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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.

VIDEO: 70-yard volley from Chile is nearly impossible to believe

Alejandro Camargo, Universidad de Concepcion
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His name is Alejandro Camargo, and he scored what might just go down as the best goal of 2016 on Sunday: an impossibly perfect volley from well beyond the halfway line.

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea top Man City; Arsenal, Spurs win big ]

Miguel Pinto is the opposing goalkeeper whose long-range clearance, which covered about 50 yards during the final seconds of Universidad de Concepcion’s clash with O’Higgins in the Chilean first division, was taken off the fly, first-time, by the Argentine midfielder to seal a 3-1 victory for the home side.

[ MORE: Serie A roundup — Roma, AC Milan win, still tied for 2nd ]

“The coach told us Pinto was always playing in advance of his goal, so I closed my eyes and hit it,” Camargo said after the game.

“Hit it and hope” has never looked so good.

Roma fans stay away from derby to protest new security barriers

A view of a huge section of empty seats as Roma fans desert derby in protest over security barriers, during a Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Roma, at the Rome Olympic stadium Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
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ROME (AP) Roma’s most ardent supporters stayed away from the derby match against Lazio in protest at barriers introduced at the start of last season in their area.

Normally filled with supporters waving huge banners, lighting flares and singing, half of the “curva sud” — southern end — of the Stadio Olimpico was left empty for Sunday’s match.

[ MORE: Serie A roundup — Roma, AC Milan win, still tied for 2nd ]

Three of Roma’s locally born standouts held a meeting with the “ultra” fans during the week. Captain Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi asked the supporters to return, and the club itself has also tried to resolve the matter.

But the appeals had no effect.

In contrast, Lazio fans filled the northern end of the stadium as usual.

The plexiglass barriers were put in place by city officials for security reasons.

VIDEO: “Behind The Badge: Watford FC” — Episode 2

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In Episode 2 of Behind the Badge: Watford FC, watch the players’ recovery after a win against Leicester, a look at the club’s one-of-a-kind internship program and a flashback to a memorable moment in Watford’s history.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

To watch past episodes of Behind The Badge, including last season’s edition featuring a look inside Crystal Palace, head over to the full archive by clicking here.

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea top Man City; Arsenal, Spurs win big ]

First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Above video
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Pardew saves his job, says Palace owners “don’t know a lot about football”

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Alan Pardew, Manager of Crystal Palace thumbs up prior to the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Southampton at Selhurst Park on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images
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While some may advise that keeping a low profile would best suit Alan Pardew right now, Crystal Palace’s embattled manager is of a totally different mindset.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Following Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Southampton, in which Pardew’s side saved his job (for the time being), the 55-year-old Eagles boss and former player chose the first bright moment, Palace’s first Premier League win since Sept. 24, to hit out at the club’s new American owners with a scathing assessment of the footballing prowess, or perhaps lack thereof — quotes from the Guardian:

“The chairman got a bit edgy this week, as you’d expect. We have a lot of serious investors at the club who perhaps don’t know a lot about football so the chairman has been defending me.

“I always think as a manager at any level, particularly in the modern era, expect the sack. Just expect it; it’s coming at some stage, so just do your job as best you can. Every week, that’s what I try to do.

“Sometimes it’s hard to dress up six defeats when you’re the owner of the club and you have investors. Obviously there are things he’s got no control over but he’s tried to offer me all the assistance that he could. He’s been brilliant for me and I just want to say thank you to him really.”

With various reports linking Sam Allardyce and Roberto Mancini to a job which he still holds, it’s understandable that Pardew would be slightly on edge, quick to thump his chest and restake his claim as the right man for the job, but perhaps alienating and borderline embarrassing the new investors, who are now responsible for signing your paychecks, wouldn’t have been my go-to move.

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea top Man City; Arsenal, Spurs win big ]

On the other hand, as Pardew rightly stated in the above quotes, his day of reckoning will eventually arrive, so what’s he really got to lose?