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.

Miss Tuesday’s Champions League coverage?

Chelsea wins the League… of Hate; Bournemouth, Leicester not hated

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Chelsea at St Mary's Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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A family of English newspapers conducted its annual survey of which teams are the most hated in the Premier League, and there’s a new champion.

Manchester United has dropped to second in the table to Chelsea in what the Manchester Evening News called the “League of Hate”.

[ MORE: Rooney’s England position not set ]

According to the MEN, 10,000 fans were quizzed on their love and hate:

A national survey asked fans of each top flight club which sides they hate, and which they love, and the west London club came out as the most disliked club overall.

United, who won the dubious accolade last year, have been revealed to be the next most reviled side.

It’s no surprise that the league’s more successful sides sit atop the table while newer PL clubs like Bournemouth and Burnley are not reviled. That said, Leicester’s dream story has them 19th. How much more success do they need to have before shooting up the hate table?

Here’s the Top Five, and all results:

1) Chelsea
2) Manchester United
3) Liverpool
4) Manchester City
5) Arsenal

Allardyce will use Rooney where he’s playing for Manchester United

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25:  Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce poses after a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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England manager Sam Allardyce is going to choose the best players going, and play them where they’re playing for their club.

Joe Prince-Wright has a full write-up on Allardyce’s unveiling here, as the English boss says Wayne Rooney will play for his country in the same spot as his club.

[ MORE: Cresswell out four months ]

So it seems Jose Mourinho’s preference at Manchester United will help dictate where England’s leading scorer will line up.

From the BBC:

“I still think Wayne Rooney has a massive place to play in the England side,” said the 61-year-old.

“If Jose says he is not going to play him in centre midfield and he is playing up front and scoring goals for Manchester United then it would be pointless me bringing him into England and playing him in centre midfield.”

Those comments will have anti-Jurgen Klinsmann folks nodding their heads in approval. That said, Allardyce isn’t exactly going out on a limb, as Rooney is widely expected to play deeper for United with strikers like Anthony Martial, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford also around.

FIFA bans council member Niersbach in World Cup bids probe

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  FIFA Executive Committee member Wolfgang Niersbach looks on during the Extraordinary FIFA Congress at Hallenstadion on February 26, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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FIFA council member Wolfgang Niersbach, a member of FIFA’s ruling council, was banned from soccer for one year on Monday in the first sanction from the investigation into Germany’s 2006 World Cup bid.

FIFA’s ethics committee found Niersbach guilty of failing to report findings about possible unethical conduct and conflicts of interest during the bidding process.

Niersbach, who was a vice president of the 2006 World Cup organizing committee in charge of media and marketing, described the punishment as “inappropriate and excessive.”

[ MORE: Cresswell out four months ]

Last year, Niersbach had been considered a possible successor to UEFA President Michel Platini before resigning as president of the German soccer federation when allegations against the bid first surfaced.

Niersbach retained his elected positions on the top decision-making bodies at both FIFA and UEFA. He is the first member of the rebranded FIFA Council, which replaced the discredited executive committee in May, to be sanctioned by the ethics division.

“This decision hits me hard,” Niersbach said. “I was confident after last Thursday’s hearing in Zurich that the ethics commission would not impose a ban, but that it would follow my argument that I am only to blame for a belated report on the critical payments between the 2006 World Cup organizing committee and FIFA in 2005, of which I gradually became aware in the summer of 2015, and that it would set a different punishment.

“I acknowledged my mistake and regretted it again.”

Niersbach is consulting his lawyers about whether to appeal against his ban.

[ MORE: Does Pogba match his fee? ]

Swiss federal prosecutors, and German criminal and tax investigators, also have wider ongoing criminal cases into the 2006 World Cup – a hugely successful tournament at the time which the host nation called its “Summer Fairytale.”

The probe involves irregular seven-figure payments and contracts during the bidding process and organization of the World Cup implicating senior officials.

The main FIFA ethics case focuses on former Germany great Franz Beckenbauer, who headed the World Cup organizing team and joined the FIFA executive committee in 2007; Theo Zwanziger, who replaced Beckenbauer at FIFA in 2011; Horst Schmidt, vice president of the World Cup organizing panel; and Stefan Hans, chief financial officer for the organizers.

In February, an inquiry report commissioned by the federation tried to explain a complex trail of payments of 6.7 million euros ($7 million) and 10 million Swiss francs ($10 million) that linked Beckenbauer, then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter, FIFA powerbroker Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar and Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the late former Adidas executive and part owner of Swiss marketing agency Infront.

The report, by law firm Freshfields, did not rule out, but could not prove, that votes were bought when Germany beat a Nelson Mandela-supported South Africa bid in a 12-11 vote of FIFA executive committee members in 2000.

West Ham loses ex-Hammer of the Year Cresswell for four months

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Aaron Cresswell was one of the stalwarts of the last two Premier League campaigns, a good crosser capable of lung-busting runs and the occasional brilliant shot.

So it’s a significant blow for West Ham United to be without him for the next four months.

[ MORE: Does Pogba match his fee? ]

Cresswell has played in 75 of the Hammers’ 76 PL matches since arriving from Ipswich Town in 2014, and was injured in a 50/50 play against Karlsruher SC this weekend.

He may not need surgery to repair the knee ligaments, but is out nonetheless.

From WHUFC.com:

Head of Medical and Sports Science Stijn Vandenbroucke explained that Cresswell had undergone a scan and will consult a specialist in central London early next week. The medical team will then take a decision whether or not the defender requires surgery.

“Whatever course of action we decide to take, Aaron faces a period of rest, followed by treatment and rehabilitation and he will be out for a period of between three and four months,” said Vandenbroucke.

Left back isn’t a position of strength for most teams, and West Ham doesn’t look to be an exception.

Vandenbroucke also issued an update on Manuel Lanzini, saying the club won’t know his status until the attacker returns from Argentina duty. Lanzini was injured with Argentina’s Olympic team while preparing for the Games in Rio.