Tuesday, October 23, 2012

DC United Back to Playoffs !

From Washingtonpost.com:

All United needed was a draw Saturday night at RFK Stadium to end a five-year postseason drought. But in the closing moments of a tense match with considerable implications, reserve midfielder Lewis Neal scored in the clear for a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Crew, touching off a display of raw emotion not seen at the old ballpark in many autumns.

“It was like the old days,” said Coach Ben Olsen, who played 12 years for United. “I don’t like to bring up the old days very often, but the feeling in that building felt like the good old days, and I would like to keep that around.”

Backed by 19,647, the largest crowd of the year, Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Saragosa scored the critical tying goal early in the second half, his first of the season to cap the second comeback of the evening.

In added time, with the Crew needing to win in order to keep its playoff hopes alive, United took advantage of ample space in Columbus’s back. Branko Boskovic steered the ball to Neal, who one-timed a low shot past charging goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum.

United exhaled and celebrated — a moment five years in the making.

“It was an unbelievable effort and it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Neal said. “We’ve done what we set out to do and know we can prepare for something bigger.”

In extending its unbeaten streaks at home (12-0-4) and overall (5-0-1), United (17-10-6, 57 points) overtook the Chicago Fire (17-11-5, 56) for second place in MLS's Eastern Conference and drew within three points of Sporting Kansas City with one week remaining. Sporting can clinch the top seed with a victory or draw at home Wednesday against Philadelphia.

D.C. will visit Chicago on Saturday with an opportunity to secure a first-round bye and an automatic spot in the conference semifinals, which begin in two weeks.

“Relief, excitement — it’s been a long time coming,” leading scorer Chris Pontius said. “Everyone is excited for the opportunity. We’re sitting in a good position. We put ourselves in a good position.”
It didn’t start out well, though.

The Crew went ahead in the seventh minute on Eddie Gaven’s finish, and two minutes after United’s Nick DeLeon set a club rookie scoring record with his sixth goal, Jairo Arrieta restored Columbus’s advantage in the 41st with a bending shot that hit the right post and deflected off diving goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s trailing foot.

But in the 59th minute, Saragosa struck a 22-yard one-timer through a tangle of players and into the lower right corner.

Brandon McDonald made it possible with a play that epitomized United’s determination. Off a set piece, the center back failed to cleanly win a high ball but stuck with it and swept a pass to Saragosa, a defensive midfielder who recorded his third goal in 131 MLS regular season appearances.

“I had to take the opportunity; I had to score the goal,” he said. “I am the player that works hard every time, but I needed to do something different.”

In describing the goal, Saragosa also spoke of his father, Gilson, who died in April at age 60. “I scored this goal with my heart,” he said.

Columbus suffered a pregame setback when starting center back Chad Marshall was scratched because of ankle tightness. His partner in the previous five matches, Julius James, was ruled out Friday with a hamstring injury.

United had not lost since Sept. 1 but hadn’t played any playoff contenders either. Without injured star Dwayne De Rosario, United turned to blue-collar tactics to grind out results and move into postseason contention.

“We’ve grown closer since Dwayne went down,” Olsen said. “It was survival. Everybody understood we have to be a real team and commit to each other and bail each other out. Slowly over this six-week period it has got us to the point where we are today. Everyone is buying into it.”

Olsen received contributions Saturday from a pair of industrious veterans, Saragosa and Neal, who are in their first season with United. The defense showed cracks but withstood pressure by the Crew (14-12-7) while the match was still even.

When Neal scored, a playoff berth firmly in hand, Olsen leaped onto the emptying bench and nearly tumbled. At the final whistle, Hamid said he “started running with my arms in the air and kind of blacked out because this is something special.”

Said midfielder Perry Kitchen: “It’s a whole new season now.”

One that United hasn’t experienced in a long time.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Messi vs. Ronaldo: 2 - 2

From ESPN.go.com:

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo matched each other blow for blow at the Nou Camp Sunday, bagging two goals apiece as Barcelona and Real Madrid battled out an entertaining draw in the first Clasico of the La Liga season.

Tito Vilanova's Blaugrana headed into the game eight points clear of their archrival and boasting a 100 percent record from their first six matches, but found themselves trailing midway through the first half when Ronaldo netted for the sixth straight Clasico.

But Messi equalized with a scrappy goal soon after and then put the hosts ahead with a stunning free kick on the hour, only for Ronaldo to capitalize on sloppy defending midway through the second half to ensure honors ended even.

"It should be prohibited to say which is the best in the world," Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said. "They are both from another planet."

It was, perhaps, a fitting end to the latest head-to-head duel between arguably the two best players in the world, who for the last two seasons have engaged in a two-way scoring race unlike anything the Spanish league has seen before.

"(Messi and Ronaldo) both try to do everything they can to help their teams and score goals," Vilanova said. "If Ronaldo hadn't coincided with Messi, perhaps he would get even more recognition."

Barca midfielder Andres Iniesta was handed his first start since the Supercopa aggregate defeat against Real in August, while Adriano partnered Javier Mascherano at center-back with Gerard Pique (foot) and Carles Puyol (dislocated elbow) sidelined.

Mourinho made three changes from the team that won 4-1 at Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday, with Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria replacing Michael Essien, Kaka and Jose Callejon.

The visitors began brightly and created the better of the early chances.

Ronaldo -- scorer of a midweek hat trick in Amsterdam, and the winner in this corresponding fixture last season to virtually assure Madrid the title -- crossed from the right for Karim Benzema, who miscued his volley horribly wide from 12 yards when left unmarked in the 13th minute.

Six minutes later, Ozil sent over a corner and Sergio Ramos leapt above the Barca defence only to direct his header inches wide of Victor Valdes' goal.

The warning signs had been there but Barca failed to heed them and the opener duly arrived midway through the first half. Benzema turned neatly on the edge of the box and fed Ronaldo, who lashed home a low left-footed finish that beat Valdes at his near post.

It could have been 2-0 moments later when Khedira burst down the right before feeding Benzema. The Frenchman spooned his effort against the post, though, and Di Maria sent the rebound wide with the goal at his mercy.

The home team suffered a further blow when Dani Alves' involvement ended in the game after 28 minutes. The Brazilian was replaced by Martin Montoya.

However, two minutes later Barcelona was level. Madrid failed to clear their lines from Pedro Rodriguez's cross and, after bobbling around in the area the ball fell kindly to Messi in the six-yard box and he lashed past a helpless Iker Casillas and into the roof of the net.

Both sides had decent penalty shouts turned down at the start of the second half, Ozil going down after contact with Mascherano before Iniesta appeared to be clipped by Pepe.

Vilanova's team took the lead in spectacular style on the hour mark, Messi picking himself up after being fouled by Xabi Alonso and dispatching a brilliant left-footed free kick up over the wall and curling away from the diving Casillas.

Whatever Messi could do, though, Ronaldo could do too, and swiftly matched the Argentina forward's eight goals in La Liga this term six minutes later.

Ozil slotted a slick pass through to the Portuguese, who had been played onside by Adriano and coolly slotted past Valdes to get Madrid back on level terms.

The final quarter was end-to-end stuff, though Mourinho's men were seemingly the more content with the point.

Messi floated a shot high and wide from Jordi Alba's cut-back, with Iniesta's cross scrambled clear by Marcelo soon after.

Gonzalo Higuain, a 62nd-minute replacement for Benzema, saw his cross deflected to safety by Mascherano before the final few minutes were played out almost entirely in Madrid's defensive third.
Montoya was almost an unlikely match-winner on 88 minutes but his right-footed attempt from the edge of the box crashed back off the bar, before Pedro burst through in stoppage time and unleashed a left-footed shot which flew just wide.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Barca Blasts Benfica 2 - 0

From news.com.au:

Barcelona continued their imperious form this season as they retained top spot in Champions League Group G with a 2-0 victory away over Benfica.

Alexis Sanchez struck after six minutes and Cesc Fabregas added a second following the break to leave Barca with a 100 per cent record from their opening two games while Celtic are on four points following their earlier win away to Spartak Moscow.

Sergio Busquets was sent off with two minutes to go after a clash with Maxi Pereira.

Tito Vilanova arrived at the Camp Nou over the summer looking to win back the Champions League, which they have lifted twice out of the last four years, and the domestic league title.

And despite the pressure of replacing Pep Guardiola he could hardly have made a better start with also six wins from six in la liga.

Now Vilanova's men turn their attention to the small matter of the El Clasico on Sunday against Real Madrid - but they will be without Carles Puyol, who dislocated an elbow after falling heavily on his arm.
"It was a costly victory for us but we are happy with the result against Benfica who are a strong side. It was a nasty injury (for Puyol) and he has already had one this season so this isn't very normal," said Vilanova.
"We have had a lot of problems at the back and it would be nice to play the El Clasico with a full squad but still we are playing well at the moment and have five days to recover."

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus had only words of praise for his players.

"We weren't lacking in any area. We were against the side who in my opinion is the best in the world and in any game they have about 70 per cent possession. We were excellent in the first half and didn't deserve to go in losing," he said.

"At 2-0 Barca consolidated, defended the result and made it difficult to come back at them."

The main news for Barcelona before kick off had been that Puyol was returning from injury to lead the team from the back while Andres Iniesta was fit for a place on the bench.

For Benfica seeking their first victory against a Spanish side since the 1982-83 season they were missing defender Luisao and up front Oscar Cardoza, while playmaker Pablo Aimar, who had overcome a strain, was left out of the starting eleven as Jorge Jesus sought a more mobile midfield.