Carles Puyol: Goodbye To A Great Captain

Carles Puyol is calling it quits after a 15-year career with Barcelona and they bid him adieu with a wonderful video. But more importantly, it opens with a shot of a 14-year-old Puyol in 1994 with tremendous hair in an all-denim outfit.

When Puyol made his debut for Barcelona, they were the defending La Liga champions, but Puyol did not win a trophy in his first five years with the senior team.

In 2004, it all changed, both for Puyol and Barcelona. He was handed the captain's armband and that season they captured the league. The following season, they won it again and also won the Champions League. It was the start of a dynasty at Barcelona and while there were bigger starts - Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi often stole headlines - there was always the long haired captain at the back.

Over 15 years, when Barcelona went from a struggling club to the darling of the world to obnoxious dominators, Puyol was the constant and even when the club's superior attitude turned some off, the captain was still beloved. Amazingly, this happened despite Puyol being the ultimate embodiment of Barcelona, a La Masia product who was the ultimate "More Than A Club" man.

The 36-year-old Puyol made 100 appearances for Spain, winning the 2010 World Cup following the European Championship in 2008. Puyol said his best memory was after beating Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final, when he handed the captain's armband to teammate Eric Abidal so he could lift the European Cup first. Abidal had been battling liver cancer.

On a club full of superstars and big names, Puyol was the man at Barcelona.

Goodbye, Carles. We will miss you, and your hair.

Source: Associate Press, FC Barcelona
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2014 UCL: It's a Madrid Derby final

Jose Mourinho's Champions League semifinal misfortune struck for a fourth consecutive year, as Atletico Madrid beat Chelsea 3-1 at Stamford Bridge to earn a final place in Lisbon against neighbor Real Madrid. It will be the first time two teams from the same city have competed in a European cup final. Here is what caught our eye from Wednesday's result in London.

There was not quite the fanfare surrounding the return of Tiago Mendes to Stamford Bridge that we saw in the round of 16 when Didier Drogba returned with Galatasaray, but the effect was altogether more decisive. Atletico fans concerned about the suspension of Gabi, so important to the midfield this season, needed not to have worried; Tiago was a steady presence in the center of the field, and his vision set up the visitors' first and third goals, with floated cross-field passes releasing right back Juanfran behind Eden Hazard on both occasions.

Tiago was a Premier League winner under Mourinho in 2004-05 and spoke before the game of the similarities between his ex-boss and Diego Simeone, for whom every decision paid off perfectly in London - from the call to start Adrian Lopez, the first goalscorer, ahead of Raul Garcia, and to restore Arda Turan, scorer of the third, to the team. "When you think of both you immediately see not just the figure of a coach, but of a leader. These are two very similar teams and two coaches who know exactly what they are playing for. Mou puts himself inside your head. Simeone instils an idea in you too," Tiago told El Pais last week.

If it was a clash between the two coaches, there was only one winner. Mourinho, it might be said, was even panicked into making a substitution too early, bringing on Samuel Eto'o at 1-1 with 40 minutes still to play. Was he chasing the game too early? It was Eto'o who conceded the second-half penalty which as good as killed the contest.

A word on the penalty scorer, too: Diego Costa gave John Terry a bruising encounter in Madrid and, though he had little to feed on here, it was the same story. If this was a job interview for a role at Chelsea next season, Costa passed with flying colors: he has the physique, power, and eye for goal that reminiscent of Drogba in his pomp - just the type of player, in fact, that would fit perfectly into a Mourinho side. He also showed impressive composure with a nerve-wracking penalty.

Fernando Torres' opening goal did not change too much for Atletico, which, penalties aside, always needed an away goal to progress. That its goal came so soon after Chelsea's summed up the story of the day in London, where subway strikes left fans relying on buses, just a few days after Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers accused Mourinho of parking "two buses" in front of its goal in last week's win at Anfield. So we waited two hours and six minutes for one goal between these teams, then two came in seven minutes.

Adrian's equalizer was a huge turning point, coming one minute before the halftime break and requiring Mourinho to push for a second goal. It could have been avoided too, coming as the result of a series of defensive errors, starting with Hazard losing Juanfran at the far post, Terry and Ashley Cole failing to cut out the cross, and Adrian with the time to hit the ball into the ground and see it canon into the top corner. Adrian's selection was another perfect decision from Simeone: he provided more pace on the counter than Raul Garcia, but also has a a habit of making it count in the big games, as he was fantastic in the win over Barcelona in the last round. The fact that he had gone 21 games without a goal? No problem.

Thibaut Courtois, playing his first game at Stamford Bridge, nearly three years after signing for Chelsea, also reacted smartly to a John Terry header soon after the goal, and the more Chelsea pushed, the more secure Courtois looked. He did need the post to save him from a David Luiz header. But when Mourinho looks back at the game, he will know that the loss of concentration just before halftime changed this tie.

No one would dare admit it, but you would imagine Real Madrid would rather have faced Chelsea than its local rival in the final in Lisbon. Since Simeone came to Atletico Madrid, one of his greatest achievements has been to end his team's curse against Real Madrid: a run of 25 games and 14 years without a win. That came in the Copa del Rey final last season - ironically when Mourinho was coaching the side - and since then, Atletico has beaten Madrid at the Bernabeu (1-0, Diego Costa) and drawn 2-2 at Estadio Vicente Calderon. In between there was a Copa del Rey semifinal that Real Madrid won 5-0 on aggregate.

Despite that, Simeone is proving himself a master of the cup competitions, winning the Europa League and European Super Cup (against Chelsea) as well as the Copa del Rey. His Atletico side is unbeaten in Europe this season and has only conceded six goals in 12 games. Will it be able to keep a clean sheet against Real Madrid, and the might of its Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale combination?

We have just over three weeks to find out, but if the story of this European season is that counterattack has overtaken possession-based play as the dominant tactic, then this final will continue that narrative.

Source: Associated Press, Fox Sports, The Guardian
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R.I.P. Tito Vilanova (1968-2014)

It seems that sometimes being a fan of Real Madrid or Barcelona requires you to spend as much time hating the rival club as you do supporting your own. It's kind of natural, after all, the two sides have been fierce rivals both on and off the pitch for decades and will be that way for decades to come. "Haterz gon' hate" as the kids like to say.

However, there are always moments when fans of both clubs, and clubs all over the world, put away our petty rivalries for a moment of solidarity and unfortunately today is such a day. Tito Vilanova, the fine manager who led Barcelona to a league title in his one season managing Barcelona, has succumbed to parotid gland cancer and passed away today at age 45. Slated to start the 2013-2014 season as manager of the club, he stepped away shortly prior to the season's beginning as he felt that he could not fulfill his duties while at the same time going through cancer treatment.

Vilanova, a Barca man through and through, came up through the Barca youth academy and played for their B team (among others). He eventually joined the club as an assistant coach in 2007 before getting his breakthrough as manager in the 2012-2013 season as he led his team to a marvelous domestic season and a deep run into the Champions League.

Of course, all that is secondary to the good man he was and the unfortunate circumstances of his stepping down from his position. Cancer is a brutal thing. Just when there was hope that Tito's battle might be a winning one, this unfortunate news broke and we will all rally behind Barca through this tough period in their club's history no matter where allegiances lie.

Our deepest condolences and support to Tito's family and the entire FC Barcelona organization. Fan lines do not exist today.
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Juan Mata - The Great Paradox

Juan Mata was Chelsea's best attacking player last season, tallying 20 goals and an incredible 35 assists. However, he's proven to be a player that is only at his best when a team is built around him, something that new Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has been unwilling to do. Mata has been ineffective in his appearances for the Blues this season and has not scored a goal in the Premier League.

Manchester United reportedly paid a £37m fee to bring Mata to Old Trafford, which is a club record. They've run with a rotation of Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj in the central attacking midfield spot, with all of those players getting starts in other positions as well. It seems unlikely that United would break their transfer record to buy a player they won't play in his preferred position, so David Moyes now faces the difficult task of figuring out exactly how to construct a team around his new star.

There are two interesting, contradictory ways of framing Chelsea selling Mata to United. From one point of view, the Blues have sent their two-time Player of the Year to a direct title rival. And from another, United have just broken their transfer record to bring in a Chelsea bench player. Both are, of course, entirely true, which makes this almost paradoxical transfer extremely difficult to untangle. And that's because Mata is a very difficult player to untangle.

The raw numbers don't lie. As Chelsea's number ten, Mata has been one of the best footballers on the planet. We live in a world where most elite playmakers opt for caution and ball possession above most else, waiting for the other team to make a mistake, but Mata is cut from entirely different cloth. Like a Mesut Ozil or a David Silva, he plays with grace and sensuous skill; unlike them he has the almost irrepressible instinct to attack. Mata combines continental style with a ruthless killer edge. That's why he's a better goalscorer than any other 'true' number ten in the world. Where Ozil patiently probes, Mata forces the issue, and if he sees the opportunity to finish the move, whether with a shot or an audacious pass, he's willing to try it, risk or no.

Because the truth of Mata is that using him at his most effective, allowing him to run the game the way instinct tells him the game should be run, the rest of the team is shackled to his weaknesses. Much has been made of his lack of defensive acumen, inability to apply an aggressive press and the need to give him a free role behind the centre forward, but that's only part of what makes the 25-year-old so difficult to accommodate outside of a team built around him.

Mata's directness, his insistence on always driving at goal, means that his style of play is all risk for maximum reward. He tries things that nobody else would, and as a result he fails more, losing the ball far more often than you'd expect from a technically elite Spain international. Combine his attacking style with his lack of defensive ability and it soon becomes obvious that to control space and avoid the counterattack with Mata as your conductor, you need a very specific strategy - four defenders, two disciplined, defensively positioned midfielders and wingers that collapse into the second bank of four whenever you lose the ball.

Rafa Benitez is the only Chelsea manager who's ever found a way to completely unleash Mata in a way that doesn't compromise the rest of the team's defensive shape (which is where Roberto di Matteo went wrong when he deviated from his ultra-defensive approach after winning the Champions League). But there were compromises made elsewhere. Mata was unchained but his teammates were not. The midfielders had fewer opportunities to go forward and both Eden Hazard and Oscar were forced into more constrained roles, the latter being hit particularly hard.

And this is the great Mata paradox - to get the most out of him you have to watch as your entire team is subsumed by his gentle tyranny. He'll reward you, and has rewarded Chelsea in spades, but it comes at a cost. The small tweaks you make to get Mata to play at his best in the hole all come at the expense of the rest of the team, and there's a limit to how far even the best number ten in the game can take you on his own.

Source: UK Telegraph, Associate Press, Guardian, Fox Sports News
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