Atlético Madrid breaks through, sends Barcelona out of Champions League

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For the first time in seven years, Barcelona will not be among the last four teams standing in UEFA Champions League. After Koke’s early goal stood up at the Vicente Calderón, Atlético Madrid is through to its first semifinal in 40 years, with the team’s 1-0 (2-1, aggregate) win escorting the three-time champions out of the tournament.

Atlético struck first during a dominant opening spell, with a slew of chances near the five-minute-mark allowing Koke to blast home the game’s only goal. Though the Spanish leaders produced a series of close calls on both sides of halftime, they were made to defend their 1-0 lead to the final whistle, eventually producing their first win of the season over Barcelona.

Between La Liga, Spanish Super Cup, and Champions League, the teams had faced each other four previous times this season, with each match ending in a draw. Last week’s game in Barcelona saw Atlético take a 1-1 result out of the Nou Camp, with the away goal potentially looming large in today’s second leg.

Thanks to Koke’s opener, however, Atlético didn’t need to rely on its tiebreaker edge. Finally breaking through against last year’s Spanish champions, a team that hasn’t been to the finals since 1974 is one step closer to another shot. Diego Simeone’s team joins Bayern Munich, Chelsea, and rival Real Madrid in Europe’s final four.

An overwhelming opening 12 minutes put Atlético on the scoresheet early. Unable to deal with the hosts’ high pressure, Barcelona gave up a series of chances in the fifth minute, with a sequence that started with an Adrían López shot off the right post ending with Koke slamming the opener into an empty net. In a spell where Atleti had three chances, the final one was the charm. For the third time in five meetings, Atlético struck first against Barcelona.

Throughout the first half, Simeone’s side had a number of chances to take its first two-goal lead over Barcelona this year. Moments after the opener, Atlético’s pressure produced another opportunity, with David Villa’s shot going out for a corner after Dani Alves’ desperate block. In the 12th minute, a Villa blast from the left hit the near post, while another chance for the former Barcelona striker nailed the cross-bar in the 21st minute.

source: AP
Lionel Messi had three chances to get Barcelona on the scoreboard but extended his scoreless drought to six games against Atlético Madrid. (Photo credit: AP Photo.)

By that time, Barcelona had come into the match, adjusting to Atlético’s pressure to maintain two-thirds of the half’s possession. Chances were still difficult to come by, however, even if the best opportunities fell to the team’s danger man. Shortly after Villa’s first shot off the post, Messi was given a free header from near the Atlético penalty spot, but he was unable to steer the Alves cross on goal. Later in the half, after Neymar beat two players down the left, a ball sent across the top of the six couldn’t be put on target, with Messi pushing his shot wide of the near post.

At the beginning of the second, Barcelona started looking more like their normal selves, proving more purposeful with its possession in the half’s opening moments.  In the 48th minute, a perfectly weighted Xavi Hernández through ball tested Atlético goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, with the Belgian charging off his line to get a left hand to the ball as Neymar tried to touch it into space. Moments later, as a recovering Courtois stumbled near his line, a ball falling to Messi was volleyed over the bar, with Barcelona’s biggest star missing another chance to bring his side level.

The close call served as a wake up call for Atlético, who kept Barcelona without any meaningful chances over the next 15 minutes. Once the game began opening up, it was the home side who proved more threatening. Substitute Diego blasted a chance from a sharp angle into Pinto’s gloves in the 65th minute. Gabi failed to convert a breakaway created by Villa in the 71st minute, weakly hitting a shot into Pinto’s boots. Javier Mascherano was fortunate not to draw Howard Webb’s whistle while playing catchup on Villa in the 72nd. Just as in the first half, Atlético was collecting a serious of misses that would only heighten the heartbreak, should Barcelona come back.

Even as Atlético started to recede further into its own half, it was still producing the better chances. New full-time, substitute Cristian Rodríguez was sent in on down through the left of the penalty area only to put another shot off Pinto’s gloves. Moments later, pressure on the Barcelona keeper saw Víctor Valdés’ backup send a ball back across this empty goal. Though Barcelona was pursuing an equalizer, it was Atlético that was applying the pressure.

Come full time, a matchup that had been gloriously even through 360 minutes finally had a decisive winner. With an early goal and tests of ever part of Pinto’s goal, Atlético was clearly the better side, leaving both sides no doubts as to who deserved a spot in the Champions League semifinals.

Report: American teenager linked with Manchester United

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The U.S. Men’s National Team is always looking for more Christian Pulisic-like players, and another star-in-the-making could be on his way to Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Three keys for USMNT ahead of Panama clash ]

American teenager Will Vint is reportedly being pursued by Premier League giants Manchester United after previously having trialed with Fulham and Everton.

Vint, the 15-year-old son Everton academy director Peter Vint, has reportedly impressed the Red Devils while on trial as of late. Additionally, the teen’s Instagram page describes him as a “Footballer at Manchester United.”

The number of Americans in England’s top flight have dwindled down over recent years, however, USMNT mainstays like Geoff Cameron and Brad Guzan (moving to Atlanta United) still reside in the PL.

Chapecoense announces match against Colombia’s Nacional

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SAO PAULO (AP) Brazilian club Chapecoense will play Colombia’s Atletico Nacional on April 4 in what will be an emotional home match.

[ MORE: Aguero left out of Argentina XI to face Bolivia ]

In November, 19 members of the Brazilian team died in an air crash outside Medellin as they travelled to play Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final. Out of 77 passengers, 71 died in the incident, including players, journalists, and club officials.

Chapecoense says they will play at 22,000-seat Arena Conda in southern Brazil in the first leg of the Recopa Sudamericana.

The tragedy made Atletico Nacional pronounce Chapecoense as champions, and the South American confederation agreed.

The Recopa Sudamericana is between the champions of the Copa Sudamericana and the Copa Libertadores.

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.