4/9/21 USWNT vs Sweden Sat 1 pm Fox, Tues 1 pm France, El Classico Sat, NWSL Starts Tonight, MLS next Fri, UCL Tues/Wed

 US Women to Face Sweden Sat 1 pm on Fox and France Tues 3 pm ESPN2

The US Ladies will face a pair of top 10 foes on the road in Europe as a warm up to the Olympics this summer.  This roster which includes 20 of the 21 players on the She Believe’s Cup roster could well be a final preview of who will be on the 18 person roster to Japan this summer.  The US plays Sweden on Sat at 1 pm on Fox as they look to avenge their last Olympic loss in 2016 before heading to France for a 3 pm game on ESPN2.  US Sweden Preview

 

USA Women’s Roster GOALKEEPERS

Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

DEFENDERS

Alana Cook (PSG), Abby Dahlkemper (Manchester City), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns), Kelley O’Hara (Washington Spirit), Midge Purce (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns), Emily Sonnett (Washington Spirit)

MIDFIELDERS

Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (Manchester City), Catarina Macario –OUT HURT (Lyon), Kristie Mewis (Houston Dash), Samantha Mewis (Manchester City)

FORWARDS

Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Manchester United), Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage), Tobin Heath (Man United) is Still Injured

NWSL Kicks Off

The US Women’s Soccer League kicks off its season tonight with a rematch of the Championship as the defending Champs Houston Dash will host the Chicago Red Stars at 8:30 pm on CBS Sports Network and Paramount plus (formerly CBS+), Sat night we get to see Racing Louisville host their first game vs the Orlando Pride at 7 pm on Paramount+ .  All the NWSL games will be featured on Paramount plus ($6/month) with occasional games on CBS Sports Network and CBS.  .  The Season will kick-off again with 21 game Challenge Cup this time at home stadiums around the country.  Interesting that the season is starting during an international break so all of the US Women and many world stars are playing for their countries this weekend.   The Challenge Cup will continue thru May 8 with a Cup Champ Game on CBS on Saturday May 8th.  The regular season will then get underway the following weekend and continue thru the summer.  (Check out season previews in the ole Ballcoach)

Champions League

The final 8 got underway last week and it was thrilling.  Real Madrid found their scoring on the way to a 3-1 lead on struggling Liverpool going back to Anfield Wed at 3 pm on Paramount+.  Another upset had PSG taking a 3-2 lead over Bayern Munich at home as GK Kaylor Navas was spectacular with 11+ saves.   They wrap up Tues at 3 pm.  Of course Wed Pulisic and Chelsea will face Porto with a 2-0 lead in hand.  Pulisic played well off the bench in the 70th minute and should have scored a goal on a shot that hit the post.  I have been frustrated with CBS – as they showed no Champions League coverage on Tues/Wed but then showed the pregame/Goalazo show and postgame for Europa League on Thursday on CBSSN with the individual games on Paramount plus.  Champions League is a far bigger deal why not at least show the pre and post game shows on CBS Sports Network if not 1 of the 2 games on at 3 pm each time?  That and how in the world are both games of the top 8 teams in the world playing simultaneously?  Crazy!  Anyway I assume the 2nd leg of the Europa League will be Goalazo format again on Thursday with 3 EPL teams still alive – enjoy. 

MLS + CCL  

The MLS season kicks off next weekend with games on Fox and ABC as more and more games will be on the main networks this summer.  Of course ESPN+ continues to be the home of MLS with most games that aren’t on regular TV being featured there.  Last Season’s top 2 teams in the West Seattle and Min United will kick things off next Friday night on FS1 at 9:30 pm.  Of course before then – 4 MLS teams have gotten off to their best ever Concacaf Champions League start with wins or ties on the road in the first leg.  I have to admitI tuned in and the play was good especially for Columbus 4-0 winners.  Play continues this Tues/Wed night on FS1 at 6 and 8 pm.   4 TakeAways for CCL this Week

Games to Watch This Week

Besides the US Ladies Sat + Tues 3 pm games, the NWSL kickoff tonight at 7 pm on CBSSN and the Champions League and MLS CCL games Tues and Wed we have plenty of good games to watch this weekend.  American’s Josh Stewart of Werder Bremen and Adams of RB Leipzig will play at 9:30 am Sat on ESPN+ as RB Leipzig looks to hang on to 2nd place in the German league.  Of course EL CLASSICO is Saturday at 3 pm on beIN Sport as Real Madrid and Barcelona battle to take over 1st place in La Liga.  Plenty of stories lines on if this is possibly Messi or Ramos last Classico games against each other below (in the ole ballcoach).  Sat at 10 am Liverpool will host Aston villa while at 12:30 pm on NBC Chelsea will face Crystal Palace with US Christian Pulisic probably coming off the bench late.  Sunday we get Tottenham vs Man United unfortunately on Peacock at 11:30 am and a first ever on ABC a Serie A Italian league game Fiorentina vs 4th place Atalanta.  

GAMES ON TV

Fri, Apr 9

3 pm Peacock                       Fulham (robinson) vs Wolverhampton 

8:30 pm CBSSN                     Houston Dash vs Chicago Red Stars  NWSL

10:30 pm paramount +       Portland Thorns vs KC   NWSL

Sat, Apr 10

7:30 am Peacock                 Man City vs Leeds

9:30 am ESPN+                    Werder Bremen (Stewart) vs RB Leipzig (Adams)  

10 am NBCSN                       Liverpool vs Aston Villa

12:30 pm ESPN+                  Stuggart vsDortmund (Reyna)

12:30 pm NBC                      Chelsea (Pulisic) vs Crystal Palace    

1 pm FOX             Sweden vs USA Ladies

3 pm beIN Sport               Real Madrid vs Barcelona (El Classico)

7 pm Para +                           Racing Louisville vs Orlando Pride  NWSL

Sun, Apr 11

11:30 am Peacock               Tottenham vs Man United

2 pm Cock                             Sheffield vs Arsenal

2:30 pm ABC Fiorentina vs Atalanta 4th in Serie A

3 pm beINSport                    Real Bettis vs Athletico Madrid

Tues, Apr 13

3 pm TUND, Para+               Porto (0)  vs Chelsea (2) (Pulisic) UCL

3 pm Paramount+               Bayern Munich (2)  vs PSG (3) UCL

3 pm ESPN2                        France vs US Women

6 pm FS1                                Marathon 1  vs Portland Timbers 1  CCF Champ League

8 pm FS1                                Alajulense 0 vs Atlanta United 1  CCF Champ League

10 pm FS 1                            Cruz Azul vs Archaie

Wed, Apr  14

3 pm CBS SN                         Liverpool  1 vs Real Madrid 3  UCL

3 pm Paramount+               Man City 2 vs Dortmund 1  (Reyna) UCL

6 pm FS1                               Saprisa vs Philly Union  CCF Champ League

8 pm FS1                               Leon vs Toronto FC  CCF Champ League

8 pm FS 2                               Olympia vs America 

Thurs, Apr 8

3 pm CBS SN                          Granada  0 vs Man United  2  Europa

3 pm Paramount+                Aresenal 1 vs Slavia Praha  1 Europa

8 pm FS1                               Real Esteli vs Columbus Crew  CCF Champ League

Fri, Apr 16

3 pm Peacock                       Everton vs Tottenham 

9:30 pm FS1                         Seattle vs Minnesota  MLS Kickoff

10:30 pm paramount +       OL Reign vs Houston Dash   NWSL

Sat, Apr 17

6 pm FOX                               LAFC vs Austin

8:30 pm EPSN+                     Nashville vs Cincy

Sun, Apr 18

3 pm ABC                               Miami vs LA Galaxy

5:30 pm FS1                         Columbus vs Philly

10 pm ESPN+                          Vancouver vs Portland

 

US Ladies

US Sweden Preview – S&S

 

International Friendly: USWNT vs. Sweden – Match History & Preview | Five Things to Know

USWNT REWIND: Challenge Cup Set to Kick Off, Victories in England and France

 USWNT Out To Avenge 2016 Debacle At This Summer’s Olympics

 The United States faces a tough challenge vs. Sweden at the ..
Morgan frustrated by NWSL Cup schedule
  ESPNFC
Kathleen McNamee

Rapino encouraged by Tone Shift by US Soccer
Carli Lloyd on 2020: Worst of times, best of times as soccer star reunites with family

 NWSL Starts this Weekend

NWSL 2021 Season Preview  
NWSL buzz ahead of Challenge Cup reaches new heights
 ESPNFC

Full NWSL Challenge Cup Schedule
NBC Sports to air 2020-21 FA Women’s Super League

Orlando Pride Send Kit to Space
Morgan frustrated by NWSL Cup schedule
  ESPNFC
Kathleen McNamee
Carli Lloyd on 2020: Worst of times, best of times as soccer star reunites with family

CHAMPIONS + Europa LEAGUE

Breaking Things Down After the First Leg – EPSNFC Marcotti
Lack of ‘killer instinct’ leaves Bayern facing Champions League exit

Mbappe stars as PSG win at holders Bayern Munich

Chelsea punish wasteful Porto to put one foot in Champions League semis

Klopp says Liverpool Champions League comeback will be tough at empty Anfield

Three things we learned from Real Madrid v Liverpool

Vinicius double puts Real Madrid on top against Liverpool

Ruthless Real Madrid turn to Barca after Liverpool rout

Dortmund dream of downing Man City despite ‘brutally annoying’ away defeat

Pep says no quadruple pressure, KDB calls late Dortmund goal a ‘shame’

– Ogden: Man City win, but UCL dream looks wobbly
Goal Compilation of the Day: UCL Quarterfinals – 04/07/2021
Europa League wrap: Late goals see Man United win big(ger), Arsenal draw

 

Concacaf Champs League MLS vs Mexico, CA

4 TakeAways for CCL this Week
Horror tackle, brawl mars Philadelphia’s debut CCL win (video)

CONCACAF Champions League: 10-man Atlanta wins, Portland draws

Portland Timbers draw CD Marathòn in opener of the CONCACAF Champions League

Darlington Nagbe: Columbus have the tools to win Concacaf Champions League

 US MEN


USMNT rise in latest FIFA world rankings

Tuchel: Pulisic will be ‘huge weapon’ for Chelsea

USMNT Number #9 Power Rankings: The Top 10

Americans at home: MLS is back, again, still, who should we talk about?

USMNT’s Robinson reveals pride in ‘Fulhamerica’ legacy

Barcelona open to offers for USMNT’s Konrad in summer – sources

After a yearlong absence, Mexican national soccer team again will play often in U.S.

 EPL


Solskjaer welcomes rivalry between goalkeepers De Gea and Henderson

De Bruyne signs new contract for 4 more years at Man City

WORLD

 Will this Be the Last EL CLASSICO for Messi and or Ramos?    
Zidane hopes there will be more Clasicos for Messi and Ramos

Messi happy again but Barca wonder if this Clasico will be his last

 Griezmann nets hat trick with third child born on same day

Lille trace unlikely path towards French title

Serie A: Lukaku drives Inter closer to title, Juve settles for top four hope

MLS Stars Next Fri 4/16

Season Previews for Every Club – MLS.com

Cincy Season Preview

Columbus Season Preview

Chicago Fire Season Preview

Indy 11 – Season Starts May 1

2021 REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE ANNOUNCED

Return to the Mike

21 New Roster

Season Tix Available

INDY ELEVEN SIGNS SCOTTISH PREMIER LEAGUE STRIKER CAMMY SMITH

Indy Eleven Adds Bloomington Native Jeremiah Gutjahr to Roster

Hundreds of Hopefuls Attend 2021 Open Tryout

Indy Eleven & WISH-TV Extend Broadcast Partnership through 2022 Season

Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Football Club Acquires Forward Cal Jennings via Transfer

USA vs Sweden: match preview and how to watch

The USWNT begin their Eurotrip against Sweden.

By Stephanie Yang@thrace  Apr 9, 2021, 6:00am PDT

The United States last saw Sweden when they were beating them 3-2 in a friendly in Columbus in 2019. Prior to that, they beat Sweden 2-0 in the group stage of the 2019 World Cup in Le Havre. And before that they beat them 1-0 in their own country in Gothenburg in 2017. So perhaps any narratives about lingering tension from that time Sweden ignominiously booted the United States from the Olympics are well and truly over. Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a competitive game; you don’t haul a whole team over to Europe during COVID just to enjoy a relaxed friendly. There’s serious Olympic slots on the line with just one more FIFA window after this before things kick off in Japan, although USSF may be pulling players outside of the window to prepare.

Looking at Sweden

Iconic Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl is out for this game, after positive COVID tests at her club, Atletico Madrid. She was replaced by 23-year-old Emma Holmgren, currently uncapped for the WNT. Holmgren is one of several young and relatively untested players on this squad, although they are certainly backstopped by a core of mega-experienced players like Nilla Fischer, Linda Sembrant, Kosovare Asllani, Sofia Jakobsson, and Caroline Seger.

Asllani and Jakobsson have been having an overall decent time of it in Spain with Real Madrid, and alongside Blackstenius, create an obvious offensive core to watch. On the other end of the field, center back Magdalena Eriksson could be a target for the United States’ high attacking pressure, stopping her from using her ability to cycle the ball out from the back and limiting Sweden’s ability to work out of pressure deeper in their own territory. And in the middle, even at 36 and 211 caps, Caroline Seger is still one to watch as a two-way midfielder whose defensive work and passing can help flip the team from being on the back foot to transitioning in attack.

Sweden roster: Jennifer Falk, Emma Holmgren, Zecira Musovic, Jonna Andersson, Magdalena Eriksson, Nilla Fischer, Hanna Glas, Amanda Ilestedt, Emma Kullberg, Josefine Rybrink, Linda Sembrant, Jessica Wik, Filippa Angeldal, Kosovare Asllani, Hanna Bennison, Stina Blackstenius, Rebecka Blomqvist, Filippa Curmark, Lina Hurtig, Sofia Jakobsson, Madalen Janogy, Fridolina Rolfö, Johanna Rytting Kaneryd, Olivia Schough, Caroline Seger

Hard roster decisions for the United States

So you’ve got too many Olympic caliber players on your roster. Who weeps for Vlatko Andonovski?

Probably one of the players who he’ll be forced to cut, given there’s depth at every position with this bunch. Look at this roster and choose who gets viciously cut to make the roster fit the 18-player maximum?

USA roster: Jane Campbell, Casey Murphy, Alyssa Naeher, Alana Cook, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara, Margaret Purce, Becky Sauerbrunn, Emily Sonnett, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Catarina Macario, Kristie Mewis, Samantha Mewis, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith, Lynn Williams

Okay, the goalkeepers are maybe slightly easier since you can only have two and you know Alyssa Naeher is probably going to be one of them. At center back there’s Cook, Dahlkemper, Davidson, and Sauerbrunn, with Sonnett additionally able to shift inside sometimes. Sonnett joins the fullbacks with Dunn, O’Hara, and Purce. Kristie Mewis might get the tragically short end of the midfield given the feel-good story of how she’s played her way back into the NT picture but how do you argue with a midfield that already has Horan, Lavelle, Macario, and Sam Mewis in it, with Ertz sitting deeper? Then amongst the forwards, who don’t even have Tobin Heath currently available due to injury, there’s even more decisions to make. Perhaps, controversially, Rapinoe might be in question here; she certainly still has the skill, but the engine is starting to fade. Do you keep someone who’s got the head for big-game moments and can still turn the tide but only has 30-45 minutes at a time in her legs, particularly given the fast-paced constraints and reduced recovery time of a tournament? Let’s find out together!

Time and TV info

USA vs Sweden  Saturday, April 10  1 PM ET / 10 AM PT   Live on Fox

How Real Madrid beat Liverpool, why Bayern should rally vs. PSG: Breaking down Champions League QF first legs

9:23 AM ET   Bill ConnellyESPN Staff Writer

Well how about that for fun? The Champions League quarterfinal, first legs, produced a ton of excitement and drama. Some big results, too: Real Madrid shrugged off key defensive absences (Sergio RamosRaphael Varane) to thump Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, while Paris Saint-Germain enjoyed a bit of revenge against Bayern Munich, following last season’s 1-0 defeat for Neymar & Co. in the final to the Bavarian giants. There was also a nervy win for Manchester City against Erling Haaland and Borussia Dortmund, while Chelsea cruised to a comfortable (kinda) win over FC Porto.

With the first legs of all four Champions League quarterfinals in the books, let’s take a look at the stats that mattered most from each match and what matters the most heading into next week’s second legs.

Jump to: Real Madrid vs. Liverpool | Man City vs. Dortmund | Bayern vs. PSG | FC Porto vs. Chelsea


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Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool

Return leg: Wednesday, April 14, 3 p.m. ET


Wanted: aggression

Real Madrid are third in La Liga and had to labor heavily to advance to the Champions League knockout rounds. Though they’ve flashed glimpses of all the obvious, expensive talent we’ve come to expect, this isn’t the most intimidating squad they’ve ever fielded. Heading into the quarterfinals, FiveThirtyEight gave Liverpool a 53% chance of advancing despite the Reds’ own laundry list of issues.

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Liverpool played the first leg, however, like a massive underdog, even more than Borussia Dortmund, an actual massive underdog (18% chance of advancing), did. Everything about their approach screamed “let’s just get to the second leg down one goal.” Jurgen Klopp started neither his most press-friendly forward (Roberto Firmino), nor his most attack-minded passing midfielder (Thiago), opting for Diogo Jota and Naby Keita instead.

– Hunter: Kroos the master as Real Madrid thump Liverpool

Klopp’s system is based on a combination of possession principles and pure defensive intensity, but in Madrid, the Reds allowed 14.8 passes per defensive action, their third-highest average of the season. (The only times they were higher: against Manchester City in November, and against an equally passive Wolves in December.) They attempted zero first-half shots and logged just two touches in the penalty area.

The good news, if you can call it that: Things got better. In the second half (with Thiago subbed into the lineup), they allowed 11.6 PPDA and finished 32 possessions in the attacking third to Real Madrid’s 14. They still put only one shot on goal, and while that shot went in the net, so did a 65th-minute response from Vinicius Junior off of a throw-in. Liverpool might have been the better team, but they didn’t end up cutting their two-goal deficit.Still, the field tilted in their direction. That, combined with the road goal they managed to score, gave them a lifeline. A 2-0 win in Liverpool would put them through, and FiveThirtyEight’s projections still give them a 20% chance of advancing.

A 2-0 win requires you to keep Vini Jr. off the board, though

Two things stood out from Real Madrid’s performance: (1) they did a fantastic job of stretching Liverpool with long, accurate passes, and (2) Vinicius Jr. was maybe their best player for the second straight Champions League match.

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The average match features about four to five switches of play (long, mostly horizontal passes that flip the ball from one side of the field to the other) per match. Real Madrid attempted 18, including four from Toni Kroos and three each from Lucas VazquezLuka Modric and Eder Militao. This horizontal action stretched Liverpool’s defense and opened up vertical passing lanes; Kroos, Modric and Casemiro, Real Madrid’s aging but still technically gifted midfield, also went 19-for-25 on long balls (forward passes at least 35 yards downfield). Kroos was 9-for-9, and a long ball set up the first of two Vinicius Junior goals.

If Kroos wasn’t their best player, Vini Jr. was. He’s becoming an extremely Real Madrid player: fine in La Liga, great in the Champions League. He’s averaged 0.38 goals and assists per 90 in league play, but he’s up to 0.83 in the UCL. For the second straight knockout match (following their 3-1 win over Atalanta on March 16), he was utterly brilliant. He put two of his four shots in the net and completed 14 passes in the attacking third.

If this version of the precocious 20-year-old continues to show up, Real Madrid could win the whole damn tournament.


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Man City 2-1 Borussia Dortmund

Return leg: Wednesday, April 14, 3 p.m. ET


Biggest red flag for City: high-quality chances

In one sense, it’s pretty simple to prepare for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, as you don’t have tons of options.

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They’re much better at swallowing up counters before they begin than they were a season ago; it’s why they’re the No. 1 team in Europe right now, per FiveThirtyEight. But in each of their only two losses in the past six months (2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur and 2-0 to Manchester United), and in all four of their losses in the past eight months (including 5-2 to Leicester City and 3-1 to Lyon), the formula has been the same:

– None of these four teams had greater than 34% possession
– None averaged more than 0.09 shots per possession
– None allowed fewer than 17 passes per defensive action (PPDA)
– None finished more than 24% of their possessions in the attacking third
– None began more than five possessions in the attacking third (only Manchester United began more than two)
– All of them averaged at least 0.13 xG per shot (only Lyon was under 0.20)
– All of them put at least 50% of their shots on target (only Spurs were under 75%)

The FC guys react to the assistant ref asking for Erling Haaland’s autograph after Dortmund’s loss to Man City.

“Create great chances and strike them well” isn’t exactly the easiest advice in the world to follow, especially against the most expensive side in the world. But BVB have to be encouraged by the fact that of the seven shots in this match that generated at least 0.1 xG, they had three of them. And that total doesn’t include the disallowed tap-in BVB’s Jude Bellingham created for himself in the 31st minute, tipping the ball away from City’s Ederson before getting called for a controversial foul.

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City will again control the ball in the second leg because it’s what City does. But if BVB can create four or five really good chances for itself and put two or three of them into the net — something a squad with Erling HaalandMarco Reus & Co. certainly have the skill to do on a really good day, though it would be great to get Jadon Sancho back from injury — then an upset and a spot in the semifinals is still possible.

When no one’s a forward, everyone’s a forward

Borussia Dortmund’s rigid defensive structure prevented City from creating quite as many chances as they’re used to, but like termites, City finds a way through a defense eventually. And while Ilkay Gundogan has benefited the most this season from Pep Guardiola’s occasionally striker-less attack, it was Phil Foden‘s turn on Tuesday.

– Marcotti: Unpacking the Erling Haaland transfer roadshow

Though ostensibly a left winger, Foden had nine of City’s 21 touches in Dortmund’s penalty area and produced four shots, including by far their two best scoring chances of the second half. He nearly put City up 2-0 in the 65th minute and then, making an identical run with Gundogan in the 90th minute (they did that a couple of times late in the match), he pulled back, received a pass from Gundogan and put home the game winner.

Wherever your defense lacks structural integrity, a City player will be there to exploit it. You just might know who it’s going to be ahead of time. Hmm. Maybe they aren’t simple to prepare for after all.

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Bayern Munich 2-3 Paris Saint-Germain

Return leg: Tuesday, April 13, 3 p.m. ET


Bayern at its most relentless (and glitchy)

In all of the leagues for which Stats Perform logs matches and sends our way, here’s a complete list of matches since Aug. 1 in which a team (a) generated at least 2.5 more expected goals (xG) than its opponent and (b) lost. Matches in bold also featured a shots advantage of at least +25 for the losing team.

– English Championship: Bristol City 3, Swansea City 1 (Swansea’s xG advantage: +3.1)
– Ligue 1: Nice 2, Lens 1 (+2.9)
– Premier League: Crystal Palace 2, Brighton 1 (+2.6)
– Eerste Divisie: NEC 3, Volendam 1 (+2.6)
– Chilean Primera Division: Audax Italiano 2, Cobresal 1 (+2.6)
– Japanese J1 League: Vegalta Sendai 2, Vissel Kobe 1 (+2.6)
– UEFA Champions League: PSG 3, Bayern Munich 2 (+2.5)

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At the moment there are 15,262 matches since Aug. 1 in our data tool. Bayern and Vissel Kobe are the only teams to pull off a loss with a +2.5 xG advantage and +25 shots margin.

makeshift formula I created last week named Bayern as the most watchable team in Europe’s “Big Five” leagues, and Wednesday showed us why.

On the rare occasions that they’re losing, they push forward with a relentlessness we rarely see. Their possession principles are strong, they circulate the ball from side to side, they surround the defensive box with what seems like 18 players, and they start shooting, and shooting and shooting.

Eric Choupo-Moting, Thomas Muller and defender (!) David Alaba had five shots each. Kingsley Coman, whose goal beat PSG in last year’s Champions League final, had four. Benjamin Pavard had three, as did Leon Goretzka in just 33 minutes. Midfielder Joshua Kimmich created 10 chances for his teammates.

PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, meanwhile, had two shots. In the third minute, with the score tied at 0-0, his first shot put Les Parisiens ahead. In the 68th, with the score tied at 2-2 and PSG having just blown a lead it spent nearly an hour protecting, his second shot provided the game winner. Neymar assisted both. The duo that was rendered scoreless by Bayern last August was cold-blooded and perfect in the two moments it needed to be so.

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In the 11 minutes or so that this match was tied, PSG created two perfect chances and converted both. In the other 79 minutes or so, they bunkered down like no team has ever bunkered down before, creating one out-of-nowhere goal on a sudden change of possession and otherwise allowing Bayern a decent-looking shot every 170 seconds or so. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas had nearly as many saves as Mbappe had touches, but it somehow got the job done.

For now, anyway. In a week, Bayern will attempt to unleash hell once more, and it will be interesting to see what PSG comes up with to maybe slow them down a bit more this time.

Turns out missing that the best striker in the world matters

Bayern still fielded a lineup featuring Muller, Coman and Leroy Sane on the wings, Kimmich in the middle, etc. When manager Hansi Flick needed a quick tactical shift late in the first half, he was able to sub off Goretzka for one of the most exciting fullbacks in the world, Alphonso Davies, who completed 19 of 21 passes in the attacking third. Almost no team has the roster luxury that Bayern has.

At striker, however, they fielded Choupo-Moting, a PSG backup in 2020-21, instead of Robert Lewandowski, the best striker in the world at the moment. One figures that probably made a difference, but Lewandowski suffered a knee injury on international break and will remain out through next week’s second leg.

Now, it should be noted that Choupo-Moting performed almost exactly to the level stats suggested — his five shot attempts generated 1.2 xG and one goal. The biggest coulda-woulda-shoulda moments came from the trio of Goretzka, Pavard and Alaba, whose 11 shots generated 1.3 xG, some really tight misses and zero goals. But anything less than Lewandowski is a downgrade, and it’s easy to assume he would have created one more quality chance that Bayern’s lineup did not. That said, with all the injuries Neymar has had to deal with through the years, one doesn’t figure PSG feels too sympathetic at the moment.

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FC Porto 0-2 Chelsea

Return leg: Tuesday, April 13, 3 p.m. ET


Porto ran out of ideas

Porto manager Sergio Conceicao had to be pretty pleased with his team.

In the round of 16, Porto went toe-to-toe with Juventus in the first leg and emerged the better for it, winning 2-1. They did the same in the second until a red card forced them to bunker down a bit, but they managed to survive anyway thanks to a Sergio Oliveira free kick in extra time that went under a pretty pathetic Juve wall and into the net. Still, they advanced by playing like themselves and not backing down.

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They did so again on Wednesday against an even richer club. They attempted twice the shots as Chelsea and generated a slightly higher xG level (1.69 to 1.65). They pressured the ball effectively, ended nearly twice as many of their possessions in the attacking third and forced Chelsea to primarily play the role of a counterattacking, defensive team.

The Blues hogged possession, but attempted 62% of their passes in their own half and neither attempted nor completed many long balls or switches of play.

It was, for long stretches, possession for the sake of possession (and for making Porto run some miles off of its tires).

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Porto was on the front foot for most of the first half, but in the 32nd minute, a seemingly harmless run of Chelsea possession created a Jorginho-to-Mason Mount goal out of almost nothing.

By this point, Porto had already generated two solid scoring opportunities: a blocked Luis Diaz transition move in the 12th minute and a scary corner-kick opportunity for Zaidu Sanusi in the 24th that sailed over the goal. Moussa Marega would create a decent transition chance in the 51st minute, and Porto nearly scored on another corner in the 56th.

Two-thirds of the way through the match, Porto had 11 shots to Chelsea’s three and had produced 1.6 xG to Chelsea’s 0.4 … and then they ran out of ideas.

In the last 30 minutes, they managed only one shot to Chelsea’s three, and all three of Chelsea’s shots could have gone in. Cesar Azpilicueta nearly headed home a free kick at the 63-minute mark, and Christian Pulisic thundered a counterattacking shot off the bar in the 84th minute.

Just 45 seconds later, Chelsea put the tie away with a one-man counter and goal by Ben Chilwell. The last three chances were Chelsea’s best of the evening, and Porto was saved by the bell, so to speak. If matches were 100 minutes long, this could have been 3-0 or 4-0.

Because matches are only 90 minutes, Porto still heads into the second leg with a shot. But Chelsea’s strong passing and stronger legs made the odds of a comeback pretty small.

NWSL Releases Full Schedule and Broadcast Details for 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Presented by Secret Deodorant

Opening match between Houston and Chicago to air on CBS Sports Network; Final to air on CBS Television Network & stream on Paramount+ Twitch to stream all games internationally

CHICAGO (March 9, 2021) – The National Women’s Soccer League today announced the full schedule for the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup presented by Secret Deodorant. The 21-game tournament kicks off on April 9, 2021 with a rematch of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup final between Houston and Chicago at BBVA Stadium on CBS Sports Network, followed by Kansas City’s first match since joining the league in December 2020 against Portland Thorns FC at Providence Park at 10:30 p.m. EST on Paramount+, the premium streaming service from ViacomCBS.The opener and three additional games will air on CBS Sports Network, the final will air on the CBS Television Network and stream on Paramount+, and every other game will stream exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S. All games will be available internationally on Twitch, including in Canada for all games that are not on CBS Sports Network.“I’m so excited to kick off a new year in style with the 2021 Challenge Cup presented by Secret Deodorant, and thrilled to once again partner with our friends at CBS Sports to bring the best women’s soccer league in the world to our viewers,” said NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird. “My thanks to CBS, Twitch and all of our partners, for continuing to invest in this league and showcasing these incredible athletes.”“We are thrilled to continue our partnership with the NWSL and build on the immense success across all platforms of the 2020 Challenge Cup,” said Dan Weinberg, EVP, Programming, CBS Sports. “The 2021 Challenge Cup will showcase soccer’s top players, and we look forward to bringing fans the action across CBS, CBS Sports Network and Paramount+.”In their inaugural season, Racing Louisville FC will make their NWSL debut on April 10, 2021 when they host the Orlando Pride at Lynn Family Stadium. Following their first-ever match in Portland, Kansas City will travel to Chicago and face the Red Stars on April 20 before playing their first home game at Field of Legends on Monday, April 26, 2021 vs. the 2020 defending NWSL Challenge Cup champions the Houston Dash. The first Cascadia rival match of the 2021 campaign will come on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 when Portland Thorns FC host OL Reign on CBS Sports Network at 10 p.m. EST. The full schedule and broadcast details can be found below.The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup presented by Secret Deodorant will see the league’s 10 teams organized into two divisions, East and West. Each team will play four matches in home markets, as approved by the NWSL’s Medical Task Force, followed by the top team from each division competing in the final slated for May 8, 2021 on CBS. The championship site will be determined by the league at a later date. For a full list of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup rules and regulations that differ from NWSL’s regular season policies and procedures, click here.

2021 NWSL CHALLENGE CUP PRESENTED BY SECRET DEODORANT SCHEDULE
**All games to stream internationally on Twitch**

DATETIME (EST)HOMEAWAYVENUEPLATFORM
Friday, April 98:30 PMHouston DashChicago Red StarsBBVA StadiumCBSSN
Friday, April 910:30 PMPortland Thorns FCKansas CityProvidence ParkParamount+
Saturday, April 103:30 PMNC CourageWashington SpiritSahlen’s StadiumParamount+
Saturday, April 107 PMRacing Louisville FCOrlando PrideLynn Family StadiumParamount+
Wednesday, April 147 PMOrlando PrideSky Blue FCExploria StadiumCBSSN
Thursday, April 157:30 PMChicago Red StarsPortland Thorns FCSeatGeek StadiumParamount+
Friday, April 167 PMWashington SpiritRacing Louisville FCSegraParamount+
Friday, April 1610 PMOL ReignHouston DashCheney StadiumParamount+
Tuesday, April 206 PMSky Blue FCNC CourageMontclair StateParamount+
Tuesday, April 208:30 PMChicago Red StarsKansas CitySeatGeek StadiumParamount+
Wednesday, April 217 PMOrlando PrideWashington SpiritExploria StadiumParamount+
Wednesday, April 2110 PMPortland Thorns FCOL ReignProvidence ParkCBSSN
Monday, April 266 PMRacing Louisville FCNC CourageLynn Family StadiumParamount+
Monday, April 268:30 PMKansas CityHouston DashLegends FieldParamount+
Tuesday, April 277 PMWashington SpiritSky Blue FCSegraParamount+
Tuesday, April 2710 PMOL ReignChicago Red StarsCheney StadiumParamount+
Saturday, May 17:30 PMNC CourageOrlando PrideSahlen’s StadiumCBSSN
Sunday, May 212:30 PMSky Blue FCRacing Louisville FCMontclair StateParamount+
Sunday, May 24:30 PMKansas CityOL ReignLegends FieldParamount+
Sunday, May 27:30 PMHouston DashPortland Thorns FCBBVA StadiumParamount+
Saturday, May 81 PMChampionshipTBDCBS, Paramount+

 

 

USMNT rise in latest FIFA world rankings

https://www.nbcsports.com/vplayer/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/30RA3Ff3VIRm?form=html&autoPlay=false&ssid=nbcsports_embed_yahoo Joe Prince-Wright  Thu, April 8, 2021, 8:45 AM

That sound you can hear is the USMNT on the charge back up the FIFA world rankings, as they are in the top 20 for the first time since 2014.After a number of hugely positive results, and performances, over the last 12 months, Gregg Berhalter has led the USMNT back into the top 20 in the world rankings and it feels like this is just the start for this young side. Recent wins at Northern Ireland and against Jamaica and Panama at neutral venues will have helped this ranking, so too did the draw away at Wales.

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A note of caution: all four of those games came with the USMNT having their strongest squad (barring a couple of players) available, while their opponents were severely understrength. Still, it has been a tough few years for USMNT fans so climbing back into the top 20 is a step in the right direction. The Stars and Stripes were ranked as low as 35th in 2017, and they have been hovering just outside the top 20 for a long, long time.With a friendly away at Switzerland in late May, then CONCACAF Nations League Final Four, Gold Cup and 2022 World Cup qualifiers coming up in the summer, there is a real chance for the U.S. to push closer to CONCACAF’s best team, Mexico, who is ranked 11th as they slipped down two places. European giants dominant the top 10 with Belgium in first, France second and Brazil in third. England sit fourth, Portugal fifth, Spain sixth, Italy seventh, Argentina in eighth, Uruguay is ninth and Denmark is tenth.  Below is the latest top 30, with plenty of changes coming up this summer as the Gold Cup, European Championships and Copa America tournaments take center stage.

Top 30 FIFA world rankings (April 7, 2021)

1. Belgium
2. France
3. Brazil
4. England
5. Portugal
6. Spain
7. Italy
8. Argentina
9. Uruguay
10. Denmark
11. Mexico
12. Germany
13. Switzerland
14. Croatia
15. Colombia
16. Netherlands
17. Wales
18. Sweden
19. Chile
20. USA
21. Poland
22. Senegal
23. Austria
24. Ukraine
25. Serbia
26. Tunisia
27. Peru
28. Japan
29. Turkey
30. Venezuela

 

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Messi, Ramos have helped define Clasico. Will this be their last?

1:39

Barcelona: Enjoy Messi, if this is indeed the end

Right now, it seems certain that Lionel Messi is revitalised, happy, evangelically recommitted to Barcelona — as certain as it was last August that he would be, at any cost, leaving FC Barcelona. Relations are at the point that, by May or June, it seems realistic that he will announce he’s staying at Camp Nou under a new contract. But that’s the point.It seemed 100%, cast-iron certain just a handful of months ago that everything was broken, that Messi was sick to the back teeth of being surrounded by mediocrity and mendacity, and yet here we are. A full 180-degree pike, with triple salchow, change of attitude and all it requires now is what any person in sales will tell you is the hardest part: closing the deal.For those reasons, it’s obligatory to mark this weekend’s Clasico by saying that if there were another reverse-flip, if Barcelona somehow displeased him with their inability to sign new talent or in their capacity to offer him the right remuneration over the next two or three years — lots of ifs and buts — or if it turned out that there’s something special on offer at Manchester City or PSG, then this would be his last chance to play Real Madrid in blaugrana colours.Whichever side of the Clasico divide you find yourself on, it’s a sobering thought even for us neutrals. Sixteen years of Messi vs. Madrid, and his magic-on-demand, have flitted past us like countryside images out the window of a high-speed train. Gorgeous and imprinted on our consciousness, but gone far too soon.For the good of this fixture, for the nourishment of La Liga and, unquestionably, for the benefit of FC Barcelona, who are fundamentally committed to keeping their in-house genius, let’s hope that win, lose or draw, we see the nimble, dancing, scheming legend from Rosario, Argentina gliding and dribbling across the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabeu pitches many more times in classic Clasicos.But if not, what are we left with? His impact has been gargantuan: that’s the only word for it. It should probably go without saying that Messi has faced no other rival as many times as he’s played Real Madrid, one of the two clubs that was hovering in hope when, back in 2001-02, negotiations between Barca’s slow directors and his father, Jorge, were turning sour.

Just as Spain‘s FA made tentative moves to discover whether Messi wanted to play for La Roja instead of Argentina — Messi was appalled by the idea — Madrid were primed and ready to pounce when, finally, a couple of Camp Nou men woke up to the fact that they absolutely had to find a way to retain this 13-year-old whose massive talent outsized his tiny frame.And once they failed to get him, Madrid became a foil. From his Clasico debut, one sharp, tangy November evening in Spain’s capital nearly 16 years ago, until this weekend at an empty but nonetheless iconic Alfredo Di Stefano stadium in Madrid’s superb training complex, if Los Blancos didn’t exist, Messi would have had to invent them.”I’m Argentinian, but I feel very Catalan,” said Messi in a recent sports paper interview in Barcelona. It showed, too.

I was at his debut against Madrid, sitting next to my friend John Alexander, whose ticket in the section reserved for friends and family of Real Madrid players had “from Zinedine Zidane” stamped on it. I’d ducked work duties and was just there to savour it — little did I know there would be a clever, confident cameo performance that, though dwarfed by Ronaldinho’s two brilliant goals in a 3-0 win that night, would endure long past the Brazilian’s sell-by date.Messi was an imp that night. He cared not a jot for the stage or the baying Real Madrid fans; he wasn’t put off by the racist abuse that both Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho suffered, nor could Madrid’s players subdue him. Two Clasicos later, the seeds that were sown in his first game against Real Madrid flowered with a hat trick at Camp Nou, as when Barcelona’s 10 men (with defender Oleguer red-carded) wrested a 3-3 draw against a thunderously powerful, Ruud van Nistelrooy-inspired Madrid.The stories and the images go on, and on. But for once, the stats actually tell a good tale.

Before the era of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pep Guardiola the coach, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Messi, Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Sergio BusquetsNeymar and Luis Suarez, it’s not that Barcelona couldn’t beat Real Madrid — it’s just that they didn’t do it all that often. The all-time Clasico scorecard was heavily balanced in favour of Los Merengues.No more; the head-to-head stats are as tight as the seals on a submarine’s port-holes. The trophy count, particularly in La Liga and the Champions League, has metamorphosed. And notwithstanding all the brilliant talent I mentioned, along with a dozen more essential, exceptional cameo role players, the number one catalytic element, by far, has been Messi. Why not, he’s a genius? Which is why, ahead of this weekend, it’s a little strange to break down Messi’s Clasico numbers.Like I said, he and Madrid are like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Superman and Lex Luthor, Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote, Tom and Jerry. (Please note, who’s the hero and who’s the baddie depends wholly on which club you support: the roles are fully interchangeable!) This 33-year-old Argentine, born some six-and-a-half-thousand miles from the Spanish capital, has imposed himself on the fixture. Nobody, including his compatriot (Di Stefano) after whom this weekend’s stadium is named, has scored more goals when Real Madrid and FC Barcelona do battle. Ever.

Messi’s overall stats against Barca’s mortal rivals: Played 44, Won 19, Drawn 11, Lost 14, 26 goals, 14 assists and 11 yellow cards.

What do you reckon about those figures? Less impressive than you remembered? Stunning because it’s against one of the best, most ambitious, most “winning” clubs in football history? What’s your take?One of the standout facts, I reckon, is that one way or another, Madrid have increasingly got his measure in recent seasons. Against Los Blancos, Messi has ‘only’ scored five times in their last 17 meetings. He’s not hit the net in a Clasico for three years now and it’s four years since Messi scored while winning a Clasico in La Liga.Hmm. Interesting, no?

It’s linked that six of the 14 defeats Messi has suffered against Real Madrid (roughly half) have come in those last 17 matches, in which he’s only managed to score five times. (By the way, Karim Benzema has scored five goals across his last 19 Clasicos, just to put Messi’s slight drought in context.) It may well be that this little marvel is the most dominant figure in the history of a beautiful, dangerous, culturally volatile fixture, but his win rate is less than 50%!Of the 23 other club opponents Messi has faced 10 times or more, his win rate is usually much higher than that, hovering around 80% in most instances. Against no other opponent, whether club or country, has Messi lost a double-digit number of games. Next closest is Atletico Madrid, against whom he’s lost eight of 42 meetings while winning 24. Against no other opponent has Messi had more yellow cards (11), either.

It is, I think, a picture of how this Herculean talent used to hit Madrid like a hurricane, often left opponent coaches and players in smithereens, but has gradually been reigned into a status closer to a small storm as Madrid built defences, prepared better and began to understand what to expect. And in my mind, it’s not just about Messi ageing or the Barcelona squad declining. It’s kudos to Real Madrid for working out the answer to “how do you solve a problem like La Pulga?”You can take it to the bank that Barcelona’s No.10, who just became their all-time leader in appearances — to accompany all his other all-time achievements — is obsessed with winning the league and Copa del Rey double this season. He knows better than anyone that despite his renewed appetite for life at Camp Nou, the deal to stay is never definitive until terms are thrashed out and the ink is dry on a bumper contract.

The thought of another trophyless season, even more so if this were to be his last in Catalunya, is utterly abhorrent to him. Did you see his evangelistically joyful celebrations when Sevilla were defeated in the Copa semifinal at Camp Nou last month? Or the huge, emotional leap into Ousmane Dembele‘s arms when the Frenchman scored a last-minute winner against Valladolid at Camp Nou on Monday?

This Saturday’s Clasico, as part of the route to what might become Messi’s 11th Liga title, will have him as tense, as hungry and as filled with competitive adrenaline as any he’s played in since the 2011 Champions League semifinal first leg when, it turned out, he gave probably his all-time, signature performance.This meeting happens against a backdrop of Madrid having won, clinically and deservedly, at Camp Nou last autumn, Madrid being the defending league champions and Madrid owning the head-to-head record this season that would automatically make them champions if the two sides finished equal after 38 games. It also comes against a backdrop of Messi having looked sluggish and short of cutting-edge crispness against Valladolid, having gone over two weeks without a match during the international break.It’s not an arithmetical fact, but the suspicion lingers that unless Barcelona can win this test against their (and Messi’s) favourite rivals, the league title may just be beyond them. It is a fact, however that since December, Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona have intermittently played the most thrilling, most electric and smartest football of this strange La Liga season. Can they convert that to a seismic result when the chips are down?Whether or not this happens to be Messi’s last joust with his eternal rival, and given that one of his chief tormentors, Sergio Ramos, isn’t playing, will the Argentine’s inherently voracious instincts mean we are in for a Clasico masterclass in which he torments Real Madrid with his old majesty?Saturday brings another Clasico in the Messi Era. Intriguing, intense and unmissable, but hopefully not “adios, maestro.” — Graham Hunter


Real Madrid: It’s not just about Messi, but his longtime rival, Sergio Ramos

You know who won’t miss Messi if he goes? Real Madrid. Oh, wait, actually that’s not right. Or at least not entirely.

In the history of the Clasico (which wasn’t always called the Clasico), only Di Stefano and maybe Johan Cruyff have done as much to tilt the power balance towards one of these great, historic rivals. And Cruyff had two chances, as player and as manager, to do it.

If Messi scores at the weekend, or indeed any weekend between now and the end of the season, it will be the thirteenth season in a row that he’s scored at least 30 goals. No one has had a prolonged run of success like it — not even Di Stefano, not quite. No club has lorded it over the league and the cup like Barcelona have with Messi.

He’s won 10 league titles and that, of course, means 10 league titles Real Madrid haven’t won, at a time — let it not be forgotten — when they too have had some of the best players in the world.

1:39

How Vinicius Junior overcame his biggest flaw vs. Liverpool

Alejandro Moreno breaks down how Vinicius Junior was able to influence Real Madrid’s 3-1 win vs. Liverpool.

Just look at the stats Graham has outlined there. Or listen to Ramos, Madrid’s captain. “Without Leo, we would have won more,” he says.

It’s simple, but it’s true.

Ramos knows that well; he knows the danger, has felt the hurt. Messi has felt it too, quite literally. Remember in 2010, when Barcelona won 5-0 and the last thing Ramos did was run over and boot him into the air — not so much a tackle, as an assault — and one so premeditated that the referee that day, Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez, could see coming. “It was one of those you can ‘smell,'” he recalled. “I saw him running towards Messi and I thought: ‘he’s going to whack him.'”

Which he did.

Ramos would want rid of Messi, you would think. And yet, when it looked like the Argentine was about to go this summer, he insisted that there was no need for Messi to leave. “We’d like him to stay here,” Ramos said. “He makes his team better, the league better, and the Clasico nicer.”

Saying so underlines his own success, Madrid’s success; maybe it makes sense. Maybe it’s even selfish as much as it is admiration. After all, facing the best makes you better, and beating the best makes success even greater. True rivalries are built on this. Ramos knows that too, and was explicit about it: “It’s good for those of us who like to beat the best,” he said.

And yet, Ramos has never had any doubts that “the best” meant Messi. The Madrid captain even took on the late Diego Maradona when he had criticised Messi, saying that the 1986 World Cup-winning captain was “light years” behind his countryman. In a recent interview, Ramos even said that he would “100%” like Messi to join Madrid if he had to leave Barcelona. He would put him up at his house if it helped.

Yeah, nice try, Sergio. But it is true that Messi’s departure would take something from this game. It’s true, too, that Ramos’s absence would as well.

And this is the other element in play here. Madrid’s captain is injured and will be unavailable on Saturday, though he will be at the game as ever, his voice booming around. If Messi may be about to play his last Clasico, Ramos may have already done so. His contract is up at the end of the season, and while it always feels like there can’t be any outcome other than him and the club agreeing a deal to keep him there — “the best thing for the club is that Ramos stays, the best thing for Ramos is that Ramos stays,” teammate Nacho said this week — he still hasn’t renewed and his relationship with them isn’t good.

Maybe he could go to Barcelona instead, then?

Without Messi, Madrid would have won more, and yet they come into this game knowing that they can’t really afford to lose. That’s the bad news; yet it’s also the good news.

Here are two lists:

– LiverpoolAtalanta (twice), Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Inter Milan, Barcelona
– Alcoyano, LevanteShakhtar Donetsk (twice), Alaves, Cadiz

Guess which one is the list of games Madrid have won, and which is the list of games they lost?

OK, so you knew that one, but it’s still quite something to lose to all of those teams in the second list. As is the fact that they didn’t beat Elche or Osasuna either while they haven’t lost to any of the big teams. And yet, when it mattered, Real won. Against the bigger teams, they won. As they always seem to do.

Last year, Zidane had been on the verge of the sack before Christmas, and he went on to win the league. This year, the same thing happened: in December, he was on the way out. He had just “hours” left in the job, El Mundo claimed. Madrid had won less than half of all their games, faced elimination from the group stages of the Champions League for the first time ever, and a huge week lay ahead, with must-win games against Sevilla, Borussia Monchengladbach and Atletico.

They won all three.

They have to win this Clasico too, and as ever, the obligation is an opportunity.

Madrid come into this game clinging to the hope of winning the league, which just three or four weeks ago seemed impossible. So do Barcelona. For much of the season, a title didn’t seem likely for either of them. Atletico were too far ahead. Now, the gap is tiny: a single point from Barcelona, three above Madrid. Atletico have opened the door, and the wolf is there. Two of the fanged devils, in fact.

Neither of these teams are top and yet it still feels like that the one who wins will emerge from this weekend as favourites. Madrid have lost just once in 19 league games. Barcelona have lost none in 19. Atletico have won only three of their last eight. It’s huge, but then it always is. It may be decisive, but then it’s almost always that too.

It may also be the last time we see either of these men: Messi on the pitch, Ramos up in the stands. And you can guarantee — absolutely guarantee — that Ramos will seek out his nemesis from Rosario at the end. You can’t help thinking that they’ll be back. You can’t help hoping so too, that all of these words here are worthless — yeah, sorry about that, but plus ca change and all that — and that with any luck, we can do it all again next year. Because when eventually they go, a generation will go with them.

Madrid fans will miss Ramos. They, like him, might even miss Messi too.

Well, sort of. — Sid Lowe

NWSL SEASON PREVIEW

Following the COVID-19 sports pause, the NWSL was the first professional North American team sports league to return to action in 2020. After the season was postponed in March, the inaugural Challenge Cup kicked off in June with record-setting viewership numbers. Music to our ears.

  • And although the Orlando Pride withdrew from the tourney before play began, there were no positive COVID-19 tests throughout the tournament. The league’s successful month-long bubble tourney paved the way for other sports leagues to return to action.
  • Behind stellar play from the aforementioned MVP Daly, the Houston Dash hoisted the Challenge Cup trophy after defeating the Chicago Red Stars 2–0 in the final.

🚨 This year’s format

While the 2020 Challenge Cup was played in a bubble in Salt Lake City, Utah, this year’s tourney will be held in home markets. The NWSL’s 10 teams (expansion team Racing Louisville FC joins the fray this year) are divided into two divisions — East and West — with each team playing four matches, one against each team in their division.

  • From there, the top team in each division advances to the championship game scheduled for Saturday, May 8th, airing on CBS in the U.S. and on Twitch in Canada. HYFR.
  • And while the Challenge Cup doesn’t have an impact on regular season standings, it does offer teams a chance to sort things out and gain momentum ahead of the May 15th regular season start. Give us all of the soccer, please.

Another major factor in this year’s Challenge Cup is the scheduling. With an international break overlapping with the start of the tournament, NWSL teams will be without some of their top talent for at least the first two games. Teams with deeper rosters will be eager to capitalize and grab points in those early matches. Keep an eye out.

💪 The teams

op contenders: As the regular season champions and NWSL Championship winners for both 2018 and 2019, North Carolina Courage had an unexpected early exit from the 2020 Challenge Cup, but we feel they’re destined to return to their winning ways in the East Division thanks to their deep roster.

  • The West Division — led by Portland Thorns FC and the Chicago Red Stars — is seriously stacked. With all-time leading international goal scorer and Canadian Christine Sinclair as their captain, the Thorns should have no trouble finding the back of the net.
  • As for the Red Stars, they’ll be entering the tourney with a new ownership group and be playing with a chip on their shoulders as they look to avenge last year’s loss in the final. Watch out, world.

Middle of the pack: In the East, the Washington Spirit and (newly rebranded!) NJ/NY Gotham FC will contend to overtake the favored Courage. The Spirit are stacked on defense with USWNT members Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett. As for Gotham, it’s all about the offense, with USWNT strikers Carli Lloyd and Midge Purce leading the way.

  • The Houston Dash and OL Reign have the odds stacked against them in the West Division. Even though the defending champion Dash have most of their core players returning, they’ll likely struggle at the start with players out for international friendlies.
  • The Reign might benefit from their later start, as they open their season against the Dash on April 16th. With offensive stars Megan Rapinoe (pronounced Ra-PEE-noe), Quinn and Tziarra King, the Reign could defy expectations this go round.

Just happy to be here: Rounding out the East are the Orlando Pride and new kids on the block Racing Louisville FC. The Pride will be competing in their first-ever Challenge Cup, after having to withdraw last year due to COVID-19, while new Louisville fans will just be happy to see their team take the field.

  • The final team in the West is Kansas City (KC) NWSL (formerly the Utah Royals). While KC probably won’t hoist the trophy, we’re still celebrating their new ownership group, which includes former college soccer player Brittany Matthews, Patrick Mahomes’ fiancée.

💃 The offense

Trinity Rodman, Washington Spirit, Forward: As the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NWSL draft, Rodman will make her highly anticipated debut against the stacked Courage tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. ET. With key pieces of the Spirit offense playing internationally,  she will have a chance to make an immediate impact.

Megan Rapinoe, OL Reign, Forward: Wherever Rapinoe goes, we follow. After opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, Rapinoe is excited to return to the NWSL. After the USWNT’s April friendlies, Rapinoe will likely be back in time for the Reign’s tilt with the stacked Portland Thorns on April 21st. Mark your calendar.

Shea Groom, Houston Dash, Midfielder: Groom’s breakout three-goal performance in the Dash’s 2020 Challenge Cup run earned her a new three-year contract ahead of last year’s Fall Series. And Groom brought the heat again, scoring three goals and adding two assists. Houston, other teams might have a problem.

Desiree Scott, KC NWSL, Midfielder: This year will be somewhat of a homecoming for the CanWNT vet, as she first played for FC Kansas City during the NWSL’s inaugural 2013 season. She’ll bring a wealth of experience to this fresh-start club after returning from playing in Canada’s international friendlies.

🏆 Defense wins championships

Casey Krueger (née Short), Chicago Red Stars, Defender: With USWNT defenders Julie Ertz and Tierna Davidson away at friendlies, the Red Stars will rely heavily on Krueger, who started every game for Chicago during last year’s Challenge Cup run.

Abby Erceg, North Carolina Courage, Defender: This lockdown defender was named to the 2020 Challenge Cup Best XI and, heads up, she can get it done on offense too. Get you a girl who can do both.

Bella Bixby, Portland Thorns FC, Goalkeeper: Bixby’s breakout performance during the first few games of last year’s Challenge Cup was sadly cut short due to an ACL tear. We can’t wait to watch the Oregon-native run it back in her home market this year.

Ashlyn Harris, Orlando Pride, Goalkeeper: After being left off the USWNT roster for upcoming friendlies and the Pride missing out on the 2020 tournament, we’re expecting big things from Harris in her Challenge Cup debut. Talk about mom goals.

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