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.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.