Benzema goal holds up as Real Madrid claim 1-0 lead over Bayern Munich

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Playing out as a treatise against the primacy of possession, Real Madrid willingly and victoriously ceded control of the home leg of its UEFA Champions League semifinal. Instead, hosting defending champions Bayern Munich, Carlo Anelotti’s side made the most of the few counter attack chances it was able to muster, defending a Karim Benzema opener for 71 minutes en route to a 1-0 win at the Santiago Bernabéú.

The match’s only goal came with the game’s first true chance, with a counter down the home team’s left producing a ball fed into the Bayern area for Fabio Coentrão. The Ballon d’Or winner’s pass across Manuel Neuer’s six-yard box ended with Benzema’s uncontested finish, giving the nine-time champions an early lead. Despite late chances for Thomas Müller and Mario Götze, the advantage held up through Howard Webb’s final whistle, inching  Ancelotti’s team closer to the club’s coveted decima.

(MORE: Three things we learned from Real Madrid’s win vs. Bayern Munich)

Bayern would finish the match holding 72 percent of the possession, out-passing the Merengues 667-256 while only putting four shots on Iker Casillas. Real Madrid, in contrast, tested Neuer five times, proving more dangerous with the limited possession sought.

The same dynamic iss likely to play out next Tuesday at the Allianz Arena. Bayern Munich, trying to become the first back-to-back European Cup winners in 24 years, will need the goal it couldn’t craft at the Bernabéu. Real Madrid, seeking the club’s 10th European championship, will hope Benzema’s goal will help them avoid a fourth straight exit at the semifinal round.

Opening the match by dominating 80 percent of the ball — a rate that would persist through halftime — Bayern Munich assumed its expected control of the match, even if that control failed to translate into chances. Instead, it was Real Madrid the produced the night’s first true opportunity – a counterattack that led to Coentrão on the ball, approaching the byline. Drawing both Munchen central defenders wide, the Real left back was able to roll a ball across the top of the six-yard box to Benzema at the far post, with Manuel Neuer unable to get across to prevent an easy 19th minute finish.

Though Bayern continued monopolizing the ball over the next 26 minutes, all the chances fell to the hosts. In the 27th minute, a ball crossed from the left by Benzema took a subtle, unfortunate bounce on Ronaldo when the team’s leading scorer tried to one-time it near the penalty spot. In the 41st, Ángel Di María  volleyed another ball crossed from the left over Neuer’s cross-bar, leaving the teams to go into halftime at 1-0.

Within minutes of the second half kickoff, Real Madrid was testing Neuer again, with a sharp angle shot from Ronaldo forcing Neuer to ground to protect his far post.  Mid-way through the half, Ronaldo would have another chance from the left of the penalty area, one Neuer was able to push out for a corner. As Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola started making changes, the limited possession Real Madrid was electing to keep started to fade, with the Merengues left of hold out per the match’s final 10 minutes.

That spell produced a chance for Müller from just outside the area, though the German international left his shot just outside Casillas’s right post. In the 86th minute, Bayern’s best chance of the game fell to Götze, 10 yards out at the right post, though his attempt to go across goal was hit right at Casillas. A late penalty appeal from Müller was ignored by Webb, who eventually blew the whistle on El Real‘s first leg shutout.

It was the type of defensive performance which, if replicated next week, will see the Merengues to Lisbon – into the European final the squad could never reach under José Mourinho. Beyond those three years, though, Real Madrid’s Wednesday performance puts the club 90 minutes closer to easing angst 12 years in the making. Another showing like tonight’s in Germany, and the kings of Europe will get their change to reclaim their crown.

Report: Guardiola to take manager’s job at Man City next season

Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Manchester City desperately want to lure Pep Guardiola away from Bayern Munich and pay the Spaniard tactician lots and lots of money to come manage in the Premier League.

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Of course we’ve all heard it before — a number of times, in fact. So, what’s different about the latest report, hitting the headlines very late Thursday night in Europe, linking the 44-year-old to Man City?

Well, apparently, we’ve moved past “Man City will offer Guardiola whatever he wants to come to the Etihad Stadium,” and arrived at “Guardiola has agreed terms to become manager at Man City.”

However, the respected Spanish radio station Cadena COPE is reporting that Guardiola has already decided he would like “a change of scenery” and will succeed Manuel Pellegrini at the Etihad Stadium.

“Pep Guardiola will leave Bayern Munich at the end of this season and will train Manchester City next season,” read the report.

“Guardiola has decided on a change of scenery. He considers his time in Germany will end on 30 June after three seasons and, therefore, fulfil one of his wishes: to coach in England.”

With all due respect to every player Man City have signed in the last decade, the acquisition of Guardiola would be, by far, their greatest coup to date — a manager with a clear ethos, a clear plan of action and a track record of having succeeded and won in the UEFA Champions League, which remains the most elusive trophy to City’s cabinet.

Mourinho-Costa feud could mean January transfer activity for Chelsea

Diego Costa & Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
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Perhaps no man in the footballing world has been embroiled in more controversy this season than Jose Mourinho, who remains in charge of Chelsea despite a horrid start to the club’s 2015-16 Premier League campaign.

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The Portuguese mastermind has fallen out with a number of his own players and staff this season, so why not add another name to the growing list? Come on down, Diego Costa, you’re Mourinho’s next combatant.

The two reportedly got into a heated locker-room exchange following Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Given Costa’s increasingly poor form all the way back to the final weeks and months of the 2014-15 season — just seven goals scored in the last 10 months — Mourinho is reportedly less and less sure the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard is the right man to lead the line for the reigning PL champions.

The details of Mourinho and Costa’s halftime spat, from the Guardian:

Mourinho, just as he did after a similar situation against Norwich on Saturday, made his frustrations clear at the forward’s lack of anticipation over an Eden Hazard pass, which would have provided the striker with a tap-in had he been on the move. Costa returned his manager’s remonstrations in kind. Oscar and John Terry tried to calm him down only to be pushed aside. The manager subsequently suggested there had been “a few kisses, a few cuddles” in the dressing room at the interval, and “no problem,” though the public show of dissent was notable.

The club’s hierarchy is reportedly considering dipping into the transfer market in January — something they’re extremely loath to do — to replace the misfiring Costa. The names of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie and Saido Berahino are the biggest currently linked with the Blues, given the lack of elite players typically available — as well as not being cup-tied in the Champions League — during the January window.

Chelsea, who currently sit 15th in the PL, return to league action on Sunday when they visit Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane (Watch live at 6:30 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra).

Wenger expects “hunting lion” Sanchez to be fit for Norwich clash

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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Alexis Sanchez is, by regular human standards, questionable for Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on Live Extra), thanks to a tweak to his hamstring during Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb.

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There’s just one problem with the above premise: Sanchez, according to manager Arsene Wenger, isn’t exactly human; he’s more like a lion, says Wenger — a hunting lion chasing after and feasting on its prey.

Wenger, on Sanchez’s ability to recover quickly and star for the Gunners — quotes from the Guardian:

“When he does something, he does it 100%. He finishes and you think: ‘He’s dead now.’ But then he recovers and gives 100% again. You always see signs of exhaustion but it’s not [that], because two days later, he’s fine.

“His style is very explosive, it’s a very committed style. Jamie Vardy is a bit similar. When they go, they go. They are like the lion. He has to catch the animal in the first 200 metres. If he doesn’t get there, he’s dead [on his feet] afterwards. They are these kind of killers. When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop.”

“I take information, especially from the medical people who know him and treat him everyday and after, we look at his overall recovery as well. When there are alarming signs, we want to make the right decision at the right moment but as long as the guys are confident, they score goals – it is always difficult to rest them.”

Sanchez’s production this season — 9 goals, 4 assists in 17 appearances – all competitions — is right on par with his spectacular debut in the PL last season. “What is also remarkable is that he goes to South America to play,” Wenger went on to say. “He comes back on Thursday night and on Saturday he can play without a problem, even if he’s jet-lagged.”

Expect Sanchez to feature on Sunday, and probably to score a goal or two, as well.

“Unprofessional” Grealish banished to U-21s after nightclub incident

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa FC
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2015 has been an eventful calendar year for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, to say the least.

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First, there was his emergence as a prominent first-team player for his boyhood club; followed by the Villans’ run to the FA Cup final in May; then came the England-versus-Ireland tug-of-war for his international services; a forgettable vacation to Spain for the 20-year-old; and another managerial change at Villa Park. After yet another off-field incident last weekend, in which Grealish was photographed in a nightclub hours after a 4-0 defeat to Everton, his new manager, Remi Garde, has labeled Grealish “unprofessional” and sent him away to train with the club’s U-21 side.

Garde, on Grealish’s actions and subsequent punishment — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is not professional. It is not what is expected from my players. That is why now Jack is training with the under-21 team for the moment. He won’t be included in the squad for Watford. At this stage he is not playing this weekend and he is training with the under-21 team. That is all I can say for the moment.”

“Sometimes players in every country ask to stay in the city we have played in and this is not a problem for me, it happens one or two times a season. The problem with Jack was not that he wasn’t on the bus. The problem was elsewhere.”

Villa, who will welcome 13th-place Watford to Villa Park on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Live Extra), currently sit rock bottom in the Premier League (5 points from 13 games), five points away from climbing out of the relegation zone.