Atletico Madrid can capitalize on jaded Barcelona to progress in Champions League

Photo credit: AFP
Photo credit: AFP

There have been times this season when, for all their evident brilliance, Barcelona have been coasting through matches.

Arguably the high point of their campaign, the 6-1 win over Celta Vigo, saw Luis Enrique’s side produce some stunning football. Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez tore the Galicians to shreds in the triumph, with a brash passed penalty routine epitomizing the swagger that was on show that day.

But even in that display, there were spells when the Blaugrana were a little ordinary mixed with bursts of enormous quality, with four of the six goals coming in a blistering 15-minute spell.

Indeed, even though they went on a record 39-game unbeaten run lately, which was ended with a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid in the Clasico, Barcelona have often been in cruise control, able to up the ante when needed due to the talent in their attacking ranks.

The last few contests have perhaps shown us why they have occasionally had to put the handbrake on. Barcelona have a small squad and as we reach the final knockings of the campaign, they’ve looked jaded in the Clasico, a 2-2 draw with Villarreal and a loss to Real Sociedad. And even though they rallied to a 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the quarter-finals of the Champions League last week, ahead of the second segment of the tie, Diego Simeone will sense blood.

Barcelona head to the Vicente Calderon with a 2-1 lead, although possibly feeling as though they were let off the hook by the capital club. Fernando Torres nabbed a vital away goal before being given his marching orders, with Luis Suarez’s brace turning the game around in the second period.

It means Enrique’s men have something to cling on to when they head to one of European soccer’s most hostile venues, although for a side that’s looked a little leggy as of late, this opponent is probably the worst imaginable.

That’s because while Barca are enduring something of a slide, Atletico have found a brilliant balance to their play. Until Torres’ rashness cost them dear at the Camp Nou, they were superb, while either side of that encounter they enjoyed a 5-1 win over Real Betis and most recently, a 3-1 victory over Espanyol.

SEE MORE: Atletico’s emerging dominance is turning them into everyone’s second favorite team

Physically, Simeone’s players seem to have reached their peak too. Earlier this season they showcased a willingness to soak up pressure for long spells, looking to feed off scraps and keep clean sheets intact. But there’s been a clear emphasis lately to play with a shade more expansiveness and a greater willingness to exert themselves on opponents.

It’s that kind of suffocating style that Barcelona will have to counter on Wednesday evening. The two sides met at this stage a couple of seasons ago and while Atletico took a 1-1 draw back to the Calderon for the second leg, in the early stages of the home leg they pinned their illustrious visitors back with some high-intensity soccer, nicking a goal in the process.

With the insurance of an away goal, that’s surely what Simeone will profess to his players again. They’ll be extremely physical, squeeze the ball high up and offer a direct threat, with the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco set to turn the Barcelona defense back to their own goal.

Of course, that could play into Barcelona’s hands, especially if the dangerous front three have spaces to exploit at the top end of the pitch.

Additionally, Enrique has proven himself to be something of an expert against Simeone’s sides, having beaten the Calderon club on every occasion he’s faced them as Barcelona boss. He’s steered his players to some vital wins too, most notably three points on the road to clinch the title last term and another win earlier in this season when Atletico were right on their tail at the top.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Champions League games on US TV and live streaming

But this match will be the biggest challenge Enrique has faced against this formidable foe. Atletico’s players, managers and supporters relish the underdog tag and while feasibly the fact that they need to show some attacking endeavor could free up space for Barca, they’re a club which is an image of its ferocious manager; they’ll be insatiable in their search for a vital goal.

For Barcelona fans, there’ll be a worry that after sleepwalking through a lot of games as of late, the champions will be unable to move up through the gears again with some critical contests to come. After all, having swept the board in La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey in 2014-15, the sky high levels of motivation may not be quite as prevalent this term.

For Atletico, they will be, especially after missing out on this title in the most heartbreaking of ways in 2013-14, when Sergio Ramos broke Rojiblancos hearts. This year they’re a team that are well equipped to prosper on the continent and provided they can keep their discipline in what’ll be a white hot atmosphere, the semi-finals beckon.

Walter Smith wants ‘bitterness’ to inspire Rangers

Photo credit: AFP
Photo credit: AFP

Former Rangers manager Walter Smith has said the Glasgow giants should use the bitterness over their forced demotion to the bottom tier of Scottish football as an enduring source of motivation.

Rangers were kicked out of the Scottish Premiership after entering administration in February 2012 over an unpaid tax bill during the short, but chaotic, reign of Craig Whyte.

Liquidation followed in June 2012 to cap an amazing fall from grace for Scotland’s most successful club, who have won a record 54 Scottish top flight championships.

A consortium headed by former Sheffield United chief executive Charles Green then bought the club’s assets as the Gers were forced to start life again in the country’s bottom tier.

Green’s tenure was beset by financial upheaval and boardroom infighting and the controversial chief executive was eventually forced out of Ibrox in August 2013.

Last year, both Whyte and Green were among six individuals indicted on fraud charges linked to the takeover of the club in 2011.

But they are now set to return to the top flight after fighting their way back up the divisions and on Sunday they face arch-rivals Celtic in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.

Many people connected with the Ibrox club believe Rangers were harshly treated, with Smith among them.

“There was no necessity for Rangers to be put down into the Third Division,” Smith said Tuesday.

“That will always stay in Scottish football. There will be a bitterness in the Rangers ranks. It will be a massive motivation for the club. It would certainly be for me.

“How can they forget what happened to them? Nobody could forget that.

“There is no doubt it was the wrong move in my eyes: Scottish football has been worse off.

“And a lot of the teams who were happy to see Rangers going down there have suffered and found themselves relegated or in the process of being relegated.”

The 68-year-old added: “Rangers going out the Premier League has, in many ways, caused problems to quite a number of the teams that have been there. And Celtic are one of them, in the sense that they have been left more or less alone to win a championship.

“Aberdeen put up a great fight over the last couple of years but it’s very difficult for provincial teams to match Celtic, or Rangers when they were at the level they were at five years ago.”

Meanwhile Smith, who helped bring 21 trophies to Ibrox in two spells in charge of Rangers, urged the current board to back manager Mark Warburton in the transfer market.

“Rangers will have to support Mark Warburton in the manner I was supported as manager, to give him the opportunity to challenge.

“The board want the club to be up there and they have to find a way of doing so.

“The economics of Scottish football are fairly straightforward for Rangers and Celtic. If you invest in your team and get to the Champions League, you make money. If you don’t, you lose money.”

Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona predicted lineups and team news

atletico-madrid-barcelona

Atletico Madrid welcome FC Barcelona to the Estadio Vicente Calderon for this deciding leg that will determine who goes on to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League.

Barcelona hold a slight advantage after Luis Suarez’s brace canceled out Fernando Torres’ opener in a game that was rife with controversial refereeing.

The Catalans are not in the best of form however after losing back to back games in the La Liga, first at home to Real Madrid and then away to Real Sociedad, which blew the title race wide open again with Atletico only three points behind Barca.

Diego Simeone’s men, on the other hand, are coming into this game off the back of a 3-1 win against Espanyol last Saturday with Torres scoring one and assisting another to cap off a fine display.

Unfortunately, Torres will not be available for this game after he was red-carded in the first leg, which means the burden for goals will rest mostly on the shoulders of Antoine Griezmann.

SEE MORE: Antoine Griezmann should be considered among the world’s best players

The other Atletico players that will not play a part in this match due to injury include Jose Gimenez, Oliver Torres, and Stefan Savic.

Barcelona have had a great season to this point and they are still in contention for the treble but the last few weeks have been tough for them and they have regressed a bit.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Champions League games on US TV and live streaming

They only need a draw to qualify to the semi-finals but only a win will do for the hosts. Atletico’s impressive defensive record means they can defend an early 1-0 advantage to the last minute so Barca need to be weary of that.

Luis Enrique is expected to stick to the same starting XI that began the first leg at the Camp Nou. Jeremy Mathieu, Alex Vidal and Sandro Ramirez are unavailable due to injury.

Predicted lineups

atletico-madrid-barcelona

Date proposed for start of FIFA trial to be held in New York City

Photo credit: AFP
Photo credit: AFP

US prosecutors on Tuesday set a February 2017 target date for the start of the huge FIFA corruption trial that has ensnared dozens of world soccer’s top executives.

“The proposed schedule set forth below contemplates that jury selection would commence on February 27, 2017,” prosecutor Robert Capers wrote in a letter late Monday to federal Judge Raymond Dearie, who is presiding in the case.

Under the proposed schedule, evidence in the case would have to be submitted to the court by June 30 of this year, to give both defense and prosecution attorneys time to prepare their cases. Motions in the case would be presented through the end of January.

All told, 40 people have been charged in the massive corruption scandal, which first came to light in May 2015. Fifteen have already pleaded guilty.

Most of the accused are top soccer officials from the Americas, as well as sports marketing executives.

Everything you need to know about this summer’s Euro 2016 competition

euro-2016

We’re just a few months away from the soccer tournament of the year: Euro 2016, often touted as a sign of things to come in the World Cup which usually follows two years later, Euro 16 brings together the best of top flight European football for four weeks of excitement and action rarely seen in the continent’s numerous domestic leagues.

This year’s event takes place in France, with current title-holders Spain hotly tipped to lose their crown after a disappointing run in international fixtures over the last few years.

But hey, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get into giving our picks for our winners and losers of this summer’s tournament, here’s a brief rundown of everything you need to know about Euro 2016.

 

A little history

Officially known as the UEFA European Championship, this year’s competition is the fifteenth installment of a tournament which has taken place once every four years since 1960.

Back then, just seventeen European national teams entered the competition, which the Soviet Union getting the better of Yugoslavia in 2-1 final.

The competition underwent numerous changes in format, number of teams, and qualifying rounds over the next several decades, right up to the 2012 event in which the aforementioned Spain thrashed Italy in a 4-0 final in Kiev.

 

The 2016 competition

This year’s event moves to France, with the country’s national stadium, the Stade de France in Saint-Denis set to host the final on July 10th, and other stadiums including Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon, Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome and the Parc des Princes in Paris seeing both group stage and knock-out round action.

For the first time in recent years, the number of entries into the competition has increased. Back in 2008, UEFA announced that they were revamping the usual 16-side competition to feature games from 24 national clubs, primarily as a means to increase viewership in countries usually left out of the action, and ultimately generate greater profits from selling the media rights to those countries.

 

Who is likely to win

If you’re the type to start betting on soccer on-line when this summer’s competition kicks off, we’d recommend taking a look at the odds for Antonio Conte’s Italian squad to cross the border back from France with the Euro 2016 securely packed in their luggage.

The team boast an undefeated streak in European championship qualifying matches that no team has managed to successfully replicate, and with Conte at the helm, a number of key players like Stephan El Shaarawy and Marlo Balotelli of Milan are likely to channel their recent winning performances in domestic competition into a star performance in the multi-national tournament.

Our claims elsewhere in this feature that Spain won’t be manage to repeat their past success is based largely on their dire outing at the last World Cup two years ago, when the side were booted out in only their second game and sent home after a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Chile.

Despite this, those of you planning to place a wager could do worse than putting a few dollars behind the Spanish squad to at least make the quarter finals. Despite a few miserable shows over the last couple of years, the domestic performances of the team’s big names still gives fans hope that they could go far.

Elsewhere, the likes of Germany and Belgium are expected to do better than average, whilst international also-rans such as England and Portugal can’t be counted out when it comes to giving odds-on favourites like Italy and Spain a run for their money.