Ground vacated by Milan, Zenit – UEFA Champions League Group C preview

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With one matchday in the books, Group C has been turned on its head. Milan and Zenit, favorites to go through, are playing like the group’s weakest sides. Málaga, thought on the edge of turmoil, are now the favorites, with Anderlecht’s opening round point at the San Siro positioning the Belgians to profit if the big two don’t wake up.

Two weeks ago, Group C changed in one, two-hour blink of the eye. On Wednesday, it could happen again, even it the Russia start time means it’d be a five-hour blink.

Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) versus Milan (Italy)
Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg, 12:00 p.m. Eastern

They were expected the best of Group C, but given how Zenit and Milan have started the tournament, Wednesday’s match comes with unexpectedly high stakes. Milan face the toughest trip of the group and the specter of being without a point and in last place by this time on Thursday. An after Zenit was surprisingly Isco’d in Andalusia, a home loss to a struggling Milan will only deepen the disillusionment that’s surrounding the club.

Zenit’s depression began in mid-August when the then 4-0-0 Russians embarked a 1-2-2 slump, falling to the middle of a Premier League table they’d dominated since the hire of Luciano Spalletti. Their 3-0 defeat at Málaga came in the middle of that downturn, a clear sign that the Hulk-Axel Witsel shopping spree was no red eye to Europe’s penthouse. With outsiders now questioning how Hulk’s settled in the team (the only issue is language, he says), Zenit’s spending spree seems more disruptive than helpful.

That can all turn around on Wednesday, and Zenit doesn’t even have to get their act together to make it happen. Milan’s been more adrift than Zenit, sitting 11th in Serie A after losing three of their first four. The Rossoneri have since rebounded, kind of. They beat last place Calgiari and drew a Parma team whose only win came against a Chievo side destined to battle relegation.

Most concerning about Milan is the morose attitude surrounding the team. Everybody is focusing on who left there rather than who stayed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were huge losses, sold to Parsi Saint-Germain, but the rest of the losses (a ton of veteran players like Clarence Seedorf, Mark van Bommel, Gennaro Gattuso and Alessandro Nesta) were not irreplaceable, especially given their sketchy injury records. Max Allegri was left with a team that had the likes of Robinho, Alexandre Pato, Kevin Prince Boateng, Ricardo Montolivo, Antonio Nocerino and Nigel de Jong. They’re since added Giampaolo Pazzini and seen youngsters Stephan El Shaaraawy and Mattia De Sciglio get off to strong starts. In Serie A’s new world order, that’s enough to complete for Champions League, but because of the defeatist attitude engulfing the club, nobody has noticed.

Perhaps somewhere along the 1722-mile trip to northwest Russia Milan will snap out of their funk. But long road trips usually calcify ennui. A struggling Rossoneri side iss unlikely to see a chilly, rainy St. Petersburg motivating.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Anderlecht (Belgium) versus Málaga (Spain)
Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

How cool would it be if Oguchi Onyewu got to play for Málaga? It’s unlikely to happen, the U.S. international yet to appear domestically for his new club, but if he did, we’d have an American on each side of the ball, with former Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan a probable starter for Anderlecht. While we won’t get to see it, the mere possibility reminds us that U.S. players are slowly creeping deeper and deeper into the European game. It’s only a matter of time before two Yanks are shaking hands before a Champions League kickoff.

In terms of what will happen on the field tomorrow …

The match gives Anderlecht a chance to show they’re more than a team that can hold out against an idea-less Milan. At the San Siro, they put only two shots on Christian Abbiati, and while a point at Milan is not something for the likes of Anderlecht to second guess, there was a feeling the Belgians could have done more. It was worth taking a chance against the Milan side still learning how to create goals in an Ibrahimovic/Antonio Cassano-less world.

At home against Málaga, Anderlecht are going to have to do more, yet the Andalusians will present a more difficult challenge. Manuel Pellegrini’s team is better than Milan’s, an undefeated start in Spain complemented by their 3-0 Champions League win over Zenit. As he’s done at every place he’s coached over the last decade, Pellegrini’s instilled an approach that may not be flashy but produces tight, cohesive teams with enough flexibility to both take advantage of opponents as well as incorporate players like Juan Román Riquelme and Robert Pires.

Now Pellegrini may have another gem, one that has offset the preseason loss of Santi Cazorla. Even before his two-goal Champions League debut, Isco was drawing the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Though he hasn’t been able to build on that performance, he still has the type of game-breaking talent that could give Anderlecht defenders Marcin Wasilewski and Cheikhou Kouyate trouble. More worrisome or Anderlecht, he could prove a thorn in the side of Lucas Biglia, Anderlecht’s best distributor.

That Isco, like his club, is still a relative unknown to the broader Champions League audience fuels the idea that Anderlecht can build on the Milan result. They very well might, but if they do so, it will be against a better team. Málaga may not have Milan’s brand, but they’ll pose a much bigger challenge.

Miss Tuesday’s Champions League coverage?

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday