Steven Gerrard’s legendary legacy in England secure, despite early exit

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Steven Gerrard is not just a legendary figure at Liverpool Football Club. He is a true legend of the English national team and the Premier League.

Since he arrived on the scene to make his Liverpool debut as a 18-year-old in 1998, Gerrard has gone on to captain his hometown club, England and has inspired millions with his swashbuckling style.

[ RELATED: Gerrard heading to the USA ]

His displays saw the terms “he’s Gerrarded him…” and “hollywood ball” become part of the vernacular in English soccer circles, as the man who won 11 trophies with the Reds and has racked up almost 700 appearances for Liverpool has become one of the greatest players in English soccer history.

The word legend is used loosely in today’s sporting world, but Gerrard is more than that to fans of Liverpool.

Gerrard is one of the finest midfielders England has ever produced and is arguably the greatest player in Liverpool’s history (alongside Kenny Dalglish). Fans of the Reds will now always have fond memories of Gerrard, as he leaves his boyhood club after an incredible 26-year association still near the top of his game.

[ WATCH: Gerrard’s top five Liverpool goals ]

The 34-year-old will leave Liverpool at the end of the 2014-15 season and has admitted to being “humbled” by the response to his announcement he made this week regarding his decision to not sign a new contract at the only club he has ever known. Gerrard leaving Liverpool before the end of his career is quite a shock. You think of plenty of other one-club men in recent history such as Ryan Giggs, John Terry and Jamie Carragher and group Gerrard in with them as true heroes for their respective clubs.

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Gerrard has flourished as Liverpool’s heartbeat over the years.

But, whether Liverpool fans or fans of soccer across the world want to believe it or not, he’s off.

Gerrard is heading to the United States for the next chapter in his career this summer. The former English national team captain, who led his side at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups as well as playing in the 2006 edition, will most likely join the LA Galaxy. California awaits for ‘Stevie G’.

[ RELATED: Soccer world reacts ]

Having grown up in England myself during the height of Gerrard’s powers, every aspiring soccer player wanted to be like him. Hailing from Whiston in Liverpool, he was a player driven by the hunger to succeed for the club he supported as a boy, while his friends, family and fans of the club all watched on in amazement around him but with that came plenty of pressure to succeed. That passion and commitment often spilled over, especially as a youngster when he was told to curb his crunching tackles or risk his career as a pro. “Doing a Gerrard” entails diving in two-footed to challenges as he often did during his younger years. His grit typified his upbringing and not only the citizens of Liverpool but fans across England embraced his wholehearted displays as a mirror of the prototypical English midfielder of years gone by. Gerrard could do it all.

Tough tackles, raking cross-field passes and stunning goals are Gerrard’s most memorable qualities as a player but so many other intangibles have kept him at the forefront of Liverpool and England teams for almost two decades. Committed. Determined. Classy. Inspirational. Gerrard is one of the most complete players to play in the Premier League.

In an era where Frank Lampard, David Beckham, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieria, plus many other top midfielders have graced the PL, Gerrard is the only player to be named in the PFA Team of the Season on eight separate occasions. A record for any player, in fact. For England, he never reached those some inspirational heights as he did for Liverpool but only two players have made more all-time appearances for the Three Lions than the towering midfielder who won 114 caps for England and scored 21 goals in his 14-year international career.

[ RELATED: Where would Gerrard’s MLS move rank? ]

Other national teams feared Gerrard at the heart of England’s midfield in his prime, but the Three Lions never saw the best of the Merseysider as injuries, management decisions and partnerships in midfield somehow impacted his influence on the international stage, regardless of his impressive stats. Still, that will not blot his copybook when his career is analyzed in the coming years.

When all is said and done and time is called on Gerrard’s career, he will remembered for decades for his inspirational displays, stunning goals and for carrying one of English soccer’s greatest clubs for many years. Liverpool haven’t and probably won’t win a Premier League title while Gerrard is around, but the fact that they won a UEFA Champions League title in 2005, got to another final and reached the semifinals on numerous occasions with Gerrard leading the way proved how his presence inspired his side time and time again.

Legendary French midfielder and former World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane has spoken about Gerrard’s career and sums it all up quite eloquently.

“Is he [Gerrard] the best in the world? He might not get the attention of Messi and Ronaldo but yes, I think he just might be,” Zidane said. “He has great passing ability, can tackle and scores goals, but most importantly he gives the players around him confidence and belief. You can’t learn that – players like him are just born with that presence.”

He could have left for Chelsea and Real Madrid in his prime but stuck around with his hometown team to try and win the elusive PL title which is set to evade him. We all know about ‘the slip’ during Liverpool’s costly PL defeat to Chelsea during the 2013-14 run-in which played a big part in the Reds losing the title, but the fact that the Reds were in the running to win a first league title since 1990 in the first place was largely down to Gerrard. He re-invented himself as a deep-lying midfielder whose pin-point passes from a ‘quarterback’ role tore opponents apart and he scored 13 goals and added 13 assists. Gerrard, when he does arrive in MLS, will still have plenty to offer.

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Gerrard’s legendary career at Liverpool will end untarnished.

For myself and fans of Gerrard across the world, a lasting memory of him will go something like this…

Under the floodlights at Anfield, Gerrard screaming hoarsely in his thick ‘Scouse’ accent from midfield, many of the best teams have folded thanks to his dominance over the past 17-years. From stunning late goals against Olympiakos and West Ham United on the way to winning trophies to inspiring Liverpool’s epic comeback in Istanbul against AC Milan, Gerrard has been Liverpool’s heartbeat since he arrived on the scene.

Now, the Reds have had their heart ripped out and replacing Gerrard’s impact on and off the pitch is impossible. Heading to the USA this summer for the final swansong of his career, Gerrard leaves England with his legendary status intact and will be awarded a hero’s return everytime he steps foot in Liverpool for the rest of his life. For a lad from Whiston who grew up as a Liverpool fan, it doesn’t get much better than that and proves his decision to call it quits at Liverpool when he has is the best decision to for everyone concerned.

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.