Offshore drilling, England: at Manchester United 2, Everton 0

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Avoiding the type of undo drama that usually defined their matches, Manchester United gave one of their most impressive performances of the season, a controlled effort that saw the Premier League leaders post a 2-0 win over sixth place Everton.

With a strong start followed by their trademark passive governance, United was never in danger of dropping points. Ryan Giggs’ 13th minute goal gave the Red Devils the lead, and although Everton controlled possession for most of the next half-hour, United doubled their lead through Robin van Persie in first half stoppage time.

Massaging play throughout the second half, the closest United came to conceding was a mid-period chance for substitute Nikica Jelavic. It was one of the few instances that stressed goalkeeper David de Gea. For much of the match, he enjoyed the scenery behind a suddenly solidifying Red Devil defense.

For most of the season, the defense has been a weakness, though nothing that’s prevented United from establishing a 12-point lead in England. With the domestic race firmly under control, the Red Devils can shift focus to Champions League, where their renewed defense will face Real Madrid Wednesday at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Man of the Match: With apologies to Nemanja Vidic (strong defensively) and Rafael (who contributed to both goals), when you play the key part of both goals of a 2-0 win, it’s going to be difficult to take Man of the Match honors away from you. On the opener, Robin van Persie won his one-on-one with John Heitinga to set up Giggs’ goal. On the second, he timed his run correctly and beat a poorly executed Everton trap, running onto a Rafael ball and rounding Tim Howard to score United’s insurance.

He could have had more. In the 10th minute, van Persie failed to take advantage of an exposed goal, shooting into the right side netting. In the 81st minute, van Persie had both posts to choose from at 12 yards out before pulling his shot wide right. On another day, the normally clinical striker would have had at least one more goal.

But even with misgivings, van Persie’s contributions to the game’s only goals make him the Man of the Match.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Nemanja Vidic’s returning to his former self – You can’t blame the Manchester United captain for taking a little time to round into form. Making his 11th appearance after missing most of the 2011-12 campaign, Vidic looked close to his former elite self. He dominated his physical battle with Everton striker Victor Anichebe, handled the responsibility of marking Marouane Fellaini on set pieces, and made some astute first half reads during the half-hour stretch where Everton dominated possession. If Vidic and Rio Ferdinand continue to round into form, United’s biggest problem is solved.

Marouane Fellaini needs, gets special attention – Phil Jones hasn’t been given many starts in midfield this season. Most of that comes down to injuries, but Michael Carrick’s performances, Anderson’s health, and a full season of Paul Scholes have also played into it. With Fellaini set to occupy the space in front of United’s defense, Alex Ferguson brought Jones into midfield and tasked him with marking the big Belgian.

The results were mixed, though the scoreboard speaks for itself. Fellaini’s life was made more difficult, but he still saw a lot of the ball. Jones’ assignment allowed him to be pulled out of position, leaving more space in front of Vidic and Jonny Evans. Thanks to the awareness of Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs, and Wayne Rooney (who covered the space between midfield and the left flank), United was never punished for the tactic.

The approached highlighted Fellaini’s importance. He’s so key to Everton’s success that Ferguson elected to essential man-mark him. As Gary Neville noted on broadcast, it’s something Ferguson’s rarely done.

Everton’s defense just not good enough – On the first goal, you saw why John Heitinga’s no longer a regular starter. Phil Neville and Phil Jagielka each contributed to the second. Tim Howard made a number of bad reads (with poor execution) coming off his line. Everton’s defense wasn’t near good enough to contain a United team who, while they don’t generate a ton of chances, are the most clinical team in the league.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Ryan Giggs looked like he has another year in him. He scored for the 21st consecutive season, showed good flexibility and awareness in defense, and created what should have been a second van Persie goal. 
  • The two teams set up nearly identically, both in 4-4-2 formations with a forward withdrawn. A big tactical difference was how the defenses dealt with that withdrawn forward. United marked Fellaini with Jones. Everton did nothing special for Rooney.
  • Rafael had a very good day at right back. He started the movement for the first goal, assisted on the second, and make a number of good defensive plays, including a key first half clearance on a Kevin Mirallas ball sent through the six-yard box.
  • Everton flipped their wings to start the game, putting Steven Pienaar on the right with Kevin Mirallas on the left. It worked so well Moyes reversed his decision after 15 minutes.
  • For the third straight match, Nikica Jelavic started on the bench for Everton. Victor Anichebe again got the call up top.
  • Social media conversation noticed the off day from Tim Howard and compared it to the performance Brad Guzan gave against West Ham. Whether it’s being replicated within the national team, there’s a conversation starting about the U.S.’s No. 1. (More on Guzan’s strong season at Aston Villa.)

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
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Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

3 things learned: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea

Bayern Munich - Chelsea
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Bayern Munich – Chelsea, leg no. 2, looked eerily similar to leg no. 1, played back in late February, with the lone exception being the lack of fans inside the Allianz Arena for Thursday’s dead rubber.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

The eight-time Bundesliga champions were simply too good — and too healthy, by comparison — for Frank Lampard and the Blues to put up a reasonable fight from 3-0 down after the first leg. It was an unceremonious end to Lampard’s first season in charge at Chelsea, but a foregone conclusion before they boarded the plane back in London.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

With their 4-1 victory on the night (7-1 on aggregate), Bayern will face Barcelona in a sensationally mouth-watering quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Allianz Arena, as the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in Bayern Munich – Chelsea.


NO DRAMA NECESSARY, BAYERN TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS EARLY

Credit to Bayern for their ruthless efficiency and disinterest in letting the tie descend into drama and tension. Robert Lewandowski scored early (10th minute) and Ivan Perisic did the same in the 24th, bringing the aggregate score to 5-0 with 65 minutes left to play. With so many key players out injured, Chelsea had virtually zero chance of pulling off the impossible comeback prior to kickoff, and Hans-Dieter Flick’s side made sure to keep it that way from the opening whistle. Corentin Tolisso put the tie further out of reach late in the second half (76th), and Lewandowski duplicated his side’s three-goal advantage from the first leg not much later.


CHELSEA’S ISSUES STILL AT THE BACK

For all of the development of young players that Frank Lampard was able to realize this season — and for all of the big-money signings either already confirmed or heavily reported to be imminent this summer — Chelsea still have serious questions to answer with regard to their defense. The below highlight is but one small example in a season full of defensive blunders at missed assignments (you’ll find another one below in the next section). Cesar Azpilicueta remains solid, but he’ll turn 31 this month and probably only has another year or two left to function at the UCL level. Reece James and Fikayo Tomori still have some way to go in their development to be UCL-caliber players. The likes of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have all proven, time and again, they’re simply not at that level and probably never will be. All of that is to say, Chelsea need to execute a full-on rebuild of their defense this summer, or it might not matter how many goals they can score every game next season.


BAYERN’S END-OF-SEASON FORM IS TERRIFYING

Pop quiz: When was the last time Bayern simply didn’t win a game, let alone lost one? The answer: Feb. 9 (19 games ago). And their last defeat? Dec. 7 (28 games). They won all nine of their Bundesliga games following the season’s restart, plus another two in the DFB-Pokal and now the second leg against Chelsea in the UCL. Of course, things will suddenly become far more tricky when 1) the likes of Barcelona and Man City factor into the equation in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, and 2) each round is decided over a single leg rather than the traditional home-and-away format of the Champions League. And still, Bayern have the look of serious Champions League contenders, if not favorites, based on their scintillating form dating back to the start of the calendar year.

VIDEO: Messi shreds Napoli to score fantastic solo goal

Lionel Messi goal video
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Lionel Messi has done, once again, as Lionel Messi is known to do: he has scored another fantastic Lionel Messi goal (video below) in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager | Sarri sacked ]

One, two, three, four, five defenders in his way? So what, says Messi.

One or two decent attempts to tackle the ball away — and perhaps even succeeding on at least one occasion? Again, so what?

He’ll have the ball back, continue on his merry way and tuck the ball just inside the far post, all while falling down, getting back up and falling down again. The goal put Barcelona 2-0 ahead on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Prior to this post being published, he scored again, but the goal was taken away for a perceived handball upon video review.

Surely we’ve discovered a superhuman soccer league we can send him to by now, just to level the playing field a bit more for the actual humans walking planet Earth.

Anyway, here’s the latest head-shaking, smirk-inducing Messi goal video you came to see.