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?

Watch Live: Five Premier League games at 10am ET

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Five Premier League games are coming your way at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday and you can watch them all live online.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Huddersfield host Man United, Burnley head to Man City, Stoke welcome Bournemouth, Crystal Palace are off to Newcastle and Swansea do battle with Leicester.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for all five games at 10 a.m. ET is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


10 a.m. ET: Huddersfield vs. Man United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Man City vs. Burnley – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Newcastle vs. Crystal Palace – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Bournemouth – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
10 a.m. ET: Swansea City vs. Leicester City – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]

Chelsea 4-2 Watford: Blues launch superb comeback

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  • Chelsea score two late goals towin
  • Watford led 2-1 with 71 minutes gone
  • Azpilicueta grabs winner in 87th minute

The pressure eased slightly on Antonio Conte as Chelsea fought back from 2-1 down to beat Watford 4-2 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Chelsea took the lead through Pedro but Watford came surging back with Abdoulaye Doucoure equalizing and Roberto Pereyra putting them ahead either side of half time.

Richarlison had two glorious chances to extend Watford’s lead further but Michy Batshuayi jumped off the bench to make it 2-2 and Cesar Azpilicueta made it 3-2 late on before Batshuayi added another in stoppage time.

Cue relief around Stamford Bridge as Conte  jumped in with the fans to celebrate as for most of the game his team looked like they were heading for three-straight PL defeats for the first time since October 2015.

With the win Chelsea move on to 16 points for the season and jump ahead of Marco Silva‘s Watford into fourth place.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]  

After an even start where Watford threatened on the break, Chelsea started to look dangerous down their right and Eden Hazard won a controversial corner kick which shouldn’t have been awarded as the ball came off his heel last.

From that corner it was played short to Pedro on the edge of the box and the Spaniard curled home a stunning effort off the far post and into the far corner. 1-0 to Chelsea as relief spread around Stamford Bridge.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Chelsea then wasted a glorious chance as Hazard danced free of Tom Cleverley and played in Alvaro Morata who found Cesc Fabregas in acres of space but his chipped effort was tame and Heurelho Gomes saved easily.

Richarlison was causing problems down the left flank as Watford tried to get back into the game but it was Chelsea who came close to going 2-0 up as Pedro flashed a low effort just wide of the post. Fabregas smashed a shot on goal which Gomes saved well but right on half time Watford equalized through Doucoure.

Jose Holebas’ long throw caused havoc and the ball dropped to Doucoure who squeezed home his effort at the near post. 1-1.

Game on.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

A lively start to the second half saw both Chelsea and Watford go close with crosses flying into the box and Watford should have gone 2-1 up with Richarlison somehow missing from a few yards out. A true miss of the season contender.

The Brazilian winger made amends for his miss moments later as he played in Pereyra to slot home. 2-1 to Watford.

With Chelsea’s defense all over the place it should have been 3-1 to Watford as Richarlison sent a header horribly wide from close range with the goal gaping.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ] 

The chances kept coming for Watford as Richarlison was a nuisance and the Hornets looked more likely to extend their lead than Chelsea grabbing an equalizer.

Batshuayi was then introduced off the bench and he flicked home a header from Pedro’s cross to make it 2-2 and the Belgian went close on two other occasions as Chelsea pushed for a winner. Conte got his substitutions spot on as another sub, Davide Zappacosta, helped set up two attacks and the latter saw the home side seal victory.

Azpilicueta was the hero for Chelsea a few minutes from normal time as he arrived at the back post to nod home to make it 3-2 and then Batshuayi scored again in stoppage time to complete a hugely impressive comeback.

Some of the pressure on Conte is dissipating.

VIDEO: Pedro scores stunning goal for Chelsea

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Not a bad way to start the Premier League weekend…

12 minutes into the first game of Matchweek 9, Chelsea’s Pedro curled home a stunning effort into the far corner and off the far post after a corner was played short to him.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

A simply stunning goal from the Spaniard which you can watch in the video above.

Watch Live: Chelsea v. Watford in top five clash

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Chelsea host Watford at Stamford Bridge on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as fifth and fourth clash.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea are without a win in three games in all competitions and some pressure is starting to build on the Blues as they’ve fallen further behind the two Manchester clubs atop the PL table.

As for Watford, Marco Silva‘s men are in fourth place and aiming to keep up their impressive away form in the PL this season with three of their four wins coming on the road.

In team news Chelsea’s injuries are piling up with Victor Moses and N'Golo Kante missing but Alvaro Morata does start after recovering from his hamstring injury, while Watford start Troy Deeney up top after his impressive cameo against Arsenal last week.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Rudiger, David Luiz, Cahill; Azpilicueta, Bakayoko, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro, Morata, Hazard. Subs: Caballero, Christensen, Ampadu, Zappacosta, Musonda, Willian, Batshuayi

Watford: Gomes; Mariappa, Kabasele, Britos; Femenia, Cleverley, Doucoure, Holebas; Pereyra, Deeney, Richarlison. Subs: