Spain’s three-week master class in prudent, patient application of effort (a.k.a., playing Spanish possum)

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Admittedly, claiming a major tournament on a thoughtful platform of efficiency and “prudent conservation” isn’t so sexy.

It’s certainly not as alluring or intoxicating as, say, creating history by mercilessly punishing a litany of hapless opposition, by winning through a series of lopsided results.

Spain may reign today, but everyone had hoped for more of that flashy 4-0 flourish along the way. We wanted to be treated to more of the Spanish hammer (as in Sunday’s Kiev kick-around) rather than seeing the champs chisel deliberately away with the precision tools.

But the manner in which Spain just made history really deserves proper recognition. Because the Spanish just stitched together a masterpiece – never mind some unappreciative grumbling along the way about Spain making its case in underwhelming style.

But Vicente del Bosque didn’t bring Spain to Eastern Europe to wow and impress in first-round matches or in some early elimination contest. They came to make grand history, and such high ambition cannot be entrusted to breathless unrestraint.

We may have wanted to be entertained; but Spain simply wanted to win, coveting that unprecedented third major tournament title (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012). So win they did, through patient self-regulation, through the tricky tenets of “doing just enough.”

We talked for three weeks of Spain never achieving the best version of itself, about apparent contentment and the need for blessed discontent, about possibly lacking that final, telling pang of hunger.

But did we have it wrong all along? Was del Bosque (pictured) simply having his men play a little Spanish possum en route to Sunday’s final in Kiev?  We all wondered where the “real” Spain might be hiding. In reality, they just didn’t need to be “full Spain” very often.

source:  They wisely determined just how much of the full Spanish treatment three successful weeks in Poland and Ukraine would require. So they got a lead and then got smart time and again, dropping the energy output a smidge – while the rest of us selfishly shouted “Go, go, go! … Why won’t they go?”

All that passing, passing, passing – the possession for possession’s sake that sometimes looked like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and the rest were cruising down a highway but content to travel at a safer “school zone speed.”

It made us wonder if Spain was vulnerable. In truth, we weren’t giving Spain sufficient credit for thinking this one through.  Italian manager Cesare Prandelli took in ample praise for getting things right against Germany, and deservedly so. But what about that wily ol’ del Bosque, a cunning Spanish fox who got it right in a bigger way.

Let’s not forget, this really is a grueling tournament. The teams Sunday in Kiev were playing their sixth match in 22 days. That’s one contest about every three and a half days – and what a taxing, debilitating slog it is.

Early Sunday the ESPN announcers wondered why del Bosque’s men couldn’t look more like they did in extra time against Portugal, when they leaned in for further offensive push, pinning the Portuguese back with the extra run, the quicker pass, the earlier ball forward and the higher intensity, generally.

But again, perhaps we weren’t giving Spain enough credit for managing the energy level, for always keeping a restrictor plate on this classic car, for doing just enough and leaving plenty in reserve.

Don’t forget, this is a Spanish team that won a World Cup by scoring eight goals (Just eight, in seven matches!), another lesson in patient application of effort. So perhaps trophy acquisition at Euro 2012 by way of wise conservation shouldn’t have been surprising at all.

By the 60th minute Sunday, Italy looked exhausted. Yes, it was unfortunate the Azzurri had to finish with 10 men, but Prandelli’s unit would likely have been similarly pooped with 11.

The Italians, not quite good enough to hold something back and still steer through the elimination rounds, were spent.

Spain, one of the best teams of all time (there can be little argument now) could afford to pace the enterprise a bit. They did so expertly.

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.