What’s at stake on UEFA Champions League Wednesday

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Porto head coach Vitor Pereira may believe “[t]here are no such things as favorites in [Champions League],” but there are certainly teams more likely to win games than others. Some might even call that a favorite. Pereira’s is team one, hence his dismissive, containing attitude ahead of the Dragons’ match with Dinamo Zagreb, even if Pereira’s right to be skeptical of frontrunners. Milan, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Manchester City — all in action on Wednesday — have failed to find results commensurate with their talent.

Those teams may still be hoping for a turnaround, but time’s running out. Wednesday marks the end of group stage’s fifth of six rounds. Up to seven teams could be eliminated after the day’s matches, and unless Luciano Spalletti and Roberto Mancini (right) can find solutions to their teams’ Champions League travails, Zenit and City will be among them.

Group A

Porto (Portugal) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), Estadio Dragão, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France), Olympic Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Porto 10 pts, PSG 9, Dynamo Kyiv 4, Dinamo Zagreb 0

Calling a side’s last performance “weak-willed and unfocused” while claiming there could be “major changes during the winter break” might seem like a dangerous, potentially mutiny-inspiring way to approach an important match, but Dynamo Kyiv’s poor run of form leaves Oleh Blokhin little choice. Instead of gloss over his team’s woes ahead of Ukraine’s winter break, Blokhin’s made it clear. Sitting third place in league and staring at a probable relegation to Europa League, the team could be in for a major shakeup.

If Dynamo beat PSG, they stay alive ahead of a matchday six meeting with Dinamo Zagreb, against whom a win could put them through to the knockout round. In order for that to happen, PSG would have to follow their upset in Ukraine with a home loss to Porto, a team who’d likely have a knockout round birth sewn up. Even if with the Parisians coming off an embarrassing Saturday loss, that’s a lot of planets that need to lineup for Dynamo to be playing Champions League soccer come January.

Group B

Schalke (Germany) vs. Olympiacos (Greece), Veltins-Arena, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Arsenal (England) vs. Montpellier (France), Emirates Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Schalke 8 pts, Arsenal 7, Olympiacos 6, Montpellier 1

After taking four points off Arsenal, Schalke’s control of this group goes beyond their one-point group lead on the Gunners. Hosting Greece’s champions before visiting struggling Montpellier (who somehow managed a point in Gelsenkirchen), Schalke’s facing the easiest run-in possible. If form holds, they’ll earn first place and the benefit of an easier Round of 16 matchup.

Coming off a weekend loss in the Bundesliga (where they’ve dropped two of three), Schalke may be vulnerable, though it’s unclear how much of a threat Olympiacos will pose. The Greek champions haven’t lost since Oct. 3, but that’s against a kind Champions League schedule (back-to-back with Montepellier) and a weakened Greek league.

Schalke wins this game if they play to their potential, but what happens if they have an off day, like they did this weekend at Leverkusen? Can they still get three from Olympiacos?

Group C

Zenit (Russia) vs. Málaga (Spain), Petrovsky Stadium, 12:00 p.m. Eastern
Anderlecht (Belgium) vs. Milan (Italy), Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Málaga 10 pts, Milan 5, Anderlecht 4, Zenit 3

Anderlecht “could be Alexandre Pato’s game,” insists Milan coach Max Allegri, who also talked up the improved form of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Robinho during his Tuesday press conference. Anybody who’s followed Milan’s season might be quick to accuse the embattled Rossoneri boss of burying the lead. These days, Milan is all about Stephan El-Shaarawy.

The 20-year-old Italian international scored twice this weekend in Naples, single-handedly helping Milan recover from a terrible first 30 minutes to claim a point at Napoli. With six goals in his last nine games (plus his goal for Italy against France last Wednesday), the former Genoa attacker is up to 11 all-competition goals this season. In a Milan season that’s been defined by disappointing results and the memory of sold stars, El-Shaaraway is doing his part to make up for the summer loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If El-Shaarawy stays hot and gets help from the rest of Milan’s talented attack, the Rossoneri may be in the knockout round by day’s end. They’ll need a result from Málaga in St. Petersburg, but given how the two teams’ have fared in this year’s competition, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Manuel Pellegrini take three points from Zenit.

Group D

Ajax (Netherlands) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Amsterdam ArenA, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Manchester City (England) vs. Real Madrid (Spain), Etihad Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Borussia Dortmund 8 pts, Real Madrid 7, Ajax 4, Manchester City 2

Sometimes you wonder if Prozac might help Roberto Mancini’s press conferences.

“We don’t have much chance to go through,” he conceded on Tuesday. “It was a difficult group from the start and now it’s very difficult because of the mistakes we made in the first two games.”

The last two games have been much more damaging. Against Ajax — a team that should have been a distant fourth of four in this group — Manchester City claimed a single point. Had they claimed all six, they would still be fighting for a spot in the knockout round.

Thanks to Real’s stumbles against Dortmund (taking only one point in two games), City still has a chance to advance. Unfortunately, for Mancini, that means beating Real Madrid boss José Mourinho. The two will forever be linked after Mourinho replaced Mancini at Inter Milan, taking the Nerazzurri to a European title.

“[I]t’s not Mourinho v. Mancini,” the City boss said, “it’s between the players, they are more important than we are.”

Contrast that with Mourinho’s attitude.

“I don’t think it is normal when you are out of the competition at a very early stage,” was a combative Mourinho’s blunt assessment of the job his rival’s done in Champions League. “I speak for myself, and if Real Madrid lost a final, or a semifinal, or even a quarterfinal, that’s football. But when you are out at the group stage it is more difficult to accept and to understand. Last season, they were out [at this stage] and this season I think they will be out again.”

Even if City pulls off an upset, they could still be in last place come Wednesday night. Conversely, if Dortmund gets a result in Amsterdam, the German champions clinch a spot in the next round.

Ex-Liverpool CEO shares biting story of Suarez transfer

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Ian Ayre’s got jokes.

The former Liverpool CEO lifted the lid on some transfer stories during a Merseyside lecture this week.

Of note, Ayre admitted that the club thought Dele Alli demanded too much given what he had produced when the Reds has the chance to sign him as a 16-year-old, and said that Liverpool could’ve landed Alexis Sanchez but the player wanted to live in London (“We couldn’t move the football club to London, unfortunately,” he quipped).

The best part relayed by Sky Sports had to do with Luis Suarez, and shows the relentless nature of the transfer market. Clearly Barcelona had interest in Suarez before the fiery striker bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, because, well…

“I remember the sporting director of Barcelona calling me during that game, immediately as Suarez bit the player, and he said to me ‘my friend, he’s bitten somebody, how can this be the price?’ I said ‘he’d already bitten somebody when you first bid!'”

We’re sure there’s a certain amount of storytelling in there, but undoubtedly some truth.

Given Barca paid a reported $84 million for the striker, the asking price couldn’t have started that much higher.

De Rossi admits desire to beat young teammates with bat

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Daniele De Rossi doesn’t like the modern world.

Okay, okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the Roma legend dropped a funny quote when discussing the differences between young players these days and those when he began his career.

A one-club man, the 33-year-old De Rossi has played in 556 matches for i Lupi and admits that he probably flummoxed veterans when he began his career because that’s the cyclical nature of adulthood.

From Italia Football:

“When we started out, it was all different, that was 20 years ago. Now a 20-year-old will get into the first team and have more Instagram followers than Messi. When I was young, the older players would say ‘it wasn’t like in my day’ – that’s life and it always will be.

“Mind you, some of them irritate me too. When I see them do live Instagram videos from inside the locker room before a game, I’d like to take a baseball bat to their teeth… But they’re 18 years old and in 20 years’ time they will find themselves complaining about the youth of today.”

Mmmm, tastes like ash and hickory.

It’s a safe bet that De Rossi isn’t wild about Stephan El Shaarawy’s hair, we imagine, but living legends generally get a little leeway with their comments in the media.

Plus, it sounds like he has the wisdom to understand the “why” and at least channel his angry into tackles.

Rooney ready to use experience to “get Man Utd over the line”

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An injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic has opened the door for one of England’s all-time greatest scorers, and Wayne Rooney is ready to seize it.

Manchester United and England’s living legend could play a key role in United’s run-in toward a Europa League title and a Top Four place in the Premier League.

Rooney has six goals and 10 assists in 32 matches this season, and his 1,937 minutes under Jose Mourinho are a product of both injury and the manager’s preferences.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

But Mourinho has claimed there’s a place for Rooney all year, and now the opportunity is here just in time for the Manchester Derby.

Rooney is buzzing, from Sky Sports:

“I feel I can contribute quality, composure, experience, and know-how, how to get over the line, whether it’s to win the league or finish top four or get to the final. That’s a lot of experience I can contribute to the team.”

Five Premier League titles and a Champions League medal certainly count for a lot, and the 31-year-old striker is still a productive PL player. The question, assuming Mourinho calls his number, is whether Rooney can roll back the years to be an out-and-out finisher for at least a few more weeks.

The inactivity could be a blessing for Rooney, he says:

“Everyone mentions that age, I’m 31, not an old person. Of course, I’ve played a lot of games. … Who knows, not playing so many games this season might benefit me.”

Totti out to ‘destroy’ Lazio in what could be his last derby

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MILAN (AP) Roma great Francesco Totti is out to “destroy” Lazio in what could be his last derby.

Totti’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the 40-year-old forward is likely to retire and move upstairs into a director’s role at the club where he has spent his entire career.

“It’s a different match to all the others,” Totti said. “It’s a team you always try to destroy on the field but with the maximum respect.

“For the city, for the curva, for the fans, you always try to give 101 percent. It’s a match you always want to win.”

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Roma won the last derby 3-2 last month but still lost to Lazio in the two-legged Italian Cup semifinals. Totti played less than 10 minutes in each match.

That semifinal defeat still hurts Roma and its fans, which are likely to fill the Stadio Olimpico again after ending a 14-month protest following the removal of deeply unpopular security barriers.

“It will be like all the other derbies, a must-win match,” Totti said. “It’s important because we all remember how the last one finished. We have to get our revenge.”

Sunday’s match is also crucial for the battle for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the group stage of the Champions League.

Roma is currently second, four points ahead of Napoli, which visits Inter Milan on Sunday. The team which finishes third has to go into a playoff for Europe’s premier club competition.

Roma has a more difficult run-in than Napoli. After the derby, it next faces AC Milan and Juventus before ending its season against Chievo Verona and Genoa. Napoli plays Cagliari, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

[ MORE: Henry, Aguero on playing for Pep ]

“It will be a very important derby for the standings and we will try everything to have a great game to bring home the three points,” Totti said. “We are going through this battle for second serenely and calmly, also because now we have a four-point advantage on them.

“There are only a few matches left until the end of the season, even if three out of five are very difficult on paper. We will try everything to finish second.”

Lazio is fourth, seven points behind Napoli.

Totti has been playing for Roma for 25 years – remarkably more than 28 percent of the club’s existence – since making his debut in the final stages of a 2-0 win at Brescia on March 28, 1993.

Totti, who also won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, could have won more than the solitary Serie A title, two Italian Cups and two national Super Cups he claimed with Roma, but he rejected offers of more money and glory to remain with his childhood club.

His face adorns murals and posters across Italy’s capital, where he is loved by Roma fans and respected by supporters of Lazio, despite his antics against them.

Totti has scored 11 times against Lazio and often celebrates these extra-special goals with T-shirts made for the occasion. One famously said, “I have purged you again,” while he revealed another reading simply “Game Over” after a victory in May 2015.

He hit the headlines in January of that year when he scored the second of two goals against Lazio and, in a pre-planned celebration for becoming the all-time leading scorer in the derby, grabbed his phone off Roma’s goalkeeping coach and took a selfie under the Curva Sud with thousands of adoring fans in the background.

In the Eternal City, Totti is Roma’s eternal leader – first made captain in 1998 when he was only 22.

Nike alluded to his “King of Rome” nickname at a promotional event on Wednesday to unveil new gold-colored boots to mark the Roma captain’s 25 years at the club.

Totti, who was greeted by about 200 chanting fans, was instructed to sit on a throne with the steps leading up to it bearing the names of the seven kings of ancient Rome, with his name placed on the final step.

“I have nothing to do with these kings,” Totti said. “I prefer to be judged than to judge.”