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.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday