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Champions League Quarterfinals Continues

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The Champions League, the world’s most esteemed club football tournament, has started up again after a short, 3-week hiatus between the Round of 16 and quarterfinals. Looking back on my previous Champions League projections I can confidently say that my predictive ability is abysmal.

P.S.G., my favorite to win the tournament, did not stage the comeback I envisioned in their second-leg vs. Real Madrid: they continued their recent trend of underperforming in the Champions League by exiting in the Round of 16. My club, Tottenham, also didn’t manage to hold off Juventus as I said they would, with the Italian club scoring twice in 5 minutes to come back and beat Tottenham on 2-1. Manchester United also failed me by losing to Sevilla on their own pitch 2-1. Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Roma all advanced to the quarterfinals, making my Round of 16 predictions five out of eight. However, now the reset button has been hit. The quarterfinal provide a new opportunity for amazing games, jaw-dropping goals, and most importantly for me, better predictions.

The quarterfinal matchups are, like all knockout stage games, randomly selected from the pot of remaining teams. They are as follows: Real Madrid vs. Juventus, Barcelona vs. Roma, Bayern Munich vs. Sevilla, and Manchester City vs. Liverpool. Many believe that this draw favored all of the strongest remaining teams. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City were certainly looking like the top 4 teams heading into this round. A Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, and Manchester City semifinals seemed to be on the cards.

The first day of competition was April 3rd, on which Bayern Munich was playing Sevilla and Real Madrid was playing Juventus. Bayern Munich travelled to Sevilla’s stadium. They grabbed two crucial away goals from Thiago and Jesus Navas (a Sevilla player who scored an own goal) in a 2-1 victory.

The much more enticing matchup of the first day was Real Madrid vs. Juventus. These two teams have met in two of the previous three tournaments. In 2015, Juventus eliminated Real Madrid in the semifinals. Last year, Real Madrid got their revenge, defeating Juventus 4-1 in the finals. This year, it seemed like Real Madrid picked up right where they left off in 2017. Madrid kept a clean sheet and put 3 goals past Italian goalkeeping legend  Gianluigi Buffon, who is playing in his final season of club football. Two of those goals came from the king of the Champions League, Cristiano Ronaldo.

The first goal marked the 10th consecutive game Ronaldo scored in the competition, a record. The second goal marked the 119th goal Ronaldo has scored in the competition, another tournament record. However, these feats were not even the most impressive thing Ronaldo accomplished that night.

The second goal Ronaldo scored was undoubtedly the best goal he has ever scored, out of the 650 in his career. Real Madrid right back Carvajal drove down the far side of the eighteen yard box and chipped a ball high in the air towards the penalty spot. Ronaldo, who was running away from the net, leapt into the air, bringing his right foot around in a bicycle kick. He made contact with the ball, which looked to be about 9 feet in the air at that point. The ball soared into the side panel of the net, leaving Buffon standing still in the middle of the goal. Ronaldo calmly got up off the pitch, ran over to a crowd of Juventus fans, pointing to himself in typical Ronaldo fashion. The Juventus fans were seen applauding the 33 year-old Portuguese superstar after the goal. Ronaldo had finally got his signature moment, the one that would be constantly referenced when discussing his illustrious career. He had this to say about the Juventus fans: “This was one of the nicest moments. To be applauded by the Juventus stadium, where so many great footballers have played, is a top moment for me. It’s something that stays in your heart … I want to thank all the Italians who were here in the stadium and applauded me.”

The second day of matchups brought excitement as well. The two remaining English teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, faced each other at Anfield, Liverpool’s legendary home field. Anfield is known to have one of the best European football atmospheres. Liverpool have played some of their most memorable games in their storied history at the stadium: the 1991 comeback vs. Auxerre, the 2007 semi-final victory vs. Chelsea, the miraculous 3 goal comeback vs. Dortmund in 2016, and the legendary victory vs. Chelsea in 2005. Liverpool’s European history is one of the best out of any English club, but have underperformed in the Champions League in recent years.

Although it was Liverpool who ended City’s remarkable undefeated streak a few months ago, many analysts were picking City to be the ones to emerge victorious from this matchup. After all, Manchester City were one win away from wrapping up the Premier League title and showed no signs of slowing down. However, right from the start, it was Liverpool who set the tone for the game. Mohamed Salah, the undisputed signing of the season and potential player of the year in the Premier League, scored the first goal of the game in 12th minute. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain added a second 8 minutes later, and Sadio Mané scored the third after another 11 minutes. Manchester City were stifled the rest of the first half and all of the second, leaving the score 3-0 to Liverpool. Anfield has seen some fantastic European games in its history, but was the loudest its ever been, according to some Liverpool players. Although there isn’t much Liverpool can do about the Premier League title at this point, they still had given themselves a great chance to spoil Manchester City’s Champions League hopes.

Barcelona’s game versus Roma went as expected. Roma started off by blundering away two own goals. Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué scored the third goal a little later. Roma’s forward Džeko got one back for the Italian side in the 80th minute, but Luis Suarez all but put the game away with a goal of his own in the 89th minute.

The second legs of the quarterfinal matchups were as good, if not better, than the first legs. To kick things off, Roma completed a remarkable comeback vs. Barcelona, rivaling the one Barcelona made versus PSG in the Round of 16 last year. Džeko, in front of Roma’s massive home crowd, scored early one, making the aggregate score 4-2. For the rest of the first half, Ter Stegen, Barcelona’s goalkeeper, kept Roma at bay. However, in the 57th minute, Roma was awarded a penalty kicker. De Rossi, Roma’s captain, step up to the spot and delivered, sending the stadium into pandemonium. One more goal and Roma were through. The magical moment came in the 81st minute. After yet another sequence of miraculous Ter Stegen saves a couple minutes earlier, Roma broke though. A corner-kick was swung in towards near post of Barcelona’s goal and Kostas Manolas jumped in front of his defended, nodding the ball into the far side of the goal. The stadium erupted. Roma players swarmed Manolas as he sprinted towards Roma’s bench. Roma had accomplished a miracle to send themselves into the semifinals of the Champions League, against Spanish powerhouse Barcelona nonetheless.

Manchester City looked like they might have been able to complete a 3 goal comeback of their own in front of their home crowd at the Etihad, with Gabriel Jesus scoring in the 2nd minute. However, after stifling Manchester City’s offense for rest of the first half, Liverpool got their devastating goal, and who else but Mohamed Salah was the one to score it. Roberto Firmino smashed all hope of a Manchester City comeback with a goal of his own ten minutes later, and Liverpool punched their ticket to the Champions League semifinals. Manchester City’s awful week of losing 3-0 to Liverpool and 3-2 to Manchester United had somehow gotten worse.

Bayern Munich calmly quelled Sevilla at home, drawing 0-0. This was enough to get the German Champions through to yet another Champions League semifinal. Bayern hope to return to the final for the first time since 2013.

The most dramatic game of the quarterfinals looked to be Roma’s comeback vs. Barcelona. It seemed impossible that no other game could match the chaos the Italian side produced by defeating the soon-to-be Spanish champions. But, as is so typical in Champions League football, people were proven wrong again. The second leg of Real Madrid vs. Juventus proved to be just as intriguing, just as dramatic, and just as brilliant as Roma’s comeback. Juventus travelled to Madrid after losing 3-0, making most fans think of this game just as formality: Real Madrid had essentially already made their way into the semifinals. This, of course, was proven to be false. Mario Mandžukić, Juventus’ forward, scored in the 2nd minute of the game, showing everyone that Juventus would not go down without a fight. He added a second goal in the 37th minute, and it was game on. The match, which was back and forth all night long, continued on for some time. Real Madrid’s goalie Keylor Navas and Juve’s goalie Buffon were feeding off one another, making save after save after save. However, it was Navas who flinched first, coughing up a rebound for Blaise Matuidi to put away in the 60th minute. The impossible, a term that should never be used in football, had happened. Juventus were level, and all it took was one more goal to put them through to the semifinals.

The next 30 minutes passed along, each team throwing everything they had at one another. Real Madrid was playing for an opportunity to win a third consecutive Champions League title; Juventus for a chance to show that they shouldn’t be labeled as an underdog anymore. Buffon, who will retire after this season, was playing to keep his last run in the Champions League alive. Unfortunately for the Italian legend, the unimaginable happened. In added time, Real Madrid were awarded a penalty. Buffon, caught up in the passion and adrenaline rush that is football, screamed at the referee until he was given a red card and sent off. Real Madrid’s stadium had been exploding with noise until their hero stepped up to take the penalty kick. Ronaldo took one brief glance at the net, ran up, and smashed the penalty kick into the right upper-corner. He ripped his shirt off, ran to the corner, and fueled the screams of a hundred thousand fans. Real Madrid had won, and it was thanks to him yet again.

Each round of the Champions League this year seems to be better than the last. The Roma and Real Madrid victories provided enough excitement for an entire tournament, but the best is yet to come. Real, Roma, Bayern, and Liverpool are the remaining four. Spanish, italian, german, and english teams, respectively. A clash of each of these countries’ best is on the cards, and the football world will be waiting eagerly to witness it.

Champions League round of 16 begins

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European football’s most prestigious tournament, the Champions League, is in its most exciting stage, the Knockout Round of 16. There are 16 teams in this round, each playing another team in a two-legged matchup, one game at home and one game away. Matchups were randomly selected from a pool of eight winners from the group stage and eight runners-up from the group stage. The winner of the two-legged matchup is first determined by whoever wins the most games, then by aggregate score if record isn’t enough. If aggregate score is the same, away goals scored are weighed more heavily than home goals scored. If that is still not enough to determine a winner, then the second match will continue into extra time and penalty kicks. Winners move on in the tournament, losers go home.

The Round of 16 is considered, at least in my eyes, the best round of the tournament because it consists of 16 games over the course of February and March, and there is a strong likelihood of intriguing matchups across the board. Last season, the miraculous Barcelona comeback against PSG occurred in the Round of 16, along with Leicester City’s impressive victory over Sevilla to advance into the quarter finals. This year, the randomly-selected matchups are enticing: Juventus versus Tottenham, Real Madrid versus PSG, Manchester City versus FC Basel, Liverpool versus FC Porto, Bayern Munich versus Besiktas, Chelsea versus Barcelona, Manchester United versus Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk versus Roma. This Round of 16 features five English teams out of the five that qualified for the group stage portion; this had never occurred before.  In recent years, English teams have had rather poor showings in the group stage and knockout stages, but this season, there is hope that the Premier League can prove its status as “the best league” in Europe. There are three Spanish teams in the Round of 16, two Italian teams, two Portuguese teams, one Swiss team, one Ukrainian team, one French team, and one German team. It is impressive to see teams from the Swiss League (FC Basel) and Ukrainian League (Shakhtar Donetsk) advance to this stage, considering how the knockout round has historically been dominated by the English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

The tournament is about halfway through the Round of 16 and has already featured some fantastic fixtures for the neutral fan. Juventus and Tottenham played out a thrilling match, with Tottenham coming back from an early 2-0 deficit away in Italy. Perhaps the most anticipated match of the round was Real Madrid versus PSG. Both PSG and Real Madrid were expected to handily win their respective groups, but Real Madrid stumbled and ended up as a runner-up. This is a matchup that many expected to see later in the tournament. Although many people, myself included, believed Real Madrid’s faltering league form and PSG’s high powered attack would result in PSG’s victory, Real Madrid won comfortably at home 3-1. Superstar Cristiano Ronaldo once again displayed his ability to step his game up in the Champions League with two goals, bringing his grand, record-breaking total in the Champions League up to 116 goals. PSG clearly suffered from the absence of youth sensation Kylian Mbappe and captain Thiago Silva. The other two matchups during the first week of the Round of 16 were blowouts, both in favor of English clubs. Liverpool’s attacking trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah demolished FC Porto 5-0, while seemingly unstoppable Manchester City won 4-0 versus FC Basel.

Week 2 of the Round of 16 hosted the other four matchups. Bayern Munich unsurprisingly dismantled the Portuguese club Besiktas behind two goals from Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski, respectively. The always-entertaining Chelsea versus Barcelona match up ended up 1-1. Chelsea had defended valiantly all game, gaining the lead with about 30 minutes to go behind Willian’s strike. However, with 15 minutes to go, Lionel Messi tied up the game off of a defensive blunder from Chelsea. Chelsea will have a tall mountain to climb in Barcelona if they want to advance to the quarter finals. Manchester United drew 0-0 with Sevilla, failing to secure a valuable away goal. Roma versus Shakhtar Donetsk finished 2-1 in favor of Shakhtar, but Roma was able to score an away goal, putting them in good position for the second leg of the matchup.

While some of these two-legged match ups seem to be decided after the first game, Barcelona taught the footballing world never to count a team out, even after losing 4-0 on the road. That being said, I can confidently say Manchester City, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich will advance into the quarter finals. I believe that my team, Tottenham, will prevail over Juventus. I think PSG will stage a comeback versus defending champions Real Madrid. I predict Barcelona to advance over Chelsea, Manchester United over Sevilla, and Roma over Shakhtar Donetsk. For the record, my original predictions in November had Juventus exiting early, Bayern Munich and Barcelona going far into the tournament, and Real Madrid picking up their form, but PSG winning the entire tournament, Hopefully, for the sake of my credibility, my predictions come true.

Checking in on the Champions League

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Europe’s top soccer tournament, the UEFA Champions League, is well under way. The Champions League puts the best teams from a multitude of different European soccer leagues (England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, etc.) against each other in one tournament. There are several stages to the Champions League. Teams must first qualify by either winning their domestic league or placing very high in their league table. This is dependent on the quality of the league each team comes from. For example, only the winners of the Belgian league qualify but the top four English teams qualify, due to the competitive nature of the English Premier League. Overall, there are 32 teams divided into eight different groups of four. The teams in these groups will all play one another twice, and the two teams with the highest number of points (3 for a win, 1 for a draw) advance. This leads to the knockout stage, in which the 16 remaining teams compete the traditional tournament format, with the winner moving on. Currently, the tournament is 75 percent through the group stages.

The groups of the Champions Leagues are extremely influential in the results of the tournament. Since they are randomly chosen after the 32 teams qualify, the quality of teams in each group can vary immensely based on the sorting. This year, a terrifying “Group of Death” is composed of Tottenham Hotspur (England), Real Madrid (Spain), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), and Apoel Niscosia (Greece). The first three teams in this group are world class teams: Tottenham and Dortmund are some of the top teams in their own countries and Real Madrid is arguably one of the best teams in the world, winning three out of the four last Champions Leagues. Currently, the table has Tottenham in first, Real Madrid in second, Dortmund in third, and Nicosia in fourth.

Another “Group of Death” has AS Roma (Italy), Chelsea (England), Atletico Madrid (Spain), and FK Qarabag (Azerbaijan). Similar to the irst group of death, three of these teams have been historically very successful in the Champions League. Chelsea and Roma are two of the top teams in their respective leagues and Atletico Madrid has been the tournament’s final twice in the last four years, both times losing to Real Madrid. Roma is on top of this table, with Chelsea in second, Atletico in third, and Qarabag in fourth.

There are six more groups, each riddled with very capable soccer clubs, but there a few names more recognizable than others. Manchester United, one of the most recognizable names in English soccer, is on top of their group, having won all four of the games they’ve played. One Swarthmore student, Oliver Steinglass ’20,  is a fan of Manchester United, and was asked a few questions on the English club’s Champions League chances:

Obviously, tensions are high with most Manchester fans these days. Both clubs, United and City, are playing exceptionally well. With good play comes high expectations, so there’s good reason for Oliver’s bold predictions and sensitive nature.

Manchester City is flying high in their group, having won all four of their games. Also in City’s group is Napoli, the top team of the Italian League table. They, however, are struggling in third place with only one win. The English club Liverpool is narrowly in first in their group, with Spain’s Sevilla in hot pursuit. Barcelona, another world famous club, is sitting atop their group through four games. Juventus (Italy), last year’s runner-up, is right behind Barcelona in that same group. Finally, giant clubs Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) (France) and Bayern Munich (Germany) are locked into a tight race for first place in their respective group.

The round of 16 will be finalized in December with the first games of the stage played in February and March. The knockout stage will conclude with the finals on May 26, 2018. As of November 5, 2017, it’s tough to pick out a winner. Both Manchester clubs have been excellent, but with their focus also on their own league race back in England, it’ll be tough for the teams to field fresh players for Champions League games. The two Spanish giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, are always in the running. However, after Real Madrid’s recent shocking 3-1 loss to Tottenham and lackluster play in the Spanish league, one can wonder how they expect to turn their play around. Meanwhile, Barcelona have been excellent, despite losing their young star Neymar Jr. to PSG, who are also making noise in Europe. Juventus and Bayern Munich also can’t be ignored: both teams have always been historically successful in European play. Additionally, it’s tough to ignore Tottenham after their defeat of Real Madrid and fantastic play in a “Group of Death”.

As for me, a fan of Tottenham, I would love to see my club win. However, despite their victory over Real Madrid, it’s hard to imagine that other massive clubs won’t pick up their form. I don’t think Manchester United has enough to win the league, and Manchester City certainly cannot keep up their amazing form. Barcelona will go far, and I’m sure Real Madrid will sort themselves out in time for the knockout stage. I expect Juventus to exit early and for Bayern to go deep into the tournament as well. However, it is PSG who I think will win the entire tournament. The team that consistently falls short in the tournament will finally have their dream finish.

It’s tough to liken the Champions League to any other sports tournament. It doesn’t meet the World Cup in terms of passion; nothing does. However, one could argue that the Champions League puts on display the best soccer teams on planet, and that the Champions League Final is the pinnacle of soccer for a given year. After all, the top club teams attract the top players each year: national teams are set from birth. Either way, it’s guaranteed that true soccer fans will feast their eyes on the tournament over the next seven months.

Will The Clasico Be a Classic?

in Columns/Out of Left Field/Sports by

What we have this week is really a treat, with Real Madrid fighting to save their season and to begin 2013 on the front foot. The match on Tuesday against Barcelona in the second leg of their Copa del Rey clash was a great start to a three game run that will decide whether Mourinho was a successful coach in Spain or not.  Starting with a 3-1 victory in this run of games sets the tone for how things should play out in the future, but really, the score line of this one game should not be exaggerated because what seems like Madrid’s dominance could also be seen as a symptom of Barca’s continuing failure.

The first thing to look at is the game itself and how for once Mourinho got the tactics right and a referee who was not willing to be bullied by Barcelona. This combination enabled Real Madrid to provide a solid defensive effort without the threat of being penalised for every challenge. Admittedly, Barcelona did try it on a bit despite the fact that Roura knew that he wasn’t going to get any favours, but old habits die hard and a lifetime of training can’t be overturned for one match. With Mallenco in charge Madrid had a chance to get their tackles in without being punished unfairly. However, the tactical battle during the match was much more interesting than what was happening with the referee. Much like in the Milan game, Roura had no idea what to do to tactically break down Madrid once plan A had failed. Against Milan there was no incision, there was little magic from Messi, and the ball simply moved from wing to wing via Xavi and Iniesta. The same things happened on Tuesday, with the occasional shot from Pedro and Iniesta when they cut inside. The Alba goal at the end was from a lovely chip over the backline by Iniesta but it was probably the only through ball in the final third that reached its target. Barcelona once again had 62% of possession and very little to show for it, but that was because of the Madrid game plan: bring the fullbacks in and keep one defensive line. By congesting the middle of the penalty area and letting the Barcelona midfield take long range efforts Real Madrid managed to nullify almost every Barcelona attempt. Varane was particularly impressive all game and proved that against Barca all you have to do is look for the interceptions and resist the urge to get stuck in, unlike Pepe. In the end there was only going to be one result once Ronaldo scored the first goal since it meant Barca had to chase the game against a team that was quite happy to give two thirds of the pitch up.

 

The next two games coming up will really show how Mourinho wants to be remembered in Madrid. The game on Saturday against Barcelona will give an indication as to the team for next week. Having played and beaten Barcelona in the match that mattered, there will be two possibilities for the Classico this weekend: either Mourinho will field a strong team and show that he wants to beat Barcelona for pride or he will bench several major players and set his sight on winning in Manchester. Either way, there will be a lot of politics in his decision and his legacy will rely on how well he does. If he sacrifices the next Classico then it will show that he has truly given up on La Liga and that he plans to focus on winning the Champions League. It will also show that Mourinho is willing to sacrifice his feud with Barcelona for a chance at some silverware, a decision that would be unpopular with the Madrid faithful but would be understood by the board. However, Mourinho has too much history with Barcelona to simply roll over in favour of beating Man U, all the eye poking and other shenanigans would have been for nothing.

But with the greater prize in the Champions League and most of the Real Madrid team available for the return leg, it would be silly for Mourinho to risk it all by trying to get a few points off Barcelona that probably won’t matter in the end. The Champions League is winnable because Real Madrid is in a good position and the competition shouldn’t scare them too much. United have been able to win despite playing poorly in Europe most of the season, and against a Madrid team hot off a Classico win they may just fold. Against QPR it took a Rafael wonder goal and a lapse of judgement at the end of the game from an overrated group of defenders to win. Man U have found a way to win a lot of matches playing poorly and have rode their luck a lot of the way too, but without Phil Jones to pick up Ronaldo and maybe without a fully fit Van Persie there is a good chance that Madrid could dominate the game by controlling the middle of the field. It might just be time to call the final as being a Bayern Munich – Real Madrid face off. Also with Barcelona 2-0 down against a Milan team than knows how to defend competently at times and Barca showing that their possession football is not scoring them a lot of goals against quality sides it should be a good year for Madrid to put in a CL challenge. Anyway, depending on what team Mourinho starts on Saturday we’ll know whether he plans to go all out for the rest of the season on all fronts or whether he is going to be more tactical and hedge his bets on CL success, his third and Madrid’s tenth.

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