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.

How important is Eden Hazard to Chelsea?

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Can Chelsea afford to lose Eden Hazard?

Hazard, 26, continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid this summer for a potential world-record fee of over $125 million.

[ MORE: Conte hails Eden Hazard

This season the Belgian winger has been unplayable at times, particularly in recent months, and he is on the verge of leading Chelsea to a second Premier League title in the last three seasons.

Yet, with rumors of Hazard leaving Stamford Bridge persisting it is worth contemplating just how important he is to Antonio Conte‘s side despite the Italian claiming his star winger is “priceless” in a bid to wave off interest.

From a numbers perspective Hazard’s importance is clear. He has scored 11 PL goals and has four assists, with Diego Costa the only other Chelsea player to be involved in more goals with the Spanish international scoring 17 times and adding five assists. Beyond this season, Hazard has scored and assisted on more goals than any other current Chelsea player since he arrived in 2012-13.

There’s no doubting Hazard’s influence runs deeper than goals and assists.

When he picks up the ball defenders backtrack and even when they get close they have no idea which way Hazard will turn. The only way to try and stop him, as we’ve seen recently in their FA Cup quarterfinal win against Manchester United, is by hacking him down at every opportunity. With so much focus on stopping Hazard, the likes of Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian have been able to flourish and Conte reshaped his Chelsea side to a 3-4-3 with wing backs to get the best out of Hazard.

Hazard is back to his best with confidence flowing through his game just like it did in the 2014-15 campaign as he led Chelsea to the PL title and was crowned as the PFA Player of the Year.

However, there is a lingering sense that if Real Madrid did offer a huge sum of money this summer then perhaps Chelsea would accept the deal. Last season Hazard was way off the pace as Jose Mourinho’s time at Chelsea unraveled quickly and he was lambasted by fans as one of the star players who turned against the manager.

There’s no doubting Hazard is up there with N'Golo Kante and Costa as Chelsea’s top players this season but arguably he would be the most replaceable star. Without Costa’s goals and presence up top, Chelsea would be struggling. Without Kante’s incredible rate of interceptions and tackles in midfield, they’d be less effective in launching devastating counters.

When Hazard was missing through injury in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Stoke in their last PL outing, Willian came into the team and scored a free kick and alongside Pedro they provided plenty of chances for Costa and others to score. Hazard wasn’t missed but there’s no doubting Chelsea is a better team when he’s in it.

On paper Hazard is entering the prime years of his career and perhaps the pull of Real Madrid could be too great if the Spanish giants do indeed intend to chase him hard in the summer. Of course, Real already have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top but if the Zinedine Zidane’s side bought Hazard then he’d obviously start.

The only thing he has left to achieve with Chelsea is win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from that, he’s proven himself as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League time and again.

It will be intriguing to see what happens with Hazard this summer.

Injuries, suspensions still an issue for busy Man United

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Manchester United have been struggling with suspensions and injuries and the international break hasn’t provided any respite.

[ MORE: United announce US tour dates ]

Both Zlatan Ibrahmovic and Ander Herrera are suspended for Saturday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) at Old Trafford, plus Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Maroune Fellaini are all doubtful.

Jones injured his toe while on international duty as his United teammate Smalling tackled him in training, while Smalling has been spotted in a knee brace after picking up a knock in England’s win against Lithuania on Sunday. Fellaini also suffered a toe injury in Belgium’s draw with Greece on Saturday and has been released from international duty.

Rooney hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth on Mar. 4 after suffering a training ground injury with Jones and Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s UEFA Europa League win against Rostov on Mar. 16.

Oh, Jose. When it rains it pours…

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All of this injury news has been made more concerning given United’s busy month coming up as Mourinho’s men have nine games in April as they push hard to finish in the top four in the PL and reach the UEFA Champions League.

After the game against West Brom they face Everton at home and Sunderland away in a seven day stretch before heading to Anderlecht on Apr. 13 for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Sandwiched in-between their two games with Anderlecht they host Premier League leaders Chelsea and then finish off April with trips to Burnley and Manchester City before hosting Swansea City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Mourinho will be hoping the vast majority of these players will be available for the busy stretch ahead as his large squad cope with a season-long struggle of juggling PL, domestic cup and European action.

Defensively he still has Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly to slot in but he could be forced to draft in youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah into midfield with so many games coming up in a short space of time.

United will be stretched to the limit as they aim to finish the season strong.

Lionel Messi suspended after abusing linesman

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Argentina will be without five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi for their next four games.

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On Tuesday FIFA announced that Messi, 29, has been suspended for four international game as the Barcelona forward was found guilty of verbally abusing an assistant referee in the second half of Argentina’s crucial 1-0 win against Chile last Thursday.

Messi, of course, scored the winning penalty kick in that game.

Messi — the captain of Argentina and their leading all-time goalscorer with 58 goals — will miss the game against Bolivia on Tuesday, plus Argentina’s friendly with Brazil this summer in Australia and also two key World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela in August and September.

Argentina currently sit in third-place in CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but are far from locks in their quest to qualify for the World Cup. That task has just got a lot harder after losing their talisman for sending verbal abuse at a linesman.

Look, it would be great to see abuse from players towards officials stamped out but how many times have we all seen players across the game screaming obscenities at officials in an aggressive manner? It seems like Messi may be a little hard done by and that FIFA has used the biggest name on the planet and made an example of him.

Below is the statement in full from FIFA on Messi’s suspension.

The FIFA Disciplinary Committee – in application of articles 77 a) and 108 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (FDC) – has reached a decision in relation to the case of Lionel Messi following an incident that occurred during the match between Argentina and Chile on 23 March 2017 as part of the qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™:

Footballer Lionel Messi has been found guilty of violating art. 57 of the FDC for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee.

As a result, Lionel Messi will be suspended for four official matches and sanctioned with a fine of CHF 10,000. The first match for which the sanction will apply is the next fixture in the preliminary competition of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ between Bolivia and Argentina, which will be played today, 28 March. The remainder of the sanction will be served over Argentina’s subsequent FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.

This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s previous rulings in similar cases.

Both the player and the Argentinian Football Association have been informed of the decision today.

After late goals broke Panama’s hearts in 2013, US returns

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PANAMA CITY (AP) With Panama about 90 seconds from reaching a playoff against New Zealand for a World Cup berth, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in second-half stoppage time four years ago to give the already qualified United States a 3-2 win and eliminate the hosts.

“You felt this place dip,” Jozy Altidore recalled Monday. “You heard people crying.”

The U.S. will be back Tuesday night in a match that matters for both teams. The Americans routed Honduras 6-0 Friday at home and are looking for a second straight win in World Cup qualifying under coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after an 0-2 start in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

Before a light workout at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, American players thought the Panamanians might still have that 2013 match on their minds. Panama needed a win, but the late U.S. goals kept Mexico alive and El Tri went on to reach the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Panama has never advanced to the World Cup.

“If we were smart enough, we wouldn’t have broken their hearts. Pretty stupid, if you ask me,” Arena said humorously. “You think Mexico would have scored a goal at the end of that game?”

Panama opened the hexagonal, as the final round is called, with a 1-0 win at Honduras and a 0-0 tie at home against Mexico, and then lost 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago. Five players from that 2013 loss to the U.S. were in the starting lineup for Friday’s defeat.

“It was obviously probably pretty devastating for the players,” said American midfielder Sacha Kljestan, also among those on the field that night. “I’m sure it still means a lot to them.”

Mexico leads the hexagonal with seven points, followed by Costa Rica with six, Panama with four and the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras with three each. The top three nations qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, and the fourth-place team again goes to a playoff, this time against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“The reality of the situation that we’re in and the reality of the start that we had is we’re not playing with house money,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “We’re not in a situation where we can just say, great, we took our three points at home, whatever we get on the road is extra. No, we have to come here and take points. We want three. We’re going to play in a way that gives us a chance, a big chance to get three.”

LINEUP CHANGES

Arena predicted as many as four or five changes to his starting lineup. There will be at least two.

John Brooks will miss the match because of a sinus infection and Sebastian Lletget is out with a foot injury. The players who replaced them against Honduras could start, Tim Ream for Brooks in central defense and Alejandro Bedoya in place of Lletget in right midfield.

Jermaine Jones, back from a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation, could enter in a central midfield role, which would push Christian Pulisic to the left flank in place of Darlington Nagbe.

APPROACHING A RECORD

After scoring his second international hat trick Friday, Clint Dempsey has 55 goals, two shy of Landon Donovan’s American record.

“Yeah, it’s on your mind,” the 34-year-old Dempsey said. “But if it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t.”

OLD FRIENDS

Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, a holdover from the 2013 game, played for Arena on the LA Galaxy from 2013-15.

“Jaime Pinedo is one of the finest people I’ve ever met in the game,” Arena said. “We enjoyed him very much. Our fans loved him.”

WEATHER-WISE

After playing on a cool, damp night in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend, the U.S. will deal with far different conditions. The game-time temperature is forecast to be 80 degrees with high humidity.

Panama’s players also may not be used to the heat, given some play in New York, Seattle, Toronto, Switzerland, Romania and other cool climates.