Extra Time: El Clsico Edition

Extra Time: El Clsico Edition

Often, sports are overrun with hyperbole. How many times can a game, a match or a fight be billed as the game, the match or the fight of the year, the decade or the century? Typically, we fall into the hyperbole trap when two rivals are set to square off. The bitter rivals narrative is easily understandable. Two people or teams compete to see which is best. There's a winner and a loser - only when there isn't and there's a tie, which is wholly unsatisfying. 
I preface this post with a warning on hyperbole and rivalry because what I am about to say is assuredly not hyperbole. This afternoon the two best soccer players on the planet will be on opposing sides as the two best soccer teams in the world face each other. Lionel Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo. Barcelona. Real Madrid. El Clásico.
In order to get you ready for today's Clásico I've rounded up a bunch of links covering everything from the sociopolitical implications that fuel this rivalry to a tactical breakdown of how the teams are likely to play. Vamanos...
First, beyond the rivalry this game is vitally important in the La Liga standings. Barcelona can pull to within one point of first place Madrid with a win. Each team has five league games yet to play.
Here's a nice primer on why these two clubs are such bitter rivals. The history between these two cities/regions makes our hatred of Dallas seem like child's play. There are very real social, political and economic reasons behind this rivalry.
Every great rivalry needs a villain. Enter Madrid's Pepe. Grantland's Chris Ryan writes about a player unafraid to dabble in the dark arts. Bonus, Ryan's piece includes a 4+ minute video of Pepe stepping on people, punching people and fouling people titled "Pepe - The Assassin". 

The tacticians over at Zonal Marking preview the approach, formation, team selection and tactics likely to be employed by Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. 
Speaking of tactics, this piece dates back to Spain's triumph in the 2010 World Cup, but it's as good a read as you'll find on how Barca's 4-2-3-1 has permeated world futbol
Need a break from clicking on links and reading? Check this stunning animation from Barca's 5-0 thrashing of Madrid back in 2010...

Want even more of an artistic look at one of the main players in this match. The Classical has a fantastic hand-drawn "Focus On: Lionel 'Leo' Messi".
Continuing with a cartoonish theme, Grant Wahl has a fun interview with the colorful Ray Hudson, who along with Phil Schoen will call the game for GolTv today.
ESPN.com's Graham Hunter, who literally wrote a book on Barcelona, previews the match in light of both teams having played Champions League Semifinal fixtures midweek. 
Finally, if this game is not enough for you there's a very real chance these two teams will play each other in the Champions League finals, which Spain's national team manager contemplates here.
Artwork by Matthew Craven via The Classical

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

usa-tranquillo-barnetta-union.jpg
USA Today Images

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta is going home.

In an abrupt announcement on Tuesday, the Union declared that the skillful Swiss attacking midfielder will not renew his contract with the club and will return to Switzerland following the 2016 season to play for his hometown club, FC St. Gallen.

According to MLS Players Union, Barnetta’s exit will free the Union of $687,500 next season.

“The entire soccer community here was so welcoming and I’m so thankful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for making me feel so appreciated,” Barnetta said. “Playing in front of my friends and family and making plans for life at the end of my career where I want to live is a force I can’t resist.”

Although the timing of the announcement is a surprise, the move isn’t one. With Alejandro Bedoya now in the mix, currently playing out of position in a box-to-box midfield role, the Union will replace Barnetta with Bedoya at the center attacking midfield spot. It’s a position that Bedoya is comfortable in, playing there with his previous club, FC Nantes.

Bedoya played for the injured Barnetta in the center midfield spot last Saturday and scored his first goal of the season in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC.

But even with Bedoya ready to take over, the Union will miss Barnetta. Since joining the Union in 2015, Barnetta, 31, has been one of the better possession playmakers in MLS, scoring six goals and seven assists in 37 games.

“Tranquillo has been a key piece in what we’re trying to build here in Philadelphia but we appreciate his decision to return to Switzerland,” said Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, whose club has three matches left in the 2016 season, and will likely make the playoffs. “We look forward to continuing to push for the postseason.”

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

The Eagles are 3-0. They’re alone atop the NFC East and have been the biggest surprise of the young NFL season.

Doug Pederson’s message to his team: You haven’t done anything yet.

Although the Eagles are riding high, Pederson doesn’t want his team to change its outlook or hard work. That’s what teams have to worry about once they’ve found some success.

“The biggest thing is complacency,” Pederson said Monday. “You think you've arrived. You think you are all that. When that creeps in, that's when you get beat. It's my job not to let that creep in. I've got to keep the guys focused and grounded. I told them this week they're going to travel and go home and people are going to pat them on the back and say how great they are.

“But next Monday, I'm going to tell them, ‘Hey, we're back to work. We're 0-0. This is Game 1 and let's go.’ That's just the way it has to be. You are building for one ultimate goal and that's a few weeks down the road. That's what you are trying to get to. But you can't get there unless you take care of the next opponent. It's my job to keep them focused that way.”

Being 3-0 (they’re one of five 3-0 teams) gives the Eagles a head start, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee them a playoff spot. This is the ninth 3-0 start in franchise history. They’ve made the playoffs just five times in the previous eight. And they recently missed the playoffs after starting 3-0 in 2014 under Chip Kelly.

In NFL history (before this season), there have been 276 teams to start with 3-0 records. Of them, 200 (72.3 percent) have made the playoffs.

“We just have to approach it the same, one day at a time,” Pederson said. “That's the way this business goes. You are on top of the world one minute, and you can be at the bottom of the heap the next. Just got to keep things even-keeled and can't get too high, can't get too low. Approach it the same. Like I mentioned earlier, you can't substitute for hard work. That pays off on Sundays. We just have to stay the course. Again, a lot of football left.”

While the Week 4 bye comes pretty early, the Eagles have a couple key players who will use the time to get healthy. And Connor Barwin pointed out that the bye is coming about closer to the halfway point between when the team started its tough training camp and the end of the season.

Pederson told his players to use the week to get away from football and free their minds. Meanwhile, Pederson and his coaches will use the extra time to self-scout and prepare for the final 13 games of the regular season.

With a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback who was thrust into action a week before the opener, expectations outside (and perhaps inside) the building were tempered.

The Eagles aren’t an underdog anymore.

“We kind of enjoyed flying under the radar, but obviously a win like this against a team like the Steelers will open some eyes around the league,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “For us, nothing different. We’ll keep our preparation the same. We’ll stick our heads down and focus on the work day to day and understand what’s gotten us to 3-0.”

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