Parma FC v AC Milan - Serie A

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.

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Ranieri laughs off England speculation with quip about bookmakers

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City speaks during a Leicester City press conference ahead of their Champions League match against FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 26, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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When it comes to quotes, Claudio Ranieri is one of the best.

The Leicester City manager was put on the spot after Tuesday’s 1-0 UEFA Champions League win over Porto, and handled it well.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Pulisic, BVB best Madrid ]

Asked about his name appearing on betting sites as a favorite to replace disgraced England boss Sam Allardycewho left the job Tuesday — Ranieri responded with a nod to Leicester’s long odds-defying Premier League title run.

Ranieri pleased as Leicester goes 2-0 in UCL: “We played with our spirit tonight”

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrate victory after the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Leicester City FC and FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Leicester City is now 2-0 in the UEFA Champions League after holding out to beat Porto 1-0 on Tuesday at King Power Stadium.

Combine that with their opening match blowout at Club Brugge, and the Foxes are flying. Contrary to many projections — including mine — the UEFA Champions League slate has only served to fire up, not wear out, the Foxes (at least in Europe. More on their Premier League problems below).

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Of course we should have learned to stop predicting struggles for Leicester. Even if Tuesday’s match did see the Foxes hanging on for dear life, they did that plenty of times in last season’s run to the Premier League title.

And this year the Foxes have Islam Slimani.

The striker has been a force in each game of his young Leicester career. Slimani has terrific chemistry with fellow Algerian Riyad Mahrez, and the ex-Sporting CP man has plenty of experience in Europe.

Both his manager and captain were pleased with Slimani, and the effort.

Here’s Wes Morgan, from the BBC:

“We know we’ve got to be resilient, especially at home. We had to dig in at the end there so it’s pleasing to get three points.

“Islam Slimani is a handful and he works hard for his goals so he deserves a lot of credit. Pleased for him tonight.”

And Ranieri:

“We suffered in the last 10 minutes but it was important to win. Concentration was high, we were resilient, I’m very happy. We played with our spirit tonight.”

Leicester City could be as good as onto the knockout rounds with a win in Copenhagen on Oct. 18, and have set themselves up well for the remaining matches.

Now, it’s onto Premier League improvement. The Foxes fell to Manchester United in a blowout this weekend, and have Saints, Chelsea, Palace, and Spurs next. That’s a very challenging slate for the PL’s 12th ranked club.

Champions League wrap: Spurs, Foxes collect wins; Juve wins big in Croatia

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Heung-Min Son of Tottenham Hotspur controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between PFC CSKA Moskva and Tottenham Hotspur FC at Stadion CSKA Moskva on September 27, 2016 in Moscow, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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The UEFA Champions League’s group stage hits its second round of matches Tuesday, with two Premier League teams in play and a bevy of big names from outside England.

Leicester won again, meaning the unlikely Premier League champions could all-but-clinch a spot in the knockout rounds if they beat Copenhagen in October.

[ MORE: Dempsey out for 2016 ]

Spurs also won to help make amends for losing at home to start the group stage while — surprise, surprise — USMNT star Christian Pulisic again was the super sub for Borussia Dortmund, making a big difference in a draw with Real Madrid.

Standings at bottom.

CSKA Moscow 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur

There’s no shame in picking up a point so far from home, but a loss in the group stage opener but a little more weight on Spurs.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side bossed the play, but found themselves closed down atop the 18 by a stingy and aggressive CSKA Moscow side.

Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min were active, and it was the South Korean who found a break through in the 71st minute.

Played through on goal, Igor Akinfeev got a piece of Son’s right-footed rip only to see the ball crawl across the line. 1-0.

Dinamo Zagreb 0-4 Juventus

Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic scored first half goals for The Old Lady, who has had little trouble establishing itself in UCL this year. Paulo Dybala made it 3-0 in the 57th minute, as we had cruise control in Croatia.

Monaco 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez reportedly cost Bayer Leverkusen less than $10 million, and he’s been an absolute steal. Whatever was missing from his game at Manchester United and Real Madrid has been on full display for Bayer. Hernandez busted the match open with his sixth UCL goal in 11 appearances for the German side. Unfortunately for his side, Kamil Glik leveled things deep into stoppage time.

Leicester City 1-0 Porto

The chemistry between Algeria and now Leicester City teammates Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani is very real.

The former fed the latter for an opening goal on Tuesday in UEFA Champions League play at King Power Stadium, as the Foxes have opened up a 1-0 lead on Porto.

You can imagine the visitors aren’t too pleased with having to meet up with Slimani, who they just managed to see out of their league only to watch him arrive in their UCL group.

And how about the mad dabbing kid shown just after Slimani’s celebration? Wild nights in Leicester, as the Foxes held up to Porto’s second half pressure and went 2-for-2 in the group stage.

Borussia Dortmund 2-2 Real Madrid

Cristiano Ronaldo got on the scoresheet, though the hosts have been by far the more dangerous side. USMNT teenager Christian Pulisic is on the bench for BVB.

Thomas Tuchel’s side threatened to score through a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rocketed a shot just over the frame, and the Gabonese man made it 1-1 soon after when Keylor Navas punched Raphael Guerriero’s free kick off Raphael Varane. Aubameyang touched it over the line for an academic marker.

Varane, however, looked to have had the last laugh, poking in a go-ahead goal. That’s when USMNT star Christian Pulisic subbed on for Borussia Dortmund with 17 minutes to go and forced Navas into a save. Emre Mor then did the same.

Then, Pulisic beat his man on the right wing, sending a cross through traffic that Andre Schurrle collected and belted by Navas. 2-2.

Elsewhere

Sevilla 1-0 Lyon
Copenhagen 4-0 Club Brugge
Sporting CP 2-0 Legia Warsaw

Standings

Group E
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Monaco 2 1 1 0 3 2 1 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Tottenham Hotspur 2 1 0 1 2 2 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3
Bayer Leverkusen 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2
CSKA Moscow 2 0 1 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-1-0 1
Group F
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Real Madrid 2 1 1 0 4 3 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Borussia Dortmund 2 1 1 0 8 2 6 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sporting CP 2 1 0 1 3 2 1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Legia Warsaw 2 0 0 2 0 8 -8 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group G
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 2 2 0 0 4 0 4 1-0-0 1-0-0 6
FC Copenhagen 2 1 1 0 5 1 4 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
FC Porto 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 0-1-0 0-0-1 1
Club Brugge 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group H
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Juventus 2 1 1 0 4 0 4 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sevilla 2 1 1 0 1 0 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Lyon 2 1 0 1 3 1 2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Dinamo Zagreb 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0

WATCH: Pulisic sends cross to Schurrle to equalize with Madrid

Real Madrid's Luka Modric, left, and Dortmund's Christian Pulisic challenge for the ball during the Champions League group F soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in Dortmund, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Borussia Dortmund substitute and USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic subbed into Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match versus Real Madrid and made a difference.

Given 17 minutes to work, Pulisic needed about 10. The 18-year-old American sent in a cross that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang couldn’t volley but fell to another BVB player.

[ MORE: Big Sam canned ]

That was Andre Schurrle, and the ex-Wolfsburg and Chelsea man lashed a shot behind Navas to make it 2-2 at the Westfalenstadion.

Pulisic does well here, real well, and had a chance to make it 2-2 himself that was smothered by Navas.