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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.

NYCFC’s Vieira blames derby loss on RBNY’s Marsch “crying all week”

New York City FC's head coach Patrick Vieira looks on from the sideline during the second half of an MLS soccer game against the Montreal Impact, in Montreal, Sunday, July 17, 2016. (Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press via AP)
Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press via AP
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Patrick Vieira is very mad, and with good reason, but he might want to reconsider where he directs his displeasure following the New York City FC’s latest embarrassment at the hands of the New York Red Bulls, 4-1 on Sunday .

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

In Vieira’s estimation, Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch and referee Mark Geiger were co-men of the match; Marsch for his pre-game comments — “crying,” in Vieira’s words — and Geiger for playing into Marsch’s devious, revolutionary plan.

Adults … they’re just like us!

In the two sides’ three meetings this season, the Red Bulls won twice and lost once, by a combined score of 11-3.

New York is red: BWP, Kljestan torture NYC in (another) blowout

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of New York Red Bulls celebrates a goal against the D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
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New York Red Bulls rode a wave of first half goals to a heated and entertaining 4-1 win over New York City FC on Sunday at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.

Sacha Kljestan had two assists and converted a penalty, while Bradley Wright-Phillips netted a brace and Ronald Zubar (!!) also scored for RBNY. If you’re keeping score at home that’s a combined 11-1 score line for RBNY in home Derby games this season.

Tommy McNamara scored a gorgeous goal before halftime to give City life. Aside from McNamara cranking a second-half effort off the crossbar, the rest of the life came in the form of pushing, shoving and fouling. Frank Lampard mixed it up with Kljestan, while Ethan White took two yellows for a late red card.

[ MORE: A Pogba Primer ]

The win gives the Red Bulls bragging rights for at least the regular season, as RBNY won 2 of 3 season matches against its area rivals.

NYC remains atop the East, while the Red Bulls are five points back in fourth.

Here’s the goal that got us started, as Kljestan slipped through BWP for a finish he’ll rarely miss (even when ice-cold).

Zubar then headed in a Kljestan pass to make it 2-0 before a handball allowed Kljestan to collect a goal for himself.

BWP restored the three-goal lead with 20 minutes to play, as he won a 50-50 ball played over the top and had all day to toy with Josh Saunders en route to his 11th of the season.

WATCH: McNamara gives NYC some Derby life with laser blast

Tommy McNamara
@Tommy_Mc15
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The New York Red Bulls were cruising at home, leading 3-0 in what looked like it could be another blowout New York Derby.

Enter Tommy Mac.

[ MORE: A Pogba Primer ]

The Clemson man and NYC fan favorite unleashed an absolute laser past Luis Robles to make it 3-1 and give City a look at a comeback.

The goal gives McNamara four to go with eight assists this season. Now can NYC keep the comeback working in the second half?

As Pogba bids creep over $130 mil, PST takes stock of the player

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 29:  Paul Pogba of France in action during the International Friendly match between France and Russia held at Stade de France on March 29, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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The new number is $133 million.

That’s what Manchester United has apparently offered in a total package to pry Paul Pogba from Juventus, where the Serie A club has been ready to hold out for more from the first moment the player and club were linked.

The latest story comes from Alan Smith and Fabrizio Romano of The Guardian, who say that Juve’s move for Gonzalo Higuain has not made the sale of Pogba a formality.

[ MORE: New contract for Ronaldo? ]

The thing with Pogba is that he doesn’t always pass the eye test, but statistically he’s close to flying colors. In some ways, he’s an analytics man’s conundrum.

Pogba’s 12 assists tied for the Serie A lead with Miralem Pjanic of Roma, and he tied for 20th in goals with eight while blasting the third-most shots in the league (123).

Further, his role in the Juventus system was second-to-none. Only Leonardo Bonucci took more touches than Pogba’s 2577, and he played 130 more minutes. Pogba’s 43 interceptions are 40th in Serie A, and his tackles put him 22nd.

Quite frankly, Pogba has nearly every tool in his locker and deploys most of them despite his relatively young 23 years. He plays on the edge, but rarely crosses it.

There are concerns: He needs a steady defensive midfielder with him, one who can allow him to take his risks. While he’s electric in attack and decent in defense, he won’t be a hero if expected to be the focal point of possession.

[ MORE: Messi back, blonde at Barca ]

This will be paramount in European competition, where Pogba can stand to grow his resume. Yet even this sees him as an instrumental figure in both Champions League and EURO runner-up finishes.

AL AIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MAY 19: Roma's Miralem Pjanic during the international friendly match between AS Roma and Al Ahly on May 20, 2016 in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Whiteoak/Getty Images)
Pjanic (Photo by Chris Whiteoak/Getty Images)

The hope with Pogba is that he’ll continue his upward trend. To make Serie A comparisons, can he be Miralem Pjanic in three years, and Marek Hamsik in five?

Moreover, with the money Manchester United or Real Madrid would spend to get him, can he be better? Given Alex Ferguson’s legendary status and failure to keep him at Old Trafford, there will be a group of United fans who will review his matches more than any in ages.

There are three critical things to remember as Pogba Transfer Mania reaches critical mass (It has, actually, hasn’t it?):

  1. Juventus will sell him, as Pjanic is presently an upgrade.
  2. Despite the fee, no one should yet be legitimately comparing him to Ronaldo or Messi; Transfer records will be broken almost every year moving forward, it’s just a matter of who is for sale.
  3. Pogba is a brilliant fit for Jose Mourinho’s system. The sale wouldn’t make sense for every team.

We’d say that’s a pretty good primer for when the sale is announced, and I think it will be, in the next couple weeks. Good luck, Paul.