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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.

Juventus win 15th straight to take Serie A lead from Napoli

Juventus' Simone Zaza, second from right, celebrates with is teammates after scoring during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Napoli at the Juventus stadium, in Turin, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)
AP Photo/Massimo Pinca
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(AP) — Substitute Simone Zaza scored two minutes from time and Juventus beat visiting Napoli 1-0 on Saturday to take the Serie A lead from the southern club.

[ MORE: Napoli fans support racially abused Koulibaly ]

Seeking its fifth consecutive title, Juventus moved one point ahead of Napoli with 13 rounds remaining in the Italian league.

Near the end of a match in Turin that had been characterized by few chances for either side, Zaza’s goal came with a long, curving shot that deflected slightly off defender Raul Albiol.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s next manager? Juve GM tells Allegri to “think twice” ]

It was Juventus’ 15th straight win, moving the Bianconeri within two victories of the Serie A record established by Inter Milan in 2006-07.

Earlier, Daniel Ciofani scored twice as promoted Frosinone beat Empoli 2-1 for its first away win in the top division. Also, Chievo Verona and Sassuolo drew 1-1.

Bundesliga wrap: Leverkusen win without Chicharito, drop Hertha to 4th

Leverkusen's Omer Toprak, right, celebrates his side's equalizing goal during a German Bundesliga soccer match between SV Darmstadt 98 and Bayer Leverkusen in Darmstadt, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Germany’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Hannover

Bayern Munich’s lead has been cut to five points (for the time being – they play on Sunday) after Borussia Dortmund (48 points) returned to winning ways via Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s game-winning goal in the 57th minute (below video).

Darmstadt 1-2 Bayer Leverkusen

No Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, no problem for Bayer Leverkusen, who went third in the Bundesliga with a 2-1 away victory over 12th-place Darmstadt. After going down a goal in the 28th minute, the game swung on a pair of goals 15 minutes apart just after the hour mark. Aytac Sulu put the ball into his own net for Leverkusen’s equalizer on 62 minutes, and Julian Brandt scored the winner in the 77th minute. Now on 35 points with a +9 goal differential, Leverkusen have leapfrogged Hertha Berlin for the third and final automatic qualification spot into the UEFA Champions League.

Stuttgart 2-0 Hertha Berlin

Hertha are now four league games without a win (three draws) after falling 2-0 away to Stuttgart. Serey Die and Filip Kostic were the goalscorers on Saturday, as U.S. national team defender John Brooks completed his 12th straight 90-minute shift (all competitions). With 35 points and a +6 goal differential, Hertha now sit just two points ahead of Schalke and Mainz in the race for the Bundesliga’s fourth and final Champions League place.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Wolfsburg 2-0 Ingolstadt
Werder Bremen 1-1 Hoffenheim
Koln 3-1 Eintracht Frankfurt

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hamburg vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (9:30 a.m. ET)
Augsburg vs. Bayern Munich (11:30 a.m. ET)

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 20 17 2 1 50 9 41 10-0-0 7-2-1 53
Borussia Dortmund 21 15 3 3 53 24 29 9-1-0 6-2-3 48
Bayer Leverkusen 21 10 5 6 31 22 9 5-3-2 5-2-4 35
Hertha BSC Berlin 21 10 5 6 29 23 6 6-3-1 4-2-5 35
FC Schalke 04 21 10 3 8 30 28 2 6-2-3 4-1-5 33
FSV Mainz 05 21 10 3 8 27 25 2 6-1-4 4-2-4 33
Mönchengladbach 20 10 2 8 40 35 5 7-1-3 3-1-5 32
VfL Wolfsburg 21 8 6 7 31 28 3 7-3-1 1-3-6 30
1. FC Köln 21 7 8 6 24 27 -3 4-4-3 3-4-3 29
VfB Stuttgart 21 8 3 10 33 41 -8 5-1-5 3-2-5 27
FC Ingolstadt 04 21 7 5 9 14 23 -9 4-2-4 3-3-5 26
Darmstadt 21 6 6 9 22 31 -9 1-4-6 5-2-3 24
Hamburger SV 20 6 5 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 4-2-4 23
FC Augsburg 20 5 6 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 3-3-4 21
Eintracht Frankfurt 21 5 6 10 27 37 -10 3-3-4 2-3-6 21
Werder Bremen 21 5 5 11 25 42 -17 1-3-6 4-2-5 20
1899 Hoffenheim 21 2 9 10 19 31 -12 1-5-4 1-4-6 15
Hannover 96 21 4 2 15 19 36 -17 2-0-8 2-2-7 14

USWNT tops Mexico, advances to Olympic qualifying semis on late Lloyd PK

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The U.S. women’s national team is one step closer to qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in after the Lady Yanks, on the back of Carli Lloyd’s 79th minute, knocked off their North American rivals, Mexico, in a narrow, physical affair at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex., on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

With only bottom-of-the-group Puerto Rico (0 points, -15 goal differential through two games) still to face, the USWNT are through to the semifinal round, at which point they’ll be one more win away from qualifying for this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

The first half of Saturday’s clash was much different from what either side saw in their opening game — USWNT beat Costa Rica, 5-0, while Mexico routed Puerto Rick, 6-0 — as both sides engaged in a rough-and-tumble affair, racked up plenty of fouls and failed to create much of anything in terms of quality scoring chances.

The USWNT’s best chance early in the second half came in the 53rd minute, when Christen Press rifled a right-footed effort toward the far post from 15 yards out, but found nothing but woodwork before the ball caromed back into the field of play.

[ MORE: USWNT routs Costa Rica in Olympic qualifying opener ]

Alex Morgan very nearly opened the scoring in the 67th minute. Becky Sauerbrunn’s long throw was flicked on by Lindsey Horan’s header inside the penalty area, and eventually made its way to Morgan near the top of the six-yard box, from where her volleyed effort was sent inches over the crossbar.

With 77 minutes on the clock, Horan followed suit with a shot of her own off the post. From 20 yards out, her right-footed effort had beaten the goalkeeper, only to hit the same far post and bounce across the face of goal, where not a single American player was waiting to tap home the rebound.

All of Mexico’s dogged defensive work was undone in the 79th minute, though, as the USWNT was awarded a controversial penalty for handball. Lloyd’s initial effort from the penalty spot was saved, but the reigning World Player of the Year was first to the rebound and slotted the ball into an empty net (below video).

PL Sunday preview: Arsenal-Leicester, Man City-Spurs in top-four defining day

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, center, scores their third goal during their English Premier League soccer match against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (Paul Harding/PA via AP)     UNITED KINGDOM OUT       -     NO SALES      -      NO ARCHIVES
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The Premier League top-four’s defining day is upon us, as 3rd-in-the-league Arsenal hosts 1st-in-the-league Leicester City, and 4th-in-the-league Manchester City hosts 2nd-in-the-league Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

It’s also another important day in Aston Villa’s bid to avoid relegation, as they host (very, very faint) UEFA Champions League hopefuls Liverpool.

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

No side in the Premier League has won more points away from home this season (28) than Leicester, which will no doubt have Arsenal fans feeling terrified for the whole of Saturday evening as Sunday morning looms.

When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Sept. 26, Arsenal walked out of the King Power Stadium with a resounding 5-2 victory, with many thanks to an Alexis Sanchez hat trick. Since that early Autumn day, Leicester have lost just once in the league (two PL losses all season), to Liverpool on Boxing Day. Jamie Vardy, who failed to score a single goal in six league games from Dec. 19 to Jan. 16, has scored three in his last three games (Leicester have beaten Stoke City, Liverpool and Man City by a combined score of 8-1 during that period).

On the injury front, the Gunners are mostly healthy, with Santi Cazorla (knee) the only first-teamer of real consequence due to miss Sunday’s game. The same goes for Leicester, who have a totally clean bill of health in terms of players who have featured this season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Sunderland shock Man United, Chelsea roll ]

Aston Villa vs. Liverpool — 9:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Bottom-of-the-table Villa need wins in the very worst of ways — with 13 games left in their season, Rudi Garde’s side is currently eight points from safety; the magical 40-point marks remains a whopping 24 points ahead of them. Liverpool currently sit 12 points behind Man City for the fourth and final Champions League place, thus Sunday’s trip to Villa Park is a must-win for Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds. When these teams met back in late September, Daniel Sturridge was the hero in a 3-2 victory at Anfield.

On the injury front, Villa will be without Jordan Ayew (suspension), Jack Grealish (ankle) and Adama Troare (foot), while Carlos Sanchez (hamstring) and Rudy Gestede (hamstring). Liverpool’s latest injury report, meanwhile, is an utter disaster that weakens every unit of their squad, though Sturridge is (finally) back in action.

[ MORE: Suarez — I’d only play for Liverpool in the Premier League ]

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 11:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

A single point separates the PL’s second- and fourth-place teams, who are set to face off at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Tottenham, who are two or three years ahead of Mauricio Pochettino‘s perceived timetable turning Spurs into PL contenders, are very much in the title race. When they welcomed Man City to White Hart Lane in September, the final score was 4-1 to Pochettino’s side, and the warning had been heard loud and clear. Harry Kane has scored four goals in his last four PL games.

City, somehow, still haven’t won back-to-back league games since the middle of October, and that’ll not be changing on Sunday, given their 3-1 defeat to Leicester last weekend. City’s talisman, Sergio Aguero, has remained healthy of late and displayed the kind of form that makes him capable of winning any game on his own on a given day (7 goals in last 6 PL appearances). With Vincent Kompany expected to make his return from a calf injury that has sidelined the Sky Blues captain since Boxing Day, now is the time for City’s defense to begin to match Aguero’s attacking brilliance if they are to push on and send Manuel Pellegrini out with another PL title.

On the injury front, Man City will once again be without Kevin De Bruyne (knee), as well as Eliaquim Mangala (hamstring), Jesus Navas (hamstring) and perhaps Wilfried Bony (calf). For Spurs, only Jan Vertonghen (knee) is expected to be unavailable.