The Primera Liga kicked off at the weekend, and there were a fair few surprise results. Barca were held 0-0 away at Racing Santander, Real Zaragoza went down 2-1 at Real Murcia, and newly promoted Almeria stunned Deportivo La Coruna with a 0-3 win at Estadio Riazor.

But one of the biggest shocks of the weekend occurred at the home of title hopefuls Valencia, who suffered a 0-3 defeat at the hands of Villarreal.

Former Newcastle misfit Jon Dahl Tomasson rounded Santiago Canizares to put Villarreal ahead after 16 minutes. Valencia were reduced to ten men when star striker David Villa was bravely and correctly dismissed for diving, and new signing Giuseppe Rossi made it two from the penalty spot in the second half.

Things went from bad to worse for the home side when Joaquin received a straight red for swearing at the officials after being denied a penalty. Santiago Cozorla sealed the win with a low left-footed strike in the 73rd minute.

Neutral observers may wonder how a team that boasts Pascal Cygan at centre half could have so ruthlessly dispatched one of Europe’s most potent attacking sides, but Cygan’s leaden-footed calamitousness is more than compensated for by young talents like the Chilean attacking midfielder Matias Fernandez.

Signed from Chile’s Colo Colo in October last year, Fernandez struggled to find his feet in his first season, but his introduction from the substitutes bench against Valencia saw him win the penalty that gave Villarreal their second goal and supply the assist for the killer third.

A fleet-footed attacker who has been likened to Atletico Madrid’s Sergio Aguero and Barca’s Lionel Messi, he scored an absolutely astonishing goal in his first full season for Colo Colo in 2004:

One suspects we might be seeing quite a lot of Matias Fernandez in years to come…

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Rafa Benitez - keeping his cards close to his chestIt won’t be pretty.

Just as in the FA Cup Final, both sides are likely to flood the pitch with midfielders, so it will be tight, tense and tactical.

Most of today’s papers seem certain that Benitez will opt for a 4-5-1, with Gerrard pushed forward in support of Dirk Kuyt and Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso forming a deep-lying defensive barrier in midfield to protect against the marauding movements of Kaka and Seedorf.

But he does like to spring a surprise, and – given the tactics in the away games against Barcelona and Chelsea – there’s a chance Crouch might be chosen to partner Kuyt up front, with Gerrard moved to the right wing.

Zenden will probably get the nod over Kewell if fit, although Benitez could go for Riise in midfield and Arbeloa behind him if he wants solidity on the left and Zenden fails to prove his fitness.

For Carlo Ancelotti the main selection dilemma surrounds who to pick up front, and I would expect the wily Philippo Inzaghi to be chosen ahead of the goal-shy Alberto Gilardino.

It won’t be a thriller, but it should be a fascinating game. United made the mistake of giving Milan too much time on the ball at the back, and soon realised how quickly they can slip through the gears. Liverpool will have to be on alert all night.

With both sides mindful of their opponents’ powers on the counter-attack, gung-ho attacking will not be on the agenda, and penalties are thus a distinct possibility.

And in Jose Reina, Liverpool possess a goalkeeper fully qualified to follow in the bendy-legged footsteps of Bruce Grobbelaar and Jerzy Dudek.

The dust has settled, the hype has abated, and United have once again been found wanting in the Champions League.

But before we begin to assess the reasons for this failure, it should be noted that United were eliminated by an AC Milan team Back to the tactics board...playing at the peak of their organisational and expressive powers.

Fatigue was obviously a factor, as was the lack of no less than three first-choice defenders. No matter how dangerous your attack, no team can be expected to win when confusion reigns supreme in the back four. Gabriel Heinze’s erratic performance was particularly disappointing, but sadly not without precedent this season.

I think Fergie missed a trick with his tactics. 4-3-2-1, with a three-man midfield shield, looks solid enough on paper, but last night it succeeded only in inviting Milan to set up camp within striking distance of the perilously nervous United defence.

The 4-2-3-1 – a subtle but nonetheless significant variation – would have allowed United to take the game to Milan and peg them back in their own half. It was, after all, the formation that bewildered Roma so unforgettably in the second leg of the quarter-final, and it is the shape that has yielded United’s finest football in the last few weeks.

A 4-2-3-1 with Smith or Saha at its head allows Rooney to come deep in search of the ball, and doesn’t put him under the pressure of being the team’s only nominated centre forward. The World Cup demonstrated that he simply cannot lead the line on his own.

On Wednesday night Rooney struggled with the burden of the lone striker, and as he, Ronaldo and Giggs found themselves outnumbered, the Milan defence was able to step up and push them back towards the three men behind them who, in spite of their number, were unable to get to grips with Kaka’s movement and Seedorf’s subtlety.

Rafa Benitez has demonstrated on at least two occasions this season that when it comes to playing away from home in Europe, attack really is the best form of defence. As such, he fielded an attacking 4-4-2 against both PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona, and this tactic was only negated in the away leg of the semi-final against Chelsea by a similarly bold performance from the home side.

It is this unique understanding of the demands of European football that currently puts Benitez above Ferguson and Mourinho when it comes to the Champions League.

Fergie may claim to favour attacking, expansive football – and the heights United’s football has reached at times this season certainly bears testament to that – but in the big European games a natural (and understandable) tendency towards conservatism costs him dearly.

Mourinho - master or madman?Mourinho really is losing it. The controlled manner of Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Liverpool last night was highly impressive, and yet following the game Mourinho chose to focus on the penalty he felt his team were denied for a handball by Liverpool right-back Alvaro Arbeloa which occurred a good two feet outside the penalty area.

“I just go for facts, and again it is a fact. I don’t think anybody can say it was not a penalty. It was a clear penalty, and I don’t know why. It’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening.”

Are these the words of a great manager or a madman?

Therein lies the fundamental dichotomy in Mourinho’s character which polarises opinions about him in such a pronounced manner. On the one hand is the shrewd tactician, urging his team to attack a Liverpool side and thereby negating the impact of Benitez’s adventurous 4-4-2 which had reaped such handsome rewards in previous away games against PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona.

But on the other hand is the whingeing moaner who sulks like a petulant child at every single decision that doesn’t go his way. He should have been revelling in another accomplished performance from his side, but he chose to moan about the referee. Those who hail him for trying to deflect attention (and pressure) away from his team fail to acknowledge the irreparable damage such behaviour does to his reputation.

His latest outburst creates the impression that he is a genuinely paranoid, compulsive complainer. And no matter how much success he brings to Stamford Bridge this season, it is something football fans are unlikely ever to forget.

Goal of the Season?

April 19 2007

I didn’t think anyone would score a better individual goal than David Nugent’s superb effort for Preston against Crystal Palace in the Cup earlier this season, but Lionel Messi’s goal in Barcelona’s 5-2 victory over Getafe in the Copa del Rey last night comes pretty close.

Observant observers will note that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Diego Maradona’s famous goal against England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup.

And this handy website lets you compare the two. Shame they couldn’t have stuck Nugent’s goal in there as well…

Swing and you’re winning

February 22 2007

Craig Bellamy celebrates his goal against BarcelonaYesterday morning: the Racing Post reveals that some bookmakers are offering odds of 100-1 on Craig Bellamy scoring against Barcelona and celebrating with a golf swing.

Yesterday evening: Craig Bellamy scores against Barcelona… and celebrates with a golf swing.

Anyone else think Bellamy’s gambling mates might have had more than a helping hand in inspiring last night’s celebration?

I wonder whether he got a cut of the winnings…

Advantage Liverpool

February 22 2007

John Arne Riise celebrates his goal against Barcelona in last night's Champions League gameBarcelona 1-2 Liverpool. It sticks in the throat a bit, but I thought Liverpool were excellent last night.

The absence of a real, defence-stretching frontman in the Barca team meant they were forced to field a more compact team than they would prefer to, and Benitez robbed Deco, Messi and Ronaldinho of the space on which they thrive by packing the midfield with Sissoko, Alonso and Gerrard. It enabled Liverpool to play a classic counter-attacking game, and even though Barcelona just shaded possession, there wasn’t much between the teams in terms of shots on goal.

The lack of space in front of the Liverpool back four frustrated Barca’s attackers, and the persistent harrying of the Barca defence by Bellamy and Kuyt meant that the Catalans were frequently hurried out of their usual passing game. As a consequence Barca began to look ragged, but Liverpool retained commendable caution by sitting back and trying to pick them off on the break.

Before the game I thought the Liverpool team looked a little unbalanced with a left midfielder (Riise) and a centre forward (Bellamy) on the left, and two right-backs (Arbeloa and Finnan) on the right, but Riise and Bellamy did a great job of shackling Messi, and both Liverpool’s goals came from attacks down the right.

Frank Rijkaard’s post-match comments will not inspire much confidence in the Barca faithful: “We must always be positive, but we have to be realistic. It will be difficult to make a comeback.”

Hardly Churchillian, but it demonstrates the unyielding pragmatism of many European clubs. The never-say-die attitude synonymous with British football is something that a lot of Spanish and Italian teams just do not understand, but it’s looking stronger than ever in this season’s Champions League.