Man City and Lyon advance to Champions League quarters

Spain’s and Italy’s champions are eliminated from the major European competition.

The 2017 finalists did not qualify for the quarter-finals in Lisbon. Winning on home soil may not be enough for Real Madrid’s and Juventus’ coaches, as their glorious clubs demand them to be successful on the continental stage. These losses can cost Zinedine Zidane and Maurizio Sarri, despite both winning their national title.

Real was outclassed by Manchester City, months after the first leg 2-1 defeat at home. Los Blancos lost by the same score, also in England.

Gabriel Jesus was the standout player for Pep Guardiola’s team, with a score and an assist. The Brazilian international was instrumental for the Premier League runners-up to keep his team’s dream alive.

After Raheem Sterling’s early score, the Sky Blues had the upper hand in the match, forcing the visitors to score three times to advance on aggregate.

Raheem Sterling of Manchester City celebrates

(Photo by Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

Madrid’s Karim Benzema scored in the 28th minute, but it wasn’t enough. Jesus’ goal in the second half sealed the deal for the home team.

After the match Real’s coach Zidane was asked about his future at the club and answered with pride: “I am the Real Madrid manager until something happens out of the ordinary, you don’t need to ask any more question about my future. We will all have a rest and come back again next season.”

For sure volcanic president Florentino Pérez will have the last word.

In the other match played overnight, Lyon lost in Turin 2-1 versus Juventus. Nevertheless the 1-0 home win was enough for the French team to advance on aggregate.

Despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s double, Juventus again failed the European objective of their season and head coach Sarri may be in trouble.

Memphis Depay put the French team in control of the game 12 minutes into it. Referee Felix Zwayer awarded Lyon a questionable penalty for a Rodrigo Bentancur tackle on Houssem Aouar. The Dutch captain didn’t miss from the spot.

Juventus was also awarded a less than clear penalty by the German referee. Depay was punished for a touch with the arm when standing in the wall and Ronaldo converted the penalty kick minutes before halftime.

Ronaldo’s score in the 60th minute gave the home team some hope, but the Old Lady wasn’t inspired and wasn’t able to score again to book a ticket to Lisbon.

The last two quarter-finalists will be decided tonight when Bayern Munich will host Chelsea and Barcelona will receive Napoli.

The Germans hold a 3-0 advantage and are almost certain to qualify, while the match at the Camp Nou is less than a done deal. The first leg resulted in a one-all draw in Italy.

Manchester United should set their eyes on a new target

Manchester United’s defence is one of the best in Europe in terms of depth.

From the experienced Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Harry Maguire to up-and-coming Diogo Dalot, Brandon Williams, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Teden Mengi, Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Manchester United have options.

However, particularly with the more experienced defenders, they lack a sense of wow factor evident in the midfield and the attack via players like Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.

Don’t get me wrong, Victor Lindelof is one of the most underrated players in the Premier League. This is backed up by the statistic that not one player dribbled pass him this EPL season as of 13 January, 22 games in (there are no stats available after that point).

However, the defensive unit as a whole needs a bit of reinforcement provided by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Despite being one of England’s most expensive defenders of all time, Maguire’s not worth the A$143 million the club acquired him for last season. Nonetheless, he’s still a good player, with a tackle success rate of 68 per cent for United and winning 51.64 per cent of his duels – but $143 million is just too much for a player who has a current value of $92 million.

So the big question: who should Manchester United buy to help strengthen the defence?

The answer: former Tottenham and current Belgium centre-back and occasional left-back Jan Vertonghen. Having played 232 EPL games, he has 72 clean sheets to his name. Although he is 33, he had a tackle success rate of 75 per cent and, in 2018-19 and played a massive role in helping Tottenham reach the Champions League final for the first time in the London club’s history.

Jan Vertonghen

(Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

In terms of price, as he is recently a free agent, no signing fees are necessary, so if the Red Devils cash out on Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish, Vertonghen would still be within the price range.

Due to his age (33), if United were to acquire him, he would be at the club for only around two to five years. This is fine, as in that time youngsters like Williams, Wan-Bissaka, Tuanzebe and Fosu-Mensah would have played many more first-team matches and be top-level, experienced players in their own right.

Signing Belgian Jan Vertonghen would be a good purchase for the club because he provides over seven years of experience playing at the top level in the EPL, he would be something of a role model for younger defenders coming through and he comes with no signing fee, leaving room to spend money elsewhere too.

Tactical analysis: Western United 5-3 Western Sydney Wanderers

The A-League’s second eight-goal game in nine days came as Western United and Western Sydney Wanderers played out a crazy game of football which saw two chipped goals, a 3-0 lead thrown away by Mark Rudan’s side, and JP de Marigny’s side throw it away with two late goals.

For this analysis, I’m going to be taking a look at all eight goals of the game.

Goal 1 – WUN 1-0 WSW: Baccus lets Burgess run free

The first goal was a bit of a sloppy error from the Wanderers, with Tate Russell and Keanu Baccus both drawn to the ball.

Max Burgess then had time to measure a cross that Josh Risdon attacked in front of Daniel Georgievski.

Goal 2 – WUN 2-0 WSW: Wanderers picked apart

The second goal is a perfect example of some of the frailties of the Western Sydney defence that they’ve had most of the season:

  1. The wingbacks have a responsibility to come out to press on the flanks. Tate Russell, Daniel Georgievski and Bruce Kamau are all more offensive players and they’re not especially good at defending, which means that…
  2. …the outside centre-backs must cover the flank behind them, coming forward and out wide. Matt Jurman is a great stopper, but he can easily be pulled out of position and beaten for pace.
  3. Patrick Ziegler is more of a ball-player than a defender, and he’s definitely not as strong as a pure defensive option.
  4. Dylan McGowan acts as a sweeper/covering defender behind the other two, but he struggles when the opposition attacks him directly.

So it can be easy for a team to pick them off methodically one at a time – draw out the wingback (opening the flank), draw out the outside centre-back who’s covering the wingback, and attack the centre (which is now undermanned and scrambling to reorganise).

Let’s look at it in the context of the second goal:

  1. The wingback, Georgievski, is slow to react to the lost ball and Josh Risdon sprints ahead of him
  2. The outside centreback Jurman comes out to Besart Berisha, opening up a huge gap in the defensive line
  3. The covering defender McGowan is deepest, and ends up playing Risdon onside (although he does try to play him off)
  4. Risdon plays in a perfect ball for the onrushing Besart Berisha to score

Goal 3 – WUN 3-0 WSW: Another clever set piece from Western United
Following the two creative set-pieces Western United had against Melbourne Victory that resulted in goals, they came out with another fantastic corner.

At first glance, it might just seem that Alessandro Diamanti hit a fantastic shot that the goalkeeper Tristan Prendergast messed up, but Western United choreographed this one perfectly.

Western United attacked corners with five players in the box, who would crowd the inexperienced Predergast, a strategy that almost worked for Central Coast Mariners two weeks ago. Burgess would either join them in the box or offer a short option, with two players scattered around the edge of the box.

Burgess was covered by Russell, and as Burgess would usually be the short corner option, so when he came short, Russell would come across to help, joining Jordan O’Doherty and making sure they wouldn’t be outnumbered. Crucially, Russell would switch to cover Diamanti, while O’Doherty would switch to Burgess.

Western United versus Western Sydney Wanderers: WSW’s corner assignments
The goal seemed like the standard setup, with Western United crowding the goalkeeper and Burgess in the box.

The players then backed off, coming deep, with Connor Pain coming up as the short option and Alessandro Diamanti feigning confusion by putting his hands up. Simon Cox has been distracted by the Western United players dropping off, and doesn’t notice Pain shifting over. O’Doherty has him covered to begin with, but when the short corner is played it becomes a two-on-one.

Tate Russell (who would usually come short) is occupied with Max Burgess in the box, while Kwame Yeboah (marking the front of the six-yard box) sees Steven Lustica on the edge of the box and looks to cut that pass off, instead of coming out to support Jordan O’Doherty. He’s probably used to someone else coming out to support O’Doherty, so didn’t expect that he had to be the one to do it.

Diamanti and Pain play the one-two against the overloaded O’Doherty, and Diamanti is afforded a free run into the box, scoring with a neat little chip that Tristan Prendergast gets a hand to but can’t push out. Prendergast’s footwork is not great and doesn’t give him much movement across his goal, with his feet coming together on the third step and he’s not able to get much power into his jump.

As Diamanti walks into the box untouched, the inquest already starts behind him:

O’Doherty: Why aren’t you challenging him?

Yeboah: He’s not my responsibility!

Goal 4 – WUN 3-1 WSW: Wanderers substitutes create an overload for Kamau
The Wanderers introduced four substitutes:

  1. Mohamed Adam (on for the out-of-shape-looking Cox) brought in a lot more energy by providing the dynamic movement that has been missing from Nicolai Muller’s absence, running into the channels and popping up on the flanks.
  2. Tass Mourdoukoutas provided an assured presence on the ball (for now), and stepped forward, almost acting as a right-back/midfielder. He helped provide an outlet to retain possession.
  3. Pirmin Schwegler came on to provide his playmaking ability, frequently finding himself on the right flank to link play with neat passes and flicks, and also brought bursts of energy with penetrating runs.
  4. Finally Bruce Kamau, who’s really more of a winger than a wingback, came on to provide more of a direct attacking threat than Russell, and he showed it with his trickery and deliveries.

All four combined to create an overload down the right for Kamau to cross to Duke.

From the right flank, they passed the ball back to Mourdoukoutas to draw out the defence, and with Burgess out of the right flank, they overload Pain two on one and managed to work their way neatly through the defence to find Kamau in space to deliver a perfect cross for Duke.

Goal 5 – WUN 3-2 WSW: Set piece organisation?

After returning from his argument with the referee, Pain takes up a position in front of the first attacker. Someone tells him to instead shift over to mark Kamau on the edge of the box, with Burgess instead moving forwards.

It ends up being a fantastic finish from Mourdoukoutas, but maybe if Pain had not been told to move from his first position, Schwegler might not have played the ball on the ground, and it could have been easily cut out.

Goal 6 – WUN 3-3 WSW: Duke’s pulling power

This is a relatively simple one. With Western United dropping back deeper, the Wanderers are able to get more men forward without having to worry about the transition. Mitch Duke is the main goal threat for Wanderers, and his movement pulls out Aaron Calver (probably unnecessarily with Tomislav Uskok covering) from the right side, creating space in the channel for Georgievski to receive a great ball from Schwegler.

Yeboah scuffs it to Duke, who scores with a good strike.

Goal 7 – WUN 4-3 WSW: Mourdoukoutas error gives Burgess a one-on-one

I said Mourdoukoutas was assured in possession earlier right? Oops. An uncharacteristic fumbled touch allows Burgess to win the ball and go one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Watch Prendergast’s movement as Burgess comes towards the box – he takes small hops, shuffling forwards, with his hands going all over the place as he moves, rather than down low by his sides.

When he opens up for his block save, his hands are actually still on their way down, and he doesn’t manage to spread them out effectively until the ball is already past him. To be fair, it may have not made too much of a difference as Burgess finds the corner.

Goal 8 – WUN 5-3 WSW: Diamanti wraps it up
It’s a great goal from Diamanti, but it could equally be chalked down to Prendergast being at fault for this one. It’s important to note that his vision of the shot is blocked by the players in front of him, and by the time he sees it, the ball is almost halfway to the goal.

He’s a bit slow with his feet again and doesn’t manage to get any power into his jump and just misses the ball as it sails over him and into the net.

Prendergast’s view of the shot is blocked by the three players in front of him, resulting in him reacting late

This will go down as a classic A-League match, a truly entertaining and absurd game of football.

Western United managed to survive their capitulation and kept their march towards finals alive, and were probably quite lucky to do so with the error from Tass Mourdoukoutas gifting them the chance to regain the lead.

They’ll certainly hope that Andrew Durante recovers quickly to help them keep the defence organised, while Diamanti and Burgess have hit excellent form for the final few games and hopefully finals.

Western Sydney Wanderers’ finals dreams, on the other hand, were shattered. Their defensive frailties were on show again, followed by a tantalising display in the second half which shows what they’re capable of. With Schwegler retiring, rumours of Duke heading to the Middle East, and a leaky defence, the Wanderers have a huge task to rebuild.

This performance will have also unfortunately blemished the A-League career of Tristan Prendergast. Being lobbed twice in one game will destroy any goalkeeper’s confidence, especially when both were fairly saveable.

Their upcoming opposition will definitely be targeting how they can take advantage of him, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Nick Suman play the next game.

Sparkling Diamanti reminds us the A-League can still shine

There’s been more entertainment in the 20 A-League games since the restart than the preceding six months, but it all counts for nothing unless football somehow finds a way to unite.

How about a hand for Alessandro Diamanti?

If he’d scored his two goals on Friday night in Europe – say for a gritty club from Madrid’s industrial suburbs like Getafe – we’d be smashing the rewind button on YouTube and waxing lyrical about him in the comments section of a Sid Lowe column for The Guardian.

But because this is the A-League, and the majority of those who call themselves ‘football fans’ in Australia refuse to watch the sport when it’s played in their own backyard, Diamanti’s masterclass in Western United’s 5-3 win over Western Sydney passed by largely unremarked.

Sure, it was nice to see the usual crew applaud his dink-led demolition on Twitter, and Lucas Gillard’s live blog for The Roar must have been fun to write.

Alessandro Diamanti

Western United’s Alessandro Diamanti (left). (Photo: Western United FC/Twitter)

But there’s no thread dedicated to the Italian maestro on the front page of A-League reddit, and the moribund FourFourTwo forums are seemingly dead in the water.

Perhaps that’s for the best. Since the default setting in Oz football now seems to be to complain solely about the game’s administration rather than discuss any action on the pitch, maybe Diamanti’s skills are best left appreciated by the hardy few still actually tuning in.

But it’s hard not to wonder what David Gallop made of Diamanti’s contribution in Kogarah on Friday night.

Call it a hunch, but I reckon right about the time the Italian was lobbing Tristan Prendergast for the first time, the former Football Federation Australia chief executive was probably sat in front of a big-screen TV sipping a nice glass of red and applauding as Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds dived to ground a grubber kick in Homebush.

That’s been one of the A-League’s biggest problems for years. The running of the game has been outsourced to people who don’t really care about football.

That’s probably why we’re seeing Diamanti three years after he was first wanted by an A-League club – and the fact we’re seeing him at all in the midst of this pandemic is testament to his character.

Diamanti could have joined the likes of Ola Toivonen or Western United teammate Panagiotis Kone in grabbing the first flight back to Europe, but instead the excitable Italian has stuck around to add to his one-man highlight reel.

And if Western United squeak into the finals – and contrary to the narrative that wants to portray every single element of the nascent club as an abject failure – they should be lauded for adding some much-needed colour to a competition that had turned stale.

Those of us who tune in regularly don’t need reminding of how repetitive the league had become, because we’ve watched the same fixtures week in and week out for years.

That’s one reason this jam-packed run to the finals has proved so exciting: not only have near-nightly games played in cool winter temperatures kept us on the hook, but the mixture of flashy veterans like Diamanti mixing it with a host of unproven youngsters means it’s impossible to predict what will happen next.

But that still won’t be enough for the army of critics who wrote off the A-League long ago, and much more needs to be done to get professional football back on track in this country.

We need a viable pathway for a second division and a plan to bring fans who’ve been alienated back into the fold.

And the game needs to stop eating its own.

It’s bad enough when football gets attacked by the mainstream, but it’s even more ridiculous to see things like a couple of Football Queensland board members sue Bonita Mersiades for writing an editorial.

There’s too much to like about the A-League to focus only on the negatives. Just ask Diamanti.

Save the Mariners or it just ain’t the A-League

The Central Coast Mariners are the current whipping boys of the A-League.

Four wooden spoons in five seasons don’t lie and despite some promising play under former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic, they remain far from a serious threat for A-League glory.

However, most fans of football in Australia take little joy from that fact.

Stajcic is well liked and respected, the Mariners’ home venue is one of the best in the league and the club has developed a litany of talented youngsters over the years; many of whom have gone on to achieve great things in the game.

Right from the start, Central Coast had always been a little different. As part of an FFA determination that a regional team should form part of the inaugural A-League season in 2005-06, its birth was somewhat forced and has subsequently resulted in constant financial challenges throughout its 15 years of participation.

Early on things looked bright, with three runners-up medals across the first six A-League seasons, before the glorious Graham Arnold inspired championship season of 2012-13 where the coach took the oft bridesmaids to the mountain for the first and still only time.

Since, the train has derailed.

Without a finals appearance since 2013-14 and just a paltry 26 wins from the clubs last 161 matches, it is easy to identify the need for the tough and passionate fibres that exist in Mariner fans.

Those fans come from a beautiful part of New South Wales’ east coast, an area just an hour or so north of Sydney and one in which somewhere near 350,000 people reside.

It is a relatively small base on which to draw, especially considering the 566.4 square kilometres that the entire region encompasses, extending to the north, south and west.

Only Wellington Phoenix can claim a less populous area upon which to build a fan-base, with little more than 200,000 residing in the windy city. Elsewhere in the A-League, clubs from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide enjoy higher numbers, potential fans and the greater chance of securing the lucrative sponsorship deals required to keep football clubs afloat.

In reality, not too many clubs have been doing a sterling job in that area over recent seasons, with broadcast money ensuring survival and the recent lowering of those commitments highlighting just how financially fragile the A-League actually is.

The reality of a considerably lowered salary cap looms for the 2020-21 season, as does a continued exodus of quality foreign players and now it appears almost certain that two A-League owners who have had enough of the financial strain will offload their commitment in the short-term future.

Ruon Tongyik

What does the future hold for the A-League? (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Newcastle’s owner Martin Lee has apparently agreed to terms with a Sydney businessman; now apparently set to take over the Jets by the beginning of the new A-League season and Central Coast’s owner Mike Charlesworth has also put his club on the open market.

The Jets’ new arrangement is reported to ensure the club remains in the Hunter, yet there were immediate calls for potential relocation as soon as the Mariners news broke.

The ACT immediately began jumping up and down, lathering in the thought of presenting a local team for A-League play, ideas around a potential crowd-funding arrangement that would see the fans take ownership of and rescue the Mariners, also began circling and now a third ‘solution’ has come to light.

An A-League owners fund has been mooted as a potential saviour for clubs that enter into the murky waters of resale; with the wealthiest of owners using their financial clout to keep struggling clubs operating instead of vanishing from the competition.

Alen Stajcic

Alen Stajcic (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Should the Newcastle deal not transpire in the way Jets’ CEO Lawrie McKinna recently forecast that it would and Charlesworth not be able to find a buyer for the Mariners, such a fund may well be the only way the clubs could possibly continue in the A-League.

Their absence would be undesirable and sad, yet some argue that natural attrition merely removes those requiring “propping up” and creates a more sustainable model with only clubs capable of surviving doing so.

Personally, I find that view somewhat harsh and forgetful of the long term goal of building the top tier to a point where it can flourish; supported by a successful second tier that will accommodate those clubs not enjoying the best of days.

That is where natural attrition lies in football, where hard times mean relegation and not extinction.

The Central Coast Mariners have brought much to our competition and whether a new owner, the fans or other A-League owners come to the rescue, we should all cheer if and when it does occur.

The league would lose a great deal without the palm trees and sauce bottles at Grahame Park.