Real Madrid survives Reus, Borussia Dortmund, reaches fourth straight Champions League semifinal

Leave a comment

Real Madrid is through to a fourth straight UEFA Champions League semifinal, though after enduring 90 troubling minutes against a short-handed Borussia Dortmund, all of the team’s weaknesses have been further exposed in the process. Losing 2-0 in Westfalia, Carlo Ancelotti’s team still advances with a 3-2 (aggregate) win, but with an error-prone defense and a midfield incapable of slowing down the quicker Germans, the Merengues looked more like survivors than victors.

An early penalty kick awarded after a Lukasz Piszczek handball gave Ángel Di María a chance to cement El Real’s semifinal spot, but stepping up in wake of the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, the Argentine was unable to beat Roman Weidenfeller in the 17th minute. Marco Reus soon made Real rue the missed opportunity, scoring twice before halftime, but when last year’s finalists were unable to convert their myriad second half chances, Real Madrid were allowed to claim another spot in the semifinals.

Having been eliminated in that round in each of the last three seasons, the nine-time champions will be hoping Ancelotti can guide them where José Mourinho never could. Borussia Dortmund, on the other hand, will have to content itself with a commanding performance that left the team one goal short of prolonging its Champions League run.

Real Madrid’s passivity left the Merengues without early answers against Dortmund’s pressure, something that nearly rendered irrelevant when a cross from Fabio Coentrão met Piszczek’s extended left arm at the edge of the BVB penalty area. Though replays showed the Dortmund left back may have left from the box by the time he made contact with the ball, referee Damir Skomina pointed to the spot, giving Di María a chance to put the tie away.

Though the Argentine’s plant foot slipped as he met the ball, his shot still seemed destined for the right side netting. Thanks to  Weidenfeller, however, we’ll never know. Diving to save a knee-high shot headed, the Borussia Dortmund keeper prevented Real Madrid from claiming an early, crucial away goal.

In the 24th minute, after Real Madrid’s first major defensive error, Weidenfeller’s stop took on a whole new meaning, with Reus’s finish into a near-empty net bringing the hosts back into the tie. Intercepting a weak Pepe headed back pass after a long ball from Manuel Friedrich, Reus dribbled around Iker Casillas’s charge to the edge of the penalty area, leaving only Sergio Ramos to defend Real’s abandoned goal. Blasting his shot between the Spanish international’s legs, Reus cut the visitors’ lead to two, giving BVB a one-goal lead on the night.

In the 38th minute, a second inexcusable Real Madrid error put the team’s lead in further doubt, allowing BVB to carry a 2-0 lead into halftime. After terrible giveaway from Aiser Illarremendi at the edge of his defensive third, Reus was allowed to run at the Real Madrid defense, collapsing it before laying off left to Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker’s shot was pushed onto the far post, but when the rebound came out to Reus, Ramos was again left watching a shot fly into an abandoned goal, bringing Dormtund within one, overall.

In the 60th minute, after showing little life through the second half’s first 15 minutes, Real Madrid finally awoke with a ball sent through the six-yard box by Gareth Bale. Eluding Weidenfeller, the pass was inches away from becoming Real Madrid’s decisive blow, with Karim Benzema failing to get to the ball before it rolled beyond the far post.

Moments later, when Benzema dribbled around Weidenfeller before a recovery from Mats Hummels saved a goal, the Real Madrid striker had seen his second close chance end without a shot on target. His team remained within one BVB goal of extra time.

source: AP
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (right) had there chances to provide Borussia Dortmund with an equalizer but was unable to build on Marco Reus’s two first half goals. (Photo credit: AP Photos.)

In the 64th minute, Dortmund was left regretting its own close call after Reus put Henrikh Mkhitaryan though on goal. After moving around an oncoming Casillas, the Armenian midfielder had a chance to make amends for a disappointing effort in the middle of the first half. Instead, faced with an empty goal, Mkhitaryan failed  to adjust for the speed he took toward the byline, nailing the near post with his shot.

Four minutes later, work from Reus and Lewandowski moving left-to-right in the penalty area left Mkhitaryan with another chance from the middle of the box. Finally getting a shot on target, the Dortmund midfielder fired straight at Casillas, who came up big on Kevin Großkreutz with a dive to his left minutes later.

Entering the final 15 minutes, the possession edge Real Madrid had carried out of halftime had completely evaporated. After playing on the counter throughout the first half, Borussia Dortmund were monopolizing play in the second. Their guests were quickly receding into two banks of four, with Xabi Alonso patrolling the space in between.

As the game approached full-time, Real Madrid crept deeper into its own end, though Dortmund’s increased pursuit meant the match’s final chances were El Real’s. Karim Benzema had an opportunity to ice the tie in the 80th minute with a chance near the edge of the box. Ten minutes later, his layoff into the right of the area left Weidenfeller diving in to prevent Bale from poking a decisive score into Dortmund’s goal.

When time ran out, Borussia Dortmund head coach Jürgen Klopp quickly went to shake Carlo Ancelotti’s hand, his lack of hesitation portraying a pride in his team’s performance. Down three goals coming into the day, BVB had done more than merely saved face. It’d left itself with a chance to win. Though, ultimately, Real Madrid survived into the competition’s next round, Klopp seemed content knowing his team leaves the tournament having put its best foot forward.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
1 Comment

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

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Leave a comment

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

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
1 Comment

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

Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.