UEFA Champions League Roundup: Atlético, Arsenal shine; Chelsea rebound; Dortmund romps (Video)

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Freed from the pomp of round one, four teams that could make a huge impact in UEFA Champions League’s knockout round posted convincing results on Tuesday, the first day of group stage’s second round:

  • In North London, Arsenal gave one of the most convincing performances of the young tournament, their passing game and pressure smothering their Neopolitan guests.
  • In Bucharest, Chelsea resoundingly recovered from opening round failure, setting themselves up to re-claim their group’s lead next round.
  • In Dortmund, a Jurgen Klopp-less BVB saw no trouble from visiting Marseille, …
  • while Atlético continued their demonstrative start with another inspired road win, this time in Portugal.

Those were the big ones, but not every game was so definitive. In Glasglow, Barcelona got the result they couldn’t take last year, though they needed a Celtic player’s dismissal to get it. And in Switzerland, a subdued game saw a Schalke moment of magic keep the club top in Group E.

Then comes the big picture. While Group F — the tournament’s Group of Death — continues to be about holding serve at home and taking points from Marseille, the rest of Tuesday’s quartets have established clear leaders. As they are in Spain, Barcelona and Atlético remain perfect, while Schalke are defying league inconsistencies to take six points through two rounds.

Here’s what else happened as Tuesday’s action kicked off the second round of UEFA Champions League action.

Group E: Steaua Bucharest (Romania) 0-4 Chelsea (England)

Chelsea’s quest to make amends for their opening round loss got off to a resounding start, their thrashing of Romanian champions Steaua leaving their hosts with a 0-2-0 record and -7 goal difference after two rounds. Dominant play from Andre Schurrle, Ashley Cole, and Oscar attacking Steaua’s right side led to two goals from Ramires and a clean-up tally from Frank Lampard. Claiming their first points of group stage, Chelsea also furthered the idea that full points against the Romanians could prove important in an increasingly convoluted group.

Group E: Basel (Switzerland) 0-1 Schalke (Germany)

This may have been the way Jens Keller would have orchestrated it before Schalke left for Switzerland: keep things tight; limit Basel’s chances; look for a set piece goal. And in the 54th minute, Schalke’s opportunity came off the most dangerous player in soccer – the second ball in off a corner kick. This time, that second ball was a shot from Julian Draxler, settling after a Basel clearance to blast the game’s only goal past Yann Sommer. Holding the Swiss champions to one shot on goal, Schalke stayed top of their group, now on six points through two rounds.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund (Germany) 3-0 Marseille (France)

When Marseille hosted BVB two years ago, they hung a 3-0 on their young visitors. This time, the Klopp-less hosts returned the favor, getting two goals from Robert Lewandowski and a free kick score from Marco Reus en rout to a lopsided win.

Though Dortmund were without four starters, Marseille’s style played into their hands, allowed last year’s finalists to play off the counter and try to pick off their possession-needy guests. The first instance came in the 19th minute, a counterattack that left Lewandowski with an easy tap-in.  In the second half, Reus was helped by Steve Mandanda on his free kick goal, while Lewandowski’s second goal came from the spot after a foul by Nicolas N’Koulou.

Group F: Arsenal (England) 2-0 Napoli (Italy)

In a game that played more lopsided than the score, Arsenal gave their most impressive performance of the season, riding early goals from Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud to an easy victory. A quick transition down Napoli’s left led to Özil’s eighth minute opener, the German international surgically finishing a ball from Aaron Ramsey, while a turnover in their over third from Napoli led to Olivier Giroud’s 15th minute score.

It was a disappointing performance from Napoli, but as long as that form can be left in London, the implications of the day’s result could be limited. The Emirates are not a place where the Partenopei would have expected to get a win before group play started, and while it would have wonders toward getting Napoli through a tough group, Rafa Benítez’s team is still in control of their knockout round fate.

[MORE: Dominance then control give Arsenal 2-1 win over Napoli.]

[MORE: Mesut Ozil signing just keeps getting sweeter for Arsenal.]

Group G: FC Porto (Portugal) 1-2 Atlético Madrid (Spain)

In today’s preview we talked about the difficulty of Porto’s task, mentioning the Dragons couldn’t count on an early goal that would allow them to tighten up their formation. But Porto did get an early goal, Jackson Martínez putting his team up in the 16th minute. Instead of recoiling, though, Porto persisted with newly-justified confidence, something that served them throughout Tuesday’s first half. In the second half, however, Atlético quickly pulled even through Diego Godín, with the Colchonero comeback completed in the 86th minute through Arda Turan.

[MORE: Atlético conquer the Dragão, take 2-1 win from Porto.]

Group G: Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) 0-0 Austria Wien (Austria)

Zenit came into this match having scored 12 goals in their last three games, but although they controlled most of the ball in the first half, the favorites were unable to convert before going down a man. Just before halftime, midfielder Axel Whitsel was given a harsh, straight red card, reducing Zenits to 10 for the last 45 minutes. Austria Wien, content to play for a draw, got the point they would have wanted, leaving Zenit on a disappointing one point after the easiest match of their group stage schedule.

Group H: Celtic (Scotland) 0-1 Barcelona (Spain)

The first half for a Lionel Messi-less Barcelona was defined by close calls, 82 percent possession, and no goals. But just before the hour mark, Celtic captain Scott Brown saw straight red after a challenge on Neymar. Barcelona’s payoff came in the 76th minute, with substitute Alexis Sanchez creating the game’s only goal. When Cesc Fabregas headed the Chilean’s cross home, Barcelona had muted redemptions for last year’s loss in Glasgow.

Group H: Ajax (Netherlands) 1-1 AC Milan (Italy)

It was a game of two halves, each ending on even footing. Ajax dominated the first but were held to a scoreless going into half time. Though Milan were much better in the second, nil-nil looked like it would hold until a 90th minute corner was put home by Stefano Denswil, apparently giving the home team the win. But four minutes later, in what’s becoming typical Milan fashion, the Rossoneri salvaged a result, a late penalty conceded by Mike van der Hoorn setting up a 94th minute equalizer from Mario Balotelli.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.