What we learned as Real Madrid eliminated Manchester United

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What was a captivating game between two of the worlds biggest clubs became controversial the minute Nani’s boot met Álvaro Arbeloa’s chest. But before the foul, we had one of the more interesting matches of the Champions League season, one where Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics had put Manchester United on the cusp of the quarterfinals.

And the decisions that enabled those tactics started with Manchester United’s starting XI:

  • Wayne Rooney misses out on the starting  XI – What was Alex Ferguson thinking, sitting one of his two cornerstone players? Thankfully, a few scribes caught up to him prematch and got his thoughts. He wanted Ryan Giggs on the right to help against Cristiano Ronaldo (where Rooney had failed in leg one), and he liked Danny Welbeck as his best defender against Xabi Alonso in the middle. Why Rooney didn’t get the start on the left of United’s 4-4-2, I’m not sure, but there was at least some method to the madness.
  • And the madness worked – Welbeck silenced Alonso, forcing Sergio Ramos and Sami Khedira to spend more time with the ball at their feet. Giggs was much better along the right than Rooney had been at the Bernabeu, perhaps forcing José Mourinho to flip Ronaldo to the right flank in the eighth minute. Before Nani’s sending off, Real Madrid scarcely threatened David de Gea.
  • Sergio Ramos held Real Madrid together – The 48th minute own goal was ironic, a ball sent through the six by Nani that went off Ramos’s right leg and in. Until that point of the match, Ramos had clearly been the match’s best player, not only performing admirably defensively against a United side that used Welbeck’s speed to threaten on the counter but also stepping into midfield to play the ball while Alonso was marked out of the game. Replace Ramos with a normal defender and Real Madrid may not have been within one when Nani’s seen off.
  • Did I mention Nani was sent off? – Of course I did. Here’s one view, Steve’s counter point, and some analysis from Graham Poll that highlights the fissures in the controversy.
  • United had a bad 10 minutes – Given how Ferguson set up his team, United could have held on for the last 32 minutes. But the red card was a controversial, contentious event. It’s not surprising United may have lost focus. Luka Modric scored about five minutes after play resumed. Cristiano Ronaldo scored two minutes later, after which United reasserted control. But by then, it was too late.
  • Diego López’s contributions will be forgotten – Even down a man, United had a number of chances to pull even. Yes, they would have needed another goal, but if it weren’t for Diego López, United may have been able to build that momentum. The January buy of the former Villarreal No. 1 paid off today.

What now for both of these teams?

It’s tough for Manchester United to move on, but they have nothing to be ashamed of. They got a tough Round of 16 draw, had to face one of the tournament’s best teams, yet were arguably the better side. José Mourinho admitted as much after the game.

For the second time in four years, United’s dealt a bitter knockout round exit, but coming off a disappointing 2011-12 tournament, the Red Devils affirmed their place as one of the world’s elites. The team can be proud.

And credit Real Madrid for getting through them, particularly having to win a second leg at Old Trafford. For Mourinho, it’s the second time in his career he’s done so, though this time he needed some help from one of his countrymen.

Unable to consistently generate chances against United, it’s difficult to see Real Madrid as being on Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund’s level. But between their talent and their coach, they have a chance at that decima. That’s all that matters.

Money from Wembley replay will “support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years”

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone