UEFA Champions League recap: Atlético clinch group; Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea stay top (video)

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One day after Bayern Munich and Manchester City secured passage into the knockout rounds, an unlikely contender joined them. At least, Atlético Madrid seem unlikely given what we knew at the beginning of this competition. Then, most thought the Colchoneros would be fighting Porto and Zenit to get out of Group G. Instead, after today’s 4-0 win over Austria Wien, Atlético are perfect through four rounds, their seven-point lead over Zenit already clinching first in their group.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League roundup: Bayern Munich, Manchester City into the knockout round]

Barcelona’s close to joining Atlético after Wednesday’s win over Milan, but a five-point lead over the Rossoneri means the Blaugrana will have to wait until their Nov. 26 trip to Amsterdam to confirm their place. One point in Holland will clinch allow them to join Atlético, with La Liga having established three contenders in this year’s competition.

The day’s other results saw English Premier League teams stay top of their groups. Chelsea’s 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge allowed them to pull away from Schalke, who had been even atop Group E coming into the day, while Arsenal’s surprise victory at Borussia Dortmund mean the Gunners stay tied atop Group F. With the surprise loss, BVB will likely need a win over Napoli on Nov. 26 to keep their knockout around hopes alive.

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

Group E: Chelsea (England) 3-0 Schalke (Germany) [REACTION]

A bizarre opening goal saw Samuel Eto’o put the hosting Blues in front after Timo Hildebrand’s attempted long kick was blocked back into his own goal. Eto’o doubled Chelsea’s lead after halftime before giving way to Demba Ba, who completed the scoring by volleying home Frank Lampard’s short lob, vaulting José Mourinho’s side into sole possession of first place.

From our recap:

Coming off weekend disappointment against Newcastle, this was exactly the type of result José Mourinho would have wanted, though it’s difficult to ignore the nature of the opening goal. Eto’o deserves credit for the play, but it wasn’t one Chelsea would have expected from their game plan – a gift from Schalke more than a well-earned score.

If that goal doesn’t go in, does the game play out as it did over the first 30 minutes? With a lot of Blues possession leading to little on Schalke’s goal?

In that sense, the questions from this weekend may not be answered. Now, however, Chelsea gets to pursue solutions from a winning spot, and the top of their Champions League group.

[MORE: Two from Samuel Eto’o lead Chelsea past Schalke, to top of Champions League group]

Group E: Basel (Switzerland) 1-1 Steaua Bucharest (Romania)

Steaua midfielder Alexandru chipped over a high Basel line in the 17th minute, with Federico Piovaccari’s finish high into the left of Yann Sommer’s goal nearly enough to give the Romanian champions their first competition win since 2006. In the match’s last moments, however, substitute Giovanni Sio put home Valentin Stocker cross to salvage a result for the Swiss champions, who are 0-1-2 since wining in London to open the tournament.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund (Germany) 0-1 Arsenal (England) [REACTION]

On a day they were limited to four shots (only two on target), Arsenal found the game’s only goal, their 62nd minute opener holding up to keep the Gunners at the top of Group F. Beating Neven Subotic to a ball just outside the six-yard box, Aaron Ramsey scores his fifth European goal of the season, leaving last year’s finalists in third place after four games. Arsenal became the first English team to win at the Westfalenstadion.

From PST’s Steve Davis:

The goal seemed a terribly unlikely moment from Arsenal’s Ramsey, barging forward in his 200th club appearance and overturning an hour of dominance in the Group F encounter, one that leaves Wenger’s club tied at the top of the foursome.

An uncharacteristic sloppy touch near the back from Dortmund put the ball on Ozil’s foot. Olivier Giroud met his teammate’s cross, leaving a ball dangling for Ramsey to head bravely on the run near goal. It was his 25thstrike overall for the Gunners, who are also off to their best Premier League start in years.

[MORE: Aaron Ramsey’s latest big moment gives Arsenal a huge 1-0 Champions League win at Dortmund]

Group F: Napoli (Italy) 3-2 Marseille (France)

Rafa Benítez’s team nearly became the group’s first to concede points to Marseille, falling behind to a 10th, André Ayew minute opener and allowing Florian Thauvin an equalizer just after the hour. In between,  beautiful strikes two minutes apart for Gohkan Inler and Gonzalo Higuaín had given Napoli a lead, an advantage Higuaín restored in the 75th minute to keep Napoli tied atop Group F.

Group G: Atlético Madrid (Spain) 4-0 Austria Wien (Austria)

Diego Simeone’s team joins Bayern Munich as the competition’s only perfect teams, clinching first in their group with a route of the Austrian champions. Miranda, Raúl Garcia and Felipe Luis each scored before halftime, with Diego Costa recording his third goal in two Champions League games after the break. For the first time since 2008-09, Atlético are into the competition’s second round, with a +10 goal difference hinting at the damage they’ll do.

Group G: Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) 1-1 Porto (Portugal)

Given Porto must still visit the Vicente Calderon, this was a much-needed game for the Portuguese champions, and after Lucho Gonzalez put them up early, they were well on their way. Former Dragon Hulk, however, almost immediately responded, the last goal of the match coming in the 28th minute. Despite creating plenty of opportunities, Porto conceded the best chance of the second half, with Helton coming coming up big Hulk’s 52nd minute try from the spot.

Group F: Barcelona (Spain) 3-1 Milan (Italy) [REACTION]

The teams’ fourth meeting this year played out in predictable fashion, with Barcelona’s dominance of possession eventually drawing a penalty on Ignazio Abate in the 30th minute. Lionel Messi scored, and Sergio Busquets followed with a goal six minutes later. An own goal from Gerard Piqué got Milan on the board before halftime, but Messi’s second in the 83rd minute iced the game, leaving Barcelona on 10 points atop Group F.

From our recap:

As characteristic of the teams’ three other meetings this year, Barcelona dictated the game, but whereas Milan often starts applying pressure at the edge of their defensive third, today they quickly regressed much deeper. With a defense setting up just inside the penalty box behind midfielders holding their ground at the arc, the visitors were providing little resistance for Barcelona’s midfield.

When they did create turnovers, Milan would quickly move down their left, through the place vacated by Dani Alves. The tactic would come good near halftime, but over the first 45 minutes, its main virtues were wasting time, giving their defense some rest, and allowing their lines to reset.

[MORE: Lionel Messi double leads Barcelona past Milan in UEFA Champions League]

Group H: Ajax (Netherlands) 1-0 Celtic (Scotland)

Celtic would have been able to lull this one to sleep if it wasn’t for Lasse Schöne, whose work off of Thulani Serero in the 51st minute produced the game’s only goal. Though Celtic pressed for an equalizer that would keep them in third place, full time came with the Scottish champions having only put two shots on goal, their 1-0 loss at the Amsterdam ArenA sending them to the bottom of the group.

FIFA subjects 2026 Morocco World Cup bid to fresh scrutiny

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Morocco’s World Cup bid is facing fresh scrutiny this week with the arrival of another delegation from FIFA after an initial task force found deficiencies in the proposals for the 2026 tournament.

In a downbeat conclusion to the visit by the FIFA inspectors last week, Morocco’s bid leader acknowledged it had to improve the quality of the submission made to FIFA in March because inadequacies were identified by football’s governing body.

[ MORE: UCL semifinals predictions ]

The previously unplanned second inspection of Morocco is an indication of the more rigorous process introduced by FIFA following criticism in 2010 that World Cups were awarded to the riskiest nations in 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).

There will also be closer scrutiny of human rights of the bidders before the vote on June 13 when Morocco is currently due to be taking on a joint challenge from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Associated Press revealed last week Morocco did not declare its anti-LGBT law to FIFA in the human rights risk assessment included in the bid book. The documents – along with the North American submission – will now be scrutinized for any gaps by human rights experts.

“That process involves an expert third-party assessment of the robustness of the human rights content of both bids that will directly inform the administration’s own evaluation,” Rachel Davis, who sits on FIFA’s human rights advisory board, told the AP.

“We are confident that the process will result in a fair assessment of the human rights situation in all four countries involved in the bids, and a roadmap for how to deal with any deficiencies that FIFA will then require the successful bidder to commit to.”

Davis, who is managing director of the Shift human rights organization, said an evaluation of the human rights in the bidding nations will be included in a report to the FIFA Council, which will also assess the verdict of the evaluation task force. A bid with low scores can be blocked by the council from advancing to a vote of up to 207 football nations at the FIFA Congress on June 13.

While Morocco has said it needs to spend almost $16 billion on infrastructure for the 48-team World Cup, including building or renovating all 14 stadiums, North American does not require any tournament-specific building work. Morocco bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy said at the end of the FIFA inspection that officials “made some remarks on the conditions of some of the stadiums.”

The new batch of technical staff being deployed from FIFA HQ to Morocco did not make a similar follow-up visit to North America after the task force inspected the rival bid’s facilities this month.

“Following the visit of the 2026 bid evaluation task force to Morocco last week, it was decided to have an additional working visit this week to complement the initial analysis of the task force and clarify some aspects of the bid,” FIFA told the AP.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Watch Live: Everton v. Newcastle

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Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both sitting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream Everton-Newcastle ]

Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez have both been around the block a few times but at the moment Allardyce is under pressure and Benitez is working miracles with four wins on the spin as the newly-promoted Magpies have stayed solid defensively all season.

In team news Everton start Tosun, Walcott and Bolasie in attack with Wayne Rooney in midfield.

Newcastle make one change with Islam Slimani making his first start for the Magpies as he comes in for Dwight Gayle.

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UEFA Champions League semifinal predictions

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With the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League to kick off over the next few days, let’s take a look at both games and predict which teams will make it to the final in Kiev on May 26.

[ MORE: Champions League scores

Liverpool or Roma? Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?

Here’s the lowdown as two eagerly anticipated games take center stage across Europe.


Liverpool vs. AS Roma
First leg: Apr. 24, 2:45 p.m. ET at Anfield
Second leg: May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET at Stadio Olimpico

This should be one heck of a tie with defending optional for both teams but both have very different ways of playing. Jurgen Klopp will unleash the fluid trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on an often brittle Roma defense but the Italian giants have a giant in their own up top in the shape of Edin Dzeko. How Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s defense deal with the threat of Dzeko will likely decide the outcome of this game. Liverpool will look to feed off the famous Anfield atmosphere to wrack up a big first leg lead before they head to Roma for Leg 2, and I fancy Salah to blow his old team away in the first leg. Liverpool to advance 4-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
First leg: Apr. 25, 2:45 p.m. ET at Allianz Arena
Second leg: May 1, 2:45 p.m. ET at Santiago Bernabeu

A proper heavyweight clash as Bayern and Real do battle knowing that whoever wins will be the favorites in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life (again) after a slow start to this season and Zinedine Zidane’s side made hard work of it against Juventus in the last round but are on course for a third-straight UCL trophy. As for Bayern, they have been in imperious form and you feel like Robert Lewandowski can get the better of Real’s center backs. Expect this to be a tight game with extremely high quality from both teams. Real being at home in the second leg is a big advantage. Real Madrid to advance 3-2 on aggregate. 

Cologne’s Hector extends contract despite likely relegation

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COLOGNE, Germany (AP) Germany defender Jonas Hector has shunned reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund by extending his contract with Cologne – despite the club’s almost certain relegation from the Bundesliga.

Cologne, eight points from safety with three games remaining, says its 27-year-old captain has signed a two-year extension to 2023 instead of using a release clause in his contract.

Hector, who has been at the club since 2010, says, “It wouldn’t have been a problem to switch to another club after this season but it didn’t feel right for me. I belong to Cologne and want to tackle the new season with the team and the fans behind us.”

Cologne sporting director Armin Veh says Hector’s decision is, “a great signal for the team, the club and our fans.”