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.

Mourinho looks to pile title pressure on Chelsea

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A week ago, just before their 2017/18 Premier League season began, Antonio Conte declared Chelsea to be an underdog for the title. It’s right not to put Chelsea to be a favorite,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho disagrees.

Looking to deflect pressure away from his Manchester United squad, Mourinho declared Chelsea to not only be the favorites to win the Premier League this season and defend their title, but proclaimed it would be a massive disappointment if they didn’t.

[ MORE: Liverpool in an advantageous position regarding Coutinho ]

To Mourinho, the simple fact that Chelsea won last season means they should consider themselves the team to beat going forward. “For me the favorite is the champion,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Manchester United’s game against Swansea City on Saturday. “Always. Because for some reason [they were] the champion. It doesn’t mean you are going to win it – I think it is the stamp that you have when you are champion, it is that the next season you are the favorite.”

Chelsea seems to have a depth issue at the moment, with injuries plaguing the squad. New signing Tiemoue Bakayoko leaves a big hole in midfield, especially with Nemanja Matic sold to the Red Devils. In addition, Gary Cahill and Pedro will miss time in the near future with suspensions, while superstar Eden Hazard remains out as he recovers from a broken ankle.

Despite all the missing players, Mourinho believes that Chelsea always comes through in the transfer window, and that will solve their problems. “If they have [depth problems], in a couple of weeks the problems are over. They have very good teams, very good players and I don’t see any reason for them not to be fighting for the title.”

Manchester United next meets Chelsea on November 5th in Premier League action at Stamford Bridge.

LA Galaxy offloads Jelle van Damme to native Belgium

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The 2017 season continues to punch LA Galaxy fans right in the gut.

With the club near the basement of the Western Conference standings, the LA Galaxy have officially announced the sale of defensive rock Jelle van Damme to Royal Antwerp of the Belgian top flight. The club confirmed a transfer fee of $235,000.

While van Damme is 33 years old, the sale of fan-favorite van Damme is still a blow both on and off the pitch. With the Galaxy in a period of transition, van Damme was a likeable personality who was known for leaving it all out on the field on gamedays.

The official news release of the transfer made it clear the club did not initiate the transfer with the intention to sell, but instead the player himself requested a return home as his career comes nearer to a close. Van Damme is from Lokeren, Belgium, a town between Antwerp and Ghent.

“Jelle came to us and requested to return home to Belgium to be closer to his children,” LA Galaxy General Manager Pete Vagenas told LAGalaxy.com. “We worked closely with Jelle and Royal Antwerp so that we could make this move possible for Jelle and his family. Our top priority remains the success of the LA Galaxy. We thank him for his time with our club and wish him the best going forward.”

Van Damme joined the Galaxy in early 2016 on a free transfer from Belgian giants Standard Liege. He made 55 total appearances across all competitions, including 46 in league play and another three in the playoffs. The defender’s contract was set to expire in December.

The team has taken a total nosedive in the last two months. Without a league win since June 21st against Colorado, the Galaxy have collected just a single point in league play, and they currently sit just a point off the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

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In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.

Top 25 moments in Premier League history: 19-21

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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Premier League we thought it would be great to count down our top 25 moments from a quarter of a century of action.

[ VIDEO: Top 25 moments in PL history ]

Each week we will release our best moments and you can keep track of the full list here.

Below are numbers 19-21 to as we continue our list.

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