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Serie A

Ajax show Juventus that winning requires more than individual quality

All this time, Juventus thought they needed someone the caliber of Cristiano Ronaldo to reach the next stage of their evolution. But in two matches, Ajax showed them that another way exists.

Ajax were everything Juventus weren’t in the Champions League quarterfinals, using the full length of the pitch and all 11 players to dismiss another favorite. They played with a ferociousness and collective mentality that the Bianconeri couldn’t match.

Usually, it’s a choice between one or the other, but Ajax managed to beat the seven-time defending Serie A champions with a combination of substance and style, a formidable one-two punch that left the Italians without breath and response. Ajax moved in quick sequences, making two or three touches in a flash and regularly ducking out of tight situations. Not even a team as defensively conscious as Juventus could track them.

Ajax didn’t bother man-marking Ronaldo; they had bigger plans in mind. They had their own game to execute, and in the end, Juventus had to adapt to them.

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Manager Massimiliano Allegri can downplay it all he likes, but the fact is that his Juventus lacked the personality and determination of his Dutch opponents. Juventus played too much of this season with the handbrake on, and on many of those occasions, they relied on individual brilliance to get them across the line.

That didn’t work in the Champions League.

Few teams win trophies playing as poorly as Juventus have this season. They’re the champions of winning without playing well, but that only lasts so long.

Imagine what Juventus could achieve if they were conditioned, and more importantly, allowed to play like they did in the second leg of their last-16 encounter against Atletico Madrid. Staring down a 2-0 deficit on aggregate, Juventus threw away the shackles and embraced the challenge. They pressed like they hadn’t all season and left Diego Simeone’s Atletico – the team that never dies – in a heap.

But that was merely an anomaly. Juventus only played that way out of necessity, which, considering the attacking talent at the club’s disposal, is a shame.

Ajax can’t afford that luxury. They have quality, just not enough to sit around and wait for someone to win the match for them. So they attack in bunches, knowing they’re better as a team than individuals. The end product hasn’t always been there, but the commitment to their football has given them a chance to win. They wouldn’t have the same success if they hoofed the ball forward in the hopes that Hakim Ziyech – the talented winger whose foolhardy shots are his only letdown – scored all the goals.

“What impresses me the most isn’t the work rate or the technical ability, both of which are exceptional,” Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero said Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti. “It’s the way they fill the pitch, their understanding of space and time, their tactical nous … all at such a young age.”

It’s not even about playing pretty football. The important distinction to make is that Ajax understand how to attack and make an opponent vulnerable. It’s about finding solutions to problems on the pitch – and that takes some creativity and cojones.

The Old Lady hardly stoked the imagination in this competition or in Serie A. They came into Tuesday’s match with the third-most crosses attempted and the most long balls played in the top five European leagues. If someone didn’t get on the end of those hopeful balls, nothing would happen. Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic can’t be expected to convert every single one of those passes.

Ronaldo wasn’t even the problem here. He did what he could, converting his side’s only two real chances against Ajax over the two-legged affair. Juventus signed him to deliver on the big stage, and that’s what he did. They just didn’t get the same performance from the rest of the team.

Juventus don’t have to entertain the masses to be more successful, but they can’t expect to progress if they continue to do the bare minimum. That’s worked in Serie A because teams give them too much respect. It’s a different game entirely in Europe, where 180 minutes of football can change anything. Ajax went for it – and they were the ones rewarded.

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Serie A

Report: Pogba considering offer to return to Juventus

History could repeat itself for Paul Pogba.

The French midfielder is considering an offer to reunite with Juventus after his Manchester United contract expires at the end of June, reports Rob Dawson of ESPN.

Pogba left United for Juventus in 2012, establishing himself as an elite midfielder during a spell in Italy that lasted until 2016. He then rejoined United for an £89.3-million fee – a world record at the time.

He’s now contemplating a return to Serie A after receiving a “concrete proposal” that puts Juventus in the lead to sign the World Cup winner, Dawson adds.

The French international has yet to make a final decision, according to Dawson.

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Paris Saint-Germain are also reportedly in contention and could attract Pogba with an offer to play in his home country.

Manchester City were surprise contenders, but Pogba rejected an offer to join Pep Guardiola’s squad due to reported concerns about backlash from Manchester United supporters.

Pogba has struggled to consistently replicate the form that made him a star at Juventus in the six years since he returned to Old Trafford; frustrated fans booed him in his last two games against Norwich City and Liverpool.

The 29-year-old recently admitted to experiencing depression, which began during Jose Mourinho’s volatile spell as Manchester United manager.

Pogba, who has missed the last four matches with a calf problem, could be in contention to play his final match for Manchester United on Sunday after returning to training.

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Serie A

2022 World Cup draw: Spain meets Germany, all smiles for USMNT and Canada

The countdown for November’s big kickoff begins.

The group draw for the 2022 World Cup was conducted in Doha, Qatar on Friday. Heavyweight nations Spain and Germany were pitted together in Group E, while the United States and Canada should travel to the Middle East with some optimism given the overall quality in their respective quartets.

Here are the groups in full:

Group A

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Qatar AFC
2 Ecuador CONMEBOL
3 Senegal CAF
4 Netherlands UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 21: Senegal vs. Netherlands
  • Nov. 21: Qatar vs. Ecuador
  • Nov. 25: Qatar vs. Senegal
  • Nov. 25: Netherlands vs. Ecuador
  • Nov. 29: Netherlands vs. Qatar
  • Nov. 29: Ecuador vs. Senegal

Group B

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 England UEFA
2 Iran AFC
3 United States CONCACAF
4 Wales/Ukraine/Scotland* UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 21: England vs. Iran
  • Nov. 21: United States vs. UEFA playoff winner
  • Nov. 25: UEFA playoff winner vs. Iran
  • Nov. 25: England vs. United States
  • Nov. 29: Iran vs. United States
  • Nov. 29: UEFA playoff winner vs. England

Group C

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Argentina CONMEBOL
2 Saudi Arabia AFC
3 Mexico CONCACAF
4 Poland UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 22: Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia
  • Nov. 22: Mexico vs. Poland
  • Nov. 26: Argentina vs. Mexico
  • Nov. 26: Poland vs. Saudi Arabia
  • Nov. 30: Poland vs. Argentina
  • Nov. 30: Saudi Arabia vs. Mexico

Group D

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 France UEFA
2 Peru/Australia/United Arab Emirates* CONMEBOL/AFC
3 Denmark UEFA
4 Tunisia CAF

Match schedule

  • Nov. 22: France vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Nov. 22: Denmark vs. Tunisia
  • Nov. 26: France vs. Denmark
  • Nov. 26: Tunisia vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Nov. 30: Tunisia vs. France
  • Nov. 30: Intercontinental playoff winner vs. Denmark

Group E

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Spain UEFA
2 Costa Rica/New Zealand* CONCACAF/OFC
3 Germany UEFA
4 Japan AFC

Match schedule

  • Nov. 23: Spain vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Nov. 23: Germany vs. Japan
  • Nov. 27: Spain vs. Germany
  • Nov. 27: Japan vs. Intercontinental playoff winner
  • Dec. 1: Japan vs. Spain
  • Dec. 1: Intercontinental playoff winner vs. Germany

Group F

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Belgium UEFA
2 Canada CONCACAF
3 Morocco CAF
4 Croatia UEFA

Match schedule

  • Nov. 23: Belgium vs. Canada
  • Nov. 23: Morocco vs. Croatia
  • Nov. 27: Belgium vs. Morocco
  • Nov. 27: Croatia vs. Canada
  • Dec. 1: Croatia vs. Belgium
  • Dec. 1: Canada vs. Morocco

Group G

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Brazil CONMEBOL
2 Serbia UEFA
3 Switzerland UEFA
4 Cameroon CAF

Match schedule

  • Nov. 24: Brazil vs. Serbia
  • Nov. 24: Switzerland vs. Cameroon
  • Nov. 28: Brazil vs. Switzerland
  • Nov. 28: Cameroon vs. Serbia
  • Dec. 2: Cameroon vs. Brazil
  • Dec. 2: Serbia vs. Switzerland

Group H

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Slot Nation Confederation
1 Portugal UEFA
2 Ghana CAF
3 Uruguay CONMEBOL
4 South Korea AFC

Match schedule

  • Nov. 24: Portugal vs. Ghana
  • Nov. 24: Uruguay vs. South Korea
  • Nov. 28: Portugal vs. Uruguay
  • Nov. 28: South Korea vs. Ghana
  • Dec. 2: South Korea vs. Portugal
  • Dec. 2: Ghana vs. Uruguay

* World Cup berth to be decided in June.

The top two nations in each group will advance to the knockout stages of the competition. The full schedule for the knockout stages can be found here.

Why isn’t the entire field confirmed?

Three World Cup teams have yet to be determined: one from Europe and two from the intercontinental playoff paths.

  • Intercontinental playoff: Costa Rica vs. New Zealand
  • Intercontinental playoff: Peru vs. Australia or the United Arab Emirates
  • UEFA playoff: Wales vs. Ukraine or Scotland

Ukraine’s one-off semifinal against Scotland was postponed after the country was invaded by Russia. That will be played this summer – the exact date is yet to be announced – and the winner will meet Wales for a spot in Qatar.

The intercontinental playoffs were postponed as part of the widespread scheduling delays created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those games are slated for June 13 and 14 in Qatar, at which point the entire 32-team World Cup field should be finalized.

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Serie A

4 takeaways from Tuesday's Champions League action

The Champions League last 16 rumbled on this week with the opening batch of second-leg matches. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s games in Europe’s premier club competition.

Inzaghi and Sanchez let Inter down

Alexis Sanchez’s red card spoiled what could’ve been a memorable night for Inter Milan. Lucky to escape with just a warning when he slid studs-first into Thiago Alcantara to end the first half, Sanchez was sent off for another overzealous tackle on Fabinho in the second. The red card – brandished minutes after Lautaro Martinez’s wonderful goal had offered Inter hope of an unlikely comeback – came at the worst possible time. Up a man for the remaining 25 minutes, Liverpool wrestled control of the tie and advanced 2-1 on aggregate.

Simon Stacpoole/Offside / Offside / Getty

Sanchez may have cost his team, but manager Simone Inzaghi allowed the situation to spiral out of control. By choosing to keep Sanchez on the pitch, Inzaghi overlooked his panicky play and the team’s lack of offensive production; Edin Dzeko, the club’s leading scorer with 16 goals in all competitions, remained on the bench. Joaquin Correa, a similar darting presence to Sanchez, could’ve offered the same speed and pressing ability, and with Inter needing goals, Dzeko, an expert in the air, could’ve offered them an additional outlet up top.

In the end, Inter finished with just six shots – only half of them on target – on a night they needed to score twice just to have a chance of reaching the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Liverpool hit the woodwork three times. It could’ve been so different for the reigning Serie A champions, who still won on the night but ultimately paid too little attention to detail to get past Jurgen Klopp’s side.

Mane slipping in big matches

Sadio Mane has four goals in his last eight appearances for Liverpool, which isn’t exactly a drought, but his production against top opponents belies his recent scoring record.

Mane struggled on the left of Liverpool’s front three Tuesday, with the majority of his touches coming well outside of the 18-yard box. Though his arching pass to Mohamed Salah in the 76th minute should’ve resulted in a goal, the Senegalese international still produced little substance in the most dangerous area of the pitch.

His performance echoed his relatively quiet outing in the first leg at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Mane missed a clear header before making way for Luis Diaz in the 59th minute of that game, and he could only watch on the sidelines as his teammates, playing with renewed spirit, scored twice to win 2-0.

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A similar storyline played out in the League Cup final against Chelsea. Mane registered just two shots playing as a No. 9 – one woefully wide – before coming off again in the second half.

Mane’s struggles predate the Africa Cup of Nations in January: he was ineffectual in games against Leicester and AC Milan and went goalless from the end of November to the end of December.

With Diaz raring to go, Mane can ill afford to go missing down the stretch. Scoring against the likes of Leeds United and Norwich City isn’t enough anymore. Liverpool have the depth to cope – and perhaps even play better – with Mane out of the starting lineup.

Bayern’s brashness can’t last

Julian Nagelsmann did it again. Kingsley Coman, Leroy Sane, Thomas Muller, and Serge Gnabry buzzed behind Robert Lewandowski just as they had in the first leg, with merely a midfield duo and defensive trio for protection.

It was an approach that indicated Bayern Munich wanted to rain punches from the first whistle, leaving Red Bull Salzburg bloodied and dazed before they could pick at the same vulnerabilities they exposed in the 1-1 draw to open the doubleheader.

Nagelsmann’s options were somewhat limited. Midfielders Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso are injured, and the only senior attack-minded players on the bench were Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Marcel Sabitzer. But it still took extreme bravery for the head coach not to dilute his ambitious plan.

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Bayern were given a scare before two minutes elapsed. Karim Adeyemi stole the ball from Jamal Musiala – still learning on the job in a deeper midfield role – and cut it back for Nicolas Capaldo, whose straightforward finish was thwarted by Coman’s heroic block.

That was it, though. The German champions were soon on their way to a 7-1 win. However, this wasn’t necessarily a sign of things to come: Salzburg’s individual errors and overall weakness certainly helped disguise an imbalanced and defensively susceptible lineup. Bayern can’t afford to be so cavalier when they face a European heavyweight in this competition.

A victorious Champions League run requires a little more caution.

Lewandowski’s unrivaled consistency

It wasn’t a vintage hat-trick, but Lewandowski continues to produce numbers and prove he’s one of the greatest strikers in the sport’s history.

Lewandowski won both of his penalties through his technical excellence and slippery movement. The Polish marksman tickled a tricky pass with the bottom of his left foot and tempted Maximilian Wober into a clumsy challenge for the first spot-kick. For the second penalty, Lewandowski called the same unfortunate defender into action when he stepped across Wober and spun near the edge of the box.

The goal to complete his treble needed bounces off his shins and the woodwork before he tapped in – but can that be deemed fortunate when he’s hounding defenders and so often in the right position? His finish took him to an incredible 42 strikes with little under three months of the season remaining. He’s now scored 40 or more goals in seven straight seasons.

And at 33, there’s little evidence he’s slowing down.

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