Wow what a game – as the huge PSG vs Real Madrid was thrilling – from the Belgium Wall Madrid GK Courtois saving a late Messi PK before PSG’s Mbappe finished it with a Goalazo in the 93rd minute to give them the 1-0 lead heading to Madrid next month.
CBS Coverage of Champions League PSG hosting Real Madrid – with a full 1 hour pregame was great – missed Kate Abdo – but she’ll be back for next week’s Tues/Wed line-up which include Juventus (Mckinney) @ Villareal, Man United at Atletico Madrid and Chelsea (Pulisic) hosting Lille (Weah) all at 3 pm.
Champions league Sweet 16 on CBS Tues/Wed
Champions League Sweet 16 action kicks in next week with games being featured on Network TV for the first time ever as the primo games will be on CBS THIS Tues and Wed at 3 pm ET with pregame starting at 2 pm. Real Madrid will host PSG and the MNM line-up of Messi/Neymar and MBappe on Tuesday at 3 pm CBS, while Wed features Inter Milan hosting Liverpool and African Champ game finalist Mane and Mo Salah at 3 pm on Wed. A 2nd game will be played each day on Paramount plus simultaneously at 2:45 on Tues its Sporting hosting Man City and Wed its Salzburg hosting Bayern Munich. Thrilled to have Champ League back and even more thrilled to see it on CBS Network TV!! (see all the stories below) Thurs/Fri Europa League will be featured on Paramount+ and Concacaf Champions League CCL will be on Fox Sports 1&2. (see TV schedule below)
USWNT SheBelieves Cup
The US She Believes Cup kicks off Thursday night on ESPN with the US hosting the Czech Republic at 11 pm on ESPN right after New Zealand and Iceland face-off at 8 pm on ESPN. Great to see some younger players in the mix- especially up front as Alex Morgan, Christian Press, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapino were left off in favor of youngsters Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Sophia Smith and Catarina Macario. Also into the mix is Trinity Rodman – the young player of the year in NWSL who just signed the largest ever US women’s contract. I am excited to see the mix of young and old as we face slightly lower competition in this She Believe’s Cup competition over the next couple of weeks.
USWNT SheBelieves Cup roster
GOALKEEPERS: Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit; 0), Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage; 2), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars; 78)
DEFENDERS: Alana Cook (OL Reign; 4/0), Abby Dahlkemper (San Diego Wave FC; 77/0), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars; 45/1), Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC; 8/0), Sofia Huerta (OL Reign; 9/0), Kelley O’Hara (Washington Spirit; 148/2), Emily Sonnett (Washington Spirit; 63/0), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC; 199/0)
MIDFIELDERS: Morgan Gautrat (Chicago Red Stars; 87/8), Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyonnais; 108/25), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign; 68/18), Catarina Macario (Olympique Lyonnais; 12/3), Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC; 33/4), Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit; 2/0), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit; 22/2)
FORWARDS: Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit; 4/2), Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars; 67/18), Margaret Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC; 9/2), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC; 10/1), Lynn Williams (Kansas City Current; 45/14)
GK trainings starts up at Badger Field House
Back to training the CFC Goalies on Wed and Thurs evenings at Badger Field House. Noelle will be training Wed Eves 5:30-6:30 U10-U12 and 6:30-7:30 U13+. I will be training Thurs Eves 6:30 – 8 pm U12/13 6:30-7:15 U14 & Above 7:15 – 8 pm
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Check out the best dang Brunswich Stew I have had (almost as good as my mema’s) or the BarBQ Ribs, Pork, Brisket, Chicken & More. Sweet, Tangy or Spicy sauce. Mention you heard about it from the Ole Ballcoach — and Ryan will give you 10% off your next meal. https://www.rackzbbqindy.com/ Call ahead at 317-688-7290 M-Th 11-8 pm, 11-9 Fri/Sat, 12-8 pm on Sunday. Pick some up after practice – Its good eatin! You won’t be disappointed and tell ’em the Ole Ballcoach Sent You!
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BIG GAMES TO WATCH
Tues, Feb 15 – Champions League – Sweet 16
3 pm CBS PSG (Messi, Neymar) vs Real Madrid (Benzema, Courtuios)
3 pm Para+, Univision Sporting vs Man City
Weds, Feb 16 – Champions League – Sweet 16
3 pm CBS Inter Milan (Geroud) vs Liverpool (Mane. Salah)
3 pm Para+, Univision Salzburg (Aaronson) vs Bayern Munich
Thurs, Feb 17 – Europa + CCL
12:45 pm Para+, Univ Dortmund (Reyna) vs Rangers
12:45 pm Para+, Univ Barcelona (Dest) vs Napoli
3 pm Para+, Univ RB Leipzig (Adams) vs Real Sociedad
3 pm Para+, Univ Sevilla (Musah??) vs Dinamo Zabgreb
8 pm ESPN Iceland vs New Zealand – She Believes Cup
8 pm FS2 Comunicationes FC vs Colorado Rapids CCL
10 pm FS2 CD Montagua vs Seattle Sounders CCL
11 pm ESPN USWNT vs Czech Republic – She Believes Cup
2:45 pm CBSSN Juventus (McKinney) vs Torino
3 pm bein Sports Lille (Weah) vs Metz
3 pm ESPN+ Mainz vs Leverkusen
9 am USA Leeds United vs Man United
9:30 am ESPN+ Dortmund (Reyna) vs Bayer MGladbach (Scally)
10:!5 am ESPN+ Valencia vs Barcelona (Dest)
3 pm ESPN+ Atletic Club vs Real Sociadad
3 pm ABC USWNT vs New Zealand – She Believes Cup
6 pm Iceland vs Czech Republic – She Believes Cup
6 pm New Zealand vs Czech Republic – She Believes Cup
9 pm ESPN USWNT vs Iceland – She Believes Cup
Champions League Tues/Wed on CBS
Champions League returns: PSG-Real Madrid highlights last 16
Benzema’s health vital for Madrid-PSG, Ancelotti’s future Graham Hunter ESPNFC
Dzeko faces off with Salah as Liverpool lay in wait for Inter
Poch: PSG-Madrid could be early UCL final hAlex Kirkland
PSG vs. Real Madrid holds the key for Pochettino’s future hMark Ogden ESPN FC
Benzema hopeful on fitness for PSG Champions League clash
Neymar in line to make PSG comeback against Real Madrid
Mbappe future focuses all attention as PSG face Real Madrid
Man City ‘deserve’ to win Champions League, says Cancelo
Xeka gets Lille back winning before Chelsea Champions League showdown
Free tickets for 10,000 fans at Champions League final
USA Ladies She Believes Cup Thu/Sun/Tues ESPN
Rapinoe, Morgan: U.S. Soccer ‘stood by’ as abuse occurred
USWNT players demand accountability from U.S. Soccer after more abuse allegations
Players react to abuse allegations with letter to US Soccer
Washington Spirit Sell for Record $35 Million to Michele Kang
CONCACAF Champions League CCL
PSG-Real Madrid could be early Champions League final tie – Mauricio Pochettino
12:06 PM ETAlex KirklandESPN FC
Real Madrid will travel to the Parc des Princes to take on PSG on Tuesday.
Paris Saint-Germain coach Mauricio Pochettino said his team’s round-of-16 tie with Real Madrid “could be a Champions League final” given the quality of the players involved and backed Lionel Messi to play a “fundamental role.”
Tuesday’s first leg game at the Parc des Princes will see Messi and Kylian Mbappe — who Madrid tried to sign last year and hope to land this summer — go up against the LaLiga giants, although former Madrid captain Sergio Ramos misses out through injury.
Ramos is one of a number of ex-Real Madrid players now in the PSG squad, with goalkeeper Keylor Navas, right-back Achraf Hakimi and midfielder Angel Di Maria all hoping to feature against their former team.
“It’s a tie that could be a Champions League final with these names, players and quality,” Pochettino said in a pre-match news conference on Monday. “We respect Real Madrid, they’re one of the biggest clubs in the world.”Their 13 Champions League titles tell you it isn’t just about players or coaches, it’s about the strength and internal structure of a club. PSG have been waiting to win this trophy for over 50 years. We’re the challengers. We’re trying to build a team to get closer to that dream.”The two clubs have clashed off the pitch over Madrid’s pursuit of Mbappe, with PSG sporting director Leonardo admitting the club “were not happy with Madrid’s behaviour” as they attempted to agree a deal in the last week of the summer transfer market.Both teams lead their domestic leagues, with PSG 13 points clear at the top of Ligue 1, while Madrid have a four-point advantage at the top of LaLiga.”[Real Madrid] are a fantastic team, they always raise their level in important moments of the season,” Pochettino said on Monday. “At times they haven’t been that good in the league, but they’ve ended up winning the Champions League. They have that togetherness and ability to compete.”The coach said Mess — who is PSG’s top scorer in the Champions League this season with five goals — can help the French club take the next step in Europe.”In decisive games, on important nights, [Messi’s] talent and experience will play a fundamental role, both individually and collectively,” he said.Ancelotti agreed with Pochettino’s assessment that the two sides have the talent to be in the Champions League final.”We have all the confidence in the world. It’s a difficult opponent, who want like us to win this competition, this could be a final and nobody would be surprised,” Ancelotti said.”We’re excited about knocking out a rival that could compete to win the Champions Leage.”
Trinity Rodman, Sophia Smith headline USWNT players to watch at SheBelieves Cup
3:51 PM ETCaitlin Murray
The SheBelieves Cup, hosted by U.S. Soccer every spring, may not be a World Cup or an Olympics, but it has still become one of the most important events on the calendar for the U.S. women’s national team. That’s because the tournament has served as a valuable testing ground for new players in the USWNT, helping the next stars of the team secure their spots.
Look no further than midfielder Rose Lavelle, who made her USWNT debut at the 2017 SheBelieves Cup. The USWNT played poorly overall, coming in last place, but Lavelle sparkled in that tournament and has been a mainstay ever since, eventually winning the Bronze Ball at the Women’s World Cup two years later. Defender Tierna Davidson has a similar story: she joined the 2018 SheBelieves Cup with just one cap to her name, but proved herself at the highest level and eventually secured a spot on the 2019 World Cup-winning squad.Now, with World Cup qualifiers this summer and the World Cup next year, USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski has made it clear he will be using the 2022 SheBelieves Cup starting this week to find the next stars of the team again. Veterans like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Tobin Heath have been left off the roster in lieu of players who Andonovski says deserve a closer look.
“I want to give them maximum minutes or whatever minutes they earn so we can evaluate every aspect of their game, in the training environment or game setting,” Andonovski told ESPN, adding: “If in SheBelieves we call any of the senior players, then we’re not going to be able to see the younger ones.”
There are some younger players on the roster who have already found their breakthrough and are trying to keep or re-earn their spot, like Catarina Macario and Mallory Pugh, who have appeared in past Olympics or World Cups. But who are the newer players who could use this SheBelieves Cup as a launching pad to the 2023 World Cup and follow in the footsteps of Lavelle and Davidson?
Trinity Rodman | FW | Washington Spirit | Age: 19 | Caps: 0
Rodman has said she looks up to Heath, the USWNT winger known for her flashy style of play, as well as Press, the former target striker who has transformed herself into a crafty wide threat. But if Rodman’s SheBelieves Cup goes well, she could find herself taking a spot from Heath or Press, if not someone else.Rodman has never played with the senior national team, but she’s played against many of the players on the USWNT in the NWSL. Rodman led the NWSL in assists last season, and according to Opta she was also in the top 10 for expected assists, which measures the likelihood that a pass should turn into a goal. Her ability to set up her teammates is a nice complement to her nose for goal. Rodman typically attacks down the right side for the Spirit, but it’s common for her to flip to the left side, making her a diverse attacking threat. On a World Cup roster where flexibility is valuable, that should only help.At 19 years old, Rodman clearly has a long and bright future ahead of her. She recently signed a $1.1 million, four-year contract that her agency says will make her the highest-paid player in the NWSL. She was also named U.S. Soccer’s Young Female Player of the Year for 2021.
Sophia Smith | FW | Portland Thorns | Age: 21 | Caps: 10
Smith made history as the first teenager to be drafted into the NWSL at 19 years old — her record was later beaten by Rodman, who was drafted at 18 — and while she’s got the speed and finishing ability that are prerequisites for any good striker, Smith stands out for her work ethic and tenacity.No one won the ball more in the final third last season in the NWSL more than Smith, according to Opta stats. She had the fourth-highest expected goals, or xG, in the NWSL last season of anyone in the league — only Lynn Williams on the SheBelieves Cup roster finished with a higher xG. There’s something to be said about the level of service Smith was receiving at the Portland Thorns — the best chance creator last season was Thorns wingback Meghan Klingenberg — but Smith’s composure in front of goal and her willingness to take defenders on has been impressive from the 21-year-old.Mark Parsons, her coach at the Thorns, put Smith’s stellar season into perspective last summer: “She continues to move forward and nudge forward, but you’ve seen nothing yet. If this was a 100-meter sprint, she’s just starting to get out of the blocks. She’s not even upright yet and got out over 10 meters. This is nothing compared to what you’re going to see.”
Emily Fox | DF | Racing Louisville FC | Age: 23 | Caps: 8
The USWNT hasn’t had an optimal solution at left-back in years, and the spot is there for Fox to take. It’s true that Crystal Dunn has been a very effective left-back for the Americans — arguably, her stellar performance shutting Kadidiatou Diani was as much to credit with the U.S. reaching the semifinal of the 2019 World Cup as Rapinoe’s clinical finishing — but Dunn, as she has openly talked about, isn’t a natural defender and could potentially offer even more elsewhere on the pitch.
Now that Dunn is pregnant and will be out for the foreseeable future, the U.S. needs another solution anyway. In the past, the USWNT’s back-up left-back has been its starting right-back, Kelley O’Hara, which is not ideal either. At the next World Cup, Dunn would turn 31, O’Hara would be nearly 35 and the other left-back option, Casey Krueger (nee Short), would be almost 33. Andonovski has to look into the future with Fox.Fox ranks in the NWSL’s top five last season in recoveries, which is when a player wins the ball back after her team has lost possession. (No. 1 overall was midfielder Morgan Gautraut, nee Brian, who has earned his first call in more than two years for this edition of the SheBelieves Cup.) Based on last season’s NWSL stats, Fox’s ability to generate expected assists was almost as good as O’Hara, who won the NWSL Championship with the Washington Spirit.The question for Fox is whether she’ll be able to improve the attacking side of her game in order to fix the profile of the USWNT. After all, USWNT fullbacks tend to be expected to get forward and provide service in the attack every time the USWNT has the ball. In Dunn, the U.S. essentially had an attacker who also defends; Fox brings a different profile.
Ashley Sanchez | MF | Washington Spirit | Age: 22 | Caps: 2
Sanchez is a central attacking midfielder who can play as a No. 10 or a false nine, but she can also be effective when she floats into wider positions — her average heat map via Opta is just sort of all over the final third. She ranked in the top five last season in the NWSL for “big chances” created, which refers to chances that are expected to result in goals.She also once did this:
Margaret “Midge” Purce | FW | NJ/NY Gotham FC | Age: 26 | Caps: 9
Although Purce has nine caps with the USWNT, many of them have come outside the forward position she’s listed as for this SheBelieves Cup roster. Starting under former USWNT coach Jill Ellis, Purce has been stuck in the purgatory of playing as an attacker for her club, but being profiled as a possible defender — either a full-back or wing-back — for the national team.It’s easy to see how that happened. The forwards she would’ve had to try to replace included the likes of Morgan, Rapinoe, Press and Heath, not to mention the now-retired Carli Lloyd. All five of them were superb leading up to the last World Cup and during the tournament, and Pugh in her best form was stiff competition as well. With the USWNT’s veteran attacking line now aging — Morgan is the youngest, and she’ll turn 34 during the next World Cup — there’s an opening for a player like Purce, whose work rate and versatility make her an enticing option for a 23-player roster.Of players with more than 15 shots in the NWSL last season, no one had a higher shot-to-goal conversion rate than Purce at 20%. Her 45 attempts resulted in nine goals, and her six game-winning goals was the most in the league.
Ashley Hatch | FW | Washington Spirit | Age: 26 | Caps: 4
Hatch is a prolific scorer and would fit neatly into how the USWNT already plays, which makes her a huge asset in the upcoming World Cup cycle. Steve Christo – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
Hatch certainly made sure USWNT fans noticed her in her national team debut, scoring in the first 24 seconds in November against Australia. But anyone who has watched Hatch in the NWSL wouldn’t be surprised: Hatch led the NWSL in scoring in 2021 without needing a single penalty to boost her stats. She’s been incredibly consistent, never suffering a scoring drought longer than three games. She scored as much with her right foot as her left, and can score in a variety of ways from different parts of the field, but she’s best running onto service face-up in the box and taking goalkeepers on directly.
It’s all the more reason Hatch is an enticing prospect for the USWNT: she plays like she would fit right in with how the USWNT already operates. Her heading and the ability to win duels isn’t as far along as the rest of her game, but even as players like Morgan and Press have improved their heading over the years, the USWNT hasn’t had a clinical, reliable header they’ve counted on since Abby Wambach retired.What Andonovski will no doubt be evaluating is just how she fits in when she is not with her Spirit teammates like Rodman and Sanchez, who have also been stellar, giving her plenty of opportunities to convert. Hatch has been in the NWSL since 2017 and never had as productive of a season as she did in 2021.
Karim Benzema’s health vital for Real Madrid-PSG Champions League tie, Carlo Ancelotti’s future
4:18 PM ETGraham HunterSpain writer
Karim Benzema has been playing Paris Saint-Germain for nearly 16 years now. At first, it was easy.In 2006, at the age of 19, the suede-headed, Ronaldo Nazario-adoring kid with eight brothers and sisters from a tough Lyon suburb first set his remorseless, hungry eyes on the red and blue of the capital club, only 16 years older than he is. On the eve of the 2006-07 season, in the Trophee des Champions, Benzema scored an equalising goal in a contest that finished 1-1 after 120 minutes and OL won on penalties.From that day onwards Benzema, for Lyon and now Real Madrid, has lost just once in eight tussles with les Parisiens, despite scoring just one more goal since that summer of 2006, beating them in the league, the Coupe de France final and, ultimately, in the Champions League — a competition he’s won four times but PSG have yet to conquer. To Benzema, it’s “as important as winning the World Cup but more difficult to win,” to PSG it’s become their raison d’être, the holy grail that eludes them, taunts them and, right now, whose failure to win defines them.Right now, on the edge of another chance for the Algeria-descended all-time great of French football to thumb his nose at the nouveau riche from his nation’s capital, things aren’t so easy. PSG have stopped feeling like his personal soft touches.
Up 2-0, both courtesy of Real Madrid’s No. 9, the man with 76 Champions League goals, PSG took revenge in November 2019, the last time these clubs met, with a pair of late goals that ensured Thomas Tuchel’s team, not Madrid, won Group A.Earlier in that season, which PSG ended as beaten finalists, had come Benzema’s and Madrid’s last competitive trip to the Parc des Princes. They were walloped. If you watched that match, and it’s Madrid who own your heart, you’ll still be having nightmares.PSG shredded Zinedine Zidane’s side, over and again, faster, more competitive, fitter, more aggressive, and the eventual 3-0 winning margin could have been double that. A night of mist, damp, embarrassment and pain.Now Benzema, and los Blancos, are back; back for revenge, back to try to move forwards in the competition they treasure the most. But he’s not in shape. Whether this man — who requires 21 more goals to become the second all-time scorer for the most successful, grandest club in the history of football — makes the starting lineup is a matter for both speculation and nerves.What appeared to be a manageable hamstring problem, incurred in the costly 2-2 draw with Elche, first took slightly longer to heal than expected and then, partly thanks to manager Carlo Ancelotti’s desire to have him back, suffered a setback. On Feb. 5, Madrid’s Italian boss announced that his talismanic French strike leader wouldn’t play against Granada, but commented: “He’s been training for a few days, he’s not in shape yet, we’ll have to wait two or three more days … but he’ll be back for the next match.”The next match was at Villarreal, which is to say Saturday’s 0-0 draw in which not only did Benzema not make the squad, los Blancos dropped two points so that their LaLiga lead over Sevilla was cut.In the days between the Granada and Villarreal tests, Ancelotti authorised Benzema to undertake sprint training on one of the specially designed uphill inclines at their Valdebebas training ground, and Benzema’s hamstring protested. That explains his inability to face the Yellow Submarine, and it explains the nerves over not only whether he’ll start in Paris but concerning what level of performance he can produce — either as part of the XI or as a substitute.His importance to Madrid’s chances of eliminating the French champions is almost indescribably huge. In individual terms, he’s contributed 24 goals and 9 assists in 28 matches this season. Those are Herculean figures, especially achieved at the age of 34.Better still, his partnership with Vinicius Junior is devastatingly attractive and dangerous. Between them, they’ve created or scored 58 of los Blancos goals this season. Stripped of Benzema, Vinicius is still potent, still potentially a tie winner, but he can occasionally look a little indecisive, short of a soulmate.Without this divisive but divine striker, Madrid have struggled to edge past lowly, uninspired Granada (1-0), dropped points without scoring at Villarreal and been knocked out of the Copa del Rey (without scoring) by Athletic Club. Frankly, if Benzema doesn’t have a big role in the two games against PSG, then the chances of Madrid continuing in the competition they regard as their personal fiefdom are frighteningly diminished.
“He’s a great footballer, one of the best in the world,” PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino said. “Most of all he’s a very important player for his team. If he doesn’t make it, it’ll be a loss for Madrid. I’m not going to say it’ll be a huge plus for us because they have other great players, but it would change things for Madrid.”Not only is the Argentinian tactician quite right, despite the veritable forest of his own problems to cope with, he’s also part of the equation which Ancelotti has to solve. You see, there’s a lot more than simply progressing to the next round riding on this tie.In Spring 2018, Pochettino renewed his contract at Tottenham Hotspur for a further five years. For whatever (misjudged) reason, he ignored the option of insisting on a buyout clause. As happy as he plainly was in north London, feted, surrounded by interesting players, about to move into a cutting-edge new stadium and a year away from reaching the Champions League final in Madrid, it was a mistake.That summer he bumped into two of Madrid’s board, effectively the only two who really count, at a society wedding reception in the Spanish capital. Zidane had just shocked Florentino Perez to his core by quitting only a handful of days after Madrid’s stunning 3-1 win over Liverpool in the Champions League final.Pochettino was asked directly by the Madrid suits whether it really was true that he’d not inserted a “get out” clause in his new Spurs deal. True, he affirmed. “Well, that’s a pity,” he was told. “Otherwise you’d be the Madrid manager by now.”The Argentine, at that stage, was the No. 1 candidate by a distance for the club that was still reeling at losing their winning, charismatic and iconic manager in such circumstances. Not only were Madrid unsure about what to do next, their decision to recruit Julen Lopetegui was roundly condemned — controversially costing the Basque his job with Spain immediately before La Roja‘s World Cup campaign in Russia commenced — and it was an experiment Perez was willing to tolerate for exactly four months.OK, case established as to what Madrid then thought of the guy who’s in the opposition dugout this week. Since then, the 49-year-old hasn’t only taken Spurs to the verge of Champions League glory, he’s finally won his first two trophies as a coach, ridding him of that “not a winner” stigma.Now, none of this would be of the slightest concern for Ancelotti were things not a little more precarious for him right now at the world’s most political, most draconian club. The last time the Italian, who was “surprised” to get the call to take over again last summer, was “boss” at Madrid, he quickly found out that he wasn’t the boss of bosses.Four trophies in his first season, 2013-14, including an ultra-emblematic Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid in Lisbon, but sacked after the second season because of a perceived “lack of modernity” and a collapse when victory in LaLiga had looked assured. He was angry back then, scarred, jolted, in plain disagreement with Perez’s logic and, that means, fully aware of where he would stand right now.Elimination at San Mames earlier this month, kissing adios to La Copa wasn’t great, but neither was it enough to cost him his job. Playing “catch us if you can” with Sevilla, who haven’t won the title since the end of World War II, isn’t greatly encouraged by the hardline, “win or you’re sacked” Perez, but it’ll be pardoned if Madrid ultimately answer their trophyless 2020-21 season by becoming Spain’s champions in 2021-22.If Benzema’s injury and the evident weariness of the vital Madrid midfield trio of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos were to mean that Pochettino’s PSG brushed them aside and dumped los Blancos out of Europe in early March, there would be grave consequences. Any stumbles, let alone a full-blown collapse, against Sevilla’s domestic pursuit in those circumstances would mean the end for Ancelotti, sadly — with his rival this week the obvious candidate to replace him.There are some hypotheticals there and, frankly, if Madrid can get the most out of their personnel over 180 minutes of this tie, then they certainly have the edge as a team. PSG’s front three of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar — the latter, who’s been out since November with an ankle injury, could return on Tuesday — hasn’t truly fired yet. However, if they do, then this is a giant of a knockout tie; one for the ages, one that could well dictate how long Ancelotti’s second Bernabeu reign lasts and one that will very probably be dictated by how shrewdly the Italian uses his wonderful, deeply loyal, hugely ambitious but currently not fully fit French striker.Over to you, Carlo. This is why you get the big bucks. Best of luck in getting the big decision right.
Predicting the Champions League winners: Why Man City, Real Madrid, PSG will not lift the trophy
12:00 PM ET Ryan O’HanlonESPN.com writer
Want to cook up a get-rich-quick scheme? Figure out who wins the UEFA Champions League. Although the tournament purports to crown the champions of Europe, the best team in Europe usually don’t win it.
Let’s start in 2010-11. OK, bad example. That’s the 2010-11 Barcelona team that Sir Alex Ferguson called the best side he’d ever seen. The next year, though? Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League — and won the Champions League.
Bayern Munich were the best team in 2012-13 when they won it all, but the next season, Real Madrid finished third in LaLiga and lifted the cup. In 2014-15, it was the other potential best team of all time, the Lionel Messi–Luis Suarez–Neymar Barcelona.
Then, once again, it was Real Madrid, who, once again, didn’t win their domestic league. In 2016-17, Real Madrid won it again and did win their domestic league this time. They dropped down to third the following season, but still won the Champions League again — beating the fourth-place team in England in the final. That team, Liverpool, rose up to second the following season and won the Champions League. In 2020-21, Bayern eviscerated everyone; they were the best team in the world.
Last year, Chelsea beat Manchester City in the final. Chelsea also finished 19 points behind City in the Premier League.
Put another way, just five of the previous 11 Champions League winners have won their domestic league. Since 2010, Real Madrid have won the Champions League twice as many times as they’ve won LaLiga. And yet, this is the defining competition in modern soccer, the tournament that drives everyone mad and, at least half of the time, leaves us with unlikely champions who we all scramble to explain after the fact.
The simple explanation for all this: Knockout soccer is random. Anything can happen across the seven matches it takes to go from the round of 16 to lifting the trophy, which is what makes this tournament so great.
Legacies are defined by a couple of coin flips among the greatest players and coaches in the world. We don’t need rote dominance over a large-enough sample of matches to truly determine the best team — we already have domestic soccer for that — but that also doesn’t mean the Champions League is totally random, either. Otherwise, I don’t know, Ferencvaros or Krasnodar would’ve won this thing at some point in the past decade.
There are some patterns that have united all of the previous champions since the 2010-11 season, and we can apply those to all of the teams in this year’s last 16. We’ll run through a number of statistical categories and eliminate the teams that don’t meet the threshold until there’s a team or two still standing.
Is this the most scientific approach? No. Is it more fun this way? Absolutely. Let’s get to it.
All stats are up to date through Feb. 11 and come courtesy of Stats Perform. Domestic play only.
Measurement No. 1: Scoring enough goals
Surprisingly, the fewest goals scored by a Champions League winner since 2010 does not come from the only Champions League winner since 2010 to finish behind Newcastle United in the league table. The 2011-12 Chelsea team scored 1.7 goals per game, but last year’s Chelsea squeezed even more juice out of the lemon with 1.5 goals per game. Those are the only European champs with fewer than 2.0 goals per game. The average among winners is 2.5, and four teams — both Bayern winners, 2014-15 Barca and 2015-16 Madrid — are tied for the most with 2.9.
The teams who tend to win this tend to be the ones who can blow their opponents off the field on a given night and remove some of the variance that defines most soccer matches, but it’s possible to win it all with a meeker attack — and a Russian oligarch funding your roster, too. Only one team in this year’s field fails to meet the minimum mark: Lille, who are averaging 1.3 goals in Ligue 1 and have a -4 goal differential.
Teams eliminated: Lille
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax Amsterdam, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Internazionale, Juventus, Manchester United, Benfica, FC Salzburg, Sporting CP
Measurement No. 2: Goals against
Unsurprisingly, the most goals scored by a Champions League winner since 2010 comes from the only Champions League winner since 2010 to finish behind Newcastle United in the league table. However, they’re not alone at the bottom. Both 2011-12 Chelsea and 2017-18 Real Madrid allowed 1.2 goals per game en route to their titles.
For reference, the average Premier League team allowed 1.3 goals per game last season. The average Champions League winner, though, has allowed 0.9 goals per game, with the best mark (0.5) going to Jupp Heynckes’ 2012-13 Bayern Munich team.
Before we get to the eliminations here, it’s worth pointing out that Lille are both scoring the fewest goals and allowing the most goals (1.5) of any remaining team in the tournament. Life comes at you fast and all that.
Both Manchester United and Atletico Madrid are gone, too. Shockingly, Diego Simeone’s side are allowing 1.4 goals per game this year — the second-highest total of all the teams in the round of 16. What happened to goalkeeper Jan Oblak? Atleti’s opponents in the round of 16, United, have improved defensively under Ralf Rangnick, but their season-long rate (1.3 goals per game) doesn’t meet the threshold, either.
Interestingly, the second-favourites to win it all (per Pinnacle), Bayern Munich, just sneak in here, as they’re conceding 1.1 goals per game. Something to keep an eye on, at least.
Teams eliminated: Atletico Madrid, Manchester United
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Inter Milan, Juventus, Benfica, Salzburg, Sporting
Measurement No. 3: Field control
OK, so we know that attack seems a little more important than defence. Teams with average defences have won the Champions League before, while no team with an average attack has done it. But what about how they control the ball? Rather than looking at possession, we’ll consider “field tilt,” which is the percentage of all the final-third passes in a match completed by one team. It’s a ratio of how many final-third passes you complete vs. how many you allow, and it’s a good representation for how effective you are at controlling the field. The average winner since 2010 produced a field tilt of 63.9%; the high comes from 2014-15 Barcelona (74%) and the low from 2011-12 Chelsea (56.1%).
Among the remaining sides, only Juventus fail to meet the threshold. They’re just barely edging the field-tilt battle (50.4%) in Serie A this season, and that number has been in decline for a couple of years now, too. Under Maurizio Sarri in 2019-20, they produced their highest number since 2010 (62.8%). It dropped to 53.5% under Andrea Pirlo, and it’s fallen even further in Massimiliano Allegri’s first season back with the club.
Unfortunately, we also have to eliminate FC Salzburg here, too. The real reason is that we don’t have access to this data for the Austrian Bundesliga, but we’ll call it measurement No. 3-B: no team from Austria has ever won the Champions League.
Teams eliminated: Juventus, Salzburg
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Inter Milan, Benfica, Sporting
Measurement No. 4: Shots
No team has won the Champions League since 2010 without attempting at least 14.6 shots per game. The defending champs (Chelsea) lowered the previous mark just slightly, which was Liverpool’s 15.1 in 2018-19. The average among the winners is 17.2 shots per game, and the high-water mark was Real Madrid’s 19.5 shots per game in 2013-14.
Simply put: To win the Champions League, you need to take a ton of shots. The only remaining team who don’t do that are Unai Emery’s Villarreal, who are attempting just 12.5 shots per game, the second-lowest mark among all the teams in the round of 16. The 10 teams left all pass the requisite thresholds for a number of other shot-based metrics, too: shots against, expected goals per shot and xG per shot allowed.
Teams eliminated: Villarreal
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Benfica, Sporting
Measurement No. 5: A crossing equilibrium
As a general rule, crossing is inefficient. It’s soccer’s version of the bunt or a run on first down. Most of them get blocked or cleared, and the most likely outcome of a given cross is … a transition opportunity for your opponent.
https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-10&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1090642480838705153&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.espn.com%2Fsoccer%2F&sessionId=508d2fb556546c1e9311cfdf8934e3b49e37c876&siteScreenName=espn&theme=light&widgetsVersion=0a8eea3%3A1643743420422&width=550px Of course, not all crosses are created equal, and neither are all crossers. A pacey cutback is better than a lofted ball from the sideline, and a wide pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold or Kevin De Bruyne is better than, well, a wide pass from pretty much anyone else. Plus, crossing keeps the defence honest. If you never cross the ball, the defence never has to worry about it, and they can pack even more bodies into central areas to make your noncrossing possessions less efficient, too.
For our purposes, we want our prospective champions to fall somewhere within a band created on the top by 2011-12 Chelsea and the bottom by 2010-11 Barcelona. For the former, 19.7% of their final-third passes were crosses, while the latter came in at 8.7%. Given that they happened in consecutive years, it’s almost like one approach was a response to the other.
Two remaining teams run afoul of our desired equilibrium: Sporting CP, who are crossing the ball with an absurd 20.8% of their final-third passes, and PSG, who cross with just 8.3% of their attacking-third passes. For the latter, that number might speak to a lack of physicality or diversity of approaches among their attackers. All of the other favourites have goal scorers who can score from settled possession, through counterattacks or by attacking a quick aerial ball into the box.
Teams eliminated: PSG, Sporting
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Benfica
Measurement No. 6: Pressing
All previous 11 Champions League winners were one of two things: A) hard to pass against, or B) Real Madrid. Eight of the champs since 2010 allowed opponents pass-completion percentage below 80.0%, while Madrid’s opponents completed at least four in five passes in all three consecutive title seasons under Zinedine Zidane. His Madrid sides would often lose control of matches — when they’d be unable to get the ball — only to be saved by a moment of individual brilliance or a rival’s high-leverage ineptitude.
The average winners have held opponents to a 77.2% pass-completion rate, while the worst mark (81.8%) was recorded by Madrid in 2016-17. Even easier to pass against, though, are this year’s Real Madrid, who are allowing 82.9% of passes to be completed. When Carlo Ancelotti won the tournament with Madrid in 2013-14, his team pressed relatively effectively (77.4%), but that hasn’t carried over to his second stint with the club, perhaps because he has many of the same players — just eight years older.
That theme extends to Inter Milan, who have the third-oldest team (adjusted by minutes played) in Europe’s Big Five leagues this season, per the site FBref. Their average age is 29.5 — only Lazio and Elche are rolling out older lineups — and they’re allowing their opponents to complete 83% of their passes this season.
Teams eliminated: Real Madrid, Inter Milan
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, Benfica
Measurement No. 7: Protecting your box
All of the remaining six teams score a lot, concede few, dominate territory, shoot a bunch, cross the ball in moderation and make it hard on their opponents to pass the ball. So it’s time to start nitpicking.
Given how important a single goal can be in this tournament, the winners all tend to play a style that reduces the randomness in their defensive third. They keep their opponents out of the penalty area, which makes them less likely to concede a penalty or a closer-range shot that might be well-covered, only for it to still end up deflecting into the goal. The average winner has conceded just 14.7 penalty-area touches per match, with a peak of 18.4 allowed by Real Madrid in 2015-16 and a low of 10.6 allowed by 2010-11 Barcelona, who also allowed by far the lowest pass-completion percentage (71.1%). We think of them as a brilliant possession team; they were one of the great defensive teams of all time, too.
That means goodbye to the defending champs, Chelsea, who are allowing 18.7 touches in their penalty area this season — up from 15.7 last term. For all the consternation about Chelsea’s expensive, misfiring attack this season, the defence has fallen off a good bit from the second half of last season’s historic run.
Teams eliminated: Chelsea
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Benfica
Measurement No. 8: Fouls
No team in the last 11 years has won the Champions League while fouling opponents more than 13 times per game (2012-13 Bayern); the average is 10.8. My theory is that there’s some indicator of control here. If you have to foul a ton, you’re either overaggressive or constantly losing the ball in positions that require a rule violation in order to prevent greater damage, or both. More fouls also means you’re more likely to get a red card, which is a killer in a knockout tournament, or multiple yellow cards, which can lead to the suspension of key players.
Benfica’s continued existence in this process is mainly due to the fact that they play in the weaker Portuguese league, but their journey ends here. They’re committing 13.7 fouls per match, which is essentially a statistical proxy for “this team plays in the Primeira Liga,” where the ball is never in play.
https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-11&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1490682952472276992&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.espn.com%2Fsoccer%2F&sessionId=508d2fb556546c1e9311cfdf8934e3b49e37c876&siteScreenName=espn&theme=light&widgetsVersion=0a8eea3%3A1643743420422&width=550px Teams eliminated: Benfica
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax
Measurement No. 9: Pace
Manchester City have adapted to the pandemic era of soccer by slowing things down to a crawl. They press less aggressively, attempt easier passes and take their time getting up the field. It worked brilliantly in domestic play, as they moonwalked to a title last season and are heavy favourites again this season despite directly competing with two of the five best teams in the world. Now, they’re moving a little faster this season — with a little more rest for their players and fans back in the stands — but they might as well be going in reverse compared to the previous 11 Champions League winners.
Since 2010, the average winner has moved the ball upfield at a rate of 1.54 meters per second. The high was 1.87 m/s for Chelsea in 2011-12, and the low was 1.15 m/s for Chelsea last year. Roman Abramovich’s club contains multitudes.
This season, City are moving the ball upfield at just 1.05 meters per second. It obviously can work; they made the final last season with an even slower approach. But beyond sheer randomness, this is the main reason the favourites might not win — again. It will inevitably happen at some point in the next few rounds, so how will City cope when the pace of the game gets out of hand? Against this level of competition, they won’t be able to control every minute of every match.
Teams eliminated: Manchester City
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Ajax
Measurement No. 10: Passing
Compared to all of the previous winners, there’s almost no area where these three remaining teams don’t measure up favourably, so we’re going to end it here: What percentage of your passes do you complete? The efficacy of this number should be captured somewhere in all of the other numbers. If you’re dominating in essentially every statistical category that’s even just vaguely connected to winning games, then you’re probably completing enough of your passes.
But not for us! We are grading on whatever the opposite of a curve is. (A straight line? A 90-degree angle?)
I’ve gone through around 100 different stats at this point to try to separate these teams — number of shots from individual play, pullbacks, pass distance for all passes before the final third, pass distance for all passes, percent of shots with your head, percent of possessions that reach the penalty area that lead to shots, passes per second of possession, and lots more — and they all hit the benchmarks.
Except, just barely, this one.
Liverpool are completing 84.1% of their passes this season. Since 2010, no team has won the Champions League without completing at least 84.5% of their passes — a mark that was matched by 2018-19 Liverpool. Yes, those 0.4 percentage points are completely imperceptible to the human eye, and one game could easily shift Jurgen Klopp and Co. back above the threshold. Just, like, complete five extra sideways passes and you’re there — but, well, you’re not there yet, so you’re outta here.
And so, that leaves us with Bayern Munich and Ajax.
Consider Bayern the most champion-like side among the five favourites to win it all, and consider Ajax the dark horse that looks most like future winners. Sure, Erik ten Hag’s team play in the Dutch Eredivisie, but they’ve scored 64 goals and conceded just five in 21 matches — and they were just as dominant among the better competition of the Champions League group stages. No matter where they’ve played so far this season, Ajax have looked like one of the best teams in the world. The same goes for Bayern … but you already knew that.
CONCACAF Champions League: Will Liga MX teams break the hearts of MLS hopefuls?
3:18 PM ETCesar Hernandez
- EmailLove is a game that two can play and both win — unless of course if it’s in the CONCACAF Champions League. So it’s fitting that on the week of Valentine’s Day, several Major League Soccer and Liga MX sides will look to avoid heartbreak in North America’s premier club competition.The tournament begins on Tuesday as 16 sides square off in the knockout round. Following two legs this month, the eight winners will advance with hopes of eventually reaching the two-legged finals in April and May.Per usual, the four Liga MX and five MLS participants lead the pack as the favorites. They are joined by Caribbean Club champions Cavaly AS of Haiti, and the top six Central American sides from the precursor 2021 CONCACAF League competition.Liga MX sides have gone 13 consecutive seasons with a CCL title, a record that climbs to 16 trophies when counting the Champions’ Cup era. It’s a dominant streak for Mexican teams, to be sure, but could this be the year MLS finally ends it? With two finals appearances in the last four editions, MLS clubs have come close in recent years. Or, will this be the year in which an up-and-coming club defies the odds and trounces the front-runners?
(1st leg: Thursday, Feb. 17; 2nd leg: Thursday, Feb. 24)
Seattle Sounders qualification: Best 2021 MLS regular season side not automatically qualified
Motagua qualification: 2021 CONCACAF League runners-up
Could the Seattle Sounders make a deep sprint towards a CCL title? Theoretically, they have all the right pieces in order to do so, including striker Raul Ruidiaz, USMNT winger Jordan Morris, and midfield stalwart Joao Paulo. They’ve held onto several top names in their well-balanced squad, they’ve brought in an intriguing reinforcement through Slovakia international Albert Rusnak from Real Salt Lake, and earlier this month, defender Nouhou Tolo earned a place in ESPN’s “Dream Team” for the Africa Cup of Nations.Under the leadership of head coach Brian Schmetzer, there’s a belief that the Sounders can achieve at least one title this season, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Motagua make things more challenging than expected. Motagua were impressive in their CONCACAF League performances that carried them to the final last December, a handful of Honduras internationals populate their roster, and in the frontline, Paraguayan forward Roberto Moreira is a consistent goal scoring threat.
And yet, there’s just too much talent and promise within Seattle’s setup to confidently say Motagua can get an upset.
(1st leg: Thursday, Feb. 17; 2nd leg: Wednesday, Feb. 23)
Colorado Rapids qualification: 2021 regular season MLS Western Conference winners
Comunicaciones qualification: 2021 CONCACAF League champions
There are legitimate concerns about whether the Colorado Rapids could recreate the same magic that made them MLS Western Conference winners in the 2021 regular season: Promising youngster Cole Bassett is now on loan with Feyenoord, U.S. men’s national team midfielder Kellyn Acosta has gone to LAFC, and up top, well, a much-needed reinforcement in the striker position has yet to arrive.
Led by Jack Price and Arsenal signee Auston Trusty, the Rapids’ core of the hard-working team from last year remains but some crucial questions linger, and unlike the other CCL Central American sides, there are fewer questions for Comunicaciones.
The Guatemalan giants should not be taken lightly as regular invitees to the CCL. Last February, Comunicaciones narrowly lost to Liga MX’s most successful team, Club America, in penalties in the Round of 16. Comunicaciones qualified by winning the CONCACAF League, having the tournament’s top two goal scorers in Juan Anangono and Andres Lezcano.
NYCFC vs. Santos de Guapiles
(1st leg: Tuesday, Feb. 15; 2nd leg: Wednesday, Feb. 23)
NYCFC qualification: 2021 MLS Cup champions
Santos de Guapiles qualification: 2021 CONCACAF League quarterfinalist
Despite the fact that NYCFC will be playing the return leg in Los Angeles — due to Yankee Stadium, Red Bull Arena, and Citi Field all being remarkably unavailable — things are looking encouraging for the 2021 MLS Cup champions. Golden Boot winner Valentin “Taty” Castellanos looks likely to stay in MLS for the moment amid reported interest from River Plate, and NYCFC have coasted through three February friendlies. Depending on how quickly things are processed, new defender Thiago Martins might be ready for minutes.
NYCFC aren’t alone when it comes to playing their “home” leg on unfamiliar ground either. Similar to NYCFC, Costa Rica’s Santos de Guapiles will be playing the first leg in San Jose’s Estadio Nacional instead of their Estadio Ebal Rodríguez, due to CONCACAF stadium regulations.
All signs point to a tough outing for Santos de Guapiles, who are the lowest-ranked team from those qualifying from the CONCACAF League. The CCL debutants are in the middle of a tight schedule that will take them through six games in 20 days, which includes the trip to L.A. Whether leading names like midfielder Osvaldo Rodriguez or Jamaica‘s Javon East will be utilized for both matches, remains up in the air.
(1st leg: Friday, Feb. 18; 2nd leg: Tuesday, Feb 22)
New England Revolution qualification: 2021 MLS Supporters’ Shield winners
Cavaly AS qualification: 2021 CONCACAF Caribbean Club Championship winners
Tajon Buchanan has left the Revolution for Club Brugge, but in support the Revs brought in veterans Omar Gonzalez, Sebastian Lletget and Jozy Altidore. There’s a lot to like about the 2021 MLS Supporters’ Shield winners roster that also has marquee names such as striker Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa, MLS MVP Carles Gil and goalkeeper Matt Turner, who will move to Arsenal this summer. And while it may have been over 20 years ago and in a different era, manager Bruce Arena guided D.C. United to a CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998 — a precursor to the current CCL.
As for Haiti’s Cavaly AS, the CONCACAF Caribbean Club Championship title-holders will unfortunately be without their top player that carried them to the CCL. After earning the Young Player Award, the Golden Boot award and the Golden Ball award for the Caribbean Club Championship, forward Gamael Dorvil has since moved on to FC Rouen 1899 in France’s fourth division.
The Revs will also have double home-field advantage and a few days of extra preparation. Both legs will be held at Gillette Stadium due to the “security situation” in Haiti, and visa issues for the visitors pushed back the first leg from Tuesday to Friday.
(1st leg: Tuesday, Feb. 15; 2nd leg: Tuesday, Feb. 22)
Santos Laguna qualification: 2021 Liga MX Clausura runners-up
CF Montreal qualification: 2021 Canadian Championship winners
Guaranteed heartbreak for either team. The luck of the draw has placed Santos Laguna and CF Montreal in the only Liga MX vs. MLS match-up. Both are finalists in previous editions of the tournament and both should be expected to make a decent run this year.
For Santos Laguna manager Pedro Caixinha, there will be an opportunity for redemption after stumbling against Monterrey in the 2012-13 CCL final. All of the stars from that era are now long gone, but in their place, the 2021 Clausura runner-ups have filled their roster with a youthful core that is guided by players like Carlos Acevedo, Alan Cervantes, Eduardo Aguirre, Omar Campos and a few others. However, Caixinha, in his second stint now with Santos Laguna, could use some good news after kicking off 2022 with a few losses in Liga MX play.
As for Montreal, lack of a playoff appearance in MLS’ 2021 season isn’t a good sign despite a strong finish to the end of the regular season. Their run to the Canadian Championship was a close one as well after going through the semifinals on penalties and narrowly defeating Toronto FC 1-0 in the final.
Nonetheless, there are interesting options within their roster. On loan once again from Bologna, 23-year-old goalkeeper Sebastian Breza was impressive in the Canadian Championship and finished as the tournament’s MVP. The winter addition of Canadian international Alistair Johnston could be one of the most impactful signings of the MLS season as well. Djordje Mihailovic is also a decisive figure with his chance-creation in the final third.
Leon vs. Guastatoya
(1st leg: Wednesday, Feb 16; 2nd leg: Tuesday, Feb 22)
Leon qualification: 2020 Liga MX Apertura champions
Guastatoya qualification: 2021 CONCACAF League semifinalists
Although Leon are far from the Liga MX side that lifted the 2020 Apertura title, there remains an impressive amount of experience within their squad that shouldn’t be troubled in the Round of 16. Manager Ariel Holan reiterated that the CCL will be “our focus” and that “our dream is to go to the Club World Cup.”
Holan might save some of his best for the two legs against Guastatoya, and if key figures like Rodolfo Cota, Angel Mena, William Tesillo and Victor Davila are given prominent roles, Leon should have no excuses in their journey that begins away to Guatemala on Wednesday.
Guastatoya are on the rise in the Guatemalan league, and are currently undefeated in the the division’s 2022 Clausura, but the CONCACAF League semifinalists also lack roster depth and have only taken part in one previous CCL run. Fingers will be crossed that their 35-year-old Mexican forward Luis Landin has the Liga MX familiarity to sneak a goal or two past Leon.
(1st leg: Wednesday, Feb. 16; 2nd leg: Thursday, Feb. 24)
Cruz Azul qualification: 2021 Liga MX Clausura champions
Forge FC qualification: 2021 CONCACAF League semifinalists
Even with a few high-profile names stepping out during the winter, the argument could be made that Cruz Azul have the deepest squad in the CCL. The 2021 Clausura champions made a gamble with their recent roster changes, but it has so far paid off with their 3W-1D-1L record in the current Liga MX season. Despite a front office shakeup this weekend and the reported absence of Carlos “Charly” Rodriguez, Angel Romero and Adrian Aldrete, Cruz Azul have enough roster options within their squad to remain the heavy favorites.
The chance creation and finishing from new signing Rodriguez will be greatly missed, but in support, other recent additions such as winger Uriel Antuna, midfielder Erik Lira and fullback Alejandro Mayorga have been influential in Cruz Azul’s 10-point run from their first five matches. Elsewhere, veterans like Jesus Corona, Rafael Baca and Pablo Aguilar have been imposing with their control in their own half of the pitch.
Will Canada’s Forge FC be able to keep up? Similar to Santos de Guapiles and Cavaly AS, this will be a first introduction into the CCL for the Canadian Premier League side. Their best bet is making things tough in their chilly first leg in Hamilton, Ontario, this Wednesday, but they’ll be doing so without 2021 leading goal scorer Molham Babouli, who has since joined Muaither SC in Qatar’s second division.
(1st leg: Wednesday, Feb 16; 2nd leg: Wednesday, Feb 23)
Pumas qualification: 2020 Liga MX Apertura runners-up
Saprissa qualification: 2021 CONCACAF League quarterfinalists
Pumas are here thanks to their place as finalists in the 2020 Apertura season, but since then, the Mexico City squad have been disappointing. They didn’t qualify for the playoffs in the subsequent Clausura campaign and were then lucky to make a playoff run in the 2021 Apertura after an 11th place finish in the regular season.
There’s an inconsistency to manager Andres Lillini’s setup, which could make them vulnerable to Costa Rica’s Saprissa. Despite their poor start to the year in domestic play, three-time competition champions Saprissa have more CCL experience than any other team in the current competition. In the recent CONCACAF League, they painstakingly lost to eventual champions Comunicaciones through away goals after a thrilling 5-5 series in the quarterfinals.
Let’s not forget Ticos defender Kendall Waston either. In the latest round of World Cup qualifiers for Costa Rica, Watson was a game-changer in wins over Panama and Jamaica, as well in a scoreless draw at Mexico.
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