UEFA Champions League recap: Atlético clinch group; Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea stay top (video)

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One day after Bayern Munich and Manchester City secured passage into the knockout rounds, an unlikely contender joined them. At least, Atlético Madrid seem unlikely given what we knew at the beginning of this competition. Then, most thought the Colchoneros would be fighting Porto and Zenit to get out of Group G. Instead, after today’s 4-0 win over Austria Wien, Atlético are perfect through four rounds, their seven-point lead over Zenit already clinching first in their group.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League roundup: Bayern Munich, Manchester City into the knockout round]

Barcelona’s close to joining Atlético after Wednesday’s win over Milan, but a five-point lead over the Rossoneri means the Blaugrana will have to wait until their Nov. 26 trip to Amsterdam to confirm their place. One point in Holland will clinch allow them to join Atlético, with La Liga having established three contenders in this year’s competition.

The day’s other results saw English Premier League teams stay top of their groups. Chelsea’s 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge allowed them to pull away from Schalke, who had been even atop Group E coming into the day, while Arsenal’s surprise victory at Borussia Dortmund mean the Gunners stay tied atop Group F. With the surprise loss, BVB will likely need a win over Napoli on Nov. 26 to keep their knockout around hopes alive.

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

Group E: Chelsea (England) 3-0 Schalke (Germany) [REACTION]

A bizarre opening goal saw Samuel Eto’o put the hosting Blues in front after Timo Hildebrand’s attempted long kick was blocked back into his own goal. Eto’o doubled Chelsea’s lead after halftime before giving way to Demba Ba, who completed the scoring by volleying home Frank Lampard’s short lob, vaulting José Mourinho’s side into sole possession of first place.

From our recap:

Coming off weekend disappointment against Newcastle, this was exactly the type of result José Mourinho would have wanted, though it’s difficult to ignore the nature of the opening goal. Eto’o deserves credit for the play, but it wasn’t one Chelsea would have expected from their game plan – a gift from Schalke more than a well-earned score.

If that goal doesn’t go in, does the game play out as it did over the first 30 minutes? With a lot of Blues possession leading to little on Schalke’s goal?

In that sense, the questions from this weekend may not be answered. Now, however, Chelsea gets to pursue solutions from a winning spot, and the top of their Champions League group.

[MORE: Two from Samuel Eto’o lead Chelsea past Schalke, to top of Champions League group]

Group E: Basel (Switzerland) 1-1 Steaua Bucharest (Romania)

Steaua midfielder Alexandru chipped over a high Basel line in the 17th minute, with Federico Piovaccari’s finish high into the left of Yann Sommer’s goal nearly enough to give the Romanian champions their first competition win since 2006. In the match’s last moments, however, substitute Giovanni Sio put home Valentin Stocker cross to salvage a result for the Swiss champions, who are 0-1-2 since wining in London to open the tournament.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund (Germany) 0-1 Arsenal (England) [REACTION]

On a day they were limited to four shots (only two on target), Arsenal found the game’s only goal, their 62nd minute opener holding up to keep the Gunners at the top of Group F. Beating Neven Subotic to a ball just outside the six-yard box, Aaron Ramsey scores his fifth European goal of the season, leaving last year’s finalists in third place after four games. Arsenal became the first English team to win at the Westfalenstadion.

From PST’s Steve Davis:

The goal seemed a terribly unlikely moment from Arsenal’s Ramsey, barging forward in his 200th club appearance and overturning an hour of dominance in the Group F encounter, one that leaves Wenger’s club tied at the top of the foursome.

An uncharacteristic sloppy touch near the back from Dortmund put the ball on Ozil’s foot. Olivier Giroud met his teammate’s cross, leaving a ball dangling for Ramsey to head bravely on the run near goal. It was his 25thstrike overall for the Gunners, who are also off to their best Premier League start in years.

[MORE: Aaron Ramsey’s latest big moment gives Arsenal a huge 1-0 Champions League win at Dortmund]

Group F: Napoli (Italy) 3-2 Marseille (France)

Rafa Benítez’s team nearly became the group’s first to concede points to Marseille, falling behind to a 10th, André Ayew minute opener and allowing Florian Thauvin an equalizer just after the hour. In between,  beautiful strikes two minutes apart for Gohkan Inler and Gonzalo Higuaín had given Napoli a lead, an advantage Higuaín restored in the 75th minute to keep Napoli tied atop Group F.

Group G: Atlético Madrid (Spain) 4-0 Austria Wien (Austria)

Diego Simeone’s team joins Bayern Munich as the competition’s only perfect teams, clinching first in their group with a route of the Austrian champions. Miranda, Raúl Garcia and Felipe Luis each scored before halftime, with Diego Costa recording his third goal in two Champions League games after the break. For the first time since 2008-09, Atlético are into the competition’s second round, with a +10 goal difference hinting at the damage they’ll do.

Group G: Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) 1-1 Porto (Portugal)

Given Porto must still visit the Vicente Calderon, this was a much-needed game for the Portuguese champions, and after Lucho Gonzalez put them up early, they were well on their way. Former Dragon Hulk, however, almost immediately responded, the last goal of the match coming in the 28th minute. Despite creating plenty of opportunities, Porto conceded the best chance of the second half, with Helton coming coming up big Hulk’s 52nd minute try from the spot.

Group F: Barcelona (Spain) 3-1 Milan (Italy) [REACTION]

The teams’ fourth meeting this year played out in predictable fashion, with Barcelona’s dominance of possession eventually drawing a penalty on Ignazio Abate in the 30th minute. Lionel Messi scored, and Sergio Busquets followed with a goal six minutes later. An own goal from Gerard Piqué got Milan on the board before halftime, but Messi’s second in the 83rd minute iced the game, leaving Barcelona on 10 points atop Group F.

From our recap:

As characteristic of the teams’ three other meetings this year, Barcelona dictated the game, but whereas Milan often starts applying pressure at the edge of their defensive third, today they quickly regressed much deeper. With a defense setting up just inside the penalty box behind midfielders holding their ground at the arc, the visitors were providing little resistance for Barcelona’s midfield.

When they did create turnovers, Milan would quickly move down their left, through the place vacated by Dani Alves. The tactic would come good near halftime, but over the first 45 minutes, its main virtues were wasting time, giving their defense some rest, and allowing their lines to reset.

[MORE: Lionel Messi double leads Barcelona past Milan in UEFA Champions League]

Group H: Ajax (Netherlands) 1-0 Celtic (Scotland)

Celtic would have been able to lull this one to sleep if it wasn’t for Lasse Schöne, whose work off of Thulani Serero in the 51st minute produced the game’s only goal. Though Celtic pressed for an equalizer that would keep them in third place, full time came with the Scottish champions having only put two shots on goal, their 1-0 loss at the Amsterdam ArenA sending them to the bottom of the group.

WATCH: Fort Lauderdale striker scores screamer from half

Fort Lauderdale screamer
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Every goalkeeper could use a reminder to be wary of adventuring too far from his box, and USL League One provides us our latest lesson for backstops.

Ricky Lopez-Espin scored a terrific insurance goal for Fort Lauderdale CF on Saturday night, a marker which would stand as the difference in 2-1 defeat of Georgian outfit South Tormenta FC.

[ MORE: Atletico Madrid confirms positive COVID tests ]

The win pulls FLCF, first called Inter Miami II, off the bottom of the League One table early in this restarted season.

It was quite a hit, a turnover near midfield allowing Lopez-Espin the chance to spy the keeper off his line and rip a rocket out of reach.

Miami-born Lopez-Espin played college soccer at Creighton and was a Real Salt Lake draft pick. The 24-year-old played twice for RSL and later suited up for Real Monarchs and Lansing Ignite.

Two positive COVID tests for Atletico Madrid ahead of Champions League

Atletico Madrid coronavirus
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Atletico Madrid announced two positive coronavirus tests from its crew set to travel to Portugal for this week’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

The team says it will test all of its players and staff again to assure that there are no positive COVID-19 cases affecting the tournament.

Atleti asked for extreme privacy regarding the individuals who tested positive.

The match with RB Leipzig is Thursday in Lisbon, the second of four quarterfinals on the docket.

The positive tests are a stark reminder that while the top leagues in European soccer have done a very good job at isolating and keeping tests down, an incredibly contagious virus like COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the competition at any time.

From Atleti’s web site, via Sky Sports:

“Today, two positives appeared among the known results, which are now isolated in their respective homes and were reported immediately to the Spanish and Portuguese health authorities, UEFA, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the Portuguese Federation and the Superior Council of Sports.

“As such, a corresponding protocol planned for these circumstances has been activated, which requires new tests to be undertaken to first team players, members of the Lisbon travelling party and those who are in close contact with the positive cases, and which will result in changes in the timings of training sessions, in the structure and development of the journey and the accommodation in the Portuguese capital.”

Atalanta plays PSG on Wednesday, while Barcelona and Bayern Munich meet Friday, and Man City battles Lyon on Saturday.

It will feel like smooth sailing once the tournament begins and players hit the proverbial bubble. Until then, though, this proves that there are no guarantees.

USWNT star Kelley O’Hara on NWSL restart, launching podcast

Kelley O'Hara
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When USWNT star Kelley O’Hara launched her own podcast, she didn’t mess around with the star power of her guests.

Launched in July, the “Just Women’s Sports” podcast has hosted three incredible guests including the first post-pregnancy interview with USWNT teammate Alex Morgan as well as talks with Olympic star Chloe Kim and WNBA hero Candace Parker.

A Stanford connection with fellow alum Haley Rosen put the two-time World Cup winner on the path to hosting the show, and O’Hara admits that she was driven by the chance to lift the lid on athletes’ true feelings beyond the shield that comes up while talking to reporters.

[ MORE: Champions League favorites ranked ]

“Even as an athlete I know that I have a little of my guard up when I’m talking to a reporter because sometimes they’ll take it and use it for their own narrative or agenda,” she said in a conversation with ProSoccerTalk. “There’s an ability to be vulnerable and be safe because you’re talking to someone who has a general idea of what it feels like to be an athlete. Nothing about it is trying to catch them.”

Part of that comes with O’Hara realizing she has a massive stage on account of her accomplishments. The USWNT is one of the most-watched teams in the world, on-and-off the pitch.

While she felt more like someone achieving a life goal when she first became a pro, the simultaneous life under a microscope and on a platform has inspired her to take advantage of her role model status.

“You come to realize that with the success that we have had, individually and with the national team, you do influence people,” O’Hara said. “You have an impact. You have this ability to be a role model and do good things in the world. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this podcast; I have the ability to lend my platform to other athletes and give people a voice and a space.”

O’Hara was speaking as the National Women’s Soccer League put a bow on its return to the pitch with the NWSL Challenge Cup.

O’Hara’s Utah Royals fell to eventual champions Houston Dash in the quarterfinals, but the completion of the tournament in itself was a bright spot to a dark summer.

“I’m really proud about what the NWSL was able to create there,” O’Hara said. “There was a lot of uncertainty around the Challenge Cup because of COVID, but the fact that the NWSL was able to create an environment to get back on the field has been fantastic. Obviously you have Orlando that wasn’t able to come but since every team has arrived, not one player has tested positive so the NWSL deserves a lot of credit for designing this whole set-up.”

PST asked the 32-year-old how much credit should go to the players, considering how many other leagues have been thwarted by the negligence of athletes or staffers around COVID-19.

“When the NWSL was proposing everything, they told us it was built on trust. If players weren’t going to be responsible, it wasn’t going to work. It’s great that we all want to be competing, I feel we’re very lucky to be able to compete, but that’s contributed to people following the rules. You didn’t want to be the one person who ruins it.”

Learn more about the Just Women’s Sports crew, which includes Olympic heroes Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Hilary Knight, and Maggie Steffens as well as former WNBA No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike, at their official web site.

Champions League favorites ranked from eight to one

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Eight teams remain in the UEFA Champions League’s rapid-fire return, with one-legged ties promising high drama in Portugal.

The quarterfinals begin Wednesday, the bracket distinctly split into one deadly half and another with upset potential.

Because of this set-up, there’s a massive challenge in divining the true favorites to win the Aug. 23 in Lisbon.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

If you were assembling a bottom-up power rankings in terms of the talent and toughness assembled by the eight remaining clubs, it might look something like this:

Longshots: Atalanta, Lyon
Puncher’s chance: Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig
History-weighted powers: Man City, Paris Saint-Germain
Favorites: Barcelona, Bayern Munich

Here’s the rub: Three of the four biggest favorites will have to get through each other to get to the final, including the two top dogs. Barcelona and Bayern Munich will scrap Friday, and Man City’s slight advantage in facing Lyon is mitigated by one day’s less rest for a Bayern-Barca winner.

[ MORE: Man Utd – Copenhagen preview ]

Man City is the bookies’ favorites to win the whole thing. Do we see it that way? Spoiler alert: Nope.

And, by the way, despite changes to both outfits this is a Lyon that took four of six points from City in the 2018-19 UCL group stage. We don’t see an upset at that stage but it’s a way to note that anything is, indeed, possible.


8. Lyon

Seventh-place in Ligue 1 this season, Rudi Garcia’s men already have the beating of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus on their resume. Moussa Dembele, Houssem Aouar, and Memphis Depay are all exciting attacking talents, but the bracket’s demands to take down Man City, then either Bayern and Barcelona just to get to the final sinks them to eighth.

7. RB Leipzig

Julian Nagelsmann is building a reputation as a man who can outwit anyone in a one-off — see two draws with Bayern in Bundesliga play this season — so it’s fitting that he’ll go tete-a-tete with Simeone in the next round. The absence of Timo Werner, who’s off to Chelsea, is a huge problem given the occasion(s). Asking three wins seems a lot, though there will be plenty of Americans pulling for Tyler Adams’ team.

Bayern Munich v. RB Leipzig recap and video highlights
09 February 2020, Bavaria, Munich: American midfielder Tyler Adams duels with Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski. (Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images)

6. Atalanta

The Bergamo-based side will have the support of many neutrals. For one thing, Atalanta is on a historic run for their club before taking into account their city’s status as one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus. For another, they are super fun. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men scored 98 goals in Serie A, 19 more than next-best Lazio, and lost the second-fewest games in Italy. They’ve lost once since January 25, a final day defeat to Inter Milan. Five players have scored double-digit goals in all comps this season.

5. Atletico Madrid

Ask Liverpool: Diego Simeone and Jan Oblak in knockout round football is reason to doubt anyone. Still, there’s an argument to be made that Atleti has punched well above its weight this season, even relative to El Cholo’s standards.

4. Barcelona

Lionel Messi means the club should be even higher on this list, and Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez are plenty battle-hardened in this spot. But Barca has made a mess of their last few ventures into the latter rounds of this tournament, and those ghosts combined with having to beat Bayern and perhaps Man City in consecutive weeks is brutal with several u’s.

Messi new contract
SEVILLA, SPAIN – JUNE 19: He’s good (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

3. Paris Saint-Germain

There’s a good argument to be made that PSG might hold the top spot on this list. Thomas Tuchel’s men are better rested and have a more straight-forward path to Lisbon, plus the Ligue 1 champs have played and won two Cup finals in the past three weeks. There are two reasons we’re keeping them below Man City and Bayern. One is the UCL-challenged history that has us as well as surely them seeing ghosts, and the other is the uncertain status of Kylian Mbappe. He’s in the squad, but at what percent?

2. Manchester City

The reason to consider putting City above Bayern is the men in charge. Hansi Flick has done oh-so-well at Bayern but is certainly not Pep Guardiola in terms of big-game acumen or reputation. But City’s defense has proven suspect, with John Stones falling off a cliff and Nicolas Otamendi not at the levels of previous seasons. Relying on Fernandinho, Aymeric Laporte, and Eric Garcia to shut down three top attacks in two weeks is a big ask, and left back is also a huge concern with the talented wingers set to test City.

1. Bayern Munich

No weaknesses aside from potentially having to beat Barcelona and Man City inside of six days. Boasting one of the only double-double men in Europe’s top leagues in Serge Gnabry, a played who doesn’t get mentioned as often as history-chasing Robert Lewandowski and history-making Thomas Muller. A midfield duo of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich which is just plain stupid. Speed and composure to spare with Manuel Neuer at the back. The German keeper may no longer be the undoubted 1 or 2 in the world, but he’s still a monster.