Women’s World Cup notebook: Sweden up next for United States

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The United States women held a light training session in southern Winnipeg on Tuesday, the morning after defeating Australia, 3-1 in their 2015 Women’s World Cup opener.

The 10 field players who started the match were given the morning off from training, while Monday’s reserves and the three goalkeepers participated in about a one-hour long session.

Monday’s performance by the United States was shaky despite the victory. Australia dominated the opening 20 minutes and would have gone ahead early were it not for two world-class saves by U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo.

[ MORE: Complete coverage of 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup ]

Several players and U.S. coach Jill Ellis admitted the performance was sub-par in the opening minutes, citing nerves among other things. They believe all of that is out of their collective system now, however.

“All those things that you see in the first game, we got out of our system,” midfielder Tobin Heath said Tuesday.

Ellis said before Monday’s match that she wanted the team to build into its peak throughout the tournament. (“I’m so damn literal, aren’t I,” she quipped when asked a follow-up on that following her team’s underwhelming start to the match against Australia.)

Morgan gets back into full swing

Alex Morgan trained Tuesday after seeing her first minutes of game action in almost two months on Monday. She entered the match in the 79th minute on Monday and looked as eager as any player who hasn’t played for club or country since April 11 might be expected to be, showing confidence and having a go at goal almost right away.

“We’re so excited to have Alex back,” Heath said. “Obviously a world-class player and someone we’re going to need this tournament. It’s awesome to see how quickly she’s gotten back into the group. The way she’s taken care of herself over this time has just shown. She’s been able to jump in so seamlessly with us now. So in that way, we’re really fortunate to have her back healthy and we’re all excited to just have her on the team and on the field.”

[ MORE: U.S. tops Australia  |  Three things learned  |  Not at their best ]

Morgan’s introduction to the match was a dramatic one. She began warming up not long after halftime. Ellis said that given Morgan’s knee injury – a bone bruise in her left knee – the U.S. staff wanted to allow the 25-year-old forward extra time to warm-up. Morgan was personally accompanied by U.S. fitness coach Dawn Scott while warming up.

And after the long warm-up, Morgan had an extended wait to check into the game. She stood at the midfield line for an inordinate amount of time. There was no stoppage in play for over five minutes until Megan Rapinoe scored the United States’ third goal.

“I was waiting for the ball to go out of play for like five minutes,” Morgan said postgame, laughing as she replayed the dramatic wait in her head. “It took a while. I was hoping that someone would maybe kick the ball out of play a little quicker than that. But that’s OK, I think that we were playing well. We were keeping the ball really well and when I got in, I was just happy to help the team in whatever way that was. And that was to keep the 3-1 lead and not to (give up) another goal.”

Morgan said after the game that she feels “really good.”

Sweden up next for the U.S.

Sweden looked like the worst of the four teams in Group D on Tuesday. The Swedes scored twice in the first half on corner kicks that were a result of poor marking and goalkeeping by Nigeria, but they never settled into the game, failing to find any rhythm in the midfield. Sweden blew the 2-0 lead and then again conceded late while leading 3-2 to draw Nigeria, 3-3.

After the match, Pia Sundhage was quick to point out on multiple occasions that players didn’t follow her game plan. Sweden wanted to prevent 1-v-1 opportunities for Nigeria, since the Super Falcons are so dangerous off the dribble. But all three goals saw Nigeria either 1-v-1 or in behind Sweden’s defense.

[ MORE: Nigeria rallies to draw Sweden in wild opening match ]

Sundhage said before the game that Nigeria was a mystery of a team, since they are so hard to scout. So was she surprised by anything?

“Not really, because I was prepared and we prepared the team quite well,” she said. “As I said in the beginning, we just – if we would have been able to follow the game plan, we would have done even better. Now, yeah, scoring three goals was nice. But this was not – I saw another game in front of me. But then again, it is the first game and people out there are a little bit nervous. At the end of the day we have a second game and a third game as well, so we will do better.”

Midfielder Lisa Dahlqvist was a particular culprit, in Sundhage’s eyes.

“Lisa Dahlqvist, she was 100 percent ready to go, it was more of the gameplan, the fact that she should work really hard to make space for (Caroline) Seger and give a lot of battles. So I didn’t expect her to play 45 or 50 or 65 or something like that, so we prepared Linda Sembrant to jump in and take over her position, role”

Sundhage was complimentary of defender Nilla Fischer, which was interesting given Fischer was culpable on all three Nigeria goals (she did score one on the other end).

Next up for Sundhage and Sweden is the United States on Friday. This will be the fifth time the two teams have met in a World Cup and the fourth straight edition in which they have met in group play. The two rivals can’t seem to shake each other, and this time, there is the added wrinkle that Sundhage coached the Americans to two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup final from 2008 to 2012. While guiding the U.S. at the 2011 World Cup, Sundhage lost to Sweden in the group stage.

A New York Times piece released on Tuesday revealed what are being made out to be controversial quotes from Sundhage about her former team. She called U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd a “challenge” to coach because she is so “delicate.” Sundhage said Abby Wambach would be a substitute if she were still coaching the team and she noted that goalkeeper Hope Solo was a challenge, “especially when it comes to trouble.”

To some extent – and part of this is Sundhage’s English being her second language – this is just how Sundhage speaks. She’s honest but hardly confrontational.

Asked by a Swedish journalist on Monday to ensure that Sweden wouldn’t follow the same fate as 2007, when a tie against Nigeria in the opening match eventually led to Sweden missing out on the knockout stage, Sundhage laughed.

“I can ensure you one thing: I will do my very best to make sure that I boost the team and we come together as a group and at least try as hard as we can to win against United States of America,” she said.

Nigeria-Australia could be a goal-fest

Nigeria-Sweden was the best match of the tournament through one round of play. It is clear that the Super Falcons love to attack, and they have more organization than ever in doing so.

[MORE: Australian FA website blasts U.S. performance]

Australia was similarly impressive against the United States and could have had a different result had Solo not bailed out the Americans twice early. Both Nigeria and Australia showed a propensity to attack and a slight lack of desire to defend, which could make Friday’s match-up another thriller.

“You’ve got two very similar teams, haven’t you?” Australia coach Alen Stajcic said. “You’ve got two teams that like to attack, two teams that like to go at each other.”

Nigeria coach Edwin Okon refused to over-hype the importance of Friday’s match, the potential loser of which could be doomed in the Group of Death. Every match is a must-win match, he says.

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.