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Milan adrift, Zenit’s new firepower – UEFA Champions League Group C preview

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Group quality in Champions League is a zero sum game. It’s like that in all tournaments. If you have a very strong group (like Group D, this year), either the rest of the groups become easier or one, maybe two groups become so easy that the winner’s less likely to be determined by quality than which team can get their act together in time to advance.

And that’s how we get Group C. It’s a collection of teams that have the talent to make the knockout rounds, but with issues surrounding each at the start of group stage, it’s hard to tell which pair is going to be alive come 2013.

Málaga vs. Zenit St. Petersburg

La Rosaleda, Malaga, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Continuing Tuesday’s theme of teams having never played each other, Zenit makes the 2,580 mile trip southwest to face Málaga, one of three clubs making their Champions League debut. Sitting second in Spain, Málaga no longer seem like the speed bump they were projecting after the sale of Santi Carzola. Instead, they’re exactly what they were last year: a team Manuel Pellegrini’s made tough to score on, even if they often seem in incapable of scoring more than one goal.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Málaga’s Champions League debut introduces another possible problem, one we saw in Borussia Dortmund’s unexpected troubles in last year. The German champions finished last in their group, reminding us experience in Champions League (and balancing it against domestic concerns) might actually matter. The increased travel, lack of familiarity with opponents, fixture congestion and increased on-field demands are issues clubs often have to confront before they can master. Even clubs that bulk import players and coaches with Champions League experience face trouble. Like Dortmund, Manchester City failed to make last year’s Round of 16.

Zenit did qualify for the knockout rounds, though based on the new blood they’ve brought in, expectations may be higher. Brazilian goal scorer Hulk and Belgian midfielder Alex Witsel made high-priced moves to St. Petersburg earlier this month, right around the time Luciano Spalletti’s team was dropping out of first in the Russia’s Premier League. After a perfect 4-0-0 (W-L-D) start, Zenit’s gone 1-2-1, losing at home to Rubin Kazan and Terek Grozny.

Travelling with only three days rest and having never won in Spain, Zenit’s list of problems creates a matchup of a more talent but travel weary, out-of-form side against tournament neophytes who have the luxury of playing at home. Maybe this one is destined to draw.

AC Milan vs. Anderlecht

San Siro, Milan, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Until proven otherwise, Milan are Group C favorites. Unfortunately, the Rossoneri seem to be making their opponents’ case. They’ve already lost at home to Atalanta and Sampdoria, with only a Giampaolo Pazzini hat trick at Bologna keeping Max Allegri’s side from a completely disastrous start. After selling Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic this summer (and letting a number of veterans go), Milan was supposed to take a step back, but with an easy schedule to start their Serie A campaign, more was expected in the season’s first month.

If Milan lose to Anderlecht, the club will be in full crisis mode, particularly considering the Belgians’ history on the peninsula. The Jupiler League champions have made 14 trips to Italy and never won, and while the Italians’ struggles make this as good a time as ever to make history, Anderlecht has had their own problems in Belgium. Though they sit second in league, Anderlecht’s won only three of their seven league matches.

Unfortunately for the Belgian Champion (already without  injured Argentine attacker Matías Suarez), Serbian Milan Jovanovic is suspended, leaving the Purple and Whites without two of their four main scoring options from last season. At the rate Milan’s scoring, that may not be an issue, but if Anderlecht’s going to make history instead of merely drawing, they’ll likely need Dieduonné Mbokani to maintain his form (seven all competition goals this season) or Guillaume Gillet (14 goals last year) to regain his scoring touch.

Too early for Guardiola to concede Premier League title?

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Pep Guardiola suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager on Sunday as Manchester City were hammered 4-0 at Everton in the Premier League.

Post-game he was understandably glum.

[ MORE: Klopp slams United ]

Guardiola even appeared to concede the Premier League title, as the preseason favorites for the crown have now fallen 10 points behind leaders Chelsea with 17 games to go.

When asked if City’s title hopes were over after a fifth defeat of the season, the Spaniard’s answer was emphatic.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

It seems like Guardiola has already decided that the title race is over for City, but has he thrown in the towel too early?

With just five points separating second-place Tottenham with sixth-place Manchester United, it appears City’s primary focus will now be to finish in the top four as a mammoth battle ensues in the final third of the season.

Yet, we have seen some miraculous comebacks from teams in the past to win the title. These stats could give Pep hope.

In the 1997-98 season, Arsenal were 12 points behind United after 21 games of the season (United had played a game more) but roared back to win the PL by one point. And of course, City’s two PL crowns came courtesy of stunning late surges in the season with thanks to Sergio Aguero’s magic on the final day in 2011-12 and then Liverpool’s collapse in the closing weeks of 2013-14.

Pep, don’t lost the faith. It can be done.

However, if City lose to Tottenham next weekend and Chelsea extend their lead over Pep’s boys to 13 points by beating Hull City, it is curtains.

Such is the dominance of the big boys this season, City pretty much have to go unbeaten for the rest of the season to have a shot at winning the PL. Given their recent defensive displays that seems unlikely.

We all know Pep is an idealist when it comes to how he wants his team to play but now we are seeing he is a realist too.

Conte urges players “money is not everything” amid Costa rumors

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 04: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on January 4, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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While new reports are suggesting that China will have to curb its massive spending, Antonio Conte has urged his players that they don’t have to be tempted by the Chinese Super League.

[ MORE: United, Liverpool finish level after late Ibrahimovic equalizer ]

Chelsea currently sits atop the Premier League — seven points clear of Tottenham and Liverpool — but the club has recently been at the center of controversy as star striker Diego Costa has been linked with a move away from the club.

[ MORE: CSL set to limit number of foreign players per team ]

Costa missed his side’s 3-0 win over Leicester City on Saturday after several outlets reported a rift between the Spaniard and Conte.

The Chelsea manager told reporters following the match that Costa wasn’t available due to a back injury he suffered in training, but there has been continued speculation that the 28-year-old could head to China.

Conte has made it clear to his squad though that the quality of competition in England supersedes the money offered abroad.

“The money is not everything,” Conte told reporters. “When you play for a great team like Chelsea, you must be pleased.

“I think we are a great club and it is a great honour to play for Chelsea. For this reason I don’t see [China] as a threat for my players.

The Blues have lost a number of high-profile players over recent seasons to the high spending of Chinese football, including Brazilian duo Oscar and Ramires, as well as John Obi Mikel.

Oscar departed Chelsea this month to join Shanghai SIPG for a reported $72 million.

“I have to look at the past,” Conte said. “Oscar played with us, had a good offer from China and he went.

“But this league is really competitive and every player wants to come and play in this league.

“This league is the first in the world because of a lot of positive things, so I don’t think these offers from China are a threat for our league.”

Report: Ian Harkes expected to sign with DC United

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D.C. United didn’t have a top 10 selection in the MLS SuperDraft, but the club is likely to end up with one of the most talented collegiate players in the game.

[ MORE: Robinson, Ebobisse headline latest U.S. U-20 roster ]

According to the Washington Post, D.C. United is expected to sign Wake Forest attacker Ian Harkes to a multi-year contract.

[ MORE: Galaxy keeper Rowe replaces Frei with USMNT ]

Harkes, 21, came up through D.C.’s academy system before playing all four years for the Demon Deacons. The midfielder has gained significant notoriety over his college career, which concluded with Hermann Trophy honors following his senior senior.

As a former member of the D.C. academy, Harkes didn’t have to declare for the SuperDraft and is expected to sign a Homegrown contract with D.C. United in the coming days.

Harkes has also been considering his options abroad, which included second-division sides in England, where he was born. Ian is the son of former U.S. Men’s National Team star John Harkes, who played both in the United States and England over his professional career.

Bayern Munich signs Suele and Rudy from Hoffenheim

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 15:  Sebastian Rudy of Germany controls the ball during the International Friendly Match between Italy and Germany at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on November 15, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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MUNICH (AP) German champion Bayern Munich has signed center half Niklas Suele and central midfielder Sebastian Rudy from Hoffenheim, with both players due to complete the season with their current club before joining on July 1.

[ MORE: Ibrahimovic rescues draw for United against Liverpool ]

Bayern said Sunday on its website that Rudy – who is out of contract in the summer – has signed a three-year deal until 2020 while Suele has agreed a five-year deal until June 2022.

[ MORE: Morata to Chelsea? Dybala staying put? ]

“Signing two Germany internationals is an investment in FC Bayern’s future,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. “Sebastian Rudy joins us on a free transfer. In the case of Niklas Suele we have reached a fair and serious agreement with Hoffenheim.”

The 26-year-old Rudy has played 177 league games for Hoffenheim since joining from Stuttgart in 2010, while the 21-year-old Suele is a homegrown talent and has made 90 league appearances with the club.

“In terms of it being a farewell I feel a little wistful,” Suele said on Bayern’s website, adding that the move gives him the chance of “maturing further with one of the best teams in the world.”

Suele’s signing appears to be linked to the form of long-serving Bayern defender Holger Badstuber, who has been sent on loan to Schalke to get more game time.

The long-serving center-back has struggled with injuries in recent years and is not in Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti’s plans, having played only three games this season, starting just once.