Hulk goal, Zenit win can’t keep Borussia Dortmund from Champions League’s quarterfinals

Leave a comment

Despite some early theatrics from Hulk, Borussia Dortmund is in to its second consecutive UEFA Champions League quarterfinal. Though the Zenit attacker’s early, long distance goal combined with Salomón Rondon’s late winner to give the Russians a second leg victory, Sebastian Kehl’s late first half goal ensured the hosts overall lead was never in doubt. Combined with their victory three weeks ago in St. Petersburg, last year’s Bundesliga runners-up move into Europe’s final eight with a 5-4 (agg.) victory.

With a bending strike from 30 yards out, Hulk opened the scoring in the 16th minute, reducing the hosts’ overall lead to one goal. Kehl answered seven minutes before halftime with a header from six yards out, a goal that was offset in the 73rd  when substitute Salomón Rondón headed home a bouncing cross from close range.

Despited an energized pursuit, Zenit were unable to find another goal, leaving it two short of the club’s first visit to Champions League’s quarterfinals. Dortmund, on the other hand, make their sixth appearance in the final eight, though thanks to a first half yellow card, the team will be without one of their most important pieces for the first game of its quarterfinal.

A first quarter-hour’s impression of a fluid if dispirited game was awaken with a crack when Hulk supplied one of the goals of the tournament. Receiving the ball high on the right flank, the Brazilian international cut an arc today the middle of the field, a run that left him around 30 yards from goal. There the Zenit attacker released a bending shot that curved into the thin column Roman Weidenfeller left between himself and his right post. From a seemingly safe distance, Hulk reminded fans of the danger he carries in his left foot, seeing the visitors to a 1-0 lead.

(MORE: WATCH: This ridiculous bender from Hulk opened today’s scoring in Dortmund)

Shortly after falling behind, BVB saw Robert Lewandowski, who had a four-goal game in last year’s semifinals, draw a yellow card after a confrontation in the Zenit penalty area. Combined with the caution the Bayern-bound striker carried over from group stage, Lewandowski will now miss the first game of BVB’s quarterfinal.

In the 38th minute, Borussia Dortmund restored their two-goal (agg.) edge. Moving swiftly into an attack down Zenit’s right, BVB saw left back Marcel Schmelzer loft a cross toward the middle of Vyacheslav Malafeev’s area. The floating ball allowed midfielder Sebastian Kehl to run into the pass at the edge of the six-yard box, jumping over a Zenit defender to head through Malafeev’s hands. With their captain’s first goal of the tournament, Dortmund restored their lead, 5-3 (agg.).

After an even first 25 minutes to the second, Zenit again closed the gap. On a cross sent in from the left by Domenico Criscito, Rondón beat Sokratis Papastathopoulos to a bouncing ball at the edge of the six, heading his shot down and to Weidenfeller’s left for the game’s third score. With 17 minutes left, down 5-4 overall, Zenit were two goals away from the quarterfinals.

(MORE: Van Persie treble hands Manchester United incredible Champions League comeback win over Olympiakos)

But against a renewed, spirited pursuit, Borussia Dortmund dug in. While Zenit’s energy caused a few moments of drama, the Russians were never able to equalize, let alone threaten to overturn BVB’s away goals edge.

Out-shot and outlasted, Zenit was forced to settle for a moral victory, their 2-1 result carried it into a new era under André Villas-Boas, one that will begin outside of Champions League’s quarterfinals.

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

Getty Images
2 Comments

In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

Leave a comment

Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.