Winners, losers from Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League action

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The final scores tell us who the winners are, but there’s always subtext. There’s always context. There are always stories beyond the stories. Here are Wednesday’s – the winners and losers from the week’s second day of UEFA Champions League action.

WINNERS

1. Cristiano Ronaldo’s happiness  – Two weeks ago, Ronny was all sniffles. We were ready to cry with him, if only we could figure out the problem. Incredible rich working for popular club in the game? First world problems.

In fairness, Real Madrid was struggling, and he didn’t feel loved by the higher ups at the club. Now, the world’s second-best player has six goals in two games, with Los Merengues making last month’s downturn look like a teenage mood. Now with four Champions League goals this season, Ronaldo’s the tournament’s leading scorer, his team perfect through two matches.

2. Max Allegri – Milan had a lot of luck while winning 3-2 at Zenit. Two of their three goals were nothing short of good fortune, but Allegri’s part in the should not be overlooked.

Milan came out better prepared than Zenit, the Italians dominating the match’s first act with their superior energy. Deploying Stephan El Shaawary on the left proved prescient, allowing the 19-year-old to run at Aleksandr Anyukov. Late in the match, as Zenit pressed for a go-ahead goal, Allegri brought on midfielder Antonio Nocerino, changed his team’s shape, and regained control of the match.

And who knows. Maybe Milan turned over the right Tarot cards before the came, too. He did everything else right on Wednesday. Maybe he created the good fortune, too?

3. Greatest goalies in the world – Most of the time, English pundits labeling Joe Hart the world’s greatest goalkeeper comes off as a strange mix of defensiveness and jingoism. Or maybe they’re just trying to show us Yanks they can do sarcasm. Regardless, sometimes the case for Joe Hart gets laid on so thick, you want to plug your ears with an Iker Casillas kit.

Today, though, Joe Hart gave that argument actual live. Seven saves – seemingly all of the important variety – kept Manchester City within one when Borussia Dortmund should have blown them out. Mario Balotelli’s 89th minutes late conversion made Hart a deserved hero.

So maybe the pundits weren’t being sarcastic. For one day, at least, they were proved right.

4. Late match drama – Most of the time, seven-to-eight simultaneous kickoffs are a pain. Why can’t we stagger these? Are there people out there that are against showing more soccer?

When the late goals start pouring in, though, your favorite website’s scoreboard becomes more exciting than NFL Red Zone.  Today, late goals helped Milan and Porto claim full points, while Manchester City and Montpellier salvaged draws.

Of course there’s a flip side to that coin, one where the disappointment can be more acute than the elation. Zenit, in particular, should feel crestfallen after today’s result.

LOSERS

1. Roberto Mancini – For whatever reason, Mancini’s team didn’t look up for today’s game, a state highlighted by Dortmund’s energy in midfield. Why, after such a strong performance in Madrid two weeks ago, did City seem unprepared for today’s game? Perhaps it was just an aberration – a dip – but on the heals of last year’s performance in Champions League, it’s difficult to avoid recalling the criticisms that haunted Mancini at Inter Milan.

There, his inability to produce in Champions League contributed to his departure. Is City starting to experience the same problems? We’re eight games into Mancini’s Champions League life at City, and they’ve yet to play up to their talent.

2. Neven Subotic – Roman Weidenfeller saved Subotic in the first half when the Dortmund defender was beat for two chances on his keeper. While things got better for Subotic, the 23-year-old still played goat at the end. His handball gave Manchester City the penalty kick which tied the game. While his teammates where outplaying the defending Premier League champions, Subotic was having one of his tougher nights.

Post-match, Subotic claimed (after reviewing the call) that it was “never” a penalty. He conceded his hand was out and the ball hit it but appealed to a literal interpretation of the rules. He didn’t have time to move his arm, he claimed.

While that’s all right and true and dandy, it’s not practical. Defenders how the rules are interpreted, which is why you often see defenders hold their arms behind their back when defending crosses late. If you have your arm out and you block a shot headed toward goal, a referee might call it. If you’re deep in the penalty area – the only man between the shot and goal – you’re almost guarantee to hear a whistle.

If that right by the book? Maybe not. Is it right by how players know games are called? Absolutely.

3. Paris’s fast track – Paris Saint-Germain looked like world beaters two weeks ago, beating Dynamo Kyiv 4-1 on matchday one. Today, Porto reminded them of the obvious: European success won’t be so easy.

It’s not only that Porto won. They completely outplayed PSG, and if you buy into this match as a litmus test, the result came up the wrong color for the Parisians.

4. Zenit’s checkbook – Hulk scored a goal today. That’s progress, but the ultimate goal of Zenit’s September splurge is to have a better team. One month after bringing in the Brazilian and Axel Witsel, they’re worse.

Igor Denisov is still on strike, wanting more money. Rumors of dissent within the squad persist. It’s like the more money they come across, the more problems they see.

Spurs “have the capacity” to win the Champions League

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We know. They just drew 2-2 away at Rochdale in the fifth round of the FA Cup. We know.

[ MORE: Dele Alli and the diving debate

But Tottenham Hotspur’s last 2-2 draw was much more impressive as they went to Juventus and outplayed the reigning Italian champions in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

Heading into the second leg at Wembley on Mar. 7, it appears that new signing Lucas Moura, who scored their opening goal against Rochdale on Sunday, is a fan of what he’s seen in his short time at Tottenham.

Speaking to reporters after his first goal for Spurs on his full debut, Moura has high hopes for his time in North London.

“I am 25 years old but I think I gained a lot of experience with PSG and I think I can help Tottenham. I think we have a lot of quality and a great structure and can arrive at the end of the season with a trophy. The Champions League is the most difficult cup but I think we have the capacity to win it if we always think in positives and always work hard,” Moura said, via the Guardian.

“We did a big game against Juventus away. It was a good result in Italy and I am sure we can do a good game with our fans and continue. It’s always important to win. Every player wants to win trophies, to make history and I am here to make history with my new friends, my new team-mates. I believe that because we have a lot of quality, a great structure – I am really impressed – and I think we can dream with the Champions League.”

Does Moura have a point? Aside from a weakened side struggling away at Rochdale on a freshly laid pitch, they’ve been superb in recent months.

And given the current form of Harry Kane and the entire Spurs team there won’t be a single club who says “you know what, let’s take Spurs” if they make it through to the last eight of the UCL.

The high-pressing style of Mauricio Pochettino saw them bully Juve away from home and all of a sudden it seems like the rest of Europe has woken up and realized just how good they are.

If injuries are kind to Spurs and Moura continues to show flashes of brilliance since his arrival from PSG in January, the Brazilian could well be on to something. Tottenham are by no means favorites to win the Champions League, but their recent results against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool prove they are a force to be reckoned with.

Top Chelsea v. Barcelona moments

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Ahead of Chelsea hosting Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg, let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

And boy, we have a lot of golden moments to choose from between these clubs as they’ve meet in the UCL knockout rounds on five previous occasions.

[ MORE: Man United, Chelsea in UCL action

In recent years Barcelona against Chelsea has become essential viewing whenever they meet and Tuesday at Stamford Bridge will be no different as Lionel Messi looks to score for the first time ever against the west London club after firing blanks in all of his previous eight encounters.

From epic semifinal goals, to late drama and heartbreak, below is a look at some of the greatest moments in European history between these two clubs.


1. Fernando Torres‘ goal at the Nou Camp sends Chelsea to the UCL final in 2012

Down to 10-men and trailing 2-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate, Chelsea looked doomed after John Terry was sent off in the first half at the Nou Camp. Then Ramires pulled a goal back in the first half with a fine lob, before Lionel Messi hit the post and struck a penalty kick against the crossbar as Barca couldn’t find the all important third goal. With everyone pushed forward, one long punt up the pitch found Fernando Torres late on and he rounded Victor Valdes before slotting home (last goal in the video below) to make it 2-2 on the night and send Chelsea onto the final in Munich against Bayern. They once again recorded another improbable win in the final to secure their first-ever European trophy on penalty kicks and this comeback against Barca, against all the odds, proved it was written in the stars.


2. Andres Iniesta’s last-gasp strike at Chelsea sends Barcelona to the UCL final in 2009

Barcelona went to Stamford Bridge after being held to a 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp in the first leg and they went 1-0 down, with Chelsea seemingly heading into the UCL final. Then, late on the ball found Iniesta on the edge of the box and his perfect finish sent Barca to the final where they would beat Manchester United to be crowned European champions. A wild night of celebrations in Barcelona ensued and Iniesta added yet another glorious moment to his legendary career.


3. Chelsea squander 3-1 first leg lead, fall 6-4 on aggregate in UCL quarterfinals

What drama. Stamford Bridge was rocking as Chelsea beat Barca 3-1 in the first leg of their quarterfinal with two goals from Tore Andre Flo and a fine free kick from Gianfranco Zola and everybody believed they’d make it through to the last four of the Champions League. Umm, probs not. Luis Figo and Rivaldo each scored in the second leg as they looked to be sending Barca through on away goals, but Flo hit back to give Chelsea another advantage. Dani Garcia then scored seven minutes from time to take the game to extra time and Barca scored twice in the first half of extra time to make it 6-4 on aggregate and seal their passage to the final four. One of the greatest quarterfinal clashes in UCL history.

Why are we so concerned with Dele Alli and diving?

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Another weekend, another debate about Dele Alli taking a tumble in the penalty box.

Rinse, repeat.

There should be no debate about the latest penalty kick he won late on against Rochdale in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Sunday. He was clearly fouled and both opposition players and their manager had no complaints as the nimble Englishman went down under contact.

Alli, 21, was brought off the bench to try and drag Spurs back into the game and he did just that with Harry Kane slamming home the spot kick Alli won to put Spurs 2-1 up late on, only for the Premier League side to let in a late equalizer against their third-tier opponents to set up a replay at Wembley in 10 days time.

Yet it is the constant hubbub around Alli and diving which is the biggest issue which needs to be addressed because we are not focusing on the problem of simulation and how best to solve it.

With three yellow cards for simulation while playing for Spurs in the Premier League (more than any other player since 2015-16), plus his manager Mauricio Pochettino saying he understands diving to gain an advantage after Tottenham’s controversial 2-2 draw at Liverpool earlier this month, Alli is in danger of being pigeonholed as a cheat, if he hasn’t been already.

Speaking after the FA Cup game this weekend, Rochdale manager Keith Hill discussed the 88th minute penalty being awarded and Alli’s actions.

“I’m led to believe he was looking for it, but why not? If players feel there is an opportunity to be gained then brilliant, I don’t hold it against him,” Hill said. “I don’t blame him and I don’t have a problem with it. Whether it’s him, Harry Kane or [Rochdale’s opening scorer] Ian Henderson, it doesn’t matter who does it. If he does that for England in the World Cup this summer then I will definitely be supporting him.”

Comments like this, although deemed to be supportive by Hill, are the reason why Alli is being branded a cheat. Instead of vilifying him, the bigger issue of simulation in the game should be the focus. But it’s not. Lengthy bans have been discussed, so too have sin bins, but nothing is really being done to eradicate the issue.

Yet if someone praises Alli for initiating the contact and going down, he’s hammered. If he’s criticized for going down too easily, he’s hammered. He’s in a lose-lose situation. But why is Alli being singled out for special treatment?

Quite simply, it’s because he’s a special talent and because he is the next great hope for England, even if this season he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of being crowned the PFA Young Player of the Year in each of his first two Premier League campaigns. Pochettino’s recent honest comments (which he since stated were taken out of context as he doesn’t condone diving) haven’t done the reputation of his players much good with Kane, Erik Lamela and others also scrutinized heavily after recent tumbles in the box.

“To stop the game, to punish people. Some 20 years ago, 30 years ago, it was like all congratulate the player when he tricks the referee. If you remember the football 30 years ago. That is the football I was in love with when I was a child. Football is about trying to trick your opponent. You know? Yes or no? Tactic – what does tactic mean?,” Pochettino said. “When you do some tactics it is to try to trick the opponent. You say, ‘Oh I play on the right but I’m going to finish on the left’. It’s a mix that I am worried that maybe we are going to kill the game. We love this game.”

Purists within the English game have long lambasted and singled out foreign imports (rightly or wrongly) for taking tumbles in the box, going down too easily and trying to con referees into giving them an advantage.

Many foreign imports to the PL who have since admitted they were taught at a young age to go down if they felt contact in the box which further enraged the debate. Now, with the heavy international influence at each PL club, we have seen simulation become a bigger part of the English game over the past decade and more anger emerge from pundits, coaches and fans alike.

A new rule introduced this season to retrospectively ban any players found guilty of diving (if the incident wasn’t spotted at the time by the officials) has seen Oumar Niasse and Wilfried Zaha banned, although Zaha won his appeal against the decision, and it seems to be having some impact, but it’s still not doing enough to stamp out simulation in the English game.

The initial impetus officials had at the start of the season to try and get rid of simulation has dwindled and old habits are sneaking back into the game.

Is Alli the only player who goes down often? No. Yet the way Alli plays the game, we will more often than not see him clattered into in the box. He flicks and pokes balls past defenders and his relatively slight frame means he will likely go down under contact from a bruising center back or midfielder. That’s just science and it’s the same for many other talented attackers who are built for speed and agility rather than strength and power.

Alli’s reputation as a hothead supersedes these simulation allegations and previous bans for punching opponents in the stomach, lunging into tackles to be sent off and off the ball incidents certainly do him no favors in proclaiming his innocence.

But the vendetta building against him as a serial cheat needs to end before this vicious cycle gets further out of hand and his talent erodes amid the jeers from opposition fans.

It’s unlikely that Alli, like many players, will stop going down in the box anytime soon if he feels contact from an opposition defender. The sooner everyone starts to accept it, the sooner everyone can move on and focus on trying to eradicate serial simulation in the game once and for all. Be it with lengthy bans, sin bins or straight red cards, something drastic must be done.

That’s the bigger issue here. Not Dele Alli.

Man United, Chelsea prepare for La Liga tests

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The final two Premier League teams to get their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties off and running are Manchester United and Chelsea who both play this week.

Both PL giants face Spanish opposition but both are in very different situations heading into these games.

 [ MORE: Champions League schedule

United travel to Sevilla on Wednesday as the firm favorites to advance to the quarterfinals, while Chelsea host Barcelona on Tuesday hoping to still be in the tie after the first leg at Stamford Bridge against Lionel Messi and Co.

After Liverpool battered FC Porto, Manchester City demolished Basel and Tottenham went to Juventus and dominated in a draw last week, all of a sudden United and Chelsea are under a little bit of extra pressure to not let the PL sides down.

That pressure is ratcheted up given the fact that Spanish clubs have dominated the Champions League for much of the last decade, with six of the last 10 European champions hailing from La Liga.

Chelsea were the last PL club to reach the UCL final, when they beat Bayern Munich in 2012, while United reached the final in three of four seasons from 2008 to 2011 but only prevailed on one occasion… when they beat Chelsea in the final 2008. That rich run for English clubs in the Champions League saw seven of the eight finals from 2005-2012 have at least one English club in it, but none have made it that far since.

Six of the last eight teams to reach the UCL final have been from Spain, with Juventus reaching the final in two of the past three seasons but failing to the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Yet this season, with five teams from one league reaching the last 16 for the first time in the competition’s history, there’s a sense the English clubs are back to their best and are ready to put La Liga in their place. United and Chelsea will have the first crack at doing that in the knockout rounds with all eyes on what could be a seismic shift in power back to the PL.

Chelsea were the only one of five PL teams in the Champions League this season to not win their group and they paid the ultimate price for that as they were drawn against Barcelona, the current La Liga leaders and one of the red-hot favorites to win yet another European title.

Antonio Conte‘s men have recovered well in recent weeks after patchy form in the Premier League briefly dropped them out of the top four, but there’s no doubting that there are still issues behind-the-scenes with Chelsea’s Italian manager who many expect to walk away at the end of this season.

On the pitch, Chelsea continue to be Lionel Messi’s kryptonite as the Argentine star hasn’t scored in any of his eight previous outings against the Blues. Conte will hope that is once again the case and we may well see a more defensive Chelsea side than usual as they will keep it tight, then play it up to either Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to link up with Eden Hazard on the break.

Barca lead La Liga and if Messi once again fires a blank against Chelsea, at least this time they also have Luis Suarez in reserve, although Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied and can’t feature in the UCL after his January move from Liverpool.

As for United, the rigmarole around Paul Pogba continues as Jose Mourinho’s star midfielder missed their FA Cup fifth round win at Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness but is expected to be fit to play against Sevilla. Does Pogba have a future at Old Trafford?

That’s the key question right now but the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez will be eager to lead United in the latter stages of the UCL for the first time since 2014 when they reached the quarterfinals, but Mourinho is dealing with an injury crisis as Marcus Rashford could join Ander HerreraAntonio Valencia, Zlatan IbrahimovicMarcos RojoPhil Jones and Marouane Fellaini on the sidelines.

Sevilla drew against Liverpool twice in the UCL group stage and even though their La Liga form has been up and down throughout this season (they currently sit in fifth place in the table) and since Vincenzo Montella was appointed as their new boss in December, they’ll be a threat.

Wissam Ben Yedder is Sevilla’s chief goal threat and has six goals in six UCL games so far this season, while ex Manchester City pair Nolito and Jesus Navas will cause problems and Steven Nzonzi continues to impress in central midfield.

Both United and Chelsea know they face tough tests against Spanish opposition this week, and it is perhaps made a little tougher with expectations growing for English clubs in the Champions League this season.