How things stand in UEFA Champions League after first legs of knockout games

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The half time whistle has blown in the first knockout round of this season’s UEFA Champions League.

Some teams take resounding leads into their second leg matchups, a few games are balanced delicately and plenty of sides have a mountain to climb to reach the last eight of Europe’s elite club competition.

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After two weeks and four matchdays, we now have a much clearer picture of which teams will make a deep run towards the UCL final in Lisbon on May 24.

Let’s see how these first legs played out and which teams have the upper-hand to advance to the quarterfinals.

Paris Saint-Germain vs. Bayer Leverkusen

This tie is all but over, as PSG’s star-studded forwards tore Leverkusen apart. Zlatan Ibrahimovic banged in two goals, including an absolute scorcher, as Laurent Blanc’s side look set for a deep run in the UCL. Can they go one better than the quarterfinal stage they reached last season? You bet. Plucky Leverkusen have done well to get this far as Sami Hyppia’s side have had their defensive weaknesses badly exposed throughout the entire tournament. If they grab an early goal in Paris they may have a chance, but PSG look a real force to be reckoned with.

First Leg: Bayer Leverkusen 0-4 Paris Saint-Germain

Second Leg: March 12, Parc des Princes, Paris

FC Barcelona vs. Manchester City

Poor old Man City. Just when they were looking good after a solid first half at home against Barcelona, wham! Martin Demchelis threw a spanner of epic proportions in the works. A combination of his slack tracking and a great run from Lionel Messi saw Demichelis take him out, handed a red card but a penalty was harshly awarded as the foul looked to be outside the box. Dani Alves’ late goal sealed Barca’s 2-0 win, as City battled hard with 10-men but one lapse cost them. Manager Manuel Pellegrini reacted angrily to the defeat and the refereeing decisions but his side were outplayed in the end. City now have to win 3-0 at the Nou Camp in the second leg, a daunting task, but with Sergio Aguero back fit and Barca dropping more points in La Liga, it isn’t out of the question that City can push this thing into extratime. A tall order but City are certainly capable of banging in the goals.

First Leg: Manchester City 0-2 Barcelona

Second Leg: March 12, Camp Nou, Barcelona

Atletico Madrid vs. AC Milan

The first leg was tight and tense affair at the San Siro, as red-hot Diego Costa was the difference between the two sides after the Atletico striker scored late on to hand Madrid a vital 1-0 win. Neither teams forced the issue in a slightly timid affair, but with Diego Simeone’s Atletico fighting for the Spanish title and brimming with confidence, it’s hard to bet against them at home. Clarence Seedorf is slowly rebuilding his AC Milan side and they have nothing to lose in the second leg so they might as well go for it. Plus, they have Mario Balotteli so they have a chance. Will we see the famous “why always me?” shirt make a celebratory appearance at Vicente Calderon when Milan come to town? The Italian international is capable of the spectacular and that’s exactly what AC need to advance. Expect another tight game, with Milan not ready to buckle just yet. First goal is crucial in the second leg.

First Leg: AC Milan 0-1 Atletico Madrid

Second Leg: March 11, Vicente Calderon, Madrid

source: Reuters
Down and out? Arsenal’s luckless first leg vs. Bayern has Wenger’s men on the brink of elimination.

Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal

I was at the Emirates Stadium for this clash, and I’ve never heard this stadium so loud after Arsenal’s swashbuckling start against reigning European champions Bayern. A crescendo of noise flooded down from the terraces and the Gunners stormed forward again and again in the opening minutes. That attacking panache resulted in a penalty being awarded, which Mesut Ozil won after being fouled. But the Germain international missed the resulting PK and the Emirates was suddenly as flat as a pancake. Soon after things got even worse, as Arsenal ‘keeper Szczesny came flying out of his goal and brought down Arjen Robben. Red card. Penalty kick. Damn. Although David Alaba missed the spot kick, Bayern bagged a tremendous goal from Toni Kroos after 60 minutes and then a stoppage time clincher from Thomas Mueller made it 2-0. Arsenal deserved better but the breaks went against them. The Gunners went to Bayern and won 2-0 in the second leg of their last 16 match last season… they will have to do that again just to keep it alive. I fear for Arsene Wenger’s men at the Allianz Arena, Pep Guardiola’s Munich side look like a monumental machine ready to stroll to a repeat.

First Leg: Arsenal 0-2 Bayern Munich

Second Leg: March 11, Allianz Arena, Munich

Borussia Dortmund vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg

A topsy-turvy game in Russia saw the away side dispatch Zenit clinically. Borussia Dortmund, last season’s runners-up, were 2-0 up inside five minutes after being gifted two goals. Then Zenit fought back and made it 2-1 before Robert Lewandowski scored to make it 3-1, but then Zenit came back again to make it 3-2 before another lapse cost them dear as Lewnadowski made it 4-2 and advantage Dortmund. Zenit only gained six points in the UCL group stages but somehow made it through to the knockout stages, on this performance you could see why. If BVB are up to their best in front of their passionate fans at a hostile Westfalenstadion in March, this has the potential to get embarrassing for Zenit. Can Jurgen Klopp lead his injury-ravaged side to another Champions League final? I don’t think many teams would want to draw them in the quarters, assuming they get through….

First Leg: Zenit Saint Petersburg 2-4 Borussia Dortmund

Second Leg: March 19, BVB Stadion, Dortmund

source: Getty Images
David Moyes’ United side have a mountain to climb after being torn apart by Olympiakos.

Manchester United vs. Olympiakos

Okay, wasn’t this readjustment period supposed to be over by now? Manchester United lost to a Greek side in the UCL for the first-ever time as Olympiakos completed their first-ever win over the Red Devils. United looked afraid, lacking in confidence and unable to make possession count for any meaningful efforts on goal in a shocking display. David Moyes called it “their worst performance in Europe” and he hit the nail on the head. Puzzling team selections like bringing in Tom Cleverley and leaving out Adnan Januzaj have been scrutinized, but something you don’t need to debate is that Olympiakos deserved the victory. United can still turn this around at Old Trafford in what promises to be another enthralling night of European soccer at the “Theater of Dreams.” Olympiakos have lost all 11 games they’ve played away to English opposition, which bodes well. But if Moyes’ United don’t overturn this 2-0 deficit in two week’s time, Old Trafford will turn into the “Theater of Screams” and it could be adios, Mr. Moyes.

First Leg: Olympiakos 2-0 Manchester United

Second Leg: March 19, Old Trafford, Manchester

Chelsea vs. Galatasaray

Chelsea started the game well in the hostile atmosphere in Istanbul as Fernando Torres scored in the opening 10 minutes, and the Blues looked to be on their way to a superb away win. However in the second half Galatasaray rallied and an equalizer from Aurelien Chedjou saw the home side take the game to Chelsea and almost bag a winner. Chelsea will see this result as a good one away in Turkey, as the tie is evenly poised ahead of the return leg at Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho will be happy with the draw but also wary that Galatasaray’s stars and Mourinho’s former players, Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba, could come back to haunt him. This tie is not over by a long way but with Chelsea grabbing a vital away goal, they have a slight advantage.

First Leg: Galatasaray 1-1 Chelsea

Second Leg: March 18, Stamford Bridge, London

source: AP
Will Ronaldo win his first-ever Champions League title with Real Madrid this season?

Real Madrid vs. FC Schalke

Here we saw the team many are tipping to lift the Champions League crown in May, as Real obliterated Schalke 6-1 after Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo all scored two each. When you have three attackers of that quality in your team, there’s no way you aren’t going to punish teams for slack defending. That’s exactly what Real did and in the second leg at home this could get ugly for Bundesliga outfit Schalke. They did get a late consolation goal, and an absolute stunner at that, via former Real striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar but you fear for them at the Santiago Bernabeu. The dream final on everyone’s lips is Real Madrd vs. Bayern Munich. The former are one step closer to that, as they’re already through to the last eight… baring a miraculous comeback from Schalke.

First Leg: Schalke 1-6 Real Madrid

Second Leg: March 18, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

Report: Croatia’s Kalinic sent home from World Cup

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It’s only been five days, and we have our first World Cup dismissal.

According to a bombshell report out of Croatia, Croatia National Team head coach Zlatko Dalic has sent home striker Nikola Kalinic from the team’s camp, after the AC Milan player reportedly refused to be a substitute during Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria.

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The report states that Kalinic refused to come on due to an injury, but Dalic had said recently that his team had no injuries that would keep players out, potentially meaning that Kalinic used the injury claim as an excuse.

Croatia’s FA is expected to confirm the news on Monday.

After a rough season at AC Milan, with just six league goals in 31 Serie A appearances, Kalinic, at 30, is likely finished with the Vatreni. He scored three goals in World Cup qualifying but hasn’t started for Croatia since a 2-0 win over Peru in March. Kalinic did score against Spain in Croatia’s shock 2-1 win exactly two years prior to Saturday’s match.

He was deemed second choice to Mario Mandzukic as the center forward up top, but was reportedly asked to spell Mandzukic during Croatia’s match against Nigeria, and Kalinic reportedly refused.

If true, Croatia will continue with 22 players for the remainder of the tournament.

VAR, Granqvist penalty lead Sweden over South Korea

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On Day 5 of the World Cup, VAR took center stage once again.

Referee Joel Aguilar of El Salvador made the trek over to the video monitor in the 63rd minute after a no-call on a South Korea challenge in its own box, eventually reversing his decision and giving Sweden a penalty kick. Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist stepped up and sent his side in front before holding on for a 1-0 victory over South Korea on Monday morning in Nizhny Novgorod.

With the win, Sweden is joint top of Group F with Mexico on three points.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The key moment in the match took place in the 62nd minute, as Sweden’s Viktor Claesson got his foot on a loose ball first before South Korea’s Kim Min-woo went through Claesson to clear the ball away.

Aguilar initially waved the penalty claim away, but after about 20 seconds and a word from his assistant referees in his ear, Aguilar made the sign for VAR and ran over to take a second look. Around 20-30 seconds later, Aguilar reversed his decision, awarding the Swedes a penalty.

Granqvist, who plays his club football for FC Krasnodar in Russia, stepped up to the spot and with veteran poise, sent Cho Hyun-woo the wrong way for the 1-0 lead.

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Sweden had chances in the first half to get on the board. Marcus Berg was alone on goal in the 20th minute but Hyun-woo stuck out a leg and deflected it away. Another chance from Berg led to another save from Hyun-woo as he kept South Korea in the match.

Following Sweden’s goal, Sweden sat deep and allowed Heung-Min Son to find space on the wings, where South Korea set up numerous half-chances. But the final pass was just missing, and Sweden was able to clear the ball out of the box on numerous occasions, holding on to victory.

It’s a big win for Sweden, which will face an angry and pumped up Germany side coming off a loss in its first match. Meanwhile, South Korea looks to rebound against Mexico, with its spirits higher than the clouds.

It’s confirmed: Club Leon parts ways with Landon Donovan

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Landon Donovan’s four-month adventure in Mexico appears to be over.

Club Leon announced on Sunday that it had parted ways with Donovan, despite the 36-year-old having a contract through the end of the calendar year. Donovan made just eight appearances for Leon, with just one start, and failed to score or assist on a goal as Leon slumped to 13th place in the Clausura season.

[READ: England squad reconnects with fans]

“…both parties have decided not to (keep the contract) for the Clausura that united us,” Leon said in a statement. “The departure of Landon from our team has been exemplary in all aspects. The club loses a legendary professional from the world of sports that leaves an indelible institutional imprint.”

It’s unclear what’s next for Donovan, but he stated in an interview with PST’s Matt Reed that he intends to continue playing in Mexico.

Donovan recently drew the ire of U.S. Men’s National Team fans and Donovan’s former teammates when he revealed he was rooting for Mexico at the World Cup this summer as part of a Well’s Fargo campaign.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.