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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.

Premier League preview: Hull City vs. Chelsea

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Eden Hazard of Chelsea (10) celebrates with Nemanja Matic (21) as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • Hull has only won four matches vs. Chelsea (4-10-30)
  • Tigers have allowed nine goals in previous two PL matches
  • Chelsea looking to rebound following Arsenal blowout
  • Costa remains tied for league lead with five goals

Both Hull City and Chelsea come into the weekend on a poor run of form, giving both clubs plenty of incentive to push for a result.

The Tigers play host to Chelsea at the KC Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE 

Following a pair of impressive victories to open the Premier League season, Hull has come back down to earth as of late, losing three of its last five matches in all competitions. With nine goals allowed in its last two PL matches (losses to Liverpool and Arsenal), Chelsea enters the fray with another dangerous attack that the Tigers will have to be wary of.

Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea have ironically enough seen their form dip at the hands of the Reds and Gunners, respectively, as well. Last Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium wasn’t ideal for a Blues side that expects to be amongst the top four at season’s end.

Meanwhile, Diego Costa will have to continue to find the back of the net for Chelsea on a regular basis, after netting five times in the club’s first six league matches. The Spaniard has accounted for half of the squad’s offensive output, making the 27-year-old vital up front along with the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian.

INJURIES: Hull — OUT: Alex Bruce (achilles), Allan McGregor (back), Moses Odubajo (knee), Michael Dawson (knee), Brian Lenihan (knee surgery) | Chelsea — OUT: John Terry (ankle), Kurt Zouma (fitness)

What they’re saying

Hull City manager Mike Phelan: “What needs to be resolved is the terms of the deal. It keeps changing. One minute I think I’ve got something and the club are happy with it and the next minute it changes. So it’s just a case of thinking about all these new changes that are on the table and making a decision.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte: “It’s important not to forget the past, because the past is very clear. We finished 10th last season and that means there were problems. We don’t have a magic wand to change the situation in a few months. We must work hard together and we are doing this. We must understand that only through hard work can we close the gap.”

Prediction

The Blues have struggled to play complete matches for much of the season, and this road fixture won’t make things easy for Conte and co. That said, Chelsea will surely be motivated to come out and give a strong performance following last week’s debacle against Arsenal. Hull 1-3 Chelsea

Watch: Lukaku gives Everton halftime lead after brilliant free kick

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Everton is finding its stride under Ronald Koeman, and goals like this one surely make it easy for the Dutchman to manage the club.

[ Watch Live: Everton taking on Crystal Palace on USA Network ]

With the match scoreless with a half hour gone, Phil Jagielka drew a questionable free kick outside the Crystal Palace penalty area.

From there, Romelu Lukaku did what he does best: score. Watch the video above as the Belgian striker curls his lovely set piece into the near post, giving goalkeeper Steve Mandanda no chance at making the save.

 

 

Premier League preview: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Jefferson Montero of Swansea City is challenged by Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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  • Swansea victorious 3-1 in May 2015
  • Francesco Guidolin‘s job status unknown
  • Reds have managed 16 goals in six PL matches this season

With their manager’s managerial position up in the air, Swansea City will host Liverpool on Saturday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Swansea have picked up just four points in its opening six matches this season, leaving Francesco Guidolin and his side fighting to keep the Italian manager in charge. With Liverpool’s attack clicking to start the season and Swansea’s front group struggling, the Eagles will have to remain compact defensively to absorb the pressure.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE 

The Reds come into the weekend with the opportunity to move up to second place in the Premier League. Jurgen Klopp‘s side is firing on all cylinders in the attack, which has played a key role in Liverpool’s six-match unbeaten run in all competitions.

Liverpool’s depth at attack has surely become among the most dangerous groups in the PL, having scored 71 league goals since Klopp took off his role with the club in October 2015. Meanwhile, Daniel Sturridge has revitalized himself thus far in 2016, netting four goals and adding two assists for the Reds.

INJURIES: Swansea — OUT: Nathan Dyer (ankle) | Liverpool — OUT: Divock Origi (foot), Sheyi Ojo (back), Mamadou Sakho (fitness), Joe Gomez (achilles)

What they’re saying

Swansea City boss Francesco Guidolin: “It could happen. Maybe. But if we win on Saturday for the period of the international break you don’t speak any more about my position. But my position is not important, Swansea’s [league] position is important, and we must get a result.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp“We will be prepared for this game. We know about the quality of Swansea. We lost there last year after coming back from Villarreal. We had to make a lot of changes at Swansea last season. In that moment it was too much for us. Now we have no excuses. We have time to recover, time to prepare and time to analyse.”

Prediction: Liverpool simply comes into Saturday’s fixture as the hotter side. Unbeaten in its last six matches, Jurgen Klopp and co. only trail Manchester City this campaign for most finishes to this point (16). While Swansea’s slow start to the 2016/17 season hasn’t done them any favors, Liverpool’s current form certainly doesn’t make the challenge any easier.     Swansea 0-3 Liverpool

Watch Live: Everton vs. Crystal Palace (Lineups, Stream)

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17:  Romelu Lukaku of Everton celebrates scoring his sides third goal during the Premier League match between Everton and Middlesbrough at Goodison Park on September 17, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Everton host Crystal Palace on Friday under the (3 p.m. ET live on USA and online via NBC Sports.com) with plenty of intriguing battles all over the pitch.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Ronald Koeman‘s Everton lost for the first time this season against Bournemouth last week, so he’ll be expecting a response from his Toffees. As for Alan Pardew, well, life is pretty good right now. Palace have won three-straight Premier League games and have a very good recent record at Everton, winning on two of their previous three visits.

Yannick Bolasie swapped Palace for Everton this summer and he could be key, as he has been in the past, to deciding this encounter.

In team news Everton’s star striker Romelu Lukaku is fit to start the game.

Palace start with Benteke up top an

Lineups

Everton: Stekelenburg, Oviedo, Williams, Jagielka, Coleman, Gueye, Barry, Cleverley, Barkley, Bolasie, Lukaku

Crystal Palace: Mandanda; Ward, Delaney, Tomkins, Kelly; Puncheon, Ledley, McArthur; Townsend, Bentered, Zaha