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.

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United

Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the Year award

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LONDON (AP) Mohamed Salah has been voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in English football in recognition of an incredible scoring return to the Premier League with Liverpool.

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

The Egypt forward collected the Professional Footballers’ Association award at a ceremony in London on Sunday, two days before Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

It is a reunion with the Italian club he left in the offseason for 42 million euros (then $47 million). The hefty fee appeared to be a gamble for Liverpool but now represents a real bargain.

The former Chelsea player has scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool – enabling him to beat Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in second place to the PFA award.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane was third.

[ MORE: Man City thrash Swansea in pursuit of points record ]

“It’s a big honor,” Salah said. “I’ve worked hard and I’m very happy to win it.”

Salah is preparing to lead Egypt into its first World Cup in 28 years and he is the first player from the North African nation to win English football’s top individual prize.

“Hopefully I’m not the last one,” he said. “I’m very proud to win and I’ve worked very hard.”

Salah’s impact has been more remarkable given his underwhelming 2014-15 season at Chelsea before being offloaded by then-manager Jose Mourinho. He went on loan to Fiorentina in early 2015 and Roma in 2016, and then on a permanent basis to Roma in August 2016.

Scoring 15 goals and setting up 11 more for Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to a second spell in England.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw West Brom in final tune-up before UCL semis ]

His goal at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was his 31st in the league this season, tying the scoring record in a 38-game campaign held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.

Suarez was the last Liverpool player to be crowned player of the year by the PFA in 2014 before moving to Barcelona.

It’s a sign of his remarkable impact that Salah secured the award with third-place Liverpool and that none of Manchester City’s newly crowned champions won the accolade.

But City winger Leroy Sane was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

The PFA women’s player award went to Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, while Lauren Hemp of Bristol City secured the young player prize.

CONCACAF cancels women’s U-17 tournament due to violence

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) CONCACAF has canceled the rest of its 2018 Women’s Under-17 Championship following violence in Managua, Nicaragua, where the tournament began Thursday.

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football made the announcement Sunday. The tournament was to have determined the region’s qualifiers for the Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay, which starts Nov. 13.

More than two dozen people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead. Dozens of shops in Managua were looted during protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms.

The U.S. opened Friday with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica and had been scheduled to play Bermuda on Sunday and Canada on Tuesday.