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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.

2015-16 Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. IV: Foxes on top of the world

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City gestures to the fans during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle and Leicester City at St James Park on November 21, 2015 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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The last time we visited the world of Power Rankings, the two North London rivals held the top two slots.

A month later, with the North London derby having ended in a 1-1 draw, it seems there are plenty of good teams in the Premier League, but are there any great ones? We have to give the #1 spot to someone, but it doesn’t feel like any of the regulars want it. The top five teams are all within four points. In the last month, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Southampton all lost, and Manchester United barely squeaked by Watford.

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So where does that leave us? You bet. Soak it in Foxes, the Premier League table isn’t all you’re on top of. Are they strong enough to remain there? Well, that’s not what we’re here to debate. With Spurs refusing to lose as well, the Premier League giants are looking up at two unusual clubs in front.

source: 1 UP 4 Leicester City: Jamie Vardy can do no wrong. He has a chance to insert himself into Premier League lore, and the Foxes are forcing people to consider them as shocking Champions League contenders. With 4 in a row and 5 wins in 6, their body of work, right now, is the best in the League.
source: 2 Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs look a much improved team at the back, which was their weakness last year. They haven’t lost in Premier League play since opening day, and with three wins in their last four, they look to be turning one point into three points, an important key to challenging for the title.
source: 3 DOWN 2 Arsenal: Every time it appears the Gunners have it figured out, they go and lose to someone like West Brom. It’s a small blow, but it seems that’s all – even with all the injuries – as they dominated that game and appeared slightly unlucky. They’re still a title contender, which is a testament to Arsene Wenger.
source: 4 UP 2 Manchester United: It hasn’t always been pretty for the Red Devils, such as their late win over Watford, but they’re just a point off the top and have a relatively healthy squad, which is a huge advantage given where some of the other teams stand.
source: 5 UP 3 Liverpool: They have work to do, but the Reds appear to be getting much healthier, and Jurgen Klopp has added a fire to this team not seen in a while. 8 points back from the top, but a soft schedule could set up a massive showdown with Leicester on Boxing Day.
source: 6 DOWN 3 Manchester City: As opposed to Arsenal, who is still producing results, Manuel Pellegrini seems to be struggling to cope with the injuries. One point in their last two, they can’t let the demolition by Liverpool become something larger.
source: 7 DOWN 2 Southampton: A loss at home to Stoke City last time out is a huge blow. With Liverpool and Everton charging, and stuck in a logjam in the table (2 points separate places 6-11), they need to reassert themselves to remain challengers for a Europa League place.
source: 8 UP 1 Everton: The Toffees have rebounded nicely since a pair of losses to top teams, putting up 11 goals in their last three. Can they take advantage of a soft schedule through into the New Year, and put themselves in a position to challenge at the top? Questions of their earlier struggles remain.
source: 9 UP 6 Stoke City: The Potters are sneakily returning to the top half of the table. A 2-0 loss to Watford the only blemish of the last 6 weeks, and a 1-0 win over Chelsea has positioned them well.
source: 10 UP 3 Crystal Palace: Still have no idea what this team is. Just look at their last two results: a win over Liverpool, followed by a loss to Sunderland. Huh?
source: 11 DOWN 4 West Ham: We knew the Dimitri Payet signing was huge, but it’s never more evident than now. They have to prove they can play without him, as he’ll be out for three months, but at the moment things look dire.
source: 12 UP 2 Chelsea: This still isn’t where the Blues want to be, and they probably won’t get there this season with the hole too big, but things appear to be steadying, albeit slowly. Still, there’s a long way to go to eliminate the embarrassing results, and they remain in the Champions League hunt.
source: 13 West Bromwich Albion: Another team that’s hard to figure out, and that’s probably going to be the case all year. Nevertheless, they’ve won a few games they shouldn’t, and have taken care of the teams they should. The Baggies look to be strong enough to avoid the relegation conversation.
source: 14 DOWN 4 Watford: This is the Watford we all expect. They put up a fight against both Manchester United and Leicester, but a tough November turns a bit nicer until a holiday season gauntlet. Can they pick up vital points the next few weeks?
source: 15 DOWN 4 Swansea City: The true relegation battle seems to be forming here. The Swans have just one win since Aug 30, over lowly Aston Villa. With Liverpool, Leicester, and Man City all up next, alarm bells are starting to go off in Wales.

16 Newcastle United: They needed a win over Bournemouth and they got it, but much more is required to keep them up.
17 UP 1 Norwich City: October hit the Canaries hard, but a win over Swansea got them some space above the relegation zone. The schedule looks tough in December. If they can steal one or two, they would do themselves a world of good.
source: 18 Bournemouth: You have to feel for the Cherries, who’ve been battered by injuries to key players like Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel and Callum WilsonThat’s what we wrote last time. Nothing much has change. Tough season is ahead.
source: 19 UP 1 Sunderland: They’re not out of the relegation zone yet, but a win over Crystal Palace was huge.
source: 20 DOWN 1 Aston Villa: Remi Garde knew this would be a tough job. Yea, it is.

MLS preview: MLS Cup places to be booked on Sunday

Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers FC
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The last team to overcome a two-goal deficit in the second leg of a two-leg MLS Cup Playoffs tie was the 2004 Kansas City Wizards. On Sunday, two conference finals favorites — higher seeds, at least — will take their shot at rewriting the above piece of history in their bids to qualify for MLS Cup 2015.

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The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, each the top seed in their respective conference and one-two finishers, respectively, for the Supporters’ Shield, have 90 minutes to overcome two very difference two-goal deficits against the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC.

Note: A player who accumulates his second yellow card (of the MLS Cup Playoffs) in the second leg of the Conference Championship series IS ELIGIBLE to play in MLS Cup, as playoff yellow card accumulation resets following the Conference Championships. (A red card, whether a straight red or two yellows, in the second leg still equals a suspension for MLS Cup.)

FC Dallas 1-3 Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

While history isn’t on the side of teams attempting to come back from two goals down in the second leg, FCD have one thing going for them: an away from the first leg — of course, they would have been better served to have not given away a third goal in the game’s dying minutes and headed home slight favorites with an away goal and a one-goal deficit. As things stand, though, 2-0 puts FCD through to MLS Cup — which they would host against Columbus Crew SC and play away to New York Red Bulls.

A big problem for FCD in the first leg was how much time Portland’s full backs, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana, spent overlapping into FCD’s defensive half. Because of this, FCD’s rabid wingers, most notably Fabian Castillo, were limited in their effect on the counter after being forced to drop so deep to defend. With Portland defending a two-goal lead on Sunday, look for Powell and Villafana to sit back quite a bit more, thus putting the keys to FCD’s season into the hands of Castillo and Mauro Diaz. The great thing about Diaz, if you’re an FCD supporter, is that he’s brilliant enough to singlehandedly pick teams apart whether they’re stretched all over the field or bunkered deep.

Regular season: POR 3-1 FCD (4/4); FCD 4-1 POR (7/25)
Injuries: FCD — OUT: Rolando Escobar (facial fracture) | POR — OUT: Ben Zemanski (knee)

New York Red Bulls 0-2 Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

If FCD are standing on tenuous ground, the New York Red Bulls are running on quicksand. No away goal in the first leg, coupled with Kei Kamara‘s late goal to make it 2-0, means anything but a perfect performance on Sunday, and they’re out. 2-0 send the series to extra time, but here’s where it gets supremely tricky for the Red Bulls: a single Crew SC goal in the second leg means RBNY need four goals to advance. That would seem quite unlikely.

For the entirety of the 2015 season, RBNY’s greatest strength was their spine: Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle at center back, and Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan in midfield. In the first leg, the midfield trio had its worst game of the season — completely overwhelmed with pressure and unable to press high themselves — which put the center of defense — already down Perrinelle to a season-ending knee injury — under tons of pressure. From the moment Justin Meram hit the back of the net, eight seconds into the game, RBNY’s entire gameplan was out the window — they were forced to chase a goal they didn’t really want, and in turn gave up a second late on. They’ll need to start better in the second leg, set their high line of pressing much more quickly when turning the ball over, and attack the wings to limit the attacking impact of full backs Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, who absolutely destroyed them in the first leg.

Regular season: CLB 1-2 RBNY (3/28); CLB 2-1 RBNY (7/4); RBNY 2-1 CLB (10/3)
Injuries: RBNY — OUT: Damien Perrinelle (knee), Chris Duval (broken leg) | CLB — OUT: Kristinn Steindorsson (knee)

Slaven Bilic wants West Ham to stop whining about missing Payet

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24: Slaven Bilic manager of West Ham United looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Chelsea at Boleyn Ground on October 24, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Sometimes nominating the signing of the season is difficult to do until we get a glimpse of a team without their new addition. We’re seeing that this year as West Ham, who were in fifth position before summer signing Dimitri Payet went down with an ankle injury that could see him out for three months.

Without Payet, they looked lost in a 4-1 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane, and the void left in midfield was all anyone could talk about.

Slaven Bilic hates that.

“Losing Payet is a blow but we have two options: one is continue to talk about it and the other is to get together and play better even without him,” Bilic said prior to Sunday’s home matchup with West Brom. “He’s a player who has made a huge impact. He’s a key player for us and is doing the things that every club needs.”

Before the Spurs match, Bilic was adamant that the team was losing its best player. Now, he’s of the opposite tone.

“In my team I have enough players who can make his absence to feel it less,” Bilic said. “We have enough quality to play without Dimitri. We were hugely disappointed and angry with the way we played [against Tottenham].”

Jamie Vardy setting up academy to help discover non-league talent

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Leicester City at St Mary's Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Southampton, England.
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In 2012, Jamie Vardy was playing non-league football for Fleetwood Town.

Today, he is the top scorer in the Premier League with Leicester City, and is currently on a record run of scoring in ten straight matches.

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Vardy’s meteoric rise is the stuff of fairytales, and now he is giving back to those who are trying to break through as he did a few years ago.

The 28-year-old striker has set up the V9 Academy, a program aimed at finding non-league talent and helping the players develop into “the next Jamie Vardy.”

I know there are players out there in a similar position to where I was that just need an opportunity,

More and more players are dropping out of the system early. For me, it was at Sheffield Wednesday when I was 16 because they thought I was too small. I remember how that felt and it’s difficult to come back from or even think about the professional game.

I’ve thought for some time that something could be done about it and after several conversations with my agent and my fiancee, Becky, we decided to set up V9 to unearth talent and give those players a shot – hopefully at earning professional contracts but also to learn what it takes to be a professional at the highest level.

In just his second season in the Premier League, Vardy has become one of the most prolific strikers in Europe, earning him Player of the Month honors for October as well as a call-up to the England national team.