Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: at FC Porto 1, Málaga 0

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The match was arguably more lopsided than the simultaneously played game at the Emirates, though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the scoreline. Against a visiting Málaga team that set up to merely survive the Dragão, Porto kept 63 percent of the ball and outshot their opponents 18-2. Helton, their goalkeeper, never had to make a save, but when Mark Clattenburg’s final whistle blew, the 1-0 lead the Portuguese champions won was little more than holding serve. That’s the minimum a team’s supposed to get at home.

Based on how he set up his team, Málaga boss Manuel Pellegrini will be happy with that result. In fact, he should have anticipated it, though he undoubtedly would have loved to get out of Portugal with a clean sheet. Keeping his defensive midfielders Jeremy Toulálán and Manuel Iturra deep throughout the night, Pellegrini wagered Porto wouldn’t be able to move through what is a stalwart to defense under normal circumstances.

Ultimately, Pellegrini’s wager paid off. On Tuesday, despite almost never venturing forward, Málaga only sprung one leak. The 1-0 may not have been the result they wanted, but it was a result they could live with.

Their one leak came in the 56th minute when Porto holder Fernando ventured forward before putting a pass from the left flank behind central defender Martín Demichelis. Midfielder Joao Moutinho blew unmarked past Málaga’s two-man midfield and onto the ball, one timing it between Willy Caballero’s legs from 10 yards out for the game’s only goal.

Málaga can live with that blemish, taking a one-goal deficit back to the Rosaleda for the second leg. Porto, on the other hand, is in a more interesting position, not really knowing what they have. Clearly, they have a one-goal lead, but set to go on the road against a team that won their Champions League group, do they really have an advantage?

Given Málaga’s strength throughout the season has been in prevention, not scoring, Porto may be encouraged, but whether they believe they can keep a clean sheet in Spain dictates how they’ll approach the second leg.

Man of the Match: So you’re Daniel Levy, chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. You almost had a deal for Joao Moutinho in the summer window, but the paper work didn’t get sorted out, somebody knocked over the fax machine, somebody’s cell phone battery died – who knows. The deal didn’t go through, but in the back of your mind you’re already planning to ring Porto president Jorge Pinto da Costa in May and get the deal done.

If you’re Levy, you can’t feel great seeing Moutinho put in performances like tonight’s, possibly driving up his value. Sure, there’s a debate to be had as to whether Moutinho’s value’s going to go any higher, but he certainly didn’t diminish it on Tuesday. Great movement running at the Málaga line. Passing as accurate and reliable as ever. Spectacularly dangerous corners, and the match’s only goal. It was a complete (if somewhat uncontested) performance.

What team in the world wouldn’t want a Moutinho? Maybe he doesn’t play every day at a place like Barcelona, but are you telling me he doesn’t improve teams like Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, or even Juventus?

Maybe you are, and if so, Daniel Levy has to be hoping other chairmen are thinking like you. Because if they’re thinking like me, Moutinho’s probably not going to end up at White Hart Lane.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Not every first leg is amazing – Every once in a while we get a Arsenal-Bayern or a Shakhtar-Dortmund, but for the most part, first legs of Champions League ties are cagey affairs. If you’re lucky, you get a couple of goals, as we did last week at the Bernabeu. Most of the time, you get a match like today’s.

But look at it from Málaga’s point of view. Manuel Pellegrini probably sees his side as the better team but not overwhelmingly so. If he can take one half of the 180-minute game — the half where he’s at a disadvantage — and drastically reduce the number of opportunities, fast forwarding the game to leg two? He’ll take that.

Don’t blame Pellegrini. Blame the competition format. The approach makes sense, but as a result, we get a lot of flat first legs.

Would James have mattered? – Vitor Perreira elected to start Colombian dynamo James Rodriguez on the bench, giving Russian Maxim Ismailov the start at left wing. Ismailov offers a more direct option, but he’s doesn’t have Rodríguez’s skill on the ball. Against a team that sat deep and kept the game in front of them, Rodríguez would have provided  some needed creativity, something that may have brought a quiet Jackson Martínez into the game.

There’s a reason for his absence. James came back from a month-long absence this weekend against Beira-Mar but only played about 20 minutes. That opened the question as to whether he would be ready for today’s game. Perreira brought him off the bench against Málaga, but left with two wingers who tended to turn-and-go on the outside (Ismailov and Silvestre Valera), James would have made a welcome difference. His playmaking ability could have gotten more out of Moutinho, Lucho Gonzalez, as well as Martínez.

Málaga clearly needs to change it up – Obviously, Pellegrini isn’t going into leg two with the same conservative approach, but even if his team somehow finds itself up 2-1 going into the last half hour, he needs to do something different than what he did today. At the start of the second half, Perreira was allowing Fernando more license to get forward. Right back Danilo was releasing as soon as Porto regained possession. Center half Nicolas Otamendi even ventured forward once.

Porto had adjusted. They started pushing people forward and playing a numbers game against Málaga’s packed in defense. If Pellegrini takes the lead on March 13, he’ll need to give Porto a different look.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Had their Champions League games not been scheduled for the same day as Bayern and Arsenal’s, Málaga’s matches would have been a good showcase for Willy Caballero – a chance for more people to see a goalkeeper that’s becoming one of La Liga’s best. Unfortunately, even if you tuned in today, you wouldn’t have seen many of Caballero’s talents, Málaga effectively limited his exposure to Porto’s attacks. In the first half, however, you could see how quick and decisive Caballero is off his line, one of the plus-talents he’s shown during the Primera campaign.
  • Former Mexican league start Jackson Martínez was one of the players to watch coming into this tie, but a packed in Málaga defense kept the Porto star from threatening goal. To his credit, he moved out of the cluster in the middle and started combining with Porto’s wingers, but the former Jaguares star was still neutralized on Tuesday. As easy way for Porto to get to the quarterfinals is by getting something out of the man who has scored 20 times in 19 league games.
  • Because of the way Pellegrini played, Málaga star Isco was also quiet. He’ll need to be more of a factor in Andalusia. If it wasn’t for the fact he’s a completely different player, you could consider him Málaga’s Jackson. Regardless, both teams will look to get more out of their star.
  • Julio Baptista was a mild surprise, starting with Roque Santa Cruz in place of Javier Saviola, but he held up well. The former Real Madrid and Arsenal man went 78 minutes in his first Champions League appearance since Oct. 2010. It was The Beast’s fourth game this month after 16 months on the sidelines.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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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

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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

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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”

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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.