FOX Soccer Exclusive
Internal conflict just what Bayern needs
Welcome to this week's edition of Five-A-Side – your weekly spot to get caught up with all the chatter that will dominate the headlines each week.
Miss any of the action from the weekend? Want to be up to speed on what everybody is going to talk about around the water cooler and on the message boards? Don’t get left behind. Strap on your boots and get on the pitch to find out the five topics that have the biggest buzz this week.
Is Barcelona vulnerable?
With Barcelona coming off back-to-back losses, you have to think their confidence is shaken.
I think they could have dealt with losing at Chelsea in their Champions League Leg first leg midweek – all right. It’s a one-goal affair, but they had a ton of opportunities. They had to have figured they could go back home against their rivals over the weekend and get their mojo back, get their goal scoring touch on and really take it to Real Madrid. But then they fell behind twice – at home – and they had this look of resignation on their faces. Maybe for the first time they were saying, “Uh oh, maybe we are not who we think we are.”
I love how Josep Guardiola managed the reaction after the game by quickly just moving on. The focus is now on Champions League, not their 2-1 loss to Madrid. And I think it always has been there. Winning La Liga was very much an outside chance because of the position they put themselves in through the course of the season. I like how he has managed that, and he’s gotten his players thinking that right away.
What Barcelona needs on Tuesday is an early goal, particularly from Lionel Messi. He has been a little frustrated lately, and he hasn’t had that moment of brilliance that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing on a regular basis. If he gets an early goal, Barcelona will be all right – but we all know Chelsea can defend, defend, defend, so it could be really tough.
That said, if Chelsea don’t have Didier Drogba, I have concerns about what they can pull off on Tuesday.
Real Madrid riding high, but for how long?
Something inside of me keeps saying that there’s going to be an upset this week, and that can only mean either Barcelona or Real Madrid are not going to advance to the Champions League final.
What Bayern Munich did at home last week in getting two goals against Real Madrid was impressive. Yes, Madrid has that away goal, which is massive, but I think Munich can score on them. With what Franck Ribery, Mario Gomez and Arjen Robben have done lately, it puts a bit of fear in me.
Yes, I know Real is coming off that inspiring win Saturday night at the Camp Nou and they were celebrating the La Liga title – which they haven’t mathematically won yet, but they basically know they have in the bag after that result – and I’m not sure where their focus is, or how quickly it adjusted back to Champions League.
And for some bizarre reason, I like the fact there are these rumors of infighting in the Munich camp -- that Ribery took a swing at Robben at halftime of their Champions League semifinal first leg last week over who would take a free kick. I like that these guys are saying “I want that ball; I want to be the goal scorer.” They might not be looking at each other during practices, or passing the ball to one another all that much, but all that does is give them a little extra fire in their bellies to maybe show up that guy or do something individual that is a positive for the team. Even though it doesn't sound very much like a “team-first” incident, I feel it will end up benefitting them.
So I think I just talked myself into Bayern Munich escaping this matchup. I think it’s going to be Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich – which is still a really good Champions League final.
All eyes on Manchester clubs
The past few weeks in the Premier League have really been a nicely scripted soap opera. And just when you think there's not another hidden body in the closet, the soap opera takes another wicked twist.
Manchester United had two two-goal home leads over Everton on Sunday. Everybody thought for sure, “Well, there it is. The magic number for the championship will go from eight to five points. The lead is extended. And the game next Monday against Manchester City is going to have very little impact.” But then in a span of a few hours, United ties, and City continues to score – and to be fair, they should have had more goals in their game against Wolves.
The results put drama in this league, which is used to drama – but this is a new level. And with the clash a week away, the debates between the two sides are going to be great until kickoff. I can't wait to read papers and hear the quotes that come out of the two camps. And how are they going to play it? Are they going to shut things down media wise? Are they going to be conservative? Or are people going to come out and speak their minds? There is going to be some mental battles going on in the city of Manchester well before the battle on the field happens.
And the storylines to this one – they are hard to make up. You have United losing at home 6-1 to City earlier in the season and now being put in a position where they are still the leaders, but have to go on the road to defend their crown. For City, what will they do with Mario Balotelli? He’s available, as of this week. Do you put him on the bench? On the field? In the stands? On a plane to Italy? I wouldn’t have him on the field, but he’s such a good player that maybe you’re saying to yourself “20 minutes left, do we let this character get on the field if we really need him? Is he the guy that can win City the title?” In 15 minutes, Balotelli can literally win City the title after all he has done to try and ruin their chances.
Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero are scaring people right now, and I think the City offense has to be drooling looking at what the United backline has afforded teams lately.
We’ve been saying for weeks now how this is Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest managerial job because of how he has handled injuries, because he doesn’t really have that general in the midfield or player who can take over a game. But now he’s really going to be put to the test this week – how will he manage the mental warfare? How will he manage his team? What lineup is he going to put out there? When does he set that lineup? There are so many elements to this match that are going to continue to grow. It is way more than just a general league match. I
t’s starting to take on the feel of a Champions League or even a World Cup match, where everything is going to be scrutinized. I love these types of games.
This game is also about more than one game or one season. It really could have a massive impact down the road for both squads. Does Roberto Mancini linger if City doesn’t win the title? He has been given another chance to reclaim his job, which a lot of people thought was lost – but if they embarrass themselves against United, the heat is right back up. The conversations and criticisms will carry on well beyond that game should City lose. For United, yes, they are set for a while with Sir Alex, but, certainly, they have to start thinking about who will take over next, and when the right time for a change is. I see the parallels to college football with coaches who have been with programs for a long time. When is the right time to say: “It’s time to move on. We need to bring in fresh blood before you start to lose it, or we lose an opportunity to get this guy to take charge of our club?”
A lot of interesting dynamics to this one. And the cool thing is that I bet about 12 more are going to appear this week that we haven’t even considered yet, before they even kick off.
Ugly scenes coming out of Italy
So many things come to mind after seeing the images from Genoa, Italy, on Sunday.
First of all, how did it even get to that situation? There’s security there for a reason. How were these players put in the position where they couldn’t even exit their field because their own fans had essentially blockaded it and threatened to storm the field and cause who knows how much harm and damage? The security systems need to be looked at massively. There was a major breakdown there.
Here’s another point to consider. If I’m a free agent and I’m being wooed by teams in Spain, England and Italy and things are even, I’m going to look at images of what just took place there and say I wouldn’t want to put myself or my family in that type of situation. It’s wrong on so many levels.
This creates a big problem for Serie A right now. The bigwigs need to really examine the security and structures in place to make sure things like this don’t happen. How it happened is beyond me. I love the passion these fans have for their teams and they want them to succeed, but it is misguided, it is lost, it’s disruptive and it could have gotten Egypt-ugly if you really think about it. The only saving grace is that there were no injuries. But it could have become an international scene easily.
One last thing
In case you missed it, the Barclays Premier League is celebrating its 20th anniversary season and it has created a special website to vote on several categories: best goal, best celebration, best save, etc.
One category that caught a few of our eyes at “Goals on Sunday” is the fantasy team of the 20 seasons – particularly at right back (you may notice a familiar name).
I am so happy for my new friend Warren Barton. Just to be put on that list – think of some of the great players who have graced the Premiership the past two decades –as one of the best in 20 years is a massive accomplishment. I could hear it in Warren’s voice and see it on his face, just how proud he was that people thought that highly of his play in the league to consider him.
It is historical flashback situations like this that I always find interesting. It makes you go back to compare people from different generations and how would modern stars fare then and how would legends of old fare now? It’s a great topic of conversation, and I guarantee you that Starting XI is going to be awesome – but that bench may be just as good, if not better.
A 15-year broadcast veteran, Rob Stone is the lead studio host for FOX Soccer Match Day, Goals on Sunday, and UEFA Champions League coverage. Follow him on Twitter @RobStoneONFOX.