Dempsey at the gun, Brooks at the death deliver victory for the U.S., 2-1 over Ghana

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The fastest goal in the team’s World Cup history looked like it would unrewarded, but thanks late heroics from a halftime substitute, the United States has its first opening game victory since 2002. Heading home a Graham Zusi corner in the 86th minute, 21-year-old John Brooks gave the U.S. a 2-1 win over the Black Stars, exorcising some lingering demons in the process.

The U.S. was eliminated by Ghana from the last two World Cups, with the Black Stars’ 2-1 in extra time at South Africa 2010 sending the nation to its first quarterfinal. On Monday, however, the U.S. led for 85 minutes, with only André Ayew’s 82nd minute equalizer giving the four-time African champions hope of salvaging a result.

That equalizer came after Clint Dempsey set a U.S. record 34 seconds in, finishing from just outside the six-yard box to give his team an early 1-0 lead. Four minutes before the end of regulation time, Brooks restored the U.S.’s advantage, giving the team its first perfect start since defeating Portugal at World Cup 2002.

[ MORE: USMNT Man of the Match | Six talking points | Injury update ]

With Germany defeating the Seleccao earlier on Monday, the U.S. moves into a tie atop Group G, labeled by many as Brazil 2014’s Group of Death. Goal difference gives the favored Germans the edge among the two perfect teams, but with a hobbled Portugal up next, the U.S.’s win over Ghana represents a huge step toward securing a spot in the tournament’s final 16.

That match will take place on Sunday in the Amazonian city of Manaus, where conditions should mimic the 78 percent humidity that slowed the Americans tonight in Natal. Ghana, in the meantime, will face Germany in Fortaleza, with tonight’s loss meaning the Black Stars will in all likelihood need a result from the 2010 semifinalists.

With the first attacking movement of the game, the U.S. were on the board. Pressuring the Ghanaian defense into an early turnover, the U.S.’s quick throw-in from the left gave captain Clint Dempsey a chance to go one-on-one against central defender John Boye. Leaning left before cutting right, Dempsey moved in on goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, who was left to kick in vain at a left-footed shot that found the far corner. After 34 seconds, with the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history, the U.S. was up, 1-0.

Come the half-hour mark, the game assumed the posture it would take into halftime, with a U.S. defense that congested the middle of the park forcing the Ghanaians to play from high and wide. Sharp reads from Tim Howard stifled attempts to pass through the defense, while the Black Stars had no luck getting behind fullbacks DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson. Come halftime, the U.S. had retained its 1-0 lead, with both teams registering one shot on target.

Along the way, however, the U.S. lost starting striker Jozy Altidore to injury, with the Sunderland forward replaced by Aron Johannsson after going down with a left hamstring injury in the 21st minute. In the middle of the half, a leg to the face of Dempsey from Ghanaian defender Jonathan Mensah left the team’s captain with a bloody nose, while another hamstring problem, this time afflicting defender Matt Besler, saw Brooks come on at halftime. By the 46th minute, Jürgen Klinsmann had used two of his substitutions.

source: AP
United States’ Clint Dempsey leaps as he celebrates after scoring the opening goal  between Ghana and the United States. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Despite the changes, the second half began as the first ended, with Ghana left to probe the edges to the U.S. defense, with their sequences usually ending with a ball rolled to Howard. Ten minutes into the half, a long-range shot from Sulley Muntari and an open header for Asamoah Gyan gave the U.S. its first scare, with a 17-yard header from Gyan two minutes later drawing a diving save from Howard.

By the time Ghana’s captain forced a 64th minute block from Geoff Cameron, the effects of Besler’s loss were clear. The U.S. defense, particularly after the introduction of Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng, had lost control.

In the 82nd minute, Ghana’s work paid off when Gyan dragged Cameron away from goal to create a chance for Ayew. Laying the ball off for the Marseille attacker, Gyan created space between the U.S. center backs for the one-time shot, with Howard beat inside his right post for the late equalizer.

Four minutes later, the U.S. had restored its lead, with two substitutes delivering victory in the sauna of Natal. Off a corner from the right, Graham Zusi’s out-swinging ball found Brooks at the edge of the six-yard box, with the Hertha Berlin defender heading down and into the Ghanaian goal to deliver full points.

[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

When the ball reached the back of Kwarasey’s net, the fight left the Ghanaians. Lifted to its crest four minutes earlier, the team that’d vanquished the Americans in Nuremberg and Rustenburg had seen the tables turn, with a U.S. side they’d expected to beat landing the final blow. Not only was Ghana’s mastery of the Americans over, but the Black Stars had lost suffered a major blow to their knockout round hopes.

The U.S., on the other hand, sit even with Germany at the top, and although Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal await, the players can take a moment to savor a moment their predecessors could not. A nemesis has been fallen, and in the process, the U.S. may have laid the groundwork to improve on its 2006 and 2010 results.

Lineups:

Ghana: Kwarasey; Opare, Mensah, Boye, Asamoah; Rabiu (Essien 71′), Atsu (Adomah 78′), Muntari, J. Ayew (Boateng 59′); Gyan, A. Ayew

Goals: A. Ayew 82′

United States: Howard, Johnson, Cameron, Besler (Brooks 46′), Beasley, Beckerman, Jones, Bradley, Bedoya (Zusi 77′), Dempsey, Altidore (Johannsson 23′)

Goals: Dempsey 1′, Brooks 86′

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.