Posts Tagged ‘Manchester United’

Manchester United 1-0 Barcelona: Paul Scholes Sends Red Devils to Moscow (UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals, Leg 2)

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

33 years of age and match-winner for Manchester United in the return leg of the UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals vs. Barcelona. Paul Scholes the gladiator. Paul Scholes the veteran. Paul Scholes the long-range specialist: his 14th minute strike from 25 yards (after a messy clearance by Zambrotta) was the only goal of the night, as the Red Devils advance to Moscow for the first ever fully Premiership-coloured Champions League final in the tournament’s history.

Sir Alex Ferguson may have been criticized for his overly defensive tactics in Europe, but in the end, who can blame him for his achievements? His team has conceded only 1 goal in the entire knock-out round of the competion (the 1-1 away match to Lyon), and has qualified for the tournament final. People have often criticized Italian clubs for playing defensive football, but it works. As AC Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti once said: “If you want entertainment, go to the cinema”. ‘Nuff said.

Tactically, Sir Alex Ferguson was dealing with two very big problems at the start of tonight’s match: no Nemanja Vidic, but more importantly no Wayne Rooney. With the young striker picking up a muscle strain in the match vs. Chelsea last week-end, the United manager was forced to change his tactics a bit and field a 4-4-2 formation, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez lone strikers and Owen Hargreaves once again in the right-back position. On the other end, Barça coach Frank Rijkaard stuck to his original plan: no Thierry Henry (benched), striking trio formed by Andres Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi, just like in the first leg.

To be perfectly honest, as the match started the first few minutes of weren’t exactly promising. Tension and anticipation were big for this one, but much like the first leg at the Nou Camp both teams were “afraid” of pushing forward too much, in particular the Red Devils who had to avoid the dreaded “away goal” at all costs. However amidst all the prudence, there was one player who seemed to be saying: “Screw this, I came here to play some attacking football” and that player was Lionel Messi: his constant runs and accelerations gave considerable trouble to the United defense initially, until minute 14 struck.

Recovering the ball on Barcelona’s right wing, Gianluca Zambrotta felt pressured and attempted to clear towards the center. His low pass was however intercepted by Paul Scholes about 30 yards from goal, and the former England international took little time to think where he was going to put it. Slamming shot and whammo, into the top corner with Victor Valdés helpless. 1-0 Man Utd and exactly what Sir Alex was looking for: an early goal.

Scholes’s tally certainly did its part in “waking” the game up, both on the pitch and on the stands, where the 70,000+ Red Devils fans started chanting at the top of their lungs. Galvanized by the crowd and the momentum gathered from scoring, the United players continued to push forward and came very close to extending their lead (through Nani and Ji-Sung Park notably). By the end of the half however, the Blaugrana had taken the upper hand and were keeping Edwin Van der Sar occupied: the runs of Eto’o and Messi, coupled with technique of Deco came dangerously close in giving the catalans the equalizer, especially through the long shots of the Brazilian-turned-Portuguese midfielder (narrowly wide of the post). Despite Barcelona’s best efforts however, the match went to break with Man Utd in the lead.

In the second period a somewhat invisible Cristiano Ronaldo decided to wake up a little, and get a little bit more involved in the Red Devils’ offensives. The real thorn in the Barça side was however his Portuguese colleague Nani, constantly provoking his markers with fakes, dribbles and accelerations (much like Ronaldo should have been doing but couldn’t, due to the close man-marking presence of the two catalan center-backs).

At the hour mark, with Barcelona still unable to muster any significant scoring chance, Rijkaard finally decided to play the Thierry Henry card (on for Iniesta), shortly followed by that of Bojan Krkic (on for an unimpressive Eto’o). Ferguson replied by removing Nani and Scholes and inserting Darren Fletcher and veteran Ryan Giggs. As the clock was getting closer and closer to the 90th minute mark, the tension on the pitch proportionally increased. The two Barcelona substitutes tried their best to justify their insertion on the field, but with little luck. Even the added presence of Eidur Gudjohnsen (on for Yaya Touré) in the final minutes was insufficient, as the Blaugrana were still helplessly unable to pierce through the United defense.

Eventually the referee called full time and the entire Old Trafford stadium erupted with joy, as their team will be travelling to Moscow final on May 21. It will be the first ever UEFA Champions League final opposing two English clubs, and the first final for the Red Devils since their 1999 triumph vs. Bayern Munich. For Barcelona, tonight’s elimination marks a decidedly failed season for Frank Rijkaard, whose tenure as club manager is now likely damaged beyond repair.


Manchester United F.C. MAN UTD-BARCELONA
[Match Highlights]
FC Barcelona
GOALSCORERS: 14’ Scholes (M)
MANCHESTER UTD (4-4-2): Van der Sar – Hargreaves, Brown, R.Ferdinand, Evra (92’ Silvestre) – Nani, Carrick, Scholes (77’ Fletcher), J.S.Park (77’ Giggs) – C.Ronaldo, Tevez. (bench: Kuszczak, O’Shea, Anderson, Welbeck). Coach: Ferguson.
BARCELONA (4-3-3): Victor Valdés – Zambrotta, Puyol, G.Milito, Abidal – Xavi, Y.Touré (88’ Gudjohnsen), Deco – Messi, Eto’o (72’ Krkic), Iniesta (61’ Henry). (bench: Pinto, Thuram, Edmilson, Sylvinho,) Coach: Rijkaard


The Rebirth of Catenaccio, Or: Manchester United’s Tactics in Europe

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

catenaccio m. (plura; catenacci)
1. a bolt (for a door)
2. a system of defensive play in football

Catenaccio is a tactical playing scheme in the game of football. It consists mostly in a 5-4-1 formation alignment characterized by its propensely defensive attitude.

Under the definition of catenaccio lie a series of modules and tactical schemes that define the main philosophy of the team’s defensive unit. The latter’s mission is essentially that of preventing the opposing team from scoring, an objective which is achieved by closing down (or precisely, “locking” or “bolting”) the area around the team’s own net.

The word ‘catenaccio’ has given origin to the term ‘catenacciaro’ in the Italian language (nowadays almost always employed with negative connotations), which is used to describe a manager or a team who, above all, are dedicated to all-out-defense tactics, to the destruction of the opponent’s plays and the renunciation to construct any type of attacking game, simply in order to prevent opposing strikers from getting a shot on goal.

Source: Italian Wikipedia (translated by Marco Pantanella)

The question all of you are now asking: how on Earth can the term ‘catenaccio‘ be applied to Manchester United? Sure, all they did against Barcelona on Wednesday was defend (hell, even Rooney and Tevez were playing center-backs at times) but the Red Devils are a team also capable of very attractive attacking-style football, a characteristic which they’ve demonstrated many times over in the Premier League this season. So… what gives?

Gazzetta dello Sport website logo

Stefano Cantalupi (the same author of the excellent “English Clubs Dominate Europe… Is Defence the Key to Their Success?” article) has the answer in today’s Gazzetta dello Sport:

MILAN, 24 April 2008 – Roma manager Luciano Spalletti had said it on April 1, as he commented on his team’s defeat in the UEFA Champions’ League Quarter-Finals first leg: “Manchester United beat us 2-0, but they’re even more Italian than we are…“. A clear reference to the mentality shown by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, victorious at the Stadio Olimpico of Rome through paying close attention to defensive play before launching fast counter-attacks. Last night, the Red Devils repeated the same tactic at Barcelona’s Nou Camp: they shut up shop in front of Van der Sar for most of the game, and allowed the Dutch goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet. In fact, if Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t missed from the spot, perhaps United would have taken home another away win.

BARRICADESWayne Rooney tracking back as far as the corner flag, Owen Hargreaves playing as right-back, Carlos Tevez battling it out in centre-midfield, Cristiano Ronaldo isolated up front. “Catenaccio” is an obsolete term which no-one uses much any more, but how else to define the tactics chosen by Sir Alex Ferguson (and his loyal deputy Carlos Queiroz) for their trip to Catalonia? With ten men always playing behind the ball, this team looked less like Manchester and more like Rafael Benitez’s first glory-bound Liverpool side, the team which reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2005 and defeated AC Milan in Istanbul (under circumstances all-too-familiar for Rossoneri fans).

ENTERTAINMENT IN THE PREMIERSHIP – However, before talking about Manchester Utd as “catenaccio merchants”, a few points should be made:

  1. Firstly, it is very likely the current Prem champions will play a very different game at Old Trafford next Tuesday, attacking with much more conviction and with the clear objective of scoring goals. This attitude should be greatly amplified, when one considers the added factor of home crowd support.
  2. With respect to traditional catenaccio tactics, Sir Alex Ferguson’s version has evolved: having won back the ball, the Red Devils always seek an immediate and concerted counter-attack, never completely abandoning the offensive. In contrast, catenaccio-style football’s main creed is that of preventing the opponent from scoring, even at the cost of one’s own offensive tactics.
  3. Finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Manchester Utd have frequently offered great entertainment this season and that Cristiano Ronaldo & colleagues are capable of playing very attractive football. The problem is that while the red-shirted superstars put on a show in the Premier League, they seem like a different side in Europe.

STATISTICS – Sir Alex got his fingers burnt last season: does the defeat to AC Milan in the Semi-Finals still weigh on his mind? Let’s look at some figures: in the 2006-07 Champions’ League, United had already conceded 10 goals by this point in the competition. This time around they have only conceded 5. Also, the United defence will finish better than last year in the Premier League as well, provided that in the last 3 games of the season they concede less than 8 goals. With players like Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in top condition, this shouldn’t be too hard, should it?

LENIENT PRESS - ‘Negative when playing away, braver at home’ seems to be the dominating characteristic of Man Utd this season. The European press hasn’t criticised the Red Devils’ attitude however. The English tabloids have concentrated only on Cristiano Ronaldo’s unexpected error from the penalty spot, while the Spanish press (including El Mundo Deportivo and Sport, the leading Catalan sports papers) have praised Barcelona and focused on United’s “ordenada defensa” (well-organised defence). Would they have used the same measured tones to describe a similar performance from say… an Italian side? Or would they have talked about “extreme defensiveness”?

Let’s be clear: the Serie A sides were basically failures in this edition of the UEFA Champions’ League, and the quality of the top ranks of English club football is, at the moment, clearly superior. But if even a big side like Manchester Utd resorts to closing down in defense from time to time, shouldn’t it be pointed out? Admitting it with honesty shouldn’t be a problem, perhaps even praise the humility of champions like Rooney, Tevez etc. who are willing to work so hard and sacrifice themselves in uncommon roles. There’s no shame in it, surely?

Barcelona 0-0 Manchester United: Cristiano Ronaldo Misses Spot-Kick, Boredom Wins (UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals, Leg 1)

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

Who would have thought it possible? A game with the prestige of Barcelona vs. Manchester United, two teams universally geared towards scoring goals and producing spectacular plays, ended 0-0. Scoreless. Yet, the most unlikely result between the Spanish and English giants was, in the end, the most appropriate (at least based on the two teams’ performance on the field).

Tonight was supposed to be about “Ronaldo vs. Messi” (as displayed by the Nou Camp billboard hanging over the entrance for weeks now), the Premier League champions vs. La Liga’s runners-up, 73 goals vs. 62 in domestic competitions. However while we’re citing statistics, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 19 EPL goals conceded by the Red Devils this season. That’s right only 19 goals, aka the best Premier League defense of the year. Barcelona tried everything they could tonight, from Eto’o to Iniesta, all the way through Messi (returning from injury) and Henry, but in spite of their staggering 61% ball possession they could just not pierce the thick wall formed by Rio Ferdinand & friends. As for United, the team had their chance when they obtained a penalty kick in the 3rd minute (handball by Gaby Milito), but their talismanic player Cristiano Ronaldo missed his shot from 12 yards.

Undoubtedly, it’s going to be a whole different ball game in 6 days’ time, when Barcelona travel to Manchester for the return leg at Old Trafford. Scoring a goal and avoiding a loss will suffice for the Catalans, but the question is: will the Red Devils let them?

Tactically, both managers presented their teams in a ‘single striker’ formation, although while that role was clearly defined for Barcelona (Samuel Eto’o, assisted by Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta on the wings) the same cannot be said for Man Utd. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a team which, in theory, claimed to be a 4-4-1-1 (with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez at the front of the attack), but where in practice the English forward was forced to cover a midfield role, on account of the heavy ‘catenaccio’ tactics adopted by the Scottish manager.

3 minutes after the kick-off, tonight’s match could have taken a whole different direction, had Cristiano Ronaldo scored his penalty kick (given by Swiss referee Massimo Busacca for a Milito handball inside the box). Indeed with Manchester leading by one goal, Barcelona would have been forced to really push forward, uncover themselves, take risks, and potentially concede a second one on a United counter-attack. Neutral spectators would have been grateful however, because they would been witnesses to some attacking football.

Instead, the Portuguese winger sent his strike wide (skimming the woodwork actually), and the match stayed scoreless (and entertainment-less) pretty much until the final whistle. Sure, there were the odd Cristiano Ronaldo dribble and Lionel Messi sombrero here and there… but scoring chances? Effectively zero. I guess Sir Alex really learned from his semi-final mistakes the previous year (when AC Milan managed to score two at Old Trafford and three at the San Siro), as the Man Utd players were litterally defending with 10 men behind the ball. Even Tévez and Rooney were sacrificed in midfielder (sometimes defender!) roles, and the only noteworthy event of the first half (other than the Ronaldo PK miss) was a 30th minute Rafael Márquez nudge on the Portuguese winger, inside the Barcelona box. Busacca waved play on.

In the second half, the home team decided it was time to increase the tempo. True masters at keeping ball possession and circulating the ball, Barcelona tried to send their nº9 striker in good position to finish, but alas it wasn’t Samuel Eto’o's night: on the first opportunity, the Cameroon player missed the pass for a wide open Messi, and on the second (following a great Messi-Iniesta backheel combo) he slammed his shot on the outer part of the goal mesh. Still no goals.

Around the hour mark, Barça coach decided to safeguard Leo Messi (still not in perfect conditions) and insert teen sensation Bojan Krkić. This was shortly followed by the Thierry Henry-Deco substitution, but the newcomers did very little to upset the match balance: up to the final whistle, the only activity of Van der Sar ended up being two moderate shots by the ex-Arsenal forward (first on a free-kick, then on a slamming shot from outside the box). No hair-pulling stuff mind you, just enough from keeping the Nou Camp spectators from falling asleep. On the other end however, we could hear Victor Valdes’s snoring all the way over to Montreal…

One thing’s for sure, it just won’t be the same type of match next week at Old Trafford. Both teams will be forced to score to go through, but perhaps Barcelona will be at a slight advantage. Some say that hosting the second leg is better, but others (myself included) maintain just the opposite. Indeed, playing the second leg away makes any goal that you score count double, and this factor is all the more important when the result from the first leg is 0-0. Either way, for the sake of neutrality I expect plenty of goals to be scored, because anything less from Manchester and Barcelona would be a real shame.


[Match Highlights]
Manchester United F.C.
BARCELONA (4-3-3): V.Valdes – Zambrotta, Márquez, G.Milito, Abidal – Xavi, Y.Touré, Deco (77’ Henry) – Messi (62’ Krkic), Eto’o, Iniesta. (bench: J.Pinto, Thuram, Sylvinho, Gudjhonsen, Dos Santos). Coach: Rijkaard.
MANCHESTER UTD (4-5-1): Van der Sar – Hargreaves, R.Ferdinand, Brown, Evra – Park, Scholes, Rooney (76’ Nani) Carrick, C.Ronaldo – Tévez (85’ Giggs). (bench: Kuszczak, Piqué, O’Shea, Silvestre, Anderson). Coach: Ferguson