Zlatan takes Portugal, Eastern block dynamism – UEFA Champions League Group A preview

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What’s Zlatan doing this week?

It takes an incredible talent to makes one of the world’s free spending clubs and turn it into his own traveling show, but that’s what Paris Saint-Germain got when they brought in (one of) the world’s greatest center forward(s). Anytime they play, it’s all about what Zlatan Ibrahimovic does, and whenever they’re away from the Parc de Princes, the only question is where’s PSG taken The Zlatan Show this week?

On Wednesday, Cirque de Zlatan is in Portugal to take on Portguese champions Porto. In Group A’s other match, Dyanmo Kyiv hopes a new coach can help them recover from a matchday one thrashing when they host Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb.

Porto (Portugal) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Estádio do Dragão, Porto, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

For a team of PSG’s ambitions, Porto’s a perfect litmus test. The perpetual Portuguese champions have had trouble translating their domestic and Europe League successes into Champions League. Last year was a perfect example. Porto went 2-2-2 in a group that most picked them to win, relegated to Europa after finishing behind APOEL Nicosea and Zenit St. Petersburg. They’re a talented and accomplished team, but ever since taking away the title 2004, Porto’s Champions League success has been elusive.

It’s not hard to imagine Paris Saint-Germain entering a similar state, if only temporarily. When a eam experiences a long a break from the tournament, the first year back in Champions League can be trying. it can be difficult to create a squad and mindset to balance domestic priorities and the tournament’s mid-week intensity. As we saw last year with Borussia Dortmund, Lille and Manchester City, talent can not always offset inexperience. Or, as we’ve seen with Porto (or during Real Madrid’s long spell pre-Mourinho), even experience isn’t enough. The unique demands of Champions League make it hard to predict whether a team will succeed until they do, in fact, succeed.

That’s why Porto is such a great test. They are right at that edge. At some point, it’s going to click. Perhaps it’s continued emergence of Colombian dynamo James Rodríguez. Maybe a year’s experience will help coach Vitor Periera. Or perhaps the difference between Hulk and Jackson Martínez will add a missing dimension. This year, Porto may be able to scare a team in the knockout round, but until they do, they’re the perfect measuring stick. If you can handle this team, you’re probably dangerous. If you can’t, you probably belong in Europa League.

Early returns on PSG’s ability to meet this challenge are good. They opened their Champions League campaign with a 4-1 thumping of Dynamo Kiev. On the domestic front, they’ve rebounded from a goal-starved start to roll off four straight wins, their +9 goal difference best in Ligue 1. The improved results have come as coach Carlo Ancelotti has settled into a 4-3-1-2 formation, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jeremy Ménez on top of a midfield leld by Javier Pastore, anchored by 19-year-old Marco Verratti. Since the switch, PSG’s clicked.

No matter the formation, the key is Ibrahimovic, who is off to an incredible start with his new team. In seven all-competition appearances, Zlatan has eight goals. He’ll likely be too much for center halves Nicolas Otámendi and Maicon, who will need help from midfielders Joao Moutinho and Steven Defour as Ibrahimovic drops into space. That will only open up room for Pastore and Ménez as well as make it more difficult to pick up Blaise Matuidi and Mohamed Sissoko coming up from midfield.

Despite those advantages, it’s still a big task to go to win at the Dragão. The last team to do so in group stage was Chelsea in 2009, another hint that this is the perfect test for PSG. If the Parisians want to be world elites, they have to perform like world elites.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Olimpiysky National Sports Complex, Kyiv, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

The must-wins come early in a six-game tournament. By the math, Dynamo Kyiv could lose on Wednesday and still get into the knockout round, but coming off a poor performance in Paris, failing to win at home against the group’s trailing pack would leave them with a lot of ground to make up on Porto, let alone Paris Saint-Germain.

Oleg Blokhin, now former Ukraine national team coach, will be the man tasked with making up that ground. The new coach was thought ready to keep both roles after recently being appointed to the role at Dynamo; however, Blokhin tendered a surprise resignation last Friday, allowing him to focus on getting Dynamo caught up Shakhtar Donestk on the domestic front, into the Champions League knockout rounds in Europe.

His first order of Champions League business: making the team forget about the 4-1 loss in Paris. From the club’s website:

“In the Champions League, Dynamo will fight for a way out of the group.

“The defeat by PSG with a score of 4-1 does not say anything. I remember a couple of years ago, the same happened when Shakhtar Donetsk lost in London, 5-1 to Arsenal.

“They then went into the play-offs with first place in the group.”

It’s a strange world where Dynamo is drawing inspiration from Shakhtar, but that’s the challenge Blokhin’s inherited. His team is a clear step behind their Ukrainian rivals, and advancing in Europe is seen more as a fancy than a goal. It’s Blokin’s job to change that view.

Miss Tuesday’s Champions League coverage?

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.

Argentina closes in on Sampaoli, according to FA boss

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The Argentinian FA is hoping to convince Jorge Sampaoli to abandon Sevilla and take the opening in his home nation.

President Claudio Tapia confirmed that Sampaoli is their top target, calling the 57-year-old their “chosen one” in an interview with ESPN.

“We have chosen a coach that has a contract,” Tapia told ESPN. “We want to be respectful and wait because he has a release clause which is once the tournament ends. We will communicate it to the club and we will sit down and negotiate his departure and release clause. We want things to go well in the final games he has left.”

Argentina dismissed coach Edgardo Bauza after the country fell to fifth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification following defeats to Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile over the past six months.

Sampaoli is under contract with Sevilla until the summer of 2018, but has a $1.6 million release clause, to which Tapia was referring. Sevilla sits in fourth position in the La Liga table, level on points with Atletico Madrid but behind significantly on goal differential. The club finishes its league season on May 21st against Osasuna, and Argentina’s next game is a friendly on June 9th at home against Brazil. The next World Cup qualifier is in August against Uruguay.

Samapoli has been with Sevilla since since last summer in his first European club job, but the Argentinian has ample experience to take over for his home country. He managed Chile for four years, winning the 2015 Copa America in Chile. He resigned in early 2016 due to a contract dispute, paying a heavy price to do so as he gave up bonuses to wriggle free of his contract.

Argentina’s desire to secure Sampaoli as coach is nothing new, as the man himself confirmed an offer for the job a week ago, but said he would not consider it until the end of the season. It appears now that a deal is likely, and he will have a very short turnaround to get his first look at the team against a fierce continental rival.

MLS Power Rankings — Week 8: FC Dallas back on top

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FC Dallas relinquished the top spot in the Power Rankings last week. Their response? To beat the team that jumped them.

A number of teams grabbed much needed wins, including Seattle, Toronto, and Orlando City. The Galaxy and Real Salt Lake slipped up. See below where each team sits going into Week 8.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]


[ MORE: Last week’s MLS Power Rankings ]

TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)

22 (22)

 

21 (20)

 

20 (19)

Philadelphia Union: After Montreal’s 3-goal comeback, Alejandro Bedoya said it’s “hard to stomach” what feels like another loss. It’s only April, and the aura is already discouraging.

Colorado Rapids: Since beating New England, they’ve scored four goals in their last five. Losing to Minnesota is painful.

Montreal Impact: A crazy comeback and a rescinded red card have netted Montreal four points over their last two, but the big picture still screams struggles.


19 (21) Minnesota United: It came against hapless Colorado, but a win is a win is a win. Seven points in the last four. A solid defensive record. A chance to build further comes against San Jose.
18 (15) LA Galaxy: The transition away from Bruce Arena is an obvious excuse for a truly bad start, but the squad also looks porous. Questions may be asked soon.
17 (13) Vancouver Whitecaps: With a tough immediate schedule ahead, Vancouver could be headed for a second-half fightback just to make the playoffs. Can’t dig too deep a hole.
16 (17) New England Revolution: This team’s all over the place. A lot like DC United in that they seem to have good moments and bad moments each week.
15 (16) DC United: Positives and negatives taken from the draw with New England. Sums up the season so far.
14 (14) San Jose Earthquakes: No matter the home form, winless in five is very concerning.
13 (18) Seattle Sounders: Well. They certainly needed that. Soundly trouncing the Galaxy is promising, and games against New England and Toronto are a huge chance to truly turn the poor start around.
12 (9) Real Salt Lake: Oops. Maybe last week’s leap of faith was slightly premature. Falling in to Atlanta’s fantastic start isn’t the end of the world, but losing momentum from a 2-game winning streak hurts.
11 (11) Houston Dynamo: Great at home. Not a single road point. Will we learn anything more about Houston when they visit Toronto? They’re still hard to gauge, but seem more dangerous than not.
10 (6) Columbus Crew: Road travels are tough no matter where you go in MLS play, but the Crew cannot turn two straight road losses into a bigger habit.New York Red Bulls:
9 (12) New York Red Bulls: Soundly beating Columbus means they get to jump the Crew on this list, and a win over Chicago next time out would see them climb further up the Top 10.
8 (10) Toronto FC: Their table position is still slightly unnerving given the team’s talent, but a win Friday over defensively challenged Houston would give Toronto a much more deserved location.
7 (7) New York City FC: All 3 of NYCFC’s losses have come by 1 goal. It’s early, and those are correctable. Moving up after a loss is rare, but this team is well-managed and dangerous.
6 (5) Chicago Fire: There’s little shame in losing to a pair of Giovinco goals on the road, but the manner of the loss is somewhat startling. Outpossessed Toronto, yet obliterated 9-1 in shots on target.
5 (8) Atlanta United: After forever on the road, Atlanta returns home in fantastic position. The one concern has to be discipline – they picked up four more yellows in the RSL win.
4 (4) Portland Timbers: A home win over a Cascadia rival goes a long way towards putting a bad four-game stretch to bed.
3 (1) Sporting KC: A lack of goals has been mitigated this season by a fantastic defensive unit, but that proved their downfall against FC Dallas, and could be an issue going forward against better attacking teams.
2 (3) Orlando City: Jason Kreis emphatically put to bed the thought that Orlando City couldn’t win on the road. Cyle Larin is absurdly good. But can they survive shouldering the entire goalscoring responsibility on one man?
1 (2) FC Dallas: After dropping to #2 last week due to a lack of marquee results, they promptly went out and became the first team to beat Sporting KC this year. Welcome back to the top spot.

Premier League Preview: Crystal Palace vs. Burnley

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  • Palace unbeaten in 10 vs Burnley at home
  • Burnley has 1 goal from open play in last 6
  • Burnley has just 4 points on road all season

The old 40 point target is within grasp.

One more win for Crystal Palace would put them over the cusp, as Sam Allardyce leads his Eagles into battle against Burnley at Selhurst Park on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Palace’s recent form suggests they’ll do just that, with a massive surge of six wins in their last nine to boost them out of the relegation zone and into a push towards the table’s top half. Their last three wins have come against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool. However, they’re depleted in central defense, with Mamadou Sakho, Scott Dann, and James Tomkins all out injured.

Burnley, meanwhile, could get to 39 points with a win, a big boost in their bid to outrun those below them in the table. The Clarets are looking to buck the league’s worst road record, with just a single win and a single draw away from Turf Moor. They’ll be without Joey Barton, whose career could be over after an 18-month suspension for gambling. That’s a big miss for the Clarets, as Barton has played all but 10 minutes of their last 12 matches. Scott Arfield could be a candidate to replace Barton, with the 28-year-old a regular in the side before Barton’s arrival midseason.

What they’re saying

Allardyce on Burnley“I think he has built a very good football club from top to bottom on stability that he has brought to Burnley, he has made Burnley’s owners and directors look at the financial side of their club and they now see one that is financially secure. That money has been brought to the club by him getting them promoted to the Premier League, evolving at a nice, steady pace and as a club they have not panicked and been patient, which is a word that doesn’t happen in football anymore. If you look at the football dictionary, the word patient you can’t find anymore because there is none. But there is at Burnley.”

Burnley manager on survival“We have more points than we did ever in the Premier League and it’s now about taking it all the way. It’s now about everything we’ve learned over the season and delivering performances in these last four games. We, as a club, without a shadow of a doubt are in really good shape going into this last bunch of games. But we aren’t naïve enough to think it takes care of itself, because it doesn’t. We have to go and step on and take care of what we need to.”

Prediction

Burnley has been horrid away from home this season, and while they should stay up given the poor squads below them, Crystal Palace is playing too well to fall to lesser opposition at Selhurst Park. Christian Benteke will continue to feast as the Eagles win.