Javier Morales (L) and Alvaro Saborio (R) fly with teammates to Costa Rica for Real Salt Lake's opening match of 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League.

Back so soon: New CONCACAF Champions League is at hand

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Javier Morales (L) and Alvaro Saborio (R) fly with teammates to Costa Rica for Real Salt Lake’s opening match of 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League.

The dawn of CONCACAF Champions League typically means new challenges, both on and off the field. Between the lines, it’s different competition, mostly at a higher level, for a prize that’s becoming more coveted in North America. Off the field, it means fixture congestion and more travel. At the tournament’s onset, it’s the distance and time that’s on coaches’ minds.

This year, the congestion and travel has been lessened by format chance which will be more forgiving to teams’ pocket books and trainers. Too bad those changes also compromise the competition. I went into that before, and thanks to the magic of hypertext links, there’s no reason to trod on travelled trails. What matters in for space: There’s no preliminary stage; groups have three teams (instead of four); only group winners make the final eight. That makes for a lot less games, and with U.S. and Liga MX (the new name for Mexico’s league) teams distributed throughout the groups, everybody’s guaranteed to get a visit from a big team.

That also means we won’t see a U.S. versus Mexico match until the quarterfinals, at the earliest (though Toronto FC is grouped with Santos Laguna). Club-friendly it may be, but this new format isn’t so fan-friendly (or TV-friendly, for that matter).

Groups 2 and 7 start play on Tuesday, with the rest of the triads kicking off later this week. That means it’s time to get on board or move on. We’re on board.

Here’s the briefest of snapshots on each group along with its schedule and meaingless, practically blind picks (teams listed by pot from which they were drawn):

Group 1: Santos Laguna (Mexico), Toronto FC (Canada), Águila (El Salvador)

Santos Laguna beat Toronto in last year’s semifinal before being knocked off by two-time defending champion Monterrey. They have as much attacking talent as anybody in CONCACAF (perhaps more). Toronto’s defense may have improved against MLS competition, but the Guerreros will be playing on a whole other level. Aguila lost their main goal scorer from last season (Nicolas Munoz), a season where they gave regular CCL qualifier Isidro Metapan trouble on the domestic front.

Games: Aug. 1 – Toronto vs. Aguila; Aug. 21 – Santos vs. Aguila; Aug. 28 – Toronto vs. Santos; Sep. 19 – Aguila vs. Santos; Sep. 25 – Aguila vs. Toronto; Oct. 24 – Santos vs. Toronto.

Prediction: Santos, Toronto, Aguila

Group 2: Herediano (Costa Rica), Real Salt Lake (United States), Tauro (Panama)

Real Salt Lake is favored in this group despite being the Pot B team. Herediano is a strong team but lost a valuable scorer (Jose Cancela) to Saprissa. Tauro is off to a hot start in Panama and has a potential match winner in 23-year-old forward Luis Renteria (11 goals in 21 appearances for Panama). This is a decent but not especially tough group for RSL.

Games: July 31 – Herediano vs. RSL; Aug. 21 – RSL vs. Tauro; Aug. 30 – Tauro vs. Herediano; Sep. 18 – Tauro vs RSL; Sep 25. – Herediano vs. Tauro; Oct. 23 – RSL vs. Herediano

Prediction: Real Salt Lake, Herediano, Tauro

Group 3: Olimpia (Honduras), Houston Dynamo (United States), FAS (El Salvador)

Houston gets the team from whom they got Oscar Boniek Garcia. Unfortunately for Dom Kinnear, the Honduran powerhouse is still stacked with national teamers and one familiar face: Luciano Emilio. It’s unclear how big a part the D.C. United legend will play in the tournament, particularly since Brazilian attacker Cristiano has also been added. Both Houston and FAS are underdogs here, though the Dynamo have enough to get out of this group, if they play well.

Games: Aug. 2 – Olimpia vs. FAS; Aug. 22. FAS vs. Houston; Aug. 30 – Olimpia vs. Houston; Sep. 20 – Houston vs. FAS; Sep. 27 – FAS vs. Olimpia; Oct. 23 – Houston vs. Olimpia

Prediction: Olimpia, Houston, FAS

Group 4: Seattle Sounders (United States), Marathon (Honduras), Caledonia AIA (Trinidad and Tobago)

Caledonia finished fourth in Trinidad and Tobago’s league, getting in via a shootout in the Caribbean Club Championship final. They’re big underdogs. Having got through a very tough group last year, Seattle’s the favorite, especially having added Eddie Johnson and Christian Tiffert. The Sounders’ defense may be an issue (it’s hard to imagine them challenging for this title with that group), but Marathón doesn’t have the firepower to test it without the Sounders’ help.

Games: Aug. 2 – Seattle vs. Caledonia; Aug. 22 – Caledonia vs. Marathon; Aug. 30 – Caledonia vs. Seattle; Sep. 19 – Marathon vs. Seattle; Sep. 26 – Marathon vs. Caledonia; Oct. 24 – Seattle vs. Marathon

Prediction: Seattle, Marathon, Caledonia

Group 5: LA Galaxy (United States), Isidro Metapan (El Salvador), Puerto Rico Islanders (Puerto Rico)

Los Angeles doesn’t do well in this competition, and it’s unclear Bruce Arena cares. With the Galaxy having just pulled themselves into a playoff spot, their coach would probably prefer to be rid of the distraction. Isidro Metapan beat out then-MLS Cup champion Colorado for a knockout round spot last year, while Puerto Rico knocked out LA two years ago. Isidro has swiped Nicolas Munoz from Aguila, while Puerto Rico has lost coach Colin Clarke to the Carolina RailHawks.

Games: Aug. 1 – Isidro vs. Puerto Rico; Aug. 23 – LA Galaxy vs. Isidro; Aug. 29 – LA Galaxy vs. Puerto Rico; Sep. 19 – Puerto Rico vs. LA Galaxy; Sep. 27 – Puerto Rico vs. Isidro; Oct. 25 – Isidro vs. LA Galaxy.

Prediction: Isidro Metapan, LA Galaxy, Puerto Rico

Group 6: Tigres (Mexico), Alajuelense (Costa Rica), Real Esteli (Nicaragua)

Tigres’ stifling defense won them Mexico’s Apertura, though Lucas Lobos, Elias Hernandez and Damian Alvarez are more than capable of creating goals in this competition, even if Hector Mancilla has moved on. Alajuelense was last year’s tough luck team, going 4-0-2 but missing out on the knockout round when a tiebreaker sent them out of Group A with 12 points. Real Esteli are a high-powered team in Nicaragua, but that federation has never done real damage in this competition.

Games: Aug 1. – Tigres vs. Real Esteli; Aug. 22 – Alajuelense vs. Tigres; Aug. 28 – Real Esteli vs. Alajuelense; Sep. 18 – Real Esteli vs. Tigres; Sep. 26 – Alajuelense vs. Real Esteli; Oct. 24 – Tigres vs. Alajuelense

Prediction: Tigres, Alajuelense, Real Estelí

Group 7: Chorrillo (Panama), Monterrey (Mexico), Municipal (Guatemala)

Monterrey is the two-time defending champion and have the region’s most balanced collection of elite talent. They’re off to a slow start in Mexico, though, and the Clausura final loss to Santos Laguna took away a little of their swagger. There’s nothing in this group that will test them, though. Chorrillo is also off to a slow start in Panama, while Municipal never finished above fourth in a qualification stage last year. Municipal also has a killer stretch from their second to third group matches: three games in six days, counting a domestic match against Xelaju.

Games: July 31 – Monterrey vs. Chorrillo; Aug. 23 – Chorrillo vs. Municipal; Aug. 29 – Municipal vs. Monterrey; Sep. 20 – Municipal vs. Chorrillo; Sep. 25 – Monterrey vs. Municipal; Oct. 23, Chorrillo vs. Monterrey.

Prediction: Monterrey, Chorrillo, Municipal

Group 8: Xelaju (Guatemala), Chivas (Mexico), W Connection (Trinidad and Tobago)

Like Monterrey, Chivas gets an easy group, though they’re less equipped to dominate it. They have star power (Marco Fabian, most notably), but they also have a series of recent disappointments, including losing in the first round of the Apertura’s Liguilla as a one-seed. Xelaju has no CCL pedigree but has Brazilian attacker Isreal Silva, who scored 31 goals last season. W Connection is Trinidad and Tobago’s champions. The Caribbean (the region out of which they qualified) failed to place a team in group stage last year, let alone the knockout round.

Prediction: Chivas, Xelaju, W Connection

La Liga & Serie A: Ramos rescues draw in Clasico, Juve rolls

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid CF heads the ball towards goal and scores his team's first goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea handles City; Spurs, Arsenal each score five ]

Barcelona 1-1 Real MadridRECAP

It was nearly the end of Real’s lengthy unbeaten streak, but then Sergio Ramos stepped up with his noggin to give the visitors a share of the points at the Camp Nou. The veteran Spanish defender headed home the equalizer in second-half stoppage time to give Real a draw against its bitter rival.

Barcelona took the lead on 53 minutes when Luis Suarez headed home a Neymar free kick from the left wing. The result keeps both sides in place as the league’s top two teams, with Real holding a six-point advantage at the summit.

Granada 2-1 Sevilla

On a day where the league’s top two sides settled for a draw in El Clasico, Sevilla suffered a massive blow on the road against one of La Liga’s struggling sides. Granada earned its first win of 2016 after goals from Andreas Pereira and David Lomban propelled the hosts past Sevilla.

Wissam Ben Yedder netted a late finish for the visitors in second-half stoppage time, however, it wasn’t enough for Sevilla to pull out a result. Granada remains in the relegation zone on eight points, while Sevilla holds its third-place standing following the loss.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Leganes 0-0 Villareal
Atletico Madrid 0-0 Espanyol

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Betis vs. Celta Vigo — 6 a.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Eibar — 10:15 a.m. ET
Alaves vs. Las Palmas — 12:30 p.m. ET
Sporting Gijon vs. Osasuna — 12:30 p.m. ET
Valencia vs. Malaga — 2:45 p.m. ET


Juventus 3-1 Atalanta

Alex Sandro and Daniele Rugani got Juventus out to a flying start in the first half, and it was Mario Mandzukic who finished the day off for the hosts. Juventus remains atop Serie A following Saturday’s convincing win over Atalanta, while the visitors remain in fifth place in Italy’s top flight.

Remo Freuler provided consolation for the away side in the 82nd minute after finishing off Marco D’Alessandro cross, which was Atalanta’s second shot on target during the match.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

AC Milan vs. Crotone — 6:30 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Roma — 9 a.m. ET
Sampdoria vs. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Sassuolo vs. Empoli — 9 a.m. ET
Pescara vs. Cagliari — 9 a.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. Palermo — 2:45 p.m. ET

Metz-Lyon match stopped after keeper Lopes injured by firecracker

TURIN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 02:  Anthony Lopes of Olympique Lyonnais kicks the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between Juventus and Olympique Lyonnais at Juventus Stadium on November 2, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes was taken to the hospital after being hit by a firecracker during the team’s Ligue 1 match against Metz on Saturday.

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea handles Man City; Arsenal, Spurs win big ]

The match was stopped in the first half when Lopes was struck by a firecracker in the 31st minute, before the game was ultimately abandoned due to the lack of safety conditions.

Metz was leading the match 1-0 at the time of stoppage, however, Lyon could be awarded the 3-0 victory pending a decision from France’s governing body.

Here’s the official statement released by Lyon:

“The public authorities in Metz took the decision to stop the match between FC Metz and Olympique Lyonnais indefinitely, in agreement with the match delegate and the referee, following the incidents that took place at the half-hour point of the game,” French football’s governing body, the LFP, said in a statement.

“A report will be sent to the LFP’s Disciplinary Commission. The LFP regrets these incidents and will be uncompromising in its continued review of this report.”

Strong pressure helped ease Gunners to five-goal performance

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal celebrates with team mates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Arsenal continues to apply pressure at the top of the Premier League, and Saturday’s performance at the London Stadium showed just how dangerous the Gunners can be away from home.

[ MORE: Chelsea makes it 8 in a row; Arsenal, Spurs combine for 10 goals ]

The Gunners took advantage of several West Ham mistakes on the afternoon, including a first-half turnover that sent Alexis Sanchez into the penalty area before setting up a simply tap-in finish for Mesut Ozil.

[ MORE: Carroll says Arsenal can “punish mistakes” instantly ]

Arsene Wenger‘s side went on to score four more times in Arsenal’s 5-1 rout against the Hammers, and Frenchman suggested post match that much of his team’s success was due to their willingness to high press and force West Ham into mistakes.

“I think overall we had a strong team performance for 90 minutes with very few weak periods,” Wenger said. “There’s only one regret that we didn’t take our chances in the first half and that it was 1-0 up at halftime and how it plays on the mind when you can play for that.

“But we maintained the pressure on West Ham and overall we finished in a really strong way. We were always dangerous because we won it quickly back. When we were on the breaks because we we always looked patiently to make the difference.”

Sanchez led the Gunners on the day with a hat-trick, bringing his goal total on the season up to 11. The Chilean has largely helped Arsenal become one of the PL’s most dangerous attacks, with the Gunners having scored the most goals in England’s top flight through 14 matches (33).

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

When asked about the prospect of putting up big score lines on a consistent basis, Wenger said that while every game possesses different challenges he is quite pleased with Arsenal’s road form this season.

“I think every game gives you a different problem,” Wenger said. “But at the moment it looks we score more goals away from home than at home. Is that because your opponent comes a bit more out? Is that because you play with a bit more freedom?

“That will be interesting to analyze that. Do we play with a block that is less deep away from home? If you look at our results away from home they’ve been very convincing.”

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

As Wenger noted, the Gunners have done very well notching goals away from the Emirates Stadium in 2016. In seven away matches thus far in PL play, Arsenal has tallied 18 goals on the road in comparison to the team’s 15 at home.

PL Saturday roundup: Chelsea routs Manchester City; Spurs put up five

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Chelsea players applaud supporters after their 3-1 win in the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte‘s side continues its recent path of destruction atop the Premier League, while the rest of England looks to keep up with the Blues.

Chelsea battled back in the second half on Saturday to defeat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium to extend the club’s PL unbeaten streak to eight matches.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Elsewhere, Tottenham notched five goals in their rout of Swansea City, while Arsenal comfortably handled West Ham United at the London Stadium.

Here, we take a look back at Saturday’s action from around England’s top flight.

Manchester City 1-3 Chelsea — RECAP

Eight straight victories have Chelsea atop the PL, and the biggest now becomes: who will be the club that stops Conte’s Blues? An unlikely own goal from Gary Cahill gave the Citizens the lead on the stroke of halftime, but a thunderous comeback from the visitors helped give Chelsea three points at the Etihad. Goals from Diego Costa, Willian and Eden Hazard rung throughout Manchester in the second stanza, however, Costa’s exit from the match will surely be monitored by the Blues.

Additionally, City will play shorthanded moving forward after Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho picked up red cards during a late scuffle that ensuing following the Argentine’s rash tackle on David Luiz.

Tottenham 5-0 Swansea City — RECAP

Spurs couldn’t have drawn it up better following last week’s disappointment at Stamford Bridge. Tottenham received great contributions from Harry Kane and Christian Erikson, who each netted braces on the day, while Heung-Ming Son delivered a stunning acrobatic effort to help the hosts rout Bob Bradley‘s team. The Swans sit bottom of the PL table on nine points and have conceded 31 times in their opening 14 matches.

West Ham 1-5 Arsenal — RECAP

The Gunners had no troubles with West Ham on Saturday as Arsene Wenger‘s side moved up to second place behind a five-spot from one of the PL’s top attacks. Alexis Sanchez paced the Gunners with a hat-trick, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mesut Ozil also scored for the visitors at the London Stadium. Andy Carroll provided the lone moment of consolation for West Ham after Dimitri Payet‘s free kick smacked off the crossbar and onto the head of the Englishman.

Crystal Palace 3-0 Southampton — RECAP

Fraser Forster put the Saints behind in the first half after a tremendous mistake in front of his own net, leaving Christian Benteke with one of the easiest finishes he’ll ever have. The former Liverpool striker added a second and James Tompkins also got in on the scoring for the Eagles as Alan Pardew‘s men snapped a six-match losing streak.

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Leicester player Andy King (c) reacts as Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford makes a last minute save to deny Leicester a draw during the Premier League match between Sunderland and Leicester City at Stadium of Light on December 3, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City — RECAP

Jermain Defoe continues to be the talisman for the Black Cats, however, Sunderland’s good fortunes began off of a Robert Huth own goal. The Foxes pulled a goal back in the 78th minute through Shinji Okazaki but Leicester continued its struggles on Saturday with its seventh loss of the campaign. Sunderland has now won three of its last four matches, bringing David Moyes‘ side up to 18th in the table.

West Brom 3-1 Watford —  RECAP

Tony Pulis‘ side has quietly made some noise in 2016, and while West Brom likely won’t pull off a Leicester-like feat this season the Baggies currently find themselves in sixth place as the halfway point nears. Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt netted in the first half for the hosts before Matt Phillips scored late to ensure all three points would go in favor of the Baggies. Despite nabbing a goal in the second half, Watford’s chances of picking out a result were halted when Roberto Pereyra was sent off.

Stoke City 2-0 Burnley — RECAP

Jonathan Walters and Marc Muniesa helped propel Stoke up ninth place on Saturday with their victory at the Brittania Stadium. For Muniesa, the goal marked his first in the PL. Burnley drops to 14th place following the loss, and the Clarets sit just three points above the relegation zone.