Wednesday, March 10, 2021
It's a rare rainy morning in Los Angeles. The weather is unseasonably cold but warm by most geographical standards. A familiar sun peeks through a crowded sky. Steaming tea cools to my left. It's a perfect late-morning to watch The Champions League.
The Champions League is admittedly the most inconvenient league for me to watch, from the perspective of time-management. The Bundesliga is too-early-in-the-morning to even be an inconvenience. Quality Premier League games start around a reasonable mid-morning... but the Champions League is the only one that begins smack-dab right-in-the-middle of my West Coast day, on the dot at noon. This paragraph is irrelevant for my friends in Atlanta who can enjoy an afternoon game from three to five, but I digress.
I love the Champions League. Season after season it showcases top-scoring showdowns, pitting the best against the best from all the major leagues in Europe. During The Group Stages, there can be a precipitous talent disparity between opponents. By the time we reach the Round of 16, the games are more competitive. This year is no exception.
Before March was ever Mad, there was the Champions League.
Yesterday, Ronaldo-led Juventus was upset by Portugal's finest Porto in a high-scoring affair. The match included a red card for the winning squad, overtime, and twin goals in the final five minutes of overtime to decide the match. (Note: The Round of 16 is decided by opponents meeting twice, home and away, and their aggregate score.) Despite losing yesterday's match 3-2, Porto knocked-out Juventus with a last-minute goal. Classic losing the battle but winning the war.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Dortmund tied the salty Spaniards of Sevilla, 2-2. Two goals were enough to win 5-4 on aggregate and both were scored by rising Nederland's star Erling Haaland. Haaland scored four goals in two matches (two in each, high-level difficulty), which is as many as Sevilla scored altogether. Without Haaland's heroics, Sevilla would have won the aggregate points 4-1. Yesterday's meeting featured a roaring second-half comeback from Sevilla that fell just short.
Today's games look to be less a-spicy despite featuring some powerhouse squads. It's like the Warriors versus Alabama and the Patriots against the Yankees. Yes - I know they all play different sports so this analogy makes zero sense, but the point is more the magnitude of the brands involved. They are all heavy-hitters. I'm going to watch the Warriors v Alabama. In this scenario, the Warriors are Liverpool and Alabama is RB Leipzig. Allow me to explain:
Liverpool (like Golden State) is, in recent years, unbeatable but are currently suffering major injuries, leaving the squad a sad shadow of themselves. RB Leipzig is like Alabama because while RB Leipzig is usually contending for the Bundesliga crown, the Bundesliga is a farm league for bigger leagues, like the NCAA. Yes - RB Leipzig made the semi-finals last year and beat several "higher level" clubs to get there. So what? We all know there have been multiple years when Alabama could've beat the Browns. (Editor's note - last year's Champion Bayern is from the Bundesliga.)
I'm choosing this match over Patriots-Yankees because it's more competitive. Liverpool is up 2-0 from their first meeting and playing at home - they have a huge advantage in that. Their disadvantage is the shit soccer they've played recently in losing to multiple EPL sides that are objectively not as good as a motivated RB Leipzig. Leipzig, for their part, scores like crazy because they are German. They are known to strike at opponents' weak spots, a great characteristic for competitive people and/or territorial animals. So, the ways I see it, Liverpool-Leipzig, even more so than my previous analogy, is a dog fight where one mutt is seriously injured and the other has its back against the wall. If you're into dog abuse, then you're going to love this.
Over in Paris, the Yankees are playing the Patriots, before Tom Brady left. In this context, the Yankees are the illustrious Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Like the Yankees, PSG was much better 30 years ago but still manage to attract big players because of their brand. They will likely go far in the tournament but absolutely do not have what it takes to be Champions of Europe. The Patriots are Barcelona and Tom Brady is Leo Messi. Next year, Messi wants a cottage in Manchester the same way Tom wanted a condo in Tampa. Like the Patriots without Tom Brady, Barcelona isn't very good anymore, even though they have great talent on paper. There was a time when the Catalonians were invincible, but those days have passed. Today, PSG is up 4-1 on Barcelona. Watching their first match was like watching a grown man kick a wet dog. For this analogy, the grown man was the Yankees, who are the Parisians, and the wet dog are the Bradyless Patriots, who are... well, I think you get it. The wet dog may be dry now but do I really think it'll kick the man? I have my doubts...
So: Liverpool-Leipzig it is. Both teams came to win, bringing all their healthy starters with them. I'm excited to watch Diogo Jota of Liverpool. The Portuguese international never ceases to impress me. Tyler Adams, an American, starts for Leipzig. Overall, I think I'll pull for Leipzig. They need at least three goals to win, four if Liverpool sneaks one in. They have an American starting, they are the underdog, German soccer is an attacker's dream... So yeah, Go Leipzig.
Liverpool looks dangerous. Thiago passes up a shot we all think he could've scored. Leipzig has a big offside leading to a more dangerous-looking Mané attack, but no goal. In the first ten, Leipzig is spending most of their time playing defense. Are they on the ropes to tire Liverpool out or are the British too strong? If they are too strong, can they keep it up? These questions remain unanswered.
Leipzig gets the counter-attack they've been waiting for only to be denied by a superb save from Allison. Liverpool keeps pressing, now more aware of what Leipzig is capable of. Speed generates respect on the pitch; respect in the form of spacing. Liverpool's defense is their weak spot (if defense does indeed win championships, then...). Truthfully, it's more their Achilles' knee than heel.
Mané goes down on a hard, but clean, challenge to the skull by Leipzig's goalkeeper, whose name escapes me.
"Just give him five minutes to clear his head," says Color Commentator, M.D.
Leipzig looks dangerous again. Perhaps they are beginning to Roll the Tide (because remember they're Alabama). Liverpool looks good on set pieces. Jota's header saved. Leipzig plays ample defense but needs to do so less and less. They nearly strike for goal(d) at twenty minutes, but great individual efforts from Liverpool prevent a netting. Leipzig maintains possession for their longest streak yet. The tides do indeed appear to be turning until a deflating counter-attack is struck-off by Thiago. An incredible ball through leaves Salah against the goalkeeper. The keeper makes an athletic save, Mané flubs it, there's a cartoon dust cloud with arms and legs popping in and out, and the whistle blows once a RB defender takes a foot to the face. It's a highly-contested contest. Thiago came to play - his technique, through-balls, and touch are Toight Tonight.
Quarter of the Way Through
Leipzig continues to attack despite giving up such a huge opportunity defensively. I get the feeling they will respect Liverpool's counter-attack less than the Liverpudlians will respect theirs. After all, Leipzig has to score, no matter what.
Liverpool's attacks are, overall, more composed. Alexander-Arnold forces a great defensive save from six yards out, and it feels like Liverpool is the primary aggressor here. Half an hour in and the pacing has calmed down. This match is still rife with possibility and it is clear that Liverpool is not happy just to sit back to defend their lead. Allison makes a pretty good save, keeping the score even.
Moments later, another close Leipzig opportunity. That coulda, shoulda, woulda been in but the Red Bulls just pulled it. Liverpool's attacks are meticulous while Leipzig's are spontaneous. You'll see the Liverpool goal coming a mile off but a Leipzig goal can just sneak up out of nowhere, like dreams or nightmares.
Just remember, kid: dreams and nightmares are made out of the same stuff." - Me, Just Now
Thiago maintains his dominance with ten minutes left in the half. Liverpool attacks are built on concrete, Leipzig's on sand. Beautiful sandcastles, but delicate! Short of a second-half surge, I'm not sure Leipzig has what it takes to get it done today. Jota forces a great save at forty minutes.
The half ends with attacks waning, still stalemated in a draw. Liverpool can live with this result but Leipzig wants to change something and fast as they will need three goals in 45 minutes to win. Jota ends penalty time with another close-range miss. Such is the story of the game so far.
Meanwhile, in Paris: Messi nets a penalty kick to take the lead. They are down 5-3 on aggregate and have a real chance at an epic comeback. Except... Messi misses the penalty. Oh, boy. His best days are past... anyway, PSG enters the half of a tie game comfortably leading 5-2 on aggregate.
PSG-Barcelona certainly looks like it's been more entertaining. Tied 1-1 with goals from superstars Messi and Mbappe. I'll check back in with them at about seventy minutes and see if it's worth watching. My money is still on one to two goals being scored by Leipzig, masters of the shaky but explosive counter-attacks.
The Second Half
Early on, the second half is not a departure, conceptually speaking, from the first. Leipzig attacks, but they aren't extremely convincing. Liverpool controls the ball enough, slowly draining life from the final forty-five. Leipzig needs to do something and fast to survive. A Liverpool goal doesn't appear inevitable but it does appear more likely than one from Leipzig. Fifty-five minutes in and Salah whiffs on another open goal opportunity. The game remains tied.
An hour into the match and Leipzig subs in three fresh attacking players, making their intentions clear. (Okay, the intentions were clear before that, too, but still.) Almost immediately a chance is created but Liverpool's defense holds steady. Now I'm starting to get the impression that Liverpool is happy to sit back and defend. Why shouldn't they be? They have no chance of winning the Premier League this year and there's more than a good chance they won't finish top four, thus barring them from Champions League play next season. Their best shot to get back to Champions League action next season is to win it this season. I think that's the smart move for Klopp and Kompany. Undoubtedly, they could still finish top four but it's looking less and less likely. If I were a Beatles fan, I'd put all my eggs in the Champions League basket.
The Closing Quarter
Leipzig continues to attack, looking less dangerous than they did just half an hour ago. With twenty-five minutes left, today's match looks like it will end in a tie, but who knows? I could still easily see it ending 1- or 2-0, but I'm not sure who'd win. Allison is saved by the crossbar. Leipzig seems to be aware that their window of opportunity is shrinking. Thiago is still playing top-class football, even over an hour in. He's said to have been born with pillows for feet, as evidenced by his preternaturally soft touch. Spain has such a beautiful and poetic culture.
With twenty minutes left in the game, the future is as murky as ever. Leipzig forcing a tie is still within the realm of possibility but seeming less and less likely. And then, Ecstasy! Mo Salah breaks through in the 69th (rad) minute. 1-0 Liverpool on the battle, 3-0 on the war, and it appears they have what they need to wrap this up.
Barring some sort of instant classic miracle, the better minutes of this match have probably passed. Leipzig hasn't given up yet, continuing to sub in attacking players. It's no use - Mané scores a banger just minutes later. The final twenty minutes spell desperation for Leipzig and celebration for Liverpool. Going up 4-0 at home on aggregate will make a man confident, and Liverpool looks exactly that. As we enter the final minutes, Liverpool uses their subs to eat up time and seal the victory. Leipzig is aware of their fate.
The Final Moments
The day ends with PSG and Liverpool, two Champions League finalists from the last two years, winning in the round of 16 and moving on to the quarterfinals.
So far Porto, Dortmund, Liverpool, and PSG have made it through. Next week, they will likely be joined by Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City. The only close contest left in the Round of 16 is Chelsea v. Atletico Madrid. Chelsea leads 1-0. It seemed a much closer match just a month ago but with Chelsea hitting their stride while Madrid is plateauing, the game looks to be Chelsea's to lose.
Man of the Match
My Man Thiago! Sure, he didn't score or assist. But his touch was as soft as a foreign lover and I'll certainly commend him for that.
Match in One Sentence
Red Bulls' Wings Clipped.
Match in One Word