UEFA Champions League preview: Atlético Madrid, Chelsea kick off the semifinals

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Particularly compared to Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal, there’s a temptation to see Atlético Madrid and Chelsea as a pair of blunt objects – two teams who put on more pragmatic faces than Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Given the two sides’  talents, the temptation makes for a convenient but misleading contrast, even if the teams’ primary creators, Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Arda Turan (Atlético Madrid), could both miss out. The Blues, one of the world’s most expensive teams, will still have the likes of Willian, Oscar, and André Schürrle at their disposal, while Atleti have skilled talents like David Villa, Diego, and José Sosa to augment Spain’s second-leading scorer: Diego Costa.

At least, that’s the generous way to look at it. As Atlético head coach Diego Simeone pointed out in Monday’s pre-match press conference, the broader, reductive perception carries a kernel of truth. When Chelsea visits the Spanish leaders on Tuesday, two similar sides will begin vying for a place in next month’s Champions League final.

“We have the best defensive records in our respective leagues,” the Argentine boss explained. “We both have good defenses and play a direct attacking game. We’re both also good at set pieces. These characteristics have led to us each fighting for titles.”

After this weekend, one team’s fight is more vibrant than the others. With a 2-0 win over visiting Elche, Atlético remains on track for its first league title in 18 years. In England, however, Chelsea again slipped against one of the teams in the Premier League’s bottom half, its 2-1 loss to Sunderland taking the team’s title destiny out of its hands.

It was a performance that feeds into a quiet theory about the Blues, one that, if true, does not bode will for Chelsea’s chances against Atlético. Chelsea, the thinking goes, is most effective against teams that are willing to try to play through them, an approach that opens opponents up to a practically patented Mourinho counter. Against teams the Blues have to break down, however, a defense that is by far the best in England gets exposed, leading to upsets like the ones they’ve endured against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Newcastle.

source:  It’s a weakness that would play into Atleti’s hands, if Chelsea had to pursue them. But unlike league play, where the Blues need to collect full points from the circuit’s weaker sides, Chelsea doesn’t have to chase Atlético, particularly in Tuesday’s road leg. Instead, the former champions can be patient, force Atlético to try to break them down, and hope for their own opportunities to counter.

“No team arrives in a UEFA Champions League semifinal without being a very good team, and they are no exceptions,” Chelsea boss José Mourinho said on Monday. “To be here they have to be a very good team … (we) have studied and analysed them.”

If Atlético tries to press them, as they do all each opponent, Chelsea can just kick the ball away. We’re fine playing without possession. When Atlético retrieves it, the Blues can sit deep and be patient. If you’re not going to take chances, we’ll wait you out. If Atlético can’t create something independent of Chelsea mistakes, this matchup could be decided by set pieces. Or penalty kicks.

“This is a semifinal, and as such it will be a very tight match,” Simeone said. “It is a game that will be decided by very small details. Teamwork will be all-important in helping to bring out the individual qualities that can decide games. Whoever can do that best will be closer to winning the first leg.”

Maybe Costa, able to score when opponents aren’t gifting goals, can make Chelsea pay for that approach, but as the Blues showed while claiming Europe’s crown two years ago, 90 minutes of mistake-free soccer is not beyond their talents. And as Atleti showed through February’s slump, they’re not above making mistakes of their own.

Particularly in leg one, when Chelsea may look to limit damage on the road, the matchup’s main question will be laid center stage: Can Atlético break down Chelsea before Chelsea breaks on Atlético?

Subplots

source: AP1. Thibault Courtois will play for Atlético – Under contract to Chelsea, Courtois has spent the better part of two seasons with Atlético, where his loan stints have established the Belgian international as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. By the terms of the teams’ loan agreement, the 21-year-old shouldn’t be able to play, but after the teams were drawn against each other just over a week ago, UEFA quickly said it considered such a clause unenforceable.

Quietly, the Blues have agreed to let their goalkeeper play against them, and while Chelsea fans would rightly see that as unconscionable, the decision reveals a previously unspoken reality. After two years in Madrid, Courtois is more Atleti than Chelsea. His true employer seems more of a technicality than a reflection of his spirit. On Tuesday, Atlético’s keeper’s unlikely to play with mixed emotions.

2. Fernando Torres faces his original club – Even though his role with Chelsea continues to wane,  Torres matching up against his former team is important in the same way Didier Drogba facing his former club had meaning in the Round of 16.

Torres is a legitimate legend at Atlético, having come through the club’s youth ranks before spending parts of seven seasons with the first team. Even if he’s with the opposition, that he’s present while the club plays in its first semifinal in 40 years has emotional value. It will be strange to see him play against Atlético in such an important match at the Calderón.

source: Getty Images3. José back against Atlético – The last time Mourinho faced the Colchoneros was last year’s Copa del Rey final, with Atlético’s upset of Mourinho’s Real Madrid confirming a rare trophy-less season for the coach. Mourinho would go on to call 2012-13 the worst year of his career.

One year later, Atlético have another chance to leave Mourinho without silverware. Unless Chelsea can win at Anfield, they’ll be out of the Premier League title race, with next week’s second leg in London set to decide whether the Blues also bow out of Europe.

4. An unwilling semifinal specialist – Mourinho has made two Champions League finals, winning them both (2003-04 with Porto; 2009-10 with Inter Milan). Those triumphs have been the exceptions in Mourinho’s seven previous semifinal appearances, with the 51-year-old unable a final with either Chelsea or Real Madrid.

On Tuesday, Mourinho sets the record for most semifinal appearances by a manager: eight. If he can’t get past Atlético, however, six exits at the penultimate step start to look look like a stumbling block. Even if there’s a good reason for the exits — even if Mourinho may be getting quarterfinal-quality teams one found too far — he be seen as a kind of inverse specialist – somebody who hasn’t entirely solved the semifinals.

Durmaz condemns Sweden fans’ racist abuse after World Cup loss

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KRASNODAR, Russia (AP) — Sweden midfielder Jimmy Durmaz says the racist abuse aimed at him over social media following the 2-1 loss to Germany at the World Cup has been “completely unacceptable.”

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

After coming on as a substitute, Durmaz gave away the free kick that led to Toni Kroos curling in an injury-time winner in Saturday’s group game. Durmaz has since been subjected to online abuse, including threats to his family.

Before a training session on Sunday, Durmaz — standing in front of the rest of the Sweden squad and beside coach Janne Andersson — read out a statement to the media from a mobile phone.

“When you threaten me, when you call me ‘Arab devil,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘Taliban,’ then you have gone far beyond the limit,” Durmaz said in the statement, which was published on the Swedish Football Association’s website.

“And even worse, when you go after my family, my children, threaten them. Who does such a thing? It is completely unacceptable.”

Durmaz was born in Sweden to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“I am Swedish and I am proud to play in the Swedish national team. That’s the biggest thing you can do as a football player,” he said in the statement. “I will never let any racists destroy that pride. We must all stand against all forms of racism.”

The Swedish FA has reported the abuse toward Durmaz to police.

“We do not tolerate a player being exposed to threats and violations,” said Hakan Sjostrand, secretary general of the Swedish FA. “It is unpleasant and very upsetting to see the treatment that Jimmy Durmaz has suffered. Completely unacceptable.”

The loss to Germany left Sweden tied on three points with its opponent. Both countries are three points behind Mexico with one game left. Sweden plays Mexico in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, with Germany taking on South Korea at the same time.

Scenarios: Final round of 2018 World Cup group stage

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With just one round of group games left to be played at the 2018 World Cup, the time to begin scoreboard (and table… and tiebreaker) watching is now. 24 teams are still alive with a chance to making it into the knockout rounds and lifting the trophy in Moscow on July 15…

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Group A

Games remaining: Uruguay (2nd – 6 points) vs. Russia (1st – 6 points); Saudi Arabia (4th) vs. Egypt (3rd)

Who can finish 1st: Russia (advanced), Uruguay (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: Russia, Uruguay

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Russia (+7), Uruguay (+2)

Scenario(s): Uruguay or Russia will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; Russia will finish 1st if a draw


Group B

Games remaining: Iran (3rd – 3 points) vs. Portugal (2nd – 4 points); Spain (1st – 4 points) vs. Morocco (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Spain, Portugal, Iran
Who can finish 2nd: Spain, Portugal, Iran

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Spain (+1), Portugal (+1), Iran (0)
Goals scored: Spain (4), Portugal (4), Iran (1)

Scenario(s): Spain or Portugal will finish 1st with a win by more goals (or scoring more goals, if the same margin) than the other; Iran will finish 1st with a win and a Spain draw/loss


Group C

Games remaining: Denmark (2nd – 4 points) vs. France (1st – 6 points); Australia (3rd – 1 point) vs. Peru (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: France (advanced), Denmark
Who can finish 2nd: France, Denmark, Australia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: France (+2), Denmark (+1), Australia (-1)
Goals scored: France (3), Denmark (2), Australia (2)

Scenario(s): France will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Denmark; Denmark will finish 1st with a win; Australia will finish 2nd with a win and Denmark (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group D

Games remaining: Nigeria (2nd – 3 points) vs. Argentina (4th – 1 point); Iceland (3rd – 1 point) vs. Croatia (1st – 6 points)

Who can finish 1st: Croatia (advanced), Nigeria
Who can finish 2nd: Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland, Argentina

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Croatia (+5), Nigeria (0), Iceland(-2), Argentina (-3)
Goals scored: Croatia (5), Nigeria (2), Iceland (1), Argentina (1)

Scenario(s): Croatia will will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Iceland; Nigeria will finish 1st with a win over Argentina and a Croatia loss (if the two results combine to overturn their five-goal goal-differential deficit); Iceland will finish 2nd with a win and a Nigeria loss, or a Nigeria draw (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Argentina will finish 2nd with a win and an Iceland loss/draw, or an Iceland win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group E

Games remaining: Serbia (3rd – 3 points) vs. Brazil (1st – 4 points); Switzerland (2nd – 4 points) vs. Costa Rica (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia
Who can finish 2nd: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Brazil (+2), Switzerland (+1), Serbia(0)
Goals scored: Brazil (3), Switzerland (3), Serbia(2)

Scenario(s): Brazil will finish 1st with a win over Serbia and a Switzerland draw/loss, or a Switzerland win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their one-goal goal-differential advantage); Switzerland will finish 1st with a win over Costa Rica and a Brazil loss/draw, or a Brazil win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit); Serbia will finish 1st with a win and a Switzerland draw/loss


Group F

Games remaining: South Korea (4th – 0 points) vs. Germany (2nd – 3 points); Mexico (1st – 6 points) vs. Sweden (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Mexico, Germany, Sweden
Who can finish 2nd: Mexico, Germany, Sweden, South Korea

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Mexico (+2), Germany (0), Sweden (0), South Korea (-2)
Goals scored: Mexico (3), Germany (2), Sweden (2), South Korea (1)

Scenario(s): Mexico will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Sweden, or a draw and a Germany draw/loss, or a one-goal loss and a Germany loss; Germany will finish 1st with a win over South Korea and a Mexico loss (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Sweden will finish 1st with a win and Germany loss/draw, or a Germany win (if the two results combine to overturn their identical goal differentials); South Korea will finish 2nd with a win and a Sweden loss (if the three results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficits)


Group G

Games remaining: England (1st – 6 points) vs. Belgium (2nd – 6 points); Panama (4th – 0 points) vs. Tunisia (3rd – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: England (advanced), Belgium (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: England, Belgium

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: England (+6), Belgium (+6)
Goals scored: England (8), Belgium (8)
Fair-play points (yellow/red cards): England (-2), Belgium (-3)

Scenario(s): England or Belgium will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; fair-play points will determine who finishes 1st if a draw


Group H

Games remaining: Japan (1st – 4 points) vs. Poland (4th – 0 points); Senegal (2nd – 4 points) vs. Colombia (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Japan, Senegal, Colombia
Who can finish 2nd: Japan, Senegal, Colombia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Colombia (+2), Japan (+1), Senegal (+1)
Goals scored: Japan (4), Senegal (4), Colombia (4)
Fair-play points: Japan (-3), Senegal (-5)

Scenario(s): Japan will finish 1st with a win over Poland and a Senegal draw/loss, or a Senegal win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their fair-play points advantage); Senegal will finish 1st with a win over Colombia and a Japan draw/loss, or a Japan win (if the two results combine to overturn their fair-play points deficit); Colombia will finish 1st with a win and a Japan draw/loss

Kane joins England greats, now chasing Golden Boot

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NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Harry Kane now has a permanent souvenir from the World Cup.

The England striker grabbed the game ball and kept it in his grasp after scoring a hat trick in his team’s 6-1 win over Panama on Sunday.

[ VIDEO: England hammer Panama ]

Those goals — two penalties and a lucky deflection — made Kane the third Englishman after Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker to score a hat trick in a World Cup match.

“One to be proud of,” Kane said. “Not many players get to score a hat trick in a World Cup.”

The third goal was “probably one of the luckiest ones of my career,” he said. It came when a shot from teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek deflected off his heel and wrong-footed Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.

The other two were penalties, but it didn’t matter that his goals weren’t vintage. It was enough to put England into the round of 16 with a match to spare.

Kane now has a tournament-leading five goals at the World Cup, one more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku.

[ MORE: Colombia thrash Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal ]

“You’ve got some of the best players in the world doing well, scoring goals, so it’s nice to be up there,” Kane said. “But for me it’s just about the wins. The most important thing is that my goals help my team win. I just hope to continue it.”

Kane took advantage of an overly-physical Panama team to score twice from the spot in the first half. The first penalty came when Jesse Lingard was fouled. Kane won the second himself.

He converted both penalties convincingly.

“You can dismiss penalties as being easy, but the length of time you have to wait before taking it, and the number of distractions to keep focused and start again, it tells you a bit about the mental toughness that he’s got,” England coach Gareth Southgate said. “He’s there. He’s up at the top. We wouldn’t swap him for anyone. We know when he gets opportunities he’s going to bury them.”

Hurst, who got his hat trick in England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, also had that ability. As did Lineker, who scored three against Poland at the 1986 tournament.

Like them, Kane was expected to lead England’s attack. But defender John Stones wasn’t.

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The big center back contributed two goals with a pair of headers. That gives him more World Cup goals than he has in 122 games in the Premier League, where he has scored only once.

But, as Stones swiftly reminded everyone, he did score twice in a Champions League game last year.

He said his cellphone was “blowing up” with messages after his goals. But he’s more concerned with Kane’s tally and his chance to beat Ronaldo and others to the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top scorer.

“I’d love Harry to get it,” Stones said. “I know Harry would want us to win more than get the Golden Boot. That’s the most important thing. But, on a personal level, I’d love Harry to get it.”

Colombia thrash poor Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal

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Colombia thrashed Poland, to the tune of 3-0, in the two sides’ must-win game in Group H play at the 2018 World Cup on Sunday, getting goals from Yerry Mina, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado to leave their destiny in their own hands ahead of Thursday’s decisive group finale against Senegal.

Poland have been eliminated with one group game still to play.

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

Colombia could have scored two or three goals in the first half, with Cuadrado and Juan Quintero causing constant problems for the left side of the Polish defense, but the necessary finishing touch was consistently lacking until Mina headed home a James Rodriguez cross in the 40th minute.

Poland offered very little, both before or after Mina’s opener, as Robert Lewandowski was effectively contained with the vast majority of his touches coming 30 yards from goal and further out. After disappointing in their tournament-opening loss to Senegal, manager Adam Nawalka made a handful of changes to his lineup — dropping the likes of Arkadiusz Milik, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki — to no avail.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Despite the scoreline remaining 1-0 for the first 25 minutes of the first half, Poland never looked threatening and were put to the sword by Falcao’s first career World Cup goal (missed the 2014 tournament due to a knee injury), courtesy of Quintero’s seeing-eye through ball.

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James played provider five minutes later, when he slotted what might just be the pass of the tournament across the field, across the Polish defense, and found a streaking Cuadrado with acres of space in front of him. From one end of the field to the other, in no time at all.

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When Colombia (3 points) meet Senegal (4 points) on Thursday, they’ll need a win to overtake them for second place, or for Poland (0 points) to beat Japan (4 points), who currently sit top of the group — but that seems highly unlikely at this point.