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Monthly Archives: March 2017

What to watch in Europe’s main competitions

ENGLAND

The FA Cup semifinals provide a brief break from the title race, but with added spice thanks to the tightening of the pursuit of the Premier League trophy.

Tottenham faces Chelsea in the first semifinal on Saturday having already reduced its London rival’s 13-point league lead to four points in recent weeks.

Chelsea still has some breathing space, with six games remaining to secure the title for the second time in three seasons. Tottenham, though, has an unexpected opportunity of winning the league for the first time since 1961.

For a club that has won only the League Cup twice and the FA Cup in the last 26 years, Tottenham is hungry for silverware. Especially, Mauricio Pochettino to have something to show for the exploits of his vibrant, youthful side.

“To beat Tottenham is a big challenge for everyone. That is very good news for us,” Pochettino said on Thursday. “It means that something is growing up here.”

North London rival Arsenal is going through more difficult times, with some fan groups wanting Arsene Wenger out next month. Sitting sixth in the league, Arsenal can ease the burden on Wenger by beating Manchester City in Sunday’s second semifinal and deny Pep Guardiola the chance of silverware in his first season in charge.

There are six league games this weekend, including third-place Liverpool hosting Crystal Palace, and fifth-place Manchester United travelling to Burnley.

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SPAIN

Barcelona is reeling from being eliminated by Juventus in Champions League. Now the focus in on Sunday’s clasico against Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and wiping out the host’s three-point lead.

Barcelona, chasing a third straight title, will be without the suspended Neymar. Madrid is expected to welcome Gareth Bale back from injury.

Third-place Atletico Madrid, 10 points off the lead, plays at Espanyol on Saturday. Fourth-place Sevilla, three points behind Atletico, hosts Granada on Friday.

By Tales Azzoni in Madrid.

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FRANCE

Paris Saint-Germain has found an unexpected goal-scorer to take some of the pressure off striker Edinson Cavani.

Midfielder Blaise Matuidi has three goals in the last three league games and is finding his best form just at the right time, following a difficult start to the season where he was stopped from joining Juventus and was then unhappy at being in and out of coach Unai Emery’s plans.

But the 30-year-old Matuidi is becoming the player he was before, when he was crucial for both club and country.

Matuidi scored twice on Tuesday in a 3-2 win away to Metz, including the winner in the third minute of injury time with an opportunist header. Not renowned for his scoring, Matuidi has four league goals and needs one more to match his career best tally with PSG.

He will look to do that at home to mid-table Montpellier on Saturday.

A win at Parc des Princes would put PSG three points clear of Monaco, which plays away to Lyon on Sunday night. Monaco has a game in hand and a greatly superior goal difference to PSG.

Although third-place Nice is four points behind the top two, coach Lucien Favre’s side still has a shot at the title. But Nice has must-win games now, starting with a trip to play Toulouse on Sunday ahead of next weekend’s home clash with PSG.

By Jerome Pugmire in Monaco.

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GERMANY

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund return to the Bundesliga chastened after Champions League exits to Real Madrid and Monaco, respectively.

Bayern, though, is at least on course for a record fifth consecutive Bundesliga title, holding an eight-point lead with five games remaining heading into Saturday’s game against relegation-threatened Mainz.

Dortmund, on the other hand, has been plunged into uncertainty by its inconsistent season and the effects of the attack on the team bus last week.

Fourth-place Dortmund is pushing for third and the last place to guarantee Champions League qualification, currently occupied by a Hoffenheim side enjoying its best-ever season under Julian Nagelsmann. Fourth brings only a playoff to make Europe’s elite competition.

Dortmund faces a tough game at Borussia Moenchengladbach on Saturday, while Hoffenheim opens the 30th round at Cologne on Friday. Darmstadt is likely to be the first side relegated at Hamburger SV on Saturday.

By Ciaran Fahey in Berlin.

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ITALY

A week ago Roma was still hoping to beat Juventus to the Serie A title. Now it is looking nervously over its shoulder as it tries to cling onto second spot.

A 1-1 draw against Atalanta last weekend left Roma eight points behind Juventus, with six matches remaining. Third-place Napoli beat Udinese 3-0 to close the gap to just two points.

Roma isn’t playing until Monday against Pescara and it could start the game in third place if Napoli wins at Sassuolo the previous day.

Napoli is hitting its stride, having won five of its past six matches. It has also scored three goals in each of its past four victories as Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens rip defences apart, led by captain Marek Hamsik, who is closing in on Diego Maradona’s club record number of goals.

Roma has the tougher run in as, after Pescara, it faces Lazio in the capital derby, AC Milan and Juventus in succession. Its final two matches are against Chievo Verona and Genoa.

Napoli visits Inter before matches against Cagliari, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

Also this weekend, Juventus hosts Genoa, while AC Milan welcomes Empoli hoping to give its new Chinese owners a win after their first match in charge ended 2-2 in the derby against Inter Milan.

Christine Sinclair sets the tone for Portland Thorns

Following a year of heartbreak and triumph, Christine Sinclair had some time in the off-season to decompress.

Sinclair lost her father just a little more than three months before she led the Canadian national team to a repeat bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Now it’s back to work for the soft-spoken forward, who wants to right last season’s disappointing finish for the Portland Thorns.

“It was probably the longest off-season I’ve had in about six years. Just being able to reflect on the past year, for me it’s been a lot with everything that’s been going on,” she said. “Reaching the podium in Rio was definitely a highlight. Losing in the semifinals here (in Portland) was disappointing. But it’s things like that that motivate you.”

Sinclair and the Thorns opened up the National Women’s Soccer League season last week with a 2-0 victory over the Orlando Pride. Sinclair, known as Sinc to her teammates and fans, scored.

Sinclair, one of the most prolific scorers of all time, has been with Portland since the league got its start in 2013. As a member of the Canadian national team, she was among the players distributed across the fledgling league. It was a no-brainer for Sinclair to wind up in Portland, given her history with the city.

A native of British Columbia, Sinclair won a pair of NCAA championships with the Portland Pilots. She set a Division I record with 39 goals her senior season, and she finished her career with a record 25 playoff goals.

In addition to playing for earlier domestic pro leagues and the NWSL, the 33-year-old Sinclair has been the longtime captain of the Canadian national team. She has scored 167 international goals, second only to Abby Wambach, who finished her career with 184. Sinclair passed Mia Hamm on the career list early last year.

The past three years have been a whirlwind for Sinclair. There was a lot of attention placed on her in the run-up to the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which Canada hosted. The Canadians did not reach the podium, but the team continued its upward trajectory on the international stage, building on a surprise bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Canada repeated last year in Brazil, beating the hosts 2-1. Sinclair scored on a free kick.

Now Sinclair has turned her attention to the Thorns. The team went 12-3-5 last season, finishing with the league’s best record but losing in the semifinals of the playoffs at home to the Western New York Flash. The Flash went on to win the league championship before moving to North Carolina in the off-season.

Last weekend, Sinclair accepted the NWSL Shield for the top record.

“Sinc is an important player on the field and a great leader off the field,” Thorns coach Marc Parsons said. “She’s integral to our attack and how we defend from the front. It’s what she brings as a player, the quality she brings.”

Portland sure looks poised for success. In addition to Sinclair, the team includes U.S. national team players Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long, Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett, as well as France’s Amandine Henry.

With a win over the Pride in the opener, the Thorns visit the North Carolina Courage in a rematch of the championship on Saturday.

No other domestic pro women’s league has lasted more than three seasons. But the NWSL appears healthy, with a new television deal.

Sinclair said she feels the league is doing things right.

“I think the game is growing here in North America, more and more fans are coming to the games. But I also think the league was set up right. They didn’t go too big too early: I think that was the fault of the previous leagues, salaries were pretty high at the get-go and the revenue wasn’t there. I think this league started small and is growing every year,” she said.

Always humble, Sinclair seems uncomfortable talking about her goals as a player. But she’s not shy about her aspirations for the Thorns this season.

“I’m not the type of person to set goals. And if I do they’re mine and mine only,” she said. “But I think it’s fair to say this team is going after the championship and the shield this year, and anything less than that will be a disappointment.”

Rashford steers Man United into Europa League semifinals

Teenage striker Marcus Rashford enhanced his reputation by stepping up in the absence of the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic to steer Manchester United into the Europa League semifinals with an extra-time winner against Anderlecht.

Showing coolness beyond his years, Rashford deceived two defenders in the penalty area with a Cruyff turn and slotted home a shot in the 107th minute to give United a 2-1 win at Old Trafford.

United advanced 3-2 on aggregate to join Lyon, Ajax and Celta Vigo in the last four, after a tension-filled night of quarterfinal second legs in Europe’s second-tier continental club competition.

The Europa League was the competition in which Rashford made his senior breakthrough last season, scoring twice on debut against FC Midtjylland as an 18-year-old unknown. He’s now an England international and one of the hottest prospects in European soccer.

Rashford may have to take on the mantle of being United’s chief striker for the last month of the season after Ibrahimovic hobbled off in the final minutes of normal time after hyperextending his right knee on landing, having chested down a long ball into the area.

The Swedish striker appeared to be in pain and held his head in his hands as he was being treated.

“Fairly negative,” Mourinho said of injuries to Ibrahimovic and centre back Marcos Rojo, who went off injured in the first half.

There is barely a month left in Ibrahimovic’s first season at United, and he is yet to commit to another year.

With the teams level at 1-1 after the first leg in Belgium last week, Henrikh Mkhitaryan put United ahead on aggregate with a 10th-minute strike at Old Trafford only for Sofiane Hanni to equalize in the 31st.

Cambridge Winter Hawks hand out team awards

Here’s a look at how the other quarterfinal matches turned out:

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BESIKTAS 2, LYON 1 (3-3 on aggregate, Lyon advanced 7-6 on penalties)

Lyon’s players held their nerve to beat Besiktas in a tense penalty shootout.

The first 12 spot kicks were clinically struck, before Dusko Tosic had a penalty saved for Besiktas and right back Christophe Jallet blazed over for Lyon.

Besiktas centre back Matej Mitrovic then missed for the home side, and Lyon made no mistake with its second chance to go through when club captain Maxime Gonalons converted.

In an exciting game played at a relentless pace, Brazilian forward Talisca scored twice either side of striker Alexandre Lacazette’s brilliant finish.

Last week’s match was marred by widespread fighting among rival fans inside and outside the stadium, leading to both teams being given suspended one-season bans from European competition. There was no repeat of the trouble in Istanbul.

Lyon advanced to its third European semifinal, after reaching the last four of the Champions League in 2010 and the now-defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964.

SCHALKE 3, AJAX 2 (Ajax advances 4-3 on aggregate)

This was the third quarterfinal to go to extra time, with Ajax advancing following late goals by Nick Viergever and Amin Younes and reaching it first European semifinal since 1997.

Trailing 2-0 after the first leg, Schalke scored twice in four minutes early in the second half through Leon Goretzka and Guido Burgstaller to take the game to extra time.

Daniel Caligiuri’s header in the 101st put Schalke — the 1997 champion when the competition was called the UEFA Cup — in front, but Ajax finished stronger.

GENK 1, CELTA VIGO 1 (Celta advances 4-3 on aggregate)

Celta stayed on course to extend Spain’s domination of this competition by advancing to a semifinal of a top European club competition for the first time.

Sisto completed a driving run with a stunning strike to put Celta 1-0 up on the night and leave Genk needing two goals to advance on away goals.

Leandro Trossard scored one of them in the 68th but Celta held on.

Sevilla and Atletico Madrid have won the Europa League or UEFA Cup seven times in the past 11 years.

Stillwater caps perfect season with 2-0 victory to win 2A championship

The Stillwater boys’ soccer team left no doubt Thursday, defeating previously undefeated Wayzata 2-0 in the Class 2A state championship game. Second-half goals from Colman Farrington and Kohei Adams punctuated a special season for No. 1 seed Stillwater (22-0).

With no losses to generate adversity, players stayed focused and hungry by sharing their hopes and dreams for reaching the championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium in a team “Road to the Bank” group text thread.

Along the way, they ascended to No. 1 in the state, No. 4 in the nation and took every team’s best punch. In the end, they became the first Ponies’ team to win a title since the 1995 and 1996 teams.

“It feels awesome,” Farrington said. “It’s been such a long time. It’s awesome to be in the company of legendary teams.”

While Stillwater — 14 shutouts this fall — certainly could defend, assaults on opposing goalkeepers became its identity. The Ponies tallied 91 goals this season, an average of four per game. They scored six goals in both the state tournament quarterfinal and semifinal.

“We defend by going forward,” coach Jake Smothers said after the game. “With all the possessive players that we have, the skill players up top, we want to put as much pressure on teams as we can. And it worked today.”

Wayzata nearly went ahead in the first minute but Stillwater goalkeeper Fred LeClair made a sliding save to subdue a rush from Trojans forward Patrick Weah. A scoreless first half ensued, but Smothers drew hope from a Miguel Caravias shot off the crossbar and a near-miss from Adams in the final seconds before halftime.

“I told him at halftime that he was going to get his goal,” Smothers said.

Caravais (26 goals), Kohei Adams (20) and Spencer Scott (14) represented 66 percent of the team’s offense. A year ago, none played varsity soccer for Stillwater. But Caravais, a foreign exchange student from Spain, Adams (transfer) and Scott (former football player) folded into the team’s mission.

For No. 2 seed Wayzata (18-1-3), perspective helped ease the season’s first loss.

“I told the boys afterward, we’re sitting here in our 22nd game of the season and our first loss,” coach Dominic Duenas said. “So there’s nothing to hang their heads about.”

First report

Second-half goals from Colman Farrington and Kohei Adams allowed undefeated Stillwater to defeat Wayzata 2-0 and punctuate a special season with the Class 2A boys’ soccer state title.

The goals gave No. 1 seed Stillwater (22-0) all the offense needed to edge No. 2 seed Wayzata (18-1-3) and hand the Trojans their first defeat of the season.

Stillwater last won a state championship in 1996 when the Ponies won a second consecutive title.