Real Madrid reaches first final in 12 years, routs Bayern Munich


Two early goals from Sergio Ramos and a third, record-setting score from Cristiano Ronaldo quickly siphoned the drama out of Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal second leg, with set piece execution and counter attacking precision leaving Bayern walking dead coming out of halftime. Unable to produce any of the five goals they needed after the break, the defending champions were left pummeled on their home field, the eventual 4-0 (5-0, aggregate) win for Real Madrid putting the nine-time champions into their first final in 12 years.

After Bayern’s typical dominance of the ball defined the first 15 minutes, Ramos headed home a corner in the 16th, finishing from an unmarked spot just outside the six-yard box. Four minutes later, it was Ramos again, having run onto Pepe’s flick of another corner for their team’s second goal. Just before halftime, Ronaldo quieted the faint hops FCB may have carried into the dressing rooms, his finish on a 34th minute counter giving the visitors a demoralizing three-goal advantage.

Just before full-time, Ronaldo capped the home team’s embarrassment, going under a Bayern Munich wall to convert a direct kick into the left of Manuel Neuer’s net. Having defeated Barcelona 7-0 in last year’s semifinals, Bayern were shown out of this year’s after a 12-goal swing, the 5-0 defeat extinguishing hopes the Bavarians could produce back-to-back three-trophy seasons.

With the win, los Blancos, in addition to claiming their first victory at Bayern Munich, have navigated the hurdle that tripped them in each of the last three seasons. In the process, the club has put itself within reach of its coveted decima, an achievement that will force them to vanquish a familiar foe. Next month in Lisbon, El Real will face either crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid or 2011-12 champions Chelsea, a team led by former head coach José Mourinho.

The match’s opening moments were defined by the same one-way traffic that characterized last week’s leg in Madrid, with El Real quickly getting behind the ball while looking for a counter. In the 15th minute, however, Real Madrid earned its first corner of the game, a restart played in from the right by Luka Modric. Finding Ramos in a seam of Bayern’s zone, Modric delivered what would become the game’s opening goal, with a header from just outside the six-yard box beating Neuer toward the left side of goal.

Four minutes later, it was more of the same from Real, though the team used a middle man to bridge the next Modric-to-Ramos corner. After central defense partner Pepe flicked on the visitors’ second chance of the match, Ramos was able to run onto another header from the box, his redirection toward the lower-right corner giving Real Madrid a 3-0 aggregate lead.

source: AP
Sergio Ramos’s early brace sparked Real Madrid to a dominant display in Munich. (Photo: AP Photos.)

Collecting themselves, seemingly trying to get to halftime and reassess, Bayern’s already faint dreams were dealt another blow in the 24th minute, with Ronaldo’s record 15th goal of the tournament finishing the day’s scoring. Off a counterattack led by Gareth Bale, Ronaldo was able to finish under an oncoming Neuer from near the edge of the penalty area, assuring he’d take part in a third Champions League final.

Allowed to control possession through the rest of the match, Bayern’s frustrated demeanor gave way to resignation, an attitude that gave the last half of play a through-the-motions feel. Needing five goals to advance, the defending champions couldn’t even feign a playing for pride naiveté. This team was experienced enough to know the battle was lost, an view that hit home when Bayern wall jumped over Ronaldo’s late direct kick, allowing the Ballon d’Or-winner’s second goal to roll past a stunned Neuer, giving him 16 for the competition.

To the extent there was a downside for Real Madrid to Tuesday’s result, it came late in the first half. With a sliding tackle that took down Bastian Schweinsteiger, midfielder Xabi Alonso earned a yellow card. Combine with the caution the Spanish international carried into the match, Alonso will miss the final.

That Tuesday’s game was lost so early will surely lead to a second guessing of Pep Guardiola’s approach, particularly in light of the team’s demising form in the long-won Bundesliga. But today, as Carlo Ancelotti predicted, mentality seemed just as important as style or tactics. Whereas Real Madrid has acquired a reputation for mental fragility, a quality the surfaced in the last league Clasico against Barcelona, the Merengues have been spectacularly, suddenly steeled. They’ve not only deal with Barcelona (in the Copa del Rey final); they’ve also solved their Champions League semifinal blues.

Instead of uncertainty, the talk going into Lisbon’s final will center around the decima. Be it against their Madrid rivals or their former, controversial coach, the nine-time champions have a chance to claim the title that’s defined the last 12 years of their existence. Number 10 is only 90 minutes away.

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

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When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

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Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

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The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.

Puksas Award finalists: Somehow absent is USWNT’s Carli Lloyd

Carli Lloyd, USWNT

FIFA announced on Monday its three-man list of finalists for the 2015 Puskas Award, handed out each year to the player who scored the “most beautiful” goal of the past calendar year.

[ MORE: 2015 Ballon d’Or finalists ]

The three men up for this year’s honor are Alessandro Florenzi (WATCH HERE), Lionel Messi (WATCH HERE) and Wendell Lira (WATCH HERE) — all scorers of fantastically beautiful goals this year.

That means Carli Lloyd, who made the original list of nominees before being whittled down to just three, is shockingly tragically scandalously criminally not a finalist for this year’s award. Reminder: This is the goal we’re talking about.

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

So, here’s the case for Lloyd:

  • She scored from midfield
  • She scored the winner from midfield in a World Cup final
  • She scored the winner from midfield in a World Cup final to complete a hat trick
  • She scored the winner from midfield in a World Cup final to complete a hat trick in the 16th minute

How in the world is Carli Lloyd’s midfield goal to complete a 16-minute hat trick and win a World Cup final not a top-three goal of the year? You got some (more) explaining to do, FIFA.