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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.

Jose Mourinho wants Diego Costa to process game situations “faster”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Chelsea at Britannia Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Stoke on Trent, England.
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Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho isn’t worried about Diego Costa‘s lack of goals this season, but he does know the problem.

Costa scored the winner against Norwich last time out, but has just three goals on the year and has looked frustrated often in recent matches. And the boss believes there’s still work to be done with Costa, particularly off the ball.

“Everything is OK, no problem, no problem,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference before Chelsea visits Spurs on Sunday. “But he’s not reading the game properly in these actions. That was my opinion. As a striker he must read. You have to play not only when you have the ball but when others have the ball. You have to anticipate things and read the game faster. Everything is an accumulation [of confidence]. You’re not on fire again just because you’ve scored a winning goal against Norwich. It’s all a process.”

Mourinho exploded at Costa in the waning moments of Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv, with the manager focused on improving the Spaniard’s effort level.

“In the game I told him, from a distance, that I was not happy with the movement he did,” Mourinho said. “He told me a few nice words from where he was. And nothing happened.”

Despite the manager’s frustrations, Costa could be the only option on Sunday. Radamel Falcao is injured and Loic Remy’s wife is scheduled to give birth soon, leaving Chelsea’s main man as maybe the only man.

The match against Spurs is a huge one for the Blues. Chelsea seems to have recovered slightly from its early-season tumble down the table, but their only two wins since the 2-0 victory over Arsenal in mid-September have been against Aston Villa and Norwich, and a marquee win would see them firmly announce an intention to return to last season’s form. The competition will be stiff, as Spurs’ high press could frustrate Costa, potentially sending him into another mood. But it could also give him opportunities should the hosts slip on Sunday.

Premier League preview: Manchester City vs. Southampton

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Manuel Pellegrini, manager of Manchester City looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • Manchester City has lost both its home matches against top-10 sides this season
  • Southampton is six matches away unbeaten – club record is seven
  • Southampton has lost five straight at the Etihad across all competitions

Depending on results, Manchester City could be on top of the league come the end of the weekend if they can pick up three points when they welcome Southampton to the Etihad on Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Unfortunately, they’ll face the Saints very banged up, something which has caused the home side plenty of issues recently. Goalkeeper Joe Hart suffered a hamstring injury midweek and will miss out, as will defenders Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta and Eliaquim Mangala.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Manuel Pellegrini‘s squad struggled mightily at times without Sergio Aguero up front during his four-match injury absence. Aguero is back and scored last week in the 4-1 loss to Liverpool, but now the back line is giving the Chilean boss headaches. They broke again midweek, a 1-0 loss to Juventus in Champions League play leaving City fans scratching their heads.

Southampton saw its six-match unbeaten run come to a surprising end against Stoke City last weekend, and that puts them in an awkward spot, stuck in a clogged portion of the Premier League table where the gap between sixth and 11th is just two points. With a difficult London list of Spurs, Arsenal, and West Ham on the docket surrounding the December holidays, stolen points here at the Etihad would go a long way later on.

The Saints are also shorthanded, with Graziano Pelle suspended for yellow card accumulation after picking up his fifth of the season against Stoke. With Jay Rodriguez still sidelined, that leaves Shane Long to lead the Southampton attack.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini on injury problems: “All the clubs have the same problems here in England and in other European leagues, because the players have to play so many games in the year and they have to go to their national squads with long flights.”

Southampton midfielder Steven Davis on Manchester City: “The demand from their fans is to win every game and they’re coming off the back of a couple of bad results. They will be looking to put it right. It should be an entertaining game but we’ll need to be at our best to get something. I’m confident we can go there and do that.”


Because of Manchester City’s defensive issues, summer signing Nicolas Otamendi will be forced back into the starting lineup after finding himself on the bench for the Liverpool loss. Since Otamendi looked off the pace in his first two Premier League matches (both of which City lost), he has acclimated quite well – the club has conceded just three goals in the Argentinian’s five matches following those two defeats.

With the striker issues for Southampton, City will use the return of David Silva to run Southampton down. Silva is known for playing his part in early goals, and the first 15 minutes will be key in this match. Manchester City will get one early, and they will return to their winning ways on a 2-0 victory.

Words fly as Mathieu Valbuena opens up about blackmail scandal

LISBON, PORTUGAL - SEPTEMBER 04: France's midfielder Matthieu Valbuena celebrating France goal during the Friendly match between Portugal and France on September 04, 2015 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
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Lyon midfielder Mathieu Valbuena has spoken out for the first time about the sex tape scandal that has rocked the French national team.

If what he says proves to be true, Karim Benzema could be in a whole heap of trouble.

Valbuena told his story to French newspaper Le Monde, where he explained how things began in May of 2015 with a phone call from Djibril Cisse that suggested someone had a tape of the 31-year-old Valbuena. A few days later a blocked number called Valbuena asking to meet in Dubai about the video. The Frenchman got the police involved, and then Benzema approached him during national team training.

“He [Benzema] spoke to me about a video. Immediately, I thought back to what the police chief had told me on Sunday [that someone would approach him about the video].  Then he asked me to meet a friend that he presented to be very reliable, very serious, someone that he had complete confidence in, to arrange all of that. So, anyway, I am not an idiot!

I was sceptical to say the least. Even if, it was true, at the start I said to him: “Thank you for warning me”, I was doubtful that if he wants me to meet someone, it is not for nothing. The way in which he conveyed things, it was certainly to provoke me to see someone, indirectly, it means to pay this person to destroy the video.”

Valbuena said Benzema never actually asked him to pay for the video to be destroyed, but that it was heavily implied. “I played his game, I told him, me I would like very much to pay for my freedom, but we all know that if you pay, it is endless, there will always be copies etc. He told me: ‘Don’t worry, I have total confidence in my friend, there will be no more duplicates, they will be destroyed.’ He insisted a lot for me to meet his friend.”

The Frenchman later would implicate Samir Nasri as someone who, according to Valbuena, had offered to approach him instead of Benzema. “[Nasri] is someone who is no longer part of the French national team. My relationship has always been difficult with Nasri. Now, nothing surprises me.”

Both have responded. Benzema’s lawyer gave an interview to French radio station RMC saying that there was contact between the two about the tape, but that the conversation saw Benzema encourage Valbuena not to pay for anything. Nasri also spoke to RMC, completely denying any involvement in the case by saying, “It is not my problem, not my situation.”

Benzema has been charged with conspiracy to blackmail for his role as an intermediary, but the investigation is still in the preliminary stages.

Premier League preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester United

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Watford at The King Power Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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  • Leicester sits atop the Premier League table with 28 points
  •  Manchester United has conceded just once in their last 7 league games
  • Leicester’s Premier League games have produced 48 goals, the most in the league

Yes, this is #1 vs #2. No, your eyes are not deceiving you.

And yet somehow, that magnificent lede has been buried thanks to one Jamie Vardy.

The 28-year-old can break Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record of 10 straight games with a goal as Leicester City hosts Van Nistelrooy’s former team Manchester United at King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

The Foxes are firmly atop the Premier League table, but many question whether they can hang onto that, and even others remain skeptical whether they can truly challenge for a top four spot this season. Saturday’s game will be a true test of their ability to remain in the hunt for the long haul, as the Red Devils are just a point off the top and, while it hasn’t been pretty at times this year, van Gaal’s men have done enough to pick up results in key situations.

On the other end, Manchester United has conceded just one goal in its last five league matches, and has not allowed a goal from open play since the Arsenal drubbing in early October. Can Vardy find space in the tight Red Devils’ back line?

Both teams are relatively healthy coming into this matchup. Leicester is only missing long-term absentee Matty Jones, while Manchester United is a little more banged up with Ander Herrera, Phil Jones, and Michael Carrick likely out alongside Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia.

What they’re saying

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal on Leicester City’s chances at title“Normally these kind of clubs can compete for long time, then at the end it becomes more difficult. But in England because of the quality of the teams, because every team has the money to buy players – and they have bought players – the difference in the Premier League between the clubs is not so high.”

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri on the Foxes’ aim“The league is very strange and open but our goal is 40 points. Our goal at the moment is this but let me see the next two months and then maybe I change the goal. Like everybody else I am also curious in these days to watch my team, and to see how we respond in these big matches.”


Manchester United’s results have been there, and they’ve created a ton of chances. On the flip side, Leicester’s improved defensive organization is solid enough to hold off the Red Devils. This one ends 1-1, and there is no change at the top. Vardy gets the Foxes’ goal, because who doesn’t like fun things?