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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.

UCL wrap: Vardy gives Leicester lifeline; Juve wins

Leicester's Jamie Vardy, left, celebrates after he scores a goal during the Champions League round of 16 soccer match between Sevilla and Leicester City at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan stadium in Seville, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Miguel Morenatti)
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Jamie Vardy‘s late goal helped dominated Leicester City make amends for a rough hour in Sevilla, as the Foxes took an away goal from Spain in one of two UEFA Champions League Round of 16 legs on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Man Utd onto Europa Round of 16 ]

Elsewhere, Porto nearly handled an early red card all the way to 0-0. Alas, Juventus.


Sevilla 2-1 Leicester City

Jamie Vardy’s late goal gives Leicester City hope after Joaquin Correa and Pablo Sarabia helped the hosts to a two-goal lead on Wednesday at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium.

Wes Morgan gave away a penalty with an out-of-position challenge, but Correa’s take was poor and Kasper Schmeichel guessed correctly to snare the low shot.

Schmeichel then robbed Sergio Escudero, only to be burnt by Sevilla’s No. 17. Escudero swept a cross over the Leicester back line and a leaping Christian Fuchs, and Sarabia headed home for a deserved 1-0.

Fuchs’ dicey day continued in the 56th minute, as Sarabia had plenty of time for a strong attempt only to miss near post.

Substitute Demarai Gray injected some life into Leicester, and Danny Drinkwater forced Sevilla into conceding a corner in the 60th minute. The Foxes played it short to no success.

Moments later, Sevilla were up a pair through Correa. Ex-Man City striker Stevan Jovetic, on loan from Inter Milan, teed up Correa for the shot.

Vardy pulled back what could be a huge away goal for the Foxes, belting a Drinkwater square ball home in the 74th minute.


Porto 0-2 Juventus

Alex Telles’ 27th minute yellow card was his second for Porto in 74 seconds, giving the impression that Juventus would waltz back to Italy with the tie well in-hand.

Instead, Iker Casillas and Porto closed up shop to great success, and Juventus didn’t break through until the final 20 minutes. Marko Pjaca and Dani Alves netted two minutes apart to give Juve a solid foothold in the quarterfinals.

VIDEO: Manchester United dispatches Saint-Etienne, Mkhi injured

SAINT-ETIENNE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 22:  Florentin Pogba of Saint-Etienne walks on the pitch next to his brother Paul Pogba of Manchester United during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between AS Saint-Etienne and Manchester United at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on February 22, 2017 in Saint-Etienne, France.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Juan Mata‘s 16th minute service found Henrikh Mkhitaryan score the only goal of Manchester United’s 1-0 second leg Europa League Round of 32 win at Saint-Etienne, but the win came at a price.

Mkhitaryan left the match with a leg injury, casting him in doubt for Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Southampton at Wembley Stadium. Michael Carrick also left the game with an injury.

[ MORE: Two year bans for penalty protest ]

Krasnodar and Schalke also clinched berths in the Round of 16, which will be played March 9 and 16.

UCL AT HALF: Leicester trails in Spain, Porto down a man (video)

Sevilla players celebrate the goal of Sevilla's Pablo Sarabia, second left, during the Champions League round of 16 soccer match between Sevilla and Leicester City at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan stadium in Seville, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Miguel Morenatti)
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Leicester City will be happy to get to halftime down by a mere goal, while Porto will be simply hoping to be alive after 90 minutes at home to Juventus.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

That’s because Porto will play more than an hour down a man against The Old Lady.

Sevilla 1-0 Leicester City

Wes Morgan gave away a penalty with an out-of-position challenge, but Joaquin Correa’s take was poor and Kasper Schmeichel guessed correctly to snare the low shot.

Schmeichel then robbed Sergio Escudero, only to be burnt by Sevilla’s No. 17. Escudero swept a cross over the Leicester back line and a leaping Christian Fuchs, and Pablo Sarabia headed home for a deserved 1-0.

Porto 0-0 Juventus

It didn’t take long for Juventus fans to feel rightly confident, as Porto’s Alex Telles took a pair of yellow cards in 74 seconds.

LIVE: UCL last 16 – Leicester face Sevilla; Juve head to Porto

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 05:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City applauds the crowd in defeat after the Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first legs take place on Wednesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Leicester City of the Premier League head to Spain to face Sevilla in the UCL last 16 despite Claudio Ranieri‘s men battling for survival in the Premier League. The Foxes, as always, are the big underdogs in Spain as Sevilla have won the UEFA Europa League in each of the past three seasons and Jorge Sampaoli’s side are battling for the title in La Liga.

As for Leicester, they’re just two points off the bottom of the PL as they haven’t scored in their last six outings and have lost five on the spin as well as being dumped out of the FA Cup by third-tier Millwall at the weekend. So yeah, Sevilla head into this game as the heavy favorites and will hope to take a healthy lead to the King Power Stadium with them in two weeks time.

In the other UCL clash on Wednesday FC Porto host Juventus as the Portuguese and Italian giants collide at the Estadio do Dragao. Porto finished behind Leicester in the group stage, while Juv battled it out with Sevilla and clinched top spot. Massimiliano Allegri’s men remain top of Serie A and will look to Gonzalo Higuain to deliver the goals away from home. It promises to be an intriguing tactical battle in northern Portugal.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary on both games, while we will have reaction and analysis on all of the UCL knockout games here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Wednesday’s UCL Round of 16, first legs

Sevilla vs. Leicester City – 2:45 p.m. ET
FC Porto vs. Juventus – 2:45 p.m. ET