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?

Former Sevilla player Diego Capel training with Sounders

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A former Sevilla star is training in MLS, as the veteran midfielder looks to continue his career stateside.

Diego Capel was spotted training with the Seattle Sounders on Thursday, despite club manager Brian Schmetzer initially playing coy on who the player was.

[ MORE: Where does Zlatan rank in MLS superstar signings? ]

“We have a player that’s in camp,” Schmetzer said. “He’s a good player. He’s probably worn the number 10 in his career. Maybe as a youth player. Maybe it’s just a player borrowing Nico’s jersey.”

The Sounders have suffered several major injuries in their attack to start the 2018 MLS season, which also contributed to the team’s derailment in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

While Capel traditionally has played on the wing throughout his career, the Sounders could use all the help they can get in the attacking third.

Jordan Morris has already been ruled out for the season with an ACL tear, while Nicolas Lodeiro and Will Bruin are currently sidelined for the club with respective injuries.

Capel came up through the ranks of Sevilla, while also playing for notable European sides such as Sporting Lisbon and Anderlecht.

The 30-year-old last played for the Belgian side in 2017, but has been a free agent since.

Int’l friendlies: Lingard guides England; Colombia tops France

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A roundup of Friday’s international friendlies….

England suffered an early setback in Holland after Joe Gomez limped off the pitch with an injury. However, the Three Lions bounced back with a 1-0 victory when Jesse Lingard struck after halftime.

[ MORE: USMNT reveals new kits ahead of Paraguay friendly ]

A drastic second-half turnaround for Colombia gave the South American side a 3-2 victory over France. Olivier Giroud and Thomas Lemar had Les Bleus out in front in the first half with a 2-0 lead, but the Colombians responded with three unanswered finishes to grab the win.

Mohamed Salah‘s second-half strike wasn’t enough to pace Egypt due to Cristiano Ronaldo’s late brace for Portugal (his 80th and 81st international goals), while Victor Moses‘ penalty kick helped Nigeria top Poland.

Meanwhile, Brazil picked up a convincing 3-0 win over this summer’s hosts Russia. Barcelona teammates Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho each scored in the second half, after Miranda opened the scoring for the Selecao.

Germany and Spain settled for an exciting 1-1 draw, while Argentina topped Italy, 2-0, without Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero in the lineup.

Below are all the scores from today’s friendlies involving teams that will play in Russia this summer.

Portugal 2-1 Egypt
Argentina 2-0 Italy
Germany 1-1 Spain
Netherlands 0-1 England
Poland 0-1 Nigeria
Scotland 0-1 Costa Rica
France 2-3 Colombia
Uruguay 2-0 Czech Republic
Japan 1-1 Mali
Russia 0-3 Brazil
Saudi Arabia 1-1 Ukraine
Greece 0-1 Switzerland
Tunisia 1-0 Iran
Serbia 1-2 Morocco
Peru vs. Croatia — 8:30 p.m. ET
Mexico vs. Iceland — 10 p.m. ET

Joe Gomez exits Holland match after 10 minutes with injury

Warren Little/Getty Images
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Joe Gomez‘s World Cup hopes may have taken a major hit on Friday after the Liverpool defender exited England’s match against Holland after just 10 minutes.

[ MORE: USMNT releases new kits ahead of Paraguay friendly ]

The extent of the 20-year-old’s injury is unknown at this point, but the Reds defender was in noticeable pain as he limped off the pitch at the Amsterdam Arena.

Gomez was replaced by Leicester City center back Harry McGuire following the stoppage.

Osorio: Jonathan Gonzalez has a “promising future” with El Tri

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The Jonathan Gonzalez situation still stings for many U.S. Men’s National Team supporters, and the encouragement from Mexico’s camp regarding the midfielder’s bright future isn’t making things better for Americans.

[ MORE: Where does Zlatan rank among stars to come to MLS? ]

El Tri manager Juan Carlos Osorio reaffirmed his belief that Gonzalez is one of the many promising prospects within the Mexican national team ahead of the country’s friendly against Iceland on Friday.

Gonzalez, who switched his national team allegiance to Mexico from the U.S. earlier this year, has been called up for the match after the 18-year-old made his Mexico senior team debut against Bosnia back in January.

“Jonathan, to start with, is part of a group of Mexican players that I’ve referred as having a good present and a promising future and that excites me to continue, along with Edson Alvarez, Omar Govea and others that aren’t here like Orbelin [Pineda] and Erick [Gutierrez],” Osorio said at a news conference on Thursday.

“Gonzalez is a good midfielder and can fight for a place with anyone. Like everyone, he has to improve a lot of things to win a place.

“After deciding to play for Mexico, it is our responsibility to give him a platform to develop and consolidate himself as a player.

“That’s why he’s in this call-up, and hopefully he can establish himself and show the qualities I mentioned.”

The former USMNT youth prospect has quickly become a regular for club side Monterrey, who currently sits sixth in the Liga MX table.

Gonzalez has appeared in 38 matches across all competitions for the four-time league champions and earned honors in the Liga MX Best XI following the 2017 Apertura season.