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.

PHOTOS: New aerials show rapid Tottenham stadium progress

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Tottenham Hotspur’s new home at White Hart Lane continues to take shape at a rather impressive rate.

[ MORE: Everton to get new stadium? ]

With this season expected to be Spurs’ final in their historic home, their stunning new 61,000 capacity stadium is being built around the Lane.

To anyone who has visited recently, Tottenham’s new home is starting to take shape.

[ MORE: A behind-the-scenes look at Spurs’ new home ]

All in all, it’s a very exciting time to be involved with Spurs as Mauricio Pochettino‘s men are in the FA Cup semifinal and are in second place in the Premier League table, 10 points behind leaders Chelsea.

On and off the pitch, the future is looking bright for Tottenham.

Take a look at the photos below for incredible aerial shots of the work, while the video above is from a recent episode of Premier League Download with Spurs.


Five questions for USMNT ahead of World Cup qualifiers

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The USMNT’s next two World Cup qualifiers will be pivotal in deciding whether or not they’ll qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Cameron eager for return

With plenty of injuries restricting Bruce Arena, the upcoming games against Honduras on Friday and Panama next Tuesday are massive for the U.S. national team.

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Here’s a closer look at some lingering questions heading into the next seven days.


Who will play at full back?

With DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson out injured, the USMNT is without their top two full backs for these games. That’s a big, big problem. Arena may have to put some square pegs in round holes when it comes to playing Geoff Cameron at right back or even Matt Besler or Tim Ream at left back, while DaMarcus Beasley can also slot in at full back if needed but Jorge Villafana will likely start on the left. Simply put: the U.S. defense is weaker without Johnson and Yedlin at full back. They’ll be missing two of the four defenders from the unit which looked so strong at the Copa America Centenario last summer and the Cameron-Brooks partnership may be broken up in central defense. Far from ideal.

Can Pulisic deliver?

There’s been plenty of talk from Arena about Pulisic being ready to start and contribute regularly for the USMNT.

“He has the potential to be a great player and I think he’s going to be a big part of our team, he’s not going to be a role player. He’s going to be an important part,” Arena told Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd earlier this month.

Pulisic, just 18 years old, is having a fine first full season for Borussia Dortmund (four goals and seven assists and a new contract is pretty decent…) and he may be used centrally for the U.S. in the next two games. He has the ability to control the tempo of games but often he’s played out wide for Dortmund and the USMNT. It would be a big call for Arena to hand the keys to the U.S. offense to Pulisic but he clearly has the talent to handle that pressure. Now, can he deliver on the international stage? The USMNT has a new star and they need him to deliver sooner than many would have expected.

Will Arena go for experience in central midfield?

With Jermaine Jones suspended for the Honduras game, there’s a big hole alongside Michael Bradley in central midfield to fill. Arena may well go for experience in this kind of situation. Sacha Kjestan and Dax McCarty are the obvious choices with Sebastian Lletget and Darlington Nagbe perhaps too inexperienced for these must-win games. Alejandro Bedoya could slot in alongside Bradley and he’d offer plenty of industry but his best position is out on the right and tucking inside to help build attacks. If I had to choose I’d go with Kljestan. His poise on the ball and his form for the New York Red Bulls over the last 12 months prove that he deserves the chance to step up and dovetail with Bradley in midfield.

Is USMNT capable of setting the tempo?

Having Kljestan start in midfield would be a big part of this as it’s likely that the U.S., especially against Honduras, will set the tempo of these games. Both Honduras and Panama will likely sit back and then look to hit the USMNT on the counter and without recognized full backs that could be very dangerous for the U.S.

This is all about game management. Arena’s men know that at times down in Panama they will be up against it and there will be severe pressure on their goal the longer the game remains scoreless. That said, they will be expected to create chances and they can’t just sit back, defend and hope to score goals from set pieces like they did at times in the Copa America last summer and for most of the 2014 World Cup.

Can Altidore carry the team?

Jozy Altidore will need to carry the U.S. to victory in these games. With Clint Dempsey still battling back to full fitness following his four months out, plus Pulisic still a teenager, the fact that Bobby Wood is out and Jordan Morris is extremely doubtful puts a lot of pressure on Altidore’s shoulders.

It may not have been the case during his time in the Premier League, but for Toronto and the U.S. national team he has been the go-to man in key moments. Altidore usually delivers and he has 37 goals in 100 appearances for the Stars and Stripes. If the USMNT can get Dempsey and Pulisic on the ball, then Altidore will get service in the final third. He always adds power and presence up top but not having Wood alongside him may mean he’s isolated for large spells of these games. The U.S. needs to stop that happening to not only get the best out of Altidore but also give themselves the best chance of grabbing the two wins they desperately need to get back on track in the Hex.

Chris Wondolowski thankful for call-up to national team

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Chris Wondolowski didn’t have to travel far when he got the call to join the U.S. national team ahead of two key World Cup qualifiers.

The U.S. will be playing Honduras on the home field of Wondolowski’s San Jose Earthquakes on Friday night as the Americans look to bounce back from an 0-2 start in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

“To represent your country is the ultimate pinnacle, especially as a soccer player in a World Cup qualifier in your hometown,” Wondolowski said. “I couldn’t have drawn it up any better. I’m very excited. I’m very honored to be a part of such a big game. It’s not necessarily the place we want to be, but it is an exciting place for U.S. Soccer right now. We have meaningful games in meaningful places.”

And Wondolowski might need to play a meaningful role with the U.S. short-handed at forward headed into the games against Honduras and then at Panama next Tuesday. Bobby Wood is out with a back injury, Jordan Morris has not practiced this week because of an ankle injury and Clint Dempsey said he might not be able to play 90 minutes after missing the final four months of the 2016 MLS season due to an irregular heartbeat.

That leaves just Jozy Altidore and Wondolowski as the only healthy forwards. The 34-year-old Wondolowski didn’t know whether he would get another chance at World Cup qualifying.

He didn’t get his first call-up to the national team until six years ago despite a prolific MLS career. He has played 35 international games, including two at the 2014 World Cup.

Wondolowski has scored 11 goals for the national team, but is most remembered for one he missed in the round of 16 against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup. With the game scoreless late in regulation, he had a chance at a game-winner but shot over the crossbar from inside the 6-yard box.

The U.S. lost 2-1 in overtime and Wondolowski has not played in any 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

“If you play well at the club level, you figure you can get a chance,” he said. “You never know if that will keep happening. You always have to cherish the times that you have.”

Wondolowski has done that by scoring 28 goals the past two seasons for the Earthquakes and one so far this season in three games. He doesn’t know if he will get a chance to play but has already been a valuable resource for his familiarity with the home stadium.

“They’ve been asking me about the field, the atmosphere,” he said. “I don’t have enough adjectives to tell them how great it is. The atmosphere you feel, the presence that the crowd provides throughout the game will lift you. It’s an amazing pitch, amazing fans, and hopefully we can get three points.”

After the losses to Mexico and Costa Rica last November that led to coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing and the return of Bruce Arena as coach, the U.S. has little margin for error.

The Americans are in last place in the six-team group that will send the top three teams to Russia in 2018 and the fourth into a playoff with the fifth-place nation from Asia.

“Some games you go in and you’re trying to implement things and work on your style,” Wondolowski said. “We’re worried about three points. Pretty, ugly, it doesn’t matter. Just grind it out any way possible.”

Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson dreams of “big club”

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This will unnerve Swansea fans.

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Gyfli Sigurdsson, 27, has scored eight goals and assisted 11 times in the Premier League as the Swans have dragged themselves out of the relegation zone.

Swansea boss Paul Clement recently stated that Sigurdsson has the same ability of players he’s coached at Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and with his quality from set pieces, finishing in and around the box and dictating play, it’s hard to argue with that.

Speaking to Goal.com, Sigurdsson revealed that Clement’s kind words were appreciated and he feels he can play for a bigger club.

“Of course that’s very flattering. Maybe he was just trying to give me confidence,” Sigurdsson said. “Of course, it would be a dream to play for one of these big clubs. Hopefully if I continue doing well for Swansea and Iceland then in the near future, I can play in a big club. I am enjoying being one of the senior players, though.

“We may be in a tough spot, but I am kind of enjoying the pressure of that. I am trying to make the most of that and help the team to get three points every week.”

Late in the January transfer window it was reported that some top teams in the PL came in with bids for Sigurdsson and the former Hoffenheim and Tottenham Hotspur attacking midfielder is definitely entering his prime.

He’s scored 33 goals in 115 appearances for the Swans over the past three seasons since joining from Tottenham and perhaps the main criticism some people have of Sigurdsson is that he prefers to be a big fish in a small pond. During his time at Spurs he scored just eight times in 58 appearances in the Premier League but now it seems like he is ready to go to the next level.

Swansea will ask for over $35 million for Sigurdsson but with clubs like Everton and Arsenal rumored to be interested in his services, a nervous summer could be ahead for the South Wales side. Swansea’s Icelandic playmaker will be a man in demand, irrelevant of whether or not the Swans survive relegation.