How things stand in UEFA Champions League after first legs of knockout games

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The half time whistle has blown in the first knockout round of this season’s UEFA Champions League.

Some teams take resounding leads into their second leg matchups, a few games are balanced delicately and plenty of sides have a mountain to climb to reach the last eight of Europe’s elite club competition.

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After two weeks and four matchdays, we now have a much clearer picture of which teams will make a deep run towards the UCL final in Lisbon on May 24.

Let’s see how these first legs played out and which teams have the upper-hand to advance to the quarterfinals.

Paris Saint-Germain vs. Bayer Leverkusen

This tie is all but over, as PSG’s star-studded forwards tore Leverkusen apart. Zlatan Ibrahimovic banged in two goals, including an absolute scorcher, as Laurent Blanc’s side look set for a deep run in the UCL. Can they go one better than the quarterfinal stage they reached last season? You bet. Plucky Leverkusen have done well to get this far as Sami Hyppia’s side have had their defensive weaknesses badly exposed throughout the entire tournament. If they grab an early goal in Paris they may have a chance, but PSG look a real force to be reckoned with.

First Leg: Bayer Leverkusen 0-4 Paris Saint-Germain

Second Leg: March 12, Parc des Princes, Paris

FC Barcelona vs. Manchester City

Poor old Man City. Just when they were looking good after a solid first half at home against Barcelona, wham! Martin Demchelis threw a spanner of epic proportions in the works. A combination of his slack tracking and a great run from Lionel Messi saw Demichelis take him out, handed a red card but a penalty was harshly awarded as the foul looked to be outside the box. Dani Alves’ late goal sealed Barca’s 2-0 win, as City battled hard with 10-men but one lapse cost them. Manager Manuel Pellegrini reacted angrily to the defeat and the refereeing decisions but his side were outplayed in the end. City now have to win 3-0 at the Nou Camp in the second leg, a daunting task, but with Sergio Aguero back fit and Barca dropping more points in La Liga, it isn’t out of the question that City can push this thing into extratime. A tall order but City are certainly capable of banging in the goals.

First Leg: Manchester City 0-2 Barcelona

Second Leg: March 12, Camp Nou, Barcelona

Atletico Madrid vs. AC Milan

The first leg was tight and tense affair at the San Siro, as red-hot Diego Costa was the difference between the two sides after the Atletico striker scored late on to hand Madrid a vital 1-0 win. Neither teams forced the issue in a slightly timid affair, but with Diego Simeone’s Atletico fighting for the Spanish title and brimming with confidence, it’s hard to bet against them at home. Clarence Seedorf is slowly rebuilding his AC Milan side and they have nothing to lose in the second leg so they might as well go for it. Plus, they have Mario Balotteli so they have a chance. Will we see the famous “why always me?” shirt make a celebratory appearance at Vicente Calderon when Milan come to town? The Italian international is capable of the spectacular and that’s exactly what AC need to advance. Expect another tight game, with Milan not ready to buckle just yet. First goal is crucial in the second leg.

First Leg: AC Milan 0-1 Atletico Madrid

Second Leg: March 11, Vicente Calderon, Madrid

source: Reuters
Down and out? Arsenal’s luckless first leg vs. Bayern has Wenger’s men on the brink of elimination.

Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal

I was at the Emirates Stadium for this clash, and I’ve never heard this stadium so loud after Arsenal’s swashbuckling start against reigning European champions Bayern. A crescendo of noise flooded down from the terraces and the Gunners stormed forward again and again in the opening minutes. That attacking panache resulted in a penalty being awarded, which Mesut Ozil won after being fouled. But the Germain international missed the resulting PK and the Emirates was suddenly as flat as a pancake. Soon after things got even worse, as Arsenal ‘keeper Szczesny came flying out of his goal and brought down Arjen Robben. Red card. Penalty kick. Damn. Although David Alaba missed the spot kick, Bayern bagged a tremendous goal from Toni Kroos after 60 minutes and then a stoppage time clincher from Thomas Mueller made it 2-0. Arsenal deserved better but the breaks went against them. The Gunners went to Bayern and won 2-0 in the second leg of their last 16 match last season… they will have to do that again just to keep it alive. I fear for Arsene Wenger’s men at the Allianz Arena, Pep Guardiola’s Munich side look like a monumental machine ready to stroll to a repeat.

First Leg: Arsenal 0-2 Bayern Munich

Second Leg: March 11, Allianz Arena, Munich

Borussia Dortmund vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg

A topsy-turvy game in Russia saw the away side dispatch Zenit clinically. Borussia Dortmund, last season’s runners-up, were 2-0 up inside five minutes after being gifted two goals. Then Zenit fought back and made it 2-1 before Robert Lewandowski scored to make it 3-1, but then Zenit came back again to make it 3-2 before another lapse cost them dear as Lewnadowski made it 4-2 and advantage Dortmund. Zenit only gained six points in the UCL group stages but somehow made it through to the knockout stages, on this performance you could see why. If BVB are up to their best in front of their passionate fans at a hostile Westfalenstadion in March, this has the potential to get embarrassing for Zenit. Can Jurgen Klopp lead his injury-ravaged side to another Champions League final? I don’t think many teams would want to draw them in the quarters, assuming they get through….

First Leg: Zenit Saint Petersburg 2-4 Borussia Dortmund

Second Leg: March 19, BVB Stadion, Dortmund

source: Getty Images
David Moyes’ United side have a mountain to climb after being torn apart by Olympiakos.

Manchester United vs. Olympiakos

Okay, wasn’t this readjustment period supposed to be over by now? Manchester United lost to a Greek side in the UCL for the first-ever time as Olympiakos completed their first-ever win over the Red Devils. United looked afraid, lacking in confidence and unable to make possession count for any meaningful efforts on goal in a shocking display. David Moyes called it “their worst performance in Europe” and he hit the nail on the head. Puzzling team selections like bringing in Tom Cleverley and leaving out Adnan Januzaj have been scrutinized, but something you don’t need to debate is that Olympiakos deserved the victory. United can still turn this around at Old Trafford in what promises to be another enthralling night of European soccer at the “Theater of Dreams.” Olympiakos have lost all 11 games they’ve played away to English opposition, which bodes well. But if Moyes’ United don’t overturn this 2-0 deficit in two week’s time, Old Trafford will turn into the “Theater of Screams” and it could be adios, Mr. Moyes.

First Leg: Olympiakos 2-0 Manchester United

Second Leg: March 19, Old Trafford, Manchester

Chelsea vs. Galatasaray

Chelsea started the game well in the hostile atmosphere in Istanbul as Fernando Torres scored in the opening 10 minutes, and the Blues looked to be on their way to a superb away win. However in the second half Galatasaray rallied and an equalizer from Aurelien Chedjou saw the home side take the game to Chelsea and almost bag a winner. Chelsea will see this result as a good one away in Turkey, as the tie is evenly poised ahead of the return leg at Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho will be happy with the draw but also wary that Galatasaray’s stars and Mourinho’s former players, Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba, could come back to haunt him. This tie is not over by a long way but with Chelsea grabbing a vital away goal, they have a slight advantage.

First Leg: Galatasaray 1-1 Chelsea

Second Leg: March 18, Stamford Bridge, London

source: AP
Will Ronaldo win his first-ever Champions League title with Real Madrid this season?

Real Madrid vs. FC Schalke

Here we saw the team many are tipping to lift the Champions League crown in May, as Real obliterated Schalke 6-1 after Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo all scored two each. When you have three attackers of that quality in your team, there’s no way you aren’t going to punish teams for slack defending. That’s exactly what Real did and in the second leg at home this could get ugly for Bundesliga outfit Schalke. They did get a late consolation goal, and an absolute stunner at that, via former Real striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar but you fear for them at the Santiago Bernabeu. The dream final on everyone’s lips is Real Madrd vs. Bayern Munich. The former are one step closer to that, as they’re already through to the last eight… baring a miraculous comeback from Schalke.

First Leg: Schalke 1-6 Real Madrid

Second Leg: March 18, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

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Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

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Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
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Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

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With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.