Where They Stand: Groups A through D after two rounds of UEFA Champions League

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The way UEFA Champions League schedules its group stage, the competition takes a drastic turn after two game. That’s because the third and fourth matches are a home-and-home series, allowing teams to zero-in on an opponent in a way normally reserved for the knockout round.

If you’re gotten off to a slow start, it’s probably because of a difficult schedule, one that will give you an easier opponent in the middle rounds. If you’re off to a fast start, you might be brought down to earth, and if you’ve missed opportunities to pick up points, the home-and-home can leave you regretting your start.

Take, for example, Schalke, who sit first in Group E after yesterday’s action. They’re 2-0-0, lead by three points, but they’ve also yet to face Chelsea. Over the next two rounds, they get the José Mourinho’s team twice, facing the prospect of regressing from their hot start.

[MORE: Where They Stand: Groups E through H after two rounds.]

But the home-and-homes become most interesting when they pair teams fighting for the same spot, and after Wednesday’s action in Groups A through D, each quartet is left with one showdown matchup over the competition’s next two rounds:

  • Group A: Shakhtar Donetsk, tied on points with group-leading Manchester United, are paired with Bayer Leverkusen, one point back but having got their trip to Old Trafford out-of-the-way. These teams were expected to compete for second behind the Red Devils, but if either team sweeps this series, they’ll have a chance of stealing first place from the favorites.
  • Group B: Copenhagen and Galatasaray sit third and fourth, but if one team can claim four or six points, they’ll volunteer to challenge Juventus for the spot behind Real Madrid. Juve, having only claimed two points thus far, will mull their regrets while matched with los Blancos.
  • Group C: Olympiacos and Benfica have each beaten Anderlecht and lost the Paris Saint-Germain, and while form has distinguished their performances, that’s all style points. Over rounds three and four, we’ll see if one of them can take control of the race for the group’s other knockout round spot.
  • Group D: Manchester City are heavily favored with advance with group-leading Bayern Munich, but two years ago, it was CSKA Moscow that found a way into the knockout round. Manchester City has never advanced beyond group stage.

[MORE: Wednesday roundup: Winners and highlights from Wednesday’s action.]

[MORE: Full-time snapshot: The numbers after Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League matches.]

Here’s where Groups A through D stand after Wednesday’s Champions League action:

* – To each of these standings we’ve added a column labeled +/-: a crude attempt to track how many points a team has dropped at home (minus) or picked up on the road (plus). It’s a very crude attempt to gauge the extent to which teams are holding serve.

Group A
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Manchester United 2 1 1 0 5 3 2 1-0-0 0-1-0 4 +1
Shakhtar Donetsk 2 1 1 0 3 1 2 0-0-1 1-0-0 4 +1
Bayer Leverkusen 2 1 0 1 4 5 -1 1-0-0 0-1-0 3 +0
Real Sociedad 2 0 0 2 1 4 -3 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

WIth a home-and-home with Real Sociedad up next, Manchester United are in good position. They’ve held serve at home, and they’ve taken a point in Donetsk that the rest of the group’s unlikely to replicable. David Moyes is off to a strong start to his first Champions League.

Look over at the +/- column and you can see why Shakhtar can afford to split their upcoming games with Bayer. The Ukrainian champions have already won on the road, and although they technically dropped points today against United, Bayer’s likely to do the same. If Shakhtar and Leverkusen split their teams’ upcoming series, Mircea Lucescu will have preserved his team’s advantage.

[MORE: Manchester United makes Danny Welbeck’s early opener hold up.]

Group B
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Real Madrid 2 2 0 0 10 1 9 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Juventus 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2 -1
Copenhagen 2 0 1 1 1 5 -4 0-1-0 0-0-1 1 -2
Galatasaray 2 0 0 2 1 5 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -2

Two ties in the group’s four games have helped Real Madrid extend their lead. Even they only take one point from Juventus in the next two round, they’ll still be first come round five. If, on the other hand, they claim four points, they’ll be able to click it into cruise.

At the other end of the group, Copenhagen and Galatasaray will either cancel each other out or identify a contender. Given Real will likely do some damage to Juve, four points for either team could see them pull even with (or, leapfrog) the Italian champions. And as we discussed in today’s reaction, if it’s Galatasaray that takes advantage Copenhagen, Juventus may be destined for a must-win in Istanbul to close out group stage.

[MORE: Home draw should raise concerns for Juventus.]

Group C
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Paris Saint-Germain 2 2 0 0 7 1 6 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Olympiacos 2 1 0 1 4 4 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
Benfica 2 1 0 1 2 3 -1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Anderlecht 2 0 0 2 0 5 -5 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

PSG’s not only three points up on the pack. They’ve put up huge results against their closest competition, and their upcoming home-and-home will be against the quartet’s cellar dwellers. Even if they’re not on 12 points at this time next month, they’ve accumulated some serious tiebreaker mojo. They may be in a better position than Real Madrid, despite a smaller lead.

As for the chasers, Olympiacos and Benfica will have a chance to step forward as the group’s number two. The Greek champions have looked the more impressive side, but at the far right, you see that both teams are treading water.

Group D
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Bayern Munich 2 2 0 0 6 1 5 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Manchester City 2 1 0 1 4 3 1 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
CSKA Moscow 2 1 0 1 3 5 -2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Viktoria Plzen 2 0 0 2 2 6 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

Is it really so far-fetched that Manchester City loses in Russia in three weeks? Long, unfamiliar trip. Team with a recent history of Champions League failures. An inconsistency born of their coaching change. Despite a convincing win in Plzen two weeks ago, City may yet become their former selves.

After Bayern takes care of business against Viktoria, City and CSKA be left to fight for second place, and while the Sky Blues will be favored to claim it, they’ve already dropped points at home. CSKA has not. The main reason for that is schedule (Bayern doesn’t visit Russia until round five), but as of now, there’s nothing that separates the English giants from Russia’s champions.

[MORE: Bayern brilliance, Joe Hart follies see Manchester City fall, 3-1.]

MLS Snapshot: Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones

Three things: Sounders cruise after (and before) early red

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The Seattle Sounders all but booked a return appearance in the 2017 MLS Cup final on Tuesday, doing so by beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first (away) leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. The game wasn’t as close at the final score might appear to indicate.

[ RECAP: Sounders take 2-0 lead over Dynamo ]

We learned the following three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


The red card hurt Houston

No way, you’re kidding, right? Clearly a 28th-minute red card (shown to Jalil Anibaba for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity) is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. But, it really crippled Houston, given the way they play — having a numerical advantage in the center of midfield is so important to Wilmer Cabrera’s side, in the name of frantically winning the ball back after conceding half or even two-thirds of the field.

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When you have to haul off one of three central midfielders, in hopes of still being about to force-create chances on the rare occasion you recover the ball and move it forward, three things are bound to happen: 1) legs are going to get very heavy, very quickly; 2) the clock appears to be counting up in double-speed; 3) you begin to concede two-thirds and three-quarters of the field instead — every move Seattle worked during the second half came after a waltz in the final third before finally meeting resistance.

At right, you can see every Sounders pass originating in Houston’s half of the field — remember, Seattle are the away team here. Playoff games rarely, if ever, come much easier than that.


Addition by subtraction… again?

This one isn’t so much a lesson from Tuesday’s game, as much as it’s a trend played out over the course of an entire season: much like they wound up being in 2016 following Clint Dempsey‘s heart condition robbing him of the final four months of the season, the Sounders are once again, dare I say it, better without another indomitable figure: Osvaldo Alonso.

Here’s the numbers to back it up: without Alsono in the starting lineup this year, Seattle went 6W-2D-2L. In those 10 regular-season games, they scored 20 goals (2.0 per game, versus 1.3 with him in the lineup) and conceded 12 (1.1 per game, same when he played).

The central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan (7) and Gustav Svensson (4) has proven a formidable foe for anyone and everyone during the second half of the season. On Tuesday — granted, against 10 men for more than an hour — they could do no wrong. (Passes attempted on the right; defensive actions on the left — green triangles are tackles won, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, purple are clearances, red are tackles lost.)

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Alonso has been an unbelievable servant for nine MLS seasons, he’s an MLS Cup champions, a four-time U.S. Open Cup winner, a Supporters’ Shield winner and one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history. He’s also 32 years old with a growing history of lower-body injuries that seem to never fully heal, and he’s now clearly third in the pecking order behind Roldan and Svensson. It’s clearly an oversimplification to say that soccer is a young, mobile man’s game these days, but it’s certainly true of MLS, and the results are in near total agreement.


May I have some hope, please?

Here’s a not-so-fun fact if you’re a Dynamo fan: your team won one — singular — game on the road in 17 tries this season. Not a dark enough outlook? OK, have this: that lone away win came against D.C. United, who finished 21st out of 22 teams if you put MLS into a single table.

Maybe Seattle weren’t so good at home this year… I’m really just searching for anything at this point, you’re thinking. OK, it’s possible, I suppose. They lost once at home all season, to Toronto FC, the best regular-season team in MLS history, by the final score of 1-0, in the month of May.

We’ll see you in Toronto or Columbus for MLS Cup, Seattle Sounders.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC hold Crew on the road

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The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

Three things: Being happy with 0-0, and sabotage by Precourt

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On what felt sure to be a seminal night in franchise history, Columbus Crew SC were held by Toronto FC to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Leg 2 will be played next Wednesday, Nov. 29.

[ RECAP: TFC hold Crew SC to scoreless draw in leg 1 of East finals ]

We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


Who’s happiest with 0-0?

There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.

TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).


TFC’s tactical adjustment pays off

For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.

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Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.

Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.


Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low

How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.

You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.

This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.