Champions League preview: Borussia Dortmund will not face the same Real Madrid

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Wednesday’s match at the Westfalenstadion marks the third of four times Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid will meet this season – exactly four times more than the reigning Bundesliga and La Liga champions usually meet each year. Before meeting in group stage, the two clubs hadn’t played a competitive match since 2003, when a 1-1 draw in Dortmund allowed the Merengues to move past BVB and into the Champions League quarterfinals.

This latest meeting is the first leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League semifinal, a match set to build on the two games the sides played in group stage. Taking four points from Real Madrid, BVB used the Spanish titans to establish their Champions League bonafides, putting last year’s disappointment behind them as they claimed first in the group.

Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp’s team, a number of things have changed since the teams met last fall, none of which augur well for his young team’s chances:

Real Madrid rebuilt

Looking back on the fall, Real Madrid seemed like a team that needed a rest. Playing below expectations both domestically and in Europe, los Blancos were putting their boss’s job in jeopardy. José Mourinho needed to shake things up.

What followed were two months of The Special One challenging Madrid player power. Conflicts with Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos saw the captain dropped and the defense’s leader temporarily lose time, with Mourinho throwing Real’s dressing room into upheaval. When the team was reformed, Diego Lopez was in goal, Raphael Varane was getting some of Pepe’s time in defense, and Real Madrid had a team capable of eliminating Manchester United in the quarters.

They’re much stronger now than when the teams last met: a 2-2 draw on Nov. 6 at the Bernabeu.

“The four goals we conceded against Dortmund in the group stage were all our mistakes,” Mourinho explained on Tuesday. “Should we concede again in these two games, I hope it would be because of fantastic and unstoppable goals, not ones created by our mistakes.”

Dortmund’s close call

BVB needed one of the biggest Champions League comebacks ever to make it to the semifinals, with two-second leg stoppage time goals allowing them to eliminate Málaga. Against an experienced coach employing a pragmatic approach, Dortmund nearly allowed themselves to be eliminated on home soil, and while those descriptions also apply to José Mourinho’s team, Málaga aren’t Real Madrid. They’re nowhere near their level.

There are two ways to interpret what happened in the quarterfinals:

  • One: BVB still have a lot to learn on their way to being European elite. Málaga’s performance illustrated just how far they have to go.
  • Two: The close call will serve as a type of end of innocence, educating Klopp’s side to the commitment required to navigate Champions League.

Option two seems much more likely. Borussia Dortmund have to know they can’t play as bad as they did against Málaga and expect to eliminate Real Madrid. Whether they truly realize the task at hand, however, is another question entirely.

source: Getty ImagesMario Gotze: Distraction

Borussia Dortmund tried to keep Götze’s impending move under wraps, but when German outlet Bild learned the news, BVB had to fess up. One day before their first leg against Madrid, the club was forced to confirm their best player would be leaving for a rival on July 1.

“On a scale of one to ten [news of Götze’s transfer on the eve of the game] would be a nine,” Klopp admitted on Tuesday. “The only way the timing could have been worse would have been if it came four hours before the match.”

There’s no way this isn’t a major distraction. Klopp’s conceding as much. The Götze affair can be overcome or put into perspective, but a team doesn’t learn about the departure of a key talent and just set that aside. You can’t just pretend that doesn’t exist.

For a squad of players who’ve never been this far in Champions League, this is another obstacle that could potentially derail them. Klopp:

Everyone should support the team tomorrow, no matter what – Real Madrid cannot capitalise on this. If someone does not understand how much heart has gone into getting this far, they should not come. Those who understand will support the team unconditionally. Our fans have reacted extremely well in extreme situations in the past. I think that will be the case again.

Now or never for Real

Mourinho was brought in to win the decima – Real Madrid’s 10th European title – and with it all but guaranteed he’ll move on after this season, it’s now or never for this group of players. They either claim the title and bring to fruition the hopes Florentino Perez fostered when he started spending four years ago, or they fall and light the fuse on a project that will be blown up.

All of which is to say the stakes are much higher now than they were in November. Then, Real Madrid knew they would get through group stage one way or another, and having taken two teams from second place group finishes to Champions League titles (Porto 2003-04, Internazionale 2009-10), José Mourinho knows early stage stumbles don’t have to derail a campaign.

He also knows when to have his team turn it up. With his time at Real Madrid to be defined by these next three Champions League matches, the Merengues will be at their best.

“When I joined this club, it was already very successful,” Mourinho explained, “but we were not among the top seeds. The club has been developed. Madrid are one of those clubs where finishing second counts for nothing – so we have to reach the final and win.”

Notes

  • Real Madrid come into the match off a 3-1 Saturday win over visiting Real Betis.
  • Dortmund led the entire way against visiting Mainz, a first minute goal from Marco Reus spurring BVB to a 2-0 win.
  • Neither team has any injury concerns that will affect their starting XIs, with the only absence likely to be on the Real Madrid side. Alvaro Arbeloa is suspended after picking up a late yellow card in the second leg against Galatasaray.
  • Robert Lewandowski extended his club record scoring streak on Saturday, recording a goal in his 12th straight Bundesliga match.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo comes into the game as the competition’s leading scorer with 11 goals in 10 games. His 50 all-competition goals mark the third straight year the Portuguese has hit the half-century mark.

Possible lineups

Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weindenfeller; Marcel Schmeltzer, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Pisczcek; Ilkay Gundogan, Sven Bender; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakub Blaszczykowski.

Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Diego Lopez; Fabio Coentrao, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Michael Essien; Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira; Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria; Karim Benzema.

Klopp says post-match interview not a big deal

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It wouldn’t be too wild to call Jurgen Klopp’s Sunday post-match interview the most circulated exchange in the soccer world, at least in recent memory.

Klopp was back behind a microphone on Tuesday as Liverpool prepares for West Bromwich Albion, and was asked about his testy exchange with a reporter following the Reds’ 1-1 draw with Everton in the Merseyside Derby.

[ RECAP: Liverpool 1-1 Everton ]

He says it’s in the past for him and pretty much everyone. From The Liverpool Echo:

“Now I’m completely relaxed, I wasn’t five minutes after the game. Sometimes you look into the eyes of journalists and you feel they aren’t too interested in what you have to say. I’m not an actor.”

“It was nothing, I didn’t use any words I have to take back. I don’t like it but I cannot change it because I felt like this at that moment. I cannot act differently, but I can keep myself calm. It’s just an interview. I don’t think anybody remembers it. It was just an interview, nothing else.”

We’ll say this about the 1-1 draw: it still feels hollow, as Everton executed one of the greatest thefts in the Premier League this season. Even the awarded PK — Dejan Lovren‘s two-handed shove to Dominic Calvert-Lewin was a silly play in a non-threatening spot — was one of those, “Well, sure, but…” calls.

Liverpool dominated the game, and didn’t get three points. Everton got a point, but will want most of its day back. Thank goodness we get another chance at an enjoyable Merseyside Derby in the FA Cup next month.

Wenger: Man City, United should look to sumo wrestlers

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Arsenal is readying for a visit to West Ham United, but Arsene Wenger‘s mind took a detour to Japan.

In a wide-ranging pre-match interview touching on Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, and the Manchester Tunnel Fracas (TM), it was the last topic that had Wenger musing on the post-match actions of sumo wrestlers.

[ MORE: Premier League Tues. preview ]

For those who missed it, there was an alleged dust-up between Manchester City and Manchester United after Jose Mourinho and his men objected to boisterous City celebrations in the away locker room on Sunday.

Ever the politician, the rail thin manager called upon rather large athletes to make the point of what he’d like to see. From Sky Sports:

“It happened to us, it’s happened to them. It’s unfortunate. Ideally you would commit 100% on the pitch and be an angel after. It’s not always the case. You want to keep that passion on the pitch.

“It is difficult to take when you lose a game, to see the celebration. When I was in Japan, I liked sumo wrestling because you could never tell who had won. The winner never showed his happiness as there’s a deep respect for the opponent.”

Wenger’s last managerial stop came in 1996 with Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan.

There was plenty more from Wenger, who was asked about the statuses of Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil.

For the latter, it’s relatively straight-forward: There’s still no new contract between the playmaker and Arsenal, though no final offer has been made and Wenger remains optimistic about the hiring.

As for Giroud, who’s been tipped for a move away from Arsenal for some time, Wenger admits it’s tricky. The super sub would start on most teams but is quite valuable to Arsenal as the usual backup to Alexandre Lacazette.

And it’s not like Arsenal has hurt the Frenchman’s stock with one of the best international sides in the world.

“He’s a very important player and I have big respect for him. Look how many French caps he has got since he came here. He’s not wasted his time. I can understand his frustrations. He’s played many games, much more than many speak about. He’s played more than Lacazette for example. When you are at a big club with many strikers, you can’t guarantee.

“Personally I want him to stay at the club until the end of the season. Then we will see.”

If Wenger can massage the full season out of Giroud and then sell him, Arsenal will have to call it a win. But how different might the Gunners look next August, with Giroud, Ozil, and Alexis Sanchez all expected to be out the door?

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”