The Stockholm Ambush: My Thoughts on the Europa League Final

Firstly, I must say was there a scarcity of confetti in Stockholm that the Manchester United celebrations got none to celebrate such an historic feat. I must say Kudos to the young, energetic and aggressive Ajax side who stood tall all through Ninety Minutes in trying to emulate other successful all conquering Ajax sides of many years past.

In most previews of this Europa League Finals; it was tagged a match pitting experience vs youth; well if memory serves me right the two times this has happened this season; experience has found a way to shine through; case in question Monaco’s two legged affair against the Old Lady of Turin. A careful analysis of the events on the pitch of the Friend’s Arena in Stockholm for me seemed more of like Manchester United laid an ambush for Ajax; you can play you free flowing, passing football, but you wouldn’t get a clear sight of goal all game.

Manchester United have now conveniently snuck  into the group stage of next season’s Champions League; more or less nullifying the old adage that says ”never put all your eggs in one basket”. Here are my thoughts generally on the Final match as a whole:

United avoided Pressing

You can say what you want about Jose Mourinho; positive or negative, the man knows how to win and drill a side to get a result from a one off game. Like it or not; defending remains an integral part of the game and it goes hand in hand with attacking. United knew that they didn’t have the legs to press this young Ajax team up top nor the energy to chase them all over the pitch; so whenever Ajax chose to build from the back, Mourinho’s side dropped into their half into two banks of four; more or less daring them to play through the well organized wall or is it a bus this days. At every instance; United ensured they had opportunities to double team Ajax’s better ball playing individuals; whilst nullifying the space to pass through them. It was quite frustrating as it restricted Ajax to just three shots on target with non troubling Romero in the United Goal.

Once United saw they had been able to force Ajax to play the way they wanted it was easy to leave Marcus Rashford  up top; to try to curtail the freedom and confidence Davinson Sanchez was growing into; as a ”ball playing center back”; the Red Devils were more comfortable with him trying to orchestrate things from the back as against the likes of Schone and Klaassen.

Chris Smalling: dropping down the pecking order

Over the course of the weekend and the week leading to the Europa League Final; many United fans prayed for Chris Smalling not to be included in the starting eleven; surprise, surprise; come match day he is listed to pair Daley Blind in Central Defense; when most believed Phil Jones will get the nod ahead of him. What was most shocking was that without Wayne Rooney and Micheal Carrick in the starting Line up; Smalling automatically  takes over the captain’s arm band; but for some strange reason; Antonio Valencia captained United to glory on the night. Is this a signal that Smalling as fallen down the pecking order? Is this Jose’s way of telling him, he isn’t that reliable anymore and cannot be trusted? Whatever, it may have been; Chris Smalling did put up a solid performance on the night; probably is best performance all season.

In Traore, Younes and Sanchez; I see the next Superstars

Yes; Bertrand Traore is a Chelsea player and after such a successful loan spell at Ajax; I am sure Antonio Conte would have been monitoring his progress; hoping to see how he may be able to add that extra to a title winning Chelsea side. Although, if he is to fit into Conte’s side; he will have to brush up on his tactical discipline; this is what makes the likes of Willian and Pedro; important in the Chelsea core. This is not to take anything away from his undoubted talent, but its simply stating there’s still work to be done.

Davinson Sanchez is a quick, strong and physical defender, raw on the edges with a lot of brushing up and refinement needed to make him the next big defensive superstar. He needs to stay at Ajax to develop his game; no need rushing out to some of Europe’s elite, who would not afford you the time to learn and refine your game; he can be massive over the next 2-3 years if he stays at Ajax.

Amin Younes  reminded me of former Ajax winger; Marc Overmars, with his pace and trickery; but his decision making needs to improve greatly if he would like to reach the heights of the former diminutive Dutch winger.

Marouane Fellaini: My Man of the Match

See as I am typing this I am having to check myself to be sure that I am actually doing this; but you have got to say that had to be his best performance ever in a Manchester United shirt; he was totally unplayable, Ajax couldn’t handle him.

I remember saying it this morning in the studio that this is the kind of game Mourinho would start Fellaini; social media went wild seeing him in the starting line up ahead of Micheal Carrick.

I never knew this day would come; I am sure my Late Dad would be turning in his grave now; but it has, Marouane Fellaini, Please take a bow.

Jose is still Special After all

Forget what the psychic cow predicted or what the nerds at whoscored.com said; love him or hate him; the man knows how to win. It has been a tough eighteen months or so for Jose Mourinho; from the unfortunate debacle and alleged mutiny at Chelsea; to his damaged reputation as an unyielding task master. His me/us against the world mentality always puts him and his team in the line of fire; issues with players fitness and commitment have largely swung in his favour in the long run and he has the trophies to show for it.

It is hard to pin-point where he ranks among the greats in world club football; but it has to be very high; Four European trophies with three different clubs must put him close to the top; series of league titles and cups; must gradually have him hitching towards the greats.

What’s past is past; a new chapter and potential legacy may just be upon us; Jose can kick on from this and build his own legacy along side Busby and Ferguson; its a long road ahead and it would be hard to bet against Jose not leaving a huge mark in the United trophy cabinet when his tenure ends.

EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL PREVIEW: AJAX VS MANCHESTER UNITED

Come 7.45pm (Nigerian Time), all eyes will be glued to screens as the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden plays host to the finals of Europe’s 2nd elite club cup competition, the Europa League. It promises to be a fascinating night as Dutch side Ajax take on English giants Manchester United with more than being crowned champions at stake, it’s a game that will also gift an automatic slot for the winner into the more lucrative Uefa Champions’ league group stages next season and a Super Cup game against the winner of the Champions League.

Likely Line ups: Manchester United– Romero, Valencia, Blind, Smalling, Darmian, Fellaini, Pogba, Herrera, Mhkitaryan, Lingard, Rashford

AjaxOnana, Veltman, Riedewald, Sanchez, De Ligt, Schone, Ziyech, Klassen, Traore, Younes, Dolberg

Ajax last won this competition in 1992 back when it was known as the Uefa Cup whilst for Manchester United, this is the only trophy missing from their illustrious cabinet. The events of Monday night at the Manchester Arena where over 20 lives were lost will hang like a cloud around this game as UEFA has granted permission for the teams to wear a black armband in respect of the victims but it is expected that the United players will shake off the trauma of the incident and make this a memorable final for their fans and the City.

Today’s game will be the first final in Europe for an Ajax side with an average age of 21 years since the nineties, Ajax go into this fixture having not won in their last six away European games and they are up against a Jose Mourinho’s side who have not lost away from home in their European matches this season and the entire assessment of the manager’s first season at United hinging on the outcome of this game. A win for Manchester United tonight papers the cracks and presents this as a good season with two trophies in the cabinet and a Champion’s league slot secured whilst a defeat will raise questions especially with their unimpressive performance in the League.

KEY MEN: With 23 goals and 8 assists recorded this season, 19 year old Danish Striker Kasper Dolberg is Ajax’s hope for goals and victory on Wednesday night and up against a changed Manchester United defense which will be missing key defender Eric Bailly with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling battling for the chance to pair former Ajax boy Daley Blind, the pacy forward will keep the United back-line busy all game.

For Manchester United, it will be hard to look beyond their own 19 year old talent, Marcus Rashford, the young sensation who burst onto the scene last season has had a mixed season but following injury to leading marksman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford has stepped up to the plate with crucial goals in the quarter final tie with Anderlecht and only goal in the first leg semi final tie at Celta Vigo. His pace and movement will be relied upon and with Paul Pogba and Mhkitaryan providing assists, Rashford should be able to find gaps against a very inexperienced back-line.

Both teams have met on four occasions in the past winning two apiece, Ajax’s Manager Peter Bosz’s will lead his youthful side out on the night after finishing second in the league behind Feyenoord and leading the team to a major European final in less than a year in charge, for Jose Mourinho, who has won the Champions league twice with two different teams and also winning the Europa League (then UEFA Cup) in 2003 with Porto, he has won 11 out of the 13 cup finals in which he has been involved and his winning record is why he was signed by Manchester United, anything short of victory tonight will raise doubts over the abilities of the ‘special one’ especially following his below par performances over the last two years.

It is a game that should see experience up against youth, control against zeal, a mean United defense against a free scoring Ajax side, it promises to be explosive, a lot of predictions have been made including that of the infamous cow who with a 85% record has given the tie to Ajax but I fail to see how Jose will let this slip and I predict a 2-0 victory for Manchester United.

My Europa League Final Preview

The Europe league final comes at a cross road for two of the biggest teams the modern game has ever seen.

For Manchester United, the only reason they have never won the Europa League or the Uefa Cup as it used to be called, is because over the last 20 odd years they have barely competed in the tournament. They are more used to the high echelons of world football and the premier competition, the UEFA Champions League.

For Ajax of Amsterdam, though previous winner of the tournament, they have found themselves more in the abyss as they have become a shadow of what they once were. They themselves a premier club in the Netherlands, they compete mostly in the UEFA Champions League. After all they have won the Dutch Eredivisie title 33 times. In 1995 they won the champions league to much acclaim and introduced us to a new generation of superstars, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Edwin Van Der Sar to name a few.

So the question is how have these two giants found themselves in this position? How have the mighty fallen?

The loss or should we say the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United with a gaping hole the size of a nuclear missile at the heart of the club. In the time Ferguson spent at Manchester United, all 27 years of them, Manchester United qualified for the champions league on 23 of those occasions. Compare that to post Ferguson and Manchester United have only qualified for the Champions League once. In fact 2014/2015 was the first time Manchester United missed out on Europe all together since 1989/1990 season. That might change though depending on how this final goes.

Over in Amsterdam, Ajax have no such managerial colossus. For them its been more of a hibernation period were they have found themselves largely out fought by the other teams across Europe. They still qualify for the Champions League on a regular basis, as a matter of fact, they find themselves in the Europa League having dropped out of the Champions League at the group stage. They still produce enormous talent from their famed academy but just haven’t been able to bring it all together.

So this final brings together two sides desperate to return to former glory both most recently and in the distant past.

Who needs the victory more you might say? And what would victory mean for either side?

For Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, it brings the circle back around and completes United’s trophy cabinet. Mourinho himself is a previous winner of the tournament in his breakout season with FC Porto fourteen years ago. The team on the other needs to get into the Champions League. The Theater of Dreams needs to feel the lure of a champions league night once again. Manchester United run the risk of becoming the new Liverpool.

Liverpool were a dominant force in England and Europe in the 80’s and 90’s. Remember they even won the Champions League in 2005, the miracle of Istanbul. But even with that they have become the nearly team who cannot regain its former glory. Managerial changes and player shuffles have not done the business.

Manchester United started with David Moyes, who as well chronicled was far from the chosen ones the Reds needed him to be, to Louis Van Gaal, the respected Dutchman and ironically AFC Ajax legend. But ultimately results suffered and the special one, as he used to be called was brought in to change all that. If this season is anything to go by then United have a lot to worry about. 6th place finish is just not what they are used to. And with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs getting better and better, inspiration on and off the field is needed. That inspiration could well come from a Champions League place which comes with victory in the Europa League Final.

For AFC Ajax on the other hand, things don’t look so dire. AFC Ajax had won the Dutch League title four times in a row, between 2011 – 2014 with Frank De Boer in charge. So worst case scenario they will mostly qualify for the Champions League barring any disaster.

But then again trophies are the name of the game. People love to associate with winners. Fans love a winning culture. And nothing comes bigger and better than the Champions League or in this case the Europa League. It might be a 2nd tier tournament but trust me many teams would love to get their hands on the trophy.

The tactical aspect of the match is not of utmost importance. Both teams would be eager to win by any means necessary. What is more important, is the need to be back in the big picture. To be reckoned with and adored on the European stage. Say what you want about Sevilla in the Spanish La Liga but they are three times (consecutive) champions of the Europa League and they got some respect on the continent.

Certainly both teams know what is at stake and need no reminder. What remains for us the fans, is to watch and see which team gets their hands on the trophy. Either team would be deserved winner no doubt.

One Game, Many things Hinged – (My UEL Final Preview)

José Mourinho certainly must have had  his heart in his mouth for a while until Celta striker John Guidetti decided to fluff his line on his own terms when they faced United in the 2nd leg Semi Final earlier this month. Now in Stockholm to face a tricky customer in Ajax, United’s biggest game since the post – Fergie era conjuring all parameters – At least 70 million pounds is all for grabs if the red side of Manchester gets a win ( 50 million from making the group stage of the Champions League and over 20 million from kit sponsors, Adidas) but you can say that this means more than just the oof to Mou and jugbang; The bragging rights and prestige of playing in 2017 / 2018 Champions League matters most. The Special one himself personally risks a contract extension and pay rise if he doesn’t manage victory at the Friends Arena on Wednesday.

Dainty Ajax

Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten, Amsterdam Arena, Louis Van Gaal, De Boer Brothers, George Finidi – The Dutch Club has gotten a deep rooted stead in tradition as far as European Football is involved with a masterful romanticism of flirting and nurturing child prodigies into world class footballers, fast forward 2017, they still haven’t derailed from it – only last week fielding the youngest team in the Eredivisie when they beat Willem II away 1 – 3.

The Pauciloquent Ajax Coach Peter Bosz has managed to keep a group of jeunsee doree footballers play the total football with no nuance at all building his team around midfielder and captain Davy Classen, striker Kasper Dolberg who at just 19 is marked to be a star.

Although you could sense that a lack of experience for most of these teenagers might be baneful with the knowledge that most haven’t played games with such enormous magnitude – salify the fact that most players of very young age tend to go through peaks and troughs which was evident in the semi final against Lyon where they led the tie 4 – 1 and almost completely bottled it in France losing 1 – 3. Very friable defensively. Bosz will definitely hope for the peak on Wednesday

Team news

Manchester United looks really knackered and have a handful of players missing from the final through injuries and suspensions. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw are all long term casualties while Eric Bailly is suspended after receiving a beef witted red against Celta Vigo. Can’t say enough about how Jose Mourinho has whined about the Fixture congestion.

Ajax in contrast look as fresh as a daisy who has had 10 days to rest prior to the showdown. Bosz has a completely gradely squad except for suspended Nick Viergever who will be replaced by either Daley Sinkgraven or Jairo Riedewald with the former only just recovering from a knee injury he had since April and only just returned last week.

Predicted XI

Prediction

Game will be far from being a spectacle but you can back Mourinho to get the result even if it might be homespun.

Ajax 0 – 1 Manchester United

A CASE OF DECIDED SEMI-FINALS and THE STEPHEN ODEY SAGA

The week featured semi-finals of Europe’s elite competitions with the Champions league and the Europa League in its last four stage, after the pairings were made, a lot of pundits and football lovers expected tight encounters with most of the games deemed to go down the wire and some even predicting that fixtures may not be decided after the second legs and may require extra time or even penalty shoot-outs to declare the winner.

Real Madrid VS Athletico Madrid was the highlight fixture of the Champions league semi-final round following the rivalry between both sides not just in the La Liga but in recent finals of the Champions league. In 2014, Madrid required a late equalizer from Sergio Ramos to force the game into extra time before going on to win by 4 goals to 1, then in 2016, both teams featured yet again in a game played at the San Siro and after 90 minutes yet again, there was still no separating both sides as it ended one goal apiece with Real Madrid winning after penalty shootouts. This time around though, a second derby hat-trick in one season from Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored 103 Champions league goals gave Madrid a commanding 3-0 win in the first leg tie and following how difficult to beat Zidane has built his team over the course of the season, rotating and adjusting well to games, there is no coming back from this for Diego Simeone’s side who themselves are naturally better at defending leads than over-turning them.

The second semi-final saw Italian Champions Juventus away at Monaco, the game billed as the battle of the immovable defense against the unstoppable attack with the ageing Juventus back-line of Gigi Buffon, Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini predicted to face their strongest test of the season against Colombian forward Radamel Falcao who has re-discovered top form and the sensational Kylian Mbappe, Allegri’s side however proved that they could find a balance between defending and attacking, two sublime strikes from Gonzalo Higuain,  both created by Dani Alves ensured the Bianconeris are well on their way to a second Champions league final in 3 years. Juventus shut out Monaco from scoring at home for the first time since November 2015 and whilst the young stars of Monaco will be giving it another go in 6 days time, the experienced players of the Old Lady have seen enough of games like this and barring a major loss of concentration, there is no way they will let this slip.

In the Europa league, Lyon were handed a thrashing by the very young Ajax side as their visit to the Amsterdam Arena ended up in a 4-1 defeat, on loan Chelsea forward Bertrand Traore struck twice with Mathieu Valbuena giving the French side an away goal that retains their slim chance of turning the deficit in the return leg. Ajax extended their winning streak at home to 12 games and are well on course for a final berth in Europe once again. In the second semi-final tie, Celta Vigo lost at home to English giants Manchester United despite having rested players over the course of the month in preparation for the tie, a well taken free-kick by kid sensation Marcus Rashford ensured that Jose Mourinho’s side not only got an away goal but left Spain in prime position for a final place, of all the semi-final fixtures, this looks like the one that remains very open seeing that a solitary goal from Celta Vigo at Old Trafford balances the tie and puts United on the edge but Manchester United have not lost a single game at home in the Europa League, they have actually won 5 out of 6 home games in regulation time thus far in the competition and with Jose Mourinho finally accepting that the competition is the only way to the Champions league next season and anything short of that will almost mean a failure in his first season, and also with the poor way Celta Vigo played in the first leg despite having given up their La Liga aspirations for this, it is safe to assume that this tie like the three others is also done and dusted.

The Stephen Odey Transfer Madness: Now just when a lot of attention is being given to the NPFL with so much hype on talents like Stephen Odey and Sikiru Olatunbosun, a reminder of the shabby and unprofessional way of the affairs of the clubs in the league reared its head again. News broke during the week that the NPFL top goal scorer with 14 goals Stephen Odey had traveled out of the country, at first his whereabouts seemed to be unknown but after a tweet from Denmark side FC Copenhagen during a game with FC Midtylland, things become clearer on one hand but also got more confusing on another hand following counter statements from his supposedly parent club MFM FC. The Manager of the side Fidelis Ilechukwu when first contacted claimed that he was not aware of Odey’s trip to Denmark and the payer had left without authorization, the club Director of Sports Emmanuel Adeyemi in a separate interview claimed Odey was on a facility tour to familiarize himself with conditions in Denmark (I find this as ridiculous as a statement can be), whilst the players agent is supposedly angry that his player is actually playing trial games instead of a medical as supposedly agreed by both sides. Amidst this insanity, the Media officer of the side Olawale Quadry in trying to justify how the club wasn’t initially aware of the where-about of their star forward stated that the Danish side called the club’s office landline at an odd hour when nobody was in the office to receive the call, hence they could not inform them abinitio, I find this statement not only embarrassing but also laughable. There is also the unclear issue of the ownership of the player, it has been days since this saga became public and there is still no coordinated response or official statement from the club, all we have gotten have been individual statements contradicting each other and making a mess of an already badly managed situation. This is no way to run a professional team and whilst many arguments may be  made as to the player trying to secure his future now that he is getting all the buzz, things when not done properly always backfire. The player has just gotten a call up to the National Team, he may well be the next big thing in the league but like we have witnessed time and over again, if the little details as regards his management and direction are not sorted, he may well end up forgotten without actualizing his full potentials.

A ROUND-UP OF FOOTBALL HAPPENINGS THIS WEEK

A ROUND-UP OF FOOTBALL HAPPENINGS THIS WEEK
Quite a lot has happened in the world of the round leather game this week, here are my five major talking points of the week.

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Jose did play the big man

After weeks of torrid media frenzy both in the print and social media calling for Wayne Rooney to be benched at Manchester United due to his below par performances, United finally lined up at lunchtime on Saturday against Leicester City without their captain. The team did go ahead to put in an impressive performance especially a blow out first half showing that saw Paul Pogba score his first goal on his return to Old Trafford. Rooney did get some few minutes but critics claim the decision paid off as we saw Mata do better in that role. Is this the end of the road for Wazza? Or like he has done several times in the past, will he bounce back better and reclaim his place in the starting team. Rooney has given 12 of his best years to United and will be forever remembered but for the skipper who has been billed to make a return in the Europa League come Thursday night, this may just be the beginning of the end of his career that has spanned many illustrious individual and team awards.

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From being benched to another Champions League goal

Despite another lack-lustre draw at the weekend, where they conceded yet another late goal away at Las Palmas, what made most headlines was Cristiano Ronaldo’s reaction after being substituted in the 72nd minute. This was the major talking point in a week that saw them visiting the Signal Iduna Park to face an inform Borussia Dortmund. Many wondered how Zidane would manage his first high profile ‘bust’ with a star player but 17 minutes in and Ronaldo bagged his 16th goal in 18 games against German opposition and his 95th Champions league goal. That is 45 goals since the start of the 2013/14 season. However in what is now looking like a mini- crisis, with three straight draws and late minute goals conceded, Zidane seems to be lost in finding a solution after a long exciting run, with injury losses to Marcelo and Casemiro especially, the team seems to lack a bit of the elite football it showcased in its run to Champions League success last season and with Ramos equaling a yellow card in every game, the defense is in sixes and the tide needs to be stemmed when they host Eibar come weekend.

Trophy-Uefa-Champion-League

Champions League Week

As a United fan, Tuesday and Wednesday nights are nightmares as the emotional theme songs gets belted come 7.45Pm and the best of European football is on showcase without your favorite team on parade. Tuesday night saw one of the best games you will see this week as Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid served an entertaining 2-2 draw, Dybala also featured with one of the finest goals in this round as Juventus routed Dinamo Zagreb whilst Leicester continue their perfect start to life with the big boys as the Dragon slayer Islam Slimani lived up to his name to see Ranieri’s men steal maximum points away at Porto, Heung- Min Son can’t stop scoring for Spurs and Europa League Specialists Sevilla finally got a win over Lyon.
Wednesday night sees the juicy fixture of Atletico Madrid hosting Bayern Munich, Basel are away at Arsenal, the Swiss side that have had a decent run of results against English teams will be wary of the Arsenal side that turns up following their demolition of Chelsea in the league. Pep Guardiola and his City lads are away to Celtic whilst Napoli hosts Benfica in some of the night’s top matches.

wfc ighalo goal

Fans call for Odion Ighalo’s head

Following a decent 2015/16 campaign where he spearheaded Watford’s campaign alongside Troy Deeney scoring a total of 17 goals in all competition to help Watford remain in the league, this season has witnessed a totally different player. Just one league goal thus far, several open misses and outright poor performances especially in the game against Burnley where they lost by two goals, Ighalo lost the ball easily, misplaced his passes on several occasions when the team tried to make a counter and looking like a shadow of the player he was last season, this has led to calls for him to be dropped and like we witnessed with the Wayne Rooney issue, there is a limit to which coaches can back players who they like or have produced results in the past. Odion Ighalo who has also been less than impressive in National team colors now stands a risk of losing his place at both ends.

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The small matter of Sam Allardyce

It was his dream job, he had prayed for it, worked for it, waited for it to happen, then it finally did and barely weeks after he got the job, Big Sam was caught on video offering advice on how to circumvent the governing body’s rules on player transfers and openly criticizing some of his colleagues. The evidences were damming, the Federation had a decision to make, hence it was no surprise on Tuesday evening, Sam Allardyce left his position as England Manager after one game and 67 days in charge. From a personal angle, it was painful to see but he has no excuses nor has offered any, his naivety and greed was a tool used by the Telegraph and he has only himself to blame.

 

**Pictures courtesy: www.telegraph.co.uk; harrisonamy.com

Europa League Final: Five Tactical Talking Points

The 2016 Europa League Final was probably not the best final you would have seen; but it was a good final and just like our slogan at www.halftimeng.com states; ”its a game of two halves” and that’s what this final served up for us neutrals. Sevilla have made history by winning the Europa League for a third straight year; a Three Peat; what a feat.

The game had its talking points; especially with Liverpool seeking two penalties in the first half, but its the tactical talking points that’s the main focus of my review of the final.

Kolo Toure

He was massive all through even though Liverpool conceded  three goals, but he showed immense leadership through out till he was replaced in a tactical substitution as the Reds chased the game. He definitely deserves a new contract at this rate, I worried about Liverpool starting with him in defense and lacking other alternatives, but the Ivorian had a good solid game.

The Switch in Style and Approach

In the first half, I felt Sevilla were too predictable with their insistence on bumping the ball forward as a means to cope with Liverpool’s high pressing. For me, it gave the Liverpool defense a lot of comfort because Kevin Gameiro is not the tallest of strikers around; hence the needed the wide players in Vitolo and Coke of Nzonzi from deep to provide the height in the middle, hence making them a tad narrow and quite predictable.

In the second half; a quick change of impetus; playing short, quick passes and getting behind their markers; changed the game and got them a great equalizer after just 17 seconds of the restart in the second half. The quick passing and use of pace from wide areas especially through the full backs got Sevilla past the Liverpool press.

Early seizure of initiative

What better way to damage the confidence and psychology of your opponents that to seize the initiative as early as the 17th second with an equalizing goal. Unai Emery would have told his charges how important it was to get an early goal to get them going and back in the cup final.

Ever Banega

Inter Milan have lacked a creative player for the last two seasons and they must be glad they snapped up a player of this caliber. The Argentine Midfielder struggled to get into the game in the first half obviously due to Sevilla’s overall approach and the very little space he was afforded. In the second half, he started to find the spaces and the pockets to enable him dictate the play with some smooth, short and quick passes and their eagerness to get their full backs fully involved.

Banega was involved in all the goals and as far as I am concerned was my man of the match.

Liverpool failed to get key players into the game

What a strike by Daniel Sturridge to put Liverpool in the lead; it was one of the few times the Reds got any of the key players into the game and in key positions. For most of the second half; Sevilla were better organized; hence keeping Sturridge away from the eighteen yards box where he could be dangerous. Firmino and Coutinho were largely anonymous through out the game and were well kept at bay by the compact and discipline Sevilla midfield and back line, who switch into something of a back six when without the ball as Nzonzi and Krychowiak  drop in to join the center backs; making them difficult to penetrate.

Once Liverpool’s high press was negated by some quick, short and smooth passing, the Reds seem to have no plan b or alternative to get back into the game.

UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE GROUP STAGE PREVIEW

The Europa League returns after Sevilla’s thrilling run to winning back to back titles and as usual you expect the English clubs to complain about the wicked fixture congestion and the long trips; but I must say it is important for the English team to take the competition serious as their big teams continue to struggle in the Champions League. A good run in the Europa League would aid the coefficients of the English Premier League; with that all said, here’s a preview of each of the Groups.

GROUP A– Ajax, Celtic, Fernerbahce, Molde

This is arguably the toughest and biggest group if reputation and prestige in the European competition is anything to go by. It features Ajax and Celtic, two former European champions who probably will be unhappy with having to play in the champions league’s ‘ugly sister’ and will be doing everything possible to progress as much as possible in order to find some solace or compensation.

Fenerbahce is also another club in the group with a rich history and have enjoyed good runs in Europe. The last team, Molde are 2014 Norwegian champions and they will also fancy their chance in a much bigger stage with hopes of being great ambassadors of their league. All of these adds credence to the fact that this might the toughest group of all. Every game counts and a slip might be the undoing of any of the clubs. Be that as it may, Ajax and Celtic are expected to do the needful by securing victories at home and avoiding defeats on the road.

GROUP B– Liverpool, Rubin Kazan, Bordeaux, Sion

Liverpool are, without a doubt, the biggest name in the group but they won’t be having it easy. The Europa league is a difficult competition to play partly because of the quality of oppositions but majorly because of the long travels.

Grouped with Rubin Kazan, Bordeaux and Sion ensures that Liverpool will travel a total of 6,642 miles which can be dodgy given the fact that other duties, prominently the league duty, will call.

In terms of play, none of the teams has been hugely convincing as Brendan Rodgers is yet to find a balance in his team after another summer of huge spending. Similarly, things are not going as planned for Rubin Kazan in Russia as they are enduring a slow start on the heels of a disappointing season where they finished fifth. Bordeaux and Sion relatively look solid but life in Europe has its own complexities and dynamics.

The test for every team will be the long trip to Russia to play Rubin Kazan and whoever picks most points there might just be smiling to the next stage.

GROUP C– Borussia Dortmund, PAOK, Krasnodar, Qabala

The club a lot of other teams will want to avoid right now is definitely Borussia Dortmund given their new found form under Thomas Tuchel and the manner in which they qualified, scoring 22 goals in four games. More so, they are currently sitting on top of the Bundesliga table with four victories from four games.

PAOK, Krasnodar and Qabala who are the other teams in the group may have to give up the first position and focus on escorting Dortmund in second place unless of course something extraordinary happens which isn’t impossible in the round leather game.

Thomas Tuchel should however brace up for the long travels to Greece, Russia and Azerbaijan. These trips only look good for tourists, not football clubs.

GROUP K– Schalke 04, APOEL Nicosia, Sparta Prague, Asteras Tripolis

German club Schalke 04 have what appears to be an easy group on paper given their quality as opposed to the oppositions they have in APOEL, Sparta Prague and Asteras Tripolis.

If they can combine league commitment and the trips well, they should be able to shut the door on defeat both at home and on the road.

GROUP L– Athletic Bilbao, AZ Alkamaar, Augsburg, Partizan Belgrade

Athletic Bilbao will slug it out with AZ Alkamaar, Augsburg and Partizan to secure qualification into the next stage.

The draw seem to have favored the Spanish side but they need to be wary especially when they face German club, Augsburg who are known to bruise the ego of seeming bigger clubs.

Group D– Napoli, Club Brugge, Legia Warsaw, Midtjylland

Group D promises to be a group of unpredictability as the four teams are best at being inconsistent, but Napoli are top seeds for a reason. On the basis of playing personnel, no team comes close. However, the Italians have endured a mix start to the season and will hope to have a better start on the continent. In Gonzalo Higuain, Dries Merteens, Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik, Napoli can count on creativity and goals while the return of Pepe Reina gives better hope than last season in the goalkeeping section.

For Club Brugge, the exploits of last season were a welcome sight for Belgian teams in Europe but their loss to Manchester United in the final qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League clearly shows there might be much to be desired this season. Expectedly, Legia Warsaw and Midtjylland are the underdogs in this group but an opening day win for either of these sides could make the fight for a second place finish exciting. Napoli, should finish first.

Group E– Villarreal, Viktoria Plzen, Rapid Vienna, Dinamo Minsk

With all due respect, let’s focus on who finishes second between Plzen and Vienna. Credit to Dinamo Minsk for getting to the group stage but this is where it ends for them. Villarreal should top this group with some comfort.

Few seasons ago, Viktoria Plzen stunned Europe when they defeated Bayern Munich in the champions league. The team from Belarus will be hoping for a Cinderella run this time around in the Europa League but a decent Rapid Vienna side stands in their way. The six pointer between the sides will be the defining factor in who progresses.

Villarreal are clearly favourites and can have a go in this year’s competition. Summer signing, Roberto Soldado is looking like his old self; scoring and making trouble for defenders. No excuse will be tolerated for failure to qualify from this group.

Group F–  Marseille, Braga, Slovan Liberec, Groningen

The sale of key players such as Florient Thauvin, Dmitri Payet, Andre Ayew and Gianni Imbula coupled with the exit of Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille has seen the French side suffer an indifferent start to this season’s Ligue 1 campaign. Not only did they lose so much by selling, the money recouped wasn’t invested into the squad, a major reason why Bielsa left after the opening weekend. Marseille are clearly a troubled side but teams in this group, give them hope.

Braga and Liberec are no super powers while Groningen is a mid table Eredivisie side. However, there’s some measure of quality in the Dutch side.

There are no clear favourites here and it will be interesting to see if Liberec and Groningen can capitalize on this and topple their more illustrious group mates.

Group G– Dnipro, SS Lazio, St. Etienne, Rosenberg

Arguably one of the toughest groups in this season’s Europa League. The first three sides have almost the same chances of progressing to the next stage while Rosenberg stand no chance.

Last season’s finalists, Dnipro have kept a bulk of the side that made it all the way and will more than fancy their chances. Lazio are an interesting side but the season hasn’t started well. The capital side’s defensive frailties, mostly characterized by a seemingly lack of pace were exposed in the 4-0 loss to Chievo on match day two in the Serie A.

These two have been tipped to qualify from the group, but St. Etienne might just upset the apple cart. Having punched above their weight in the French Ligue 1 last season, St. Etienne will look to continue the steady rise by having a good European season. Surely, Group G will be an exciting one!

Group H– Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas, Lokomotiv Moscow, Skenderban

Skenderban’s campaign looks over before it has even started. This is a straight fight between the other three.

Sporting are in the Europa League and not champions league for a reason. Profligacy.

One of Portugal’s finest club sides in history, Sporting will need to improve upfront if they’re to qualify from this difficult group. Besiktas and Lokomotiv are no strangers to the continent and have experience within their ranks. It’s difficult to predict who will finish first or second and neutral fans should just sit back and enjoy these sides who could have been playing on Tuesday and Wednesday nights rather than Thursdays.

Group I– Basel, Fiorentina, Lech Poznan, Belenenses

I was surprised to see Belenenses pick up one of the available European tickets in Portugal last season and are the greenest horns in this group. Their inexperience and the others superior quality might see them remain bottom at the end of proceedings.

Basel and Fiorentina are more experienced at this level and boast better quality when compared to Lech Poznan and that will eventually count. The fight in this group will be for first place. For Fiorentina, the return of Guiseppe Rossi will bolster the attack after the loss of last season’s loanee wonder Mohammed Salah. Basel continue to remain the best team in Switzerland and in recent years have always progressed to the knock out stages. This time around, the team will be aiming higher and if they get their acts right, they are well capable of lasting the distance.

Group J– Tottenham Hotspurs, Anderlecht, AS Monaco, Qarabag

Tottenham have been perennial underachievers in this competition and while Daniel Levy wants to play with the big boys in the champions league, his team have proven to be good enough for only the Europa League.

AS Monaco have once again suffered another summer of selling their star players. Juan Carrasco, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Abdennour and Anthony Martial have all left for bigger clubs and more money. But unlike their French rivals, Marseille, Monaco have reinvested. The duo of Stephan El-Sharaawy and Fabio Contreao have been brought in to add quality and add to the cutting edge they enjoyed last season.

Over there in Belgium, Anderlecht provided one of the best comebacks in European football against Arsenal. Trailing by 3-0, the Belgians rallied back to level things up with about 11 minutes left. Anderlecht are not expected to win the competition but they might just find themselves in the knockout rounds if either Monaco or Tottenham falter.

EPL TEAMS IN EUROPE – “WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?”

CLeagueIt’s been a gloomy start to 2014 for English Premier League teams in Europe as only Tottenham achieved what five rivals failed to do – WIN.

Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City all opened the Champions League knockout phase with first-leg losses, while Chelsea drew. Last night, Swansea got knocked out of the Europa League and Spurs overturned a 1-0 deficit against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to advance to the round of 16.

The question is, what’s wrong with the EPL teams, what could be the reason(s), mental tiredness, too many matches, lack of quality players or tactical deficiencies from the Managers? We can go and on in trying to identify the cause of the problems but is that really suppose to be an excuse?

article-2562356-1B9E35CD00000578-122_634x407Manchester City were very disappointing in their own approach against Barcelona. Truth is, they had no business losing that game, Pellegrini’s tactics failed and the players couldn’t just get themselves fired up to rise up to the occassion.
(Had really felt like spanking the players and the Managers after the game)

_73096823_021206307-1Arsenal on the other hand started brightly against Bayern – Defending Champions. Wenger’s tactical approach had worked perfectly until his GK was sent off and that brought another dimension to the game which gave Bayern the upper hand and a 2-nil result sounded fair on paper but doesn’t look like a good one going into the second leg.
-(Not creating excuses but they can be pardoned).

e516dae1775bcba342f61e4b7f182488_crop_northManchester United were awful, terrible, pathetic, annoying, disgusting, looked like a team in chaos, lacked ideas, lacked creativity, lacked tactical input from the bench and that sorry performance against Olympiacos has been dubbed as their worst outing ever in Europe.
(How can a team set such a record in the 21st century?…AAARRRRRGGGHHHH).

a5fec0eb-9c3c-47fc-b308-a1cda4388a14Chelsea managed to get a draw in Turkey, fair result. Mancini was spot on with his tactics only after 30 minutes. Mourinho’s Blues had started well with Torres getting an early goal and despite not being convincing in their overall display, they will go into the return leg a bit confident especially after getting that crucial away goal.
– (It can be better, learn how to kill the game early boys.)

1393526401723_lc_galleryImage_Football_SSC_Napoli_v_SwaSwansea City put up a spirited display against Rafa Benitez’s Napoli over two legs, goalless draw in Wales and a 3-1 loss in Naples. Monk was playing against a side that’s been managed by the winner of the competition last season with Chelsea.
-(A big lesson learnt, when next they get into Europe, they will be more experienced.)

1393537356426_lc_galleryImage_Football_Tottenham_HotspuTottenham are the ONLY side to have won in Europe in 2014 amongst all English teams, a 3-1 win over Dnipro ensured that they qualified 3-2 on aggregate following a 1-nil loss in the first leg. Tim Sherwood will be very happy with his players, Adebayor was fantastic on the night and the atmosphere was well charged with the departure of Defoe from White Hart Lane.
-(Next Up is Benfica, over two legs, Spurs have a good chance.)

For Arsenal, Manchester City and Swansea, the draws weren’t fair but if we are to avoid not seeing any English side in the last 8 of the Uefa Champions League, they all have to raise their and the coaches all have to be tactically and technically efficient in the return leg.

Halftimeng’s prediction: Read our match-day previews to find out the teams that will likely make it through to the next round from England.

EUROPA LEAGUE WRAP

tottenhamhotspur_kffvaojvaq481ctkf0r1e4gv3Tottenham were the only English side that brought smiles to their football fans last night, achieving what five other rivals failed to do – WIN.

Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City all opened the Champions League knockout phase with first-leg losses, while Chelsea drew. But on Thursday, straight after Swansea was knocked out of the Europa League, Tottenham overturned a 1-0 deficit against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to win 3-1 at White Hart Lane and advance to the round of 16.

Roman Zozulya headed the Ukrainian side in front at the start of the second half but, after Christian Eriksen leveled from a free kick, he was dismissed for head-butting Jan Vertonghen in the 62nd minute.
Within six minutes, Emmanuel Adebayor scored twice to set up a meeting with Benfica, which beat PAOK Salonika 3-0 to go through 4-0 on aggregate.

The last 16 will see two meetings of national rivals that should lift Europe’s less illustrious competition, with Juventus facing Fiorentina, and Sevilla playing Real Betis.
gggggindexJuventus replicated its 2-0 first-leg victory over Trabzonspor in Turkey, with goals from Arturo Vidal and Dani Osvaldo. And Fiorentina was held to 1-1 by Esbjerg of Denmark but advanced 4-2 on aggregate.
Swansea’s loss at Napoli gave Italy a third team in the next round and kept Rafa Benitez on course to win back-to-back Europa League titles. The Spanish manager, who lifted the trophy with Chelsea last season, saw his new team emerge 3-1 winners over Swansea after a goalless first leg in south Wales. Napoli will next face Porto, which drew 2-2 at Eintracht Frankfurt to advance on away goals with a 5-5 aggregate draw but Serie A rival Lazio went out surprisingly, drawing 3-3 at Ludogorets after losing 1-0 at home.

However, three Spanish teams remain in the competition, Sevilla beat Maribor 2-1 to complete a 4-3 aggregate win over the Slovenian side, and Betis advanced 3-1 on aggregate after winning 2-0 at Rubin Kazan. Valencia relied on its 2-0 away win to oust Dynamo Kiev after a scoreless draw in Spain, and will next face Ludogorets.

Lyon beat Chornomorets Odesa 1-0 to setup a meeting with Viktoria Plzen after the Czech side beat Shakhtar Donetsk 3-2 on aggregate. Ajax conceded another three goals against Red Bull Salzburg, losing 3-1 to allow the hosts to advance 6-1 overall. Salzburg will next play FC Basel after the Swiss side beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 3-0.

Next match-day in the Europa League is billed for March 13, 2013.