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Personal Foul Offense: FTRS Champions League, Part 3

The series ends and we crown a champion!

VfL Wolfsburg v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Europa League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Handout/VfL Wolfsburg via Getty Images

Need a primer on FTRSCL? Here’s one! Missed

The final round of FTRS Champions League play kicked off this week, as our three competitors took stock of their performances on Matchday 1 and looked to make moves in the second round. Our British commentary crew has the latest from the Bubble (of quarantine, since all of our competitors are sequestered) — take it away, River and Frederick*.

Thanks, gents! Well, readers: it was certainly an interesting final week from the Bubble as our competitors narrowed in on the coveted FTRSCL title. With one makeup fixture from Matchday 1 added to the schedule, the final table was very much so in flux — but as we figured out later on, maybe not as much in flux as we thought. With matches across two continents to close league play, we found our passports well-worn by the end of the week, so let’s start our recap in the most exotic of our host locales: Madrid, where our holdover from Matchday 1 took center-stage.

Jeff vs Akshay, Leg 1

Atlético Madrid (ESP) 0, Eintracht Frankfurt (GER) 2

Making up a fixture from Matchday 1, Akshay and Jeff finally faced off to see who could challenge Stephen atop the table. Wanda Metropolitano played host for this first-round matchup, and the red-and-white clad home fans, while feisty to begin the match, found themselves on the wrong end of a two-goal victory from the German visitors from Frankfurt. Looking lost amidst a fierce high press from the Germans, Los Rojiblancos had trouble setting up their usually narrow defensive lines, and keeper Jan Oblak had trouble finding openings to safely clear away dangerous balls and play out of the back. It seemed Madrid’s typically low-risk/high-reward style of play to feast on the counter had backfired here, as Frankfurt was able to maintain the lion’s share of the possession AND avoid making serious mistakes when having to play out of the back for the most part.

Trouble in the defensive backfield brewed early for Madrid, as Atlético defender Thomas Partey had some trouble getting an attacker off his back in the 17th minute. Frankfurt midfielder Sebastian Rode picked Partey’s pocket and dumped the ball off to a waiting Mijat Gaćinović, who tried to chip Oblak from 12 yards out, only to find his shot tipped away. Barely two minutes later, Madrid gave up the ball in the defensive third again, saved only by a cynical challenge from defender Felipe that netted him a yellow card for his troubles. Alas, Frankfurt failed to take advantage of the ensuing gift of a free kick from just 24 yards out, as midfielder Filip Kostić put his shot just over the crossbar.

In the 27th minute, Rode and Gaćinović combined with forward André Silva for some excellent decisive passing through the Madrid defensive block but couldn’t quite finish things off as Silva’s chip attempt was once again tipped away by Oblak. Quality passing helps Frankfurt generate another chance barely eight minutes later, when Rode played a one-two pass with Gaćinović to get free in the box, but has his shot (and a follow-up header from Silva) blocked by Oblak yet again.

It seemed that Madrid would live and die on Oblak’s performance on the day — an assessment that proved incredibly prudent when the Slovenian’s goal kick fell to the feet of Gaćinović, who pushed towards goal but laid the ball off into the path of Silva’s central run. Silva took two touches then fired a rocket of a shot past Oblak to break the deadlock with three minutes to go before the halftime break. An incredibly poor time for Madrid’s defense, which had been bent fairly well by the German press thus far, to finally break.

Oblak’s distribution would cost the Spanish side another goal as they tried to play out of the Frankfurt high press on yet another goal kick, this time in the 50th minute. Misjudging the positioning of Gaćinović on Madrid defender Stefan Savić, Oblak played the ball into no-man’s-land, where Savić gets turned around by Gaćinović and fails to stop the Serbian from collecting the ball and chipping the ball just over Oblak’s outstretched hands. Another instance of when playing out of the back goes wrong for Madrid, and this one just about sealed the match in favor of the German visitors.

But credit to Madrid: they fought till the end and generated more and more chances as Frankfurt grew comfortable sitting on their lead. Atlético were at their most dangerous when, in the 64th minute, they almost forced the Frankfurt defense into making the same mistakes that Oblak had when playing out of the back. Defender David Abraham passed the ball back to Frankfurt goalkeeper Kevin Trapp while under pressure from Madrid forward João Félix, but Trapp found him again once Felix ceded some space. But Trapp overestimated how much space Felix had given up, and with Felix still on top of him, Abraham was forced to poorly redirect Trapp’s pass back towards the center of the park. Said pass fell at the feet of Madrid midfielder Koke instead of Rode, creating a moment of danger here for Madrid as Koke sprinted towards goal. Rode muscled his way back onto the ball as Koke reached the box and tried to clear it with a quick one-two pass with wingback Evan Ndicka, but Ndicka’s centering pass towards midfielder Stefan Ilsanker is cut off by Felix at the top of the box. Felix turned and chipped a pass to forward Álvaro Morata, who got his head on the ball to try to redirect it past Trapp for a fantastic finish, but the German keeper got a hand on it to push it just wide of goal. A fine attacking chance from Los Colchoneros, but the match remained (and finished) 2-0 Frankfurt.

Stephen vs Akshay, Leg 2

VfL Wolfsburg (GER) 3, Olympique Lyonnais (FRA) 1

The middle of Akshay’s Matchday 2 tripleheader found him in Germany to face Stephen’s VfL Wolfsburg side as they played host to his Olympique Lyonnais. The Volkswagen Arena played host to an incredibly-open and end-to-end match, as both teams tried to find space behind the other on the counter and take immediate advantage of defensive mistakes. It just so happened that one side found far more success at exploiting the counter than the other.

Wolfsburg set the tone for the match barely two minutes after the opening whistle, as wingback Kevin Mbabu split two defenders to play a one-two pass with forward Wout Weghorst, opening up some space for a clear shot on goal. But Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes was able to get his mitts on the ball to knock it down, and defender Léo Dubois acted quickly enough to clear the danger.

Lyon took a little while longer to settle in to the proceedings, but they showed some bite early — midfielder Lucas Tousart capped off his central run by threading a pass up the pitch to forward Moussa Dembélé, who shielded the ball from Wolfsburg defender John Brooks and got a shot off towards goalkeeper Koen Casteels, who — to the anguish of Lyon fans — calmly palmed it away.

But Lyon’s attacking pressure left large swathes of space in behind their lines for Wolfsburg to exploit on the counter. In the 18th minute, as Lyon struggled to regain its defensive shape off a set piece, Weghorst brutalized Lyon defender Jason Denayer with a deft single-movement touch-turn-and-pass to midfielder Max Arnold, who pushed the ball to midfielder Josip Brekalo, who had been completely unmarked by the Lyon defense while streaking down the wing. Brekalo cut the ball inside and fired a shot past a diving Lopes off the far post and into the net to open the scoring amidst a now-raucous Volkswagen Arena crowd.

Les Gones manager Rudi Garcia seemed to panic in the ensuing seconds before the restart, making an extremely early substitution to pull midfielder Bruno Guimarães in favor of Maxence Caqueret and push holding midfielder Houssem Aouar to the right to make room for the more attacking-minded Caqueret in the center of the park. It seemed that Garcia wanted to flip to a more attacking 4-3-3 than the holding version he had started the match with to find better ways to feed Dembélé the ball and get back into the match.

Garcia’s gambit almost paid off immediately: Tousart found winger Martin Terrier on the left wing, as Terrier’s defender had tucked too far inside to cover him effectively. Terrier misjudged his teammates’ positioning and fired a cross to the other side of the box, but forward Bertrand Traoré jumped on the loose ball and cut it back to a completely uncovered Dembélé in the middle of the box. Dembélé put a shot on frame, but Casteels just barely tipped it over the crossbar. Disheartening for Lyon, especially after how well they had worked for that chance.

That theme of building chances with little payoff continued for Lyon, and its constant attacking posture meant that Wolfsburg could find more and more chances to break counters wide open. This came back to haunt Les Gones in first half stoppage time, when Wolfsburg defender Jérôme Roussillon fooled a high-pressing Traoré to make some space and hit a diagonal ball to midfielder Xaver Schlager in the right channel. Schlager immediately dumped the ball off Mbabu on the wing, and he played a one-two pass with forward Daniel Ginczek to free up some space deeper into the box for Mbabu to work with. He squares a ball that rolls barely six yards in front of goal without a touch from a Lyon defender, but Weghorst jumped on it and tapped it into the back of the net to double the German lead.

You’d think that’d be all she wrote for Lyon in the match, but they’d keep fighting to get back into the match, despite their defensive liabilities. The French side finds a lifeline in the 60th minute, when from his space in the left channel, Terrier cut inside and flipped the ball to Dembélé. The Frenchman then split two defenders and puts the ball just past Casteels to cut the Wolfsburg lead to one. There’s hope yet for Lyon in this one, it seems!

But soon after, the other foot drops: Lopes tries to deke Schlager and play the ball out of the back, but instead finds himself dispossessed and scrambling back towards the goalmouth. Schlager waited for Brekalo to break free and threaded the ball into his path as he cut inside. Brekalo squared the ball to a sprinting Weghorst just inside the far post, and the Dutchman just barely outpaced a sliding Denayer to poke the ball into the back of the net and close the door on Lyon for good. With his big toe, Weghorst dealt a devastating final blow to a promising Lyon effort and sealed a 3-1 Wolfsburg victory, as Bundesliga teams continued their undefeated day in the FTRSCL.

Akshay vs Jeff, Leg 2

Houston Dynamo (USA) 3, PSV Eindhoven (NED) 0

Akshay’s long matchday ended back in the States, where Dutch side PSV Eindhoven and MLS’s own Houston Dynamo faced off in an incredible back-and-forth affair. The sides traded bouts of possession in this one, but PSV’s attacks down the wings often found themselves foiled by Houston’s stronger wingbacks. Houston found itself springing counterattackers faster and faster — almost too fast at times, resulting in a number of offside calls in the first 20 minutes. A promising start to be sure for the Americans, but just poorly timed.

But given the Dynamo’s pressure on the PSV goal, the dam was bound to burst eventually. In the 23th minute, Houston defender Maynor Figueroa collected a bad PSV clearance, flipping it to midfielder Tomás Martínez. Martínez cut it to forward Mauro Manotas, whose next pass to midfielder Boniek García split two defenders as it rolled into the box. García’s movement pulled PSV goalkeeper Lars Unnerstall out too far into no-man’s-land, and García slots the ball tidily between his legs and into the goal. García looked offside on the initial pass from Manotas, but the assistant referee on the near side did not raise his flag, despite the protests from PSV players.

Three minutes later, high pressure from Houston on a goal kick forced PSV defender Nick Viergever to cough up the ball. The ball fell to Manotas, who calmly chipped Unnerstall from twelve yards out to double the Houston lead. A cheeky, cheeky move from the Colombian.

If PSV thought the halftime break would give them a respite from the Dynamo onslaught, they had another thing coming. With three minutes to go before the break, Houston made it 3-0 in response to a PSV counterattack. Houston defender Adam Lundqvist found Rodriguez bombing up the left wing with nary a challenge from nearby PSV defender Denzel Dumfries. Rodriguez took advantage of Dumfries’ inaction to cut inside and carry the ball infield for almost 30 yards and through five defenders until he found a good opportunity to take a shot on goal, megging his own teammate in the process and putting the ball firmly into the top right corner of the net.

Houston almost came firing out of the break, nearly finding a fourth off a 47th minute Martínez volley. But Unnerstall stood firm — his quick twitch reflexes saved the day (well, at least this moment) for PSV and punched the ball wide.

PSV found some life as the second half dragged on: in the 53rd minute, midfielder Pablo Rosario spotted and passed to a wide-open Mohamed Ihattaren on the right wing. The Dutch midfielder found himself dispossessed at the top of the box by Lundqvist, who passed the ball back centrally to clear the danger, but PSV midfielder Jorrit Hendrix cut the ball off at the top of the Houston penalty area. His ensuing shot bounced just off target.

Seven minutes later, PSV gets another chance to claw back into the match as they break quickly on a counter after a Houston attack breaks down and leaves large swathes of space open in behind. An amazing turn by midfielder Ryan Thomas got him around Figueroa and streaking towards goal, flanked by a right wing run from Ihattaren. The Dutchman cut inside to overlap Thomas’s run and receive the ball, then weaving past the shambles of Houston’s defensive line and firing a shot at Dynamo keeper Marko Marić. But Marić had sensed the danger and positioned himself well, punching the ball away safely.

But PSV forced Marić into some nervy moments in the match’s final thirty minutes — at one point, Houston’s attempt to play out of the back was quickly foiled when Marić’s pass to defender Aljaž Struna was intercepted by Thomas. Marić dropped back quickly to block a potential shot, but Struna just barely got a touch to the ball Thomas played, forcing it to bounce innocently out-of-bounds. That would be the Dutch side’s best and final shot at goal during the match, as the match ended with PSV on the wrong side of a 3-0 scoreline. A happy win for the Americans, who had proven themselves against a vaunted European club, but a bitter pill to swallow for the boys from Eindhoven, who came in believing they could play much, much better.

Stephen vs Jeff, Leg 2

Vitesse (NED) 4, DC United (USA) 0

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We’d love to tell you more about this one, but it seems an angry DC United fan set our footage of their match versus Dutch side Vitesse ablaze. While the fire brigade attempts to put out the flames, we can tell you this much: it wasn’t pretty. Vitesse dominated the game cover-to-cover, and DC frequently hung its centerbacks out to dry. A vini, vidi, vici victory for Vitesse at home, sending the Washingtonians back onto their long flight home humbled.

Anywho, that about wraps it up from the Bubble for us — back to you in the States, guys.

At the end of Matchday 2, here’s a look at our league table:

  1. Stephen (4-0-0, 12 pts, +11 GD)
  2. Akshay (2-0-2, 6 pts, +1 GD)
  3. Jeff (0-0-4, 0 pts, -12 GD)

Stephen is your inaugural FTRSCL Champion! Akshay put up a strong fight, but defensive mishaps cost him vital goals versus Stephen. Jeff had a valiant effort in all of his matches, and for that, we salute him.

Thank you for tuning in to coverage of the first FTRSCL — tune in next time for our next great [Styx]-posting sports video game adventure!

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