UEFA Champions League roundup: All hail Ibra as PSG, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid stay perfect

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As we did after yesterday’s action, let’s take a moment to honor perfection, even if it’s going to take a little longer after today’s action. On Tuesday, Atlético Madrid was the only club that’d claimed full points through three rounds. After today’s action in Groups A through D, three other clubs joined the crowd.

Bayern Munich was most impressive, putting up numbers that we never see in Champions League. The 5-0 they posted on Viktoria Plzen was match by Paris Saint-Germain, but the underlying numbers were as one-sided as you’ll ever see at this level of competition (they had  21-1 edge in shots at halftime). This wasn’t David versus Goliath. This was Drago versus Apollo.

Real Madrid never seemed to hit top gear against Juventus, but thanks to some good fortune, they didn’t need it. Giorgio Chiellini had a bad day, allowing the Merengues to stay perfect. Cristiano Ronaldo’s double highlighted what was a pedestrian performance, but Real Madrid’s standards.

[MORE: No contest – Bayern dominates helpless Plzen.]

[MORE: Ronaldo double helps Real Madrid see off Juve.]

And then there’s Paris Saint-Germain, whose performance came down to one man. I suppose some credit goes to PSG for acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making him one of the best compensated players in the world, and being smart enough to build their team around him despite a wealth of other talents. Still, at some point you just have to acknowledge: Today was all about Zlatan. His four goals took PSG to 3-0-0.

[MORE: Another night to remember from Zlatan.]

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Tuesday roundup.]

Here’s what else happened Wednesday in UEFA Champions League:

Group A: Manchester United (England) 1-0 Real Sociedad (Spain) [REACTION]

What happened: Early United pressure forced a turnover high along their left flank, with a quick move producing an Iñigo Martínez own goal after Wayne Rooney rattled the right post. Better through most of the match, United failed to find their insurance, leaving the result in doubt until the final whistle.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors:  Rooney continues his post-Ferguson resurgence, but his teammates aren’t keeping up, something we wouldn’t be saying had they found another goal. But the point is they didn’t, allowing this performance to fall into a larger pattern. That they did so with a largely second-choice side is an important caveat; regardless, Group A’s leaders persist with their fledgling between eras.

Group A: Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) 4-0 Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

What happened: Bayer absolutely exploded. Stefan Keißling in the 22nd. Simon Rolfes from the spot. Sidney Sam near the hour, then Kießling completing his double. A nightmare night for goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov saw Shakhtar embarrassed in Germany, with Bayer’s talented attack finally letting lose in Champions League.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: It’s hard to believe Bayer’s four goals better than Shakhtar, but on Wednesday they were. The lingering question is how much of this will translate to Donetsk two weeks from now. One view on today’s game may see it as the home side taking their chances and momentum  creating the lopsided result. Another view sees a Bayer’s talented, three-pronged attack as a bad matchup for a defense Sami Hyypiä identified as vulnerable pre-match.

Group B: Real Madrid (Spain) 2-1 Juventus (Italy) [REACTION]

What happened: An early goal from Cristiano Ronaldo left Juventus chasing, but the Bianconeri caught up after 22 minutes. Giorgio Chiellini’s penalty and subsequent dismissal left the Italian champions down a goal, down a man, and destined for third place in Group B.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: Juventus’s performance gives them every reason to believe they’ll turn this around two weeks from now, though they will have to do so without the suspended Chiellini. If you’re Real Madrid, you look at this match and consider yourself slightly fortunate Chiellini’s fouls took Juventus out of the match. They’ll need some tweaks before touching down in Turin.

Group B: Galatasaray (Turkey) 3-1 Copenhagen (Denmark)

What happened: First half goals from Felipe Melo, Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba killed this one off by halftime. Claudemir’s 88th minute consolation ruined Fernando Muslera’s clean sheet.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: The dominance Roberto Mancini’s team showed in the first half makes you believe they can replicate this result in Denmark. It’s not that they overwhelmed Copenhagen, per se. It’s more that the chances they created were so clear cut. Perhaps merely playing better will pull FCK even next week, but today, they looked overmatched.

Group C: Anderlecht (Belgium) 0-5 Paris Saint-German (France) [REACTION]

What happened: Zlatan Ibrahimovic happened. Four goals in 62 minutes, three of the highlight reel variety. Edinson Cavani had PSG’s other goal.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: Anderlecht obviously did their part allowing it to happen (though that third goal, whoa), but that performance from Zlatan wins most games. Maybe he doesn’t score four times, but he still decides that match. Today, he vaulted PSG to nine points through three games, leaving Anderlecht sputtering at the bottom of their group.

Group C: Benfica (Portugal) 1-1 Olympiacos (Greece)

What happened: Alejandro Dominguez gave the visitors a lead that held up until the 83rd minute, but one piece of set piece magic allowed Benfica to salvage a point. However, if it wasn’t for Roberto’s misread of Benfica’s late restart, Oscar Cardoza would have never had a chance to equalize for the hosts, the 1-1 allowing the Eagles to salvage a point in Estadio do Luz’s bog.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: Olympiacos got their first half lead, tried to hold on, and it didn’t work out. That’s not to say today’s result wasn’t good; however, they could have really put Benfica in a bad place had they taken full points. Still, if they hold serve at home next week, they’ll consolidate their place as the team most likely to join PSG in the next round. Benfica, however, should have a better game plan in Piraeus.

Group D: Bayern Munich (Germany) 5-0 Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) [REACTION]

What happened: It’s been a while since we redressed Michel Platini’s desire to see more small league-winners in Champions League (mostly because we all seem to agree this is a good thing), but let’s consider today’s numbers. Total Shots: Bayern 35, Plzen 1. Shots on Goal: Bayern 18; Plzen 0. Possession: Bayern 77 percent. Bayern may be incredibly good and Plzen may be one a borderline team for this competition, but when those two elements meet, you get this type of result, something you can’t help think is bad for everybody involved.

Maybe it’s just randomness, or extremely colliding in a very unlikely way. Regardless, we don’t need to see this. At least, we don’t need to see it in Champions League.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: We’ll have another 90 minutes of this in two weeks. Hopefully we’ll see a little rotation from the Germans, because clearly they don’t need their first choice attackers to take down Plzen.

Group D: CSKA Moscow (Russia) 1-2 Manchester City (England)

What happened: A leaky City defense saw Zoran Tosic give CSKA a mid-first half lead, a score that lead to an almost immediate response from Sergio Agüero. A second goal from Kün gave City the lead before halftime, a gap that held up through full-time, though Joe Hart was forced to come up big on Keisuke Honda in second half stoppage time.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: There’ll be qualms about how they went about it, but against a talented, experienced team, playing on a horrible, frozen pitch a continent away from home, City snared full points. At times, it didn’t look like they deserved it, so consider the outcome more resourceful than convincingly. Regardless, City went to the home of their chief competition and got three points. That’s a best-case scenario.

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.