Winners, losers from Champions League Wednesday

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Yesterday, one match stole the show, and while Italian champions Juventus made sure Wednesday had plenty of drama, the second day of UEFA Champions League was defined by individual performances. Four players gave multigoal efforts, from the expected (Messi), to the prospective (Oscar), to the practically unknown (Mkhitayran):

WINNERS

1. Lionel Messi, forward, Barcelona – If you needed a reminder of who’s the game’s best player, (a) where have you been, and (b) Lionel Messi’s here for you. The leading scorer in each of the last four Champions Leagues, Messi pulled Barcelona even in the 72nd minute, the favorites facing a shock 2-1 deficit. Then, 10 minutes before time, the reigning world player of the year scored his second of the night, staving off Spartak Moscow’s upset bid as Barça went on to win, 3-2.

2. The little guy – It was a huge day for two teams expected to be bottom feeders. Belarusian champions BATE Borisov were the more impressive of the two, at one time holding a three-goal lead at the Grand Stade on their way to a 3-1 upset of Lille. Just to the west, Romanian champions CFR Cluj got two Rafael Bastos goals in the first 34 minutes, cruising to a 2-0 win at Sporting Braga.

3. Midfield marksman – Bastos wasn’t the only midfielder to bag two on Wednesday. We covered Oscar’s exploits in our Chelsea-Juventus breakdown, the 21-year-old Brazilian’s first half goals giving Chelsea an early 2-0 lead (before being drawn, 2-2). In Donetsk, 23-year-old Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored twice, pushing his season total to 14 (in 10 games) as Shakhtar beat Danish champions Nordsjaelland, 2-0. Learn the name now, people: HEN*rikh Mk*HIT*ar*yan.

4. Bayern Munich – Bayern seems intent on making up for last May, when they lost the Champions League final on their home field. Perfect through three rounds in Germany, Bayern carried over their domestic form into today’s match, posting a convincing victory over visiting Valencia. FCB was up 2-0 going into the final minutes when a Nelson Haedo Valdez score (and a Mario Mandzukic missed penalty) left a final, deceptive, 2-1 victory.

LOSERS

1. Roberto Di Matteo, manager, Chelsea – One result is not enough to start asking questions of the new Chelsea boss, but when your team comes from ahead to draw, you have to take inventory of the manager’s part. Aside from Oscar’s individual brilliance (and some flashes from Eden Hazard), Chelsea offered little going forward, and after going up 2-0, the defending champions lacked the desire and composure to see off their opponents. Chelsea should have won this match, particularly given the lead Oscar spotted them, but seeing how they played out the final 57 minutes, you wonder if they even knew how.

Di Matteo got this job after success bunkering in and holding out against Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Now that Chelsea’s back to being the hunted, what’s the next page in the playbook?

2. Portugal – From two winnable matches, Benfica and Braga got only one point. Benfica’s result is acceptable if predictable, with Scottish champions Celtic able to get a home point from a match where the teams combined for two shots on target. Ideally, Benfica would get three points in these types of games, but still regrouping after some key offseason losses, the Eagles had to settle for one.

Braga, however, were worrisome. Two years ago, they started their Champions League history with a 6-0 home loss to Arsenal. Today’s loss to CFR Cluj is even more crushing. If Galatasaray gets full points from Cluj in Istanbul, Braga may be looking at a return to Europa League (at best).

3. Lille fans – On the first Champions League night for their new 50,186-seat venue, Lille fans should have expected more. BATE – picked to finish at the bottom of the group – were up 3-0 at half time, with only Aurelien Chedjou’s 60th minute goal keeping the night from being a complete waste. Can you imagine being a fan, going to the ground expecting a relatively easy win, only to be down 3-0 at intermission? And on the stadium’s first Champions League night?

Coming off a disappointing fourth place finish in last year’s group, Lille should have been up for this match. Instead, they got embarrassed by a team who had to win three playoff rounds to make group stage.

4. Lingering memories – Like Bayern, Barcelona and Manchester United had bitter exists to last year’s tournament. Today, each club got off to on the right note. Bayern, after losing last year’s final on penalty kicks, showed they’re still one of the best teams in Europe. Barcelona, shocked by Chelsea in last year’s semis, got a win in Tito Vilanova’s Champions League debut. And Manchester United, amazingly eliminated in the group stage last year, rode a spectacular goal from Michael Carrick to a 1-0 win over Galatasaray. Sitting on three points after one round gives each club a new Champions League focus.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.