Spain cruise past Tahiti

In a game billed as the mismatch of the tournament, the only question was whether Spain would take it easy on Tahiti or keep their foot on the gas out of respect for the sport. Spain answered that question with 10 goals, despite never really hitting top gear. Fernando Torres missed a penalty but still scored four, David Villa had a hat trick, and Juan Mata and David Silva (twice) were also on the scoresheet for La Roja.

With 10 changes from the squad that beat Uruguay 2-1, Spain started slowly and didn’t look properly focused. The midfield and attack was comprised of almost entirely foreign-based players, with David Villa the lone exception. Perhaps it is due to the different style of play in the Premier League, where most of the players ply their trade, but Spain’s “B team” did not look nearly as adept at tiki-taka as the mostly Barcelona-based side did on Sunday. After having 75% possession against Uruguay, Spain could only manage 67% tonight.

The reduced possession for the Spanish was also a result of Tahiti’s tactical strategy. The huge underdogs packed the middle of the field, playing very narrow with a high defensive line. It was much more of an end-to-end game, and Spain’s chances came mostly from balls through the middle or over the top and crosses from out wide. The offside trap worked a few times for the Tahitians but also allowed David Villa and Fernando Torres to get in behind on several occasions with chances on goal. Torres got the first goal early but La Roja struggled a bit in the opening 30 minutes.

Eventually, Spain found a rhythm and it went from 1-0 to 4-0 in less than ten minutes. In the 31st minute, Villa came across the top of the box and fed Silva, who made a nice run and finished around the Tahitian keeper. Two minutes later, Torres beat the offside trap and took a nice touch to beat the onrushing keeper, finishing with a simple pass into the back of the net. Not long after, Silva returned the favor with a low cross into the path of Villa, and El Guaje finished nicely to make it 4-0.

Jesús Navas replaced Sergio Ramos at half time and Spain came out a bit sharper. It didn’t take long for La Roja to record another goal, with Villa scoring in the 49th minute off a cross from Nacho Monreal. Navas was very lively on the right wing and found Torres in the 57th minute for 6-0. A huge mistake by the goalkeeper gifted David Villa the easiest of goals in the 64th minute, and Juan Mata got his name on the scoresheet two minutes later to make it 8 to nil for the Spaniards.

Spain were awarded a penalty in the 76th minute after a handball in the box, but Torres’ shot rebounded off the crossbar. The Chelsea man atoned for it just minutes later with his fourth goal of the match. Finally, Silva scored his second of the match with just minutes to full time to make it a double digit victory, but the Manchester City playmaker couldn’t be bothered to celebrate.

It is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from this game. David Silva looked bright starting on the right side of the field, notching a goal and an assist in the first half, and Spain’s 10th goal in garbage time. However, the player Silva would likely replace in the starting XI is Cesc Fàbregas, who performed very well against Uruguay. Mata and Santi Cazorla were a bit sloppy with their passes at times, and are definitely not going to oust Xavi and Iniesta when it matters most. Torres and Villa both looked motivated and scored plenty of goals, but unfortunately the two players they could replace, Pedro and Soldado, scored against Uruguay in a game that obviously had more meaning. Torres’ missed penalty definitely didn’t help his chances, while Villa may have gained some important confidence from his performance.

It may have been a record goalscoring performance, but that won’t mean anything to the Spanish if they don’t go on and win the tournament. La Roja should be tested a bit more in their final group game against Nigeria, and will likely face the loser of Brazil – Italy in the semi finals.

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Spain 2 – 1 Uruguay: What We Learned

After Spain dazzled fans in Brazil and around the world with a magnificent exhibition of football yesterday, here are four things that we learned:

1. Spain are not on the decline.

Far from it. The have developed tiki-taka to near perfection, hardly allowing the opponent to sniff the ball. When they do lose it, the pressing and recovery is unimaginably quick. Many fans claim it’s boring, and they may be right. It usually is boring to watch a match where one team is on a completely different level than the other, especially if that team doesn’t fill up the score sheet. What’s certain though, is that if matches with Spain are boring, it is not the Spanish team’s fault. Uruguay recognized they were outmatched from the get-go and packed all 10 outfield players behind the ball. It hardly mattered to Spain, as they passed around La Celeste with ease.

2. Andrés Iniesta is the best player at the Confederations Cup.

This tournament might be Neymar’s coming out party to the world, but even he would recognize the superiority of his new Barcelona teammate. Iniesta was all over the field, linking up with the very familiar Xavi, Cesc Fábregas, and Sergio Busquets, and generally making it impossible for Uruguay to involve themselves in the match. In a game admittedly lacking action for large portions of time, Iniesta dazzled and excited the Brazilian crowd.

3. Despite Uruguay’s strikeforce threat, there was no verdict on Casillas vs. Valdés.

Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez might be worth a combined 110 million euros, but were lucky to even see a ball they could attempt to run onto. Ironically, it was Cavani who seemed to lose his composure, clearly frustrated throughout the game, while Suárez maintained his and even gave Uruguay a false hope with his stunning free kick in the 88th minute. There was uncertainty in the build up to the game over whether Iker Casillas or Victor Valdés would start in goal for Spain, but it ultimately mattered none. Vicente del Bosque could have set up a chair in front of the net and the score wouldn’t have been any different.

4. Spain are not invincible.

They may have utterly dominated Uruguay, but the final score did not indicate that. For all of Spain’s possession and mesmerizing passing, they still looked lacking in the final third. Having 80% possession will mean nothing if Spain cannot convert it into goals. If they are caught on the break or a set piece once or twice against a strong team like Italy or Brazil, it could wipe out a half hour of fine passing and possession. La Roja probably won’t be tested much within their group, but they will need more lethal finishing once they reach the semi finals.

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Confederations Cup 2013 Squad Preview – Spain

The Confederations Cup kicks off this Saturday and looks to be a very entertaining tournament, with a number of strong sides vying for the trophy. Brazil is the host country and has an exciting young team featuring new Barcelona signing Neymar, but Spain are still the favourites to win the only tournament that has eluded them during their magnificent run that began with Euro 2008.

Perhaps the biggest story for the Spain squad is the absence of Xabi Alonso, who was a vital part of Spain’s success at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Alonso has been dealing with a groin injury that could be one of the reasons for his poor form at the end of this season. The double pivot of Alonso and Sergio Busquets has been the core of manager Vicente Del Bosque’s strategy since he took over from Luis Aragonés, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts his squad without the Basque midfielder.

If Spain’s last two friendly matches are any indicator, Del Bosque will likely replace Alonso with a more attack-minded player like David Silva, Pedro, Cesc Fàbregas or Jesús Navas. This may lead to a bit more direct style, but La Roja will certainly miss Alonso’s ability to unlock a defense or switch the play with a pinpoint long pass. Look for Xavi Hernández to sit deeper and collect balls from the defense or from Busquets that Alonso would normally see.

The other question marks for Spain are in goal and at the forward spot. Iker Casillas is the team captain and was instrumental to the capture of the World Cup and the two Euro trophies, but he hasn’t played competitively since fracturing his hand at the end of January. His two backups are more than capable of taking on the starting role, and reports in Spain suggest Casillas’ place is far from assured. With the Real Madrid keeper out of action for so long, it may be Victor Valdes’ time to shine on the national stage.

Moving to the forwards, Spain has a number of options but no clear cut favourite to start up front. All time leading goalscorer David Villa has not been the same since breaking his leg in December 2011, Fernando Torres has been inconsistent, and Roberto Soldado had a fine year for Valencia but does not appear to have the full confidence of Del Bosque. It’s possible the Spanish technician will forego a striker altogether and go with wide forwards such as Pedro, Silva, or Navas and false 9 in Cesc Fàbregas. That strategy worked pretty well last summer, with Cesc scoring a number of goals en route to Spain’s second straight European Championship win.

A number of Spain’s players who have never been regular starters for la selección had standout seasons for their clubs this year. These include César Azpilicueta, Nacho Monreal, Javi Martínez, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, and Soldado. It will be interesting to see if any of these players get significant playing time, given Del Bosque’s tendency to stick with his favourites. Below, I’ve created two formations; first, who I think should start accounting for club form this season, and second, who I believe will start based on my knowledge of the Spanish national team.
football formations

This is what I personally would like to see, although I believe the chances of this being the starting XI on Sunday against Uruguay are zero. Starting at the back, I personally rate Casillas over Valdés even if he hasn’t played since January. Azpilicueta had a solid season with Chelsea, earning the starting right fullback spot, and deserves a chance to show what he’s got. Arbeloa has the position on lockdown for Spain, but he had a very inconsistent year and has never provided great service from the right even at his best. In the midfield, I think there’s no question that Javi Martínez had a better year than Sergio Busquets, but the Barcelona man is practically untouchable for Del Bosque. Cazorla and Mata tore up the Premier League and are in better form than Silva, Cesc, and Pedro. Finally, Soldado has been superior to Villa and Torres this year and scored a true center forward’s goal against Ireland on Tuesday.

Despite those reasons, Spain has shown that they value continuity over merit, which is why the next formation below is my best guess at the true starting XI.
football formations

Deserved or not, Busquets will get the nod over Javi Martínez, and truthfully you cannot go wrong with either. I still think Casillas gets the start because Del Bosque is a Madridista at heart and Casillas has given everything for Spain as captain over the years. The front three is the toughest to predict, and Del Bosque may opt for Jesús Navas over David Silva on the right. I put Cesc in at the false 9 because of the aforementioned lack of confidence in the strikers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of Torres, Villa, or even Soldado up front. Pedro has performed well for Spain in World Cup qualifying and appears to be first choice at one of the forward positions.

Spain’s squad may be aging and perhaps on the decline a bit, but they still have more talent at every position than any other team in the Confederations Cup. It’s a guarantee they will control the possession in every game, but the question mark is scoring goals. Even at their best Spain have struggled for goals at times, so whoever Del Bosque opts for up front will be expected to deliver. If they do lose, I fully expect it to be a game where Spain dominates but simply cannot find the net. If they win, this team will truly have achieved everything at the international level.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Victor Valdés (Barcelona), Pepe Reina (Liverpool)

Defenders: Álvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Ignacio Monreal (Arsenal), Raúl Albiol (Real Madrid)

Midfielders: Javi Martínez (Bayern Munich), Xavi (Barcelona), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), Cesc Fàbregas (Barcelona), Juan Mata (Chelsea)

Forwards: David Villa (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Roberto Soldado (Valencia), Pedro (Barcelona), Jesús Navas (Sevilla), Fernando Torres (Chelsea).

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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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La Liga Team of the Season

The La Liga season is officially over, which means it is time to select the team of the season. Barcelona completed a splendid campaign with a 4-1 victory over Málaga, finishing with 100 points to tie the record set just last year by Real Madrid. The top two teams reaching 100 points in consecutive campaigns is a troubling sign for the overall parity of the league, but there is still considerable talent to be found amongst the “also-rans”.

While there are many different contenders worthy of a place in the XI, the spaces are finite and hard decisions had to be made. On the merit of 100 points, many of Barça’s squad could have been chosen for this team, but in the spirit of fairness, I’ve tried to recognize players from several clubs that had strong campaigns.

La Liga Team of the Season 2012/2013 (4-3-3): Thibaut Courtois; Carlos Martínez, Sergio Ramos, Iñigo Martínez, Jordi Alba; Andrés Iniesta, Éver Banega, Isco; Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois

At just 21 years of age, the Belgian keeper on loan from Chelsea became the youngest ever to win the Zamora Trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper with the lowest ratio of goals to games over at least 28 games. Courtois started all but one game this season for Atlético Madrid and was the only keeper in the league with a goals to games coefficient of less than 1. To top off his stellar Liga campaign, he was instrumental in Los Colchoneros Copa del Rey final win, producing several unbelievable saves to deny Real Madrid.

Defenders: Carlos Martínez, Sergio Ramos, Iñigo Martínez, Jordi Alba

Carlos and Iñigo Martínez were rocks for a Real Sociedad side that conceded the fourth fewest goals all year and still managed some very attractive football, scoring the most goals of any team not named Barcelona or Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos had his highs and lows over the course of the season, including missing several games for insulting a referee, but was Real Madrid’s best defender in the middle and paired effectively with both Pepe and the emerging Raphaël Varane. The addition of the attack-minded Jordi Alba to Barcelona’s back four was cited by many as the reason for the team’s weakness in defense, but more of the blame should really be placed on the lack of an adequate central partner for Gerard Piqué. Barcelona still conceded fewer goals than every team except Atlético Madrid, while Alba recorded 2 goals, 5 assists, and was second in the league in interceptions per game. His attacking presence on the left side greatly contributed to the team’s league-leading 115 goals.

Midfielders: Andrés Iniesta, Éver Banega, Isco

This is where it gets very difficult. With the chosen formation, only three midfielders can fit out of many able candidates. Andrés Iniesta is a bit of a no-brainer, as he led the league with 16 assists and was pretty consistently brilliant. The other two slots could be filled by a number of players who had strong seasons, such as Beñat, Koke, Illarramendi, or Piti. Banega and Isco were chosen partially to give a nod to Valencia and Malaga, who had very good campaigns. Their play throughout the year certainly merit inclusion, as these two pulled the strings of the sides that finished fifth and sixth in the league table. Isco was the revelation of the first half of the season and is well on his way to superstardom, while Banega was third in the league in successful dribbles per game. There is no defensive midfielder in the selection, but given the attacking mindset of Spanish football, I believe that can be overlooked.

Forwards: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao

Unlike the other positions, there is really no argument here. These forwards finished 1, 2, 3 in the Pichichi standings for most goals in the season, while their clubs finished 1, 2, 3 in the table. Messi, Cristiano, and Falcao are not only the three best scorers in La Liga, they are in all likelihood the three best footballers in the world. Other strikers like Negredo and Soldado had superb years, but unfortunately play in the same country as these world class players. With Falcao off to Monaco this summer, a spot will open up, but don’t expect Cristiano or Messi to be left off this team for as long as they are both healthy and play in Spain.

Coach of the Year: Diego Simeone

With all due respect to Manuel Pellegrini and Pepe Mel, ‘El Cholo’ Simeone is the most deserving of this award. The transformation that Atlético Madrid have undergone since Simeone took charge in December 2011 has been nothing short of remarkable. The Argentine manager has won three trophies in a season and a half of work and has Atléti back in the Champions League for the upcoming campaign.

Think I got something wrong? A deserving player didn’t get enough credit? Leave your comments below.

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In New York and Madrid, big changes to begin the summer

Major shake ups have occurred in world football over the past week. Manchester City, which was previously making headlines for losing the FA Cup to a now relegated Wigan and axing coach Roberto Mancini, have diverted the focus to their new partnership with the New York Yankees, creating New York City FC, the 20th MLS franchise. Meanwhile, in Spain, Atlético Madrid ended their 14 year winless drought against their wealthier crosstown neighbors in the Copa del Rey final, which also effectively ended the tumultuous tenure of José Mourinho at the helm of Real Madrid. It seems that while the major European leagues are all but over, the summer headline drama is just beginning.

Let us start with the more recent news coming out of New York. Many had foreseen the announcement of a Manchester City-controlled club based in New York City, but the partnership with the Yankees was a bit of a surprise. It also may turn out to be a major factor in getting a new stadium built within the five boroughs. Although NYCFC has indicated they won’t have a problem playing in a temporary home for the first few years, the club will eventually need to find a site within the city to construct a soccer specific stadium. The Yankees have already stated their stadium is a possible place to play, but expect them to take the lead on what’s sure to be a political battle to get a new arena built.

The Yankees-City partnership has unsurprisingly drawn a lot of criticism, but it’s the type of monumental announcement that will make the rest of the world take notice. For all the talk of MLS playing favorites, the inability of the Red Bulls to fill their arena, and other cities being more deserving of a franchise, it’s hard to see how any other move would’ve helped increase the profile of the league more significantly. More importantly, the Manchester City brass seem committed to building a powerful football club from the ground up, with plans for an academy to mine the talent in the New York area. Despite that, the club will surely be attractive to stars looking to make their mark in the United States, and it will be very interesting to see which big name player signs first for NYCFC.

Moving to Spain, it was a historic win for Atlético Madrid that left José Mourinho trophyless in 2013 and left Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez little choice but to announce Mourinho’s long predicted departure. Pérez claimed in his press conference on Monday that the Mourinho era was not a failure, but many will disagree. If Pérez and Madrid get their way, Carlo Ancelotti will be announced as the new manager soon. The Italian’s rumored shopping list includes Edinson Cavani, Arturo Vidal, and Marco Verratti, while Pérez looks to be after Gareth Bale and Isco. Atlético, on the other hand, look set to lose Falcao to whichever club pays the big bucks for him, and could be targeting Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke as a potential replacement.

While the on-field action is winding down, activity off the pitch is heating up and it looks to be an exciting summer. From New York to Madrid, the change is underway.

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Can Tiger top Jack’s record for most majors won?

Many in the golf world refer to the Players Championship as the fifth major, but the victory for Tiger Woods this past weekend at TPC Sawgrass won’t count in his quest to top the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. Woods displayed a golf game that has eluded him since he last won a major, in 2008 at Torrey Pines on an injured knee. With Tiger now apparently at full health, he looks to be in good shape to end his winning drought in golf’s four most prestigious tournaments sometime soon. Will he reach or surpass the legendary mark of 18?

Tiger is only 37 and in tremendous physical shape, so he should be able to compete at a high level for at least another 15 years. However, he does have a history with injuries to consider, and he may not be able to contest every major over that time period. He’s also going on five years without winning one, and as a player who went through several droughts and swing changes over the course of his career, he knows how easy it is to lose the edge. He has come back to prove his doubters wrong before though, and was very impressive in his mastery of the Stadium Course at Sawgrass, where he never loved to play even at the peak of his powers.

Working in Tiger’s favor are the locations of the major championships in the next few years. He has already won at Augusta four times, and has come very close on several other occasions. The 2014 U.S. Open will be at Pinehurst, where Woods has played well twice but never won. Oakmont, perhaps the most difficult golf course in the country, will host the tournament in 2016. Woods finished second there to Ángel Cabrera in 2007.

Tiger’s last British Open win was in 2006 at Royal Liverpool, which will also host the oldest major again next summer. The following year, in 2015, it will return to St. Andrews, where Tiger has kissed the claret jug twice in years past. The 2014 PGA will be held at Valhalla, another course that Woods has won on, and in 2016 it goes to Baltusrol, where Tiger saw Phil Mickelson win his second major but played good golf and finished tied for fourth.

That means that Woods will play a course where he has won or finished in the top five in 10 of the next 16 majors. Even better for Tiger, his win at the Players showed that with his game at this level, he is a threat to win at any golf course. Woods has never played an event at Merion, the site of next month’s U.S. Open, but he will still enter as the favorite to win based on his form this year. Tiger has a tendency to win repeatedly at the golf courses he likes best, but if he can command his swing to shape the ball both right-to-left and left-to-right, as he did at the Players, there is no course in the world that is unfavorable for him.

Ultimately, the most difficult major for him to win might not be the 18th or 19th, but the 15th. As mentioned before, Tiger has gone through extended periods without winning a major, but this June will make it a full five years since his last win, the longest major drought of his career. The longer he goes without winning another, the more of a mental challenge it will become. If he can build on his incredible start and get that next major this season, it should be much easier for the next few to fall. With golfers well into their 50s regularly contending at majors these days, it seems that barring serious injury, Tiger Woods will end his career as the all-time leader in major championships won.

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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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¿Pueden remontar el Madrid y el Barça?

Después de los fracasos en Alemania la semana pasada, los dos gigantes del futbol español vuelven a su tierra para jugar la vuelta de la semifinal de la Champions. Tanto el Real Madrid como el Futbol Club Barcelona tienen un déficit bastante grande para superar, aunque sea mas posible para el Madrid debe al gol de Ronaldo fuera de casa.

El Madrid no ha ganado contra su rival de mañana ni un partido de los tres que se han disputado durante esta temporada. La derrota del miercoles pasado fue el peor partido de la época Mourinho, excluso al 5-0 en el Camp Nou en 2010. El equipo blanco necesitará todo el apoyo del Bernabéu, pero lo que más necesitará es un buen rendimiento de los defensores para que el Dortmund no marque el gol que hará el partido mucho más complicado. Cristiano Ronaldo recibió una lesión en la ida, pero no hay duda que el 7 estará en el campo mañana. Todo el club cree en la posible remontada, pero no va a ser fácil para Los Blancos.

La situación del Barça queda mucho mas difícil. Los azulgranas salieron de Munich sin un gol, y encima el Bayern parece un equipo mas fuerte que el Dortmund. Sin embargo, nada es imposible con el mejor jugador del mundo, Leo Messi. Era obvio que Messi no estaba a 100% en la ida, pero el argentino metió un golazo contra el Athletic de Bilbao el sábado, y el Barça necesitará toda su magia contra la máquina alemana. El club Catalán ya ha mostrado contra el Milan que sea capaz de marcar cuatro veces y remontar en el Camp Nou. No obstante, el Bayern es un animal diferente y los alemanes tienen mucha más potencia de meter goles. Si los visitantes metieran uno a Victor Valdes, sería casi imposible la remontada.


Que pensaís vosotros? Van a remontar los equipos españoles? Dejad vuestros comentarios abajo.

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