Wednesday 22 April 2015

Champions Face Real Bernabeu Battle

Don Santiago Bernabeu de Yeste witnessed many a European battle at the Chamartin Stadium in his time. First as a fan; then as a player, briefly as manager and in later years as the club President. But he will have seen few as challenging as the visit of city rivals this week in the quarter final second leg of the Champions League. As Atletico Madrid seek rightful revenge perhaps for the defeat in the final in Lisbon last May. Where added time deprived them of a famous victory as Lady Luck abandoned them in the 94th minute.

Now though, luck seems to be favouring them as Carlo Ancelotti defends the trophy with an ever lengthening casualty list that sees Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema as unlikely starters. Complicated even further by the enforced absence of left back Marcelo for the accumulation of yellow cards. So revenge could be sweet on Wednesday night for Atletico Madrid. 

In might signal a changing of the guard at Madrid with Ancelotti is likely to be in demand given the likelihood of managerial vacancies arising at Manchester City. Or indeed Arsenal. Where the failure of Arsene Wenger at the quarterfinal stages of Champions League highlights a major shortcoming for a club of such stature and means. Operating in less financial splendour Juergen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund has won the Bundesliga and reached the Champions League fine in his seven year tenure. Working for the most part with the BVB player production line and now recognising himself it is time to move on to pastures new.

Klopp is a pragmatic manager that could fit Liverpool’s needs perhaps better and offer a fresh alternative to the tiresome clichés and corporate speak of the current incumbent - Brendan Rodgers. Who after much huffing and puffing has won a total of nothing.

The Madrid Gaffer could be followed by some of his player. Including Gareth Bale who must be tiring of the constant negative press surrounding his on field activity. Not unlike premier league players before him who were perceived failures at Madrid. The likes of which include Michael Owen, David Beckham and the injury prone Jonathan Woodgate. The only exception being Steve McManaman to a point. Albeit he spent most of second Champions League winning season on the bench and out of favour with Vicente del Bosque. Only to enjoy the moment by coming off the bench to help his club claim their eighth European title. 

In the case of Bale it may no longer be possible to resist the lucrative offers coming his way from both the clubs in Manchester, and no doubt Chelsea.

The likelihood that Juergen Klopp may land at Real Madrid is by no means farfetched either as Real Madrid enjoys a long tradition of Bundesliga expertise as far back as 1974 when Paul Breitner was signed after winning the world cup for his country. Followed some years later by Monchengladbach star Uli Stielike and a host of others stars like Dane Henning Jensen, Guenter Netzer, Bernd Schuster, Budo Illgner, Christian Metzelder, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira. Up to the modern era and the arrival of Tony Kroos. 

The category of manager filled by Jupp Heynckes in 1998 when Real Madrid secured the Champions League title after a long drought. 

In that context Klopp is a good fit. His reputation aided and abetted by the past three Champions League qualifiers where Borussia Dortmund have been drawn against Real and proved impressive opponents on all occasions. 

In the short term Ancelotti needs to steady the ship and find a way of circumnavigating the Atletico Madrid and remain in the Barcelona slipstream should for a chance of winning La Liga arise. As long as either opportunity is still in play Ancelotti will remain focused and safe. A loss to Atletico would signal the end of his tenure. But unlike his predecessor Jose Mourinho, the Italian is unlikely to tout for a job in the post-match press conference should the inevitable bad result come his way. Ancelotti has a lot more class and more than his self-promoting predecessor. 

Two skills he will need in abundance over the coming weeks.

Either way Real Madrid will now have to rely on Isco, Illaramendi, Carvajal and maybe even Khedira to bail them out. Perhaps recall Arbeloa to release Carvajal in the right side of mid field. As the last Derby between both sides in the first leg proved, this game is likely to be played at pace and devoid of much real tactics or clever formations. Just true grit as the eternal rival’s battle for a valued place in the semi-finals. But it is an occasion where Cristiano Ronaldo just might prove the difference and solve Ancelotti’s injury headaches. Although the availability of Mario Mandzukic for Atletico Madrid bodes well for the visitors and could prove troublesome for Varanne and Ramos.

Maybe the indomitable spirit of Don Santiago Bernabeu de Yeste will prove the difference in the Chamartin Stadium on Wednesday night.

Monday 20 April 2015

Bale, Marcelo, Modric, Benzema Out

Gareth Bale looks set to miss Real Madrid's Champions League quarter-final second leg against Atletico Madrid with a calf injury.

The Wales forward, 25, was substituted with the problem after just five minutes of Real's 3-1 home victory over Malaga on Saturday.

"Bale has been diagnosed with a muscular injury in his left soleus. His condition will be evaluated," his club said in a statement on Monday.

The first leg at Atletico ended 0-0.

Los Merengues are also without Croatia midfielder Luka Modric, who suffered a knee ligament strain against Malaga and is expected to be unavailable for six weeks.

However, Real coach Carlo Ancelotti is hoping France striker Karim Benzema will return after missing Saturday's win at the Bernabeu with a knee injury.

Brazil left-back Marcelo is also suspended for the home side, meaning Portugal international Fabio Coentrao will start.

Atletico coach Diego Simone welcomed Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic back to training on Monday, after he missed Saturday's win at Deportivo La Coruna with an ankle problem.

But Los Rojiblancos will be without suspended midfielder Mario Suarez against their neighbours in a repeat of last year's final, which they lost.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Inspiration - Arthur Ashe

“You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.”

Inspiration - Ben Hogan

“If you can’t outplay them, outwork them.”
Ben Hogan

View from the Top - Roy Keane

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Toulon v Leinster - Champions Cup

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Leinster have retained their starting line-up from the quarter-final win over Bath for Sunday's European Champions Cup semi-final against holders Toulon.

That means centre Ben T'eo, fly-half Jimmy Gopperth and Mike McCarthy are the only starters from last weekend's damaging Pro12 defeat by the Dragons.

Irish Six Nations stars Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip are all named in the side.

Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny has been passed fit to start for Toulon.

Halfpenny's return after missing the 32-18 quarter-final win over Wasps means a switch to wing for ex-England international Delon Armitage.

Other backs changes from the quarter-final see Springboks star Bryan Habana replacing Drew Mitchell on the other wing and Matt Giteau taking over from injured Maxime Mermoz at centre.

Xavier Chiocci is preferred to Alexandre Menini at prop while there are two changes in the back row from the previous round with Juan Smith and Juan Fernandez Lobbe replacing Mamuka Gorgodze and Steffon Armitage.

T'eo's selection at centre for Leinster means that Gordon D'Arcy again has to be content with a place on the bench.

Last weekend's defeat by the Dragons has left Leinster's Pro12 chances hanging by a thread and the European competition is now probably their only remaining chance of silverware this season.

However, Matt O'Connor's side will be up against a big-budget Toulon side who can afford to leave top-class performers such as Steffon Armitage, Menini and Mitchell on the bench.

The French outfit are attempting to secure an unprecedented third successive European club title this season after their Heineken Cup triumphs over the past two years.

Three-time Heineken Cup champions Leinster have misfired in their defence of the Pro12 title this year and failed to score a try in their win over Bath as Ian Madigan's six penalties proved enough.

Leinster's strength in that game was their discipline as they gave few penalties and they will need a repeat of that with Wayne Barnes taking charge of Sunday's game.

However, Toulon defeated the Irish province 29-14 in last year's quarter-finals and will favourites to repeat that victory.

Toulon: Halfpenny; D Armitage, M Bastareaud, Gitea, Habana; Michalak, Tillous-Borde; Chiocci, Guirado, Hayman (capt); Botha, Williams; Smith, Fernandez Lobbe, Masoe.

Replacements: Orioli, Menini, Chilachava, S Armitage, Mitchell, Wulf, Claassens, Suta

Leinster: R Kearney; McFadden, Te'o, Madigan, Fitzgerald; Gopperth, Boss; Healy, Cronin, Ross, Toner, M McCarthy, J Murphy, O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Replacements: Strauss, J McGrath, Moore, Marshall, D Ryan, Reddan, G D'Arcy, Kirchner.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Victory Brings Real Injuries

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Cristiano Ronaldo made up for a missed penalty by scoring in injury time in Real Madrid’s home win over Málaga that kept them two points behind Barcelona in second place in La Liga.

However, both Gareth Bale and Luka Modric were injured four days before Real host their city rivals Atlético Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final.

Bale limped off with an apparent calf strain early on in the game and could be a doubt for Wednesday’s Champions League clash.

The Welshman went down clutching his left calf with no opposition players near, and he was replaced by Javier Hernández after just two minutes.

Bale was rested for Real’s match with Eibar last weekend due to muscle fatigue but played in Tuesday’s first leg at Atlético, which finished 0-0.

Sergio Ramos gave Real the lead against Málaga after 26 minutes when he tapped in Ronaldo’s cross. Ronaldo had the chance to make it two in the second half but his penalty came back off the post after James Rodríguez had been brought down.

Modric went off just before the hour after a knock to his knee. James Rodríguez did double the European champions’ lead on 68 minutes with a shot into the top corner but Juanmi quickly headed one back for the visitors, leaving Ronaldo to tap in from close range for his 50th goal of the season with seconds left.

Saturday 18 April 2015

May Pac Ticket Standoff

Tickets for the fight of the century between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao were always expected to be hard to get hold off but just two weeks before the bout not one has gone on public sale.

The two camps and the MGM Grand are locked in a standoff over allotments and when they are finally put on sale only a few will be sold at the listed price.

"It's bizarre, normally there's a public sale 10 weeks before the fight," said Connor Gregoire, an analyst for ticket agency "To our knowledge no one has a printed ticket in their hands right now."

Mayweather's promoter, Leonard Ellerbe, said on Tuesday that tickets would go on sale this week for the May 2 fight, but MGM officials have been tight-lipped about their availability.

The hotel issued a statement Friday saying there would be a "limited number of tickets available for sale" and that it is working with promoters to finalise a date for their release.

The fight was always going to be a tough ticket, with announced prices of $1,500 to $7,500 (£1,000 to £5,000) in the 16,500-seat Grand Garden arena.

However, those prices have already tripled in the resale market even before tickets are available, and the two camps and the MGM have been haggling over how many seats and at what price level each party gets.

Pacquiao's manager, Michael Koncz, blamed the Mayweather camp for holding up the ticket sales, saying they have refused to sign a term sheet negotiated months earlier that specified the allotments.

"It's a real mess right now," Koncz said. "I can only surmise the motivation is greed and an attempt to manipulate the tickets, otherwise why the holdup? I'm more than a little upset they're not for sale to the public."

Millions of dollars are at stake in the dispute, because after the MGM takes its share each camp gets a certain percentage of tickets and is able to resell them with ticket brokers for higher prices.

The estimated gate for the tickets if they are sold at retail prices is already a staggering $72m (£48m), far surpassing the previous gate record of $20m (£13.2m) for Mayweather's 2013 fight with Canelo Alvarez.

Promoter Bob Arum said he has heard of people cancelling their reservations to Las Vegas because they're afraid they can't get tickets.

"This is not acceptable," said Arum, who promotes Pacquiao. "This is a worldwide event that the city of Las Vegas is involved in. It's one of the craziest things I've ever seen."

Gregoire said the fight is one of Seatgeek's most searched events, but that only a few dozen tickets have been sold through the website. Those tickets are what the ticket industry calls "spec tickets" because the sellers don't actually have them in hand, but expect to get them before the fight.

The cheapest seat on the site on Friday was $4,800 (£3,200), and Gregoire said the average sale so far is in the $8,000 (£5,350 range).

"People are hesitant to buy in the secondary market before there's been an original sale," he said. "And you've also got the incredible prices being asked for tickets now. That means a lot of people are not buying tickets at this point."

At Stubhub there are no tickets for sale, spokeswoman Alison Salcedo said, because the ticket reseller is waiting for actual prices to be set and tickets to be printed.

"There's still so much up in the air for this fight that we're not allowing spec sales," Salcedo said. "We're not willing to take that risk now."

Tickets have also not gone on sale for the closed circuit telecast of the fight at the various MGM properties in Las Vegas. Thousands of those tickets are expected to be sold to fans that can't get into the arena itself, but no price has been set for them.

Koncz said he talked to Pacquiao on Thursday about making sure he had enough tickets to take care of people in his camp. He said there have been requests from around the world for fight tickets, but that they have been forced to put them off because of the uncertainty over how many tickets are available and their pricing.

One thing that is certain, he said, is no one including the celebrities who generally populate the ringside seats is getting in for free.

"Nobody's getting free tickets," Koncz said. "Even Bob (Arum) has to pay for his ticket in the first row."