PSG returns, Porto looks to improve – UEFA Champions League Group A preview

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Just like that, Champions League group stage is back. Eight matches per day, two days a week, with match days spread out from now through the beginning of December. For many of you, it will provide something to get through your work day. For some of us, it’s bludgeoning: Too many games; too little time; too much significance.

While the day’s biggest match is in Group D (Real Madrid hosting Manchester City), PSG’s Champions League return will also snatch headlines. They help kickoff Group A play with FC Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, and Dinamo Zagreb.

Paris Saint-Germain vs. Dynamo Kyiv

Parc de Princes, Paris, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

You’d be forgiven for thinking PSG had never been in Champions League. It’s been eight years since the Parisians participated in the competition, and since becoming the unofficial club of the Qatari government, Paris Saint-Germain is scarcely the same club.

Today, the Parisians are more talented than their predecessors could have imagined. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has become the focal point of a team that will also feature Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore, and Jeremy Menez. While many attacks can claim greater potency, few can espouse to having more skill.

Unfortunately for Carlo Ancelotti, teams are judged by goals, which means the PSG boss needs to find a way to improve on their six goals in five Ligue 1 games. More specifically, Ancelotti needs to get somebody besides Ibrahimovic scoring. Zlatan has scored five times (in four games). The rest of the team is averaging 0.20 goals per match.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Dynamo represents an opportunity for PSG to break out. The Ukranians are perennial contenders domestically, but they’re not on the same level as the Parisians, even if they’ve just gone through an offseason buildup of their own: Miguel Veloso (from Genoa), Niko Kranjcar (Tottenham Hotspur), Marco Ruben (Villarreal) and Taye Taiwo (Milan).

Travelling across the continent for a midweek match is tough enough, but when you don’t have the players to match up with Ibrahimovic, Lavezzi and Menez, the odds become especially long.

Dinamo Zagreb vs. FC Porto

Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Give credit to Dinamo Zagreb for being one of two teams to make it from second round qualifying into group stage, but they’re going to have to drastically improve on last year to make the treck worth their competitive while. No matter how they perform against FC Porto, the money will justify the effort (each team gets $9.4 million for making it this far), but on the field, Dinamo will want to avoid the embarrassment of a record-setting 22 goals allowed in last year’s group stage.

If current form in any indication, Dinamo is set to improve. Shortly after their elimination from last year’s Champions League, Dinamo parted ways with head coach Krunoslav Jurčić, bringing in Ante Čačić from Lokomotiva. Since, the team is undefeated in 33 matches, winning 23.

Porto is also trying to improve on last year, though for drastically different reasons. Favored going into Group G, the Portuguese champions finished third behind Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg and Cyprus’s APOEL. On the final matchday, Porto saw Zenit come of the Dragão and park the bus, their 0-0 draw especially frustrating given one more goal would have put them into the final 16.

Porto’s ability to move forward will depend on how successful they are in replacing Hulk. Their leading scorer last season, Hulk, moved to Zenit earlier this month. Porto are left with a wealth of attacking talent (James Rodriguez, Silvestre Valera, and Christian Atsu), but maintaining their high standards will depend on Jackson Martínez. The talented Ecuadorian was imported from Mexico this summer and has already scored twice in three Liga matches. If he can be as incredible as Hulk, Porto should improve on last year’s disappointment.

Roma slips in 3-1 derby loss to Lazio

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The Derby della Capitale went Lazio’s way, all but shattering any hopes Roma had of catching Juventus for the Scudetto as Keita Balde scored a brace in the 3-1 win.

Balde is absolutely on fire, with now five goals in his last two matches. His brace comes on the heels of a hat-trick in a 6-2 win over Palermo last time out.

The 22-year-old Senegalese international scored his first just 12 minutes in thanks to some horrid defending from Roma’s Emerson, and Balde cut the ball inside the near post to the surprise of Wojciech Szczesny. His second killed off the game in the 85th minute on the break, as Senad Lulic unselfishly gave it up to Balde on the 2-on-1 for an easy finish.

With Balde’s first the only score of the first half, Roma had momentarily pulled back level on a Daniele de Rossi penalty moments after the break, but it was Dusan Basta to provide the eventual winner just five minutes later. The goal was a bit generous, as his hit at the top of the box took a huge deflection off Federico Fazio and looped into the top corner.

Roma dominated possession throughout, but they were locked down, as Lazio matched them on the shot count despite finding themselves on the back foot for much of the game. Roma also saw Antonio Rudiger sent off in the dying minutes of the game for a very high boot that caught Lazio substitute Filip Djordjevic directly in the shin.

The loss paired with Rudiger’s impeding suspension means that Roma must now change its focus from looking ahead towards Juventus and instead over their shoulder. With a brutal run-in for Roma remaining, including games against AC Milan, Juventus, and Chievo Verona left on the schedule, they will be tested to hold their four-point lead over Napoli, who also has a game in hand.

Stream Live: Lukaku, Everton welcome title favorites Chelsea

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Everton hopes to have a better showing than the reverse fixture as welcome leaders Chelsea to Goodison Park live at 9:05 a.m. ET on CNBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Toffees fell 5-0 on their visit to Stamford Bridge in early November, part of a furious Chelsea run and the beginning of a poor run of form for the home side. Now, Everton is flying to finish the year, led by Romelu Lukaku, who is surrounded by rumors of a return from whence he came to Merseyside, from today’s opponents.

[ WATCH LIVE: Everton vs. Chelsea live online at NBCSports.com ]

Lukaku has 12 goals in his last 11 games, on absolute fire to the end of the campaign, only feeding the rumors. He heads the attack, with support from Enner Valencia who returns to selection after a short suspension last time out. Aaron Lennon, Seamus Coleman and Ramiro Funes Mori are all injured with long-term problems, but Everton has no other issues.

For Chelsea, the Blues continue with the decorated back three of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz, and Gary Cahill. Despite his positive performance last time out against Southampton, Cesc Fabregas is rotated back to the bench in favor of first-choice attacker Pedro, who supports Diego Costa along with Eden Hazard.

With the Blues four points clear at the top, this game represents one of the tougher fixtures remaining on their soft finish to the season. Chelsea has lost a whopping six of its last 10 trips to Goodison Park across all competitions.

LINEUPS

Everton: Stekelenburg, Holgate, Jagielka, Williams, Calvert-Lewin, Baines, Gueye, Davies, Barkley, Valencia, Lukaku.
Subs: Robles, Kenny, Pennington, Barry, Lookman, Mirallas, Kone.

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard.
Subs: Begovic, Zouma, Ake, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

Stream Live: Man City can strengthen Top 4 spot at Middlesbrough

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A week after Manchester City struggled to finish on net, the torrid Gabriel Jesus returns to the lineup as the Citizens travel to Middlesbrough at 9:05 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jesus scored three goals in five Premier League appearances after arriving in the winter, but broke a bone in his foot and faced a long spell on the sidelines. He is back from injury and starts alongside Sergio Aguero in the City attack. Raheem Sterling drops to the bench as Pep Guardiola produces a flat 4-4-2 to fit both attackers in the formation.

[ WATCH LIVE: Middlesbrough vs. Man City live online at NBCSports.com ]

City is also now forced to play with Willy Caballero in goal after Claudio Bravo was injured in the Manchester derby. On the bench to back up the goalkeeper is 21-year-old Manchester City youth product Angus Gunn.

For Middlesbrough, they were forced into a change as Fabio comes into the lineup in place of the injured Daniel Ayala who drops out with an ankle problem. Gaston Ramierz was reportedly available for selection after missing the win over Sunderland due to suspension, but he does not appear in the lineup or on the bench.

Boro has served as City’s boogey team in the past, without a win in their first 14 Premier League meetings, but they have turned that around, with wins in four of their last seven against Boro.

LINEUPS

Middlesbrough: Guzan, Fabio, Chambers, Gibson, Friend, Clayton, De Roon, Forshaw, Downing, Stuani, Negredo.
Subs: 
Dimi, Bernardo, Barragan, Fischer, Traore, Bamford, Gestede.

Man City: Caballero, Kompany, Kolarov, Otamendi, Clichy, Navas, Fernandinho, Garcia, De Bruyne, Jesus, Aguero.
Subs: 
Gunn, Sagna, Zabaleta, Fernando, Sterling, Nolito Sané.

Man United 1-1 Swansea: Sigurdsson rescues a point for Swans

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Swansea City went controversially behind, but they always remained a threat, and Gylfi Sigurdsson was again the man to pull them from the cold, dark waters.

Wayne Rooney had bagged a highly controversial penalty at the stroke of halftime, but Sigurdsson delivered his specialty: a beautiful curling free-kick with 11 minutes to go as Swansea grabbed a point and doomed the home side to yet another single point at Old Trafford.

Swansea began with much of the early possession, with Manchester United sloppy on the ball. The home side, which has been struck by countless injuries of late, was forced into yet another early change as Luke Shaw was unable to make it out of the opening 10 minutes with an ankle injury, replaced by Antonio Valencia.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A furious chance for the Swans saw Fernando Llorente shake free of Eric Bailly and force a good save from David De Gea on 14 minutes. Down the other end two minutes later, Jesse Lingard timed a run well and received a brilliant ball from Anthony Martial, but he couldn’t bag the opener, with Lukasz Fabianski there to smother the ball.

On the half-hour mark, Martial burst into the box and took it on himself, cutting across three defenders to find space and firing on net but it was right at Fabianski who held on nervously.

Just before halftime, United found the breakthrough as Marcus Rashford went down near the endline on a challenge from Fabianski. The decision was poor, as Rashford dove amid hardly any contact from Fabianski off his line, but with the referee in a poor position to see the magnitude of the challenge, he pointed to the spot after a long deliberation. Wayne Rooney, who had been mostly invisible in the first 45 minutes, buried the chance from the spot with the final kick of the first half.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Rooney nearly had a second just minutes after the halftime break, but his effort on the empty left side of the net thumped into the back of Martial and harmlessly away. United then suffered yet another injury to its defense, with the reliable Eric Bailly unable to continue after whacking the back of Llorente’s leg.

Injuries were a concern for both sides throughout the contest. Swansea had just brought on Jefferson Montero, who has been plagued by hamstring problems all season. Montero was on the pitch just five minutes before pulling up after a physical contest between he and Antonio Valencia, forced back off the pitch and needed a stretcher to reach the tunnel. Martin Olsson came on, and was immediately thumped in the air full tilt by Ashley Young, but thankfully Olsson could continue despite the heavy clatter to his ribs.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Swansea fired a warning shot at the Red Devils on the break as Jordon Ayew cut back for Gylfi Sigurdsson, but he thumped the ball acres over the bar. That was a harbinger of things to come, as Ayew was fouled on the edge of the penalty area, and Sigurdsson stepped up to conjur the ball into the back of the net, with David de Gea failing to even produce an attempt at a save.

The visitors nearly snagged the win in six minutes of stoppage time, on a free-kick from Sigurdsson yet again, which he lofted into the box, and with Llorente’s defender Daley Blind falling to the turf, the Swans striker was completely free, but he bungled the wide-open chance and saw it harmlessly into the arms of De Gea.

The point for United only moves them within a point of the top four, failing to snag the chance to jump Manchester City, who have yet to play today. For Swansea, they fail to pull out of the relegation zone, still sitting two points below Hull City despite owning a slightly better goal differential.