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Champions League: Trying to find room between Chelsea, Atlético

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After seeing Real Madrid romp through Munich, it seems a bit disingenuous to, for the second day in a row, discuss a switch in venue as if it may be decisive. Certainly the move of Champions League’s other semifinal from Madrid to Stamford Bridge could have an impact, but the Merengues’ Tuesday dismantling of the former champs showed focusing on venue has its limits. Better to consider whether the change will affect either team’s approach.

On Tuesday, we knew it wouldn’t. Bayern was going to dominate the ball, while Real Madrid was going to look to hit them on the break. On Wednesday, however, the game plans aren’t so clear. While some suspect the Chelsea we’ve seen over the last two games will again show up on Wednesday, José Mourinho’s approach against Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals tells a different story. At home, chasing two goals, Chelsea opened up and beat PSG, 2-0.

The Blues had a huge incentive to change last round, an incentive that doesn’t exist on Wednesday. The teams enter tomorrow’s second leg having drawn 0-0, giving Chelsea reason to believe staying the course tactically could get them to the final. The second PSG performance still serves as a proof of concept, though. Those who don’t watch Chelsea regularly might be inclined to assume the current narrative, that they bunker all the time, is true, but this is a team that averages 55 percent possession in the Premier League, a number they duplicated in Champions League’s group stage. Getting nine behind the ball is only one of the gambits José Mourinho can play.

“Against Paris we were in a position where we had nothing to lose and no one really expecting us to turn the result around,” Mourinho explained on Tuesday. “At the moment, it is a ‘clean’ result, it is 0-0 and the chances are equal.”

The Chelsea could very well employ a different plan on Wednesday, particularly with Eden Hazard likely to return. The problem, however, is Atlético. Just as Chelsea’s personnel and natural tendencies leave them best served playing a more conservative style, so does Atleti’s, albeit in a noticeably different way. When playing against a team that wants the ball, Atlético’s high press is the most relentless (and, effective) in Europe. Under ideal circumstances, Chelsea may want to control play at home, but a match against a Diego Simeone team is never an ideal circumstance.

It is the nightmare scenario that surfaced when these teams were drawn together. Both talented yet risk averse, each capable of playing with or without the ball, what would happen to this tie if both lost the incentive to take risks?Atlético tried to score in leg one but couldn’t. They’re now in a situation where the best possibility of reward could be to lie in wait. Chelsea, on the other hand, has reason to believe being more aggressive could be rewarded, but that also plays into its opponent’s hands. What if both of these teams take a “let’s see what happens approach?”

“I respect different ways of setting out your team,” Simeone explained. “It’s about what’s the best way for a specific game or a specific opposition … There is no ‘best way’.”

The attitude hints leg two could play out like last week’s opener at the Vicente Calderón. Even if it doesn’t, the goalkeeping of Thibault Courtois and potentially Petr Cech — two of the best keepers in Europe — could keep the game at a stalemate. Though attacking threats like Hazard, Diego Costa, Óscar and Arda Turan are littered throughout the squads, the team’s combinations of talent, organization, and approach gives the defenses the upper hand. With strong back fours protected by defensive-minded midfield pairs in front, these teams look set to take this one past 120 minutes.

What could change this course? The obvious. One of these teams could have a bad day. Or one could go Real Madrid, play their best game of the season, and blow their opponents off the field. Diego Costa, averaging a goal-per-game (seven) in this year’s Champions League, could win this with one set piece conversion or finish off a perfectly served long ball. Or maybe an Atlético player will slip while on the ball, allowing Chelseato recycle its fortune fromAnfield.

“For the 90 minutes the players are more important than the manager,” Mourinho said. “I trust them a lot and that helps me to be calm.”

As much as any semifinal in recent memory, this one’s impossible to call, and as the first leg in Madrid showed, there’s little in the play, matchup, or philosophies that gives us a clue as to who’ll emerge victorious. But in a game that’s likely to be decided by one goal (probably the first), every moment will prove crucial. Onlookers my bemoan a match that lacks chances, but the scarcity of those opportunities means Wednesday’s game can be decided at any time.

UCL: Arsenal buries Basel, wins group on Perez hat trick; Man City draws

Arsenal's Lucas Perez, back left, and Mesut Oezil, back right, cheer after Arsenal's second goal during their Champions League Group stage Group A soccer match between Switzerland's FC Basel 1893 and England's Arsenal FC in the St. Jakob-Park stadium in Basel, Switzerland, on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP
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Benfica and Napoli secured the two knockout round berths available Tuesday, and Arsenal ended up surprise Group A winners on a Champions League match day with a lot of dead rubber.

[ MORE: Ref attack could trigger Argentine strike ]


Basel 1-4 Arsenal

Look what Arsenal has in the cupboard.

Lucas Perez’s second Champions League appearance for the Gunners was a runaway success, as the 28-year-old Spaniard nailed a hat trick by the 47th minute of Arsenal’s X-0 win over Basel on Tuesday.

Perez scored 17 goals for Deportivo de la Coruna last season, but entered Tuesday with under 500 minutes for Arsenal this season. An ankle injury had cost him a month on the sidelines.

Alex Iwobi scored the Gunners’ fourth goal. Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and Kieran Gibbs provided assists in the win.

Seydou Doumbia scored late for the hosts.


Manchester City 1-1 Celtic

With nothing on the line but pride and experience, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola used a lot of youth on Tuesday against Celtic.

The City manager tapped Pablo Zabaleta as a defensive center mid next to Fernando, and used Bacary Sagna as a center back while youngsters Pablo Maffeo and Tosin Adarabioyo got starts in the back.

Celtic's Emilio Izaguirre, left, and City's Pablo Maffeo challenge for the ball during the Champions League group C soccer match between Manchester City and Celtic at the Etihad stadium in Manchester, England, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.(AP Photo/Dave Thompson))
Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre and City’s Maffeo (AP Photo/Dave Thompson).

 

Unfortunately (fortunately?) for Pep, the first City man to score was on loan at Celtic. Young Patrick Roberts, scooped up from Fulham last season, netted in the fourth minute against City’s unorthodox back six.

City broke through courtesy of Kelechi Iheanacho, and it was 1-1 at the break. Nolito had one pulled back for offside just after the match restarted in Manchester. City was also denied a penalty kick for handball.

City keeper Wily Caballero was called upon a few times in the second half, as Celtic and its noisy traveled fans were prepared to make a memory.


Elsewhere
Barcelona 4-0 Monchengladbach — Hat trick for Arda Turan
PSG 2-2 Ludogorets — Shock draw at the Parc des Princes
Dynamo Kiev 6-0 Besiktas — Red card dooms Turkish side
Benfica 1-2 Napoli — Jose Callejon nets Napoli opener
Bayern Munich 1-0 Atletico Madrid — Lewandowski ruins perfection for Atleti
Eindhoven 0-0 Rostov

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Argentina referees could strike after official is attacked

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07:  Referee Cuneyt Cakir  reacts during the Men's Group D first round match between Argentina and Algeria during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) Argentina’s union of referees has threatened to go on strike to protest the brutal attack on an official by angry fans.

Union director Guillermo Marconi says the group wants to launch the stoppage after the attack on referee Claudio Elichiri.

The violence broke out Sunday after Elichiri failed to award a penalty in favor of local team Sarmiento in a decisive regional league game against Sansinena.

[ MORE: Vieira on NYCFC offseason, Mix Diskerud ]

Sansinena scored a goal right after, putting them ahead 2-1. Irate fans invaded the field and the referee expelled several protesting Sarmiento players and suspended the game, enraging local fans and players.

Elichiri escaped with the help of some Sarmiento players. He told local radio that he had to get stitches under his eye and is still hurting from bruises.

Champions League AT HALF – Arsenal leads; Man City level, Messi, Lewandowski score (video)

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, left dribbles with the ball during the Champions League, Group C, soccer match between FC Barcelona and Borussia Moenchengladbach at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday Dec. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
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The stars are out on Tuesday in the UEFA Champions League, as Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski are among those with first half goals in the final group stage matches of the 2016-17 campaign.

Barcelona 1-0 Borussia Monchengladbach

Having played one less game than his megawatt rival, Lionel Messi is now a goal away from equaling Cristiano Ronaldo’s record for most goals in a UEFA Champions League group stage.

Manchester City 1-1 Celtic

Loanee Patrick Roberts probably enjoyed scoring against his parent club, as Celtic took an early lead, but Kelechi Iheanacho didn’t take long to level things at the Etihad Stadium.

City is fielding an interesting back six, with Pablo Zabaleta as one of its holding mids and Bacary Sagna slid inside to pair with youngster Tosin Adarabioyo.

PSG 0-1 Ludogorets Razgrad

Virgil Misidjan gives the visitors a surprising lead…

Basel 0-2 Arsenal

…and a Lucas Perez double has the Londoners on pace to win the group.

Dynamo Kyiv 3-0 Besiktas

Artem Biesiedin’s goal has been buttressed by an Andriy Yarmolenko penalty and a third tally courtesy of Vitaliy Buyalskiy, as Napoli and Benfica look set to go through.

Bayern Munich 1-0 Atletico Madrid

Robert Lewandowski strikes with a nasty free kick for the hosts, who will finish second in the group regardless of result.

Elsewhere
Benfica 0-0 Napoli
PSV Eindhoven 0-0 Rostov

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Patrick Vieira discusses Mix Diskerud and NYCFC’s offseason plans

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 22:  Former professional football player and Western Union Pass Ambassador, Patrick Vieira, speaks with press at the Beyond Soccer Series Powered By streetfootballworld at Thomson Reuters Building on June 22, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Soccer Series)
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While the general feel of Tuesday’s MLS MVP ceremony in New York City was upbeat for New York City FC, the club has a challenging road ahead this offseason as they look to retool ahead of 2017.

[ MORE: David Villa wins 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors ]

Captain and star striker David Villa accepted honors on Tuesday as the Landon Donovan MLS MVP after notching 23 goals and four assists for the Eastern Conference, but outside of the Spaniard the team will have several noticeable holes that need plugging prior to next season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira proved to be a strong hire in his first season with the club, but his potential success moving forward will be dictated by how he and technical director Claudio Reyna fill out the rest of the roster.

Key pieces such as Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola have since left the club after providing stability in the midfield this past season, while Jason Hernandez, Claudio Bravo and Steven Mendoza were among the other roster casualties following the team’s first playoff appearance in 2016.

While Vieira admits losing players like Lampard certainly presents a challenge, the Frenchman believes that NYCFC can just as easily recruit more talented members in the buildup to next season.

“Of course we lost Frank [Lampard],” Vieira said. “We lose some other players as well. We have to bring some new players. Something that is very important to us is that we have to be better and we have to bring players that can match our targets and we have different options on the table.

“You would not believe how many players would love to play for New York City FC. We will have some difficult decisions to make and it’s important for us to bring the right people, like David, because it’s important to bring people who want to come, people who want to work hard, prepare to sacrifice themselves for the football club because we have to do well next year.”

As it stands, NYCFC currently has 18 players under contract ahead of the 2017 season, including two Designated Players (Villa and Andrea Pirlo).

One name that certainly jumps out on the list of 18 though is U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Mix Diskerud, who has seen more downs than ups in his two seasons in the Bronx. After making 27 appearances for NYCFC in the team’s inaugural season, Diskerud’s playing time was dwindled down significantly in 2016 under Vieira to just nine starts in 12 overall appearances.

The 26-year-old was the fourth-highest paid player on NYCFC in 2016 — making $761,250 — however, he scored just one goal and added two assists. The club is still looking to figure out the best way to handle the Diskerud situation though, according to Vieira.

“He’s looking for playing time,” Vieira said. “We’re having discussions with him and trying to find the best way to satisfy both Mix and ourselves.”