Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: at Real Madrid 3, Manchester City 2

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Man of the Match: Is Ángel Di María still underrated? Perhaps, with today’s performance the perfect example why. The Argentine winger was vital to two Real Madrid goals, but within the context of one of the more dramatic matches you’ll see, the highlights won’t have time to adequately highlight his contributions.

On Real’s opener, Di María made a key run from the right, took a pass from Mesut Özil and drew in the defense before finding Marcelo. Moments later, Real Madrid was even, 1-1.

On Real’s second goal, the Argentine international dribbled from the right into the middle of the defense before threading a ball to Karim Benzema, who was left with only one man to beat for Real’s second equalizer.

Di María will get one, maybe two assists today, but within the context of Real’s dramatic comeback, those contributions will be undersold. As always, he was left to walk the line between overlooked and star.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • The match started flat, but with four goals in the final 15 minutes of regulation time (three in the last six), day one of Champions League group stage gave us an immediate classic.
  • Both teams made surprising changes in defense, starting young center halves few predicted would see time. Nineteen-year-old French defender Raphaël Varane was in Real’s XI, relegating Sergio Ramos to the bench. Serbian Matija Nastasic, also 19, came in for City, pushing Joleon Lescott out of the team.
  • With Michael Essien (for Real Madrid) and Gareth Barry (for City) also in, the teams set up slightly defensive. City had sacrificed a striker to go 4-2-3-1, putting Yaya Touré behind Carlos Tévez. José Mourinho started neither of his playmakers: Mesut Özil or Luka Modric.
  • Perhaps predictably, Real Madrid was able to control the first half. City was content to sit back and absorb pressure, and while that left a number of opportunities for Real to try from distance (Cristiano Ronaldo took a number of cracks at Joe Hart), the containment plan worked.
  • The only cracks in City’s first half defense were two Gonzalo Higuaín chances, both times running on to Di María chips to earn chances on Hart. The first was snuffed out by a nice read from the `keeper. The second was shot wide.
  • City’s best chances of the half came on counters, taking advantage of Touré’s advanced role, though chances in the 31st and 38th minute broke down before testing Iker Casillas.
  • Roberto Mancini was forced into a change in the 38th minute, Samir Nasri coming on with a right leg injury. Aleksandr Kolarov came on to play in front of Gael Clichy for the rest of the half.
  • The substitution eventually brought about a formation change. Kolarov played deep on the left, pushing Clichy into the left side of a central three. Maicon played Kolarov’s opposite wingback, and with Touré dropping deeper into midfield, City played a 3-5-2, with David Silva playing in support of Tévez.
  • The shift served Maicon well. The former Inter defender was initially able to push up the right and disrupt Real left back Marcelo, who Real had trouble building through after the change.
  • It took Real Madrid about 13 minutes to figure out what City had done. Then, they resumed the same dominance of play they had in the first half, creating 60th and 65th minute chances for Marcelo just outside the box.
  • And Manchester City returned to the counter attack, with Touré finally pulling the right string in the 69th minute. A turnover created just inside City’s half gave Touré the opening to burst forward to create a two-one-one – he and Edin Dzeko versus Varane. Twenty-five yards out, Touré released a pass for Dzeko who, with Alvaro Arbeloa and Sami Khedira in pursuit, slotted the opener past Casillas.
  • The lead didn’t last long. Seven minutes later, Real Madrid was able to create another chance for Marcelo. This time, the defender took his time, opted for precision instead of power, and opened his right foot on a ball that flew just under Hart’s crossbar.
  • Nine minutes later, luck smiled in City’s favor when a restart by Kolarov skidded behind Madrid’s defense, possibly deflected off Xabi Alonso, and went inside Casillas’s far post, giving City their second one-goal lead. The outcome may have been fortunate, but if it wasn’t for Pablo Zabaleta – who hustled to draw the foul on Karim Benzema  – the goal wouldn’t have happened.
  • Benzema got revenge two minutes later, taking a pass from Di María, moving around Nastasic, and beating Hart  inside the right post for another quick equalizer.
  • Three minutes later, Real had their first lead. Cristiano Ronaldo, in possession just to the left of the box, cut back on Zabaleta and onto his right foot. He launched a topspin heavy shot that confused Hart, the keeper seemingly expecting Vincent Kompany to block the ball. Hart hesitated, didn’t react as the ball dipped, and let in a winner most goalkeepers would have stopped.
  • The comeback would have been amazing in it’s own right, but within the context of what Real Madrid’s league struggles, it became both necessary and a possible turning point. Losing to Manchester City would have thrust the club into an identity crisis. Forced to comeback twice, Real Madrid’s attack had to wake up. That it did will help the club re-grasp its mystique.
  • For City, this is a match you forget as soon as possible. They weren’t expected to get anything out of today’s game. That they lost their point on a howler makes it hard to reconcile (Javi García threw both arms up and fell to the ground when he saw the ball go in), but in the bigger picture, this one of the more acceptable losses City will ever be dealt.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.

Landon Donovan retires again, this time for good

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After coming out of retirement last fall to join the LA Galaxy for one more shot at an MLS Cup, Landon Donovan has once again called time on his career, saying he’s certain he will not play again.

With a number of other ventures on his plate, the USMNT all-time leading scorer is looking forward to spending his time elsewhere.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Donovan said. “I’m done. No more playing for me. I have not [gone public with it yet]. But that is definitely the case.”

Donovan scored one goal in nine games for the LA Galaxy in his comeback bid, with the club ravaged by injuries and still gunning for the Cup. However, after the season was over with a loss to Colorado in the Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy confirmed it was nothing more than a short-term stopgap.

“With Landon, when he came back, it was always going to be a short-term thing,”team president Chris Klein said to the L.A. Times in December. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing and we see we’re comfortable in the direction that we’re headed.”

In January, reports claimed Real Salt Lake had offered Donovan a Designated Player contract, but it appears he’s turned it down, and will now have time to concentrate on his other ventures. Off the field, Donovan is an analyst on Fox’s soccer coverage, is on the advisory committee for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid, and has joined the ownership group attempting to bring an expansion MLS team to San Diego.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.

Dele Alli banned three European games for straight red card

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Spurs may be out of the Europa League this season, but should they end up qualifying for the Champions League next season, they will start the campaign short-handed.

Tottenham will be without midfielder Dele Alli for the first half of the group stage after his horrifying tackle on Brecht Dejaegere of KAA Gent in their 2-2 draw which saw Spurs out of the competition on aggregate in the Round of 32.

Alli went to ground on the 39th-minute challenge, and made contact on high up on Dejaegere’s leg with both his studs, finishing with a scissior-whip motion. It was a blatant red card, and now UEFA’s disciplinary committee has handed down the three-match ban. Straight-red cards for violent conduct only carry a minimum penalty of one match in UEFA tournament play, but the disciplinary committee clearly thought a longer punishment was necessary, with the ability to sentence anyone up to five matches.

The straight red was the first of Alli’s professional career. Alli apologized to Dejaejere after the match, according to the Gent midfielder. He’s since scored in four straight matches, and when asked on Sunday if that moment was still in his mind, he said, “I’m never going to say sorry for wanting to win or trying as hard as I can but things happen and you have to learn from them.”

Spurs currently sit in second place in the Premier League table with 59 points and look to be in a strong position for Champions League qualification, with a seven-point cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United.