Pitchside Europe

Moyes, Barca, Basel – 5 things we learned from matchday five

Pitchside Europe

What a strange Matchday Five it was: Barcelona and Chelsea both lost, while Manchester City conceded two goals at home and no-one was worried. On the other hand, Roberto Mancini’s European headaches continue and Sergio Ramos got sent off – again. Here are the storylines that caught our eye this week.

Is Yakin approaching FC Basel end-game?

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On Matchday Six two years ago, FC Basel beat Manchester United 2-1 to dump the English side out of the Champions League. For new coach Heiko Vogel, it was the peak of his brief spell in charge: he signed a long-term contract soon after, but was out of work ten months later. On the face of it, his replacement Murat Yakin has done a splendid job: the Swiss league title and a run to the Europa League semi-final and Swiss Cup final in his first season.

On Tuesday, Yakin’s FC Basel beat Chelsea 1-0 to beat Jose Mourinho twice in a season, an impressive achievement that very few coaches across Europe can lay claim to. Yakin is clearly a coach with his star in the ascendant – Shakhtar Donetsk’s Mircea Lucescu called him “very, very, very smart” and this week he has been linked to a job at Lazio – so it came as a surprise to learn that his contract, which expires in June 2014, has not been renewed by president Bernard Heusler.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and not everything is hunky-dory in north-west Switzerland. The draw that FC Basel need at Schalke to reach the next round could have been avoided had they not drawn twice with Steaua Bucharest on Matchdays Three and Four. After the latter, relations between the coach and his players were strained and Swiss paper Aarguer Zeitung die Nordwestschweitz reported that Yakin’s future, despite their position on top of the Swiss league, was increasingly uncertain.

Unlike Vogel and his predecessor Thomas Fink, Yakin has eschewed FC Basel’s traditional desire to entertain and concentrates only on results, on winning matches. “He doesn’t care how,” wrote Aarguer Zeitung. Then there is his relationship with the players: a fall-out with David Degen, a former team-mate with whom he used to go on holiday, signed in summer 2012 for the swansong of his career, who has only completed one league match in 2013; and tension with captain Marco Streller, popular with the fans and respected by the board, who does not want to end his career like his friend Alex Frei last summer.

The win over Chelsea has put all the problems on the back-burner – for now.

If FC Basel fail to get the point they need to stave off Schalke for second in the group, expect them to return. Some of the best managers use conflict to get results, something Jose Mourinho, knows all too well. Yakin is a coach to watch – but it appears that his future might not be at FC Basel for too much longer.

Barcelona goalkeeper conundrum continues:

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There were six regular first-teamers missing from the Barcelona side that lost their first game of the season at Ajax this week. While the opportunity “to show that we can cope without Lionel Messi”, as vice-president Josep Maria Bartomeu put it, was lost, it was also obvious that Jose Pinto, 38 and out of contract this summer, will not be the long-term replacement for the departing Victor Valdes.

While part of Tata Martino’s remit this season has been to make the team less dependent on Messi at one end of the pitch – and given the impressive start Neymar has made, added to the improved form of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas’s skill as the false nine, it has worked – there is also a concern at the other end. Valdes is leaving Barcelona in the summer, and he will be greatly missed: he has been in great form this season, arguably the best form of his career until he was injured on international duty in South Africa, and fans have been singing his name in Camp Nou. The players would rather he stayed too.

But next season, there will be a new man in goal, and it could an old one too: Pepe Reina, who began his career at Barca, was outstanding for Napoli in their defeat at Barcelona and could join if Liverpool agreed to a cut-price deal. As a long-term option, Marc-Andre ter Stegen remains on the radar: Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizaretta reportedly met the goalkeeper and Moenchengladbach directors earlier this month in Germany. The best case scenario for Barcelona would be to get both men: Reina to start the season and be the experienced goalkeeper, with ter Stegen the man for the future. Either way, Valdes will be missed, hugely.

Mixed Germany penalty success

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Arsene Wenger joked that English fans should be happy that Mesut Ozil missed his penalty against Marseille because he’s German. In the same group, Dortmund’s Marco Reus made no mistake from the spot, against Reina, something of a penalty expert himself.

Both men showed their hand in the run-up: Ozil’s stop-start jitters left it clear that he would aim for his natural side, and made the shot look worse than it was, while Reus took two jumps to his left before he started his run-up, opening up his body to make it easier to kick to his non-natural side. Reina had obviously decided to go the other way before then, and did not change his mind. Could Ozil’s miss, though, herald a potential German weakness? After all, Germany’s efficiency from the spot was merely an extension of their win-at-all-costs efficient playing style; now they have flair and creativity in their ranks, maybe they will prove to be as flaky as England if it comes to spot-kicks in Brazil.

Well, we English can dream…

Mitroglou future could depend on progress

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Olympiacos hold the upper hand in their battle with Benfica to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain in Group A. Benfica need to better Olympiacos’s result at home to Anderlecht while facing PSG on Matchday Six.

If the Greek champions qualify for the knockout round for the first time since 2010, they will have a decision to make on whether to cash in on striker Kostas Mitroglou. One of the stars of the group stage, he has scored 14 goals in ten league games this season and has been linked with a January move to Liverpool, Arsenal, Inter and Dortmund. Whether he would want to join a bigger club as a squad-player six months before a World Cup is another matter entirely: but if the Greeks miss out on the next round, an offer of over €8m could be enough to convince them to sell.

Moyes relief but questions remain

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Winning 5-0 against the side currently second in the Bundesliga is the perfect result for David Moyes in his first season as a Champions League coach and no-one can dispute United’s swagger was impressive. But in brushing aside Bayer Leverkusen, Moyes may have given himself a selection headache in the future: his best two attacking players were Wayne Rooney, in his favoured centre-forward position, and Shinji Kagawa, in his favoured position just behind Rooney. The pair dovetailed marvellously and were a constant threat. The problem for Moyes is that when Robin van Persie is fit again, he has to move Rooney back and Kagawa wide to accommodate the Dutchman.

In pre-season, Moyes got in trouble when he said: “My thought on Wayne is, if for any reason we had an injury to Robin van Persie, we’ll need him.” He explained himself but where the Rooney-Kagawa partnership leaves RVP could be interesting. “It’s a headache I’m happy to have,” will no doubt be Moyes’s response.

Ben Lyttleton

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