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Champions League semifinal predictions: Will the PL sides make it through?

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The Champions League semifinals are nearly here and the road to Madrid is nearly complete. Two Premier League teams are left standing, and while both are challenged by formidable opponents, the two teams are facing extremely different tasks.

Liverpool and Tottenham have reached this stage by knocking out giants of the game, preparing them for the biggest stage. Spurs took down Man City in the quarterfinals in thrilling fashion, a massive victory over one of the best Premier League sides in the history of the English top flight. Liverpool, meanwhile, knocked out Bayern Munich in the Round of 16, holding the German giants who have registered 80 goals in 31 Bundesliga matches to just one score over the two legs.

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With a pair of absolutely delicious semifinal matchups to savor, each with varying degrees of intricacies, let’s break down each meeting.

Tottenham vs. Ajax

A heavy burden will be placed on the shoulders of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images).

“We have a spirit in the team that we can achieve anything and all is possible. That is our strength.” -Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino

Spurs host Dutch side Ajax at the new stadium before heading out to the Netherlands for the second leg. In a vacuum, Tottenham fans would be just happy to reach the Champions League semifinals, having reached this stage for the first time since the 60’s. Spurs would become the first team to reach the Champions League final for the first time since Chelsea did in 2008. Yet matching up with Ajax changes that slightly, and as quality as the young Dutch squad has looked this season, the sting of disappointment would be heavy should Spurs be eliminated by a club of Ajax’s stature having just eliminated such a powerhouse the previous round.

The matchup is rife with adversity for Spurs, the most banged up team remaining in the competition. Already without talismanic striker Harry Kane for maybe the remainder of the season with ankle trouble, in-form replacement Heung-Min Son is suspended for the first leg due to yellow card accumulation. That leaves Spurs extremely thin up front, with Fernando Llorente the likely candidate to start the opener. That puts enormous pressure on the creative forces like Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli, a reality which Spurs must face head-on. Moussa Sissoko and Jan Vertonghen are both question marks for the match, with the potential presence of both providing some sense of stability. As StatsBomb points out, the core squad of Alli, Eriksen, Vertonghen, Sissoko, Son, Kane, Hugo Lloris, and Toby Alderweireld have all found been on the pitch together just four times all year.

Nobody has been more battle tested in this tournament, however, than Ajax. They’ve already taken down last year’s champion Real Madrid and eight-time Serie A champs Juventus and will be fearless heading into the electric London atmosphere. Frenkie de Jong is a superstar in the making at just 21 years old, heading to Barcelona next year and looking for a dream finals meeting with his future club. In front of him is 22-year-old Donny van de Beek who has been the face of this beautifully flowing attack that takes no prisoners, and in back of him is 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt who is battle tested at an incredibly young age.

The Dutch club also comes in with extensive rest, with the Eredivisie moving fixtures around the give them more breathing room. Compared to the walking wounded Spurs, this is an enormous advantage for the visitors who will come to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium smelling blood, poised to walk away with a significant advantage in the matchup if they impose their will and pass Spurs to death in their own home.

Predictions: 

Kyle Bonn: Spurs could find themselves overwhelmed in the first leg if they can’t find the back of the net. However, the Tottenham midfield remains intact, with Sissoko potentially returning. A lot of this match hinges on Spurs being able to break up the silky smooth Ajax buildup, a trademark of this young team that’s played together at various youth levels. The first leg is critical to keep things close before Son comes back. I like the fairy tale to continue for Ajax, and Spurs forced to swallow a heavy dose of mixed feelings as the Dutch youngsters reach the final on a 2-1 aggregate score.

Joseph Prince-Wright: Tottenham takes down Ajax 3-2 on aggregate to continue Mauricio Pochettino’s dream campaign.

Barcelona vs. Liverpool

Liverpool’s attack has found another gear in recent weeks as they fight on multiple fronts, led by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images).

“It’s about doing it all together, it’s never one versus one, it’s never just me against a particular striker. It’s always us against everyone and I think that’s the only way we can defend well.” -Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk

The heavyweight matchup of the semifinals features last year’s runner up against this year’s La Liga champion. Barcelona has yet to lose in Champions League play, and hasn’t tasted defeat at all this season since a Copa del Rey defeat to Sevilla back in January, one they avenged 6-1 just seven days later. At 31 years old Lionel Messi looks to be in some of the best form of his spectacular career, with a massive 46-goal haul so far this season in 45 matches.

If anyone can lock down the Barcelona superstar its Liverpool, sporting newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk alongside either Joel Matip or Joe Gomez. While the narrative a few months ago would have been the back line at the other end of the field, Barcelona has shored up its defense in remarkable fashion, conceding just 14 goals over the club’s 23-game league unbeaten streak (just 10 goals in 22 games if you take out the wild 4-4 thriller against Villareal). They held Manchester United scoreless over both quarterfinal legs and have conceded just a single goal over the four Champions League knockout round matches thus far.

Still, among the likes of PSV Eindhoven, Lyon, Tottenham, and Inter, Barcelona has yet to face an attacking onslaught in Champions League play like the one Liverpool possesses. Over their current ten-game winning streak across all competitions, they have scored 29 goals, trouncing the last three Premier League opponents Chelsea, Cardiff City, and Huddersfield Town by a combined 9-0.

Jurgen Klopp‘s men are in stunning form, with all three main attackers providing meaningful contributions. Sadio Mane has 14 goals since the calendar turned to 2019, Roberto Firmino is the perfect foil every manager wishes his striker could be off the ball, and Mohamed Salah has shaken off mid-season doubters with five goals and four assists in his last seven outings. While many have criticized the Egyptian for failing to post the raw numbers he put up last season, his goals have given Liverpool life when they need it the most – his Premier League goals have accounted directly for 24 points this season, double any other player in the league.

Both teams will know what’s at stake, and while the other matchup could see both sides looking to secure an advantage going into the second leg, this game could be cagey with neither side wanting to risk handing the opponents a moment of opportunity. Still, Liverpool will be hungry to take down Barcelona’s imposing home Champions League record, having avoided defeat in 25 Camp Nou matches since falling 3-0 to Bayern Munich in 2013. That, and the prospect of revenge for last year’s finals disappointment will no doubt be on their minds, unable to truly avenge that painful defeat should they get past Barcelona and again have a chance to lift the trophy.

Predictions: 

Kyle Bonn: Often in Champions League play, a team is defined not by its strengths but by its weaknesses. Barcelona’s squad has more weaknesses than Liverpool’s. I like Jurgen Klopp to draw up an exciting 2-2 away goals victory, with Salah providing the key away goal to ensure the Reds move on to the final and have a chance to right last season’s close encounter.

Joseph Prince-Wright: Liverpool beats Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate to set up an all-Premier League final in Madrid.

Jose Mourinho appointed new Tottenham manager

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Jose Mourinho has been appointed the new head coach of Tottenham Hotspur, set to take over less than 12 hours after Mauricio Pochettino was fired on Tuesday, the club confirmed in a statement early on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Pochettino paid the price for Levy’s mistakes ]

Mourinho was the first name linked to the newly vacant managerial post at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and chairman Daniel Levy wasted no time whatsoever. Given his expedient appointment, Mourinho is likely to take Wednesday’s training session and be in the dugout when Tottenham visit West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

The former Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid (among others) manager has signed a three-and-a-half-year contract which will run through the 2022-23 season. Levy described Mourinho as “one of the most successful managers in football.”

“In Jose we have one of the most successful managers in football. He has a wealth of experience, can inspire teams and is a great tactician. He has won honors at every club he has coached. We believe he will bring energy and belief to the dressing room.”

Mourinho, on his appointment: “I am excited to be joining a club with such a great heritage and such passionate supporters. The quality in both the squad and the academy excites me. Working with these players is what has attracted me.

What did we learn about USMNT during Nations League?

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The inaugural Nations League group stage is complete, and the U.S. men’s national team managed to finish top of Group A (on the final day of play) and secure its place in the semifinals next June.

[ MORE: USMNT cruises past Cuba to reach Nations League semis ]

So, what did we learn from the final four (semi-competitive) games of 2019?

No matter the competition, the chance creation isn’t there

Inevitably, eventually, the USMNT ends up attacking its opponents in one of two ways: with long, direct balls up to the forward line, or exclusively through wide attackers and constant crosses into the box. In beating Canada and Cuba by a combined score of 8-1 during this international window, Gregg Berhalter’s team relied almost exclusively on these “tactics.” Predictably, it’s also the default setting when facing tougher competition, such as Mexico and Uruguay earlier in 2019.

Neither of those plans are bad plans, per se, only neither of those plans are what the federation has pursued as its stated goal for the last decade: possession-based soccer featuring ample chance creation from midfield.

Five coaches have taken charge of the USMNT this decade, all with varying levels of promising the above stylistic improvements. Upon completing the USMNT’s final game of the decade, it’s fair to say that all five failed.

The worst part of all is that the presence of Christian Pulisic hardly cures anything. Sure, he’s the craftiest attacking player the U.S. has ever produced, but even a primary playmaker like Pulisic requires a stable midfield behind him to filter the ball upfield and give him a stage on which to perform. Weston McKennie was stellar against Canada on Friday, but he’s proven that, at just 21 years old, he can’t be counted on to that degree game in and game out.

The good news: they’re both 21 years old and have north of 50 caps between them. One day — and it could come soon — everything should click for each of them, at which point we could see them move to operate at a totally different level.


The full backs are suddenly a bright spot

Perhaps it’s a tad hasty to claim the full backs are trending positively, but the current crop of right backs sure looks deeper and more talented than ever before. Sergiño Dest chose to play for the USMNT and is now cap-tied, Reggie Cannon is coming along nicely, and DeAndre Yedlin has proven himself, at the very least, a non-problem plenty of times.

That’s three more reliable full backs than the USMNT has had since Steve Cherundolo retired in 2012. Unfortunately, they all play on the same side of the field.

Tim Ream and Daniel Lovitz, who started at left back  don’t inspire the most confidence or excitement at left back, but perhaps a defense-first option is the way to go given the attacking instincts of all three players on the opposite side.

If Berhalter has truly settled on John Brooks and one of Aaron Long or Matt Mizaga as his starting center backs, then the USMNT heads into 2020 with a relatively stable, non-fluid situation along the backline since… maybe the 2010 World Cup.

Small victories, but victories nonetheless.

USMNT cruises past Cuba to reach Nations League semis (video)

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The U.S. men’s national team ticked all the boxes — most notably, the one reading “win and advance” — in its 4-0 victory over Cuba to reach the semifinals of the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League as the winners of Group A.

[ MORE: Miami and Nashville stock rosters in expansion draft + trades galore ]

Jordan Morris continued his scintillating late-season surge, carrying over his red-hot form for MLS Cup winners Seattle Sounders, and scored his second and third goals of the current international break to put the game out of reach before halftime. Josh Sargent also scored twice, once in each half.

The goals started extremely early and showed little sign of letting up from there. Josh Sargent put the Yanks ahead in the 36th… second. A mass scramble ensued after Paul Arriola crossed the ball into the six-yard box and Sargent got the final touch to tally his fourth senior goal.

Morris got the USMNT’s second in the 26th minute, when he tucked home a simple one-on-one chance set up by Jackson Yueill’s diagonal ball into the box, with a bit of help from Weston McKennie’s head.

Morris got his second of the game 13 minutes later, once again the result of a penalty-area scramble and a bit of pinball in the box. Aaron Long took two chances to get the ball across the face of goal, and once he finally did it looped over the goalkeeper’s head and found Morris crashing the back post. The ball appeared goal-bound without a touch from Morris, but better safe than sorry.

Sargent finished the scoring and bagged his second of the game, and the fifth of his international career, off a clever backheel by Tyler Boyd in the 66th minute. McKennie crossed the ball from right to left, overhitting it just a bit, but Boyd was able to touch it before crossing the endline and find Sargent in all kinds of space atop the six-yard box. He took the chance with his left foot and left very little to doubt.

The result sent the USMNT miles ahead of Canada in the final group standings. Despite finish tied on nine points, the Americans finished with a +12 goal differential compared to their northern neighbors’ +6.

Miami and Nashville stock rosters in MLS expansion draft

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Major League Soccer expansion teams Nashville and Miami filled out their rosters for next season via the league’s expansion draft Tuesday.

[ REPORT: Spurs, Mourinho in discussions to replace Pochettino ]

The two teams selected five players each from a pool of 222 left unprotected by their current MLS teams.

Miami added defender Ben Sweat, a Florida native, from NYCFC with its first selection. Sweat, a first-round draft pick by the Columbus Crew in 2014, has played three seasons in New York. This past season he appeared in 18 games with 13 starts.

Miami also added Cincinnati defender Alvas Powell, LAFC midfielder Lee Nguyen, Columbus midfielder Luis Argudo and Seattle backup goalkeeper Bryan Meredith.

“We’re excited about what we were able to accomplish with this draft,” said Inter Miami Sporting Director Paul McDonough. “We feel we are gaining momentum ahead of the 2020 season.”

With its first pick, Nashville selected Minnesota striker Abu Danladi, who played in 24 games this past season with four starts and a pair of goals.

[ MORE: Pochettino paid the price for Levy’s mistakes ]

Nashville also selected Portland defender Zarek Valentin, New England defender Jalil Anibaba, Atlanta forward Brandon Vazquez and Sporting Kansas City defender Jimmy Medranda.

Nashville traded Valentin to the Houston Dynamo for goalkeeper Joe Willis. The expansion team also acquired goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas from Sporting Kansas City in exchange for allocation money and a 2020 International roster spot, and got allocation money from Cincinnati in exchange for Vazquez.

Nashville also acquired defender Daniel Lovitz from the Montreal Impact in exchange for allocation money and a 2020 international roster spot.

[ MORE: Where to next for Pochettino? ]

Miami traded allocation money for Cincinnati’s No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry and Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, a Nashville native, helped to announce Nashville’s picks at an expansion draft party. Earlier this week, Nashville announced it would host Atlanta United in the team’s first official match on Feb. 29.

Inter Miami’s first home match will be March 14 against the LA Galaxy at the new Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

The Galaxy also re-signed midfielder Sebastian Lletget.