Big-Game Preview: ‘Battle of the Blues’

Another huge Champions League game this week, as one Italian team welcomes another English team in the first leg of this encounter. Its Napoli v Chelsea today, the Azurri versus the Blues. A ‘Battle of the Blues’ if you will, as the Stadio San Paolo in the city of Naples, Italy hosts another potentially-explosive Champions League Round-of-16 game.

NAPOLI

Napoli are currently placed 6th in the Serie A table and and their domestic form has been inconsistent at best. But make no mistake, they are an extremely dangerous side with a potent trio of attacking players up front in Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. They will be especially dangerous at home, with their spirited crowed oft considered to be their ’12th man’. And lets not forget that Napoli had a major role to play in the elimination of Champions League debutants and ‘World’s Richest Football Club’ Manchester City during this year’s group stages, and it was a comprehensive 2-1 when City visited San Polo, with none other than Edinson Cavani doing most of the damage.

Edinson Cavani: "This is a great chance for us to wreck English football"

The big man is, once again, confident that his team has what it takes to eliminate another English team from the competition. Safe to say, the Napoli team will be high on confidence after not only making it this far into the UCL, but progressing from what was the ‘Group of Death’ this year. Their coach Walter Mazzarri however thinks that his players are the underdogs here here and Chelsea’s experience in the UCL will have a part in how events unroll tonight and over the course of the two legs.

"Chelsea is worse than us at the moment but I don't trust (form tables)" - Napoli Coach Walter Mazzarri

Napoli usually line up in a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically they are an interesting team to watch – without the ball, their two defensive midfielders drop deep, almost in line with their three defenders to form a back-5. With the ball, the play a 3-4-2-1 (a slightly variated 3-4-3), with Hamsik and/or Lavezzi remaining central and sticking close to the forward up front Edinson Cavani. They stick to their formations very well and in typical Italian style, are very disciplined without the ball, as was seen in the Manchester City game.

Their line up should be as expected – with Captain Paolo Cannavaro at CB and the likes of Gokhan Inler (an excellent buy from Udinese this summer) and Walter Gargano in the heart of their midfield. Up front too should be as expected, with Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel ‘Pocho’ Lavezzi playing just behind Edinson Cavani. All three are extremely agile players, have plenty of pace to burn and are clinical in front of goal.

Marek Hamsik - 8 goals and 5 assists this season

CHELSEA

A defeat will be a huge blow to Chelsea, but an even bigger one for the man at the helm of affairs – Andre Villas-Boas, who has come under increasing scrutiny owing to his team’s bad run of form this season, which has seen them drop out of top-5 in the domestic table and underperform in the domestic competitions.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough game for Chelsea, a true test of their ability, confidence and resilience. Their captain and a central figure in their team (on-field and off) John Terry looks set to miss out today, as reports say he has failed to recover from the knee injury he suffered. Which, in all probability means Gary Cahill will be handed his Champions League debut. He will play alongside David Luiz, who, lets hope for Chelsea’s sake, is not being controlled by a 10-year old on a PlayStation tonight. Luiz has regressed as a player and a CB this season under Villas-Boas , and has a habit of foraying deep inside enemy territory with the ball, leaving space to be exploited behind him, leaving his defense exposed and thus much more prone to a counter attack. His defending basics are weak and he will most certainly be targetted by the Napoli front-three tonight.

Villas-Boas could perhaps look to move Branislav Ivanovic to the center the place of the adventurous-yet-error-prone David Luiz, but that move could potentially backfire, since Ivanovic is at his best at right-back rather than in the centre and moving him to the centre in a game of this magnitude could have catastrophic consequences. In case Ivanovic does play in the center, Napoli will look to test his replacement Jose Bosingwa. Bosingwa’s is an interesting story, he started out really well under Villas-Boas in the domestic league, but after a few games where he really shined has now become a liability, and it is evident why he was a squad player under Carlo Ancelotti. Even is Chelsea have Ivanovic playing RB and Luiz-Cahill in the middle, Bosingwa could be deployed as a makeshift LB, since Ashley Cole is still 50/50 to start today.

Drogba: 3 UCL goals this year

In midfield, Villas-Boas should start Juan Mata in the centre (behind the front three), where he is a much better player than when he plays on the wings, as explained by Michael Cox in his piece on The Guardian. Chelsea have options in the centre of the park – Essien, Ramires, Romeu, Mikel and Miereles. Miereles and Ramires will most certainly be dropped in favour of two more defensively-sound players (Essien and Romeu in all probability), which is what is required of Chelsea here. Up front, Didier Drogba should start in place of Fernando Torres, whose poor form continues and has now gone 20 games or nearly 1300 minutes without scoring! Torres himself has acknowledged his poor form in front of goal, and one thinks a loan spell in the lower echelons of English football just might’ve done him and his shattered confidence a world of good.

The Fifty Million Pound Man: Goal Drought - 1300 minutes without scoring

But more importantly, in case Cole is not fit to start (or even if he is), expect Daniel Sturridge to be dropped in favour of either Salomon Kalou or Florent Malouda, both of whom will provide more defensive cover on the left side of Chelsea’s formation.

THE ITALIAN JOB

It will be an interesting battle tonight. And Chelsea might be taken by surprise since they have not faced a lot of teams playing a 3-4-3 especially in the recent past. The Chelsea team is low on confidence and behind-the-scene problems a plenty at the Bridge – including Villas-Boas having lost the backing of his players, player revolts, players supposedly undermining Villas-Boas, heck even ex-managers undermining Villas-Boas and what not – an attacking Napoli side should come all guns blazing here and will be looking to put this tie to bed in the first 90 minutes of this encounter. It is not mission impossible for Chelsea, they need to be disciplined and resolute. Defensive resolve could earn them a draw, which would be nothing short of a victory for them.

"I want to make clear that the manager made his speech at half-time and after that he's got some leaders in the team and in the squad and we're here to help him" - Dider Drogba on Chelsea Manager AVB

Villas-Boas has appealed for patience and asked for the time that it requires for his ‘project’ to bear fruit. However with the trigger-friendly Roman Abramovic circling the waters, some crucial weeks and games lie ahead for Andre Villas-Boas. Patience is running thin in Roman’s camp as well as with the Chelsea faithful. Being on the losing end of these games could be in the final nail in the coffin for AVB.

UPDATE: John Terry ruled out of the Napoli game, and could remain sidelined for as long as 2 months!

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[Follow iSayed on twitter @cheezus50]

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Analyzing the Remaining Seasons of the Current EPL Top 5 – #3: Tottenham

Now we take a look at 3rd place tottenham who have had a quite action filled and solid season this time around.

TOTTENHAM:

When Harry Redknapp took over at then bottom placed Tottenham in 2008 from Juande Ramos, few will have predicted what was to follow! Nothing short of a dream story, Spurs are now potential title contenders and are in for a most definite Champions League spot! Long considered a mid table club, Tottenham are now a well and truly established top placed side!

Bashed in the 2 opening weeks by Man Utd and Man City 3-0 and 1-5 respectively when many wrote off their campaign then and there, the north Londoners then picked themselves up getting 31 points from a possible 33 beating North London rivals Arsenal and Liverpool along the way.

Then in December the seemingly unstoppable Spurs Express slowed down a bit and they suffered their first loss in 3 months to Stoke. Up till this point Spurs had kept right up with the leading pack and at times were level on points with second place Man Utd (more on them in the next posts).

One criticism (and it’s very hard to have much to criticise them over during the course of this campaign) of them though, has been that despite the very attacking style of football Harry Redknapp likes to play, at times the end result has been missing and Spurs have often struggled to finish teams off winning by slight margins. There have been five 1-0s that have gone their way along with eight 2-0s.

They are also blamed to rely on star man Gareth Bale too much. The Welshman has been in unstoppable form for most of the campaign and though at times seems to be  just on the verge of being inconsistent in his performances, Bale always threatens to rip apart any defence with his lightning pace and deadly left foot!

The deadly quick Welshman has been one of the players of the season so far in the EPL!

Another solid performer for the men in white has been Adebayor. Cast off from Manchester city’s star studded line up, The Togo International has reinvigorated his career at White Hart Lane, scoring 10 and providing 10 over the course of 22 league games! The tall 6’3 striker has provided the much needed height and deft touch to Tottenham’s already impressive attack!

So whats next for Tottenham? They still have to host Manchester United at home and pay visits to Arsenal and Chelsea! Having missed out on a Champions League spot last year, a top-3 finish is almost certain this year and only 7 points adrift from the top with 13 games still to go, they can still put up a fight for the title in the hope that the top 2 stutter over the course of the remaining season!

(follow on twiiter @rafeyAM_MUFC)

Big-Game Preview: “A story of Arsene Wenger’s kids against the Milan old guard”

milan kitars kit

It’s the biggest competition in the footballing world. Its the Champions League. The location is Milan, Italy. It’s a showdown between the giants of Italian football versus the once-invincibles of English Premier League. The stakes are high. The stage is set. The teams play for Munich. The teams play for European Dominance!

The Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, or a place more commonly known in the footballing world as the San Siro, hosts, what on paper, looks like the biggest game of this year’s Champions League Round of 16. Two giants of Europe face-off on Wednesday, February 15th 2012. Two of, undoubtedly, the biggest teams of Europe play in what should be an absolute cracker of a game.

Arsenal:

Arsenal travelled to Milan on Monday without Per Mertesacker, who suffered an ankle injury during the weekend League game against Sunderland where he had to be stretchered off. He was immediately ruled out of the Milan game and he’s posted a picture of a nasty bruise on his ankle. He has since travelled to Germany for further scans. A lot has already been said about the appalling turf at the Stadium of Light, and quite honestly I’ve seen League Two teams with better playing surfaces. It means however that Thomas Vermaelen moves to a position he says he prefers playing in – along side Laurent Koscielny in the heart of Arsenal’s defense. Kieren Gibbs is back from injury and was an unused substitute against Sunderland, will slot back into the left wing-back position. Here’s hoping he gets some decent match-time under his belt this time around, instead of his customary 30 minutes every 3 months.

Another interesting aspect would be to see who starts for Arsenal on the left wing. The manager will in all likelihood rest Gervinho, who’s back from his African Cup of Nations duty, and had some good things to say about compatriot Robin van Persie. It will be either Arshavin or The Ox on the left, the latter most likely to start, as has been the case recently. In addition, we could also see the return of Ramsey as the chief playmaker behind the striker, although the boss might also prefer to stick with the in-form and Champions League-experienced Thomas Rosicky.

Other than that, Arsenal should line up as expected:

van Persie

Ox Rosicky Walcott

Song Arteta

Gibbs Vermaelen Koscielny Sagna

Chezney

Subs: Gervinho, Henry (who spoke of his desire to see Arsenal go through to the quarters), Fabianski, Coquelin, Arshavin, Djourou. Strong line up on paper, but with the Arsenal of late, you just never know do you.

Milan:

Last year at this time, Milan were knocked out of the Champions League by another North London team, with Aaron Lennon in particular impressing for Tottenham on the flanks, and eventually getting a reward (an assist) for his efforts in the 1-0 win. We could once again see a similar tactical battle on the wings, when Theo Walcott of Arsenal will be deployed on the right to take on Milan’s Gianluca Zambrotta. It is interesting to note that Milan play a very narrow 4-1-2-1-2/4-3-1-2 formation, which means their fullbacks would always be vulnerable to fast, pacy wingers who like to take their man on in one-on-one situations, which also plays to the strengths of Oxlade-Chamberlain.

A.C Milan were once the all-conquering team in the Champion’s League, one of the greats of Europe. They’ve been labelled as Europe’s ‘retirement home’ in recent times, however Milan’s midfield-enforcer Mark van Bommel says that the two games are anything but a matter of “Arsene Wenger’s kids against the Milan old guard”. While only time will tell if that indeed is the case, van Bommel and Robinho are still wary of the threat posed by Arsenal. Kevin Prince Boateng however  thinks otherwise, and one cannot help but think that his words do hold a bit of truth to them. Nonetheless, Milan can hardly afford to be complacent here, and Clarence Seedorf believes Arsenal are still ‘one of the teams to beat’ and that Milan need to be wary of Arsenal’s most potent weapon – his Dutch International compatriot and a man in blistering form Robin van Persie.

Milan are fresh off a league away win against Udinese, despite having 10 players out due to injuries and suspensions, including the likes of Gattuso, Nesta, Falmini and most importantly Pato all of whom are still in the battle for fitness for tomorrow’s game. But perhaps Milan’s biggest threat – a certain someone called Zlatan Ibrahimovic – should start. Ibra’s stats this season are excellent – 21 goals and 5 assists in 26 games in all competitions for AC Milan.

Expected line up:

Ibra Robinho

Seedorf

Boateng Ambrosini Emanuelson

Zambrotta Silva Mexes Abate

Amelia

Will Arsenal’s fragile defense once again prove to be their downfall? Will Milan’s poor form in recent weeks and an injury struck squad give the Gunners an edge? Hopefully, we have another classic on our hands, a 180 minutes of football that will be remembered for some time. Goes without saying, but this is one you certainly wouldn’t want to miss!

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As an added bonus, a tune you’ll all soon be hearing as Tuesday’s games kick off in a bit: