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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.

West Ham United 2-1 Liverpool: Ogbonna strikes after 120 minutes

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Jordon Ibe of Liverpool takes on Pedro Mba Obiang of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Angelo Ogbonna is now an FA Cup hero.

Two sides willing to move the ball and attack produced a fine FA Cup tie on Tuesday at the Boleyn Ground, with Ogbonna heading home the match-winner in the 121st minute of play for a 2-1 win.

Michail Antonio scored a first-half goal for West Ham before Philippe Coutinho equalized for the visiting Reds.

[ WATCH: Coutinho’s cheeky free kick ties the score ]

All told, West Ham heads to Ewood Park for a fifth-round date with Blackburn Rovers. Peterborough United hosts West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday to sort out the fourth round’s other replay.

Liverpool played a more second-string set than the home side.

Brilliance met brilliance in the 38th minute, as Dimitri Payet struck a gorgeous dipping free kick over the wall only to see Mignolet get the slightest touch to help the ball crank off the goal post. Cheikhou Kouyate failed to scissor kick the rebound, and Mignolet flew back into the picture to parry Antonio’s header.

Antonio would get his glory next, as Enner Valencia took Payet’s pass and dribbled through the left side of the 18 and toward the end line before crossing the ball. Antonio let the ball sink to hip height before volleying home. 1-0, 45′.

There were three goal posts struck in the first half.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Coutinho scored on a clever free kick from the edge of the 18, betting on the wall jumping and cheekily rolling his shot under it and past Hammers keeper Darren Randolph.

Christian Benteke started and nearly finished a 56th minute chance inside the box, but his shot was blocked.

West Ham should’ve been awarded a penalty when Tiago Ilori pulled down Valencia in the box. Roger East didn’t see it that way.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or UEFA Champions League final a must ]

The match went to extra time after eight minutes of second-half stoppage time.

Mignolet made a solid flying stop on Mark Noble in the first frame of extra time. At the other end, Benteke struck a low chance wide of the right post. Moments later, Randolph came out to thwart Benteke on a breakaway.

If anyone needed a reminder of Daniel Sturridge‘s skill, the late sub let fly with a 108th minute bullet that missed the goal by inches.

Then Lucas Leiva gave up a free kick just as two minutes of extra time stoppage began, and Ogbonna struck.

LINEUPS

West Ham United: Randolph, O’Brien (Moses, 83′), Reid (Collins, 64′), Ogbonna, Cresswell, Kouyate (Carroll, 76′), Noble, Obiang, Antonio, Valencia, Payet.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Flanagan, Stewart, Tiago Ilori, Smith, Teixeira (Origi, 60′), Lucas, Chirivella (Milner, 102′), Ibe, Benteke, Coutinho (Sturridge, 60′).

WATCH: Liverpool’s Coutinho bewitches West Ham with cheeky free kick

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09: Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores from a free-kick during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Philippe Coutinho has some gumption.

Liverpool’s Brazilian wizard tied things up with West Ham United in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay at the Boleyn Ground, and did it in style.

[ MORE: Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must ]

With a free kick from just outside the 18, Coutinho thought West Ham would expect he’d hit a ball that would get up quick before dipping after the wall.

They’d jump, he figured, and he’d roll it under the wall. He was correct (video courtesy Fox Soccer):

USWNT’s Solo says Zika fears could make her skip the Olympics

Hope Solo attends the premiere of "He Named Me Malala" at The Ziegfeld Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
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As it stands, Hope Solo would skip the Olympics if fears over the Zika virus don’t subside in Brazil.

It’s been speculated that Zika increases the odds of certain birth defects, and Solo said playing in the Olympics is not worth risking future pregnancies.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

With CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying heading to NBC Live Extra at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday against Costa Rica (All games of the tournament will be streamed on Live Extra), Solo is set to star between the sticks for the USWNT.

But in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, the 34-year-old netminder is far from ready to commit to the tournament.

She went as far as to say she wouldn’t go if the tournament was today, elaborating in this story from SI.com:

“I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” said Solo, 34. “I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma. Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.”

Brazilian officials claim there will be minimal risk by the Summer Games because of the change in season, but that won’t alleviate all the concerns of female athletes. It will certainly be interesting to monitor how the situation develops in the coming months.

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
Brian Westerholt/AP Images for International Champions Cup
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.