Champions League Preview: Real Madrid looks to restore confidence against decimated Dortmund

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When Real Madrid drew Borussia Dortmund after UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16, the pairing looked fortuitous pairing for the surging favorite. Back then, Carlo Ancelotti’s team appeared primed to be Bayern Munich’s main obstacle, with a rise to the top of La Liga showing its quality relative to fellow contenders Barcelona and Atlético Madrid.

Jump to the present, and an unexpected slide finds Real Madrid occupying the Primera’s third place once more. A disappointing home loss to Barcelona followed at an upset at Sevilla highlighted the team’s long-discussedfragility. For all the success los Blancos experienced this winter — as ascent that left all of fall’s questions in 2013’s distance — they were still sent spinning by a Lionel Messi hat trick, a Sergio Ramos red card, and the same misgivings that have kept the team’s current core from claiming the club’s long-sought decima.

It makes El Real’s pairing with Borussia Dortmund even more fortuitous. Had the nine-time champions been drawn with Bayern Munich or Barcelona in this round, the wounds they suffered in league may have sufficiently healed. But against a Dortmund team that has struggled all season with injuries, Real Madrid may be getting just the right level of opponent to ease them back toward their title-contending form.

“We have done well in the competition up until now,” Ancelotti reminded the media on Tuesday, “we are one of only two teams unbeaten. We are 100 percent ready for this match.”

(MORE: Real Madrid’s path: Landslide at Schalke | Finish the job at home)

In the last round, however, Jurgen Klopp’s team’s four-goal outburst in Russia reminded the field of Dortmund’s persisting danger, something the Merengues will remember from last year’s semifinals. But with up to seven first choice players set to be sidelined on Wednesday, Dortmund will look little like the team that routed Real Madrid in Germany last season.

Robert Lewandowskiwho posted four goals on El Real in last year’s first leg, is suspended for Wednesday’s match in Madrid. Though he’ll return for leg two, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Sven Bender, Ilkay Gündogen and Jakub Blaszczykowski will not, with Lukacz Piszczek’s fitness concern potentially leaving the full back with his injured teammates. Dortmund is decimated.

But Dortmund has been decimated for most of the season. Yet they still won their Champions League group. They’re still in the tournament’s final eight. They still sit second in Germany, and they were still able to put their Round of 16 match against Zenit St. Petersburg away within 90 minutes. Those focusing on Borussia Dortmund’s misfortune usually overlook the fact that Klopp has made his adjustments.

“I’m not a magician but we have had to get over much adversity this season,” Klopp explained. “I have very good players and my duty is to make them better; so far we’ve done that very well.”

(MORE, Dortmund’s road to the quarters: Explosion in St. Petersburg | Struggles at home)

source: APThose duties leave summer buy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the likely starter up top. Marco Reus (right), capable of finding goals on his own (as he did three times this weekend), will star in an attacking line of three with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and (likely) Jonas Hoffman. The debilitated defense will rely on Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the middle beside Mats Hummels, with Kevin Großkreutz moved back on the right to play opposite left back Erik Durm. It’s a makeshift team, yet one which, thanks to players like Reus, can still pull off an upset.

It’s also a group that’s more capable than the Sevilla team that beat Real Madrid in the middle of last week, though that loss is likely to have served as a wake up call. If so, Borussia Dortmund’s hamstrung defense risks being overrun by Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, with a midfield trio of Luka Modric, Ángel Di María, and Xabi Alonso capable of dictating the affair. At home and carrying memories of last years’ first leg embarrassment, Real Madrid’s stars can be expected to try and post a decisive result.

(MORE: Mourinho, Chelsea stand in the way of PSG’s semifinal goal)

“Playing the second leg at home may be a slight advantage but I fear Madrid trying to settle the tie here,” according to Klopp. “I have seen many of their games and they never finish a match without one scoring opportunity. They have incredible quality and we can’t ignore that. If we play our game and keep our heads up, we will have chances.”

On Wednesday, Dortmund’s main goal has to be to survive until leg two. Then, they’ll have Lewandowski back. Piszczek might return. They’ll be at home, and they may be able to use that Real Madrid fragility in their favor. Dortmund could be the next team to draw a decisive Sergio Ramos red card.

They just need to survive the Bernabéu.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.