UEFA Champions League roundup: All hail Ibra as PSG, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid stay perfect

Leave a comment

As we did after yesterday’s action, let’s take a moment to honor perfection, even if it’s going to take a little longer after today’s action. On Tuesday, Atlético Madrid was the only club that’d claimed full points through three rounds. After today’s action in Groups A through D, three other clubs joined the crowd.

Bayern Munich was most impressive, putting up numbers that we never see in Champions League. The 5-0 they posted on Viktoria Plzen was match by Paris Saint-Germain, but the underlying numbers were as one-sided as you’ll ever see at this level of competition (they had  21-1 edge in shots at halftime). This wasn’t David versus Goliath. This was Drago versus Apollo.

Real Madrid never seemed to hit top gear against Juventus, but thanks to some good fortune, they didn’t need it. Giorgio Chiellini had a bad day, allowing the Merengues to stay perfect. Cristiano Ronaldo’s double highlighted what was a pedestrian performance, but Real Madrid’s standards.

[MORE: No contest – Bayern dominates helpless Plzen.]

[MORE: Ronaldo double helps Real Madrid see off Juve.]

And then there’s Paris Saint-Germain, whose performance came down to one man. I suppose some credit goes to PSG for acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making him one of the best compensated players in the world, and being smart enough to build their team around him despite a wealth of other talents. Still, at some point you just have to acknowledge: Today was all about Zlatan. His four goals took PSG to 3-0-0.

[MORE: Another night to remember from Zlatan.]

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Tuesday roundup.]

Here’s what else happened Wednesday in UEFA Champions League:

Group A: Manchester United (England) 1-0 Real Sociedad (Spain) [REACTION]

What happened: Early United pressure forced a turnover high along their left flank, with a quick move producing an Iñigo Martínez own goal after Wayne Rooney rattled the right post. Better through most of the match, United failed to find their insurance, leaving the result in doubt until the final whistle.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors:  Rooney continues his post-Ferguson resurgence, but his teammates aren’t keeping up, something we wouldn’t be saying had they found another goal. But the point is they didn’t, allowing this performance to fall into a larger pattern. That they did so with a largely second-choice side is an important caveat; regardless, Group A’s leaders persist with their fledgling between eras.

Group A: Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) 4-0 Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

What happened: Bayer absolutely exploded. Stefan Keißling in the 22nd. Simon Rolfes from the spot. Sidney Sam near the hour, then Kießling completing his double. A nightmare night for goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov saw Shakhtar embarrassed in Germany, with Bayer’s talented attack finally letting lose in Champions League.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: It’s hard to believe Bayer’s four goals better than Shakhtar, but on Wednesday they were. The lingering question is how much of this will translate to Donetsk two weeks from now. One view on today’s game may see it as the home side taking their chances and momentum  creating the lopsided result. Another view sees a Bayer’s talented, three-pronged attack as a bad matchup for a defense Sami Hyypiä identified as vulnerable pre-match.

Group B: Real Madrid (Spain) 2-1 Juventus (Italy) [REACTION]

What happened: An early goal from Cristiano Ronaldo left Juventus chasing, but the Bianconeri caught up after 22 minutes. Giorgio Chiellini’s penalty and subsequent dismissal left the Italian champions down a goal, down a man, and destined for third place in Group B.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: Juventus’s performance gives them every reason to believe they’ll turn this around two weeks from now, though they will have to do so without the suspended Chiellini. If you’re Real Madrid, you look at this match and consider yourself slightly fortunate Chiellini’s fouls took Juventus out of the match. They’ll need some tweaks before touching down in Turin.

Group B: Galatasaray (Turkey) 3-1 Copenhagen (Denmark)

What happened: First half goals from Felipe Melo, Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba killed this one off by halftime. Claudemir’s 88th minute consolation ruined Fernando Muslera’s clean sheet.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: The dominance Roberto Mancini’s team showed in the first half makes you believe they can replicate this result in Denmark. It’s not that they overwhelmed Copenhagen, per se. It’s more that the chances they created were so clear cut. Perhaps merely playing better will pull FCK even next week, but today, they looked overmatched.

Group C: Anderlecht (Belgium) 0-5 Paris Saint-German (France) [REACTION]

What happened: Zlatan Ibrahimovic happened. Four goals in 62 minutes, three of the highlight reel variety. Edinson Cavani had PSG’s other goal.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: Anderlecht obviously did their part allowing it to happen (though that third goal, whoa), but that performance from Zlatan wins most games. Maybe he doesn’t score four times, but he still decides that match. Today, he vaulted PSG to nine points through three games, leaving Anderlecht sputtering at the bottom of their group.

Group C: Benfica (Portugal) 1-1 Olympiacos (Greece)

What happened: Alejandro Dominguez gave the visitors a lead that held up until the 83rd minute, but one piece of set piece magic allowed Benfica to salvage a point. However, if it wasn’t for Roberto’s misread of Benfica’s late restart, Oscar Cardoza would have never had a chance to equalize for the hosts, the 1-1 allowing the Eagles to salvage a point in Estadio do Luz’s bog.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: Olympiacos got their first half lead, tried to hold on, and it didn’t work out. That’s not to say today’s result wasn’t good; however, they could have really put Benfica in a bad place had they taken full points. Still, if they hold serve at home next week, they’ll consolidate their place as the team most likely to join PSG in the next round. Benfica, however, should have a better game plan in Piraeus.

Group D: Bayern Munich (Germany) 5-0 Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) [REACTION]

What happened: It’s been a while since we redressed Michel Platini’s desire to see more small league-winners in Champions League (mostly because we all seem to agree this is a good thing), but let’s consider today’s numbers. Total Shots: Bayern 35, Plzen 1. Shots on Goal: Bayern 18; Plzen 0. Possession: Bayern 77 percent. Bayern may be incredibly good and Plzen may be one a borderline team for this competition, but when those two elements meet, you get this type of result, something you can’t help think is bad for everybody involved.

Maybe it’s just randomness, or extremely colliding in a very unlikely way. Regardless, we don’t need to see this. At least, we don’t need to see it in Champions League.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: We’ll have another 90 minutes of this in two weeks. Hopefully we’ll see a little rotation from the Germans, because clearly they don’t need their first choice attackers to take down Plzen.

Group D: CSKA Moscow (Russia) 1-2 Manchester City (England)

What happened: A leaky City defense saw Zoran Tosic give CSKA a mid-first half lead, a score that lead to an almost immediate response from Sergio Agüero. A second goal from Kün gave City the lead before halftime, a gap that held up through full-time, though Joe Hart was forced to come up big on Keisuke Honda in second half stoppage time.

Hows, Whys, and Whatfors: There’ll be qualms about how they went about it, but against a talented, experienced team, playing on a horrible, frozen pitch a continent away from home, City snared full points. At times, it didn’t look like they deserved it, so consider the outcome more resourceful than convincingly. Regardless, City went to the home of their chief competition and got three points. That’s a best-case scenario.

World Cup referees miss yet another physical penalty in box

Getty Images
1 Comment

Let’s get this out of the way first: VAR (Video-Assistant Refereeing) has been a fabulous addition to the game of soccer. In the 2018 World Cup, the availability of replay has done nothing but improve the ability of referees to correctly officiate the game, providing an outlet for mistakes to be corrected. Earlier on Friday, a referee gave a penalty to Brazil for a foul on Neymar, but with VAR applied correctly, the penalty was wiped off after it was determined Neymar went down easily. The game continued as it should, and a clear and obvious error was erased.

Unfortunately, despite the clear improvement to the game VAR provides, there’s still some work to be done in one very specific area of the game.

[ MORE: Recap of Serbia 1-2 Switzerland ]

On multiple occasions this World Cup, referees have missed wrestling matches in the penalty area, allowing defenders to essentially get away with murder instead of awarding attackers a deserved penalty. The worst example of this yet took place in the 66th minute of the 2-1 Switzerland win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, already with a goal to his name early in the match, went up to meet a set-piece delivery with his head. He was fully bear-hugged by Switzerland captain Steven Lichtsteiner, and while being wrapped up, was then rugby tackled by Swiss central defender Fabian Schar.

Yet somehow, Mitrovic was called for the foul, as the referee whistled him for ending up over the back of his defender on a genuine attempt to play the ball.

With every replay shown, it became more and more evident that not only should a penalty have been awarded, but the referee missed a clear and obvious call. Yet the match referee, German Felix Brych, was given no assistance from the VAR booth, left on an island after blowing the call.

There have been so many instances of this throughout the tournament, despite a public directive reportedly given by FIFA to referees asking them to crack down on physical play in the box, according to Fox rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik. England striker Harry Kane was wrestled to the ground numerous times against Tunisia with no call, while many Egypt fans felt hard done by after Mohamed Salah was bullied in the box repeatedly against Russia.

The more defenders can get away with while defending set pieces in front of net, the more the game will be muddied by controversy, clouding an otherwise glittering debut for VAR on the international stage. That’s frustrating.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Late Shaqiri break shatters Serbian hearts

Getty Images
Leave a comment

One of the most exciting games of the 2018 World Cup proved entertaining from start to finish, ended by a stunning breakaway goal by Xherdan Shaqiri that capped a 2-1 Switzerland comeback victory over Serbia.

The start of the game was all Serbia, with Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic the most dangerous option up front, and he delivered on that promise just five minutes in. After a pair of chances just kept out by Yann Sommer, Mitrovic powered in a header off a Dusan Tadic cross to put Serbia in front early on.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The goal confirmed yet another game without a 0-0 draw, 26 in a row to start the tournament, marking the World Cup record set back in 1954 when every single game in the Switzerland event featured a goal.

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

After the goal, the game exploded, with Serbia looking to double its lead and Switzerland hoping to gain a grip on the match. Without a second coming, Switzlerland began to build promisingly, and had its first chance right on the half-hour mark as Steven Zuber through-ball sprung Blerim Dzemaili, but his sliding effort was saved brilliantly by Vladimir Stojkovic at the last second. They had a second chance minutes later, but for some reason Xherdan Shaqiri decided for one too many crosses rather than taking the open shot himself.

Serbia didn’t just look to see out the first half, though, as the star of the first half Dusan Tadic nearly gave his team another lift. First, he delivered a fabulous corner that stunningly skipped through the box untouched. Then, just before the break, Tadic came agonizingly close to what would have been a fabulous half-volley strike that flew viciously wide.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

After the break, the back-and-forth action continued, and Granit Xhaka struck an absolute stunner on the counter to level the match seven minutes into the second half. Shaquiri’s initial attempt from the right edge of the box was blocked and the rebound fell to the Arsenal midfielder outside the penalty area. His follow-up was a laser, curling through the defense and past a wrong-footed Stojkovic.

The chaos continued, with Serbia swinging back into the initiative. Mitrovic had a penalty shout turned down after being bear-hugged and wrestled to the ground by a pair of defenders, and minutes later Aleksandr Kolarov delivered a luscious cross into the box but nobody was there to tap it home.

Serbia began to tire as the game inched towards the final minutes, and Switzerland had most of the late pressure. One moment of brilliance caught the Serbians sleeping, and it proved the difference. Mario Gavranovic fed Shaqiri on the break from his own half, and free on goal the Stoke City winger made no mistake as the last ticks of regulation came off.

The win for Switzerland moves them to four points through the first two matches, leaving them level atop Group E with Brazil on points but in second thanks to an inferior goal differential. Serbia, meanwhile, sits third with three points. Switzerland would advance to the knockout stage with a win or draw in their final match against Costa Rica, while the winner of Brazil vs. Serbia will advance as well, with Brazil advancing in the event of a draw.

Southgate asks media to “help the team” after lineup leak

Getty Images
Leave a comment

England management is unhappy with the media after a coach was snapped with the proposed lineup for Saturday’s match against Panama.

Assistant manager Steve Holland was photographed holding a teamsheet that appeared to show a pair of changes in the England attack, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford partnering with Harry Kane up front. While Southgate attempted to play down the leak, stating the piece of paper was “just a squad list” and “the next sheet has different players in different positions,” he was also clearly frustrated with the media’s decision to run the photos.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“Obviously any time, if we were to give the opposition the opportunity of having our team it’s a disadvantage to us,” Southgate said in his pre-match press conference. “So of course our media has to decide whether they want to help the team or not.

The teamsheet showed no changes to the defense, with the team playing a three-center-back system as Kyle Walker continues his role along that back line. Kieran Trippier stays in at wing-back opposite Ashley Young, with Jordan Henderson sitting in the midfield between them. Jesse Lingard retains his place in the attack centrally with help from the addition of Loftus-Cheek, and the pair of strikers ahead of them.

Walker was also asked about the leak, and he said Holland apologized to the team, even if they felt it was unnecessary. “He’s apologised to us all in training, which we had a bit of banter with him about, and that was it.”

“I think if you guys try to keep it to yourself and don’t bring it out to the world,” Walker added, “because it’s not going to help us come the later stages of the tournament, please God we get there. All the rest of the world’s seen our team now, if that is the team or if not. As I say, you guys have to do your little bit, so if you could just please help us with that it would be polite.”

Liverpool to lose $82m Alisson to Real; Klopp turns to Lazio GK?

AP Photo/Michael Sohn
1 Comment

Brazilian national team starter and Liverpool transfer target Alisson looks increasingly likely to only see Anfield as a visitor.

Italian outlet Corriere dello Sport says Real Madrid is going to tempt Roma with an $82 million bid that could rise with add-ons.

[ MORE: Lozano to Barcelona? ]

And Real would also offer a near $6 million annual salary to the Brazilian backstop.

It’s coincidence that this news comes on the day that both Alisson and current Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas were at opposite ends of the pitch.

Alisson had little to do, while Costa Rican backstop Navas was outstanding until Philippe Coutinho and Neymar scored during stoppage time.

Meanwhile, TalkSport says the Reds are in on a different Serie A goalkeeper: Lazio’s Albanian backstop Thomas Strakosha.

The 23-year-old old played all 38 league games for the Roman club this season.