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.

PL Preview: Brighton vs. Stoke City

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  • Stoke leads all-time 16W-14D-9L
  • First league meeting since 2006
  • Potters have won last 8 in series

Brighton and Hove Albion meets Stoke City for the first time in Premier League history when the two battle at the Amex Stadium on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Brighton is unbeaten in its last four PL matches, with a pair of away wins and two draws at home.

They’ve been led at the back end by Shane Duffy and in attack by Pascal Gross, but it’s been a well-traveled Premier League veteran filling the goals. Glenn Murray has historic motivation to keep scoring, knowing that a marker versus Stoke would make him the first Brighton player to ever score a goal in four successive top flight matches.

Stoke followed up its win over Watford with a draw against Leicester City. The Potters have two goals and four assists from Swiss attacker Xherdan Shaqiri, and three and one from Senegalese scorer Mame Biram Diouf.

What they’re saying

Brighton’s Chris Hughton on bagging wins“For a club like us to get back-to-back wins would show the level we are playing at. It’s tough. I remember being told by somebody with one of the promoted teams that they didn’t get their first away win until February-March. That can happen and it’s exactly the same for a team getting promoted to get back-to-wins. They are hard to come by. Any way we are able to do that would certainly be a major boost for us.”

Stoke manager Mark Hughes on Xherdan ShaqiriHe is taking on more the role of the main instigator of our attacking threat. When he gets the ball, I think the whole team responds to that. You sense that maybe something’s going to happen. And I think the crowd sends it as well. And I know opposition team sense it too.”

Prediction

Few matches are more of a toss-up than this one, and there’s no recent match-ups on which to rest our heads. So we’ll side with the home team managing a point, and maybe a pair of old-timer goals from Murray and Peter Crouch, in a 1-1 draw.

Italy soccer chief resigns after failure to reach World Cup

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ROME (AP) Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio has resigned a week after the Azzurri failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Monday’s announcement came following calls for a complete overhaul of the nation’s most popular sport, from the amateur leagues right up to Serie A and the national teams.

[ MORE: What’s next for West Brom? ]

Sweden’s playoff win over Italy kept the four-time champion out of the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura was fired two days after the loss.

For the last week, Tavecchio has resisted calls to step down but he eventually lost the support of the federation’s board of directors.

Former federation chief Giancarlo Abete said as he left the board meeting where Tavecchio resigned that a new election would be held within 90 days.

Managerial change a slippery slope for West Brom

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Tony Pulis brought much needed stability to West Bromwich Albion before his tenure soured in a hurry.

When Pulis took over at the Hawthorns, West Brom had seen both Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine do little winning in abbreviated managerial stints. Mel won three of 17 matches in charge, while Irvine could only nab five in 22.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked ]

So there is little debating, even for those who West Brom fans who revel in the club’s former free-flowing ways, that Pulis had a productive time in charge from January 2015 right on through most of last season.

But Pulis was seemingly limited to setting a points total and then kicking his heels up once Premier League safety was reached.

While that sounds a bit laughable, the facts are that the Baggies finished 10th last season despite an impressive start that saw the club comfortably eighth for much of the season. However, West Brom won five points from its final 12 matches to finish 16 points behind a European place (including five shutout losses at home).

The Baggies finished 14th the previous season, Pulis’ first full year in charge, but collapsed again after hitting the rarefied air of 11th. That final stretch? Five losses and four draws including shutout losses at home to Norwich City, Watford, and West Ham.

In doing so, Pulis belied his own budgetary critiques by proving the Baggies had the talent to compete for something relatively special.

Pulis was good at getting his side to play with the fury of a relegation contender from Day One, but it was so clear the side was sated once safety was secure. It wouldn’t be callous to opine that the manager would’ve viewed the Europa League as a nuisance to his “never been relegated” reputation (an idea buttressed by West Brom’s performances in Cup competitions, where Pulis never advanced to a quarterfinal while losing to Reading, Norwich City, Derby County, Northampton Town, and, this season, Man City).

What West Brom does next will say a lot. If it’s as simple as a rehashing of the “never been relegated” deck with Sam Allardyce, well, that’s something. But the Baggies are in the tricky predicament of having to replace a relatively stable hand who was their first good hire in three tries, while also running with the knowledge that their players clearly are capable of so much better than 17th.

The names on the bettor’s lists show what’s expected of West Brom: gritty style from an island manager. Derek McInnes is the favorite, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill just ahead of Sam Allardyce. Alan Pardew is next, followed by Ronald Koeman (For what it’s worth, bookies are still milking money from gamblers by including Jurgen Klinsmann’s name at 20:1 or so).

West Brom is in its eighth-straight Premier League campaign. The firing will jostle an already rocking ship, but the Baggies have steady leadership in Jonny Evans, Ben Foster, Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson. They have the wherewithal to achieve safety again, and can even look good in the process should a manager find the right way to use Salomon Rondon, Matty Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Nacer Chadli, and others.

Who’s the right man for the job?

West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis

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Tony Pulis‘ reign over the Hawthorns is over, as West Bromwich Albion has fired the 59-year-old after just under three years in charge of the Premier League outfit.

Assistant coach Gary Megson takes over on an interim basis.

[ MLS: Steve Bruce to Miami? ]

The Baggies have not won a game since August, and were belted 4-0 at home by Chelsea on Saturday to leave the club one point above the drop zone.

Overall, Pulis oversaw wins in just 36 of his 121 matches, losing 49, in what will go down as one of the least successful stints in his well-traveled career. Only three PL clubs have scored less than the Baggies’ nine goals.

Here’s the club statement:

“These decisions are never taken lightly but always in the interests of the Club.

“We are in a results business and over the back end of last season and this season to date, ours have been very disappointing.

“We would like to place on record our appreciation of Tony’s contribution and hard work during a period of transition for the Club which included a change of ownership. We wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Pulis will almost certainly be back on the touch line soon, as he hasn’t spent more than a few months out of work since 2002.