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Hegerberg hat-trick leads Lyon to women’s Champions League title

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Lyon won its fourth straight women’s Champions League title behind a hat-trick from defending Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg as they topped Barcelona 4-1 in Budapest.

The game got out of hand early, as Lyon bagged all four of its scores in the opening half-hour, cruising from that point on. German international Dzsenifer Marozsan opened the scoring just five minutes in, and Hegerberg took over from there, striking twice in the opening 20 minutes before a 30th minute goal sealed the deal.

Marozsan’s goal was an emotional one, a crowd favorite being from the city originally. The opener was assisted on a cross from Shanice van de Sanden, who picked up the first two assists in a brilliant supporting role from the start.

The matchup was billed as a face-off between Hegerberg and Barcelona forward Lieke Martens – winner of the 2017 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award before the Ballon d’Or was introduced – but it was no contest as Martens missed a 68th minute effort, forced to wait until the 89th minute to provide her contribution, an assist on the consolation goal by Asisat Oshoala. England striker Toni Duggan also featured in the match for Barcelona, but she missed a chance in the opening minutes for Barcelona before Lyon took control, and Duggan was withdrawn with 20 minutes to go.

Barcelona’s project is still a model for others around Europe, having only introduced its women’s side in 2015 and building a solid base, but the gulf in talent was exposed in Budapest Saturday in their first European final. Lyon, meanwhile, hasn’t lost a competitive match in nearly a year, falling to Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in last year’s Coupe de France Feminine final.

Remembering bold Ajax run that never strayed from its philosophy

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Sometimes the football gods show us something special, something that gives us hope even in the face of unimaginable agony. Not necessarily the hope we wanted, but the hope we needed. Hope for the future that somehow touches us even though we are not directly connected.

As we watched a bold young Ajax side make a stunning run through the Champions League, there was a swagger about them that allowed neutral fans to connect with a hidden passion. This team would win, they would do it their way, and they would do it against the best in the world. Every fan likes to watch the giants fall, if done with confidence and gall and poise.

A squad that features a 19-year-old captain, a 23-year-old goalkeeper, a 22-year-old attacking wizard, and a 21-year-old midfield anchor was lighting up the best teams in the world on the biggest stage at the most famous grounds on the planet, and through it all they would not be moved from their creed.

Ultimately, it cost them everything as Spurs galavanted to one of the most stunning comebacks Europe has ever seen in its most prestigious club competition. As Jose Mourinho – who himself completed the feat with Porto in 2004 and again with Inter in 2010 – said after the match, “Sometimes you even need to go against your philosophy to win a football match…but they stuck with their philosophy, they played the game in the second half like they were playing Vitesse in the Dutch league. They played like it was a group phase game, or one more game in their own league.”

(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

What Mourinho doesn’t realize is, that was exactly what made Ajax so special. Their best was better than anyone else’s best this year, with maybe only Liverpool coming close. They beat Real Madrid on the road, Juventus on the road, and Tottenham on the road by sticking with their philosophy, and it added to their mystique. These were kids who wouldn’t be bullied by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Robert Lewandowski, or any of the other stars they matched up against. They would win their own swashbuckling way, or they’d die trying. They stared giants in the face, and slayed one after another, until like Boromir they took one too many arrows to the chest. But they would not be moved.

As the second half of Wednesday’s match continued and the visitors at Johan Cruyff Arena grew in confidence, Ajax could have bunkered in and looked to defend knowing one more Spurs goal would do them in. Instead, they played as they have all season, attacking at every opportunity. Despite Spurs pouring forward in relentless and desperate fashion, the hosts had five shots in the final 20 minutes – including three in the final 10 minutes – while defending the lead. Hakim Ziyech missed a 62nd minute effort that came agonizingly close to killing off the game – a goal which would have changed the narrative completely – and also had a 78th minute chance go just wide.

This is who they are, and manager Erik ten Hag would not stray from that mentality, even as Spurs scored one, then two, then three to complete the comeback. He had captured lightning in a bottle with some of the best young talent in Europe all together on the field, and so far no one had been able to out-football them. As Ziyech, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, and Matthijs de Ligt carved up some of the best players in the world with a stunning attacking flow, it was clear that they were tactically superior to their opponents, who were seemingly blindsided that their talent could be matched in such a way.

What this young team gave fans around the world is hope – hope that they too could be a part of something special someday, that lightning in a bottle is not just for Leicester City and its miracle run from seemingly nowhere. No, this type of hope is different than that. A true investment in young talent pays off every so often, and if the stars align just right, anyone can produce what Ajax has gifted the world. This was a calculated process, a system that created a beautiful product that wasn’t just a season of overachievement based on hard work and good management, but instead a base of truly world-class talent at a young age. A process that not only brought Ajax seconds from the Champions League final, but one that will pay off this summer in what surely will culminate in a massive financial windfall for the club.

That is what makes this end to the run so heartbreaking – the Ajax squad will surely be picked apart this summer, and while Edwin van der Sar will do his best to take a balanced approach to the coming transfer window, it will be difficult for the Dutch side to fend off the European vultures. But that is part of the team’s identity – as they progressed through bigger and bigger challenges, and each player’s transfer value grew, they knew the end was near. This was their one and only shot together. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain each time they stepped foot on the pitch, and it showed.

Ajax gave fans around the world hope that with the right mentality, with the right process, a club can stick to its guns and not only recall memories of its great history, but create new moments in time, ones that will shock the world. They may have fallen just short of true glory, but this run should be remembered because it was a story of success through process, one that proves anyone belongs in this great tournament if they earn it.

Champions League Preview: Liverpool v. Barcelona

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In honor of Star Wars day from a couple of days ago, the famous character Yoda’s most well-known phrase came to mind when thinking about Liverpool heading into its second leg with Barcelona.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

Should the Reds advance to a second-consecutive UEFA Champions League final, they’ll have to do the improbable, score four goals and beat Barcelona on Tuesday night in Liverpool.  Barcelona’s 3-0 win last week, concluded with a majestic, out-of-this-world free kick from Lionel Messi, was only the start of the bad run for Liverpool.

[MORE: Man City one win away from PL title]

Since then, the team has long stars Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino to injury, and the team’s defense looked shaky despite a 3-2 win at Newcastle.

There’s not much Jurgen Klopp could have done to help Liverpool avoid Messi’s magic, but he’s doing his best to remove any last vestiges of pressure ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal match.

The situation with the 3-0 is obviously not the situation we want to have before the second leg,” Klopp told reporters on Monday at a press conference. “Two of the world’s best strikers are not available for tomorrow and we have to score four goals to go through. It doesn’t make life easier, but as long as we have 11 players on the pitch we will try. You have to be perfect to beat them. It’s possible that this will be the last Champions League game of the campaign, so let’s celebrate it.”

If Liverpool want to be successful, it’s going to need players like Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk and Fabinho to step up even more than they have so far this season, with players such as Andy Robertson, Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum all having the games of their lives just to get back to 3-3. As Liverpool showed in Istanbul, overcoming a 3-0 deficit isn’t impossible. But they’ll have to do it.

Regardless of Tuesday’s result, it’s been an outstanding season for Liverpool. They’ve made up more than 20 points in the Premier League and made the Champions League semifinals yet again. However, it appears they’ve met a juggernaut that not even Ajax or Tottenham may be able to defeat in the Champions League final.

For Barcelona, while Ernesto Valverde’s team will know its in control of the tie, the club also knows that its heading into one of Europe’s most difficult environments. In addition, last year, many of this Barcelona squad collapsed at Roma, missing out on another deep Champions League run.

The Blaugrana will be hoping to avoid that fate this time around. One goal should be enough to see them through.

:”If we think about last week’s result it would be an error,” Valverde said. “We have to play it as if it was a final. It’s going to be difficult because we know their fans will get behind them. They have fast players. Sometimes you are put in situations that are uncomfortable. We want to have the feeling that we’re in control. They’re going to attack us, there’s no doubt about that. But we have to focus on ourselves.”

Champions League Tuesday Preview: Tottenham v. Ajax

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Tottenham fans couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was a favorite to advance to the UEFA Champions League final in the minutes after their away goals rule win in a 4-4 aggregate draw with Manchester City.

Two weeks later, it’s a different story.

Fatigue and injuries have left Tottenham with a shell of a team, with just one win, scraping past Brighton and Hove Albion, and little momentum heading into a monumental matchup with an Ajax team high on confidence. Tottenham have no Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Harry Winks or Erik Lamela, and even Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Sissoko are injury doubts.

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But that doesn’t take into account what Tottenham do have. By not making any signings, this is as tight-knit a group as the Premier League has seen in many, many years. Plus, in manager Mauricio Pochettino, there’s a unique tactician who combines great x’s and o’s with excellent man management, always getting the best out of his players in the key moments of the match.

Even without some stars and coming off a rough 1-0 loss to West Ham at home, Tottenham’s players will be confident facing Ajax, only because they are always a confident bunch. It will be a reminder of where he came from for Davinson Sanchez, who spent one successful season at Ajax, helping them to the Europa League final before heading to England, and Christian Eriksen, another Ajax alum (along with Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen) will have a big task ahead of him with Frenkie de Jong running the show for Ajax.

Tottenham’s mission is simple, but it’s one that flummoxed Real Madrid and Juventus so far: How to neutralize Dusan Tadic up the middle and then negate de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. Whoever of Fernando Llorente or Dele Alli will have to not only occupy de Ligt, but also pull him out of position, opening spaces for Tottenham’s wing backs to exploit on late runs.

Meanwhile, Eriksen or Alli are going to have a busy day keeping tabs on de John, trying to limit his touches, while Alderweireld and Sanchez will have to be quick to pick up Tadic when he drops into space.

Tottenham will have to do all of this on shorter rest, with a shorter bench and less recent confidence than Ajax. But maybe that’s exactly where Pochettino wants his opponents.

“It’s going to be a magical night because to play the semifinals in our new stadium is something that no one could believe or think a few months ago,” Pochettino said in his pre-match press conference Monday. “It’s a game that is impossible to be tired for, not to be excited to play. It’s all mental.

“The energy is going to be there. It’s two legs – tomorrow we are going to play the first half of the game and the second is going to be at Ajax. It’s so important how we approach the game and how we handle the game during 90 minutes.”

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.