Champions League back from break

Bayern's Robert Lewandowski, left, and Shakhtar's Olexandr Kucher vie for the ball during the Champions League round of 16 first leg soccer match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayern Munich on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015 in Lviv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Eight was great for Bayern Munich on Saturday as the German powerhouse smashed Hamburg SV 8-0. Yet when the Champions League rolled around Tuesday all Munich could muster was a 0-0 draw with troubled Shakhtar Donetsk, which hadn’t played a competitive match in two months.

It sure is nice to have the Champions League back from winter break.

After a nine-week layoff, the premier club competition reared back into action with two games that appeared on opposite ends of the spectrum: one a matchup of squads full of the best talent money can buy, the other a decided mismatch.

In the end, both games ended level, much to the surprise of Bavaria. Chelsea drew PSG 1-1 in Paris in the other match.

Despite being a home game for Shakhtar, the unrest in eastern Ukraine forced their match to be played in Lviv, which is actually closer to Munich than Donetsk. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian support helped its side hold on for a shock draw.

While not a massive setback for the Germans — they turned around a 1-0 defeat to FC Basel in the same round in 2012 to win 7-1 on aggregate — the performance was stunning.

Bayern didn’t help itself when Xabi Alonso, playing in his 100th Champions League match, picked up his second yellow midway through the second half, but you have to give Donetsk credit.

It takes a determined effort to hold Bayern at bay, a team that has dropped just 11 points in 21 Bundesliga matches while racking up a +44 goal differential.

The Munich squad has many of the German players that torched Brazil 7-1 in the World Cup semifinals in the summer (five in the starting XI). Coincidentally and simultaneously, many of those battered Brazilians were on display in Paris (five between the teams).

Despite the offensive firepower bought by Chelsea, including the likes of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, it was three lumbering defenders who set up the first goal of the match for the London side.

After a free kick into the box was partially cleared, John Terry drove a low kick back into the mixer. There, Gary Cahill, unable to put a proper shot on target, made a prescient flick that allowed Branislav Ivanovic to head home for the opener in the 37th minute.

PSG has some talent of its own, so it was no surprise when Edinson Cavani got on the end of a cross from Blaise Matuidi with a strong header into the corner to equalize early in the second half.

Chelsea will be the happier of the two teams with the draw, having been able to grab a vital away goal. Last year in the quarterfinals, Chelsea lost 3-1 in Paris before winning 2-0 in London to advance on away goals over PSG.

But Chelsea had one man to thank for not losing Tuesday: goalie Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian made a number of strong saves, including one on Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the closing minutes.

It was another exciting Champions League match and hopefully the first of many this year.

MLS AROUND THE CORNER

It seems like it sneaks up on you every year. Like pitchers and catchers reporting for MLB, the MLS season begins before you know it.

The 2015 campaign is a mere two weeks away, with defending champion L.A. Galaxy taking on Chicago Fire in the season opener on March 6.

The marquee game of the first weekend comes two days later when newcomers Orlando City SC and New York City FC announce themselves to the world (or at least the East Coast).

The Texas teams start in between those two dates, with FC Dallas battling San Jose and Houston Dynamo up against Columbus Crew, both on Saturday, March 7. Thankfully, with the two aforementioned expansion teams, Houston has been sent back to the Western Conference so the Texas derby can be properly renewed.

What I’m most excited about this season is the promise that MLS and ESPN3 will stream all non-national TV games for the first time. Just like NBCSN has done with the English Premier League, ESPN and MLS hope streaming every game will create larger fan bases and ultimately produce better ratings for the games that are on national TV.

Mark your calendars.

Follow Travis Yoesting on Twitter @TYoestingETFS

 
 

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