Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: Bayern Munich 3, at Arsenal 1

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At halftime, Arsenal had 51 percent of the possession, hardly indicative of a team that had been dominated. Yet thanks to a huge disparity in execution on the final third, Bayern Munich took a 2-0 lead into halftime, a scoreline that carried the Germans through the final whistle.

Though Arsenal were able to pull one back after Lukas Podolski headed home a second half corner, the Gunners still face the daunting task in the tie’s return leg, especially after allowing Bayern Munich to restore their two-goal lead late. Having dropped their home leg 3-1, Arsenal must now find a way to score at least three on the road against a club that’s allowed only seven in league this season.

That their defensive prowess abandoned Bayern for a brief moment in the second half now seems like a footnote, but it did give Arsenal brief reason to hope. After conceding a corner along their left, FCB allowed Arsenal’s 55th minute cross to drop in the middle of their area, near the six-yard box. Germany No. 1 Manuel Neuer, committing an ironically characteristic error, failed to catch a ball that bounced for former Bayern attacker Lukas Podolski, who had gotten ball-side of Bastian Schweinsteiger for an easy goal.

It was Arsenal’s first shot of the match, a testament to that first half disparity. Despite superficially even play, Bayern still reached halftime without allowing Neuer to be tested. Conversely, their ability to execute the isolated chances they generated led to a comfortable halftime lead.

The first goal came early, an errant fifth minute cross from right ring Thomas Müller finding attacking midfielder Toni Kross just inside Arsenal’s penalty area. The German international one-timed a shot into the right of Wojciech Szczesny’s net, giving the Gunners’ goalkeeper no chance to prevent the opening goal.

Mid-way through the half, Kross hit a perfect in-swinging corner near post where defender Daniel van Buyten, having cut across Aaron Ramsey, headed onto Szczesny. The Arsenal No. 1 did well to push the shot off the line, but with Müller alone in the box to play the rebound, the Gunners found themselves two goals down after 21 minutes.

They were Bayern’s only shots of the half – Kroos’s goal, van Buyten’s header, and Müller’s putback – but they highlighted the difference between the two sides. Given as much of the ball as their opponents, the Bundesliga leaders created to clean goals. With the same amount of possession, Arsenal couldn’t challenge Manuel Neuer.

“You have to give them credit for their class,” Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger said after the match. “In the first half in patches there was a difference in quality.”

In the 73rd minute, after Arsenal’s ascendancy had forced Jupp Heynckes to sacrifice Kroos for the more defensive Luiz Gustavo, a direct ball that Mario Mandzukic chested down for Arjen Robben gave Bayern a chance to put Phillip Lahm behind the defense. The right back’s ball through the six-yard box met Mandzukic as he beat Bacary Sagna, allowing the Croat to put home München’s third goal.

It was another example of the match’s defining theme: Bayern’s superior execution. It wasn’t that the Bavarians dominated the game; rather, they converted the chances they created. Arsenal not only failed to create enough opportunities, they didn’t execute as well on the ones they did. The prime example: Substitute Olivier Giroud’s chance to equalize in the 72nd minute off a cross from Theo Walcott was drilled right at Neuer, failing to convert on Arsenal’s best chance to get back in the tie.

That execution gap (and the talent that enables it) is why Arsenal is the middle of a minor identity crisis, and despite a strong second half showing that mitigated their poor start, the night at the Emirates provided further evidence of a team that has slipped from their place among Europe’s elite.

Meanwhile, Bayern has affirmed their status as one of the two favorites to claim this year’s Champions League.

(MORE: The day’s other day, Porto holding serve against Málaga)

Man of the Match: Getting two early goals on the road, Bayern settled into an approach that inhibited standout individual performances, though Toni Kroos’s contributions to the game’s first two goals are still worth of recognition. A perfect hit on Müller’s fifth minute cross left Szczesny flat-footed as the opener sailed into his nett, while a great corner that swung in and dove at the near post allowed van Buyten to take advantage of the space in front of Arsenal’s first defender.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

source: ReutersBayern’s midfield was too much for Arsenal’s – The talent and flexibility of Kroos, Schweinsteiger, and Javi Martínez were on display on Tuesday, the trio able to control that determinative period of the first half. Though Arsenal had a good amount of the ball, the positioning of Schweinsteiger and Martinez at the base of midfield allowed Bayern to stay organized and prevent Arsenal from mounting a significant threat. Going forward, the duo (Martínez in particular) were able to take advantage of Arsenal’s trio of Jack Wilshire, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, moving into available space as well as helping to pressure the sitters into hasty clearances.

That they were able to get that high and provide that help was a major difference between the two sides. Bayern’s play and the quality of their midfielders allowed their two deep midfielder to push forward, the 15-20 yards of space they sometimes kept between themselves and their central defenders standing in stark contrast to Arsenal’s holders. While Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey were often 8-10 yards away from their defensive line, Bayern was content to let van Buyten and Dante deal with Arsenal’s attack.

The positioning was a metaphor for the difference between the two sides, and that was just their deployment. In terms of actual play, if you were to rank the games six starting midfielders based on their Tuesday performance, Bayern’s three would be at the top of the list while Arsenal’s ranked fourth through sixth. The Gunners’ trio were never able to have an impact on the match.

Is it worth it? Moving Cazorla wide to make room for Ramsey? – It’s difficult to say how much this mattered. Cazorla playing in the middle wouldn’t have prevented either of the first two goals.

Ultimately, that’s what dictated how this match played out; however, with Arsène Wenger electing to put Cazorla wide right in the defensive phase and leave Jack Wilshire as the through-the-middle outlet, Arsenal moved their best player farther away from the action. Although he came into the middle in the attacking phase (and Wilshire was active enough in his role trying to connect out of the back), you can’t help but wonder if Arsenal would have been a little more potent with their first half possession had Cazorla been the man receiving the ball out of the final third.

It’s not unheard of for Arsenal to play like this. When Aaron Ramsey is in the team (which he was on Tuesday), Wenger adjusts by pushing Wilshire forward and Cazorla wide. But that choice comes with costs. Today, Ramsey played a part in both first half goals (see below), Arsenal didn’t have Wilshire’s quickness and distribution deeper in their formation, and Cazorla was pushed away from the action. It’s hard to see how those costs were offset by getting Ramsey into the team.

Bayern is otherworldly right now – Even with Arsenal’s dip in quality and Bayern’s second half slip, consider the result: Bayern takes a 3-1 lead out of the Emirates.

That’s huge. For comparison’s sake, look at what Barcelona’s taken from the Emirates in recent years. In 2010-11, Barcelona was trailing after their first leg in London, eventually turning around a 2-1 deficit to advance 4-3. The year before, Barcelona was drawn 2-2 at the Emirates before routing Arsenal at the Nou Camp, 4-1.

Even for the half hour the game sat 2-1, Bayern never looked as vulnerable as Barcelona did in those games. That history left a voice in your head saying “Arsenal could do this again,” but ultimately, Bayern showed that may be on another level. Tonight’s game just wasn’t that close.

“We are currently in astonishing form,” Heynckes said after the match, “our quality is that we can punish the smallest mistakes of our opponents.”

Packaged for takeaway

  • Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up an 39th minute yellow card and will miss the second leg in Munich. Look for Luiz Gustavo to take his place along side Javi Martínez. Given the score, don’t look for it to matter that much.
  • Other Bayern yellow cards: Phillip Lahm and Thomas Müller. Losing either of them would be a significant blow.
  • Nacho Monreal, cup-tied thanks to his time with Málaga, was ineligible for tonight’s game. As a result, Thomas Vermaelen slid out to left back, with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker getting the call in central defense. The Belgian international did a good job on Müller.
  • Aaron Ramsey failed to get to the cross that led to the first goal. It was a difficult play, one that would have required him to react immediately to Müller’s ball, but it’s one other players would have made. The same could be said on the 21st minute corner, when van Buyten ran into Ramsey’s zone to flick the ball on goal. It wasn’t a good night for the 22-year-old Welsh international, and approaching five years since he arrive in London from Cardiff City, you wonder if he’s ever going to live up to the speculation that surrounded him as a 17-year-old.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.