The Workmanlike Performers: Column 1

Matt Hein: Welcome to the only soccer coverage you’ll ever need. Sam and I have sold our services to the highest bidder (prices went as high as an oatmeal raisin cookie [no nuts, allergy concerns]), so expect to see more premier soccer coverage coming from this duo right here.

UCL Round of 16 Scores:

Roma 2 – 1 Porto (Zaniolo x2; Adrian)

Manchester United 0 – 2 Paris Saint Germain (Kimpembe, Mbappe)

Ajax 1 – 2 Real Madrid (Ziyech; Benzema, Asensio)

Tottenham 3 – 0 Dortmund (Son, Vertonghen, Llorente)

Liverpool 0 – 0 Bayern Munich

Lyon 0 – 0 Barcelona

Schalke 2 – 3 Manchester City (Bentaleb x2; Aguero, Sane, Sterling)

Atletico Madrid 2 – 0 Juventus  (Gimenez, Godin)

So what are your biggest takeaways from last week’s round of 16 Champions League soccer?

Samuel Cicci: To start, Real Madrid sure surprised me. It looked like they were comprehensively outplayed across the park, with Ajax creating plenty of chances before Vinicius worked his magic to create a nigh-unmissable opportunity for a resurgent Benzema. Even Marco Asensio came in from the cold to score the winner after Ajax had equalized through Hakim Ziyech.

Madrid’s “style” has confounded me for years. Through their previous three Champions League campaigns, they consistently failed the eye test for quality of play, yet always somehow emerged victorious thanks to a deflected goal off Ronaldo’s knee, or Bayern Munich’s backup goalkeeper going brain dead for a moment, or Loris Karius dropping balls into his net at will. It didn’t look like they played well, but they won three Champions League titles in a row that way, and that’s no accident.

For their part, Ajax did really look like an accomplished team. They pressed high, forced some quick turnovers in dangerous areas, and really looked to attack with purpose. If they can keep the core together (which they won’t), they could definitely make a splash with a few years of consistency. Dusan Tadic has exceeded all my expectations since leaving Southampton, while Ziyech’s skill shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who watched Morocco at the World Cup. One of Ajax’s star player, Frenkie De Jong, however, couldn’t really make an impact in the midfield. Barcelona, who will be signing him this summer, probably weren’t too delighted by that.

I’m sure you have some thoughts on the Tottenham-Dortmund game you’d like to share. I was simply staggered by the result.

MH: That one was quite the stunner, and I am about as much of an optimist as a Tottenham fan can be at this point. A battle between two banged up teams, Dortmund had the upper hand all in the first half with young Jadon Sancho in particular continuing his scintillating run of form. Tottenham looked like a team deprived of two of their best attackers. It was ugly, boring, and I was sad I was only two beers in (yes the game was at 2, don’t look at me like that).

I don’t know what speech Pochettino gave at halftime, but this kind of result will only make other teams hungrier to obtain his services. And one of the weirder decisions Poch has made turned out brilliantly, playing an old and slow central defender in Jan Vertonghen out on the wing. In that second half he looked like he had been waiting his whole life for his chance to play offense, and made all of us ex-defenders proud with his beautiful assist and well-taken goal.

SC: You could say Vertonghen was “winging it”

MH:………

Anyway, the 3-0 win really puts Spurs in the driver’s seat and was in stark contrast to how they meekly bowed out of two domestic cups. If they can hang on and get healthy, they can challenge anyone in this competition. The pride of Korea, Heung-Min Son, continued his outstanding campaign and is probably as underrated as an attacker on any big Premier League club can really be.

SC: Unfortunately, every Spurs win means one less ESPN article about how bad Pochettino is at coaching. And if I can’t chuckle at ESPN’s laughably poor coverage, then what else am I supposed to do?

MH: I hope Real Madrid and Man U read those articles, but that’s another discussion for another day. Sam, how does it feel to know that Ronaldo might be out so soon in the Champions League?

SC: Shut it. It’s too early to say that Juventus are out. Granted, Atletico certainly have the advantage. They can pretty much lock up shop and don’t even need to bother with attacking. While their two goals in the first match were a bit lucky, there’s no denying that Atletico were the superior side, having seen two goals also ruled out by VAR. Juventus haven’t exactly been lighting the world on fire with their play this season, but never count out Cristiano. He is the tournament’s top scorer with 121 goals, so discount his threat at your peril. A Cristiano-less Juventus almost overturned off a three goal deficit against Real Madrid in last season’s tournament, so they certainly have the desire and tenacity to stage a comeback. However, I’m giving the edge to Atletico. If they can score one away goal in Turin, it’s over. And they way they effectively neutralized CR7 and Mandzukic doesn’t bode well for Juve’s scoring prospects.

For the most finely poised tie: who has the advantage after Liverpool and Bayern Munich’s 0-0 draw at Anfield?

MH: Liverpool were definitely the better side in the first leg but could never quite come up with the end product. I would give them the edge because not only did they play better, but they didn’t concede an away goal. Fabinho, moving into the defence from midfield, was immense and played a huge part Liverpool holding on in the back without their best defender, Van Dijk (it was probably good their first choice sub, Lovren, was hurt). Liverpool just have better players at the moment. Nothing in this game convinced me that Gnabry, Coman, or James (don’t call him James, it’s pronounced ‘ha-mes’) will be able to control this game in the return leg. Bayern required an immense performance from their backline to stay in this tie, and even then Liverpool missed some gilt-edged chances. It’s hard to bet on that happening again. Bayern also don’t have the luxury of exclusively concentrating on the Champions League this year. Rather than having the Bundesliga wrapped up by Christmas, as is normal in recent years, they are actually 2nd in their domestic league behind Borussia Dortmund.

All that being said, no one will be shocked if the Germans do progress to the quarterfinals, as they have done since 2011. While they may not be as dominant as they were in years past, they have big game veterans all over the pitch. Lewandowski by himself is liable to pull two goals out of nowhere and Bayern would grind through yet again. I just hope the next game is a little more entertaining than the first one.

Volleys

SC: Man City’s comeback might seem impressive, but really, Schalke are just poor. Other than the two penalties they got (one of which, let’s be honest, was a bonkers call), they had zero shots on target. The only reason they weren’t slaughtered was because of Otamendi’s boneheadedness in the City defense. Since he was sent off and is now suspended for the 2nd leg, City’s victory will be a procession.

MH: Barcelona’s tie with Lyon is only interesting insofar as Suarez still has not scored an away goal in Champions League play in 16 games, (24 hours of playtime). It is a big result for Lyon playing without their most dynamic playmaker in Fekir and gives them a chance going to Camp Nou. Barcelona really should have scored in this game and simply have better players at almost every position. I would be stunned (and delighted) if Barcelona did not put together a solid win at home against a side that is punching above their weight.

SC: Roma should comfortably pass against Porto. The portuguese barely had a sniff all night, and were perhaps fortunate to grab an away goal. But if Roma can pull out a mostly untested teenage winger in Zaniolo and watch him score two goals, then their overall quality should prove to be too much for their opposition.

Apologies

MH: This week I am going to apologize to PSG. I thought United would have a real chance against a Paris team without 2 of their 3 superstars (although some people firmly believe PSG are better without Neymar). Instead, Di María had a brilliant revenge game with two assists and Mbappe consistently terrorized a weak United backline. The real surprise for me came in how thoroughly Verratti and co. outclassed United’s midfield, making a resurgent Paul Pogba tear out his million dollar hair. Man United had looked resurgent under Ole Gunnar and tricked me into believing the hype and forgetting that they really only have a couple world class performers.

Premier League Watch of the Weekend

All eyes will be at Old Trafford for Man United – Liverpool to see if Liverpool can hold off Man City’s charge. Will United do their crosstown rivals a favor and bring all their quality to bear? If so, they could put a real dent in Liverpool’s title chase.

For those who have sleeping issues

Newcastle United play Huddersfield on Saturday morning. If you hate the idea of sleeping pills, but are looking for something a little stronger than melatonin, watch this showdown between two Premier League titans of mediocrity!

Coming soon: Workmanlike Performance of the Week Award


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