Nothing To Lose: USA shows swagger, answers questions, in win over Turkey

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HARRISON, NEW JERSEY —

There were a lot of questions. So many, in fact, it was hard not to feel, at least a little, like the US Soccer public might be going a bit batty.

Then again, it is just under two weeks until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

This is what we do. We fret. We over-analyze. We find narratives in every dusty corner of the room and we convince ourselves, masochistically at times, that they all matter.

Because they do. Going into Sunday afternoon’s match with Turkey, the 39th ranked team in the world, the US Soccer public was abuzz with everything from chatter about Julian Green’s (realistic) value in Brazil to who should start at left-back.

And, of course, diamond midfields. We love to talk us some diamond midfield.

Most of the time the questions nearly stockpile with international friendlies. Too many elements – two teams with very different motives, trying out different shapes, formations, and many times blooding new players.

It wasn’t perfect. The defense still needs work. Our outside mids remain unsettled. And Turkey was one notch above crap. But on this picture perfect 75 degree day at Red Bull Arena, a number of issues were resolved.

source: Getty ImagesMichael Bradley and Fabian Johnson were fantastic

Michael Bradley proved to everyone in the building, once again, why he is The General. The lifeblood of this Yanks squad, the Toronto FC midfielder was box-to-box with ease. Creating going forward, ripping tackles on the back-track. An inspiring performance all around, highlighted by a Barcelona-esque link-up with Fabian Johnson to snatch a 1-0 lead in the 26th minute.

The goal was simply sublime. Dare I say, world class.

From his position at right-back, Johnson stopped the ball on the right side of midfield and looked up at his options. Bradley’s dome was unmistakable, unmarked in the center of the park. With pace, Johnson put in a low, driven pass to the feet of Bradley, and then took off, blazing up the right side of the pitch. Bradley, with an uncanny understanding of Johnson’s idea, did well to flick the ball inside the box, directly into the on-rushing path of the Monchengladbach defender. With one touch, Johnson hammered a left-footed into the left corner.

Red Bull Arena exploded. From journalist’s row five rows up on the midfield, it was impossible not to stand and applaud. A fantastic strike.

Bradley may have been the Man of the Match but it was a tough call given the performance of Johnson, who proved he’ll be just fine as the US team’s right-back. Or left-back. Or right midfielder. Or left midfielder.

Fact is, along with Bradley, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson is one of the best players on this squad. It’s about time people start recognizing that.

source: Getty ImagesCameron-Besler is, hands down, the best US center-back partnership

To the left of Johnson was Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, both of whom put in strong shifts at center-back. For me, there is no center-back dilemma. Cameron and Besler is the partnership for Brazil.Apologies to Omar Gonzalez, but this became abundantly obvious on Sunday.

Cameron is a born leader and he spent the day keeping the back four in line, barking out instructions, making sure everyone was on the same page. After the match I spoke to the Stoke defender about his role as a leader on the Yanks and he admitted it was one he coveted but was quick to note that every member of the back four needed to lead.

I’m huge on Cameron. The kid is hungry. He’s willing. And he’s got the goods to be a very, very good center-back.

In his 45 minutes on the pitch, Besler was his typical trusty self. Positionally secure. Crunching in the tackle. Focused. Determined.

He was removed at half-time in favor of John Anthony Brooks, who enjoyed his best performance every in a Yanks kit. At 6’4″, the 21-year-old is a massive presence in the back but was impressively mobile against Turkey’s pesky front line. In a two minute span between the 75th and 77th minutes, two superbly timed sliding challenges by Brooks denied Ahmet Ozek and Mustafa Pektemek dangerous crosses into the box.

Not sure if Brooks will see a minute in Brazil but he’s certainly one for the future.

source: Getty ImagesChandler struggles, Dempsey impresses, and US strong up the spine

Timmy Chandler struggled.

Deployed as a left-back, he was caught out on a number of occasions and gave the ball easily, almost foolishly, at times. And of course, he was to blame on Turkey’s goal.

With Chandler, however, US fans shouldn’t worry too much over Sunday’s performance. He’s a quality player who simply had a bad day. He needs to simplify his game, let it come to him. Stop trying to do too much and listen better to Besler and Cameron.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad for Chandler, whose probing cross in the 52nd minute had Turkish center-back, Hakan Balta, all bent out of shape and led to Dempsey’s toe-poke goal. It was promising stuff from Deuce, who looked particularly lively early on, dancing on the ball, showing the Turks that quintessential Nacogdoches swagger. At one point in the first half the Sounders striker even managed to pull a full Maradona in the box, leaving his Turkish defender in a heap.

Pushed high up the pitch, Dempsey and strike-partner Jozy Altidore exerted some impressive pressure on the Turkish defense. Throwing defenders aside with ease, Altidore battled hard up top and showed some flash and grit throughout. Promising stuff despite his failure to score.

Behind Jozy and Deuce were Bradley and Jermaine Jones, who put out a rather unremarkable performance. While the Besiktas man didn’t do anything to solidify his starting role at the fulcrum of the midfield, he didn’t do anything to lose it, either. Jones did well to keep his discipline and his presence alongside Bradley afforded him more freedom moving up the pitch.

At half-time Kyle Beckerman came on for Jones and provided his typical dirtdog outing. The jury is out as to who Bradley works better with – Jones or Beckerman – but when the latter is on the pitch the diamond shape flattens out a bit. Which is perfectly fine.

In his post-match presser, Jurgen Klinsmann enlightened everyone with a simple explanation to his desired midfield: a diamond going forward and a flat four dropping back. Simple. Smart. But it certainly asks a heck-of-a-lot from Bradley. Thankfully, the 26-year-old has a third lung and is more than happy to oblige.

Between the sticks Howard and Guzan split time, both registering a few good saves and looking all the part like a top keeper. Turkey’s goal, a smashed penalty by Selcuk Inan in the 90th minute, was unstoppable. The referee pointed to the spot after Chandler coughed the ball up to Pektemek, who was in clear on Guzan, and hit his shot off the arm of Cameron. Nothing you can do about that.

source: Getty ImagesMight Brad Davis be poised for a World Cup breakout?

Another place where the competition for starting spots remains red hot is on the outside midfield. On Sunday, Klinsmann opted to start Brad Davis on the left and Graham Zusi on the right.

Zusi put in a decent performance. He and Johnson seem form an interesting partnership with the former cutting inside to allow the latter to scurry up the wings. Zusi played some good early balls in to the forwards and came close to scoring, hammering a 54th minute opportunity wide and into the side netting. Mix Diskerud spelled Zusi for the final 20 minutes and did quite well, playing some brilliant balls into space for the strikers to run on to. For now, Zusi and his tenacious style has him feeling like the starter but the creativity of Mix is unmistakable and could be quite useful against a more technical side like Portugal.

Davis – who played 64 minutes before ceding to a tentative, somewhat detached Julian Green – was very impressive and feels to me like a potential breakout star in this World Cup. Sounds a bit crazy, I know, but the Dynamo winger brings a brazen approach to his game: running at defenders, getting them their heels, opening them up, causing problems.

After the match I asked the 32-year-old about whether he’s thought using Brazil as a platform for an international breakout. “Of course, it’s something I’ve thought of…” Davis said with a smile before turning pragmatic, “but more than anything I concentrate on doing the simple things well every time I play. I take that mentality to Brazil, and yeah, if things go well, then maybe I get that international breakout and the European clubs come calling.”

Not that Davis has any interest in moving across seas. From all indications Davis is incredibly happy at Houston, where he’s played since 2006. But seeing that twinkle in his eye, it’s hard not to route for Davis. Like the rest of his teammates, when it comes to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, he has nothing to lose. And everything to gain.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
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Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

3 things learned: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea

Bayern Munich - Chelsea
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Bayern Munich – Chelsea, leg no. 2, looked eerily similar to leg no. 1, played back in late February, with the lone exception being the lack of fans inside the Allianz Arena for Thursday’s dead rubber.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

The eight-time Bundesliga champions were simply too good — and too healthy, by comparison — for Frank Lampard and the Blues to put up a reasonable fight from 3-0 down after the first leg. It was an unceremonious end to Lampard’s first season in charge at Chelsea, but a foregone conclusion before they boarded the plane back in London.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

With their 4-1 victory on the night (7-1 on aggregate), Bayern will face Barcelona in a sensationally mouth-watering quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Allianz Arena, as the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in Bayern Munich – Chelsea.


NO DRAMA NECESSARY, BAYERN TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS EARLY

Credit to Bayern for their ruthless efficiency and disinterest in letting the tie descend into drama and tension. Robert Lewandowski scored early (10th minute) and Ivan Perisic did the same in the 24th, bringing the aggregate score to 5-0 with 65 minutes left to play. With so many key players out injured, Chelsea had virtually zero chance of pulling off the impossible comeback prior to kickoff, and Hans-Dieter Flick’s side made sure to keep it that way from the opening whistle. Corentin Tolisso put the tie further out of reach late in the second half (76th), and Lewandowski duplicated his side’s three-goal advantage from the first leg not much later.


CHELSEA’S ISSUES STILL AT THE BACK

For all of the development of young players that Frank Lampard was able to realize this season — and for all of the big-money signings either already confirmed or heavily reported to be imminent this summer — Chelsea still have serious questions to answer with regard to their defense. The below highlight is but one small example in a season full of defensive blunders at missed assignments (you’ll find another one below in the next section). Cesar Azpilicueta remains solid, but he’ll turn 31 this month and probably only has another year or two left to function at the UCL level. Reece James and Fikayo Tomori still have some way to go in their development to be UCL-caliber players. The likes of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have all proven, time and again, they’re simply not at that level and probably never will be. All of that is to say, Chelsea need to execute a full-on rebuild of their defense this summer, or it might not matter how many goals they can score every game next season.


BAYERN’S END-OF-SEASON FORM IS TERRIFYING

Pop quiz: When was the last time Bayern simply didn’t win a game, let alone lost one? The answer: Feb. 9 (19 games ago). And their last defeat? Dec. 7 (28 games). They won all nine of their Bundesliga games following the season’s restart, plus another two in the DFB-Pokal and now the second leg against Chelsea in the UCL. Of course, things will suddenly become far more tricky when 1) the likes of Barcelona and Man City factor into the equation in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, and 2) each round is decided over a single leg rather than the traditional home-and-away format of the Champions League. And still, Bayern have the look of serious Champions League contenders, if not favorites, based on their scintillating form dating back to the start of the calendar year.

VIDEO: Messi shreds Napoli to score fantastic solo goal

Lionel Messi goal video
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Lionel Messi has done, once again, as Lionel Messi is known to do: he has scored another fantastic Lionel Messi goal (video below) in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager | Sarri sacked ]

One, two, three, four, five defenders in his way? So what, says Messi.

One or two decent attempts to tackle the ball away — and perhaps even succeeding on at least one occasion? Again, so what?

He’ll have the ball back, continue on his merry way and tuck the ball just inside the far post, all while falling down, getting back up and falling down again. The goal put Barcelona 2-0 ahead on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Prior to this post being published, he scored again, but the goal was taken away for a perceived handball upon video review.

Surely we’ve discovered a superhuman soccer league we can send him to by now, just to level the playing field a bit more for the actual humans walking planet Earth.

Anyway, here’s the latest head-shaking, smirk-inducing Messi goal video you came to see.