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Giroud returns to Montpellier, Schalke goes to Greece – UEFA Champions League Group B preview

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Montpellier vs. Arsenal

La Mosson, Montpellier, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Four months after leading Montpellier to one of the more improbable European titles in recent memory, Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud returns to La Mosson for a match that’s bound to inspire mixed feelings.

“I spent a beautiful, wonderful season there last year when we were champions and won the title,” Arsenal’s new 25-year-old striker told Arsenal Player. “It will be difficult for me to play against Montpellier, because there is a lot of emotion …”

It’s unclear how that emotion will manifest in the crowd. Getting $19.5 million for him this summer, Montpellier received a windfall for a player who was in the French second division two years ago. The fans, however, could see the departure as a player quickly abandoning a club that helped him become a star.

“I hope to receive a good reception from the Montpellier fans, because I finished the top goal scorer there last season and worked hard for the title,” Giroud said. “I think the reaction will be good, but there may be some people who will boo maybe. It is always like this.”

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

This all assumes Giroud plays. He’s yet to score in a competitive match since moving to Arsenal, something which leaves manager Arsene Wenger uncertain as to whether the former MHSC man will start.

“I felt that he is under much pressure at the moment and sometimes to get a little breather is good,” Wenger said, having left Giroud out of his starting XI this weekend against Southampton, a decision that could portend to Giroud starting on Tuesday.

Wenger is one person who will not be on the field at La Mosson. The Arsenal boss starts serving the first of a three-match touchline ban incurred for confronting officials after the Gunners’ elimination to Milan in last year’s knockout stage. Still fuming over the suspension, Wenger labeled UEFA “clueless.”

What he’ll miss is a battle between two clubs with vastly different Champions League resumés. Montpellier is making their first appearance in the competition. Arsenal is making their 15th straight, having progressed to the knockout round in 12 consecutive seasons.

Further tilting the scales, Arsenal has never lost at a Ligue 1 club in Champions League. They’ve also yet to lose this season in England, while Montpellier took four rounds to record their first Giroud-less win.

Olympiacos vs. Schalke 04

Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Like Arsenal and Montpellier, Olympiacos and Schalke have never met, so if we’re looking for insight into how these teams match up, we’ll need coincident results. Last season, German champions Borussia Dortmund were drawn into Olympiacos’s Champions League group and proceded to lose 3-1 on their trip to Piraeus. Arsenal would fall to an identical score, and with Olympiacos 3-0-0 out of the gate in Greece (with a +6 difference), there’s no reason to think the Greek champions have taken a step back.

Schalke is off to a hot start of their own, earning seven points from their first three games. Having already posted seven goals, concerns over the loss of Raúl’s 15 may prove unwarranted (the Spanish icon got hooked up with direct deposit with Al Sadd in Qatar). Lewis Holtby, Julian Draxler and Jermaine Jones, who combined for seven goals last season, have already found net four times. Huub Stevens has scarcely needed new acquisitions Ibrahim Afellay and Tranquillo Barnetta.

The question is whether Schalke can hold up at the back. Having only allowed two goals thus far, the team may be slightly improved on last year (when Christoph Metzelder got half the starts ahead of Christian Fuchs). Olympiacos’ Rafik Djebbour may provide their stiffest test to date. The 28-year-old Algerian has started the Greek season with four goals.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Seattle Sounders 1-0 Sporting KC (video)

Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres, right, exchanges words with Sporting Kansas City's Kevin Ellis, left, and Soni Mustivar, center, after Sounders' midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (not shown) was given a yellow card for a foul against midfielder Roger Espinoza in the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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The game in 100 words (or less): There’s a ton to unpack here, so we’ll dive right in. The Seattle Sounders topped Sporting Kansas City in the final knockout-round game of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. Nelson Valdez scored the game’s only goal, an 88th-minute header, but not without supreme controversy. For starters, Valdez was offside as Joevin Jones played the ball into the box, just as Matt Besler was on a free kick for Sporting earlier in the second half. Besler’s goal was ruled out for offside, Valdez’s was allowed to stand. Benny Feilhaber, perhaps in his final game for Sporting, played like a man possessed and so nearly singlehandedly won the game for Sporting at multiple points on the night. Stefan Frei stood on his head and refused to allow such an occurrence. Osvaldo Alonso could have been sent off twice on the night — once on a straight red; once on a second yellow — but finished the game with just a single caution. Up next, the Sounders will take on Supporters’ Shield-winning FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

10′ — Zusi hits the post with a strike through traffic — Benny Feilhaber’s through ball to set up this double-chance for Sporting in sumptuous, and fully deserving of a proper finish.

53′ — Besler heads home, but he’s offside — This is about as close an onside/offside decisions get.

79′ — Frei denies Feilhaber after a spectacular run — Feilhaber’s run was mesmerizing, but Stefan Frei’s save was the tiniest bit better.

88′ — Valdez heads home the late winner — If Besler was offside, Valdez was offside. An unfitting end to a thrilling game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Benny Feilhaber

Goalscorers: Valdez (88′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: D.C. United 2-4 Montreal Impact (video)

CORRECTS DATE - Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, back, celebrates his goal with Ignacio Piatti (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against D.C. United, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three moments that mattered

4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.

43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.

58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu

Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.