‘Europa League’

Fergie’s last stand, José’s return, Becks’ adieu and Der Klassiker

The closing weeks of the 2012-13 season represented one of the most seismic periods in the recent history of English football: Sir Alex Ferguson sensationally retired as Manchester United manager, bowing out after an astonishing 5-5 draw at West Bromwich Albion; David Beckham called time on his perpetually headline-grabbing career; Wigan Athletic stunned Manchester City in the FA Cup final; Chelsea claimed a last-gasp victory over Benfica in the Europa League final; Arjen Robben netted a dramatic late winner for Bayern Munich to settle a pulsating Champions League final at Wembley; and then shy, retiring José Mourinho returned to Chelsea.

I was privileged to report on all of it, and below are links to some of the pieces I produced for AFP as the season reached its crescendo:

Sir Alex Ferguson
Profile: Alex Ferguson, the man who rebuilt United
Analysis: Following Ferguson, United’s impossible job
Report: Ferguson bows out as United share 10-goal epic
Reaction: United look forward after Ferguson says goodbye

Premier League
Analysis: Late-season retirements hint at Premier League flux

FA Cup
Report: Wigan stun Man City in FA Cup final upset

Europa League final
Report: Chelsea claim last-gasp Europa League triumph

David Beckham
Report: Beckham calls time on stellar career

Champions League final
Report: Redemption as Robben gives Bayern fifth European crown

José Mourinho
Report: I return to Chelsea as a fan, says Mourinho
Profile: José Mourinho, Chelsea’s scheming showman
Report: Mourinho returns as the ‘Happy One’

Report: Chelsea overcome Basel to reach Europa final

“LONDON — Chelsea reached the Europa League final for the first time in their history after surviving a first-half scare to defeat Swiss champions FC Basel 3-1 in the second leg of their semi-final on Thursday.”

My AFP match report from Stamford Bridge can be read here.

Report: Bogeyman Bale cuts Inter down to size again

“LONDON — Gareth Bale resumed his torment of Internazionale by scoring one goal and creating another as Tottenham Hotspur won 3-0 at White Hart Lane on Thursday to place one foot in the Europa League quarter-finals.”

My AFP match report on Tottenham’s superb victory over Internazionale can be read here.

Preview: Benfica v Paris Saint-Germain

Paris Saint-Germain travel to the famous Estádio da Luz on Thursday for the first leg of their Europa League last 16 tie with Portuguese champions Benfica. I have co-written a preview of the game for the PortuGOAL website, which can be read here.

Tactics: United, Lille shirk midfield confrontation

Manchester United have already demonstrated this season that they are capable of overwhelming teams despite fielding what on first glance appears to be a conservative 4-5-1 formation, notably in the 3-1 Carling Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City in January.

They were at it again in the 4-0 win against Milan last week, when a side fighting hard for the Serie A title were simply torn apart by a United team fielding only one dedicated attacking player in the form of Wayne Rooney.

United’s tactics in that match (see right) saw Rooney fielded once again as a lone striker. Nani and Antonio Valencia were stationed on the flanks, with Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher occupying deep positions in central midfield. Park Ji-sung played a crucial role in the middle of the pitch by breaking forward to harass Milan’s deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo.

“Park made a sacrifice, and showed intelligence and discipline. We needed that against Pirlo who’s a very good player for Milan,” said United coach Sir Alex Ferguson.

Park subsequently spent a significant amount of time just in front of the Milan defence but his role was principally a destructive one. In United’s defensive phase, Rooney was the only player in the remote vicinity of the Milan centre-backs, with Park dropping back alongside Fletcher to present Milan with a five-man wall in midfield.

The key to United’s victory, as it was against City, lay in springing Park and Fletcher forward from midfield to add weight to United’s attacks. With Rooney having converted a cross from either flank to put United 2-0 up, Park and Fletcher killed the game off with late strikes in the second half. Both, crucially, had drifted into Milan’s penalty area unseen.

The principal purpose of the 4-5-1 is to give the team a solid base in midfield, but one by-product of the system is the manner in which it renders deep-lying opposition midfielders redundant by vacating the space usually inhabited by playmakers and attacking midfielders. One of the reasons for deploying midfielders to shield your defence is to prevent your opponent’s attacking players from exploiting the space that used to exist between defence and midfield in a traditional 4-4-2. But by completely withdrawing his midfielders from Milan’s defensive territory, Ferguson left Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini marooned – unable to engage with United’s attacking midfielders but prevented from picking out a team-mate upfield due to the wall of opposition midfielders ahead of them.

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