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.

FIFA bans 3 soccer officials for life for taking bribes

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GENEVA (AP) Three soccer officials who pleaded guilty in American courts to accepting bribes were banned for life by the FIFA ethics committee on Tuesday.

They include former FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai of Guam, who testified in federal court that the source of his bribe money was Olympic powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait.

“His guilty plea related, amongst others, to schemes in which he received bribes in exchange for his support in relation to the FIFA presidential elections and to gain control and influence within the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA,” the soccer body said Tuesday in a statement.

Sheikh Ahmad referred his own case to the ethics committees of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee in April after Lai’s guilty plea was revealed. The Kuwaiti royal also withdrew from an election to retain his seat representing Asia on the FIFA Council.

Two former soccer federation presidents, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, were also banned for life Tuesday. They were arrested in Zurich in May 2015 in early morning raids on luxury hotels and later extradited to the United States.

FIFA said its ethics judges imposed “appropriate fines in relation to the amounts of the bribes that they have admitted having taken.”

Lai has agreed to pay “more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in April.

In court, the American citizen pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking about $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials.

Esquivel agreed to forfeit $16 million a year ago when he pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy linked to the awarding of contracts for the media and marketing rights.

Esquivel’s name was cited Monday in Brooklyn during testimony in the trial of three other South American soccer officials who deny corruption charges.

One witness who formerly worked for a marketing agency in Argentina said he kept a ledger of payments to officials, including a $750,000 payment to Esquivel for “Q2022.” Prosecutors did not specify if the payment was linked to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Rocha was a FIFA staffer and was working for its development department when he was arrested in 2015. He agreed to forfeit nearly $300,000 after admitting to racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges last December.

PL Playback: Pogba the key for Man United

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POGBACK

Paul Pogba‘s snake hips goal celebration had been dearly missed by Manchester United’s fans.

So too had his marauding runs from midfield since he injured his hamstring in early September. Jose Mourinho had previously said United were a totally different team without Pogba and his display in the 4-1 win against Newcastle on Saturday proved it.

Speaking to MUTV after the game, Pogba shared his belief that if all of United’s players stay fit they can challenge Manchester City for the title.

“The season is really long so we have to be fit – not only me but all the players,” Pogba said. “To win the league we need all our players. When you have one injured here, one injured there, it doesn’t help. It’s always better to have a full team. Zlatan’s back and Marcos after a long injury. It was hard for them but they kept believing and worked hard to come back. We need them to win the league and we’re really glad they’re here.”

Even if he didn’t jinx past Newcastle’s defense to clip in a wonderful cross for Anthony Martial to head home United’s first, or then make a 60-yard sprint to get on the end of Marcus Rashford‘s knockdown to make it 3-1, Pogba’s presence was felt.

His return gave United’s entire squad, and fanbase, a lift and everything is set up rather nicely for him to battle it out with Kevin De Bruyne in the Manchester derby on Dec. 10 at Old Trafford.

With Pogba this season United have played five games, winning four and drawing one.

Without Pogba United have played seven, won four, lost twice and drawn once in the Premier League.

His influence on this team is key to the way it has been assembled by Mourinho and his power, all-action displays and strong character get the best out of those around him. Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku tick because Pogba is linking the midfield and attack effortlessly with his energetic displays. Over the past two months there’s been a main reason why Lukaku had done seven games without scoring for United before last weekend: Pogba.

Pogba’s comments about United pushing City for the title if they stay fit appear misguided but if he stays fit then there’s no doubt United are the best version of themselves.


INFURIATING ARSENAL

When they play like they did on Saturday, the only team Arsenal will finish below this season will be Manchester City.

Seriously.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from the North London derby ]

The Gunners destroyed Tottenham Hotspur with a ruthless display in the first half as Mesut Ozil unlocked Spurs’ midfield and defense, Alexis Sanchez ran them ragged and Alexandre Lacazette played on the last shoulder of Tottenham’s disheveled defense.

Arsene Wenger was rewarded for a bold, attack-minded team selection and with Shkodran Mustafi back fit he now has his first-choice starting lineup at his disposal. If the Gunners stay fit, they can make real charge up the Premier League table in the coming weeks with a bunch of winnable games.

In four of their next five Premier League games they should beat Huddersfield, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle, with the big tests at home against Man United (Dec. 2) and Liverpool (Dec. 22) showing just how far they’ve come so far this season.

The Emirates, so often the site of protests and fan unrest in previous seasons, is become a fortress for Arsenal who have now won 11 PL games there on the spin, their best-ever run of consecutive wins at the stadium.

Between now and Dec. 22 we will get a very good idea as to what way this season will go for Arsenal.

If Wenger’s players stay fit and he remains positive in his team selection, the Gunners could be rewarded with not only a place back in the top four but much more.


WEST BROM’S GAMBLE

Tony Pulis is the man you want in a relegation battle. So, why did West Bromwich Albion sack him?

A run of two wins in 21 Premier League games sealed Pulis’ fate but what exactly did West Brom’s owners expect would happen?

Pulis’ short-term bump from taking over in January 1 2015 wore off midway through last season and his methods, although lauded by many for preserving his proud record of never being relegation from the Premier League, wear players down over time. Even the wily old crew he had assembled at West Brom (they had the oldest average starting XI in the PL) couldn’t cope with it anymore.

[ MORE: Baggies sack Tony Pulis. but what next? ]

The old adage “losing the dressing room” is frowned upon by folks in the industry but it is clear that’s what happened here. Players believe they are better than perhaps they are, most of the time, and get sick and tired of being told to just clip the ball long, stay compact and try to score from set pieces. Most of Pulis’ training session focus on team shape and denying the opposition the ball. Having the ball is an afterthought. That’s too much for some to handle day in, day out.

And we all know, despite the Baggies being a solid midtable club for seven years in the PL now, that getting rid of one manager is much easier than a squad of players.

Getting rid of Pulis was the only available option.

Yet, after a summer where they did some great business to bring in Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kieran Gibbs, Ahmed Hegazi and Jay Rodriguez, things seemed to be on the up. Yet that recruitment and losing the likes of Darren Fletcher caused issues in the squad balance and Pulis all of a sudden had too many newbies on board who either took too much time to get used to his methods or didn’t want to adjust their game to do so.

All in all, West Brom are now left with very few options to replace Pulis other than appointing someone extremely similar to him. Sam Allardyce is from the area (a boyhood Wolves fan, West Brom’s bitter rivals) is the bookmakers favorite and he would seem to be the perfect firefighter against a Premier League relegation battle.

But, like many PL clubs who have sacked their managers so far this season (hello, Everton, Crystal Palace, West Ham) or are contemplating it (Swansea, Southampton and maybe Stoke) the alternatives to their current boss aren’t plentiful. Keeping hold of Pulis was no longer an option West Brom had but, over time, it may seem like the correct one.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Champions League score picks: Week 5

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Round 5 of the UEFA Champions League group stage is here and plenty of teams will seal their spots in the Round of 16 over the next few days.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Below you will find score predictions for all 16 UCL games across Tuesday and Wednesday.

[ MORE: Group stage predictions ]

Feel free to join in down in the comments section.


Tuesday

Group E
Sevilla 1-3 Liverpool
Spartak Moscow 2-2 Maribor

Group F
Man City 5-2 Feyenoord
Napoli 3-0 Shakhtar Donetsk

Group G
Besiktas 2-1 FC Porto
Monaco 2-2 RB Leipzig

Group H
Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur
APEOL 0-4 Real Madrid

Wednesday

Group A
Manchester United 2-0 Benfica
Basel 3-0 CSKA Moscow

Group B
Paris Saint-Germain 4-0 Celtic
Anderlecht 1-3 Bayern Munich

Group C
Qarabag 1-4 Chelsea
Atletico Madrid 2-1 Roma

Group D
Juventus 1-2 Barcelona
Sporting Lisbon 2-1 Olympiacos

Top 15 new signings in the Premier League, so far

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Do you remember back in the summer when Premier League clubs were splashing the cash, new players were flooding in and fans of every single team believed they’d just signed either the “next big thing” or a “superstar” for the 2017-18 season?

Yeah, about that…

[ VIDEO: PL Saturday roundup ]

Regardless of how many new boys have so far been duds after arriving at their new team in the summer transfer window, plenty of players have made very impressive starts to life at their new clubs.

With that in mind, below is a look at the top 15 new guys in the PL after they arrived at their new PL clubs in the summer.


  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 14 goals in 18 games for Liverpool in all comps. has surpassed all expectations. A bargain at $45 million. Superb start.
  2. Ederson (Manchester City) – The missing piece of the jigsaw for Man City. Confident goalkeeper capable with his feet and eager to rush off his line.
  3. Richarlison (Watford) – Brazilian was an unknown before the season but youngster has five goals and two assists so far and has been a revelation.
  4. Kyle Walker (Manchester City) – $70 million for a right back? $70 million for a right back. Walker’s pace and power has added proper balance to City’s defense along with left back Benjamin Mendy before his unfortunate injury.
  5. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) – Spaniard has scored 8 goals and added 4 assists and is the main man at Stamford Bridge. $90 million well spent.
  6. Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United) – 12 goals in all comps, 8 goals in 12 in the PL, yeah, Lukaku’s doing well. His recent drought a little worrying.
  7. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) – Six goals and 1 assist, Lacazette has settled in very well at Arsenal. His runs open up space for Ozil, Sanchez.
  8. Pascal Gross (Brighton) – 5 assists and three goals this season for the German playmaker make him an absolute bargain for the new boys.
  9. Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) – Colombian arrived with a big reputation but the 21-year-old is exceeding it. Calm, powerful center back.
  10. Harry Maguire (Leicester City) – Towering defender is an elegant ballerina on the ball. Now an England international and key for the Foxes after leaving Hull for $22 million.
  11. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town) – Australian makes Huddersfield tick after making his loan move from Man City permanent. Smooth on the ball.
  12. Mario Lemina (Southampton) – Stunning start to life at Saints curtailed by injury. Combative midfielder looks like a $20 million bargain from Juventus.
  13. Jack Cork (Burnley) – A shrewd signing by Dyche and his early-season form earned him a first-ever England call-up. Direct, calm and experience.
  14. Mikel Merino (Newcastle United) – His loan move from Dortmund was quickly made permanent and he has class as well as guile in midfield.
  15. Erik Maxim Choupo-Moting (Stoke City) – Has provided extra quality up top for Stoke with 3 goals and 3 assists. Superb free transfer.

Notable mentions: Nemanja Matic (Man United), Chris Wood (Burnley), Jonas Lossl (Huddersfield), Sead Kolasinac (Arsenal), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Tiemoue Bakayoko (Chelsea), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Kurt Zouma (Stoke City, on loan from Chelsea), Tammy Abraham (Swansea City, on loan from Chelsea)