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.

Klopp: Liverpool “not 500 miles away” from Man City’s standard

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Jurgen Klopp remains bullish on his Liverpool’s credentials as one of the Premier League’s top-four sides title challengers this season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

While everyone else might be writing off the Reds due to their propensity for defensive disasters on an every-game basis, Klopp refuses to concede that a gap of “500 miles” exists between his side and Manchester City, the early-days runaway leaders of the 2017-18 season — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t compare City with us, but I think everyone can see we are not 500 miles away. But they fly. It was a very decisive day when we lost 5-0. Dealing with a 5-0 defeat is not the easiest thing. We didn’t lose confidence but we were not that fluent afterwards and it was not like we could close our eyes and finish [thinking about it]. They did exactly the opposite. I saw the Stoke goals, you see the shot from Fernandinho and you think, ‘If it works, it works even like this.’ They are a fantastic team and we don’t have to compare, but it starts so early again with us having to apologize for the season so far because one team is flying.”

“Their way of football I would say is not something we are too far away from but to be as clinical as they have been so far? We weren’t.

“That’s the thing. We are still in the race, not with City in the moment because they have I don’t how many points, and I don’t say already that we should only fight for a top-four place. Performance-wise we are a team that should be there but now we have to get the results.”

[ TACTICS SESSION: Inside the brilliant mind of Kevin De Bruyne ]

All due respect to Klopp and Liverpool, the league table says City currently have 25 points (having played one game more), while Liverpool have 13. That’s not a difference of 500 points, but taking into account not only results but performances, it might as well be.

Ligue 1: Falcao, Balde score to keep Monaco close to PSG

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PARIS (AP) French champion Monaco got back to winning ways with a 2-0 home win against Caen on Saturday.

Monaco lost three and drew one of its previous four games in all competitions. But coach Leonardo Jardim’s side was largely in control against a Caen side that started brightly and faded after Keita Balde’s opening goal and first for Monaco.

“It was important to win, to get a bit of confidence back,” Jardim said. “We’ve been working hard and the players were very serious today.”

Captain Radamel Falcao scored his league-leading 13th from the penalty spot in the 59th, confidently sending goalkeeper Remy Vercoutre the wrong way.

The win moved second-place Monaco within three points of Paris Saint-Germain, having played one game more. Unbeaten PSG is away at bitter rival Marseille on Sunday.

Falcao’s partnership with teen star Kylian Mbappe was crucial to Monaco’s charge to the league title and the Champions League semifinals last season. Mbappe left to join PSG in a high-profile move — as did several other key players — but Falcao’s new partnership with the unselfish Balde looks a promising one.

“We’ve lost a few players and we need a bit of time, it’s been a bit difficult for us,” Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic said. “I hope we can stay at the top of the table and that the young players can shine. We have a lot of quality here.”

Balde has been sharp in his handful of appearances since joining from Lazio in the offseason, but mainly as a link player and a provider.

This time, the Senegal forward finished off the move as he ran onto Thomas Lemar’s perfectly weighted pass into his path, cut across a defender on the edge of the penalty area and slotted the ball into the bottom left corner.

Lemar almost created another goal when his corner was headed against the crossbar by Brazilian defender Jemerson late in the first half.

Falcao put the game beyond doubt from the spot after Slovenian midfielder Jan Repas fouled attacking midfielder Rony Lopes.


After a tricky start to his tenure at Nantes, Italian coach Claudio Ranieri has turned things around.

Nantes beat Guingamp 2-1 at home to move up to third place, extending Ranieri’s unbeaten run to eight matches after losing the first two.

Nantes, which scored through defender Chidozie Awaziem and midfielder Abdoulaye Toure, is just two points behind Monaco.

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start today’s show off by discussing Huddersfield Town’s surprising win against Manchester United (00:20), Jose Mourinho’s measured post-match interview (03:50), praise Manchester City again (10:30), discuss Sean Dyche’s next move (16:10), analyze that exciting match between Chelsea and Watford (18:30) and finally, weigh in on Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham United (27:30).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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La Liga: Barca win to maintain lead, but Valencia won’t go away

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona regained a four-point cushion atop the Spanish league with a ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting Malaga and surging Valencia dismissed Sevilla 4-0 at home on Saturday.

Barcelona faced last-placed Malaga in the closing match of the day, with added pressure from second-placed Valencia, which has won five in a row.

Barcelona is unbeaten after starting with seven straight wins and drawing with Atletico Madrid last week.

Seldom-used Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring for Barcelona after just two minutes, and Andres Iniesta celebrated his first of the season in the second half thanks to a brilliant assist by Lionel Messi.

Defending champion Real Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona benefited from a flagrant referee misjudgment to get its go-ahead goal against Malaga. Left back Lucas Digne was allowed to center the ball after it clearly crossed the byline, and Deulofeu acrobatically back-footed it inside the net.

Despite the blow, the visitors got back up and managed to neutralize Barcelona for most of the first half, but lost striker Diego Rolan just before the second period. The Uruguayan import was forced off by injury.

Without Rolan, Malaga lacked bite in its pressure of the home backline, and Barcelona was able to polish ball circulation and find Messi with more frequency.

Messi received a clean pass from defender Javier Mascherano, drew the defense, and dropped a perfect pass for Iniesta, whose shot was deflected by defender Roberto Rosales on its way to the upper left corner.

Malaga surrendered and Barcelona dominated the rest of the way.


Gonzalo Guedes opened the scoring for Valencia near halftime with a majestic strike from outside the box after deftly outmaneuvering two defenders on the chase.

Simone Zaza added his eighth league goal after the break with a spin and low cross shot. Santi Mina came off the bench and scored the third with just five minutes to go, finishing off a speedy counterattack for the hosts.

But the show was all Guedes, and the Portuguese midfielder rounded off his great game with the closer, subtly poking the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Rico in added time.

Sevilla has lost three in a row in all competitions. Managed by Eduardo Berizzo, the team started off red-hot in La Liga but has floundered lately, ranking fifth.