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UEFA Champions League preview: Atlético Madrid, Chelsea kick off the semifinals

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Particularly compared to Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal, there’s a temptation to see Atlético Madrid and Chelsea as a pair of blunt objects – two teams who put on more pragmatic faces than Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Given the two sides’  talents, the temptation makes for a convenient but misleading contrast, even if the teams’ primary creators, Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Arda Turan (Atlético Madrid), could both miss out. The Blues, one of the world’s most expensive teams, will still have the likes of Willian, Oscar, and André Schürrle at their disposal, while Atleti have skilled talents like David Villa, Diego, and José Sosa to augment Spain’s second-leading scorer: Diego Costa.

At least, that’s the generous way to look at it. As Atlético head coach Diego Simeone pointed out in Monday’s pre-match press conference, the broader, reductive perception carries a kernel of truth. When Chelsea visits the Spanish leaders on Tuesday, two similar sides will begin vying for a place in next month’s Champions League final.

“We have the best defensive records in our respective leagues,” the Argentine boss explained. “We both have good defenses and play a direct attacking game. We’re both also good at set pieces. These characteristics have led to us each fighting for titles.”

After this weekend, one team’s fight is more vibrant than the others. With a 2-0 win over visiting Elche, Atlético remains on track for its first league title in 18 years. In England, however, Chelsea again slipped against one of the teams in the Premier League’s bottom half, its 2-1 loss to Sunderland taking the team’s title destiny out of its hands.

It was a performance that feeds into a quiet theory about the Blues, one that, if true, does not bode will for Chelsea’s chances against Atlético. Chelsea, the thinking goes, is most effective against teams that are willing to try to play through them, an approach that opens opponents up to a practically patented Mourinho counter. Against teams the Blues have to break down, however, a defense that is by far the best in England gets exposed, leading to upsets like the ones they’ve endured against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Newcastle.

source:  It’s a weakness that would play into Atleti’s hands, if Chelsea had to pursue them. But unlike league play, where the Blues need to collect full points from the circuit’s weaker sides, Chelsea doesn’t have to chase Atlético, particularly in Tuesday’s road leg. Instead, the former champions can be patient, force Atlético to try to break them down, and hope for their own opportunities to counter.

“No team arrives in a UEFA Champions League semifinal without being a very good team, and they are no exceptions,” Chelsea boss José Mourinho said on Monday. “To be here they have to be a very good team … (we) have studied and analysed them.”

If Atlético tries to press them, as they do all each opponent, Chelsea can just kick the ball away. We’re fine playing without possession. When Atlético retrieves it, the Blues can sit deep and be patient. If you’re not going to take chances, we’ll wait you out. If Atlético can’t create something independent of Chelsea mistakes, this matchup could be decided by set pieces. Or penalty kicks.

“This is a semifinal, and as such it will be a very tight match,” Simeone said. “It is a game that will be decided by very small details. Teamwork will be all-important in helping to bring out the individual qualities that can decide games. Whoever can do that best will be closer to winning the first leg.”

Maybe Costa, able to score when opponents aren’t gifting goals, can make Chelsea pay for that approach, but as the Blues showed while claiming Europe’s crown two years ago, 90 minutes of mistake-free soccer is not beyond their talents. And as Atleti showed through February’s slump, they’re not above making mistakes of their own.

Particularly in leg one, when Chelsea may look to limit damage on the road, the matchup’s main question will be laid center stage: Can Atlético break down Chelsea before Chelsea breaks on Atlético?

Subplots

source: AP1. Thibault Courtois will play for Atlético – Under contract to Chelsea, Courtois has spent the better part of two seasons with Atlético, where his loan stints have established the Belgian international as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. By the terms of the teams’ loan agreement, the 21-year-old shouldn’t be able to play, but after the teams were drawn against each other just over a week ago, UEFA quickly said it considered such a clause unenforceable.

Quietly, the Blues have agreed to let their goalkeeper play against them, and while Chelsea fans would rightly see that as unconscionable, the decision reveals a previously unspoken reality. After two years in Madrid, Courtois is more Atleti than Chelsea. His true employer seems more of a technicality than a reflection of his spirit. On Tuesday, Atlético’s keeper’s unlikely to play with mixed emotions.

2. Fernando Torres faces his original club – Even though his role with Chelsea continues to wane,  Torres matching up against his former team is important in the same way Didier Drogba facing his former club had meaning in the Round of 16.

Torres is a legitimate legend at Atlético, having come through the club’s youth ranks before spending parts of seven seasons with the first team. Even if he’s with the opposition, that he’s present while the club plays in its first semifinal in 40 years has emotional value. It will be strange to see him play against Atlético in such an important match at the Calderón.

source: Getty Images3. José back against Atlético – The last time Mourinho faced the Colchoneros was last year’s Copa del Rey final, with Atlético’s upset of Mourinho’s Real Madrid confirming a rare trophy-less season for the coach. Mourinho would go on to call 2012-13 the worst year of his career.

One year later, Atlético have another chance to leave Mourinho without silverware. Unless Chelsea can win at Anfield, they’ll be out of the Premier League title race, with next week’s second leg in London set to decide whether the Blues also bow out of Europe.

4. An unwilling semifinal specialist – Mourinho has made two Champions League finals, winning them both (2003-04 with Porto; 2009-10 with Inter Milan). Those triumphs have been the exceptions in Mourinho’s seven previous semifinal appearances, with the 51-year-old unable a final with either Chelsea or Real Madrid.

On Tuesday, Mourinho sets the record for most semifinal appearances by a manager: eight. If he can’t get past Atlético, however, six exits at the penultimate step start to look look like a stumbling block. Even if there’s a good reason for the exits — even if Mourinho may be getting quarterfinal-quality teams one found too far — he be seen as a kind of inverse specialist – somebody who hasn’t entirely solved the semifinals.

Confederations Cup semifinal preview, picks

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The 2017 Confederations Cup will get back underway midweek with two semifinals taking place in Russia.

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Group A winners Portugal face Chile in Kazan, while Group B winners Germany clash with Mexico in Sochi for a spot in the Confed Cup final in St. Petersburg on Sunday. This will get very tasty indeed.

Below you will find a preview for each game, while you can click on the links above or below to stream the games live.


Portugal vs. Chile – Kazan – Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET live online via Telemundo Deportes

Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Alexis Sanchez. That is all… Seriously, though, this is the most-anticipated battle of the Confederations Cup so far as the European champs collide with the South American champs with both teams having very similar styles. Both like to defend and hit opponents on the counter and both have a genuine superstar in Ronaldo and Sanchez.

With the future of both those stars up in the air, both will want to put on a show to rubber-stamp their world class ability, especially Sanchez as clubs line up to try and pry him away from Arsenal with just one year left on his current contract with the Gunners. Sanchez’s goal against Australia meant he set a new record as Chile’s all-time leading scorer with 38 and along with Arturo Vidal he will lead Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team. Chile looked tired in their 1-1 draw with Australia on Sunday so having a day less of rest should not be overlooked for this veteran squad as the South Americans haven’t quite got going yet.

Ronaldo is the leader for Portugal as he scored against Mexico and New Zealand, while playing in all three games thus far for Fernando Santos’ squad. With 55 goals in 54 games in all competitions this season, Ronaldo will aim to finish the campaign on a high. With his future at Real Madrid reportedly up in the air, the 32-year-old surely won’t miss a chance to shine with the world watching.

Prediction: Portugal 2-1 Chile – This will probably go to extra time and if it doesn’t go to penalty kicks, Portugal will just edge it as Ronaldo takes center stage.


Germany vs. Mexico – Sochi – Thursday, 2 p.m. ET live online via Telemundo Deportes

This promises to be a classic encounter as a young German squad comes up against a battling El Tri. Mexico fell behind in all three of their Confed Cup group games but Juan Carlos Osorio’s team fought back to beat Russia and New Zealand as well as snatch a late draw with Portugal.

As for Germany, they’re building momentum throughout the tournament, despite goalkeeping issues, as Timo Werner has been among the goals, while Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka, Lars Stindl, Julian Brandt, Joshua Kimmich and Shkodran Mustafi have also impressed. Joachim Low has left the majority of his 2014 World Cup winning team at home, so if this young German side makes the final then everyone will sit up and take notice as Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Co. sit on the beach applauding, then possibly go for a jog as they worry about their starting spot next summer…

This won’t be a walk in the park for Germany. Mexico is a tough nut to crack and Osorio, despite his critics, has El Tri set up to defend first and then launch rapid counters with Hirving Lozano dangerous and Javier Hernandez and Oribe Perlata able to finish. Mexico’s added experience in high-pressure situations may be crucial, but losing captain Andres Guardado to suspension will hurt and injuries to Carlos Salcedo and Hector Moreno has left El Tri short in defense.

Prediction: Germany 2-2 Mexico (Germany to win on PKs) – This should be a thrilling encounter but Germany, of course, will likely win on PKs.

With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.

Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.

“The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.

But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.

Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.

Here is a look at some of the key issues:

STADIUMS

Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls “the Brazilian scenario” – the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.

That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.

But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.

Evidence that North Korean workers – who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery – worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.

LEGACY

Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely – if ever – full again after the World Cup.

Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 – among the lowest for major European leagues – and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.

Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 percent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.

Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.

In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.

Only the St. Petersburg stadium – home to games at the 2020 European Championship – and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.

TEAM BASES

It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy – and lavish state spending.

Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.

There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.

Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.

Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.

FAN EXPERIENCE

Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.

Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.

Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.

Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.

SECURITY

Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.

At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.

The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.

There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.

Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.

FIFA READINESS

Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.

FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.

During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signaled for half-time.

FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.

A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

Another delay for MLS stadium deal in Charlotte

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A decision on public funding for a potential Major League Soccer stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina was delayed once again Monday.

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Charlotte’s city government committee stated no decision would be made on helping to fund a new MLS stadium before Aug. 2 when a country vote is scheduled.

It is the latest delay for the proposed $175 million stadium.

Potential owner Marcus Smith — CEO of Speedway Motorsports — has offered to pay the full $150 million MLS expansion fee, plus $87.5 million towards the stadium. With $43.75 million committed to help pay for the stadium, a decision on another $43.75 million has yet to arrive, leaving the stadium bid, and Charlotte’s entire MLS bid, in limbo.

Charlotte is one of 12 U.S. cities who have submitted a bid back in February for two MLS expansion franchises which will be awarded later this year. It is also not the first of those 12 cities to suffer a blow when it comes to requests for public funding of stadiums, as St. Louis found out recently with their MLS bid in ruins.

Via the Charlotte Business Journal, here’s some more information on what lies ahead for the Charlotte bid.

County commissioners voted in January to commit $43.75 million of property tax money to help pay for the proposed stadium. They also endorsed a county-owned site on the edge of uptown now occupied by Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center. Smith would build a stadium there after demolishing the existing stadium and arena.

At the time of the county vote, City Council was expected to decide on a related $43.75 million request also to be used for stadium construction. Instead, council members opted against a vote, citing higher priorities such as the next annual budget and an emphasis on public safety, affordable housing and jobs. This month, city council and the county commission each passed annual budgets without any property tax increases.

Smith has consistently said he remains hopeful local government and others will rally around the chance to bring an MLS team to town.

In a prepared statement issued Monday evening, Smith and his MLS4CLT bid group said of the council referral, “We hope the city and county can continue to work toward realizing the dream of a stadium in Charlotte on a timeline that works for all parties. Our commitment to bring Major League Soccer to Charlotte has not wavered, nor has the support of thousands of people in this community who are looking to their elected officials to endorse this plan that will positively impact our region for generations to come.”

For now, those hopes look like a long shot.

 

FIFA release “Garcia Report” in full; issue statement

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FIFA has released the previously confidential Garcia report into alleged corruption surrounding the 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process.

Previously the report, compiled in 2104 by American lawyer Michael Garcia, was said to be private and would never be released by FIFA.

Garcia, hired as an independent ethics investigator, quit when FIFA instead released a 42-page version of his report which acted as a summary of his findings, as he clashed with FIFA’s now former chairmen of the ethics committee, Cornel Borbely and Hans-Joackim Eckert.

However, German publication Bild had got hold of a copy of the full report and leaked extracts on Tuesday.

Now, world soccer’s governing body has got ahead of the game and released the report in full as Garcia looked into potential corruption among FIFA officials and high-ranking officials during the World Cup bidding process which saw Russia awarded the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 World Cup heading to Qatar.

Both Russia and Qatar were cleared of any wrongdoing in the initial report released, but there are detailed examinations of each country who bid for the World Cups, including the U.S., England and Australia.

Below is a statement from FIFA in full, while you can download the full report here.

The new chairpersons of the independent Ethics Committee, Maria Claudia Rojas of the investigatory chamber and Vassilios Skouris of the adjudicatory chamber, have decided to publish the Report on the Inquiry into the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup Bidding Process (the so-called “Garcia Report”).

This had been called for on numerous occasions by FIFA President Gianni Infantino in the past and also supported by the FIFA Council since its meeting in Mexico City in May 2016. Despite these regular requests, it is worth noting that the former chairpersons of the Ethics Committee, Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert, had always refused to publish it.

The Ethics Committee will meet in its full composition under the new chairpersons for the first time next week, and it was already planned to use this opportunity to discuss the publication of the report. However, as the document has been illegally leaked to a German newspaper, the new chairpersons have requested the immediate publication of the full report (including the reports on the Russian and US bid teams, which were conducted by Mr Borbély alone) in order to avoid the dissemination of any misleading information.

For the sake of transparency, FIFA welcomes the news that this report has now been finally published.

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