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Borussia Dortmund rout Real Madrid, continue Germany’s European ascent

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On the shoulders of a 24-year-old Polish international, Germany reached the apex of European soccer, and while we’d normally wait until a country has actually claimed the trophy before entertaining such hasty conclusions, four goals from Robert Lewandowski force even the most ardent La Liga fan to face reality. After today’s 4-1 win over Real Madrid opened what’s now a dead semifinal, there’s no doubt one of Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich will claim this year’s title, with the clubs destined to meet at Wembley on May 25.

[MORE: Bayern Munich embarrass Barcelona]

After 45 minutes, today’s match looked like an actual contest, a refreshing change from yesterday’s 4-0 rout. BVB and Real Madrid started today’s second half tied at one, with an early goal from Lewandowski pulling his side even just before half time. With the visitors having deflated a soaring Dortmund start, Madrid looked well-position to survive the night.

But the second half was as lopsided as yesterday’s Bayern-Barça affair. Real Madrid never threatened, putting only two shots toward Roman Weidenfeller between the 46th and 88th minutes. In that time, Lewandowski scored three times and had a potential overall fifth goal denied by a diving Diego Lopez. By the time José Mourinho made his second half adjustments, the tie was over. Dortmund was up 4-1 in the 66th minute.

For a team that almost cut it too close in the quarterfinals, it was resounding evidence of a lesson learned. Today’s performance showed a group cognizant of the stakes, unwilling to let their Champions League inexperience lure them to an edge they’d already faced.

Dortmund crushed Real Madrid, and while the Merengues road goal leaves them with more life than their Spanish rivals, Real needs a category five storm to bring the sea change that will turn this match.

[MORE: Video of all four Robert Lewandowski goals]

Palpable power of the two attacks

From the opening kickoff, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s instantaneous dash down Real Madrid’s left flank, you sensed the power of two attacks – a force clumsily pried at with long-shanked screwdrivers before an explosive release. As Borussia Dortmund started their forays forward, you could imagine the exasperation a monstrous, athletic Madrid defense would feel after 90 minutes spent chasing BVB’s pacey attackers. And at the other end, you knew it was only a matter of time before a talented but mistake-prone Dortmund defense scuffed their flatheads and cracked themselves open.

But it was the home team that made their mark first. In the seventh minute, Marco Reus took the ball just inside his own half and turned toward an abandoned Real defense. In front of Madrid’s hasty retreat, Reus cut across Pepe and moved to the right of goal, forcing a diving save from Lopez. The keeper’s block sent the ball to the far post where Lewandowski, unable to temper his own momentum, overran the ball before sending it out for a goal kick.

It was a harbinger of what was to come. One minute later, Mario Götze’s cross from the left found the small, back post window where Lewandowski, at full extension, got his right foot beyond Pepe’s. Opening what was destined to be a historic day, Lewandowski deflected the ball inside Diego Lopez’s left post for the opener.

[MORE: Players, coaches react after Dortmund-Madrid]

source: Getty ImagesA period of calm and potential

If you stopped the clock at the eight-minute mark, you could have predicted the final score on form alone, yet over the course the half’s remaining 37 minutes, Real Madrid found a grasp on the game. After a couple of moments of consciously settling – passes along the back and through the middle establishing a modicum of control – the visitors started pushing the Dortmund defense, losing early challenges at the feet of a BVB phalanx entrenched at the edge of the penalty area.

The fouls came, leaving Real Madrid with set pieces and little else. Easy clearances of low percentage chances kept Dortmund in control.

Soon Dortmund found their counterattacking verve. In the 32nd minute, Jakub Blaszczykowski had a chance. Moments later, it was  Reus. Near the 40-minute mark, the roar of an appellate crowd begged that a non-foul from Raphael Varane be allowed to send the home side to the spot. It was waved off.

Moments later, Real Madrid were back in the game, and in predictable fashion. For as much acclaim as Mats Hummels has gained over the last three years, the German international remains remarkably mistake-prone for an elite defender. He’s pathetic backpass in the 43rd minute allowed Gonzalo Higuaín to go in alone on goal from 32 yards out. Drawing out Weidenfeller, the Argentine played across the area for Cristiano Ronaldo, creating the star’s 12th goal of the campaign.

[MORE: Highlights, Bayern-Barcelona]

Another wakeup call received

Just as their close call in the quarterfinals forced Borussia Dortmund to take inventory, Hummels’ mistake was a wakeup call. Halftime gave Jurgen Klopp’s side 15 minutes to answer, realizing the threat of goals was no good if they were still going to go to halftime tied 1-1. This was Málaga all over again.

In the 50th minute, a disorganized back line that saw Pepe late to push up allowed BVB to find Lewandowski onside nine yards from goal. Right foot trap, plant, turn, and Lewandowski had an easy finish from just outside Lopez’s six-yard box. Sergio Ramos immediately sprinted from his right back spot and appealed to the assistant, but it was no use. The flag stayed down (the right call), and Lewandowski had his second.

Five minutes later, Dortmund had another. A cross from the right was deflected through the box, allowing left back Marcel Schmelzer to blast a cross back into the area. A deflection slowed the ball down enough for Lewandoski to turn and finish into the top of Lopez’s net, making it 3-1.

With no letup from Dortmund, another goal seemed as inevitable as it was vital. With a two-goal lead going into the Bernabeu, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Real Madrid sending BVB out with a 2-0. A three-goal lead, however, feels different. A 3-0 loss is far more preventable.

That’s the result Real Madrid will need after their mistake gifted Lewandowski a record goal. In the 67th minute, Xabi Alonso blew threw the back of Reus as the BVB attacker waited in the right of the area to play a ball. The obvious penalty gave Lewandowski his fourth goal of the night, converting through the middle as Lopez dove to the right.

Nobody had ever scored four in a Champions League semifinal. Lewandowski did it in 66 minutes. Real Madrid had never given up that many to an opponent in European play. After tonight’s semifinal, Lewandowski stands alone in that record book.

[MORE: Players, coaches react after Bayern-Barcelona]

Changes that just didn’t work

Real Madrid were forced into two major changes, neither of which worked.

The suspension of Alvaro Arbeloa moved Sergio Ramos to right back, leaving Varane and Pepe to start in central defense. With Reus playing through the middle (while Götze went wide), Real Madrid’s fastest defender was unable to help against a pacey attacker who constantly broke down the Merengues defense. If you’re making a list of tactical battles won, the switch of Götze and Reus goes down in Klopp’s favor.

The insertion of Luka Modric also flopped. With Angel Di Maria out (having arrived late from Spain after he and his wife welcomed a child), José Mourinho elected to move Mesut Ozil wide and start Modric in the middle. The result decreased Ozil’s influence, exposed Modric’s defensive weaknesses, and left Ramos with little help on Götze.

As was the case yesterday, we’re left asking what more the Spanish team could have done. Perhaps Mourinho could have kept Ramos in the middle (starting Michael Essien) and chose Jose Callejon over Modric, but it’s hard to see those choices working any better. Dortmund’s advantages  – their speed, precision, and cohesion – transcended Mourinho’s countermeasures. They weren’t going to be stopped by Michael Essian or Jose Callejon. It was going to take a stellar performance from Real Madrid, and in the face of a standout effort from their hosts, the Merengues were left tamed, flustered, and all but eliminated.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.