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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.

Investors want MLS stadium on site of Chargers’ former home

Qualcomm Stadium sits empty Thursday Jan. 12, 2017, in San Diego. The San Diego Chargers announced Thursday that they would move the team to Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
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SAN DIEGO (AP) With the NFL’s Chargers leaving for Los Angeles, a group of private investors unveiled plans Monday to bring an MLS team to San Diego and build a stadium that can be shared with San Diego State.

In addition to the joint-use venue which could seat up to 30,000, the 166-acre Qualcomm Stadium site which has housed the Chargers would also be used for a sports and entertainment district, according to the FS Investors group’s plans. The plans also set aside acreage for a larger stadium, in case the NFL decides to return to San Diego.

[ MORE: Transfer window names to watch ]

“There are a lot of people that were disappointed with that (the Chargers’ move) and understandably so,” said Nick Stone, a partner in the investors group, which would develop the property and own the MLS franchise. “But we think this is a really, really interesting time to look at the opportunity to bring soccer to San Diego. It’s a very logical market for that.

“We can bring what is the world’s most popular sport, and the fastest growing sport in the U.S.,” Stone said. “One door closed but a really great door opened.”

The Chargers announced on Jan. 12 that they would play in the Los Angeles area next season after 56 seasons in San Diego.

Stone’s group, which includes Padres lead investor Peter Seidler and former Qualcomm president Steve Altman, has the exclusive negotiating rights with the MLS. The league is expected to designate expansion cities this fall.

The investor group said it wouldn’t require taxpayer money for its plan, which includes buying the land now occupied by Qualcomm.

[ MORE: CONCACAF Champions League’s big reboot ]

“This is an exciting concept that could welcome major league soccer to San Diego without public subsidy, provide a home for Aztecs football and create a long-awaited river park,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the final plan.”

After five years, FS Investors said it would donate its half ownership of the stadium to San Diego State. San Diego State’s football team now plays at Qualcomm Stadium, which is also home to college football’s Holiday and Poinsettia bowls.

Report: USMNT forward Picault could be off to MLS

http://www.fcstpauli.com/profis/news/9628

FC St. Pauli
www.fcstpauli.com/profis/news/9628
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Remember Fafa Picault?

The FC St. Pauli striker became a surprise name in USMNT circles when former coach Jurgen Klinsmann shouted him out on Twitter, later calling him into U.S. camp.

Picault, 25, is a center forward who has battled back trouble at times this season, limiting him to six appearances for the 2.Bundesliga side.

[ MORE: Transfer window names to watch ]

He broke out last season, scoring four goals and adding two assists in 16 appearances last season. The former NASL player was capped by Klinsmann in May, going 19 minutes in a 3-1 win over Puerto Rico.

Philadelphia is the top spot for Picault, according to Bild and translated by VAVEL reporter Jonny Walsh. It’s just agent talk, but we’d like to get a closer look at the American man.

How might the USMNT lineup against Serbia?

U.S. men's national soccer team coach Bruce Arena, left, talks to captain Michael Bradley during a practice session Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Carson, Calif. Coach Arena opens camp with the team in the same training complex where he spent the past eight years running the LA Galaxy. Arena returned to the U.S. team in November to salvage its run for World Cup qualification. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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It’s six days to Sunday, the first time we’ll see Bruce Arena manage the United States men’s national team since his rehiring late last year.

The Yanks host Serbia in San Diego before moving to Chattanooga for a match against Jamaica. Both matches should be open-and-shut wins, as the Americans’ MLS-only lineup get “B-teams” from Serbia and Jamaica.

[ MORE: Serbia, Jamaica rosters ]

Possible starting center back Matt Hedges and his FC Dallas teammate, Kellyn Acosta, will miss through injury, while Arena sent Kekuta Manneh to Wales for Vancouver Whitecaps camp.

That leaves 28 names — full roster at bottom — and the level of competition means Arena can take risks, like his choice to try Graham Zusi at right back.

Arena used several different formations with the Galaxy last season, opting for anything from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1.

Here are some options against Serbia.

4-2-2-2

Arena could steady the middle of the pitch while using a pair of attack-minded veteran midfielders with points to prove.

Robles

Rosenberry — Birnbaum — Zimmerman — Beasley

Bradley — McCarty

Feilhaber —————————Kljestan

Morris — Altidore


4-4-2 (diamond) — Veteran heavy

Arena likes his veterans, and may want to give them the benefit of the doubt in front of fans and the eyes of U.S. Soccer.

Rimando

Zusi — Marshall — Evans — Beasley

Bedoya — Bradley — Jones — Kljestan

Altidore — Zardes


4-3-3

Bingham

Rosenberry — Birnbaum — Zimmerman — Garza

Bradley

Nagbe — Bedoya

Zardes — Altidore — Morris


Full roster

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls), Brian Rowe (LA Galaxy)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Taylor Kemp (D.C. United), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders FC), Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (Unattached), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)

Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

Reports: Krul, Lopez could replace Begovic at Chelsea

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Tim Krul of Newcastle United in aciton during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on August 22, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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It may seem unimportant at first blush, but Chelsea’s backup goalkeeper situation may be in a state of flux right now.

That means the Blues’ very strong title hopes are only a Thibaut Courtois injury away from making it matter a whole bunch more.

Eddie Howe wants Chelsea No. 2 Asmir Begovic to head down south to join Bournemouth,  and the keeper seems interested in a move.

[ MORE: Big changes for CONCACAF Champions League ]

Chelsea’s current No. 3 is Portuguese national teamer Eduardo. The Blues could wait to sell Begovic until summer, but The Express thinks the move is on.

AC Milan backup backstop Diego Lopez is in the frame for Chelsea, according to that report, but a more intriguing name is Newcastle ‘keep Tim Krul. The Dutchman is on loan with Ajax.

Either would be a fitting replacement for Begovic. Will Conte allow the change in the middle of a relatively-stable (Diego Costa aside) title run?