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.

Report: Leicester City fire manager Craig Shakespeare

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Leicester City have pulled the trigger much early than many expected.

Official confirmation has yet to come from the club but multiple reports state that Craig Shakespeare, who only took charge permanently of the Foxes over the summer, has been fired after eight games of the 2017-18 Premier League season.

Claudio Ranieri‘s former assistant coach has reportedly been fired by the ruthless Leicester owners with the Foxes for winning just one of their opening eight Premier League games of the season.

That form sees the Foxes sat third from bottom and only on six points. The last three times Leicester have gained six points or less in their opening eight games of a PL season they have been relegated.

Stats like that would have surely alarmed their Thai owners.

The last time Leicester went six PL games without a win Ranieri was fired but this is still a shock considering  Shakespeare, 53, had been in charge for only four months.

Shakespeare was in interim charge at the end of last season after Ranieri was fired in February and led Leicester to seven wins from their final 13 games which saved the then reigning champs from relegation.

However, he never seemed like the long-term man to lead the shock 2015-16 PL champions back to the upper echelons of the Premier League and he is now on his way out of the King Power Stadium.

PL Playback: Man United too defensive?

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STUBBORN MOURINHO STRIKES AGAIN

Just when we thought Manchester United and Jose Mourinho had turned the corner, they put in a timid, defensive performance at Anfield in a dour 0-0 draw against Liverpool on Saturday.

Mourinho got exactly what he wanted but United should have gone for more.

[ MORE: Klopp questions United’s tactics ] 

On Sunday I had a quick chat with an ex-United defender who was part of their treble winning campaign in 1999 when Sir Alex Ferguson‘s men were at their swashbuckling best.

We discussed United’s defensive mindset at Anfield and he simply said: “did we expect any different from Jose Mourinho away from home against a rival?”

Great point.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things ] 

After United had won six games out of seven and scored 21 goals to open up the Premier League campaign, everyone had got wrapped up in their attacking brilliance and expected them to go at Liverpool for the win.

Look at Mourinho’s record since arriving at United against the other teams in the so-called “top six” away from home.


October 17, 2016: Liverpool (A) 0-0
October 23, 2016: Chelsea (A) 0-4 defeat
April 27, 2017: Man City (A) 0-0
May 7, 2017: Arsenal (A) 0-2 defeat
May 14, 2017: Tottenham (A) 1-2 defeat
October 14, 2017: Liverpool (A) 0-0


The above says it all. What else did we expect?

Since he take charge at the start of last season, Mourinho’s United have scored just one goal in their last six trips to the big boys. We can trace this defensive approach back to his time in charge of Chelsea and his mantra of beating the big boys at home and then holding them to draw away from home is still his approach.

Except, with Manchester City blowing teams away this season the points average United may need to win the title could see Mourinho’s overcautious approach away from Old Trafford come back to bite him.

That’s because he has the attacking talents to excel and if he had gone with Henrik Mkhitaryan instead of Ashley Young and Juan Mata instead of Ander Herrera from the start against Liverpool on Saturday, he could well have been rewarded for taking a risk and trying to exploit Liverpool’s defensive weakness.

United had one chance against Liverpool as Romelu Lukaku broke free in the box but hit his shot straight at Simon Mignolet. That was their only shot on target in 90 minutes and that is exactly what Mourinho was playing for. One chance to snatch a victory at Anfield as he limited any danger for his side.

They certainly did with Liverpool barely having a sniff either and this game was in fact in the bottom three of Opta’s new Expected Goals stat when it came to the quality of goalscoring chances created in games in the Premier League so far this season.

With Mourinho having one of the best goalkeepers in the world in David De Gea in the best form of his life, he can rely on him to save the best chance an opponent has in each game, just like he did with his stunning stop from Joel Matip.

Speaking after the game Jurgen Klopp said that Liverpool “could not play the way Manchester United played” under him and there is an element of truth to that.

“I’m sure if we played like this, you could not do this at Liverpool. Obviously for United it is OK,” Klopp said.

Under Rafael Benitez the Reds were often a stubborn defensive unit to break down and that certainly saw them win trophies and challenge for the Premier League title. Klopp’s high-pressing, attacking style has seen Liverpool entertained the masses, if not their own fans all the time, since he took charge two years ago but they have come no closer to winning the PL title and defensive issues continue to halt any progress they make.

But Mourinho, in true fashion, blamed Klopp for United’s defensive game plan not working.

“I was waiting for them to make an offensive change, to try more, to take out Can or Wijnaldum and bring on Sturridge or someone. Which I was waiting for. But he never did it,” Mourinho said of Klopp. “I think he’s very offensive, very offensive, very offensive, but 90 minutes in the same system, the same players, he didn’t try anything.”

Mourinho will never change and United’s fans will have to accept that in big games away from home they can expect plenty more defensive displays and reliance on a counter-attacking game.

That is just the way he is and a strong start to the Premier League season isn’t going to change it. Simple.


SHOCKS FOR LONDON CLUBS

Hands up for those of you who had Chelsea and Arsenal losing to Crystal Palace and Watford respectively heading into last weekend?

Liars.

Seriously, though, Chelsea’s defeat at Palace (who had yet to score a goal or grab a point before last weekend) was incredibly telling as to the squad Antonio Conte has as key injuries have ravaged the reigning champs.

With Alvaro Morata out, Victor Moses limping off during the game and N'Golo Kante out for the rest of the month, we are now beginning to realize just how lucky Chelsea were with injuries last season.

As for Arsenal, well, where do we start?

They were 1-0 up and cruising late on at Watford but when Mesut Ozil spurned a great chance to make it 2-0, Watford came to life.

Helped with the introduction of bullish striker Troy Deeney, Arsenal’s defense capitulated and were bullied as the Hornets grabbed victory.

Okay, Richarlison went down far too easily to win a penalty kick for the equalizer, but Tom Cleverley and Watford’s attackers just wanted it more than Arsenal’s defenders in stoppage time as he slammed home to send the Hornets fans wild.

Watford sit in Arsenal’s perennial perch of fourth place (well, until last season) and as things stand you could create a beliavable argument that they have a better chance of finishing there than Arsenal when the season ends.

The same frail defensive displays continue to haunt Arsene Wenger‘s men away from home — they have defeats at Liverpool, Stoke and now Watford in their opening four away games in the PL — and nothing has really changed.

“I have to watch what I say, but it’s [having] a bit of cojones, is what I’ll say. Whenever I play against Arsenal, I’ll go up and think, ‘Let me whack the first one and see who wants it.’ I came on today and jumped up with Mertesacker — I didn’t even have to jump, actually — I nodded it down, the crowd gets up, ‘Yeah, we’ve got somebody who can win it,’ and they all just backed off,” Deeney said.

“For me as a player, I just think, ‘Happy days.’ That’s my strength — if you’re going to let me do my strength against you, you’re going to have a tough afternoon.”

Both Arsenal and Chelsea are looking anything but title contenders right now with both teams nine points behind leaders Man City.

It is early in the season but this weekend proved just how far both Arsenal and Chelsea are from challenging for the title this season.


SWASHBUCKLING CITY

The main reason Chelsea, Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League has to be worried is because Man City are so damn good.

They destroyed Stoke City 7-2 at the weekend and Stoke didn’t play badly.

Missing Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Benjamin Mendy, Pep Guardiola‘s side were exquisite.

They’ve now scored 29 goals in their opening eight games of the season. The last top-flight team to score that many was Everton in 1894-95.

Kevin De Bruyne ran the show, once again, and Man City are now clear atop the table.

Judging by the mouthwatering offensive display you can watch below, it’s unclear if anyone is capable of stopping them.

Watch the highlights below. Trust me.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Pots for 2018 World Cup taking shape

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With the FIFA World Rankings for October released on Monday, these are the set of rankings which will be used to place the 32 qualified teams in pots for the 2018 World Cup draw in Moscow on December 1.

[ MORE: Seeds for Euro qualifying confirmed

How the tournament will look in Russia next summer is starting to take shape, but things are still a little undecided with nine places still up for grabs during the next international break in November.

With Pot 1 fully confirmed, Pot 2 is also looking incredibly strong with five of the eight teams confirmed and 2010 world champs Spain have been placed in the second spot.

Some tasty “Group of Death” scenarios could be set up and remember, teams from the same confederation cannot be drawn together, except from UEFA as two European teams can be drawn in the same groups for the World Cup due to 13 spots handed to UEFA.

Below is a look at how the four pots may well end up as we have assumed the highest-ranked teams will all qualify for the World Cup during the next international break when playoffs and the final round of games take place.


2018 World Cup pots (if the highest-ranked teams all prevail in playoffs/final round of games)

Pot 1: Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France

Pot 2: Spain, Peru*, Switzerland*, England, Colombia, Italy*, Mexico, Uruguay

Pot 3: Croatia*, Denmark*, Iceland, Costa Rica, Tunisia*, Egypt, Senegal*, Iran

Pot 4: DR Congo*, Serbia, Nigeria, Australia*, Japan, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

*denotes teams yet to qualify heading into playoffs/final round of games


Four different Group of Death scenarios
Germany, Spain, Egypt, Japan
Brazil, England, Senegal, Serbia
Argentina, Mexico, Croatia, Nigeria
Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, South Korea

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden