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After Manchester City’s Big Loss, Who’s The Favorite To Win The Champions League?

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FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model favored Manchester City to win the Champions League for most of the 2019-20 season. The Cityzens were so good, in fact, that they spent 62 percent of the season at the top of the model’s probability table.1 Only Liverpool (the current holders of both the Champions League and Premier League trophies) and Bayern Munich (the German champions for eight seasons running and perennial Champions League contenders) managed to leapfrog City as favorites to win this rendition of club soccer’s elite competition, but neither spent more than 22 percent of the season in its role as front-runner.

So when domestic rival Liverpool was eliminated in early March, it appeared as though the only thing that stood between City and its first ever Champions League trophy was Bayern. This was City’s title to win — until it wasn’t.

When the moment presented itself for Pep Guardiola to progress to his first Champions League final as City manager, he met with the same fate as in competitions past. He seemed to overthink his tactics, and French club Olympique Lyonnais made the Catalan pay a steep price, beating City 3-1. VAR controversy, a shocking miss from Raheem Sterling and an uncharacteristic error from otherwise sure-handed keeper Ederson didn’t make things any easier on City, but the Mancunians were likely doomed by Guardiola’s inexplicable decision to roll with a tragically stodgy 3-5-2 formation — a conservative tactical setup he hadn’t employed all season in any competition and one that effectively negated the creative swagger of midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne for large stretches of the game.

City’s dramatic Champions League exit at the hands of Lyon isn’t its first shock defeat in the competition in recent memory — who can forget last season’s quarterfinal second leg against Tottenham Hotspur and the attendant VAR controversies? — but it’s perhaps its most indefensible.

It’s true that, along with Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon has been the most successful club in France in the 21st century, winning seven domestic titles in the past 20 seasons. But Les Gones have been the picture of mediocrity this season: They finished an undistinguished seventh place in Ligue 1 in 2019-20, which means they won’t qualify for next season’s Champions League unless they win the competition this season.

The model hasn’t liked the French club since Day One. Before it eliminated City, Lyon’s probability to win the Champions League never rose above 1 percent. Losing to Liverpool in 2017-18 and to Spurs in 2018-192 is one thing; losing to a team that started its Champions League campaign with the same win probability as Czech club Slavia Prague, which the model currently ranks as the 90th-best team in the world, is an entirely different thing. City failed this time around unlike it’s ever failed before, and in doing so opened the door for Bayern to win its sixth European championship.

The Bavarian club is now the heavy favorite to lift the Champions League trophy, and for good reason. Bayern has been the most relentless offensive force in the competition so far, setting the pace in almost every significant statistical category per 90 minutes: It leads all other clubs in terms of shot-creating actions, goal-creating actions, shots on target, total shots, expected goals, expected assists, expected goals plus expected assists, nonpenalty expected goals, nonpenalty expected goals plus expected assists, and actual goals scored. And its lead in some of those statistical categories is so vast, it’s almost silly.

Shot-creating actions Goal-creating actions
Team Total Per 90 min. Total Per 90 min.
Bayern Munich 309 34.33 59 6.56
Paris Saint-Germain 180 20.00 39 4.33
Manchester City 238 26.44 36 4.00
RB Leipzig 213 23.67 28 3.11
Barcelona 169 18.78 26 2.89
Atalanta 197 21.89 25 2.78
Lyon 158 17.56 19 2.11
Atlético Madrid 178 19.07 19 2.04

Shot- and goal-creating actions include the two plays leading up to a shot or goal.

Source: FBRef.com

The Bavarians boast the most prolific scorer in the Champions League — and perhaps the best striker on the planet — in Robert Lewandowski, who leads all players in nonpenalty expected goals per 90 minutes and trails only PSG’s Kylian Mbappé in nonpenalty expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes. “Lewa” isn’t Bayern’s only weapon, however — Ivan Perišić, Thomas Müller, Philippe Coutinho, Serge Gnabry and Corentin Tolisso each ranks in the top 35 in nonpenalty expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes.

Given its 8-2 thrashing of Barcelona,3 Bayern shouldn’t have much trouble with Lyon, despite the French club’s upset of the competition’s previous favorite. Lyon is reasonably well organized in defense, but it is outperforming its expected goals against tally so far, suggesting that something’s got to give eventually. And if that something gives against the competition’s most devastating attack, Lyon can’t expect its goalkeeper to come to the rescue: Among keepers who have played at least six full matches, Anthony Lopes is tied for the fourth-worst post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed per 90 minutes.

Of course, Bayern and Lyon aren’t the only teams remaining in the competition. On the other side of the bracket, PSG will square off with RB Leipzig, and a healthy Mbappé means Les Parisiens are the rightful favorites in this semifinal clash. The French phenom came on as a second-half substitute of PSG’s quarterfinal matchup against Atalanta and shifted the tides for Les Rouge et Bleu.

His brilliant run and perfectly weighted square ball to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who tapped the ball into a gaping net, completed PSG’s comeback and ensured its spot in the Champions League semifinal round for the first time in 25 years. Having Neymar in your squad doesn’t hurt either — the ball he played to Mbappé on the move that led to Choupo-Moting’s goal was as good as it gets, proving the Brazilian can be the best player on the pitch whenever he decides to be.

RB Leipzig isn’t without hope against PSG. The club is exceptionally well drilled and tactically sophisticated, and as such is capable of beating just about any opponent in a one-off game. But it did just lose its best player (Timo Werner) to Chelsea, which means some of its attacking prowess disappeared. Red Bull was able to sneak past Atlético Madrid, but if it can’t replace Werner’s goals, it might find it difficult to replicate that result against PSG, which has given up the fewest goals in the Champions League this season.4

Then again, if Bayern keeps playing the way it’s been playing all season, it might not matter what happens in the game between PSG and Leipzig. The Bavarians seem simply untouchable at the moment.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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