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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.

Swansea City 3-1 Liverpool: Young Reds bested as Swansea officially earns safety

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Andre Ayew (L) of Swansea City celebrates scoring the opening goal with Gylfi Sigurdsson during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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After defeat on Thursday in the first leg of their Europa League semifinal, the Reds looked to get back on track in league play at the Liberty Stadium, as Jurgen Klopp rotated the squad to Liverpool’s youngest ever. Instead, it was the home side celebrating as a young Reds lineup was second best in a 3-1 defeat to Swansea City.

Already more than likely to stay up, Swansea mathematically clinched Premier League safety with the three points, moving above West Brom and Bournemouth into 13th with 43 points.

The two teams began lively but produced little in the opening 10 minutes. The visitors got the first chance on 12 minutes, as Gylfi Sigurdsson had a sliding effort thanks to a wonderful touch from Andre Ayew at the top of the box, but it was saved by Danny Ward.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Liverpool defense looked clunky while Swansea maintained control, but it did its job, just keeping the hosts out as the rain came pouring down. Swansea had a break in the 20th minute, but Ayew’s shot was just blocked Dejan Lovren. However, the resulting corner provided a deserved breakthrough, as Ayew lost Daniel Sturridge and skied above Lovren to head home.

Jordan Ibe forced the first save of Lukasz Fabianski on 24 minutes, but it was back down the other end as Jack Cork nearly made it 2-0 but Danny Ward made a fantastic snap save to keep the low, powerful shot out.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

The pressure continued from the hosts as Leon Britton managed to lock down the midfield and give Liverpool hardly a sniff. Just before the half-hour mark, it was Jordi Amat‘s turn to rise above Lovren on a free-kick, but he put the header just over. Moments later there was another break for Swansea, with Jefferson Montero forcing another fine save by Ward. But on 33 minutes, Ward could do nothing about an absolutely wonderful curler from Jack Cork on 33 minutes which made it 2-0.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Klopp looked to change things up, bringing on Christian Benteke at Lucas at halftime, and the changes worked. The Reds seemed to hold the ball much better after the break, and it paid dividends off a corner as Benteke worked himself away from Sigurdsson in the box and headed home.

It would be short-lived. Just three minutes later, with advantage placed after a foul in midfield, Montero weaved his way to the end line on the left and crossed to Ayew at the top of the box. With Sheyi Ojo and a host of other Reds unable to clear the ball effectively, Ayew poked it home past a frozen Danny Ward for a 3-1 Swansea lead.

Things only got worse for Liverpool, as Brad Smith received a second yellow card in the 76th minute after a very high boot in a 50/50 challenge with Swansea substitute Kyle Naughton.

With Swansea officially safe, Liverpool remains stuck in 7th, in danger of falling out of a European place sitting just a point above Southampton. Liverpool can still win a place in the Champions League next season by winning the Europa League, but should they fail to do that, a top 7 finish is the only way to return to European competition.

Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel says he’ll be a Leicester City fan at Old Trafford

(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between images (L-R) 1251624 and 186224564 of Father (L) and Son (R). 
**LEFT IMAGE*** 11 Aug 1996: Peter Schmeichel of Manchester United celebrates during the FA Charity Shield between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Wembley Stadium in London. Manchester went on to defeat Newcastle by 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport UK 
***RIGHT IMAGE*** LEICESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City celebrates a Leicester goal during the Capital One Cup fourth round match between Leicester City and Fulham at the King Power Stadium on October 29, 2013 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel will be on hand at Old Trafford on Sunday, hoping to witness a title clinched at his old ground.

That title he’ll be rooting for isn’t for Manchester United.

With Schmeichel’s son Kasper leading the way for Leicester City this season in goal as the Foxes chase a historic result, Peter is all-in for his protégée, even at the expense of his old club.

“I live and die by the results of Man Utd, but today I want the other team to win,” Peter told BT Sport. “Blood is thicker than water.”

While Peter said his son has spent many days on the Old Trafford pitch, this will be the first time Kasper has played at his father’s old stomping grounds, having missed out on this fixture last season due to a broken foot.

Kasper said he yearned to have an influence on the game while watching his father play, and now the roles are reversed. “He’s experiencing now what I went through then,” Kasper said before the match. “The helplessness of not being able to have any influence whatsoever on the outcome of a game. It’s quite funny to hear how he’s felt during games.”

Watch Live: Manchester United vs. Leicester City (Lineups & Live Stream)

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Wes Morgan of Leicester City and Anthony Martial of Manchester United compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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The fairytale is nearly complete. Leicester City would clinch the Premier League title with a win at Old Trafford against Manchester United, live on NBCSN at 9:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Jamie Vardy is still suspended for the Foxes, but he would be on hand for the celebration should they seal the deal. His replacement remains Leonardo Ulloa, who suffered a back injury after scoring a brace against Swansea last weekend, but recovers in time to start at Old Trafford.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester United vs. Leicester City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

The side for the Foxes is unchanged from that win over Swansea, as Claudio Raneiri looks to win his first-ever league title in his managerial career.

For the hosts, the Red Devils make just one change from their win over Everton in the FA Cup semifinals last time out, with Antonio Valencia coming in for 18-year-old Tim Fosu-Mensah, who drops to the bench. Matteo Darmian is out of the lineup for the second straight match, scoring their last time out in league play against Crystal Palace but finding himself replaced on the left by Marcus Rojo.

While the story is well-documented for the visitors, this game is also a must-win for Manchester United, who need three points to stay within striking distance of the top four. Failure to garner any points would leave them in sixth, five points adrift of the top four. A win, meanwhile, jumps West Ham and brings them back within one of Manchester City.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Carrick, Fellaini, Lingard, Rooney, Martial, Rashford.
Subs: 
Romero, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Herrera, Mata, Schneiderlin, Memphis.

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs, Mahrez, Kanté, Drinkwater, Schlupp, Okazaki, Ulloa.
Subs: 
King, Albrighton, Amartey, Gray, Wasilewski, Chilwell, Schwarzer.

With Barcelona in La Liga title fight, goalkeeper Claudio Bravo injured

BILBAO, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Claudio Bravo of FC Barcelona looks on  during the warm up prior to the Spanish Super Cup first leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at San Mames Stadium on August 14, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Barcelona’s regular league goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was injured in the 2-0 win over Real Betis on Saturday, substituted with 12 minutes to go. The club confirmed the injury on Sunday, detailing a calf injury for the Chilean, with his status for the stretch run uncertain.

Bravo, who was replaced by Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Betis match, has played nearly every match for Barcelona in La Liga this season, owning full 90’s in every match save four in late September due to injury. Ter Stegen has received the bulk of the work in cup competitions.

With two matches to go in league play, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are even on points atop the La Liga table, with Real Madrid a single point behind. Barcelona holds the tiebreaker on Atletico via head-to-head record, with a pair of wins over Diego Simeone’s squad.

It’s unclear if Bravo will miss any time, or even the rest of the season, with Barcelona claiming, “The extent of the injury will determine how long he will be out for.”

Barcelona finish out the season home against Espanyol and at Granada. They also have the Copa del Rey final to compete in against Sevilla on May 22, but the expected starter for that is ter Stegen either way.