Real Madrid provides BVB’s next big test – UEFA Champions League Group D preview

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In a group with three stand out teams, one squad will always get a relative “week off,” though that doesn’t guarantee points. On Tuesday, Juventus squandered their break in Copenhagen, dropping points against Nordsjaelland. Today, Manchester City will try to avoid the same end on their trip to Amsterdam.

Meanwhile in Germany, Real Madrid has a chance to put Group D under their thumb. A win over Dortmund will not only see them sweep their first three games, it will also give last year’s semifinalists at least a four-point lead on the rest of the group. If Manchester City slip, the lead could be five.

Borussia Dortmund (Germany) vs. Real Madrid (Spain)

Westfalenstadion, Dortmund, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

We all know what to expect from Real Madrid: The steadiness of Iker Casillas in goal; The potency of Cristiano Ronaldo in attack; The steal that head coach José Mourinho injects into each of this players. Los Merengues are as good as any team in the world.

Borussia Dortmund, on the other hand, is less of a certainty. Consider their last two big games. Three weeks ago, BVB went to the Etihad Stadium and had a break through against Manchester City, giving their best European under Jurgen Klopp. This weekend, however, Dortmund lost at home to Schalke, not only dropping a derbybut also losing more ground on Bayern Munich.

This is the point where we’d usually discuss which BVB is most likely to show up, but there’s no telling how they’ll respond against Real Madrid until Wednesday night’s kickoff. Can Robert Lewandowki, Marco Reus, Mario Goetze and Jakub Błaszczykowski succeed against a Real Madrid defense that has contained some of the world’s the best attacks. Can Lukasz Piszczek hold off Ronaldo while Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic play mistake-free soccer against Karim Benzema? Who knows?

As successful as Borussia Dortmund have been over the last two years, we’re not close to answering these are questions. On Wednesday, we start gathering information.

From Borussia Dortmund head coach Jurgen Klopp:

“They were tactically disciplined, quick, showed anticipation, pressed and counterattacked while playing football of a high technical standard. That left quite an impression.”

From Real Madrid head coach José Mourinho:

” We know how dynamic they are, how gifted and how quick they play, but they do have little weaknesses which we plan to exploit.”

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Ajax (Netherlands) vs. Manchester City (England)

Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Ajax is the fourth of three in a group of death that’s not, but with Manchester City visiting the Amersterdam ArenA, the Dutch champions presented with one of their few chances to have an impact on the group. Ajax aren’t strong enough to do damage away from home, and last round they were reminded Real Madrid can still have their way in the Netherlands. But hosting Manchester City? Or Borussia Dortmund? With those teams still maturing into European powers, points might be there for the taking.

This all assumes Ajax can actually play well, something that hasn’t been a given in recent weeks. Back-to-back Eredivisie draws have Frank de Boer’s team five points off FC Twente’s pace. Though they’ve yet to lose in league, Ajax has only won four of nine matches. It’s hardly the type of record that portends an ability to compete with England’s champions.

Manchester City, for all the critiques that can be made about their performance in Champions League, has actually been somewhat consistent in the eight group stage games they played over the last two tournaments. They’re able to compete with the teams that are threats to get out of the group (Bayern and Napoli last year, Real Madrid and Dortmund this year) but take care of business against the weakest link. City picked up six points from Villarreal last year, outscoring the Yellow Submarine 6-1.
In theory, the results indicate of a level of play right below that of a tournament contender. While that’s a very high standard, it’s below Manchester City’s aspirations. It’s also consistent with a rather comfortable victory today.

If Ajax is the Villarreal of this year’s toughest group, Manchester City probably won’t have a problem.

From Ajax head coach Frank de Boer:

If we want to survive in Europe we need a result from this match and that’s our goal … Our team is learning so let’s hope they are quick students.

From Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini

“” We don’t have experience as a club but all our players have experience in the Champions League. Maybe as a club we need to get experience in the Champions League, but we have players with that experience.”

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Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.