Saturday, 16 March 2013

Everton bounced back in a huge way on Saturday at Goodison Park, defeating reigning English Premier League champions Manchester City 2-0.
Veteran midfielder Leon Osman put Everton ahead 1-0 in the first half with a 32nd-minute whistle which Joe Hart was unable to get to:

GOAL Everton 1-0 Man City (32 mins). Leon Osman unleashes a superb curling strike that finds the top left corner of Joe Hart's goal.

Things got interesting in the 61st minute, when Everton's Steven Pienaar was sent off with a red card after being booked for a second time. As a result, Everton played a man down for the final half hour of the match.
Although City would threaten to score on their shorthanded opponent in the second half, Jan Mucha stepped up in goal and lifted the Toffees—who added an insurance goal by Nikica Jelavic in injury time—to a vital win over Roberto Mancini's powerhouse.
Perhaps Everton's mighty performance was inspired by the rainbow that popped up just outside of Goodison Park on Saturday

PHOTO Somewhere under the rainbow, Everton are taking on Man City...

Football fanatic Billy Scott summed up Saturday's match and the result nicely with this tweet:

Everton look so comfortable man city have no spark the players dont look hungry for the ball
The loss keeps City 12 points back of rival Manchester United in the EPL table with fewer than 10 matches to play this season.
Meanwhile, the victory—just a week after David Moyes' men were dismantled at home by Wigan in the FA Cup quarterfinal—moves Everton past Liverpool and Arsenal in the EPL table. The Toffees are still more than 20 points back of United for the top spot.

Steven Pienaar, Everton: D
Hi-res-163793537_crop_exact Michael Regan/Getty Images
Everton won Saturday's match in spite of midfielder Steven Pienaar, who had a performance to forgot. In addition to committing several fouls, the South African international picked up two yellow cards, putting his side down a man with a half hour left to play.
Thankfully for Pienaar, his teammates held on without him.

Carlos Tevez, Manchester City: B
Hi-res-163793280_crop_exact Michael Regan/Getty Images
Tevez played aggressively on Saturday and could have scored on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, it wasn't his day, and he and City were unlucky to not find the back of the net at least once on the road.
Tevez put a pair of shots on goal and provided Mancini with a presence at the top of the lineup, even if it didn't pay off.

Leon Osman, Everton: A
Hi-res-162774130_crop_exact Stu Forster/Getty Images
Osman delivered for the Toffees on Saturday, scoring on a screamer in the first half to put Everton ahead and give the home crowd something to cheer about.
Not only did his goal turn out to be the match winner, but Osman's play in general in midfield was key for Everton as they earned a much-needed three points at home.

David Silva, Manchester City: C
Silva wasn't nearly as much of a factor as he needed to be on Saturday, failing to mount any significant pressure on Everton's defense.  
City needed all three of their strikers to reach top form on Saturday. But while Tevez and Edin Dzeko combined for 10 shots against Everton, Silva was surprisingly underwhelming, recording more yellow cards than shots in 90-plus minutes.

Jan Mucha, Everton: A
Hi-res-152781049_crop_exact Stu Forster/Getty Images
A week after surrendering three goals in a span of four minutes, Jan Mucha delivered a quality effort in between the posts for David Moyes' squad. He made some impressive saves, including a pair late, to earn the clean sheet:
Everton's defense was solid in front of the goal, and City helped out with some mistakes of their own. But you have to credit Mucha for what was a brilliant bounce-back effort this weekend.

rayo 0-5 barça pedro dominguez

Following the splendid 4-0 victory over AC Milan in the Champions League Barça return to La Liga tomorrow night (Sunday 9 pm) with a home game against Rayo Vallecano. The Blaugrana will be without captain Carles Puyol who underwent a operation on his right knee on Friday night that will see him sidelined for at least four weeks, while Xavi Hernandez will also miss the game with a thigh strain.
While the win over Milan showed what this team is capable of, it also raised the question of why couldn’t the players perform at the same level against Real Madrid and the first game in Milan. There may have been tactical errors and some bad luck involved in those defeats but it is quite clear that the level of pressing was nowhere near that shown on Tuesday night.
This recent drop in form may have been due to various factors. It may just have been the almost traditional February dip, as the players’ physical preparation is planned to have them at their peak in April and May. More worrying is the idea that after so much success in recent years it is difficult for some players to find the same level of hunger and motivation week in week out. The absence of Tito Vilanova hasn’t helped of course. Obviously he is missed as a leader, but the situation must also be emotionally draining on a dressing room that, along with Eric Abidal’s illness, has suffered more than its fair share of trauma in the past two years.
Given Barça’s healthy thirteen point advantage over second placed Real Madrid it may be difficult for the players to find that all-out 100% motivation for the remaining league matches this season. Concentrating on preparing for the Champions League quarter-final with Paris Saint Germain is bound to be the priority right now, but surely there can be no better preparation than to win the two league games against Rayo and Celta before the game in Paris on April 2.
Rayo will be without left back José Manuel Casado, midfielder Javi Fuego and centre forward Leo Baptistao who are all suspended for tomorrow’s game. Coach Paco Jemez has called up Nacho Martínez, Jordi Amat and the seventeen year old midfielder Isaac Gómez (known as ‘Isi’) to his 18-man squad. Rayo’s 2-0 win over Espanyol last weekend moved them up to 8th place in the table on 41 points. With relegation no longer a danger Jemez’s men will be hoping to finish the season strongly to challenge for a place in Europe. Their away form this season has been patchy with four wins, a draw and eight defeats on their travels, though their victories were achieved on the difficult visits to Athletic, Valencia, Malaga and Betis which demonstrates their capabilities.
However, in the last three league meetings between Barça and Rayo the total score reads 16-0 in Barça’s favour. Last season the game at Camp Nou ended in a 4-0 home win with two goals from Alexis Sanchez and one a-piece for David Villa and Leo Messi. While the last two games in Vallecas have ended 0-7 and 0-5 in Barça’s favour. Rayo have only managed one victory in thirteen visits to Camp Nou, a 0-2 win in the 1999/2000 season.

Besides the absence of Puyol and Xavi, Barça are also without Victor Valdés who will complete the second of a four-match ban. Puyol’s injury leaves us with a shortage at the back and perhaps it would be wise now to give some minutes to the fit-again Marc Bartrá. Besides that we should probably give time to players who are not so regular in an attempt to have everybody in the best shape for the Champions League. In this sense we may see players such as Adriano, Song, Thiago, Fabregas and Alexis in the team against Rayo. Finally, don’t worry if you see a blond guy playing at right back. It’s only Dani Alves showing another side to his curious sense in fashion.

Possible teams:

Barça: Pinto, Adriano, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Thiago, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Tello/Villa.

Rayo: Ruben; Tito, Gálvez, Amat, Arbilla; Adrian, Trashorras; Lass, Dominguez, Piti; Jose Carlos.

Prediction: Barça 4 Rayo 0

Date: Sunday 17 March 2013. Kick off 9 pm local time.
Posted at: 18:30 on Wednesday, March 13, 2013  Written by:
Witnessing the impossible
Lionel Messi was lying down on the pitch looking up to the sky with his arms raised. Jordi Alba was kissing the club badge on his shirt. David Villa was sliding on his knees screaming of happiness. In the stands B team players Sergi Roberto and Marc Muniesa were going mad with their Barça scarfs and flags. So was the rest of the Camp Nou. Kids, grandparents, everyone was jumping, screaming, singing, raising their hands to their heads, wondering: did that just happen?
The weeks and days leading up to the game created an ever stronger feeling that this would be impossible. Since Tito Vilanova was forced to leave the squad for cancer treatment in New York, not much has been the same at FC Barcelona. The team who for the first half of the season were unbeaten had lost four times since Tito left. Heads were down and the team was not only missing its leader but was also negatively affected by not knowing if the coach would be alright. The motivation for football had seemed to be blown away, titles had become meaningless. It felt like a cloud of depression had been hanging over Barcelona lately.
There were few reasons to believe this team would bounce back and turn around the 2-0 loss they faced in Milano. Actually no team in the history of the Champions League had ever turned around such a result before. AC Milan came to Camp Nou with confidence and in their best form of the season. Barça came out to the game after losing twice to Real Madrid and looking unmotivated to play football.
But as I stepped into the Camp Nou, something suddenly changed. The feeling that “this is impossible, there is nothing to be done to be able to fulfill this remuntada” disappeared. It was like the club, the fans and the team had just decided, what the hell – let’s believe we can make this happen. Despite what everything else indicates. Outside Camp Nou there were two big signs with the words “ROAD TO WEMBLEY”. Suddenly the feeling was everywhere, this could be done, this would be done.

A few minutes into the game, an old Catalan man next to me looked me in the eye and said with confidence: “We will score now!”. One minute later Lionel Messi had made it 1-0 and the Camp Nou exploded. After that there was never any doubt, Camp Nou gave the impression that something extraordinary was on the horizon.
What before had felt so impossible now felt like the most obvious outcome. I remember sitting there, with the result still only 1-0 feeling that it would end 4-0, we would make it happen. But one mistake could still see it all gone. Mascherano made that mistake and suddenly M’Baye Niang was one on one with Victor Valdés. As the ball went past Victor it was like everything became slow-motion. Camp Nou was holding its breath. When the ball finally hit the post, the 98,000 at the Camp Nou started to breath again. We were still in the game, it was our game.
Messi made it 2-0 and the elder Catalan men around me screamed in happiness before joining the rest of the stadium in chants of “MESSI, MESSI, MESSI”, bowing for Barcelona’s own deity. But the celebrations would get a lot wilder when David Villa made it 3-0 in the second half. The impossible had been made reality. Camp Nou exploded after it and people all around me were going mad. Scarfs were waved in the air, everyone were singing. But at the same time they all knew that one goal from AC Milan would drag them out of that wonderful dream and throw them under the bus.
With ten minutes left on the clock, Milan had more and more of the ball and the Camp Nou crowd was starting to get nervous for the first time all night. “I’m nervous” were the words coming every five seconds out of my Catalan neighbor at the stadium. So was everyone. Then he came, running, running and running. It was Jordi Alba and he was there to complete one of the most magical nights at Camp Nou. 4-0 and there was nothing holding them back anymore. The impossible had happened and hugs were given out to any and everyone. A happiness unlike anything I had witnessed before was spreading around the Camp Nou. The woman in front of me would not stop jumping and clapping her hands until the game had finished. In fact no one would sit down again, no one would stop clapping, singing, screaming. It was just joy.
Leaving the stadium, all that crossed my mind was – I was there, I will forever be able to tell people that I was there when FC Barcelona fulfilled one of the most insane comebacks in football history. I was at Camp Nou the night Barcelona beat AC Milan 4-0.
In the end it was just the first knock out stage and Barça are not yet anywhere near being crowned European champions. But it was something more than getting through to the quarterfinals. It was the way it was done, how the critics were silenced, how the team managed to lift their heads and go out to win, to win for Tito.
Jordi Alba: “This is a favorable draw”

 Asked for his opinion on drawing Carlo Ancelotti’s PSG, the nouveau-rich Parisians, Jordi Alba voiced his overall satisfaction, though he cautioned that Barça still has “a lot to learn from the matches against Milan if they are to advance to the semifinals.” While admitting that there are no easy teams left, even more important than the opponent itself is the fact that Barça will be playing the return leg at home, just as had occurred against AC Milan. The Catalan left back reflected that “this is phenomenal since playing the second leg at the Camp Nou gives the team a lot more possibilities.”
Barça will be up against the familiar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though the Swede will miss the first leg because of suspension. As a result, Alba pointed out that “Ibra’s absence will diminish PSG’s aerial threat.” Wanting to avoid making any comments on a hypothetical Clásico, Alba was quick to tell journalists and fans alike not to get ahead of themselves. Alba reminded us how “last year there was a lot of talk about a Barça-Madrid final and then neither one ended up making it.”
Alba also praised Rayo Vallecano ahead of Sunday’s La Liga match at the Camp Nou. “Rayo is a team that likes to keep possession, but at the same time, is aggressive without the ball. I really like how they play” asserted Alba.
Finally, Alba discussed the historic comeback, insisting that on Tuesday we saw “the real Barcelona.” A key part of the defensive back three, Alba was much more hesitant when pushing forward. Having been told to stay back, he provided Pique and Mascherano with assistance so the defense didn’t become too vulnerable. Alba was delighted with his goal and considers it “one of the most important” since AC Milan was on the offensive during the last ten minutes and it provided a much needed sense of relief. He drew attention to the improvement in the team’s pressing, an intensity that was missing during the first leg. “The team must continue playing with this same intensity and strength” Alba claimed.

The UEFA Champions League quarterfinal draw threw up some enticing tactical battles to sink our teeth into.
What advantage do Galatasaray hold over Real Madrid, and which Malaga player can exploit Borussia Dortmund's gung-ho attitude?
We preview the key tactical battles in each of the four ties.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Malaga vs. Borussia Dortmund

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
Key battle: Borussia Dortmund's explosive right vs. Malaga's clever left
This tie doesn't look that sexy on paper. However, from a tactical perspective, there are quite a few variables.
Dortmund's high-pressure, fast-paced style will meet a defensive rock in Martin Demichelis and Weligton, and you can see Juergen Klopp planning carefully for every eventuality.
No matter what the tie, Dortmund's Polish duo of Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski will bomb forward on the right to help sustain pressure.
This leaves Golden Boy Isco of Malaga to drop in and out of space expertly, and he may well find himself with a little more room than usual coming in off the left.
Los Boquerones will take a counterattacking mentality, and a lack of pace could hurt them. However, if Isco can weave his magic, they can find some joy down one particular flank.


Hi-res-163164088_display_imageReal Madrid vs. Galatasaray

Key battle: Galatasaray's 4-4-2 forcing Real Madrid into long periods of possession
On paper, this is a dream tie for Jose Mourinho's Madrid.
In reality, it may pose a few problems, and those problems start in Galatasaray's formation.
Gala have used a 4-4-2 formation for the large majority of their games in Europe this season and don't mess about with the ball. They move it quickly, shoot from distance and get the ball into eight-goal striker Burak Yilmaz as fast as possible.
This will likely result in Madrid having the majority of possession, and it's well known that los Blancos struggle when given the time and space most crave.
It remains to be seen whether Xabi Alonso will be man-marked, of course. However, even if he isn't, he can be guilty of trying to force things that aren't open. Luka Modric is the key to Madrid's progression, much like he was in the Round of 16 against Manchester United.

Paris Saint-Germain vs. Barcelona

Key battle: Lionel    messi vs.whoever's there to stop him

Barcelona's resurgent performance against AC Milan at the Camp Nou will have sent a chilling sensation down the other seven sides' spines.
When they're in dominant form, there's just no stopping them.
Paris Saint-Germain will feel they have the tools to pull off a similar game plan to the Rossoneri, only this time to make it work over two legs.
The flow of play is very predictable. Barca maintain possession and probe, and on occasion, PSG counter with pace and try to expose the flanks.
Milan had a frightened Stephan El Shaarawy and a young M'Baye Niang to lean on, but the French side have arguably better options.
But Barcelona will there with the quality midfield of iniesta,xavi abd busquets and with unstoppable leo and with spains all time scorer and a  furnished defence so to make their way to semifinals.
I should see Barcelona Winning the DUO,,,,,,,,,

Bayern Munich vs. Juventus

Key battle: Thomas Mueler and Mario Mandzukic's movement vs. Giorgio Chiellini and Juventus' left-wing-back
No, that isn't just a long way of saying "defence vs. attack."
Much of Bayern Munich's success this season is sourced in Mueller's emergence from the shadow of Arjen Robben, while Mandzukic acclimated quickly to life in Bavaria too.
The pair have formed an incredible footballing duo, and their interchanging of movement and manipulation of defensive lines has opposing coaches tearing their hair out.
It's not often Jupp Heynckes' side come up against a three-man defence (if ever), so this should be thrilling. Giorgio Chiellini will be right in the thick of it as a left-sided centre-back, and who Antonio Conte chooses to play at left-wing-back could make or break the tie.
Does he go with the careful, measured Federico Peluso (who shut down Christian Maggio) or the explosive, energetic Kwadwo Asamoah, who did so well before the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations?

Dani Alves promised to dye his hair blonde if Barcelona successfully turned around its Champions League tie against AC Milan. Barça ran out 4-0 winners, meaning the Brazilian had to fulfil his promise...
so he is there with his new blonde haris,,,,,,,quite weird ,,,,,

Barcelona captain Carles Puyol will miss some time for the Spanish powerhouse while undergoing and recovering from knee surgery, according to Football Espana.
According to TV3 via Football Espana, Puyol is expected to miss at least three weeks, which will keep him out of Barca's first-leg matchup with Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals this spring.
Diario Sport has the timetable for Puyol's return closer to a month, according to Football Espana, which would mean he would miss both legs of Barca's upcoming Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain.
The 34-year-old defender has played with Barcelona since 1999 and has made nearly 600 appearances for the club over that time. Before joining Barca more than a decade ago, he starred for the club's reserve team.
Puyol has two goals in 22 appearances for Barca in 2012-13.
The veteran came on late in the 76th minute for Barcelona in Tuesday's 4-0 drubbing of AC Milan in the second leg of the two teams' UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tilt. He played close to 90 minutes in the first leg against AC Milan back in February.
With some huge matches upcoming, manager Tito Vilanova will need his other defenders to step up in Puyol's absence over the next few weeks. With talented players at the back in Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba, Barca isn't doomed by any means. But it's safe to say that the road to the UEFA Champions League title just got a whole lot more difficult.

Barcelona have had their appeal to reduce Victor Valdes’ suspension for complaining to a match official rejected today.
The Spanish Football Federation’s Appeals Committe has confirmed that they have upheld the Competition Committee’s original ruling of a four-game ban for the ‘keeper.
This is in relation to his red card and subsequent protests made to referee Perez Lasa immediately after the full-time whistle had been blown in the League Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona earlier this month.
Having already served one game of the suspension last weekend against Deportivo, the 31-year-old will now also miss League matches with Rayo Vallecano, Celta Vigo and Mallorca.


Eight teams. Five nations. Four ties. One dream. The draw for this season's Champions League quarter-finals generates that sort of feel you get when it's the last eight of a World Cup or Euro Championship: The eyes of the world fixed on every kick of every tie as the continent's best square up.
This year's quarter-finals have a bit of everything and enough potential material and sub plots to keep script writers occupied for months.
The romance of Malaga against the clinical relentlessness Dortmund.
Mourinho's fitful Madrid against the survivors of Galatasaray, complete with the Special One's old totem Didier Drogba.
The sheer glamour of PSG with their brand and their brio facing Barcelona, now back in touch with their former beauty, and, arguably, the most fascinating of all the ties sees brilliant Bayern Munich take on the most redoubtable of Old Ladies, Juventus.
Picking a favourite to lift the Champions League trophy is a formidable task.
Before the draw was made I would have probably stuck my money on Bayern, just ahead of Barcelona.
Now, though, with the lineup for the last eight known, I'm shifting it to the Catalans and here's why.


Beating AC Milan Showed Their Mojo Is Back

This season's competition has not been the swashbuckling swagger that we have normally come to expect from Barca.
Although they topped their qualifying group, it was not without the odd hiccup.
Their failure to beat Benfica at Camp Nou in their first match proved an irritating prelude to that shocking defeat in Glasgow against Celtic.
If alarm bells were chiming with those results, it was a full-on emergency claxon after the first leg of their last-16 tie with AC Milan.
Barcelona's 2-0 defeat was their first by such a margin in 133 games across all competitions (via, and when it arrived hot on the heels of successive defeats to Real Madrid in the Spanish cup and La Liga, the headlines were being readied: Barca are busted.
With all great teams, adversity is often viewed as an opportunity for inspiration rather than capitulation, and their performance in the return against the Rossoneri left no one in any doubt.
Barca busted? You must be joking.
When they are in the mood, it takes quite an object to derail them. The question is: With Barcelona firmly back in the mood, is there an object big enough out there?

Clive Mason/Getty Images

They Are out to Make History

Barcelona are already history makers in this season's competition.
Their 4-2 aggregate win over Milan in the last 16 was the first time anyone has overcome a two-goal deficit without having scored an away goal. It rightly ranks among the greatest comebacks in the history of the tournament.
Another record beckons if they can reach the final and win. After two previous victories at Wembley in 1992—they last played there before the stadium was rebuilt—and 2011, Barcelona followed AC Milan, Real Madrid and Liverpool as the only side to become champions at the same venue twice.
No team has ever done it three times.
Barca are also powered this season by an emotional—as well as a historical—breeze.
Back in 2011, Eric Abidal played in the final just a couple of months after having surgery for cancer. Happily, he is now back to full fitness and able to resume his career at the club.
Parallels can be drawn with Barca's coach Tito Vilanova, who has been absent from the dugout this season due to his treatment for throat cancer.
Again the news appears good, with Vilanova set to return to the club in a matter of weeks.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Zlatan Ibrahimovic Will Only Play Half the Tie

Of the many sub-plots thrown up by the quarter-final draw, seeing Zlatan Ibrahimovic try his magic out on his former employers was one of the most inveigling.
The Swede made the most of his one season at Camp Nou by banging in 21 goals three years ago, when he won the league and helped Barca reach the semi-finals of the Champions League.
His form this season for PSG has been relentless with 25 goals in 24 games, and he has used his big-match prowess to help get them into the last eight for the first time since 1995.
Ibrahimovic and his manager Carlo Ancelotti have been left ruing the striker's red card in the first leg of their last-16 tie with Valencia, which sees him suspended for the visit of his old club.
PSG have other players who can fill the gap, of course, with the likes of Lucas Moura, Blaise Matuidi and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who has five goals in the tournament so far. They also have previously won over Barcelona. The last time they were in the quarter-finals—17 years ago—they progressed to the last four by beating Barca.
PSG will probably get the English vote too. With no teams to get behind, the sight of David Beckham should maintain their interest.
It will be tight, but missing Ibrahimovic for the first leg may prove a handicap too significant to overcome.

Lionel Messi's Genius Goes on and on

The man who needs no introduction.
Messi is such an efficient and reliable machine, you feel he really ought to be German.
The glorious little Argentinian shows no sign of having a dip in form anytime soon.
After an astonishing return of a record 91 goals in the whole of 2012 he has no intention of easing off the gas this year.
In the Champions League he has seven goals from eight games, and two of those came in breathtaking fashion as Barca turned their last-16 tie with AC Milan on its head. No one can score them quite like Messi. No one.
What is particularly fascinating about Messi is that his peak appears to be lasting.
While some players struggle to maintain their consistency or burn out altogether, Messi just goes on and on. He is as good now as he was back in 2009 when Barcelona, as a team, were at their zenith.
His performance against Milan showed he is still the little big man for the big occasion.

The Class of 2012/13 Can Still Show Flashes of the Barcelona of Old

Barcelona are not the team they were. That much is obvious.
They may not be in the same bracket as the class 2009, which won the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League, but while faces may change and limbs may age, the spirit never dies.
We saw that by the bucket-load against Milan.
Plenty has been written on Barca's tactical renaissance—and I shall leave it to others better placed to drill down into the minutiae of it all—but put simply: Barca remembered the importance of who they were and what it means to be Barcelona.
Sure, a tweak of formation, a more energetic pressing game and better discipline in and out of possession all helped. But it was spirit, above all else, that got them through into the quarter-finals.
It could be spirit that gets them all the way to the title.

Hi-res-158852783_crop_650x440 Getty Images/Getty Images

The Champions League quarterfinals are upon us. Each team has had its chance to show the world what it has and more importantly who it has.
There have been a number of outstanding performances from the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus while Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich must not be discounted. Not to mention the surprise packages of the Isco-led Malaga and Galatasaray.
But no team has been consistently brilliant—yet. A number have built momentum, and as the quarterfinals roll around, a large number of players—including Andrea Pirlo, Xavi Hernandez, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—are looking to lead their team to victory.
Which players have captured the eye and stood tall when others around them have wilted?
Who had the strength of character to lead his team to the quarterfinals when all else had failed?
And who has just been brilliant?
Read on for the complete rankings, and be sure to leave your top stars, suggestions and tactics in the comments below.

Gianluigi Buffon, Goalkeeper (Juventus)

Claudio Villa/Getty Images
For the position of goalkeeper, there can be only one: Gianluigi Buffon.
The Italian shot-stopper is one of the best 'keepers the game has ever seen, if not the best. At 35 years old, he still defies the years with almost cat-like reflexes and a telepathic understanding of his own defence as well as what hopeful strikers have in mind.
Supremely influential at the international level, Buffon is equally as important for Juventus and has been a key figure in their revival after Calciopoli.
He has featured in all eight of the Old Lady's games this term and is easily the top goalkeeper in the Champions League. For evidence, note that Juventus have not allowed a goal in their last five matches in the tournament.

Philipp Lahm, Right-Back (Bayern Munich)

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Philipp Lahm is easily the finest full-back in the game today. The ultra-cool, ultra-consistent Bayern Munich and German captain is the very prototype of a defender in the modern game.
Quick, intelligent in attack and defence and superbly disciplined, Lahm has, once again, been at the forefront of all that is good about Bayern in the Champions League this term. He has played in seven Champions League games and contributed four assists with a passing average of 89 percent.
He also averages 2.7 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game, making him a real all-arounder on defence. Lahm is comfortable on either side of the pitch, but in 2012-13 he has made the right side of defence his own.

Mats Hummels, Centre-Back (Borussia Dortmund)

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
The hulking figure of Mats Hummels is fast becoming a regular feature in any article on the top defenders in the game.
While Dortmund have become the darlings of European football with their silky style, their defence, led by Hummels, is one of the main reasons for their success.
The 6'3" 24-year-old was one of the best defenders at Euro 2012 with Germany and has carried his form into this season. In his seven Champions League matches, he has contributed 22 tackles, 17 interceptions and a gargantuan 76 clearances, which places him atop the defensive statistic charts.
However, his intelligence and consistency really separate him from the also-rans. A competent passer out of defence, Hummels is also known to dribble the ball into midfield, which commits opposing players to uncomfortable areas of the pitch.
For a team like Dortmund, this simple but effective tactic creates all manner of space across midfield, which they can and usually do expose.
The very fact that Hummels is still learning his trade should not be lost on anyone. He has the potential to one day be talked about in the same breath as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi.

Mats Hummels, Centre-Back (Borussia Dortmund)

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
The hulking figure of Mats Hummels is fast becoming a regular feature in any article on the top defenders in the game.
While Dortmund have become the darlings of European football with their silky style, their defence, led by Hummels, is one of the main reasons for their success.
The 6'3" 24-year-old was one of the best defenders at Euro 2012 with Germany and has carried his form into this season. In his seven Champions League matches, he has contributed 22 tackles, 17 interceptions and a gargantuan 76 clearances, which places him atop the defensive statistic charts.
However, his intelligence and consistency really separate him from the also-rans. A competent passer out of defence, Hummels is also known to dribble the ball into midfield, which commits opposing players to uncomfortable areas of the pitch.
For a team like Dortmund, this simple but effective tactic creates all manner of space across midfield, which they can and usually do expose.
The very fact that Hummels is still learning his trade should not be lost on anyone. He has the potential to one day be talked about in the same breath as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi.

Giorgio Chiellini, Left-Back (Juventus)

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Giorgio Chiellini has enjoyed a superb Champions League. The hard-nosed Italian international has played in six of Juventus' matches and is a force to be reckoned with at left-back or centre-half.
His pass completion rate sits at a healthy 87.7 percent, and on defense skills he has contributed 2.7 tackles and 2.8 interceptions per match and a blistering 70 clearances in six games.
He is an old-school defender who takes very few chances. That makes him one of the most reliable defenders on the planet for club and country.
He is a supreme warrior in the air or on the ground and has the ball skills to get himself out of trouble in any situation.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Centre-Midfield (Bayern Munich)

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Bastian Schweinsteiger is one of the best midfielders on the planet at this moment in time. Whether he is organising and running Bayern Munich or the German national team, Schweinsteiger is the leader on the pitch to whom every player looks for example.
He patrols the pitch like a guard dog and covets his space and the ball jealously. When playing against him, opponents know they have to win the physical war before they can even attempt to play.
The 28-year-old is ultra-competitive in midfield and isn't afraid to put his boot where others fear to tread. In seven Champions League appearances, he has 19 tackles, two goals and an 87.6 percent success rate on his passes. He is the player teams have to best if they want to beat Bayern Munich.

Xavi Hernandez, Centre-Midfield (Barcelona)

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Xavi Hernandez is a true giant of the game. The little Barcelona star is probably the best midfielder the game has produced in a generation, and he links every single part of Barca's team.
Lionel Messi may grab all the headlines for his goals and supreme play, but Xavi provides the foundations for Messi's play.
He has made a staggering 962 passes with a completion rate of 94.9 percent in his seven matches for Barca in this Champions League term. That is more passes than many teams have managed in the same amount of games.
He is the fulcrum upon which Barca turn. He beats his opponents with intelligence, ingenuity and guile that goes unmatched in the modern game.

Andrea Pirlo, Centre-Midfield (Juventus)

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At 33 years old, Andrea Pirlo may be in the latter years of his career, but he has had some of the best performances many have seen in this season's Champions League. Central to everything that is good about Antonio Conte's Juventus team, Pirlo is a creative force for excellence.
He can pick a pass out through the eye of a needle, and he dictates the ebb and flow of Juve's every match. Unafraid to bite into tackles and brave enough to pick the ball up under intense pressure, Pirlo may just be the best all-around midfielder left in the competition.
During his eight-game journey in the competition, he has made 492 passes with a completion rate of 84.8 percent, but it is his eye for a pass that stands out. You must consider that Juve are a caution-first team and don't commit to attack unless a chance is clear-cut.
Thus, the very fact that Pirlo has created 25 goal-scoring opportunities (three assists) in so few games exemplifies his supreme creativity and vision.

Lionel Messi, Forward (Barcelona)

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One could not have a Champions League team without the God who is Lionel Messi.
Once again, the little Argentinian is in the form of his life in domestic action and has scored a ridiculous 40 goals in his last 27 matches.
As far as the Champions League is concerned, though...
Messi has scored seven goals in eight appearances and is moving closer to becoming the all-time top scorer in the competition. He averages a whopping 4.8 shots per game, completes 86.2 percent of his passes, has created 15 goal-scoring chances and is one of the most fouled players in the competition.
To say that Messi has made his mark in 2012-13 would be an understatement. He is so dangerous in any position that he is now hailed in the same breath as the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona.
That's not bad company for the 25-year-old.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Forward (Real Madrid)

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If Messi makes the team, there must be a place for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo is a little more direct than Messi as a player but has managed a superb eight goals in eight Champions League games.
He averages 7.3 shots per game to Messi's 4.8 and has made just 269 passes compared to the Argentinian's 468. However, the devil is in the details, and this shows that Real Madrid employ a far more direct and swift counterattacking style more than anything else.
Like Messi, Ronaldo is dangerous in any situation, but unlike Messi, the Portuguese has the power and pace to attack his opponents from a far greater distance to the goal. In this respect, Real Madrid possess a forward who works back to help his midfield but can also be employed up front by himself.
To have both Ronaldo and Messi on the same side is the stuff of dreams for fans—and nightmares for defenders.

Robert Lewandowski, Striker (Borussia Dortmund)

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Borussia Dortmund have wowed fans with their superb passing game, but they owe a lot to Mats Hummels at the back and Robert Lewandowski up front.
Lewandowski, one of the greatest Polish footballers of all time, has been lethal for Dortmund this term. He has scored five goals in eight Champions League appearances from just 28 shots and has also contributed two assists.
What makes him so special is his phenomenal work rate. The 24-year-old runs the lines as a lone striker but also possesses the energy, desire and stamina to drop deep and help out his midfield when the need arises.
He is comfortable as the main striker or just behind, where he can use his great strength, pace, creativity and vision combined with his work ethic to wreak havoc on unsuspecting opponents.

Honourable Mentions

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There will always be a select few who miss out.
They may not fit into the starting XI but would certainly make a 23-man squad. Or through just bad luck, they won't get selected. All the same, they should be honoured for their superb contributions to the Champions League.

As far as the final eight teams are concerned, the two other best 'keepers in the tournament are Iker Casillas and Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer. Both are superb shot-stoppers but miss out on selection because of Buffon's incredible consistency. Casillas also falls behind a bit for being absent for each of Real Madrid's ties against Manchester United.

There are quite a few defenders who deserve special mention. Alex has been brilliant for PSG so far, as has Dortmund's Lukasz Piszczek and Bayern's David Alaba. Add in Juve's Andrea Barzagli, and you have four of the best defenders in the world at the moment.

The biggest casualty of all is probably Malaga's Isco. The little midfielder has been incredible in leading his team to the quarterfinals. Expect him to move on to bigger and better things next season. The same could be said of Juve's Arturo Vidal and Bayern's Toni Kroos, although they won't go anywhere next year.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been brilliant in guiding PSG so far in the competition, as has Galatasaray's Burak Yilmaz, who is joint top scorer with Ronaldo. Ibra's partner, Ezequiel Lavezzi, has been no slouch either, and PSG are real dark horses for the competition with players like them up front.

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In more than 26 years managing Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson has delivered a dozen Premier League titles, five FA Cups, two Champions League titles and an almost endless stream of memorable moments.
But like all good things, Ferguson’s reign must eventually come to an end. We’re just not sure when that might happen, or who might succeed him. Ferguson, 71, recently dismissed talk of retirement, saying, “I’m hoping to stay on for a bit of time” (via The Guardian).
When Ferguson does retire, it’s certain that Manchester United will hire a top-class replacement. But who fits the bill?
Several big names are out there, including former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola and current Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho, but timing could be a major stumbling block.
In this clip, I would discusses three potential replacements for Ferguson at Manchester United. Be sure to add your thoughts in the comments below.


This may sound crazy, but I think Manchester United should think long and hard about selling Wayne Rooney this summer.
Before you decide to call me crazy, egg my house or flood my Twitter feed with various reasons why you think I have less intelligence than your pet rock—seriously though, you have a pet rock?—hear me out.
For one, United is very likely to receive a sizable bid over the summer, perhaps from a team like Paris Saint-Germain. From David McDonnell of the Mirror:
Zlatan Ibrahimovic could leave Paris Saint-Germain—paving the way for a £35 million bid for Manchester United's Wayne Rooney by the money-bags French side.
Ibrahimovic is said to be disillusioned with life in France after less than one season, and could be ready to move on this summer to what would be the eighth club of his nomadic career.
That would leave the mega-rich, Qatari-owned PSG free to raid the Old Trafford club for Rooney.
If I were Manchester United, I would want £45 million, and definitely ship Rooney to Paris for that sort of money. For £40 million, I would probably be persuaded as well.
Yes, I know Sir Alex Ferguson already said Rooney would be sticking around this year. I've also learned to take what managers and front-office people say regarding personnel with a grain of salt.
Let's be honest—since the signing of Robin van Persie this summer, Rooney has felt like a man without a position. He's no longer the team's primary goal-scoring option, and he doesn't look terribly comfortable dropping back into more defensive positions.
Honestly, did you ever think Rooney would be on the bench to start a game like last week's Champions League match against Real Madrid? Did you ever think a player of Rooney's class would spend his time watching one of the team's biggest matches of the year?
Of course not, but it's become apparent this year that Rooney is expendable.
He's still darn good, but for United, he's expendable.

Should the Red Devils sell Rooney this summer?

The team is set up top with Van Persie, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Out wide, they are pretty strong with Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani (if he sticks around). Furthermore, while they would obviously have the cash to replace Rooney if they sold him, it's not hard to envision Shinji Kagawa sliding into Rooney's second striker or attacking midfielder role.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying United should actively shop Rooney. The man is still one of the more dangerous players in the world. However, for the right price, I think the Red Devils should sell him. There's no question about it.
See, I'm not crazy. It's obvious this year Rooney is no longer the best fit for this United roster. A lot can change between now and next September, obviously, but Manchester United must at least consider shipping Rooney out of town if the right offer comes their way.
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Managing an English Premier League team is tireless work, as the end of one campaign is really just the start of another. This may be why Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger scowls all the time. But adding a player like Swansea City’s Ashley Williams during the summer transfer window just might bring the slightest of smiles to the Frenchman’s face.
Rumors have started swirling about the Gunners’ interest in the 28-year-old centre-back, and the speculation over his departure has forced Swansea manager Michael Laudrup to comment on the situation. 
Per The Daily Mirror’s Phil Cadden, Laudrup said, "When there are rumours about these clubs wanting someone from here, it is because the player has done well. What can I do? I can’t call Arsenal and say, 'Is it true?' I don’t think Arsene Wenger would answer."
The report notes that Liverpool and Manchester United are also interested in Williams. 
While Laudrup is obviously correct about Wenger being unwilling to admit his desire to bring Williams to North London, it is not difficult to see why the longtime Gunners boss is eyeing the 28-year-old to bolster his back line.
Williams has proven throughout this campaign that he has all the qualities to fit seamlessly into the lineup of a top-tier European side. His size, strength and athleticism give him all the physical tools necessary to be a top player at his position.
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In addition, he has worn the captain’s armband during one of Swansea’s best campaigns in club history, showing his fantastic leadership. He has also started all but one of the Swans’ Premiership matches, and Wenger should have no concerns about his ability to perform consistently throughout a campaign.

Should Arsenal add Ashley Williams this summer?

If these qualities do not provide Gunners supporters with enough to like about Williams, he would also be an ideal fit for Arsenal’s style.
Wenger has a reputation for executing modern tactics featuring plenty of movement and short passes, and the team once again leads the Premier League in possession and pass-success percentages, according to 
Swansea play a similar style under Laudrup, and the team ranks fifth in those two categories. Williams himself has completed 86.8 percent of his passes this season, per 
The Gunners do have three quality centre-backs in Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, but more depth at the position would certainly benefit the team.
Vermaelen has been the subject of transfer rumors, and Williams would be an excellent replacement if the Belgian leaves.
Even if all three players remain at the Emirates, Mertesacker’s lack of pace causes serious problems against certain teams, and Koscielny has fallen out of favor with Wenger this season. The Frenchman has been included in the starting 11 in just 10 Premiership matches.
Whether Wenger plans on making Williams a first-team regular or a part of a rotation of centre-backs, the Swansea skipper would be up for the challenge. The Gunners defense would be much better off with Williams in the squad.
Hi-res-163006503_crop_exact Wenger has some tough decisions to make this summer
For the second season running in the Champions League, heroic failure for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, who just failed to turn Mission Impossible into Mission Improbable in the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night.
Trailing Bayern Munich 3-1 from the first leg in North London three weeks ago, the Gunners very nearly pulled off one of the greatest comebacks the competition has ever seen, but in the end just ran out of time, their 2-0 second-leg victory in Munich seeing them exit the European Cup last 16 3-3 on away goals.
In truth, no one had given Arsenal even a prayer of being the only English side to make it through to Friday’s quarterfinal draw in Switzerland, and for good reason too. The visitors were on a poor run of recent form, having lost three of their previous four matches and five of their last 12, while facing them in Munich were perhaps Europe’s most in-form team, unbeaten in 24 games and with just two losses to their name all season.
And that is before one even mentions the fact that Arsenal needed to overturn a 3-1 deficit, and three away goals, on the night. The 3-0 victory the Gunners came so close to achieving is a scoreline that the Bavarians had only been on the end of once before at the Allianz.
However, as the Arsenal players flew back to London on Wednesday night, they could have been forgiven for thinking what might have been had they not collapsed so feebly at the Emirates last month.
But that would be a huge mistake and only serve to cloud the bigger picture of what now confronts Wenger and his men in the final critical two-and-a-half months of the campaign.
Yes on another night Arsenal may very well have pulled off the Great Escape against Bayern. In fact, a better, more savvy and technically adroit European operator, say a Manchester United, would have immediately sensed that their hosts were not up for a real battle on Wednesday night, simply wanting an easy ride through to the draw on Friday, and made Munich pay the full price for their obvious lethargy.
But the North Londoners just did not quite have the class and skill to do so, and that is what Wenger, in conjunction with chief executive Ivan Gazidis, should be focussing most on, rather than the team’s glorious failure in what at the end of the day was ultimately a defeat and the end of yet another chance to bring silverware back to the club.
Lest anyone need reminding, and most certainly no one at the Emirates does, this season will be Wenger’s ninth without a trophy and anyone who can do simple math will be able to work out that should the Frenchman endure yet another barren spell in the capital next year, that will make it a whole decade without any honours for the club.
Now, that would not just be a barren spell, but it would surely represent the end of an era.
So Wenger and his closest cohorts have a lot of thinking to do with regard to next season, although of more immediate concern is how they are going to get the club back into Europe’s premier club competition for a 16th year in a row.
With 10 games remaining of the campaign, fifth-in-the-table Arsenal trail Tottenham Hotspur in third by seven points, albeit having played a game less than their city rivals, and fourth-placed Chelsea by five points, and so have much work to do to rein in either of their London rivals between now and May.
However, even if the Gunners do somehow manage on this occasion to pull off Mission Impossible, and right now that is a very big "if," then as with Wednesday night’s win in Munich, it should not be used to paper over the obvious cracks in the team that are there for all to see.
Wenger has money in the bank to rectify these issues, although just how large that transfer war chest is remains open to much debate, while failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League will also naturally have serious ramifications on how much cash the Frenchman will have to splash come the summer.
Either way the first-team squad needs surgery, not drastic surgery, but the addition of some key individuals to strengthen certain areas of the side.
To start with, an experienced goalkeeper to replace Wojciech Szczesny, who was left out against Bayern because Wenger claimed the Pole was mentally exhausted (via the Independent) and a replacement right back for Bacary Sagna, who is set to leave the club for Inter Milan at the end of the season (via the Daily Mirror).

Should Wenger still be Arsenal manager next season?

Wenger is also known to be on the lookout for a new centre-back, with doubts continuing to linger about both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny’s abilities to cut it at the very highest level, while it is understood that the Frenchman is keen to sign a holding midfield player with better fitness levels than Abou Diaby and more mobility than Mikel Arteta.
However, perhaps of greatest concern to the Arsenal manager at present is the fitness of England international Jack Wilshere, currently the club’s most important and only true world-class operator, and the worrying collapse in form of captain Thomas Vermaelen, another player who also did not even make the starting XI in Munich.
Address those glaring team issues with a sensible player-recruitment strategy this summer, then Arsenal can have plenty with which to look forward to next season. However, and this ultimately is the crux of the whole issue, can Wenger see those warning signs and, more importantly does he really have the inclination to want to rectify them by opening his cheque book and spending big?