UEFA Champions League: Your semifinals are set; here are the four survivors

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The matchups will be drawn on Friday, but over the last 24 hours, we’ve learned which teams will make up this year’s UEFA Champions League semifinals. With wins over Manchester United and Barcelona, Bayern Munich, the reigning champions, and Atlético Madrid have moved into the final four, with Chelsea and Real Madrid having already confirmed their semifinal spots.

While some possible meetings may carry more drama than others, the teams’ histories, styles, and potential matchups make it difficult to imagine a bad semifinal. Even Atlético Madrid and Chelsea — the least glamorous of the surviving foursome — would offer a compelling clash of styles, with Atleti given a chance to show another side of their game against a team that has little in common with Barcelona.

Here’s how this year’s semifinalists reached this point in UEFA Champions League.

source:  Atlético Madrid

League: Spain
Standing: First place
Last European Cup/Champions League title: Never won
Last semifinal: 1974
Record, this year’s CL: 8-2-0
CL path: Finished first in Group G, ahead of Zenit St. Petersburg, Porto, Austria Wien; defeated AC Milan in the Round of 16, 5-1; eliminated Barcelona in the quarterfinals, 2-1.
Approach: Effort, organization, execution and belief lead to opportunities, then results.
Common perception: This is the weakest team in the draw.
Semifinal reality: Atlético an approach that can matchup with anybody’s. As we’ve seen against Barcelona, the Colchoneros don’t need the ball to be effective, and they’re perfectly capable of creating mistakes high up the field. Their recent success against Real Madrid speaks to their ability to match up with the Merengues, while matchup with Chelsea would present the opponent least capable of opening up the tournament’s best defense. Perception is one thing, but in reality, Atlético is a contender for this title.

(MORE: Atlético Madrid breaks through, sends Barcelona out of Champions League)

source:  Bayern Munich

League: Germany
Standing: First place
Last European Cup/Champions League title: 2013
Last semifinal: 2013
Record, this year’s CL: 7-2-1
CL path: Finished first in Group D, ahead of Manchester City, Viktoria Plzen, CSKA Moscow; defeated Arsenal in the Round of 16, 3-1; eliminated Manchester United in the quarterfinals, 4-2.
Approach: With better players we play better soccer; we’ll pass you into submission.
Common perception: The clear favorites; the best team in the world.
Semifinal reality: They’re the favorites, but they also may want to draw the perceived number two: Real Madrid. Teams that can defend and counter have a chance against anybody, but Bayern seems particularly troubled by the approach. Atlético looks like a particularly troublesome matchup.

(MORE: Bayern Munich ease into Champions League semis, as Manchester United crash out)

source:  Chelsea

League: England
Standing: Second place
Last European Cup/Champions League title: 2012
Last semifinal: 2012
Record, this year’s CL: 6-1-3
CL path: Finished first in Group E, ahead of Schalke, Basel, Steaua Bucharest; defeated Galatasaray in the Round of 16, 3-1; eliminated Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals, 3-3.
Approach: With strength at the back and skill in transition, we’ll find a way.
Common perception: While their coach makes them dangerous, this is a team the favorites would be happy to draw.
Semifinal reality: If they beat PSG, they can beat anybody, and while a lot of that had to do with the Parisians not rising to the occasion at Stamford Bridge, Bayern and Real Madrid are not perfect sides, either. If you have a weakness, Chelsea’s approach gives the team a chance, and this year’s semifinalists are far from perfect. The former champions are an underdog, but not a huge one.

(MORE: Chelsea stun Paris Saint-Germain, late goal sends Blues into Champions League semifinals)

source:  Real Madrid

League: Spain
Standing: Third place
Last European Cup/Champions League title: 2002
Last semifinal: 2013
Record, this year’s CL: 8-1-1
CL path: Finished first in Group B, ahead of Galatasaray, Juventus, Copenhagen; defeated Schalke in the Round of 16, 9-2; eliminated Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals, 3-2.
Approach: With brawn at the back, power in attack, history is within reach.
Common perception: This team has the talent to dethrone Bayern, and given the heights they reached this winter, they’ve shown they can play at the champions’ level.
Semifinal reality: This is a deeply dangerous put very flawed team, one that looked vulnerable in both defense and midfield against Borussia Dortmund. Given recent loses in La Liga, this is no longer the team that climbed to the top of the table in March. This is a team that could find a way to lose a fourth straight semifinal, with the mental fragility that showed up against Barcelona and (in leg two) against Dortmund potentially decisive at this point of the tournament.

(MORE: Real Madrid survives Reus, Borussia Dortmund, reaches fourth straight Champions League semifinal)

How will Man United, Chelsea lineup?

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Manchester United and Chelsea square off at Old Trafford this Sunday (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with both teams coming off tough tests against La Liga opponents in the UEFA Champions League last 16.

[ MORE: Conte’s tactical masterclass

Chelsea held Barcelona to a draw at home, while United went to Sevilla and shut up shop to grab a 0-0 draw. Both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte are masters of setting their teams up to defend resolutely, but we will see something a little different this weekend with just three points separating these teams in the Premier League table?

The onus will be on United to attack and put some more space between themselves in second place and Chelsea in fourth, while also seeing Mourinho’s side cement their spot in the top four as in-form Liverpool and Tottenham continue to rack up wins.

Make no mistake about it, Sunday’s game is a huge encounter and could well set the tone for how the final months of the season go for both United and Chelsea.

Below is a look at the projected lineups for both teams, with an explanation for the starting XIs.


Manchester United (4-3-3)

—– De Gea —-

— Valencia — Lindelof — Smalling — Young —

—– Matic —- McTominay —- Pogba —-

—– Sanchez —– Lukaku —- Martial —-

Explanation: With Ander Herrera limping off injured, it appears Mourinho’s stance over Paul Pogba is over and the Frenchman will come into a three-man midfield alongside Nemanja Matic and McTominay. The other option is to drop McTominay and play Pogba in a more advanced role in a 4-1-4-1 formation, but given Mourinho’s pragmatic approach and previous penchant for man-marking Eden Hazard, it feels like he may well stick with a 4-3-3. In defense, it will be intriguing to see if Luke Shaw comes back into the team after not traveling to Sevilla in midweek, while Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones being out limits Mourinho’s central defensive options. In attack Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku are automatic starters, while the third attacking slot is a straight fight between Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. The latter has come up big for United in terms of goals scored this season, so I’d expect him to get the nod.


Chelsea

—– Courtois —–

—- Azpilicueta —- Christensen —- Rudiger —-

— Moses — Kante — Fabregas — Alonso —

—- Pedro —- Hazard —- Willian —-

Explanation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That will be Conte’s motto (I’m sure it sounds much cooler in Italian) for this game after he praised Chelsea’s attacking unit and their overall display against Barcelona in midweek. They should have won by at least two goals as Willian was on fire and hit the post twice, while Eden Hazard and Pedro also caused havoc. You’d think Conte would like to have the goal-shy Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud (who is still returning to full fitness) available off the bench for Plan B, but the rest of this Chelsea team really picks itself. Gary Cahill may come in for Andreas Christensen in central defense after his costly error against Barcelona, but Conte was delighted with how the Danish center back despite his loose pace which led to Lionel Messi’s equalizer in midweek. The big question is around Hazard playing once again in the false nine and if Morata will start up top in place of Pedro to give Chelsea’s attack a more targetman to build from. Hazard in a false nine did not work well for Conte away at Arsenal in the League Cup semifinal second leg, but he appears to favor this formation right now with neither Morata or Giroud in the starting lineup.

Torres could be on his way out at Atletico Madrid

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MADRID (AP) It seems Fernando Torres‘ time as an Atletico Madrid player is coming to an end.

One of the club’s most beloved players, Torres has lost favor with one of his biggest allies at the club.

Coach Diego Simeone, a longtime supporter of the former Spain striker, says he will not go out of his way to try to keep Torres.

The surprise revelation left fans wondering about the future of Torres when his contract ends at the end of the season.

Torres hasn’t had a major role in his latest stint with the club but remains cherished by fans. He repeatedly declares his affection for the team he grew up cheering for and joined at 11, and publicly says he hopes to end his career with Atletico.

But Simeone on Wednesday gave a blunt “No” when asked if he would try to keep Torres as hard as he was trying to keep Antoine Griezmann.

“Being fair to myself, I obviously said `No,”‘ Simeone said. “I say ‘obviously’ because I think about the team. The question made to me clearly wasn’t about the team, and the difference is that I think about the team and about the club.”

Simeone’s reasoning is understandable. The 33-year-old Torres is noticeably past his prime. The 26-year-old Griezmann was named the third-best player in the world behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo only two years ago.

But Simeone’s response about Torres was still unexpected, and one he likely could have avoided if he wanted to. Simeone recently said if he was an Atletico fan he would do everything possible to support Griezmann and try to keep him at the club for as long as possible.

The France forward, who reportedly received offers from many other top European clubs, was jeered by Atletico fans after a slump earlier this season, and didn’t hide his dissatisfaction with the criticism.

Torres, meanwhile, has been on good terms with the fans despite not having helped much on the field in recent years.

He has five goals in 27 appearances this season. A year ago, he scored 10 from 45 appearances, and the season before he had 12 from 44 matches with Atletico.

Simeone boosted the team’s attack this season by adding Diego Costa and Vitolo, further reducing Torres’ role. Other forwards fighting for a start include Kevin Gameiro and Angel Correa.

Torres thrived with Atletico from 2001-07, was prolific for Liverpool, and at Chelsea he won a Champions League and Europa League. After a brief stint with AC Milan, he returned to Atletico in 2015.

Capped 110 times for Spain, he’s won one World Cup and two European Championships, enough to leave his mark in history.

His past with Atletico also won’t be forgotten no matter what, but his future with the beloved Madrid club remains highly unclear.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Conte drops hint about his plans for attacking unit

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LONDON — Antonio Conte‘s decision to play a fluid front three of Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro worked extremely well against Barcelona in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw on Tuesday, but will he use that trio again in big games coming up?

[ MORE: Conte’s tactical masterclass ]

For the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clash at Stamford Bridge, Conte left his two recognized strikers, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, on the bench and opted for Hazard centrally with Pedro and Willian close by in wide roles.

Hazard went close twice, Willian twice hit the post before scoring Chelsea’s goal via a pass from Hazard and Pedro chased down Barca’s defense and helped set the tempo for a fine display which should have seen Chelsea win by at least two goals.

[ MORE: Three things learned from Chelsea-Barca

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk after the draw with Barca if he was happy with Hazard’s play in a false nine helped out by Willian and Pedro, Conte seemed to suggest that front three will be Chelsea’s attacking unit moving forward.

“I think our three strikers played very well, a fantastic game,” Conte said. “Willian, he played really well against Hull [in the FA Cup] and he scored twice and in the last three games we scored eight times and seven goals we scored with Pedro, Willian and Hazard. I think that they’re working very well. We must be pleased for the game, not for the final result.”

With huge games coming up against both Manchester clubs in the next few weeks in the Premier League, plus the second leg at Barcelona on Mar. 14, it appears Conte may well go with the in-form trio to create as much havoc as possible for opposition defenders.

Hazard in a false nine is an intriguing situation to unravel as the Belgian is almost certainly better suited to playing in a wide role or as a No.10 just off a targetman such as Giroud or Morata, but in this 3-4-2-1 system he has the freedom to interchange with Pedro and Willian and to roam across the forward line.

Having Giroud or Morata as Plan B seems to be Conte’s plan moving forward and against teams such as Man City, Man United and Barcelona, it may well suit Chelsea best to keep things tight defensively and unleash their speedy, tricky trio on the break.

Conte’s tactics to not start with an out-and-out striker may be questioned by many but if it works half as well as it did on Tuesday, expect Hazard, Willian and Pedro to be Chelsea’s go-to guys in a season-defining few weeks for the reigning PL champs as they aim to cement their spot in the top four, reach the FA Cup semifinal and advance in the Champions League.

Blatter: 2026 World Cup should be in Morocco

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Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter has backed Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid as he hit out at the joint-bid between the USA, Mexico and Canada.

The 81-year-old claims that joint bids for a World Cup are to be “rejected” after the 2002 World Cup and with voting for the 2026 hosts to take place on June 13 in an expedited process, it appears Morocco is gaining some traction among FIFA’s 209 member associations as the only alternative to a North American bid.

The U.S., Mexico and Canada bid to host the first-ever expanded 48-team tournament still seems to be the overwhelming favorite, but will comments like this help or hinder Morocco’s bid?

Blatter, the disgraced former long-time leader of world soccer’s governing body, is currently banned from all soccer related activity for six-years after being charged regarding a $2 million payment made between himself and the former UEFA President, Michel Platini.

Here’s the message Blatter sent out via Twitter, as the Swiss official is reportedly launching an appeal against his current ban which came after he announced he would step down as FIFA president in 2015 following several high level officials being charged with corruption by U.S. officials.

It is also worth noting that Blatter is still concerned about being extradited to the USA amid the ongoing FBI investigation into widespread corruption in the organization and doesn’t travel outside of Switzerland or Russia.