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.

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.