What we learned as Real Salt Lake eliminated two-time MLS defending champion LA Galaxy

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  • A night where wind-swept restarts told the story

Sometimes it is just about adjusting to the night. We can talk about tactics and combinations and strategic matchups all we want, but sometimes it’s just about drawing up plays in the dirt, figuring things out on the fly, sorting out what may work on that given occasion.

To wit: So much of Thursday’s night at Rio Tinto Stadium was about wind-swept restarts, about exploiting a weird weather night.

The swirling wind inside Real Salt Lake’s high-altitude ground was turning every restart into an adventure. So many of LA’s corner kicks were dropping dangerously, and then Real Salt Lake gave their fans so very much to talk about with two dead eye deliveries.

Both came off the right foot of Javier Morales, the first leading to that curiously nullified goal. The second decided this series when Chris Schuler made a looping run to the far past and stuck out that long right leg.

(MORE: RSL Man of the Match, Javier Morales)

  • RSL’s diamond is the way to go. Clearly

RSL manager Jason Kreis issued his mea culpas and put his team back into a comfortable shape.

Kreis had dumped his team’s trademark diamond midfield for the first leg in Los Angeles, favoring a 4-2-3-1 instead. It didn’t work. He said so. And RSL was the better for it Thursday.

Kyle Beckerman was the best man on the field over the first 45 minutes. His influence waned slightly in the second half, but he and Morales were still the far better central midfield pairing. Even without the injured Ned Grabavoy, RSL’s entire midfield was head-and-shoulders better than Los Angeles’ foursome.

What Beckerman, Morales, Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez did particularly well out of their familiar shape was shut down the passing lanes into Robbie Keane. Landon Donovan found the ball in space here and there, as did Robbie Rogers on the flank. And the Galaxy did manage to look semi-dangerous on the counter … but clearly not quite enough.

  • Robbie Rogers was a bust

Robbie Rogers probably had one of his better matches in a Galaxy shirt – and yet we have to say it: the big June talker of a trade, in the end, was a bust for Los Angeles.

There’s still time for some of that “upside” that LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena has talked about. Indeed, Rogers could once again return to the speedy influence along the flanks that he was a few years ago in Columbus. But the chances of that guy returning seem to dim with every average performance. And if it does happen, it will be 2014, we know now.

Thursday, Rogers did give the Galaxy a little something, first from the right and then from the left after intermission. With RSL so dedicated to shutting off the passing lanes into Keane, Rogers did find some room to exploit on the wings.

(So did Gyasi Zardes on the opposite side, but the Galaxy rookie looked a little too much like an overwhelmed rookie in this one, rarely finding ways to influence.)

But his crosses were somewhat aimless or ill considered, so Rogers finishes his first season as a Galaxy man without ever really having made a mark.

  • Alvaro Saborio injury concern

RSL’s Costa Rican striker didn’t score in the series, but he certainly came close Thursday, and he always demands a bunch of attention.

Saborio put one sharp header off the cross bar, and not long after banged a fierce shot off the far post from 20 yards.

Not long after that, however, RSL’s leading scorer limped off, having apparently aggravated a problematic hip flexor. It left his team a man short over the final 10 minutes, which the Utah side obviously survived. But it could mean Saborio missing this weekend’s opening leg of the conference final against Portland. And that will hurt.

Defensive mistake make the difference – even the little ones

There were no huge blunders like we saw Wednesday in New York, but defensive mistakes were telling Thursday. Even a smaller one, the kind we saw on Real Salt Lake’s first goal.

Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant was close to RSL midfielder Sebastian Velasquez at the far post as a ball swung out left. But the slippery little midfielder looped inside, closer to Galaxy center back Kofi Opare, who was already marking an RSL forward. When Dunivant and Opare didn’t clearly communicate a switch (or when Dunivant didn’t track Velasquez going into the middle), the RSL man was free to head home 10 minute before intermission.

  • RSL center backs stand tall once again

LA Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez gets the ink, but RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler are as big a reason as any that the Utah club is going through while Los Angeles regroups for 2014.

When the Galaxy did find its way through RSL’s well-organized midfield, the defensive commitment in snuffing out shots was ferocious, and so much of that was Borchers and Schuler.

Borchers won a game-high 85.7 percent of his duals, according to Opta, and his smart positioning kept the faster Landon Donovan and Keane from every getting in behind the back line.

And Schuler got the series-winning goal at the other end, committing himself to a far-post run rewarded in a massive way for finishing the run.

Report: Pep Guardiola affirms commitment to Man City

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According to a report by Sky Sports journalist Kaveh Solhekol, Pep Guardiola has met with the Man City players as a squad and affirmed his commitment to the club despite future uncertainty thanks to Financial Fair Play sanctions handed down by UEFA on Saturday.

For FFP violations, the club was banned from the Champions League for two years and handed a hefty fine, but the punishments will not be certain until after Man City’s appeal of the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. There are even still questions about whether the club’s status in Premier League play could be affected.

[ MORE: Man City punished | Key takeaways, questions ]

Plenty of clouds hover over Man City’s future, and one of them is the standing of manager Pep Guardiola who could theoretically decide to leave if the club’s Champions League ban remains intact after appeal. Guardiola’s contract expires in the summer of 2021, leaving room for movement.

The Spaniard reportedly met with players and told them, “Whatever league we are in, I will still be here. Even if they put us in League Two, I will still be here. This is a time for sticking together.” Club CEO Ferran Soriano went one step further, assuring this would all blow over and that the appeal will be successful. “Trust me like I trust you, this will be dropped,” Soriano reportedly said.

To follow Solhekol’s report, BBC journalist Simon Stone also reported that Guardiola is telling his close confidants that he will remain committed to the club.

The aim is likely to convince players to stick with the club despite any future sanctions, but the message could still be received as a mixed message. At 49 years old, Guardiola is already one of the world’s most heralded managers, and two years leading a cash-infused club like Man City outside Europe’s greatest competition could be easy to swallow. For top players who typically see a solid career last 10-14 years, two prime seasons outside of Champions League play could be viewed as an enormous missed opportunity.

[ MORE: Mikel Arteta talks Man City ban ]

Players like Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, and Fernandinho will be entering the last years of their Manchester City contracts next season. Meanwhile, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and John Stones all have contracts that expire no later than the summer of 2023 and could look to continue for a way out to maintain Champions League experience through the primes of their careers.

UCL Tuesday preview: Liverpool visits Atletico, Dortmund hosts PSG

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After what feels like AGES, the Champions League is back, and the opening pair of first-leg fixtures could be potential classics.

Knockout stage play begins on Tuesday in the Round of 16 as reigning title-winners Liverpool visit Atletico Madrid while Borussia Dortmund hosts Paris Saint-Germain, as both matchups are dripping with possible fireworks.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

For both Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, the Champions League games are the most important remaining fixtures left on the schedule, but for very different reasons. The Reds are 25 points clear atop the Premier League table, and while the players will never admit it, the top flight is all but won and the true focus now shifts to defending its European crown. For Atleti who sit 13 points behind Barcelona in the La Liga table, are out of the Copa del Rey, and continue to struggle creating chances, the Champions League appears to be Diego Simeone’s last stand in what is otherwise a lost season.

To make matters worse for the Mattress Makers, there are reports that teenage sensation Joao Felix will be unavailable for the match due to illness, leaving the hosts already a step behind at the Wanda Metripolitano. The 20-year-old has been underwhelming in his first season after becoming the Atletico Madrid record signing at $147 million, but the heavy attacking weight on his shoulders hasn’t helped and his presence will nonetheless still be sorely missed.

Atletico has scored just 25 league goals this season, good for joint-12th in the league, on an expected goals tally of around 37. In comparison, Liverpool has blitzed the Premier League with 61 goals on an xG of 59.3. Atletico’s defense has been its usual stellar self, just 17 goals all year long in La Liga play, but they have made a habit of conceding goals at the worst possible times and have struggled to pick up the slack of a slumping attack.

[ MORE: Former PSG attacker Weah injured again ]

Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain will bring its fully potent attack to Germany as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are in the squad to face Dortmund and expected to play. The pair had missed the weekend draw with Amiens in Ligue 1 play to get them ready for the Champions League, which PSG has publicly targeted for years as its coveted competition. Neymar’s inclusion is specifically of note for PSG as he had missed the last three league matches with a bruised rib.

The French side will need all its available firepower to counter a Dortmund attack that is white hot, with Jadon Sancho in electric form. Dating back to the return from the November international break, Sancho has scored in 11 of the club’s 14 games across all competitions. All three of the games Sancho did not score in, the club lost – two in Bundesliga play to Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen and one against Werder Bremen in the DFB-Pokal. However, Dortmund has also struggled mightily at the back, resulting in near-weekly shootouts to stay alive in the Bundesliga title race. Since a mid-December 3-3 draw with RB Leipzig, Dortmund has conceded three or more goals four times across all competitions.

Even PSG has been questionable at the back of late, failing to keep a clean sheet in three straight Ligue 1 matches including the draw with Amiens this weekend that required PSG to come from a 3-0 deficit. With all that attacking firepower and defensive frailties, the game at Westfalenstadion could be a barnburner.

Round of 16 Champions League schedule:

2/17 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atletico Madrid v. Liverpool
Borussia Dortmund v. Paris Saint-Germain

2/18 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atalanta v. Valencia
Tottenham Hotspur v. RB Leipzig

2/25 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Chelsea v. Bayern Munich
Napoli v. Barcelona

2/26 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Lyon v. Juventus
Real Madrid v. Manchester City

Report: Joao Felix unavailable against Liverpool

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Atletico Madrid is facing a defining moment of its 2019/20 season as Liverpool visits the Wanda Metripolitano on Tuesday in Champions League Round of 16 action. In such an important match, the Spanish side may be without one of its most creative attacker.

According to a report by Goal.com, Joao Felix will not be available as he has been struck down by tonsillitis, missing training on Monday. Felix has not played since picking up a muscle problem on January 26, and while he has mostly recovered from that injury, his unavailability for training means he is not able to fully prove fit to play, so between that and the illness itself, he has been ruled out.

The 20-year-old moved to Atletico Madrid this summer for a whopping $147 million, and while fans have had high hopes for the Portuguese youngster, he has flopped in his first season in Spain. Still, despite his struggles to carry the entire Atleti attack on his shoulders, Felix remains one of the club’s best attackers playing alongside true striker Alvaro Morata, and his presence will be missed in what is already an anemic attack.

Atleti is 13 points back of leaders Barcelona, sitting fourth in the La Liga table. The side is also out of the Copa del Rey, shocked in late January by third-tier side Cultural Leonesa. The Champions League is Diego Simeone’s last chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise struggle-filled season.

Atleti is also without midfielder Hector Herrera who is also suffering from an illness, while Kieran Trippier continues to recover from a groin injury.

Lacazette thanks Arteta, Arsenal teammates for support

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Alexandre Lacazette‘s 95th minute goal to finish off a 4-0 victory over Newcastle may seem meaningless, but to him it meant the world.

The 28-year-old Frenchman snapped a 10-match goalless streak across all competitions when he found the back of the net for the first time since a Champions League match on December 12. In total, Lacazette had been on the field for nearly 470 minutes without scoring before his goal in the final seconds against Newcastle.

“It has been really hard and complicated,” Lacazette said of his goal drought. “Sometimes I had some games with no chances, sometimes I missed or the goalkeeper saved it. Of course for a striker it is always hard to not score, but it happens in football. Hopefully it is the last time for me.”

However, Lacazette says both new manager Mikel Arteta and his teammates were supportive during the time he struggled to find the back of the net.

“He [Arteta] talked with me to give me confidence. I am really, really happy because I waited for this moment for a long time.  I am touched as well because of the way all my team-mates reacted when I scored that goal.  It means a lot to me and a lot for the spirit we have in the team. This is good.”

Arteta kept faith in Lacazette for much of his goal drought, starting in seven straight Premier League matches between late December and early February, but he was dropped for the Newcastle game for Eddie Nketiah, only coming on for the final five minutes when he found his moment. Lacazette confirmed that Arteta spoke to him about the match decision, saying “he explained it well” before pausing to say he cannot go into more details about the conversation.

Arsenal is on a six-game unbeaten streak in league play and eight overall, without losing since a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at the Emirates on December 29.