Winners, losers from Champions League Wednesday

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Yesterday, one match stole the show, and while Italian champions Juventus made sure Wednesday had plenty of drama, the second day of UEFA Champions League was defined by individual performances. Four players gave multigoal efforts, from the expected (Messi), to the prospective (Oscar), to the practically unknown (Mkhitayran):

WINNERS

1. Lionel Messi, forward, Barcelona – If you needed a reminder of who’s the game’s best player, (a) where have you been, and (b) Lionel Messi’s here for you. The leading scorer in each of the last four Champions Leagues, Messi pulled Barcelona even in the 72nd minute, the favorites facing a shock 2-1 deficit. Then, 10 minutes before time, the reigning world player of the year scored his second of the night, staving off Spartak Moscow’s upset bid as Barça went on to win, 3-2.

2. The little guy – It was a huge day for two teams expected to be bottom feeders. Belarusian champions BATE Borisov were the more impressive of the two, at one time holding a three-goal lead at the Grand Stade on their way to a 3-1 upset of Lille. Just to the west, Romanian champions CFR Cluj got two Rafael Bastos goals in the first 34 minutes, cruising to a 2-0 win at Sporting Braga.

3. Midfield marksman – Bastos wasn’t the only midfielder to bag two on Wednesday. We covered Oscar’s exploits in our Chelsea-Juventus breakdown, the 21-year-old Brazilian’s first half goals giving Chelsea an early 2-0 lead (before being drawn, 2-2). In Donetsk, 23-year-old Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored twice, pushing his season total to 14 (in 10 games) as Shakhtar beat Danish champions Nordsjaelland, 2-0. Learn the name now, people: HEN*rikh Mk*HIT*ar*yan.

4. Bayern Munich – Bayern seems intent on making up for last May, when they lost the Champions League final on their home field. Perfect through three rounds in Germany, Bayern carried over their domestic form into today’s match, posting a convincing victory over visiting Valencia. FCB was up 2-0 going into the final minutes when a Nelson Haedo Valdez score (and a Mario Mandzukic missed penalty) left a final, deceptive, 2-1 victory.

LOSERS

1. Roberto Di Matteo, manager, Chelsea – One result is not enough to start asking questions of the new Chelsea boss, but when your team comes from ahead to draw, you have to take inventory of the manager’s part. Aside from Oscar’s individual brilliance (and some flashes from Eden Hazard), Chelsea offered little going forward, and after going up 2-0, the defending champions lacked the desire and composure to see off their opponents. Chelsea should have won this match, particularly given the lead Oscar spotted them, but seeing how they played out the final 57 minutes, you wonder if they even knew how.

Di Matteo got this job after success bunkering in and holding out against Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Now that Chelsea’s back to being the hunted, what’s the next page in the playbook?

2. Portugal – From two winnable matches, Benfica and Braga got only one point. Benfica’s result is acceptable if predictable, with Scottish champions Celtic able to get a home point from a match where the teams combined for two shots on target. Ideally, Benfica would get three points in these types of games, but still regrouping after some key offseason losses, the Eagles had to settle for one.

Braga, however, were worrisome. Two years ago, they started their Champions League history with a 6-0 home loss to Arsenal. Today’s loss to CFR Cluj is even more crushing. If Galatasaray gets full points from Cluj in Istanbul, Braga may be looking at a return to Europa League (at best).

3. Lille fans – On the first Champions League night for their new 50,186-seat venue, Lille fans should have expected more. BATE – picked to finish at the bottom of the group – were up 3-0 at half time, with only Aurelien Chedjou’s 60th minute goal keeping the night from being a complete waste. Can you imagine being a fan, going to the ground expecting a relatively easy win, only to be down 3-0 at intermission? And on the stadium’s first Champions League night?

Coming off a disappointing fourth place finish in last year’s group, Lille should have been up for this match. Instead, they got embarrassed by a team who had to win three playoff rounds to make group stage.

4. Lingering memories – Like Bayern, Barcelona and Manchester United had bitter exists to last year’s tournament. Today, each club got off to on the right note. Bayern, after losing last year’s final on penalty kicks, showed they’re still one of the best teams in Europe. Barcelona, shocked by Chelsea in last year’s semis, got a win in Tito Vilanova’s Champions League debut. And Manchester United, amazingly eliminated in the group stage last year, rode a spectacular goal from Michael Carrick to a 1-0 win over Galatasaray. Sitting on three points after one round gives each club a new Champions League focus.

Report: Newcastle’s Clark knocked out on Spanish dance floor

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A wild story out of Spain says an Englishman knocked Newcastle United defender Ciaran Clark unconscious at a night club.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

Clark was on vacation in Spain, where he was spending time at Crystal’s Bar in Punta Ballena, Magaluf very early Sunday morning.

Clark and a man “in his 30s” got into an argument that saw the Irish defender knocked out, according to the BBC.

Clark was left unconscious and taken to hospital after an argument between him and the suspect broke out on the dance floor.

The 28-year-old suffered cuts and bruises to his face.

Clark, 28, scored twice in 20 Premier League appearances this season, his second at St. James’ Park.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 9 — Iceland’s next step, Brazilian bounce back?

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Brazil is one of the favorites of the 2018 World Cup, while Iceland is the smallest nation to qualify for the world’s biggest tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

On Friday, both enter their second match days feeling quite different after 1-1 draws.

They won’t face each other, of course, but the contrast is striking nevertheless.

Brazil opens the day’s action when it squares off with Costa Rica, who fell to Serbia in the opener. For Serbia, a dark horse of the tournament, it will be a meeting with Switzerland.

Then there’s Iceland’s bid to climb into the Group D driver’s seat by knocking off Nigeria. A win from Iceland would make Lionel Messi and Argentina’s task of qualifying for the knockout rounds extremely unlikely.

Below is Friday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group D
Nigeria vs. Iceland: Volgograd, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group E
Brazil vs. Costa Rica: Saint Petersburg, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Serbia vs. Switzerland: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”