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

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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.

How to stop Alexis? “Padlock, tie him up,” says Sevilla boss

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“Well, maybe we can lock him up with a padlock or tie him up with rope.”

Vincenzo Montella has mixed it up with Alexis Sanchez in the past, and he’s not relishing the need to stop him again without using non-traditional means.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

The Sevilla boss, 43, said he “remembered well” the Manchester United star from the Chilean’s playing time at Udinese,.

“He has improved his style a lot during his career and I think he can be a really good player in transition,” Montella said. “I think they have really good speed in attack.”

That padlock joke wasn’t the only quality quip from Montella, who said of Paul Pogba:

“He is a complete player. I hope he doesn’t play.”

Sevilla hosts United at 2:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium.

Conte gets tactics spot on but Messi has last laugh

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LONDON — Before the game Antonio Conte‘s tactics were the talk of the press room at Stamford Bridge, plus pubs and television studios around the world.

After the game his decision to play Eden Hazard in a false nine position, flanked by Willian and Pedro, and leave out his two star center forwards, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, was lauded. This was a reminder of the man who led Chelsea to Premier League glory last season and also a reminder of Chelsea’s successful past against the Catalan giants as they’re now unbeaten in their last eight UCL encounters as the clash of styles continues.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Recap

Conte is under pressure with just five wins in his last 13 games in all competitions, but this was a tactical masterclass from the Italian coach as his side totally bought into his plan and without a mistake from Andreas Christensen late on, it would have been an archetypal Italian defensive display leading to a 1-0 win to take to the Nou Camp.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Conte believed his players were incredibly unlucky to not win the game as Willian struck the post twice in the first half and they threatened multiple times on the counter.

“We were very close to playing the perfect game. One mistake and we know very well when you make a mistake against Barcelona and players like Messi, Suarez and Iniesta you pay. It is a pity because tonight, at the end of the game, we are disappointed for the final result,” Conte said. “We hit the post twice with Willian. There is a bit of disappointment but I think that this game must give us confidence to trust that in the second leg that qualification is open. It won’t be easy. We must be realistic. We are talking about Barcelona. Tonight we showed that if we are ready to work very hard together defensively, but at the same time you continue to have the right feeling when you win the ball to create chances to score, we can try to do something incredible at the Nou Camp.”

The one wrench in Conte’s plan was always going to be one incredible player: Lionel Messi.

Without a goal in eight games (730 minutes in total) against Chelsea, the five-time World Player of the Year stroked home a killer away goal 15 minutes from time to swing the tie back into Barcelona’s favor after Conte’s masterclass. Messi, 30, once again arrived at the pivotal moment for the La Liga leaders and the Argentine star sprung into life as Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta made the most of Christensen’s mistake.

Messi’s presence on the ball sparked nervousness within the Chelsea defense but it looked like he would leave empty hand once again until he was gifted a chance to silence the doubters.

Barcelona had 73 percent of possession on Tuesday and attempted 887 passes to Chelsea’s 325. They looked comfortable in a cauldron of noise at Stamford Bridge and even though they were vulnerable on the counter, they never looked too flustered but only had two real chances via Paulinho in the first half and Suarez in the second.

Despite following the blueprint to get a result against Barcelona almost to a tee, Cesc Fabregas believes the Blues will have to be more expansive at the Nou Camp in the second leg to get through to the quarterfinals.

“We have showed that we can compete and we will need another excellent performance at the Nou Camp to go through,” Fabregas told BT Sport. “You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70 percent of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

As for Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde, he admitted that he was a happy man to escape West London with a draw but urged his side to respect Chelsea’s style of play in the second leg.

“It has been a clash of styles this game, two different teams,” Ernesto said. “We tried to control the game, had a lot of possession and got close to the area. We were just lacking a little bit of extra quality in the final third. They defended very well. The good thing is we managed to get an error and get a goal out of them. We will go back to the Camp Nou happy.”

Conte was happy his players followed his gameplan and believes they must believe they can deliver killers blows on the break in Barcelona in two weeks time with Willian, Pedro and Hazard key to the plan.

“I must be pleased because the players did a great effort and they followed the plan we prepared,” Conte said. “In 15 days we must be ready to prepare for another game against Barcelona. We must be prepared to suffer together but in the moment you are suffering, you must know that the moment you are in possession you can create a chance to score.”

Chelsea need at least one goal to go through or to take the game to extra time, but given their spirited display at Stamford Bridge there’s renewed hope that Conte can mastermind another defensive masterplan to get them into the last eight for the first time since 2014.

Fabregas: Chelsea has to avoid “suicide mission,” push Barca in 2nd leg

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Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas has seen Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi work plenty of magic in his career, and he preferred it much better when he was on their side for such brilliance.

[ MORE: Recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

But the Blues’ midfielder will feel as good as a player can following a tactical masterclass from Antonio Conte was betrayed by one miscue in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw versus Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

Barca was held, arguably, without a true chance before Andreas Christensen‘s miscue helped Iniesta cue Messi up for a second half equalizer.

And Fabregas, who was La Liga and the Copa del Rey with Barca, is already thinking about the second leg at the Camp Nou. From the BBC:

“It is such a shame really. I thought we were very good, we executed the game plan really well, we were compact, solid, played as a team and created lots of chances – Willian could have had a hatrick – but we go home sad because a fantastic performance is not a fantastic result.

“You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70% of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

True story, though one easier planned than executed against Barca. Conte said he lost a lot of sleep coming up with his tactics for the first leg, and he’s going to have to put on some coffee a few times before March 14.

Three things learned: Chelsea v. Barcelona

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LONDON — It was honors even at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday as Chelsea and Barcelona battled to a 1-1 draw in an intriguing UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg.

The familiar foes (this was their 13th meeting in the Champions League) played out a tight game with Willian hitting both posts in the first half with sumptuous curling efforts before scoring the opener in the second half, while Lionel Messi equalized late on to grab a crucial away goal.

Chelsea are unbeaten in eight Champions League games against Barcelona, who have won just once in their seven trips to Stamford Bridge, yet Barca are among just four teams who remain unbeaten in the UCL this season and they’ll fancy their chances of getting by the Blues at the Nou Camp on Mar. 14 in the return leg with a vital away goal in the bag.

Here’s what we learned from another massive European night between the clubs in west London, as Chelsea need a score draw 2-2 or higher or a win at the Nou Camp to advance to the UCL last eight for the first time since 2013-14.


WILLIAN, HAZARD DAZZLE

This wasn’t the Messi and Luis Suarez show. Chelsea’s dynamic duo of Eden Hazard, and particularly Willian, took charge early on Tuesday.

Hazard has yet to really carry Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League and it was his job to take the game to Barcelona in the first leg. He did the best he could, and although he had little support, he caused problems for Barca on the break.

With Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata both left on the bench from the start, Hazard was asked to play a role he has rarely flourished in. His talents are much better suited to playing in a No.10 role floating off a front man or cutting in from the left flank.

Hazard, 27, flashed an effort over the bar early on and wriggled free of Barca’s defense on a few occasions as he slammed another effort over the bar. Then Willian took over.

The Brazilian continued his fine form after two goals last time out against Hull City and he smashed each post with trademark curling efforts from outside the box. Antonio Conte stood with his head in his hands on the sidelines, but deep down he knew he’d got his tactics spot on.

It was a case of third time lucky for Willian as in the second half he hit a low shot into the bottom corner to put Chelsea ahead. Chelsea’s dynamic attacking duo of Hazard and Willian had delivered.

Suarez’s drought in front of goal was now his worst in the Champions League, while Messi’s peculiar lack of potency against Chelsea looked to be continuing…


MESSI’S CHELSEA CURSE IS OVER

A moment in the first half acted as a precursor to Messi’s magic. It was a warning for Chelsea that they didn’t heed.

The Argentine magician is a joy to watch in the flesh and the way he simply glided past N'Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger summed up that his gearbox us more than capable of cranking up five gears at a time with minimal fuss.

Yet Messi didn’t get too many chances to click through the gears as Barcelona’s pragmatic approach saw both he and Suarez left isolated for much of the game as the La Liga leaders struggled to get going until late on. He only needed one chance to grab the all-important away goal.

Barca’s defensive record was the best in the Champions League this season going into this game and although Ernesto Valverde has added steel to their swashbuckling style, too often they lacked cutting edge in the final third.

Messi, now 30, may not come up against Premier League clubs many more times in his career but he provided a dagger of an away goal 15 minutes from time to end the talk of him struggling against Chelsea.

It took over 730 minutes, but Messi finally has a goal against Chelsea and it was a hugely important strike.


CONTE GETS TACTICS SPOT ON

The decision to not start with Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud up top was a bold one from Conte and it paid off brilliantly.

Some may call it boring. Some may criticize him for not playing with a recognized striker. Yet Conte’s tactical masterplan to have Hazard, Pedro and Willian charging at the center of Barca’s defense whenever they could worked to perfection.

Ahead of this clash Conte admitted he didn’t sleep well because he was concocting a plan to stop Messi and Co.

“I must be honest… it was a bit difficult to sleep well,” Conte said. “When you have to play this type of game, you have to prepare. You have to prepare everything. You have to prepare big things, but the smaller details too.”

He got the small details spot on as the Blues retreated into a 5-4-1 formation at times with Conte screaming at Thibaut Courtois for lumping the ball long to Hazard and Willian. He wanted the Blues to keep the ball, give it to Cesc Fabregas and have Hazard, Pedro and Willian running behind Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti.

They launched several counters in the second half but could only finish one of them off, while one mistake from Andreas Christensen cost them dear.

That said, Chelsea will use this same gameplan in the second leg at the Nou Camp with confidence that they can at least take the game to extra time.

Even though Conte has won just five of his last 13 games in all competitions, this display will fill his team with confidence they can get the job done on the road in Barcelona.