ESPN's League vs. League tournament moves on to its final round of group stage games and there's still a lot to play for in both groups.
Following Matchday Two, the Premier League is three points clear atop Group A, with MLS (3 points) keeping clear of Serie A (1 point) and Liga MX (1 point). MLS needs just a draw in its final game against Liga MX in order to advance. In Group B, it's a four-way tie, with all of La Liga, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Brasil level on two points.
In Matchday Three, Mark Ogden's Premier League side take on Nicky Bandini and Serie A, while Noah Davis and MLS settle their rivalry with Liga MX and Tom Marshall in Group A. Group B sees Gab Marcotti and the Bundesliga squaring off with Sid Lowe's La Liga, and Julien Laurens' Ligue 1 meet Gustavo Hofman and the Brazilian Serie A.
Who will punch their ticket to the semifinals?
Can Cristiano Ronaldo rally the home of calcio to a famous against-all-odds win and advance to the semifinals?
WHAT THE MANAGERS SAID PRE-MATCH:
MARK OGDEN: Now that qualification has been confirmed, it will be a good game to test new tactics of all-out attack and very little thought for defending. The best form of defence is attack anyway, so let's put it to the test. No changes required. Winning team stays the same.
NICKY BANDINI: I cannot sugarcoat it any more: this tournament has been a disaster. Our superstar up front has forgotten how to score and we keep giving away cheap goals at the other end. My team has had more shots than both opponents, as well as more possession in better parts of the pitch, but if you don't know how to put the ball in the net at the end, what's the point?
And now we face the group leaders knowing that even a win might not be enough to get through. Still, we have to try!
Ciro Immobile keeps his place up front, as the only player who has proven that he still knows where the goal is. Ronaldo has been anonymous for two consecutive games in the middle of the attack, so let's see if he fares any better on the left of a 4-2-3-1. Paulo Dybala gets his chance on the other side, and Alejandro Gomez comes back in to serve as our No. 10. He'll be our captain, too, because we need to find a little joy from somewhere.
Maybe there's a little magic to be found yet, and we'll end the round bailando como "el Papu".
Mark Ogden's Premier League (4-3-3 holding): Ederson; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Aymeric Laporte, Luke Shaw; Kevin De Bruyne, N'Golo Kante, Bruno Fernandes; Sadio Mane, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mohamed Salah.
Subs: Rui Patricio, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, James Tarkowski, Wilfried Ndidi, Emil Buendia, Bernardo Silva, Jamie Vardy.
Nicky Bandini's Serie A (4-2-3-1 narrow): Samir Handanovic; Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij, Kalidou Koulibaly, Aleksandar Kolarov; Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Miralem Pjanic; Paulo Dybala, Alejandro Gomez, Cristiano Ronaldo; Ciro Immobile. Subs: Salvatore Sirigu, Francesco Acerbi, Robin Gosens, Blaise Matuidi, Josip Ilicic, Luis Alberto, Romelu Lukaku.
Premier League: Constant pressure (defense), Long ball (offense)
Serie A: Drop back / allow opponent possession (defense), Fast build-up (offense)
Battle of the Soccer Leagues: Serie A in must-win vs. Prem
Nicky Bandini's Serie A XI face elimination if they can't get a win vs. Mark Ogden's Premier League select.
The two North American leagues square off in the final group game with so much on the line: bragging rights in their long-standing rivalry, an important win and, potentially, a place in the semifinals.
WHAT THE MANAGERS SAID PRE-MATCH:
NOAH DAVIS: After a Matchday Two performances that saw the finest of MLS post zero shots, commit zero fouls and perform one parting of the central defenders that granted Sadio Mane enough time to paint a portrait before walking in alone on Kenneth Vermeer, it's time to mix things up for the must-get-a-result match against Liga MX.
Ike Opara? Gone. Josef Martinez? Think about shooting while sitting on the bench. Wingers Yimmi Chara and Sebastian Blanco? Pew pew. We're bringing on Javier Hernandez and Jonathan Dos Santos to mix it up, moving to a 4-1-4-1, and pressing the hell out of the opposition. Semifinals or bust.
TOM MARSHALL: This is the ideal scenario for Liga MX: beat Major League Soccer by a couple of goals and ease into the semifinals all in one game. The three points shouldn't be problematic given the relative (and historical) weakness of MLS compared to Liga MX, and the northern league's penchant for choking in big games between the two. MLS has also been somewhat lucky to be going into this game with any points at all, given the stats (zero shots of any kind vs. the Premier League?!).
There's been a change of mind, though, for Liga MX heading into this one. The original plan was to go all-out attack and dominate, but after scouting the lack of tactical acumen around the MLS team in their previous two games, we're going to be patient, wait for them to over-commit and hit hard in transition. The key will be speed.
Cruz Azul's Jonathan Rodriguez comes in up front for Andre-Pierre Gignac. It may be a controversial call, but Liga MX's front four of Angel Mena, Brian Lozano, Rodriguez and Enner Valencia will out-pace and out-gun a weak defense. The additional benefit is that Gignac can ease up so he's fresh for the knockout rounds.
The only other change is the more defensively minded Leonel Vangioni coming in for Jesus Gallardo at left-back. We've showed solidity against some of the world's best forwards in the previous two games, now it's time to assert our title as the undisputed regional giant and put MLS to the sword.
Noah Davis' MLS (4-1-4-1): Kenneth Vermeer; Jorge Moreira, Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Ali Adnan; Jonathan dos Santos; Nani, Diego Valeri, Alejandro Pozuelo, Caros Vela; Javier Hernandez.
Subs: Josef Martinez, Cristian Pavon, Yimmi Chara, Michael Bradley, Eloy Room, Ike Opara.
Tom Marshall's Liga MX (4-2-2-2): Guillermo Ochoa; Miguel Layun, Pablo Aguilar, Bruno Valdez, Leonel Vangioni; Guido Pizarro, Rafael Carioca; Brian Lozano, Angel Mena; Enner Valencia, Jonathan Rodriguez.
Subs: Javier Orozco, Oscar Murillo, Igor Lichnovsky, Luis Montes, Rogelio Funes Mori, Ventura Alvarado, Andre-PierreGignac.
MLS: Constant pressure (defense), Balanced (offense)
Liga MX: Balanced (defense), Fast build-up (offense)
Battle of the Soccer Leagues: Liga MX vs. MLS showdown
Both Noah Davis' MLS side and Tom Marshall's Liga MX team need a win to advance to the semifinals.
We are on the verge of seeing one of the pre-competition favorites getting dumped in the group stage... but which will it be?
WHAT THE MANAGERS SAID PRE-MATCH:
GAB MARCOTTI: I tried to be clever and balanced, thinking the quality of my forwards would be enough. But, in fact, while I created more than the opposition, stupid mistakes cost me. And my finishing wasn't good enough. So I'm going with Kai Havertz, who scored a great goal against Ligue 1 and I'm unleashing Erling Haaland to pair with Robert Lewandowski.
Yeah, it's a gamble. But I want to whup La Liga, because they no doubt expect me to sit deeper. I'll walk away a fool or a king.
SID LOWE: We need to hammer these bums...
Gabriele Marcotti's Bundesliga (4-2-4): Yann Sommer; Lukas Klostermann, Dayot Upamecano, Niklas Sule, David Alaba; Kai Havertz, Thiago; Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandowski, Timo Werner.
Subs: Peter Gulacsi, Marco Reus, Axel Witsel, Denis Zakaria, Bas Dost, Filip Kostic, Jerome Rousillon.
Sid Lowe's La Liga (4-3-3 holding): Jan Oblak; Jesus Navas, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Marc Cucurella; Luka Modric, Casemiro, Santi Cazorla; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Eden Hazard.
Subs: Dani Parejo, Gareth Bale, Inaki Williams, Ezequiel Garay, Raul Garcia, Yuri Berchiche, Kieran Trippier.
Bundesliga: Pressure on heavy touch (defense), Fast build-up (offense)
Ligue 1: Press after losing ball (defense), Possession / slow build-up (offense)
Battle of the Soccer Leagues: Haaland sends Bundesliga to semis
Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski book the Bundesliga XI's spot in the final.
With Group B wide-open heading into this final matchday, a win for either side would mean advancing in the competition. Game on...
WHAT THE MANAGERS SAID PRE-MATCH:
GUSTAVO HOFMAN: We have to win, so we're going to press them a little bit more. Not so many changes, just a few tactical tweaks. The team is playing very well during this tournament, showing a high level of football. I'm very happy with my defenders, and I think that we can create more chances. Of course Ligue 1 is the favourite, but we have show our quality and skills. We're going for the win, that's our goal.
JULIEN LAURENS: We had another convincing performance against the Bundesliga XI but yet again conceding a late goal to only get a point. We deserved more, again, but our confidence is still high. We have had the most composed performance of all the teams. We have a very strong collective and we are playing the best football. Now, we need to take all those positives and get a win against the Brazilians. We need it to qualify for the semifinals.
For this game, we need a different approach where we will control the ball more. So far, we have been pragmatic tactically, but we'll continue with a third unique approach. We will keep the ball more and have more possession to control the game. Cesc Fabregas will start his first game in the competition. He came on and did very well against the Germans, giving a great assist to Houssem Aouar.
Speaking of Aouar, the Lyon anchor will also start in my midfield. With him, Fabregas and Neymar, we will have a very technical midfield which will keep the ball well, play between the lines and create a lot of chances for Kylian Mbappe and Wissam Ben Yedder up front. Defensively, nothing will change. We will keep the same back five. They were all disappointed to have conceded a late equaliser and they will be more motivated to keep a solid clean sheet in MD3.
Gustavo Hofman's Brasil (4-3-3 holding): Vanderlei; Dani Alves, Pedro Geromel, Gustavo Gomez, Filipe Luis; Everton Ribeiro, Edenilson, Giorgian de Arrascaeta; Dudu, Gabriel Barbosa, Everton.
Subs: Weverton, Victor Cuesta, Lucas Verissimo, Carlos Sanchez, Tche Tche, Bruno Henrique, Paolo Guerrero..
Brasil: Press after losing ball (defense), Fast build-up (offense)
Ligue 1: Constant pressure (defense), Possession / slow build-up (offense)
Battle of the Soccer Leagues: Ligue 1 & Brasileiro face off
Julien Laurens' Ligue 1 XI try to avoid an upset against Gustavo Hofman's underdog Brasileirao team.
So there you have it! A 1-1 draw for Serie A vs. Premier League means they're eliminated while Liga MX's 2-0 win over MLS means they advance to the semifinals in second place of Group A behind the pre-tournament faves from England's top tier.
In Group B, Bundesliga's 3-1 win over La Liga means they top the group, with Ligue 1 joining them in the knockouts thanks to a 2-0 win over the Brazilian Serie A.
LAURENS: Ligue 1 were clearly the best team in its group. I think La Liga and Serie A head coaches should resign after such an appalling campaign! Ogden, we will smash your Premier League boys in the semis. Marcotti, see you in the final!
OGDEN: French clubs never get to major finals. Their best players go to England to become winners. Enjoy your big day in the semi.
LOWE: Enjoying you all taking comfort from a computer game, all too aware that in real life you suck.
MARCOTTI: Bye bye, Sid.... GERMAN MIGHT DEMOLISHES ALL!!!!
LAURENS: Sid, are you still here? I thought this chat was just for winners.
LOWE: You're all so stupid. Totally failing to see the bigger picture.
BANDINI: Mostly just mad that Ronaldo stole the penalty after I actively stripped him of penalty-taking duties.
PRODUCER: All the tactics were set up. However, Immobile was substituted off in the 57th minute for Lukaku. Therefore the game automatically chooses a new designated penalty kick taker, and in this case it was Ronaldo. Hope that clears things up.
BANDINI: Seems like another CR7 power grab to me. I'll be scapegoating him to all the papers when we touch back down in Bergamo. (Thanks for the explanation! I was mostly joking but realise these things don't always come across in email!)
HOFMAN: Well, of course that I'm not happy. I would never be after being eliminated from a tournament, without wins. But I must admit that my team had a good performance, over the expectations. The difference between Campeonato Brasileiro and Bundesliga, La Liga and Ligue 1 is huge. The best Brazilian players are in Europe, not in South America. Nevertheless, at the field, we could challenge all of them. For the next season, we can try some different tactics and also be a little bit more offensive, take more risks.
DAVIS: We outperformed expectations while also coming to a disappointing end. If that's not an American soccer story, I don't know what is. Scoring one goal over the course of three games. Eesh. But what a goal it was... an early Carlos Vela stunner to shock Serie A. Kenneth Vermeer deserves a statue in the Tim Howard Secretary of Defense Hall of Fame, which is a place that should exist. We came within 10 minutes of drawing the EPL's finest, which would have been an achievement for the ages. (So what if we didn't manage to take a single shot the entire game.) You'd like to see a better performance in a must-result against Liga MX. Needing just a point, we conceded early -- a classic American strategy, that is -- then gave up a second in the late stages as we pushed for an equalizer. Hard luck happens to even the best coached squads. We go home with our heads held high. We came, we saw, we tried.
I'd like to congratulate my MLS squad on slightly exceeding expectations while also failing pretty dramatically. A true representation of the league. Good luck to everyone going forward.
HOFMAN: Thank you guys, next season I'll try again, but with Corinthians kit! Good luck.
MARSHALL: Comfortable passage to the semis, that.
FINAL TABLE + SEMIFINAL FIXTURES
1. Premier League (7 points)
2. Liga MX (4 points)
3. Major League Soccer (3 points)
4. Serie A (2 points)
1. Bundesliga (5 points)
2. Ligue 1 (5 points)
3. La Liga (2 points)
4. Brazilian Serie A (2 points)
Semifinals (publishing Monday, June 15)
- Gab Marcotti's German Bundesliga vs. Tom Marshall's Liga MX
- Mark Ogden's Premier League vs. Julien Laurens' Ligue 1