy of 2013 and Pep Guardiola’s second since taking over for Jupp Heynckes.

The final was especially significant for Bayern Munich center back Dante. Not only did the Brazilian defender score a goal in the final, he also picked up his sixth piece of silverware this calendar year. Dante also took home a Confederations Cup winner’s medal in the summer on top of the five trophies he won with Bayern.

But Bayern were not the story of this event. Not after home team Raja Casablanca made a dramatic run to the final, taking down Copa Libertadores champions Atlético Mineiro along the way. A few of Raja’s players also took home some souvenirs from a living legend, Ronaldinho, after that match:

Some people seemed legitimately upset that the host team made it all the way to the final (like here and here). Others rightfully appreciated the Cinderella story of the Moroccan club. Whatever it means about the quality of the teams they defeated and ultimately lost to, it’s undeniable that Raja Casablanca’s run captivated both the Moroccan people and the global audience of the Club World Cup.

This tournament always raises the same issues: whether it is a worthwhile event in the first place, and the significance of one-off matches between teams from different confederations. We’ve all heard that for whatever reason, the Club World Cup just hasn’t caught on as a big tournament that clubs want to take seriously. A full week since the final was played, and this tournament is already an afterthought.

Football is a global game, and when you hear World Cup you think of the pinnacle of competition. But the Club World Cup has rarely lived up to that billing.  What can be done to improve this floundering tournament that has so much potential?

How can we see more of this?

dinhofreekick

And this?

The are two things that can be done to make both fans and clubs care a lot more about this tournament: invite more teams, and give out a lot more prize money. Steve Graff write a nice piece on how to improve the Club World Cup for VAVEL.com with similar suggestions. My solution is slightly different, but the general idea is the same.

First, the prize money. The current payout breaks down like this: Winner gets $5m, runner up 4m, third place: 2.5m, fourth: 2m, fifth: 1.5m, sixth: 1m, seventh: 0.5m. That’s not very much money for a team like Bayern Munich, who received over 50m euros from the Champions League. Here’s some more info on Champions League payouts, for those who are curious.

So, in order to make every team take this tournament a lot more seriously, we need to up the stakes. It’d be nice to multiply those payouts by 10, but to be more realistic, let’s go with 5x the current purse. That means the winner gets $25m and the runner up, $20m. Enough to make winning a significant temptation, even for a European team.

And how to finance that? Just add more teams: expand it from 7 to 14 teams. More teams makes it even more fun for the fans, but it also means more high profile players and more of a spectacle, which equals more sponsorship money.

We are keeping the host team. Raja Casablanca’s run to the final was a great story. A host team getting an auto berth is a classic part of a cup competition. We are trying to revitalize this competition. You have to keep the team that brings the home fans to the stadium. With potentially different hosts and the obvious advantage of playing at home, we could see a underdog story like Raja’s more often.

The winners of the Europa League and the Copa Sudamerica are automatically qualified. We are also bringing in some non-trophy winners. The finalists of each federation’s Champions League are invited, with the winners given an additional bye and the runners up entering the competition earlier. Here is a rundown of the seeding:

1. UEFA Champions League Winner

2. Copa Libertadores Winner

3. Europa League Winner

4. Copa Sudamerica Winner

5. UEFA Champions League Runner Up

6. Copa Libertadores Runner Up

7. CONCACAF Champion

8. CAF Champion

9. AFC Champion

10. Oceania Champion

11. CONCACAF Runner Up

12. CAF Runner Up

13. AFC Runner Up

14. Host country league champion

14 teams is a strange number for a tournament, so some teams are going to have to enter at different stages. The top 4 seeds are the UEFA and CONMEBOL trophy winners. They don’t come in until the third round of the competition. UCL and Copa Lib runner ups face off against champions of Asia, Africa, and North America. Here is how the bracket would look every year:

What does that really mean, you ask? Well, here’s how it would have looked for this tournament, given the winners and runners up of all the tournaments in question, assuming the higher seed wins each match:

Now this is starting to look like a Club World Cup that is worthy of the name. This bracket contains potential matchups of legendary European and South American clubs, and gives the weaker confederations plenty of chances to knock off the top dogs. The tournament also contains 5 different rounds of matches for the enjoyment of fans, and most teams only have to play one more game than they currently would under the existing format.

A few simple changes could make the Club World Cup a headline event, truly capable of determining the best team in the world.

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Philipp Lahm: The World’s Most Complete Player

In the never ending debate on Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo, some find it convenient to conclude that Messi is the best player in the world, while Cristiano is the most complete player in the world. But what does the most complete player really mean? Cristiano has pace, power, incredible technical skill, he can shoot with either foot, can jump higher than maybe any other player, he can score with his head, inside the box or outside, from penalties or free kicks. But if he was asked to play in defense, or organize a midfield, dictating tempo from the center, would his ‘completeness’ serve him just as well there? Could Cristiano Ronaldo play any position on the pitch?

Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that Cristiano is the most complete attacking player in the world. There is a different player, however, who is truly the most complete player in the world, whose intelligence and attributes enable him to play literally any of the 10 outfield positions. His name is Philipp Lahm.

Philipp Lahm was born in Munich and joined the Bayern Munich youth team at the age of 11. His talent was evident early on, with one of his coaches, Herman Hummels, famously stated that “If Philipp Lahm will not make it in the Bundesliga, nobody will anymore.” For Bayern’s youth sides, Lahm played at right midfield or defensive midfield in addition to full-back.

At the senior level, Lahm has proved more than adequate at either the right or left full-back position for both Bayern and Germany over the years. Since Pep Guardiola arrived in Munich this summer, he’s had nothing but the highest praise for Lahm, calling him the most intelligent player he’s ever coached. In an interview with adidas, Pep had this to say about the Bavarian:

“He understands the game. Not all players do. A lot of players understand his position. Philipp can play in all positions. Football is a game where people move and you have to decide in one second what’s going on in your position as well as all around the field, and what he decides in that moment is right.”

Guardiola is a product of the Barcelona system implemented by Johan Cruyff, who himself evolved his game from the concept of Total Football as a player under Rinus Michels at Ajax and later Barcelona. In this footballing philosophy, players must understand space, where their teammates are, and the intricate movements required to break down an opposing team. Complete players are valued in this system, and Philipp Lahm is the most complete of them all.

Lahm has the technique, intelligence, spatial awareness, and tackling, passing, and shooting ability to play in any position. He hasn’t scored too many goals in his career (just 18 for club and country at the senior level since his professional debut in 2002), but no one could deny that he’s capable of finishing when given the chance.

Lahm’s unique combination of skills is why Guardiola has trusted him as the team’s base in central midfield this season, despite the unprecedented success that Bayern had last year under Jupp Heynckes with Lahm as the right full-back.

The central holding midfielder, operating as a single pivot, is a very important position for Guardiola. It was the position he occupied as a player at Barcelona, and the position he entrusted to Sergio Busquets once he became the manager. The single pivot in Guardiola’s system is required to do several things extremely well. On offense, the pivot must be able to collect the ball from the goalkeeper or the defense in order to build play from the back, and use intelligence and vision to pick out the appropriate pass going forward. The player needs excellent positioning sense, and must always be available as an outlet for the more advanced midfielders if they are under pressure. When the opponent has the ball, the pivot must be available to drop into the defense as a third CB to cover for the advanced full-backs. He must also be ready to press quickly and win the ball back in the midfield to cut out opposing attacks before they begin.

The qualities that Busquets possess allowed him to displace Yaya Touré in this role for Barcelona, another player who could play in almost any position on the field. And Busquets went on to be a cornerstone in the Barça side many consider to be the best team ever assembled. But is it possible that Lahm, who has played full-back his entire career, is even better in the ‘Busquets’ role than Busquets himself?

A look at some statistical graphics from Squawka reveals that while Lahm may not be superior to Busquets in the role, he is just about the best imitation you can find. Let’s take a look at heat maps and total passes for Lahm and Busquets from a Bayern Munich match in the Bundesliga and a Barcelona match in La Liga this season.

These games are quite similar in terms of the performances of the two sides. Bayern beat Schalke 4-0, having 60% possession while completing 685/790 passes (87%) for a performance score of 517. Barça beat Real Sociedad 4-1, having 64% possession while completing 700/766 passes (91%) for performance score of 563. Two performances as dominating as they come, and it’s not as if they were against weak opposition. Both Schalke and Real Sociedad are competing in the Champions League this season.


Statistics courtesy of Squawka.com

As we can see, both Lahm and Busquets locked down the middle of the park and completed a very high percentage of their passes. Lahm’s heat map is more contained to the center while Busquets roamed from touchline to touchline. This can likely be explained by the free flowing attack of Barcelona compared to the discipline of Bayern Munich. Bayern’s full-backs and wingers stick to the wide areas, which allows the central midfielders to contain themselves in a more narrow stretch of the pitch.

Both players completed a great number of passes with extraordinary accuracy (77/84 or 92% for Lahm, and 80/86 or 93% for Busquets). It would be difficult to find more similar performances from any two players on any two teams in the world. And lest you think that these stats from just one game don’t tell the whole story: this season, Busquets has completed 95% of his passes in La Liga and 93% in the Champions League, while Lahm has hit on 91% in the Bundesliga and 94% in Europe.

The difference between Lahm and Busquets, however, lies in the Bavarian’s ability to perform just as excellently in other areas of the pitch. Playing at both full-back positions for Bayern and Germany over the years has seen Lahm positioned in the opponent’s half just as often as not. Last year alone for Bayern, Lahm contributed 11 assists, mostly from crosses and cutbacks from the right wing. Even playing mostly as a holding midfielder for Bayern this campaign, Lahm has created 20 chances to 8 from Busquets.

At some point this season, Pep Guardiola will once again be able to count on the services of Javi Martínez and Thiago, which could likely see Lahm moved from central midfield back to his usual place on the right side of defense. Or Pep may decide that he can’t displace his new midfield general, and incorporate Martínez and Thiago in alongside Lahm.

Wherever the coach decides to play him, know that Philipp Lahm will perform at the highest level. As Guardiola claimed earlier this season, “if I told him tomorrow he has to play at centre forward, he’d be one of the best in Europe.” It is difficult to doubt the words of such an accomplished tactician. There is no outfield position on the pitch that doesn’t suit the most complete player in the world.

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Villarreal: The Submarine Resurfaces

La Liga has historically been ruled by Real Madrid and Barcelona, with a variety of challengers to the two dominant poles. Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Super Depor, Sevilla, Villarreal, Málaga… the challengers come and go while Spain’s big two remain.

Villarreal might have been the least likely in the series of challengers to the La Liga duopoly. Nicknamed el submarino amarillo for the yellow shirts the players wear on the pitch, the club hails from a small town in the province of Castellón, from which it derives its name: Villarreal, or Vila-real in the local Valencian dialect. Vila-real has a population of just around 51,000, but the supporters have no problem filling their club’s stadium, the 25,000 seat El Madrigal.

The yellow submarine has its history, but not much of it in the top flight. Founded in 1923, Villarreal only made their Primera division debut in 1998. The club’s fortunes began to improve with the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini as coach in the summer of 2004. In his first season in charge, the Chilean manager guided Villarreal to a third place finish in the league, earning a Champions League berth.

With Pellegrini at the helm, Villarreal became mainstays in Europe, reaching the Champions League semi finals in 2006, and earned their best ever La Liga finish in 2008, coming second to champions Real Madrid. Pellegrini left for the managerial seat at the Santiago Bernabéu in the summer of 2009, and a number of coaches attempted to fill his shoes over the next few seasons, but the club continued to finish in the top half of the table.

The submarine returned to the Champions League after the 2010/2011 campaign, finishing 4th in La Liga. Despite losing playmaker Santi Cazorla to big spenders Málaga that summer, Villarreal still appeared to have a strong team, with players like Giuseppe Rossi, Cani, Borja Valero, Cristián Zapata, and Bruno Soriano part of the squad. So when they were drawn into the Champions League ‘Group of Death’ that fall, along with Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Napoli, they might not have been favorites to progress, but they were expected by many to contend.

Contend they did not, however. Villarreal failed to earn even a single point in the group, an auspicious start to what would be a nightmare season. The club fared little better in La Liga, losing star striker Giuseppe Rossi to an ACL injury in a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid that October. Villarreal slid down the table and eventually finished in 18th place, which caused the submarine to sink to the depths of the Liga Adelante, Spain’s second division.

Tragedy struck shortly after relegation became official. Villarreal chose Manolo Preciado as the man to raise up the sinking club, but the Santander-born manager suffered a fatal heart attack just a day later. He was rather hastily replaced by Julio Velázquez, but his death sent shockwaves through Spanish football, and it was tough for any manager to step in after the unfortunate event.

That summer also saw the departures of Valero, Nilmar, Diego López, Jonathan de Guzmán, and Jefferson Montero, among others. Rossi was still sidelined by further complications to his knee injury, and would later depart for Fiorentina in the January window.

It is the defining characteristic of a submarine, however, to plunge down deep and resurface once again, and Villarreal did just that. Although many important players had moved on, others like Cani, Bruno, Manuel Trigueros, and club icon Marcos Senna remained to fight for promotion back to the first division. At the club, there was an optimistic feeling that the drop to Segunda would be short-lived.

It wasn’t exactly clear waters from the outset though, and a rough start in the Liga Adelante saw Velázquez get the axe on January 15th, with the club floundering in 7th place. His replacement was Marcelino, who had incidentally coached his last game before the assignment with Sevilla in a loss to Villarreal. Squad reinforcements Jonathan Pereira, Jérémy Perbet, and Javier Aquino also arrived in the January transfer window. The new additions began to right the ship, and Villarreal finished the season in second place, earning automatic promotion. Marcos Senna, who gave his all for the yellow shirt over the past decade, departed for the newly formed New York Cosmos this summer after helping give one last gift to the fans who fill El Madrigal: a return to the highest level of competition in Spain.

Back in the top flight, club president Fernando Roig made funds available in the summer window to compensate for Senna’s exit and improve the squad. On loan players Pereira and Perbet were given permanent contracts, Sergio Asenjo was brought in at goalkeeper, and defensive reinforcements arrived in the forms of Gabriel Paulista and Bojan Jokić. The marquee signing of the window, however, was Mexican international Giovani dos Santos, who had also attracted interest from Valencia and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

With such big moves, the yellow submarine certainly wasn’t a relegation candidate at the beginning of the season, but few could have predicted this fantastic start. Villarreal currently sit in fourth place in the league table, behind fellow unbeatens Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. What’s more, they have done it in entertaining fashion, scoring at least 2 goals in each Liga game, save a 0-0 draw with Celta Vigo. Gio dos Santos looks as if he’s finally found a place to shine with 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games.

The match of the season so far was surely against Real Madrid at the Madrigal, which ended in a 2-2 stalemate but could have easily gone to the home side if not for some heroic saves by Madrid keeper Diego López, one of those sold off by Villarreal after the relegation a year ago. The yellow submarine delighted the crowd with fast, attacking play that cut open the Madrid defense time and again.

Given the current state of La Liga, Villarreal’s chances look as good as any team’s to grab that fourth and final Champions League place. It’s a long season, but Marcelino has them playing with style, and the have displayed a consistent attacking threat. After earning 14 of a possible 18 points so far, it doesn’t seem as if the submarine will be returning to the depths of Spanish football anytime soon.

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End of Season European Club Power Rankings

The season is over, transfer rumours are swirling, some big names have already switched clubs, and the summer international tournaments are underway. In an attempt to make sense of a wonderful, dramatic, exciting season, I’ve compiled my final club power rankings for 2012/2013.

If you’ve seen a previous edition, you probably disagreed with something. If you haven’t, here’s the breakdown: the rankings are based on some combination of league performance (relative to overall strength of the league), European performance (Champions and Europa League), and my own personal bias and subjectivity.

Many of these teams did not play each other, or performed very well in one competition but were lacking in others. It is very difficult to rank teams across many leagues, but I think it’s a fun exercise and thus worth doing. If you disagree with the rankings, please tell me why in the comments below. And now, the final European Club Power Rankings of the 2012/2013 season:

Europe’s Final Four

1. Bayern Munich (unchanged)

After achieving a second place treble the previous season, Bayern atoned for past failures and stamped their dominance on the European game by lifting all three trophies this year. Die Roten had the Bundesliga title mathematically sealed by early April, shattered the record for most points in a campaign with 91, and finished 25 points ahead of the closest challengers, Borussia Dortmund. That alone would make for an historic season, but the addition of the Champions League and the DFB-Pokal trophies makes it absolutely legendary.

2. Borussia Dortmund (unchanged)

Dortmund may have paled in comparison to their Bavarian rivals in the Bundesliga, but they were still able to flex their muscle in Europe this year, and only a last minute Arjen Robben goal denied them extra time in the Champions League final. Mario Götze has already jumped ship to Munich and Robert Lewandowski is looking to follow him, so BVB will have a tough time hanging on to this spot next season. They can spend the summer with the knowledge that this year, at least, second best in Germany also meant second best in Europe.

3. FC Barcelona (up 1)

Barcelona weren’t just knocked off their perch by Bayern Munich, they were seized and unceremoniously thrown from it. While the blaugrana had no answer for the speed and steel of the German giants, they did manage to tie the record of 100 points in La Liga, irking rivals Real Madrid, who achieved the mark just last year. Barcelona have now made the final four of the Champions League for six straight years, an astonishingly difficult feat. With the addition of Neymar, they will be expected to make that seven years running this coming season.

4. Real Madrid (down 1)

Falling to Atlético Madrid for the first time in 14 years sealed the end of the José Mourinho era at Real Madrid. Carlo Ancelotti has been named the favourite to take control in the Spanish capital, but is still in the process of disentangling himself from Paris Saint-Germain. Florentino Pérez was elected without opposition for another term as president of the club and is looking at Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez, and Edinson Cavani as potential galácticos. Madrid went trophyless this season (unless you count the Spanish Supercup), but were only a late goal away from contesting the Champions League final at Wembley instead of Dortmund.

Trophy Winners

5. Juventus (unchanged)

Nothing has changed regarding the Old Lady since the last rankings, except transfer rumours of course. Champions of Italy for a second straight year but goalless against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarters, it is clear that a striker is needed to take Juve to the next level. Carlos Tévez, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Stevan Jovetić are all possibilities.

6. Manchester United (unchanged)

With Fergie out and David Moyes in, will Manchester United be the same? Well, Sir Alex isn’t completely gone and the club is looking to strengthen a few positions this summer. The Wayne Rooney saga will have to be dealt with by Moyes, and if Rooney does stay he will need to start regularly or the drama will continue. What is almost certain is that United will have a tougher path to the Premier League trophy next season, with Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal (gasp) looking to spend on new players.

7. Paris Saint-Germain (up 3)

Under Carlo Ancelotti, nouveau rich PSG won Ligue 1 for the first time since the 1993/1994 season. Featuring several new additions to the side including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Lucas Moura, PSG acquitted themselves well in the Champions League, tying Barcelona over two legs only to lose on away goals. Ancelotti may be trading Paris for Madrid this summer, but the new manager will be expected to maintain PSG’s rise into Europe’s upper echelon.

8. Chelsea (up 1)

Chelsea finally achieved a trophy on their eighth try this season, with a last minute Branislav Ivanović header enough to beat Benfica in the Europa League final. Rafa Benítez was never staying beyond the end of the season, and with José Mourinho back in charge at Stamford Bridge, more will be expected of the Blues next year. Chelsea were at least able to secure automatic qualification for the upcoming Champions League season, something that’s becoming more and more difficult for teams in the Premier League.

9. Galatasaray (up 3)

Galatasaray made a breakthrough in Europe this season, going all the way to the Champions League quarter finals and even beating Real Madrid in one game in Turkey. Star signings Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder along with one of the standout players in the Champions League, Burak Yilmaz, propelled the Istanbul-based side to the Turkish League title and another chance amongst Europe’s elite next season. They will hope to keep hold of their top players, with clubs reportedly interested in Yilmaz, Sneijder and Felipe Melo already.

10. Shakhtar Donetsk (up 5)

Shakhtar continue to be perhaps the best team at scouting and signing Brazilian talent, which is even tougher when you consider they must also convince them to come play in Ukraine. The club lost Fernandinho to Manchester City in the past few days, but have swooped in for Grêmio’s Fernando and Fluminense’s Wellington Nem. Shakhtar won the Ukrainian league and cup double, and were eliminated in the Champions League by eventual finalists Borussia Dortmund, a very impressive season indeed.

11. FC Porto (previously unranked)

Porto snatched the Liga Sagres title away from Benfica at the last minute; a stoppage time goal from Kelvin gave Porto all three points in the penultimate game of the season, which put Porto ahead of Benfica by one point. The Dragões would not relinquish that lead the next week, winning away at Paços de Ferreira to seal their third straight Portuguese Liga title. The amount of success Porto have had while consistently selling their best players continues to astound.

12. CSKA Moscow (previously unranked)

CSKA didn’t play in Europe this year, but that looks to have benefitted them domestically, as they brought home the league and cup double. The Russian league has become more difficult in recent years with ambitious big spenders like Zenit and Anzhi strengthening their sides. CSKA were also helped by the fact that their closest competitors had European competition to distract them, but a domestic double is something any team would sign up for at the beginning of a season.

13. Atlético Madrid (unchanged)

Back in the Champions League and victorious over their city rivals in the Copa del Rey final, it was a satisfying end to the season for the rojiblancos. Radamel Falcao has moved on, as expected, although his new club was a bit of a surprise for many. Atléti needed the funds from his sale as well as the Champions League qualification money to help their precarious financial situation. Under the leadership of Diego Simeone, the club will attempt to continue on their upward trajectory next season.

Could Have Beens

14. Benfica (down 8)

It was a very rough end to the season for Jorge Jesus and Benfica. Despite bowing out of the Champions League at the group stages, Benfica were on course for a treble of league, cup, and Europa League as recently as the 90th minute against Porto on May 11. Then Kelvin scored an extra time goal to give Porto the three points, and Benfica dropped to second in the league table. On May 15th, Benfica lost a heartbreaker to Chelsea in the Europa League final, and to make matters worse, they fell to lowly Vitória de Guimarães 2-1 in the Portuguese Cup on May 26. What could have been such a promising season ended in disaster, and Benfica will be the team rueing their chances most this summer.

15. Málaga (down 3)

The ultimate could have been of the season was Málaga vs Borussia Dortmund, leg two of the Champions League quarter finals. In the 82nd minute, Málaga went ahead 2-1 on a Eliseu goal that appeared to be offside. This meant Dortmund needed two goals in just about 10 minutes to advance. We all know what happened next. Marco Reus scored less than a minute into stoppage time, and Málaga’s European dreams were crushed by a Felipe Santana header shortly after, on a play where four Dortmund players appeared to be offside. The Germans were through, though, and the Andalucians were heartbroken. Coach Manuel Pellegrini is moving on, and Málaga may struggle to reach the same heights in the coming years, but no Malaguista will ever forget the wonderful run they had this season.

16. Manchester City (down 9)

After advancing past Chelsea to reach the FA Cup final, it appeared that Manchester City would conclude a successful season in spite of finishing last in their Champions League group. Second place in the Premier League and a second FA Cup in three years seemed likely, as City were heavily favoured against opponents Wigan Athletic. 90 minutes at Wembley later and City were trophyless, Roberto Mancini was on the outs, and it was straight to the transfer market for reinforcements. Jesús Navas and Fernandinho have already arrived, and their new club will hope for a more favourable Champions League group draw on August 30 to help them take the next step in Europe.

Also Noteworthy (no order)

Arsenal, Tottenham, Celtic, Real Sociedad, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke 04, Ajax, FC Basel, Napoli, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, Fenerbahçe, Zenit St Petersburg, Anzhi Makhachkala

This last group was too difficult to rank in order, but all of these teams had seasons worthy of a mention in this article. Again, if you feel like I made a mistake with the rankings, please leave your comment below and explain why.

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European Club Power Rankings 3.0

Here is the third edition of my European Club Power Rankings. The rankings are based on some combination of league standing and present form, European form (Champions and Europa League), and my own personal bias and subjectiveness. As the season is almost over, the overall quality of the domestic and European campaigns, as well as the strength of the league itself, are heavily weighed. If you disagree with the rankings, feel free to comment below.

1. Bayern Munich (unchanged)

The Bavarian powerhouse has faced the champions of Italy and the champs-to-be of Spain in its last two Champions League ties, defeating Juventus and Barcelona by a combined margin of 11-0 over the four games played. Bayern have had the edge over German rivals BVB this season, but if they lose to Dortmund at Wembley, it will be labeled as yet another choke job for Die Roten.

2. Borussia Dortmund (up 2)

Dortmund almost blew the big lead they built in the first leg against Real Madrid, but held on for a wild 15 minutes at the Bernabéu and deservedly advanced to their first Champions League final since 1997. Tempers flared in the Wembley dress rehearsal at the Westfalenstadion this weekend, with Dortmund and Bayern battling to a 1-1 draw. There is sure to be a winner next time those two meet, determining who deserves the number one spot on this list at season’s end.

3. Real Madrid (down 1)

Los Blancos came up just short in their quest for La Décima, falling in the semi finals for the third straight season. With José Mourinho’s up-and-down tenure in the Spanish capital seemingly coming to an end, Madrid will have big decisions to make this summer. Perhaps a few new Galácticos will be wearing white next year, as Madrid try to return to the summit of European football.

4. FC Barcelona (down 1)

Barcelona were without a fit Lionel Messi, yes, but they were still flat out embarrassed over two legs by Bayern Munich. Many have called it a monumental power shift in Europe, but as long as the Blaugrana have Messi, they will always challenge for silverware in every competition. It is only a matter of time before Barcelona mathematically lock up the La Liga title, but they really haven’t hit top form at all in 2013.

5. Juventus (unchanged)

Juventus sealed their 29th official Scudetto at the weekend, although supporters had no problem celebrating it as the 31st title win, conveniently overlooking the two stripped from the club for match fixing. The Old Lady has lacked a world class striker all year, but Fernando Llorente has already been signed from Bilbao, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gonzalo Higuaín are other names rumored to make the switch to Turin next season.

6. Manchester United (up 2)

The biggest news coming out of Manchester recently is not the title win, which was foreseen months ago, but the announcement that Sir Alex Ferguson will step down after this season. The next manager (pegged in England as Everton’s David Moyes) will certainly have big shoes to fill. It’s fitting that Fergie goes out on top of the Premier League, right where he was for so much of his time on the Old Trafford sidelines. Life will go on for the Red Devils, however, and with a few smart signings they should be again challenging for their fourth European Cup.

7. Manchester City (up 4)

With Chelsea’s draw against Tottenham today at Stamford Bridge, the Sky Blues of Manchester need just one point from their final two matches to lock up second place in the Premier League. Roberto Mancini will be looking to win his second FA Cup in the past three seasons this weekend, and his side will be heavily favored against opponents Wigan Athletic. Will Mancini be around to guide City in what they hope will be a more successful Champions League campaign next season?

8. Benfica (up 1)

Benfica overcame a very tough challenge in Fenerbahce to reach the Europa League final, but slipped up on Monday in domestic play against Estoril. Before facing Chelsea in Amsterdam next Wednesday, the Lisbon-based outfit must travel to the Estádio Do Dragão, where they can secure the Portuguese league title with a win against heated rivals Porto.

9. Chelsea (up 3)

Chelsea have already missed out on seven available trophies this season: the Community Shield, Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cub, and of course the Champions League. Despite all those letdowns, the Blues can still bring home some silverware before season’s end, as they will duel it out with Benfica for the Europa League trophy next week. Chelsea also sit two points above Arsenal for third place in the BPL table with two games to go, and barring a meltdown will compete with Europe’s elite again next season.

10. Paris Saint-Germain (down 3)

PSG failed to wrap up the Ligue 1 trophy at the weekend, and could only draw 1-1 with Valenciennes. Carlo Ancelotti may be leaving Paris for the supposedly greener pastures of Real Madrid this offseason, and potential (though unlikely) replacements include Mourinho and Arsene Wenger. PSG can take home the French title this Sunday with a win against rivals Lyon.

11. Málaga (down 5)

Málaga have gone into a tailspin recently, but still are worthy of a spot on this list just for being minutes away from advancing past Borussia Dortmund several weeks ago. The Andalucians will almost certainly not be competing in Europe next season whether they qualify or not, thanks to a UEFA ban for financial irregularities, pending appeal. With all the uncertainty surrounding the club’s future, Málaga likely won’t crack the rankings too often in the future, so they remain here now as a testament to their outstanding season.

12. Galatasaray (down 2)

Galatasaray have won the Turkish Super League and have a strong squad that will be back in Europe’s top competition next year looking for more. Galatasaray and Borussia Dortmund were the only teams able to record a win against Real Madrid in the Champions League, which is impressive considering Madrid also faced strong opposition like Manchester United, Manchester City, and Ajax. Don’t expect this team to go away any time soon.

13. Atlético Madrid (unchanged)

Los colchoneros secured Champions League football for next season with a 0-0 draw to Deportivo La Coruña at the weekend, and beat up on lowly Celta Vigo today 3-1. After losing twice to Real Madrid this season and extending the winless draught against their crosstown rivals to 14 years, Atlético will hope to prove in the Copa del Rey final that they are more than an afterthought in the Spanish capital.

14. Arsenal (unchanged)

It is coming down to the wire in the race for fourth place in the BPL table, but thanks to Tottenham’s draw with Chelsea today, Arsenal now control their own destiny. If they can win their next two games against Wigan and Newcastle, Arsenal will qualify for the Champions League for the 16th consecutive season.

15. Shakhtar Donetsk (previously unranked)

Shakhtar hold a commanding 13 point lead atop the Ukrainian league, and have advanced to the final of their domestic cup. They were eliminated in the Champions League round of 16, but it was at the hands of eventual finalists Dortmund, and they did well to advance out of group that included last year’s winners Chelsea and Italian champions Juventus. Their overall body of work merits them a place on the list for the first time this year.

Next two tiers (not ranked within each tier):

Tier 2: Tottenham, Real Sociedad, Valencia, FC Porto, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke 04, Napoli, AC Milan, Fenerbahce, CSKA Moscow, Anzhi Makhachkala

Tier 3: Celtic, Real Betis, Marseille, Fiorentina, Roma, Lazio, FC Basel, Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt, Zenit St Petersburg, Rubin Kazan

…..

Think I got something wrong? Leave a comment below with your rankings, or just tell me what I messed up. All feedback is welcome.

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After disappointing losses, Real Madrid and Barcelona must retool for next season

For the second straight year, Real Madrid and Barcelona arrived in the Champions League semi finals with illusions of an all Spanish Clásico final, only to find themselves disappointed. Real Madrid almost completed the unlikeliest of comebacks in the final minutes against Borussia Dortmund as the legendary Estadio Santiago Bernabéu was raging. Los Blancos will rue their early missed chances, coming up just short against a Dortmund side that was ultimately the better team for most of the two legged tie. Barcelona, on the other hand, were without a fully fit Lionel Messi and were absolutely steamrolled by Bayern Munich, who are the likely favorites to lift the big-eared trophy at Wembley on May 25th.

Dortmund’s meteoric rise and Bayern’s emphatic victory are clear signs that the balance of power in Europe’s premier competition has shifted away from La Liga and towards the Bundesliga. Having led the pack in infrastructure, attendance, and low ticket prices for quite some time, the German first division can now genuinely claim to house the two best squads in world football. Bayern Munich look to only get stronger going forward, with Pep Guardiola replacing current coach Jupp Heynckes at season’s end. It also was revealed just before the semi finals began that Bayern activated the 37 million euro release clause in the contract of Dortmund star and full German international Mario Götze. It was a crucial blow for Bayern, scoring an incredible young talent and weakening their biggest domestic rivals in the process. Dortmund were able to overcome the ill timing of the news and even held off Madrid without Götze for most of the second leg. They might find it harder to maintain their success beyond this season, with Götze already heading for the exit and Europe’s wealthiest clubs hoping to swoop in and sign their other top players. Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan, and Mats Hummels are rumored targets for Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona, respectively.

Whether the fates of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund head in different directions is a story for the future. At present, they will battle it out in the first all German final in European Cup history. But while the German clubs’ futures will have to wait to be discussed, the semi final exits of Madrid and Barcelona mean that questions surrounding them will be raised now. For Barcelona, they were utterly outclassed without Lionel Messi, doing nothing to disprove the notion that they are a one man team. Real Madrid were exposed for lacking of a system that can dictate the game against strong opponents, and have been consistently frustrated trying to break down organized and compact defenses.

So what does the future hold for the Spanish giants? If José Mourinho’s post-match comments on Tuesday were any indicator, Madrid’s future will likely be without the Special One at the helm. Potential replacements who’ve been mentioned by the Spanish media include Heynckes and PSG boss Carlo Ancelotti. Less likely candidates are Dortmund’s own Jürgen Klopp and Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas. Of course, there is still the possibility that Mourinho will sit down with club president Florentino Pérez and decide to remain at the Bernabéu. Whoever is in charge next year, it is of utmost importance that Madrid establish a strong sense of identity and unity, along with a coherent style of play.

A season without a Champions League or La Liga trophy represents a failure for Real Madrid, and failures generally lead to new Galácticos wearing the all white kit the following season. It’s been widely reported that PFA Player of the Year Gareth Bale is the primary target for Pérez, but Tottenham will not let go their star go without receiving a hefty sum in return. What is certain is that this year Madrid needed another reliable scorer to take the load off of Cristiano Ronaldo, and that was lacking in some key games. Bale has 24 goals in all competitions this season for Spurs, including several big game winners. Gonzalo Higuaín’s performance on Tuesday did not bode well for his future in white, and Madrid have been linked with a whole host of top forwards along with Bale. Among those linked is Robert Lewandowski, who obviously showed Madrid first hand the damage he can do around the goal, but is also reported to be a top target for Sir Alex Ferguson. Other names mentioned are Sergio Agüero, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez and, less likely, Radamel Falcao. Of that group, Agüero could be the most plausible acquisition; he has had a much tougher season this year than last, struggling with injuries, and City already have a number of forwards and are looking for more. Agüero began his European career with neighbors Atlético Madrid and reportedly desires a move back to the Spanish capital. If City bring in another big name forward this summer, they may be content to let Agüero leave.

While the forwards will probably garner all the Galáctico headlines, perhaps most important for Madrid to resolve is the situation with Xabi Alonso. The former Real Sociedad and Liverpool man has not indicated that will renew his contract when it expires in the summer of 2014. If Mourinho leaves as expected, Alonso may even wish to follow him to his next destination. The club must now decide whether to get something back for him this summer or watch him leave for free the next. Alonso had two uncharacteristically terrible performances against Dortmund, as Jürgen Klopp’s tactics effectively stifled the Basque passing maestro. Dortmund’s own Ilkay Gündogan, mentioned above as a potential target for Los Blancos, outplayed Alonso in a similar position in the center of the park. If Alonso goes, possibly along with Mourinho or for a Liverpool return, Gündogan could find himself on Pérez’s radar soon. PSG’s Marco Verratti and Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia are two other players linked to Madrid. If Ancelotti takes over this summer, Verratti might be easily convinced to join him in trading the French capital for the Spanish one.

Another name being touted as an Alonso replacement is Sociedad youngster Asier Illarramendi. A swap of Alonso for Illarramendi would be very intriguing, especially with La Real in position to secure Champions League football for the upcoming season. Madrid would get a promising young talent in exchange for the man who has been their engine in midfield for the past four seasons, while Alonso would return to the club where he made his professional debut. There would hopefully be the added pleasure of Alonso orchestrating La Real’s first Champions League campaign since the 2003-2004 season.

It is also possible, especially if Madrid spend big on forwards, that Pérez will determine that the players needed to replace Alonso are already with the club. Luka Modric was signed just last summer for 33 million pounds, and current Dortmund loanee Nuri Sahin is still on Madrid’s books. Then there are promising Castilla players Casemiro and José Rodríguez waiting to step up in the future. If there is no room in the first team when they feel they are ready, they will be looking for new clubs in due time.

One position where an upgrade is unquestionably needed is right fullback. Michael Essien performed admirably in that role a few times this season, but he is a natural midfielder and only on loan for the season from Chelsea. If Mourinho goes, Essien will almost certainly not be back. Álvaro Arbeloa is a good player, but lacks skills going forward, and Los Blancos have no quality replacement when he goes down injured. Madrid would do well to exercise the buyback option on former canterano Dani Carvajal, who has gotten the high-level playing time he needed at Bayer Leverkusen this season. Current Castilla defender Nacho is also an option at fullback, but prefers to play in the center of defense.

Madrid must get rid of some deadweight (Kaká, Ricardo Carvalho) and possibly a few others rumored out (Higuaín, Fabio Coentrão, Pepe), resolve the Xabi Alonso situation, and bring in a world class finisher, and they should be right back where they have been the past three years, with a very good chance to advance to their first final since they lifted the cup in 2002. Canteranos must be promoted or solid depth bought on defense, especially at right back. If the injury bug bites the back line again, squad players must be able to fill in. In order to have a shot at taking down Bayern Munich or a fully fit Barcelona, or solidly outplaying a Dortmund, Manchester United, or Juventus as they believe they should, Madrid must develop a better sense of identity and style of play. They must embrace the high pressing game, using their speed and physicality to out-hustle the opposing team. At every competition exit in the Mourinho era, and the several La Liga games that ending up costing them titles, Los Blancos have looked disjointed, lacking ideas, and been unable to finish when needed. In order to lift La Décima, Madrid must be able to impose their will on any opponent.

Turning to Barcelona, it is evident that change is also needed. Messi was not fit against Bayern, but even with La Pulga at full force, the Blaugrana would have been hard pressed to match Bayern’s intensity and physicality. The team clearly needs another attacking player to take the load off of Messi, preferably one comfortable out on the wing. Alexis Sánchez looks good against lesser La Liga sides, but has failed to prove he belongs with Barcelona in important matches. David Villa has not been the same since breaking his leg at the Club World Cup in 2011 and could sorely use a change of scenery. Potential summer acquisitions for the Catalans include Brazilian rising star Neymar, along with the likes of Agüero, Suárez, and Cavani. All would be interesting options and could add a new dimension to Barça’s already potent attack.

Fantasizing of Neymar playing alongside Messi is certainly fun, but where Barcelona need help most is at the back. With club icon Carles Puyol struggling for regular fitness, and two very attack-minded fullbacks in Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, the Barça back line was consistently exposed by top quality opposition this year. Gerard Pique seems to have regressed, and appears not capable of being the vocal leader in a central defensive partnership, like Puyol was for Barça and Sergio Ramos now is for Spain. Marc Bartra has shown promise, but was not ready for the biggest stage. After buying players at every position but center back the last several years, Barça must ink a player like Mats Hummels or Vincent Kompany. Puyol may play again for Barcelona, but his days as a regular are clearly numbered, and a long-term replacement must be found.

After yesterday’s loss to Bayern, Tito Vilanova insisted that Barcelona do not need a lot of changes, but he may find himself on the outs after failing to live up to Pep Guardiola’s lofty standards in his first season in charge at the Camp Nou. If the club does decide to retain Vilanova, he must do a better job of rotating his squad. The Blaugrana came into the tie with Bayern Munich in bad shape physically. Messi and Sergio Busquets were too injured to make an impact, while Xavi and Andres Iniesta looked clearly worn out and not at their masterful best. Alex Song was bought to spell Busquets, but spent far too much time on the bench all year. Cesc Fàbregas, also linked with a return to Arsenal in recent weeks, has not had sustained success as a forward, and should have been used along with Thiago in a better rotation with Xavi and Iniesta. The core players in this Barcelona side have all played a tremendous amount of games over the past 5 years and are obviously burned out.

Another thing Barcelona may consider is adopting a more defensive formation. They have scored plenty of goals this year but have also conceded way too many. With a fit Messi they might have scored against Bayern, but overcoming a 7 goal difference is a tall order even for the diminutive Argentine. If Barça come across their old leader Guardiola’s new team in next years Champions, they will need a different game plan, and that could maybe include two defensive midfielders. If they cannot part with the 4-3-3, and don’t bring in top class wide forward, Jordi Alba could be brought up the left wing, with another fullback like Adriano or perhaps Eric Abidal sitting behind him and helping the central pairing on breaks. Even Neymar and Hummels might not be enough against Bayern or Madrid if the fullbacks are consistently in a position to be exposed.

In the end, talk of Barcelona’s demise is exaggerated, and with a few good signings, better squad rotation, and most importantly, a fit Lionel Messi, they should be one of the favorites to win the Champions League again next year. Some players must be let go, like Alexis, Villa, and maybe even Cesc, and the proper reinforcements brought in. The jury is still out on whether Tito Vilanova is the right man to lead the team. He didn’t get a very fair shake this year with his health issues so it would be a bit of a shame to see him let go. The business of football is often not fair, though, and Barcelona have also been linked with outgoing Bayern boss Heynckes.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona are still very good teams, and do not need complete overhauls as much as slight tweaks to return to the summit of European football. Bayern Munich are certainly not going away and should only continue to improve. Borussia Dortmund may be raided yet again this summer, but have a strong system in place to remain perpetually competitive. The English clubs will all be looking to come back stronger, and Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus have laid the groundwork to be competitive in the Champions League for years to come. No one is rolling over and letting the Spanish giants have their way, so they must make smart decisions in order to return stronger next season.

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European Club Power Rankings

It’s the second edition of my European Club Power Rankings. The rankings are again based on some combination of league standing and present form, European form (Champions and Europa League), and my own personal bias and subjectiveness. If you disagree with the rankings, feel free to comment below.

1. Bayern Munich

It was a good week for Die Roten. After wrapping up the Bundesliga title in record time, the Bavarians comfortably cruised past Juventus into the semi finals of the Champions League. They’ll face Barcelona in a clash of European heavyweights next as they try to reach their third Champions League final in the past four years, while staying on course for a treble.

2. Real Madrid

Madrid have given up in La Liga but the quest for La Decima is alive and well. Los Blancos lost in Istanbul but still made it through to the semis on aggregate, and received what seems to be a favorable draw with Borussia Dortmund. There are no underdogs at this stage of the competition, however, and Madrid will face a tough test in Germany next week.

3. FC Barcelona

Barcelona squeaked past Paris Saint-Germain on away goals, but perhaps the more telling stat is the scoreline with and without Lionel Messi on the field. When the Argentine superstar was off injured, PSG had a 3-1 goal advantage. With Messi on the pitch, Barcelona had the edge 2-0. It’s obvious that the team relies on Messi, and they will need him on top form to overcome Bayern Munich and reach Wembley.

4. Borussia Dortmund

Dortmund face Madrid again having already won the series earlier in the season, although that Madrid squad was missing some key defenders. In the last round BVB barely edged Málaga on a controversial stoppage time goal in which several of the German team’s players were clearly offside. They have the talent and playing style to match up well with the Spanish giants and progress to the final.

5. Juventus

The Old Lady was steamrolled by Bayern in the quarter final tie; Juve’s vaunted defense let in four goals and the lack of quality strikers was on full display, as they failed to score a single goal. The Bianconeri can take solace in an all but assured Serie A title coming shortly. They learned a Champions League lesson from a great team and will be back in this competition for years to come.

6. Málaga

Everyone felt the pain for Málaga when they were sent out by Dortmund on the aforementioned offside stoppage time goal. It was a cruel way to go down after the incredible run the Andalucians made to the quarters. That misery is compounded by the fact that even if it finishes fourth in La Liga this year, the club may be banned from European competition next season for financial irregularities. Ultimately, though, Malaguistas must be proud of their team’s historic run and the way they went toe to toe with a very strong Dortmund side.

7. Paris Saint-Germain

PSG must be a bit disappointed to see Barcelona advance past them despite drawing both games, with away goals in the Catalans’ favor. As stated above, Lionel Messi was the difference maker, but young players Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura looked dangerous, while star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic yet again failed to make a real impact in Europe’s premier competition. With a solid showing in its Champions League return now in the rearview mirror, the French club looks to be the next to prove that money can buy titles as it zeroes in on the Ligue 1 trophy.

8. Manchester United

After falling in the Manchester derby last week for only their first Premier League loss since November, the Red Devils got back on track yesterday against Stoke City. Robin van Persie also got his name on the score sheet, ending his 10 match goal drought in club play. The league title now appears to be a mere formality for Sir Alex Ferguson, who will lift his 20th Premier League trophy next month.

9. Benfica

Despite being eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League, Benfica have put together a very solid campaign this year. The Lisbon-based club currently leads FC Porto by 4 points in the Portuguese Liga and is on to the semi finals of the Europa League. A tricky test in Turkey will prove if they truly belong among the rest of these teams.

10. Galatasaray

Galatasaray finally met their match in the Champions League, falling 5-3 on aggregate to Real Madrid. The Turks were outclassed by their Spanish counterparts, but January signings Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba did impress in the second leg. They still sit atop on the Turkish domestic league and appear to be well positioned for another European run next season.

11. Manchester City

Roberto Mancini’s men are still sitting comfortably in second place in the BPL table and just edged Chelsea to reach the final of the FA Cup. Although they have failed to establish themselves among Europe’s elite this year, the blues from Manchester will be favored to bring home silverware for the third straight year. After two consecutive brutal groups in the Champions League, City should surely be luckier with the draw this fall.

12. Chelsea

Chelsea have rebounded from their Champions League embarrassment earlier in the season to reach the semi finals of the Europa League. The grueling schedule has taken its toll on the Blues, who looked clearly fatigued in yesterday’s loss to Manchester City in the FA Cup semis. Rafa Benitez’s men must now balance their European commitments with a difficult finish to the Premier League campaign, with visits to both Anfield and Old Trafford ahead.

13. Atlético Madrid

Los Rojiblancos continued their superb league campaign with a 5-0 thumping of Granada yesterday at the Vicente Calderon. Despite being unable to defend last year’s Europa League title, Atlético are sure to finish in the Champions League places and have a showdown with crosstown rivals Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final next month.

14. Arsenal

Although they will go without a trophy for the eighth consecutive season, Arsenal have made a late season surge and now appear to have the edge over fading Tottenham for the fourth and final Champions League place. The London club was unlucky to meet Bayern Munich so early in European competition, and will need to continue to finish strong to secure its place in the top tier competition for next season.

15. Real Sociedad

Without a doubt the surprise of the season in Spain, La Real sit 4 points clear of Malaga for La Liga’s final Champions League berth. The San Sebastián-based side has beaten Barcelona, Málaga, and Atlético Madrid during its current unbeaten run in domestic play, which dates back to a 4-3 loss to Real Madrid at the Bernabéu on January 6th. Tough games against Valencia, Sevilla, and the home fixture to Real Madrid await as the Basques close in on next year’s Champions League.

The rest worth mentioning (in no order):

Tottenham, Valencia, FC Porto, FC Basel, AC Milan, Napoli, Fiorentina, Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen, Shakhtar Donetsk, Fenerbahce, Rubin Kazan

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Champions League draw preview

The Champions League semi final draw will take place Friday morning at 6 am EST. Here’s a look at the three possible outcomes, in order of my most preferred to least preferred:

Real Madrid – Borussia Dortmund

Bayern Munich – FC Barcelona

At long last, a big time Champions League match up between Bayern and Barcelona. The best team of the last 5 years (and maybe ever) versus the best looking team this season. In the other pairing, a rematch of the two who topped the Group of Death. I’d prefer Madrid to avoid Bayern and Barça completely, so at least one would be eliminated here.

Real Madrid – FC Barcelona

Bayern Munich – Borussia Dortmund

Two more Clásicos, and Dortmund gets a chance to finally beat Bayern this season. This also guarantees a Spain vs. Germany final, which would be fitting after this year’s Champions League, and the state of world football in general over the past 6 years. Losing another semi final to Barcelona would be crushing, however, and certainly spell the end of Mourinho in Madrid.

Real Madrid – Bayern Munich

FC Barcelona – Borussia Dortmund

The least preferred, obviously, given how unstoppable Bayern have looked all season long. Madrid will need to be at their very best to win this one. Barça – Dortmund, though, would be a very entertaining tie. Both teams can score in bunches, and Dortmund will be perfectly content to sit back, let Barcelona play tika-taka, and hit hard on the break.


All three possibilities would be great match ups; delightfully entertaining to a neutral observer, and nail-biting encounters for the fans of all four clubs. These teams are all incredibly talented and worthy of a berth in the last four. Unless UEFA has already chosen their ideal outcome (wouldn’t surprise too many, I’m sure), it will all be determined on Friday morning.

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Madrid top Galatasaray, on pace for Champs League semis

Turkish league leaders and surprise Champions League quarter finalists Galatasaray took on Real Madrid today in the Spanish capital. Madrid may have been lucky with the draw in this match up, but after a tough round of 16 against Manchester United which saw the Spanish giants go through after Nani’s controversial red card, Los Blancos needed a statement game today and they delivered.

Galatasaray did not come out to sit behind the ball and created some danger going forward, but that also left a lot of the space at the back for Madrid’s attackers to exploit. The Turkish defense was unlocked in the 9th minute when Mesut Ozil played a beautiful ball in for a streaking Cristiano Ronaldo, who beat keeper Fernando Muslera with a wonderful chip shot.

The early goal was a huge confidence boost for Madrid, but Galatasaray continued to get forward and create chances. Didier Drogba had a great look at goal from the top of the box in the 12th minute, but he blasted his shot over the bar. Drogba tried again from further out in the 26th minute with some power and this time found the target, but the ball was parried away by Diego Lopez.

The Turks’ efforts to find a goal continued to open up space for Ronaldo, Ozil, Karim Benzema, and the rest of the Madrid attack, and the home side found another breakthrough in the 29th minute. A cross from Michael Essien, filling in at right back on the day, went over the head of Ronaldo and two Galatasaray defenders to fall right at the feet of Benzema. It was a sloppy play and a bit of luck for Madrid, but the Frenchman slotted the ball in nicely at the near post to make it 2-0.

Despite looking clearly outclassed, Galatasaray were hoping to pull one back before halftime and had perhaps their best chance of the game in the 44th minute. A neat one-two from Emmanuel Eboué and Drogba put Eboué clear through the Madrid defense, but the Ivorian shot right at Diego Lopez, who had another fine game between the goalposts for Real Madrid. Lopez has played excellently since captain Iker Casillas went down with a hand injury, and should keep his place for as long as Madrid can go in this competition if his good form continues.

At halftime, Galatasaray playmaker and January signing Wesley Sneijder came off for defender Gokhan Zan, which solidified the Turks at the back but removed a big part of the attacking ingenuity. The second half seemed to be played at a much more relaxed pace, with Madrid comfortably in front and prioritizing a clean sheet at home.

The Merengues got a third goal in 73rd minute when an exquisite Xabi Alonso free kick found the head of an unmarked Gonzalo Higuaín, who came on as a substitute for fellow striker Karim Benzema. Higuaín did not even have to jump to meet the curling ball and guided it past Muslera for his first goal in the Champions League this season.

Some controversy arose shortly after when Galatasaray striker Burak Yilmaz went down in the Madrid penalty area. Yilmaz, who entered the game as joint top scorer in the competition, appeared to have been stepped on by Sergio Ramos, but was booked for a dive instead and will miss the next match. Ramos and Alonso also received yellow cards that will keep them out of the return fixture, but those could definitely have been intentional with an eye on the next round. Madrid hung on to finish 3-0 and now take a sizable advantage with them to Istanbul next Tuesday.

It was as close to a perfect performance as Jose Mourinho’s side could have hoped for today in the quest for La Decima. Ronaldo, Benzema, and Higuaín all scored, which is especially important for the confidence of the latter two, who have not been on top form this season. Maybe more importantly, Madrid did not concede any away goals, and if they score one in Turkey the tie is all but over. Credit to coach Fatih Terim and his squad for coming out to play in the Bernabéu, but the Turks were certainly inferior and perhaps paid the price for attempting to go toe to toe with Madrid.

Yesterday, Bayern Munich put in a dominant performance at home to Juventus while Barcelona were unlucky to leave Paris with a 2-2 draw to PSG. In today’s other match up, Málaga and Borussia Dortmund both had their chances but finished 0-0 at La Rosaleda. With the return legs set for next week, Real, Barça, Bayern, and Dortmund look to be in the best positions to progress, although no team, not even Madrid, is assured of passage to the semi finals just yet.

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European Club Power Rankings

Welcome to the first edition of my European Club Power Rankings. The rankings are based on some combination of league position and form, European form (Champions and Europa League), and my own personal bias and subjectiveness. That last category is there because I obviously do not watch every game that each of these teams play, as that would be basically impossible, so I try to order them as best I can. Any power rankings will have dissenting opinions, and those are encouraged here, provided you argue your position. As today has just wrapped up a round of European fixtures, I’m giving that most importance, but league form, both current and overall, is weighed heavily as well. Without further ado, here is the list:

1. Bayern Munich

The Bavarians fell to Arsenal in Munich on Tuesday 2-0 in what was a worrying performance, but they were without two of their best players in Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and made it to the Champions League quarter finals despite the loss. They still are tops in the Bundesliga by 20 points and are into the semi finals of the German cup.

2. Juventus

La Vecchia Signora has a comfortable lead atop Serie A, 9 points ahead of fading Napoli, and just wiped the floor with Celtic in their round of 16 Champions League tie. Juve did recently bow out of the Coppa Italia to Lazio, and only time will tell if they deserve to be above the Spanish duopoly on this list, but they might have the best defense in Europe and look set to secure their second straight Scudetto.

3. Real Madrid

The Merengues are in their best form of the season under Jose Mourinho, beating Barcelona twice along with Manchester United in a historic week. The league is more than likely a lost cause, but the Spanish giants can still pull off a Champions League and Copa del Rey double, bringing the long awaited Decima to Madrid.

4. FC Barcelona

The blaugrana convincingly quieted their doubters against Milan, with perhaps their best game performance since they lifted the Champions League trophy at Wembley in 2011. The Catalans could just as easily be number one on this list, but two consecutive losses to rivals Real Madrid showed they are susceptible at the back. Barcelona must continue to prove themselves in the quarter finals.

5. Borussia Dortmund

The darlings of Europe earlier this season when they topped the Group of Death, Dortmund have had a blip in form domestically, most recently falling to local rivals Schalke. They were also eliminated from the German Cup, which they won the last 2 years, by Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich. They still managed to dominate Shakhtar Donetsk at the Westfalenstadion last week and will be a difficult out for any side in the next round.

6. Manchester United

Despite being eliminated by Real Madrid after Nani’s now infamous red card, the Red Devils have a stranglehold on the Barclays Premier League and are still alive in the FA Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson will have to do his best to forget Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir’s decision at Old Trafford and focus on getting past Chelsea in their cup replay. Barring a meltdown, they will at least end the season lifting the Premier League trophy.

7. Málaga

Manuel Pelligrini’s side continued its Cinderella season against Porto yesterday, reaching the quarter finals in the debut year in Champions League for this club. Málaga remain in fourth place in La Liga on goal differential, but may not be able to play in next years Champions due to UEFA penalties. For now the dream continues for Málaga fans as they await tomorrow’s draw in Switzerland.

8. Paris Saint-Germain

PSG’s expensive off-season acquisitions have been paying off recently, as they sit first in Ligue 1 and are still alive in the Champions League. They may not have been tested as much as others on this list, but they have a bonafide superstar in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in addition to quality attacking support in Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore, and Lucas Moura. The recent signing of David Beckham will only help raise the profile of the French capital club.

9. Chelsea

Things were not looking good for Roman Abramovich and Chelsea after they became the first club to win the Champions League and be knocked out of the group stages the following year. The ousting from Europe’s premier competition got manager Roberto Di Matteo the sack, but interim boss Rafa Benitez has righted the ship since then despite constant heckling from Chelsea supporters. Chelsea are two points off third in the BPL with a game in hand, have qualified for the quarter finals of the Europa League, and just forced an FA Cup replay with Manchester United. Abramovich will hope for at least one of those trophies to atone for disappointments in the Community Shield, European Super Cup, and Club World Cup this season.

10. Tottenham

Spurs could be higher on this list if not for their last two results. They lost to Liverpool at the weekend due to costly mistakes at the back, and needed extra time to advance past Inter in the Europa League, seeing their 3-0 advantage wiped out after 75 minutes. However, Tottenham were without their star man Gareth Bale in Milan, and still progressed to the quarter finals on an away goal. They currently sit third in the Premier League, albeit having played one more game than the rest of the top five.

11. Galatasaray

Galatasaray continued to shock the rest of Europe this week, beating Schalke in Germany on Tuesday, although the win was overshadowed by Barcelona’s historic comeback. The Istanbul based side are in first place in the Turkish League and feature Champions League joint top scorer Burak Yilmaz along with new signings Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder. They deserve a place on this list until they get eliminated.

12. AC Milan

Milan were embarrassed by Barcelona at the Camp Nou on Tuesday, but in hindsight they overachieved at the San Siro in the first leg and did very well to get the result. They have been coming on strong in Serie A with the addition of Mario Balotelli, and are certainly in play for one of the three Champions League berths. The young side should learn from the Barcelona beating and continue to improve.

Just missed:

Arsenal, Manchester City, FC Porto, Benfica, Atlético Madrid, Lazio

The rest worth mentioning:

Valencia, Real Sociedad, Real Betis, Fiorentina, Inter Milan, Schalke 04, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St Petersburg

………

With the draw early tomorrow morning for the Champions League quarter finals, here are the four match ups I’d like to see:

Barcelona – Borussia Dortmund: Both sides play attractive attacking football, and Dortmund may have a much better chance of unlocking Barcelona’s shaky back four than Milan did on Tuesday.

Real Madrid – Málaga: The Chilean Pelligrini against the side that unceremoniously gave him the ax after a season in which Madrid lost to Lyon in the Champions League round of 16 and finished second in La Liga to Barcelona. He’s now gone further in this competition with Malaga than he was able to go with Madrid.

Bayern Munich – PSG: Two sides on top of their respective league tables pitted against each other in a traditional France – Germany match up. Self-styled superman Zlatan Ibrahimovic against the German machine that is Die Roten.

Juventus – Galatasaray: Didier Drogba might have been playing for the Turin outfit this spring, but was signed up by Galatasaray instead. The Old Lady also faces a familiar foe in Wesley Sneijder.

……
Have your say…

Don’t agree with my rankings? Leave a comment below with your thoughts on what I got wrong, and/or your own order. All criticism is welcome, but given the difficulty involved in creating an accurate list, as well as my own personal bias, it is obvious that opinions will differ.

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