The discussion’s inevitable, but World Cup playoff routs don’t change the allocation debate

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The mistake here is assuming the World Cup is supposed to feature the world’s 32 best teams. It’s more complicated than that. The desire to give those spots to the most competitive teams has to be balanced against making the competition truly representative. There’s no point of having a ‘World’ Cup if you stack the tournament with European teams.

We’re already at that point. Thirteen spots for UEFA is ridiculous. Sure, a team like Slovenia (in 2010) was probably among the top 32 teams in the world, but within their own region, they’d showed no real ability to compete with the top teams. Not viable competitively and not crucial to the representation of their confederation, Slovenia’s inclusion at the World Cup was superfluous. Giving that spot to a nation in Asia, Africa, or Central America ould have done more to grow the game.

It’s important not to lose sight of that when analyzing today’s routs, particularly since we’re likely to hear a number of people use the results to argue against a more inclusive World Cup. Just at that divide, they’ll note, hinting places like Asia (and by inference, any other region under-represented at World Cups) shouldn’t get more of Europe’s share.

But did we need a game in Amman to tell us the defending South American champions are years ahead of a team that’s never qualified for World Cup? Or a soccer power like Mexico is on another level than New Zealand? No. We knew that before kickoff. Nothing’s changed as a result of today’s blowouts.

If anything, today’s games reminded us of how strange these playoffs are. If you want Asia to get more teams in the World Cup, just give them another spot. Same with Africa and CONCACAF. If we agree places at the World Cup can help grow the game — bringing attention to a sport that may be struggling to gain a greater foothold in some nations — take some spots away from Europe and just give them to the “developing” regions. Don’t force the likes of Jordan and New Zealand to have to knock off relative powers like Uruguay and Mexico to earn their spots. And in the process, make the Uruguays and Mexicos of the world to prove their worth in qualifying. Remove their net.

If it’s not politically viable to take spots from Europe, then cue Michel Platini’s 40-team World Cup. Or perhaps decide we care too much about growing the game, not enough about making the World Cup the most competitive tournament it can be, even if that attitude would have never allowed the competition to grow to the point it’s at now. Where would teams from Africa, Asia, North America and the Caribbean be in a world where World Cup spots were only tied to competitiveness?

Yet when somebody complains about the scoreline to today’s playoffs, that will be the subtext. Neither Jordan nor New Zealand are up to snuff, further evidence that redistributing World Cup spots or expanding the tournament is a bad idea.

But World Cup spots aren’t about results alone. If there’s any complaint to be had about today’s playoffs, it’s that they were played at all. We don’t need to see if Mexico and Uruguay are better than still-developing soccer cultures. We need to do more to help those soccer cultures develop.

Ex-Arsenal man Gnabry: “London’s still red” after Bayern beats Chelsea

Serge Gnabry
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Ex-Arsenal man Serge Gnabry still has love for the club.

Gnabry tweeted that “London is still red” after he scored twice for Bayern Munich in a 3-0 beating of Chelsea on Tuesday in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

This after scoring four times against Spurs in a previous Champions League group stage match and Tweeting that “North London is Red.”

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So what’s with the London form?

“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” Gnabry said after the game. “A lot of them were in the stands tonight, and it seems they give me a lot of good power.”

Gnabry only scored once during his time in England with Arsenal and West Brom but is a bona fide star in the Bundesliga.

With a three-goal advantage over Chelsea heading to Munich for a second leg, however, he’s not got his head in the clouds.

“Three goals ahead gives us a little bit of confidence, but we need to be prepared for the second leg. We can’t take it not seriously enough. … We’ve seen it last year with Liverpool beating Barcelona, so we have to be careful. We have to go into the second leg with all of our focus.”

Gnabry now has 51 goals and 29 assists in four seasons since returning to Germany from Arsenal. Not terrible production for a player the Gunners offloaded to Werder Bremen for under $6 million in 2016.

What color will London be when Chelsea buys him next year? We kid, we kid…

Champions League preview: Real Madrid renews rivalry with Pep; Lyon hosts Juve

UEFA Champions League preview
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The final two ties of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 begin Wednesday when Manchester City and Juventus head to Spain and France.

The focus for many will be on the former, as City continues to weather UEFA drama while its manager prepares for his fiercest foe as a player and manager.

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Pep Guardiola has managed against Real Madrid 17 times and boasts a 9-4-4 record between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The Catalan wizard has lost his last three versus Real, two with Bayern and once in his final El Clasico as Barca boss.

Even as Guardiola stresses preparation and plan, he knows there will be bounces and that both teams will have to cope with them.

“We have to be strong, have quality and need to have luck,” he said, via The Manchester Evening News. “At this stage, it’s important but we cannot control that. We can control what we can control and we will see. This competition, last season, against Liverpool, there are decisions. You have to overcome. You need incredible concentration in our game and game plan plus try to be a little lucky.”

Real Madrid living legend Sergio Ramos has earned the ire of Guardiola on plenty of occasions, one of the few things Liverpool and City fans have in common.

Ramos wouldn’t get drawn into rivalry talk, sying the stage somewhat negates the opponent.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Ramos said via the club’s web site. “I think he’s a fantastic coach, with loads of experience, and his numbers speak for themselves. We’re motivated by the Champions League, regardless of the players or coaches who may have been rivals in the past. We’re up for the Champions League and our next task is to beat City. From a personal point of view, I’m just focused on making the next round.”

[ MORE: Key battles for Real-Man City ]

Wednesday’s other match sees a club long linked with Guardiola, as Juventus will play the role of heavy favorites against Lyon.

Maurizio Sarri‘s side is to bidding to win what’s eluded all Juve bosses since Marcello Lippi beat Ajax in 1996. If they succeed, it will be by going down a different path than it’s traveled in recent years.

Here’s Leonardo Bonucci, via Football-Italia:

“What the coach asks of us now is basically the opposite of what the previous coach did,” Bonucci mused. “It was usually individual against individual, now it’s more about organized team movements. Obviously, you need to train consistently to get that down and playing every three days makes it difficult. But we started this journey well aware of the positives it could bring and the difficulties of getting there.”

Lyon has been maddeningly inconsistent this season, sitting seventh in the Ligue 1 table, but has the tools to surprise if Juve doesn’t bring its best. That starts in France on Wednesday.

Lampard: Chelsea first leg loss ‘quite sobering,’ ‘harsh lesson’

Frank Lampard
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Chelsea manager Frank Lampard isn’t sugarcoating his side’s 3-0 first-leg loss to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on Tuesday.

“Sometimes you have to be brutally honest about it,” he said in televised remarks after the loss. “It’s quite sobering.”

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Lampard admitted that Bayern was firing on all cylinders at Stamford Bridge, and proffered tepid support for the idea of an unlikely comeback in Germany next month.

“The level of team they showed that they are, hence why they challenge in the Bundesliga and the Champions League,” he said, via Football.London. “I’m disappointed we couldn’t do better against them. It’s a reality check. Don’t look at anyone else apart from yourself.”

“We should never say the door is closed because our fans would never accept that. I’m more concerned with the bigger picture here. There’s a lot to be done.”

Sure is.

Chelsea leads fifth-place Manchester United by three points in the top four race and has a four-point edge on sixth-place Spurs in the scenario that fifth is enough for Champions League football.

That’s important because the UCL path back to the tournament looks like a massive ask. And Lampard said the players need to use Tuesday’s blowout loss at home “as a positive effect” moving forward.

But he also put it pretty plainly during his post-match comments.

“It was a harsh lesson,” Lampard said. “This is Champions League football.”

Griezmann gives Barcelona first leg draw with Napoli (video)

Napoli v. Barcelona recap and video highlights
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Antoine Griezmann scored in the second half to earn Barcelona a 1-1 draw with Napoli in a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg at the San Paulo Stadium on Tuesday.

Dries Mertens scored a beautiful opener for Napoli, who heads to the Camp Nou for a March 18 second leg.

Arturo Vidal was sent off in the 89th minute for a second yellow card, and Sergio Busquets picked up a yellow which will cost him the second leg.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Gennaro Gattuso’s plan was to limit Barcelona’s shots, and it worked well in the first half.

Mertens got his goal on one of only five shots in the half, the only two on target coming via Napoli.

How a tale can turn on a moment, though, as Nelson Semedo set up Griezmann’s second-half marker to give Barca a useful away goal.

Barca was much better in the second half but could not find a second away goal.

Here’s the goal of the day, and it belongs to Mertens.