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Look ahead, Europe: Considerations as Champions League approaches

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic was on the bench. So were Blaise Matuidi and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Paris Saint-Germain’s home game against Bastia would be a rotation opportunity under any circumstances, but with UEFA Champions League resuming next week, Carlo Ancelotti employed a strategy we’re sure to see throughout the weekend from other prominent managers.

Starting Tuesday, Champions League resumes with two Round of 16 first legs: Valencia hosting PSG and Celtic welcoming Juventus to Glasgow. On Wednesday, German champions Borussia Dortmund travel to Shakhtar Donetsk while Manchester United, in the week’s marquee match, visits Real Madrid.

For bosses like United’s Alex Ferguson and Real’s José Mourinho, the decisions will be relatively straight-forward. While both teams host talented teams this weekend (United facing Everton, Real against Sevilla), squad depth makes their compromises easy. Their reserves would be starters for most of their competition.

Other head coaches face more intriguing dilemmas. Take Valencia’s Ernesto Valverde. The former Athletic Club, Espanyol, Olympiacos and Villarreal boss replaced Mauricio Pellegrino at the Mestalla in December. While Los Che have clawed their way back into Champions League contention (only two points behind Málaga for fourth in Spain), a tight race that includes Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad and Levante means there’s little margin of error. Valencia needs to get into next year’s Champions League. Is it worth Valverde resting players Saturday at Celta de Vigo when the team has little chance of winning Champions League regardless?

Jurgen Klopp faces a completely different dynamic. Borussia Dortmund’s not going to defend their title. They’re 12 points back of Bayern Munich in Germany. They’re also likely to safely qualify for next year’s Champions League while having the talent to compete for this one. Hosting mid-table Hamburg ahead of a mid-week trip to Ukraine, Klopp could rotate his squad.

Here’s a quick look at the European weekend. We’ve highlighted the matches with mid-week Champions League clubs (they’re in bold).

English Premier League

Big match: Sunday’s game at Old Trafford gives Everton a chance to steal points. And when I say steal, I mean pick up points where competitors expect them to fall. The late Sunday start guarantees Manchester United will rotate ahead of Wednesday’s match with Real, while Everton won the reserve, season-opening fixture. Sunday, 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

Intriguing: Newcastle has picked up two wins since their latest French invasion. Now it’s Tottenham’s turn to deal with the likes of Moussa Sissoko, Mathieu Debuchy, Yoann Gouffran, and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. Saturday, 7:45 a.m. Eastern.

source: APGerman Bundesliga

Big Match: This match shouldn’t be that close, but when Bayern Munich faces Schalke, it’s going to be Germany’s big game. The Miners have plummeted to sixth place, their mid-December move to replace Huub Stevens with Jens Keller meeting with mixed results. Compounding an already difficult task, Schalke is expected to be without Klass-Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, Ibrahim Affelay, Christian Fuchs and Kyriakos Papadopoulos. This may be the weekend’s marquee matchup, but it’s unlikely to be that close. Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Eastern.

Others: Borussia Dortmund vs. Hamburg (Saturday, 9:30 a.m. Eastern).

Spanish Primera Division

Big Match: Málaga’s Champions League success (winning their group) and performances against Barcelona and Real Madrid suggest they have the quality to avoid a battle for Spain’s last Champions League spot, but their stumbles against the rest of La Liga leave them only one point clear of fifth-place Real Betis. Another stumble at Levante, where they have been outscored 6-1 in their last two visits, could see the Andalusians drop out of the top four. Saturday, 2 p.m. Eastern.

Intriguing: The scheduling is more interesting than the matchup. Since La Liga started their Asian-time kickoff last season, we’re used to seeing mildly interesting matchups scheduled for the early Sunday kickoff. This week, Barcelona gets the slot, kicking off at 6:00 a.m. Eastern against 12th place Getafe.

Others: Celta de Vigo vs. Valencia (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. Eastern); Real Madrid vs. Sevilla (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern).

source: Getty ImagesItalian Serie A

Big Match: Lazio has claimed only one point from their last three, leaving second place to a surging Napoli team that’s pulled league-leading Juventus within three. Tomorrow at the Olimpico, Lazio gets what might be their last chance to salvage their faint title hopes. Given recent losses to Genoa and Chievo (and the absence of Miroslav Klose), Lazio looks unlikely to derail the surging Azzurri, even if Napoli haven’t beaten the Eagles in Roma since 2008. Saturday, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Intriguing: In the wake of his infamous “little n—–“ comment, Paolo Berlusconi tried to make peace with Mario Balotelli mid-week. Milan’s visit to Cagliari will be the club’s first match since their VP screwed up. Sunday, 9:00 a.m. Eastern

Others: Juventus vs. Fiorentina (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. Eastern).

French Ligue 1

Big Match: Lyon’s upset loss at Ajaccio last week fueled speculation that resentment lingers from a contentious transfer window that framed leading scorer Bafetimbi Gomis and others as a potential cost-cutting casualties. Now, OL goes into Round 24 trailing PSG by three points. With the Parisians’ Friday win over Bastia, OL can’t hold out the hope that Champions League considerations will help their cause.

They can, however, keep up by adding to Lille’s misery. When LOSC visit Stade Garland, Les Gones will look to extend Lille’s league road winless streak to seven games.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

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On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

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Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

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There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from MLSSoccer.com:

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).