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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.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 14

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Week 14 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 14 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Stoke City 2-0 Burnley – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 3-1 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 0-2 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Man City 1-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

West Ham 2-3 Arsenal – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

West Brom 1-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-2 Liverpool – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull City – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Everton 2-2 Man United – (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Conte, Guardiola share thoughts on each other ahead of Chelsea-Man City

COBHAM, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Chelsea Manager, Antonio Conte watches on during the Premier League 2 match between Chelsea and Southampton at Chelsea Training Ground on November 21, 2016 in Cobham, England.  (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images
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It’s no surprise that the managers are in focus as tactical wizards Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola prepare to face off for the first time.

The Etihad Stadium will be the scene for Saturday’s 7:30 a.m. EDT kickoff, and pur own Joe Prince-Wright was on the scene for Friday’s prematch presser.

He shared the sentiments of the Stamford Bridge boss, who was — no surprise — asked about Guardiola.

[ MAN UTD: Schweinsteiger could stay ]

“I have great respect (for Guardiola),” Conte said. “I think he is a fantastic manager and is doing fantastic work with Manchester City.”

One terrific little run from Conte had to do with the differences between him and Guardiola… as players. The Chelsea and Man City bosses both played in Serie A during the early part of this century.

“He was a fantastic midfielder and we had different characteristics. He was more of a pivot in front of the defensive line. I was more offensive, with penetration. I think I ran more than him, but he thought more than me with the ball.”

It wasn’t long before Guardiola was asked for his thoughts on Conte. Here they are, courtesy Sky Sports:

“He (Antonio Conte) made an exceptional job in Turin and in the national job. It doesn’t matter if it is Serie A or the national team, you realise his strengths.

“He has started here with maybe not good results, but they have won last seven games, conceding one goal. That says a lot about how good they are. They were contenders to win the Premier League from the beginning.

“Now, maybe more than before. It’s a good test for us.”

Who’s excited for Saturday’s early kickoff?

Follow @NicholasMendola

Chapecoense tragedy survivor could recover to play again

ADDS NAMES - In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, players of Brazil's Chapecoense team pose before a Copa Sudamericana soccer match against Argentina's San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Top row from left, goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha, Bruno Rangel Domingues, Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, Cleber Santana Loureiro, Willian Thiago. Bottom row from left, Guilherme Gimenez de Souza, Ananias Eloi Castro Monteiro, Tiago "Tiaguinho" Da Rocha Vieira, Matheus Bitencourt da Silva, Dener Assuncao Braz and Jose "Gil" Gildeixon Clemente de Paiva. A plane carrying the Brazilian soccer club Chapecoense team that was on it's way for a Copa Sudamericana final match against Colombia's Atletico Nacional crashed in a mountainous area outside Medellin, Colombian officials said Tuesday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)
AP Photo/Gustavo Garello
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Remarkably, one of the Chapecoense players who survived the deadly plane crash in Colombia may yet take the field again.

Remarkable? Maybe that’s too tame. Astonishing, perhaps.

Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, 31, needed knee, lung, wrist, and head surgery following the crash that killed 71 people.

[ USMNT: Moyes updates Gooch injury ]

It’s a comeback story that will be followed by many, and Neto’s father says it’s very real. The center back bounced between Brazil’s Serie A and B, even going on loan at a Serie D side before finding his place at Chape.

From the BBC:

Neto’s father, Helam, said on Facebook that news of his recovery was giving the family “renewed hope and faith”.

“My son is getting better and better. He has just undergone surgery on his leg and doctors say he will return to football,” he said.

“We shall continue praying because we still need his discharge from hospital to see him closely.”

Forca Chape.

Follow @NicholasMendola

WATCH, STREAM: Premier League TV schedule – Week 14

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Week 14 of the 2016-17 Premier League season is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Manchester City host Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) as two title contenders collide. Pep Guardiola vs. Antonio Conte. Sergio Aguero vs. Diego Costa. It will be a mammoth clash as first plays third.

Then Tottenham Hotspur look to bounce back from their first defeat of the season as they host Swansea City (10 a.m. ET live NBCSN andonline via NBC Sports.com) at White Hart Lane. Bob Bradley‘s Swansea got their first win under his stewardship last week and they’ll look to build on that and drag themselves out of the relegation zone.

As the same time struggling Crystal Palace welcome Southampton to Selhurst Park (10 a.m. ET live CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) with Alan Pardew looking to avoid a seventh-straight defeat which could mean the end for him in south London. Saints are on a good run after wins against Everton and Arsenal in their last two game.s

Rounding things off on Saturday we have a big London derby between West Ham and Arsenal (12:30 p.m. ET live NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) at the London Stadium with Arsene Wenger‘s side looking to go 13 games unbeaten in the PL. West Ham have shored things up at the back in recent weeks and Slaven Bilic will look to Dimtri Payet and a hostile atmosphere to try and get past the Gunners.

On Sunday Bournemouth host Liverpool (8:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with Jurgen Klopp‘s side looking to stay in touch at the top and get through a spell of injuries impacting their forwards. The Cherries have a young, hungry team and will be eager to take a big scalp and grab a first-ever win against Liverpool. Later on Sunday Everton welcome Manchester United to Goodison Park (11 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both teams so far failing to live up to lofty preseason expectations as they’re losing ground with the top four.

On Monday Middlesbrough welcome Hull City to the Riverside Stadium (3 p.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) in a big battle in the north east with both teams eager to move up to the table and edge towards 40 points as quickly as possible.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Man City  vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Southampton – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Watford – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. Leicester City – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Burnley  – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET:  West Ham vs. Arsenal – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
8:30 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
11 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Man United – NBCSN [STREAM]

Monday
3 p.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM]