Ukraine vs. United States: Looking back on our five focal points

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Wednesday’s match in Cyprus was all about the U.S. Men’s National Team’s depth chart: who was staking a claim to a starting spot; who was putting themselves in contention for the 23-man team; and who was trying to earn a place on May’s 30-man preliminary roster. In an ideal situation, Jurgen Klinsmann would have seen players hungry to improve their stock make life difficult for the Major League Soccer players who couldn’t make the trip. The depth chart would have been complicated.

The 2-0 loss to Ukraine did anything but. A flat performance defined by defensive mistakes, midfield ineffectiveness, and a lack of chances gave the U.S. nothing positive to take into new month’s friendly against Mexico. With most of today’s squad unlikely to feature in that out-of-window friendly, players like Sacha Kljestan will be left watching their competition try to make the impact Wednesday’s team could not.

(MORE: Ukraine 2-0 USA: Disjointed U.S. display sees fired up Ukraine prevail)

Last night, we identified five areas of focus for the U.S. national team. Here’s how they played out:

1. Geoff Cameron‘s chance to lay claim to the right back spot

How Cameron did depends on who you ask. Joe Prince-Wright felt he vaulted himself to the top of the right back depth chart, though as Cameron stood staring at a Ukraine attacker that had drifted into his channel ahead of a first half cross, you couldn’t help but wonder if the Stoke City starter had tuned out. Would Brad Evans had made the same mistake?

After taking two steps toward the middle of the field, Cameron allowed his Ukrainian mark to settle in the space between himself and Oguchi Onyewu (turned toward the left flank). Moments later, after a successful cross for Cameron’s man helped beat the U.S. defense, an offside call saved the Americans from conceding a second goal. On a ball Cameron should have positioned himself to attack, the U.S. nearly conceded a goal.

That was one of Cameron’s bad points. A more apropos moment came earlier when Cameron was isolated against Yevhen Konoplyanka. The Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk winger, through multiple moves, initially had trouble shaking the U.S. right back. Eventually, however, Konoplaynka was able to create room toward the line to float a left-footed cross near post.

Compared to the rest of the defense, Cameron’s day was fine, but that’s comparing a bent fender to a caved in engine compartment. Still not providing much of wide as the U.S. builds through the middle, Cameron didn’t help his stock on Wednesday. Unlike the rest of the defense, though, he didn’t hurt it, either.

(MORE: Three things we learned in USA’s defeat to Ukraine)

source: Getty Images2. Is Jermaine Jones carrying any rust?

Jones’ performance in front of the defense was consistent with somebody who has played one club game in two months. In the first half, as the deepest man in midfield, he often failed to provide a third passing option for his center backs, who were often left to play back to Tim Howard. Jones compounded that problem with an inability to serve as an outlet when the ball reached the attackers. Though he improved as the game went on, Jones’s overall performance was languid, one that looked especially ineffective in the absence of Michael Bradley.

3. Will “U.S. Jozy Altidore” transcend “Sunderland Jozy Altidore”?

Jozy Altidore was one of the few players who looked decent from the opening kickoff, but with the U.S. unable to build many decent opportunities, Altidore was given few chances to play beyond ‘decent’. Some nice work holding up play led to a few forays forward before intermission, but ultimately, Altidore was unable to pose a meaningful threat on Andriy Pyatov’s goal.

Given the U.S.’s problems all over the field, there’s a risk of being too harsh on Altidore, yet the kind of descriptions you read above could apply to almost any of Altidore’s performances at Sunderland. At some point, hard work is not enough for a forward, and while one game with the U.S. isn’t enough to pass judgment on his suitability for Brazil, this game’s fit in a bigger, unproductive pattern is one of the most worrying parts of the current national team.

4. Wanted: Clint Dempsey of 2012.

Speaking of fitting into patterns, Wednesday’s Dempsey looked eerily similar to the man who struggled to get anything going at the end of the 2012 season for Seattle. In the first half, with the U.S. midfield broken, Dempsey was forced to drop deeper and deeper to get the ball, taking him out of position to do what he does best – pick up opportunistic goals.

This will be the key to Seattle’s season, but it may also define whether the U.S. can threaten to get out of their World Cup group: When will Dempsey’s teams stop trying to make him into something he’s not. With good technical skill, it’s tempting, even logical, to say ‘We need to get Clint on the ball more.’ After two years of seeing teams do this, it’s time to admit: Dempsey is not that type of guy.

Find another plan. Tweak the system. Bring in other players, or just go back to the drawing board. As Sounders fans now know, if you’re starting Dempsey underneath a striker and counting on him to be a focal point in a  possession game, you’re going to see a lot of performances like today’s. Perhaps this was a worst case scenario, but it was still another example of Dempsey’s versatility being used against him.

As has been the case since he left Fulham (in 2012), Dempsey wasn’t put in a position to succeed. As a result, his day in Cyprus was an ineffectual one.

source: Getty Images5. Midfield spots up for grabs

Jones’s partner on Wednesday, Sacha Kljestan, didn’t help his case. If anything, he highlighted the contrast between him and Mix Diskerud.

When, in the first half, the U.S. was trying to hard to build through the middle, he was often nowhere to be seen. For every time he came back to help Jones, OguchiOnyewu, and John Brooks get the ball out of defense, there was another time where he was in no position to offer the outlet the team needs in the middle of the park. He’d give and go and never be heard from again, a performance that forced Dempsey to keep dropping in midfield.

Brek Shea, in the 27 minutes he saw, showed he can provide the change-of-pace option your can afford to gamble on with the World Cup’s huge 23-man rosters. His brief flashes on Wednesday may keep him in the picture, with similar displays from Danny Williams in the middle perhaps earning the Reading man some momentum going into May.

As for Alejandro Bedoya, the man who started on the right, he was as victimized by the U.S.’s play as Dempsey or Altidore. Too often the answer to “why isn’t Bedoya doing more” was “because the ball’s nowhere near him.” But just like the U.S.’s forwards, Bedoya probably didn’t lose any ground. A heavy favorite to make the World Cup squad before the match, Bedoya may have been helped by others’ struggles. He didn’t seize his opportunity, but he didn’t waste it, either.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”