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.

Toronto loses CONCACAF Champions League in PKs

AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
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Chivas Guadalajara scored on all of its penalty kicks to clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League Final, breaking the hearts of Toronto FC in Mexico on Wednesday and earning a berth in the 2018 Club World Cup.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored in regulation as Toronto FC picked up a 2-1 win to reverse their first leg loss and push it to kicks.

Orbelin Pineda scored Chivas’ goal.

Hometown kid Jonathan Osorio hit the cross bar on Toronto’s second PK and Michael Bradley sent the fifth offering into outer space.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Toronto flew out of the gates, and Rodolfo Cota came flying off his line to deny Altidore a 10th minute chance.

Alex Bono collected a header off a Chivas corner kick earned by a counterattack.

Pineda then made Toronto’s task even harder with a 19th minute goal, cooking Auro’s mark to reach a through ball and dancing around Bono for 1-0.

But Altidore was somehow unmarked for Nic Hasler’s pass despite five Chivas defenders and Cota inside the six-yard box, and TFC leveled the second leg at 1.

And TFC got the next goal through Giovinco, slipped through by Marky Delgado and taking advantage of a yard of space and a second to shoot with his fourth goal of the CCL knockout rounds.

The Reds kept coming in the second half, with Delgado winning a big 50-50 ball deep in Chivas territory and Victor Vasquez ripping a shot that Cota dove to smother.

Chivas found its footing in 58th minute, sending a shot over the bar before Jesus Godinez hit the post in the 61st (though his dive seemingly had the near post covered). Bono the next knocked a free kick over the bar from a similar position as the ball that beat him in the first leg.

Javier Lopez curled a vicious attempt just over the goal in the 72nd. He’d have the next best chances moments after Altidore subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury, but dribbled onto Bono’s lap and fired off the keeper.

Giovinco worked a 1-2 with Osorio and cruised a shot just wide of the far post in the 87th minute. Delgado then mailed a sitter over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.

Premier League Power Rankings: In tiers

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Liverpool has knocked Manchester City from the Champions League, but sits 19 points behind the leaders and City has a match-in-hand.

Manchester United beat City just weeks ago, but was bounced from the UCL even earlier. The Red Devils also took four of six points from Liverpool.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Spurs are fourth in the table but also took four of six from Liverpool and could be level on points with the Reds by winning its match-in-hand.

So the question remains, who’s the best team in the Premier League right now? That’s why we’re revisiting our Premier League Power Rankings for the first time in a while, since City was the unquestioned No. 1 for months.

Will it change anything? Spoiler alert: Probably not.

Spots 20-14: Not safe yet

20. West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies are going down, but Darren Moore has at least instilled some life into a moribund bunch which was saddled with the dour and unsuccessful tactics of Tony Pulis before moving onto the peppy and hard-to-understand tactics of Alan Pardew.

19. Stoke City — The Paul Lambert jump has faded, and the Potters’ inferior goal differential and one more match played than both Southampton and Swansea City feel like a death knell.

18. Southampton — Yes, the Bottom Three is the same as the table, but Saints are a New South Coast Derby win away from sitting three points back of pulling Palace and perhaps Huddersfield Town and West Ham United back into the picture.

17. Huddersfield Town — If David Wagner cannot lead the Terriers past Everton this weekend, his side finishes at Man City, at Chelsea, and home to Arsenal. That’s a recipe for watching a six-point advantage on the drop zone melt away.

16. Swansea City — Still four points clear of the drop zone, Swans have the cup half-full of facing Saints and Stoke City. The two sides aren’t very good, but also the only teams to worry about when it comes to their Premier League lives.

15. Crystal Palace — Given their turnaround from the beginning of the season, it feels dirty to have them so low. But of the three clubs sitting six points clear of 18th, the Eagles are the one to have three matches left and not four.

14. West Ham United — A brutal schedule featuring two of David Moyes‘ old sides — Everton and Manchester United — means the Irons cannot breathe safely yet (especially with Swans, Saints, and Stoke set to take points off each other).


Spots 13-11: Foot off the gas (and is there any gas in the tank?)

13. Watford — Javi Gracia may have Watford safe, and that was his charge, but the Hornets look like the same team they did under previous bosses. The Hornets have two points from their last six, and would be much further down the table if they weren’t essentially safe.

12. Bournemouth — Eddie Howe is probably wondering how that Arsenal chair would feel right about now, as the Cherries have probably reached a glass ceiling. Now a derby against Saints can define the run-in to the season.

11. Brighton and Hove Albion — Perhaps satiated by a five-match unbeaten run that featured a win over Arsenal and beat downs of Swansea and West Ham, Chris Hughton‘s Gulls have two points in five matches including a derby loss to Palace.

10. Everton — Sam Allardyce‘s men nicked a win off of Newcastle last weekend, and it was about as satisfying as moribund draws against Liverpool’s B Team and Swansea City. There’s a lot of unrest at Goodison Park, and Sam Allardyce has to go. Because of the relative positive vibes at lower table sides Leicester and Newcastle, Everton sinks beneath them.

9. Leicester City — A fun team which has had infuriating lapses at the back. Jamie Vardy‘s as reliable as ever, and there’s a real question what they’ll do without Riyad Mahrez (allegedly) in the future. Wilfred Ndidi, Demarai Gray, and Fousseni Diabate look a big part of said future, but it’s a bit alarming that the Foxes haven’t been able to take advantage of the relatively open door to seventh since Claude Puel righted Craig Shakespeare‘s sinking ship.

8. Newcastle United — The Magpies saw their win streak snapped by Everton, but Rafa Benitez is playing with house money after coaxed a midtable season out of a Championship squad. A healthy Islam Slimani has moved Dwight Gayle to his rightful role as a spark plug off the bench, but don’t sleep on the wonders Benitez has worked in turning Mo Diame, DeAndre Yedlin, and Paul Dummett into serviceable Premier League players. The future is bright if Mike Ashley sells the team or at least opens his purse strings to make one of the longest road trips in the PL even harder for visitors to St. James’ Park.


Spot 7: One of the best stories in Premier League history

7. Burnley — A loss to Chelsea and draw with Stoke has sunk Sean Dyche‘s excitement, we’re sure, but Southampton’s departure from the FA Cup means seventh place means Europa League. It’s Burnley in Europe: Yes, for real!


Spots 6-4: The bargaining stage of grief

6. Chelsea — The Blues have won two-straight in the league and reached an FA Cup Final against old pal Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, but there’s as much uncertainty at Stamford Bridge as there is at the Emirates. The difference? We know Roman Abramovich will spend more to try to fix it.

5. Arsenal — The danger of slipping behind Burnley and into seventh on the table has passed, but the Arsene Wenger goodbye tour is focused firmly on the Gunners’ fate versus Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Europa League and the quite decent form of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as a resurgent and healthy Aaron Ramsey. Defenders need improving in a big way and there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding Wenger’s replacement. Don’t know what you’ve got til its gone?

4. Spurs — No trophy again this season, and there’s a very good chance Tottenham will miss out on third place by virtue of goal difference when all is said and done; When all’s said and done, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will have drawn 1-1 or 0-0 against West Brom, Swansea, Watford, West Ham, Saints, and Brighton. That’ll render a decent record against top foes less impressive.


Spots 3-1: Power trio

3. Manchester United — The Red Devils are better than almost everyone thinks despite precious few standout seasons from its players (David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard are among the pardoned). When it comes to talking progress, however, second place won’t cut it: Mourinho needs that FA Cup win over Chelsea, a trophy United hasn’t won since (checks his notes) oh, two seasons ago.

2. Liverpool — The Reds looked incredible in dicing up Roma for 80 minutes, but allowed Roma a sliver of hope. Moreover, the last four goals Liverpool has allowed have come in the 79th, 88th, 81st, and 85th minutes. Why won’t we put them ahead of City? Well, let me clarify: it’s not PST, it’s me. I’ll own this: As brilliant as Liverpool was against City, they were out-chanced 31-14 over two legs. Give me that scenario 100 times, and I’m betting on the 31 about 85-90 times. The Reds are almost there, and Naby Keita over Jordan Henderson would be a huge upgrade (especially if this success convinces Emre Can to stick around). Next year, yeah. This year, just no.

  1. Manchester City — The records continue to fall, and it’s funny to consider that should City had lost the first Manchester Derby and been knocked out of the UCL a round earlier — yes, even by Liverpool in the same manner — no one would be arguing for anyone other than City at No. 1.

WATCH: Giovinco levels CONCACAF Champions League Final

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A trademark Sebastian Giovinco goal snapped a 1-1 first half tie and put Toronto FC in the driver’s seat for Major League Soccer’s first title in the CONCACAF Champions League era.

Jozy Altidore scored the first goal after Orbelin Pineda put Chivas Guadalajara ahead early in Mexico, and the tie is level at 3-3 after 135 minutes.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Toronto needs to score once more and stay ahead by one, or win in penalty kicks.

The winner goes to the Club World Cup in December.

Look at this quick work from Giovinco after Marky Delgado slipped him into his office.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

AP Photo/Julia Chestnova
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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.