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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.

Lionel Messi to undergo tests for lingering kidney problems

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds the ball during a quarterfinal, second leg, Copa del Rey soccer match against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi is to undergo medical tests to assess a recurrence of kidney problems.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup | Barca win on Sunday

Messi missed the Club World Cup semifinal in December due to a renal colic, an abdominal ailment often related to the presence of kidney stones within renal ducts.

Barcelona says in a statement Monday that the tests to be conducted by Tuesday at the latest, are “to assess the evolution of the kidney problem he suffered last December.”

[ MORE: Champions League returns next week — KO round matchups ]

The statement says Messi will resume training with the squad on Wednesday, when Barcelona travels to Valencia for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals in which it carries a 7-0 lead.

Qatari official says World Cup drunks will be treated “very gently”

In this photo taken during a government organized media tour, laborers work at the Al-Wakra Stadium that is under construction for the 2022 World Cup, in Doha, Qatar, Monday, May 4, 2015. Qatar’s top labor official told The Associated Press Monday that Qatar’s inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was “a mistake” the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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One of the biggest unanswered questions still hanging over the 2022 World Cup — at least for fans traveling to Qatar for the tournament — has to do with the rules and regulations placed upon their consumption of alcohol.

[ MORE: All of the latest FIFA news ]

On Monday, Hassan Al Thawadi, the head of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup committee, attempted to ease those fears when he said that not only will the consumption of alcohol be permitted during the tournament in six years’ time, but that in the event of public drunkenness, the visitors in question will be dealt with quickly and “very gently” — quotes from the Guardian:

“I know in South Africa there where specific courts established during the World Cup for this kind of thing, and that is something we were discussing with FIFA.”

“In relation to drunk fans it will be as it is anywhere else, anyone who is rowdy, anyone who breaches the law, will be very gently – depending on how they react – taken care of in a manner to make sure that people are not disrupting the public order. Everyone will be able to have fun and be exposed to Qatari culture.”

“We welcome everyone in the world. We’ve hosted many people, from many places and [drinking] was never an issue. This will be a fun World Cup. It will be one of the best cups out there.”

Chelsea’s next manager? Juve GM tells Allegri to “think twice” about it

Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri waits for the start of a Serie A soccer match between Inter Milan and Juventus at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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Chelsea fans, quickly think up a few qualities and characteristics you’d like your club’s next manager to possess. Got your list? OK, good. Massimiliano Allegri ticks just about every box you’d hope your next manager would do, which is why there are plenty of rumors flying around linking Juventus’ current boss to the Premier League’s highest profile vacancy.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

For staters, he’s young (48) and massively ambitious; he’s had plenty of success at his two most recent stops as a manager (2010-11 Serie A title with AC Milan; 2014-15 Serie A title, Coppa Italia triumph and UEFA Champions League runners-up with Juventus); and he boasts a successful enough playing career to command the respect of his players.

Juve aren’t going to let Allegri walk out the door without putting up a fight to keep their in-demand leader, though. The club’s general manager, Beppe Marotta, has warned Allegri that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side — quotes from the Guardian:

“In the space of one month we have to play in every competition: the league, the Coppa Italia and the Champions League. The next month will tell us a lot about how the whole season is going to play out.

“But we talk to Allegri about footballing matters, not about other matters. Beyond the contracts you have to sign there are the relationships you must build with people, and we’re happy with Allegri.

“All the conditions are right for us to continue with him as coach. Results are what count and Allegri has delivered plenty of those. Football is a business and the role of a coach is important when it comes to breeding continuity.

“Chelsea are a top club and it’s obvious that they’ll want to look at the best coaches. All I can say is that Allegri is already at a top club, so he’d do well to think twice before leaving Juventus.”

[ MORE: Van Gaal calls Mourinho speculation false, a bunch of “nonsense” ]

In the end, if Allegri wants to test himself at a higher level where league titles are anything but a foregone conclusion at the beginning of the season (Juventus are currently in pursuit of their fifth straight Serie A crown), Marotta and Juve stand little chance of changing his mind. Not even Bayern Munich could withstand the pull of the PL and keep hold of Pep Guardiola, just as Diego Simeone will one day join Jurgen Klopp and many others as foreign coaches who established themselves elsewhere and eventually ended up in England.

Checking in with the Championship’s Premier League promotion hopefuls

HULL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: Jake Livermore of Hull City in action with Diego Fabbrini of Middlesbrough during the Sky Bet Championship match between Hull City and Middlesbrough at the KC Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Hull, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
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With roughly one-third of the schedule to play, there are four clubs within three points of automatic promotion to the Premier League and five more in or within shouting distance of the promotion playoffs.

So while we’re tracking the race to avoid PL relegation between Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich City and others, let’s take a look at who’s making bids to take their places.

[ MORE: Difficulty looms for in-form, relegation-scrapping Villa ]

Only one of last season’s relegated teams is far removed from the race to rejoin the Premier League, and that’s Queens Park Rangers. The R’s are 11 points back of sixth place, the final PL playoff spot.

Top dogs

Steve Bruce has Hull City in line for an instant return to the Premier League, but it’s far from sewn up. The Tigers have the Championship’s best goal differential (26), but are tied with Middlesbrough on points and just a point ahead of Sean Dyche‘s Burnley.

Also within a win of the Top Two is Brighton and Hove Albion, led by ex-Norwich City and Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton. He guided the Magpies to promotion, and also got Birmingham City to the playoff in 2012.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01:  Jonathan Spector of Birmingham City during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Birmingham City and Leicester City at St Andrews (stadium) on August 1, 2015 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Also in the running

Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday would be headed to the playoffs if the regular season ended today, but either could drop out of the six within a single game weekend.

Ipswich Town is in 7th with 48 points, while Birmingham is a point back. And remember Vincent Tan? Cardif City’s 45 points have them in the discussion for a PL return.

Of those teams, only one carries an American player. That’s USMNT defender Jonathan Spector (right), the former Manchester United and West Ham United man.