Nine minutes into Friday’s Southampton vs. Liverpool‘s game, after Shane Long took advantage of a defensive gaffe to put the Saint up 1-0, Liverpool’s season and title hopes were officially over [according to my YNWA text thread].
“That was the worst defending I’ve seen all year,” messaged Gluten Free Charles.
“Good. No more stress. Can stop watching games.” texted Johnny Dangerously.
“We look hungover” I replied.
This continued for 27 minutes until Naby Keita (NABY KEITA!) recorded his first
anything goal of the 2018-19 campaign, leveling the match going into half.
The intensity of the game picked up in the second half, getting particularly chippy the last 20 minutes. Still, it remained tied until the 80th, when finally:
Mohamed Salah produces a moment of magic. Finally. He’s back.
Jordan Henderson capped it six minutes later off a beauty assist from Bobby Firmino, and Liverpool ended with a resilient and convincing 3-1 victory.
The reality is, Liverpool dominated the match. Of the 11 shots on goal Southampton produced, 1 was on target. Liverpool produced 17 shots with 5 on target, and out-possessed the Saints 67-33%. They produced 74% of the quality chances.
Liverpool Officially Qualify for Champions League, Top of Table for 9 Days
With the win, Liverpool climbed back atop the Premier League table for at least 9 days. They’ll play Porto next Tuesday in the Champions League Quarterfinals, then a huge home match against Chelsea on April 14th. They’re a heavy favorite going into that match, listed at -145 to Chelsea’s +420 on FanDuel Sportsbook NJ.
FiveThirtyEight improved Liverpool’s Premier League title probabilities to 43%.
And while there was little doubt, the win officially secured Liverpool’s place in next season’s Champions League.
The USWNT defeated Australia 5-3 Thursday night in Colorado, in as entertaining a soccer game as you are likely to see this year.
Looming over the match and every match in the World Cup year is, well, the 2019 Women’s World Cup. 64 Days the sign said. In just over two months, the U.S. Women’s National Team will defend the title it won in 2015 against 23 other nations in France.
A lot has happened since the Americans swept Japan aside led by a performance for the ages by Carli Lloyd. For one, Lloyd, the best player in the world in 2015, has been marginalized to the point that she played just five minutes of “hold the fort” duty against the Matilidas Thursday night.
Which is how it should be. Lloyd is 36, and there is always talent pushing its way into the USWNT lineup.
What shouldn’t have happened, from a USWNT point of view, was the 2016 Olympic elimination at the the quarterfinals stage by a Sweden team led by former U.S. supremo Pia Sundhage.
That loss colored U.S. preparation for France 2019. In the peculiar landscape of Women’s international soccer, coach Jill Ellis was charged with fixing the Americans deficiencies in an atmosphere that included virtually no official, competitive matches between the 2016 Olympics and the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Home based non-FIFA events like the SheBelieves Cup and the Tournament of Champions have taken on the mantle of unofficial, official contests, with the Americans inviting the top teams in the world to what has become two very serious tourneys. But at the end of the day both are “friendly” events.
For the U.S. that leaves CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers as the lone official “competition.”
Why the quotes? Well, other than Canada, whom the U.S. defeated 2-0 in the Final of the CONCACAF Championship last October, here are the scores the U.S. hung on its regional rivals on the way to that Championship showdown with our neighbors to the north.
6-0 v Mexico, 5-0 Panama, 7-0 against Trinidad and Tobago, and 6-0 in the semis versus Jamaica.
The US was dominant in 2018, ending the year without a loss.
Turn of the calendar has brought mediocre results
2019 has seen the U.S compile a mediocre record of 3 wins, 2 draws, and 1 loss. Hardly overpowering for FIFA’s number 1 ranked team.
With Belgium on Sunday followed by South Africa, New Zealand, and Mexico, the Aussie’s were the last true test for the Americans before Ellis’ side meet Thailand on June 11, in Reims at Stade Auguste-Delaune II.
So, what have we learned in 2019?
In last month’s SheBelieves Cup. the Yanks drew 2-2 versus Japan and England before edging Brazil 1-0. Back in January the U.S lost 3-1 to France and nipped an improving Spain side 1-0. Areas of concern in those games were a tendency to surrender leads, an inability to close out games, and disorganization in the back line.
Speaking of an inability to close out games…
With Alex Morgan on a goalscoring tear and with Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe back at peak form, the U.S has been able to score multiple goals against top sides like England and Japan. The midfield has been in some flux but with Lindsey Horan back alongside Julie Ertz, that area should solidify.
That is if Ellis can resist the urge to shuttle Ertz between center back, where she starred in the 2015 Mundial, and defensive midfielder. Ellis’ tinkerman proclivities may have something to do with the team’s sometimes shaky play at the back as well.
Becky Sauerbrunn is a given when healthy, but Tierna Davidson and Abby Dahlkemper have batted for the other center back spot, once Ellis ditched the three back set with midfielder Allie Long at its core.
Dahlkemper seems to have the edge currently but there were problems versus Australia, particularly on Australia’s opening goal from Lisa De Vanna, when fullback Emily Sonnett was way out of position.
The U.S also showed that same inability to hold onto a lead surrendering that De Vanna goal 15 minutes after Morgan scored her 100th international goal to give the U.S the 14th minute lead.
A great solo effort from Caitlin Foord gave Australia the lead just two minutes into the second half before the U.S. reminded everyone of one of its best traits, the ability to fight back.
Goals from Heath, her third consecutive game with a goal, Rapinoe, and local girl Mallory Pugh seemed to seal this match but, no.
The Americans inability to close things out reared its ugly head again when Sam Kerr found some space in the U.S. defense to head home in the 81st minute, making the score 4-3 before substitute Pugh – on an assist by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher – finally put this one to bed with her second goal deep into injury time.
That these problems: defensive organization, and the twin problem of failing to hold leads and inability to close out games, have persisted for three years is curious on a team with so much talent. Maybe that is part of the problem, even if it is a problem any coach would love.
But Ellis’ penchant for experimentation, perhaps sparked by having so many options, has resulted in a team that is still not 100% settled just 64 days from World Cup kickoff.
Is it Dahlkemper or Davidson, or could it still end up being Ertz. Is the midfield trio Ertz, Horan, and the attack minded Rose Lavelle, or does rock solid Sam Mewis still have a shot.
It is hard to see past a front three of Morgan flanked by Heath and Rapinoe, although Rapinoe left with an injury versus Australia. Even so, how do you divide up the subs minutes between Pugh and Christen Press?
Of course, depth and competition for places are not such bad problems to have and when the USWNT is flowing, like it was during that three goal outburst versus the Matildas, it is hard to see any team hanging with them.
But gone are the days when the U.S can steamroll opponents, the Olympics and 2019 results show that. If the U.S. is to repeat as World Cup Champions, then over the next 64 days Ellis will have to find a way to get the talented players on this team’s defense on the same page or 2019 could end up looking more like 2016 that 2015.
– U.S. Women’s National Team Match Report –
Match: U.S. Women’s National Team vs. Australia
Date: April 4, 2019
Competition: International Friendly
Venue: Dick’s Sporting Goods Park; Commerce City, Colo.
Kickoff: 7 p.m. MT
Weather: 60 degrees; Partly cloudy
Scoring Summary: 1 2 F
USA 1 4 5
AUS 1 2 3
USA – Alex Morgan (Crystal Dunn) 14th minute
AUS – Lisa De Vanna (Caitlin Foord) 29
AUS – Caitlin Foord (Sam Kerr) 47
USA – Tobin Heath (Emily Sonnett) 53
USA – Megan Rapinoe 61
USA – Mallory Pugh (Emily Sonnett) 67
AUS – Sam Kerr (Hayley Raso) 81
USA – Mallory Pugh (Alyssa Naeher) 90+5
USA: 1-Alyssa Naeher; 2-Emily Sonnett (12-Tierna Davidson, 79), 7-Abby Dahlkemper (10-Carli Lloyd, 85), 4-Becky Sauerbrunn, 19-Crystal Dunn; 8-Julie Ertz, 9-Lindsey Horan (23-Christen Press, 64), 16-Rose Lavelle (3-Samantha Mewis, 46); 17-Tobin Heath, 13-Alex Morgan (20-Allie Long, 81), 15-Megan Rapinoe (capt.) (22-Mallory Pugh, 66)
Substitutes not used: 11-Ali Krieger, 24-Ashlyn Harris, 26-Jessica McDonald
Head coach: Jill Ellis
AUS: 1-Lydia Williams; 2-Gema Simon, 4-Clare Polkinghorne, 8-Elise Kellond-Knight (16-Hayley Raso, 68), 9-Caitlin Foord (17-Mary Fowler, 75), 10-Emily Van Egmond, 11-Lisa De Vanna (15-Emily Gielnik, 57), 13-Tameka Butt (19-Katrina Gorry, 90), 14-Alanna Kennedy, 20-Sam Kerr (capt.), 21-Ellie Carpenter
Substitutes not used: 12-Teagan Micah, 18-Mackenzie Arnold, 3-Aivi Luik, 5-Laura Alleway, 22-Elizabeth Ralston, 23-Teigen Allen
Head coach: Ante Milicic
Stats Summary: USA / AUS
Shots: 17 / 10
Shots on Goal: 11 / 3
Saves: 0 / 6
Corner Kicks: 11 / 1
Fouls: 8 / 7
Offside: 7 / 0
USA – Megan Rapinoe (caution) 49th minute
AUS – Clare Polkinghorne (caution) 84
USA – Samantha Mewis (caution) 90+1
Referee: Karen Abt (USA)
Assistant Referee 1: Jennifer Garner (USA)
Assistant Referee 2: Melissa Snedden (CAN)
4th Official: Sandra Benitez (SLV)
Woman of the Match: Mallory Pugh
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have some drama at the top of the La Liga table after all.
We also have a race for fourth place (and Champions League qualification) that grows more interesting every day. Five teams are now in the mix, with Valencia (46 points) breathing down the neck of fourth-place Getafe (47). Behind Valencia but very much alive are Sevilla (46), Alavés (44) and Athletic Bilbao (43).
But let’s start with Atlético Madrid’s bid to track down Barcelona.
Can Atlético Close the Gap?
Barça finally faltered on Tuesday, settling for one point in a seesaw 4-4 draw at Villarreal. That result, combined with Atlético Madrid’s 2-0 win over Girona, means that “only” eight points separate first-place Barcelona and Atleti.
Los Rojiblancos could cut the lead to five with a victory when the teams meet on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern at Camp Nou. If it wins that game, Atlético would still need Barcelona to drop another five points over its seven remaining games in La Liga. While unlikely, that’s at least feasible, especially if Barcelona continues to rest key players in domestic matches to keep them fresh for the UCL. For now, though, FiveThirtyEight believes the Catalans have a 98 percent chance to win the league, while Atleti has just a 2 percent chance. Would that number jump to more than 10 percent with a win this weekend? Speaking of the analytics site, it says that Lionel Messi (who is having a season solidifying his GOAT status) and Co. have a 62 percent chance to win Saturday, which seems a little high.
How Barcelona managed not to lose to Villarreal despite giving up four unanswered goals at one point is anyone’s guess. It was the latest example in recent months of their tendency to follow a stretch of apparent vulnerability with a flash of brilliance. Whether you’re convinced this team should be the Champions League favorite or afraid their inconsistency will be their undoing, you saw something on Tuesday that reinforced how you feel.
Personally, I’m not terribly concerned about what this means for them. I can’t imagine the Catalans would have had any issues with Villarreal if they hadn’t been resting Messi, Gerard Piqué and Ivan Rakitc to start the game. While I’ll admit Barcelona play with fire more often than they should, the bad news for the rest of La Liga – and Europe – is that having Messi and Luis Suárez means they can get away with it. This is as good a place as any to point out that Barcelona’s last La Liga loss was in November.
As for Saturday’s game, expect to see Atlético play with even more physicality and intensity than usual, as this is their last chance to salvage their season. Diego Simeone’s team has emphatically answered questions of whether it might go into the tank after the UCL heartbreaker to Juventus on March 12 and the subsequent 2-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao.
Based on the 4-0 win over Alavés and the Girona win since the loss to Athletic, this team still believes it is alive in La Liga, which makes it dangerous for at least another 90 minutes. Atleti could be without forward Álvaro Morata, who suffered an ankle injury on Tuesday and would be sorely missed. It’s also unclear whether Diego Costa will be available. Both players, however, practiced Friday, meaning Antoine Griezmann may have more help generating offense than he expected to earlier this week, when the status of Morata and Costa appeared doubtful.
Should Valencia be the Favorite for La Liga’s Fourth Champions League Spot?
Valencia’s last two games, a 1-0 win at Sevilla and a 2-1 victory over Real Madrid at home, make them the most impressive of the bunch at the moment. Those results are both impressive in and of themselves.
And they look even better compared to what Getafe (2-0 loss to Leganes, draw vs. Espanyol), Sevilla (the loss to Valencia, 2-0 win over Alavés) and Alavés (back-to-back losses to Atlético and Sevilla by a combined score of 6-0) have accomplished over the past week. FiveThirtyEight has noticed, ranking Valencia (35%), Sevilla (34%), Getafe (22%) and Athletic Bilbao (4%) as the teams most likely to finish fourth. Valencia’s upcoming schedule is also favorable, as its next five are against Rayo Vallecano, Levante, Real Betis, Atlético and Eibar. The only two teams in that group in the top half of the table are Atleti and 10th-place Real Betis.