Pressure shifts to Mexico for tonight’s World Cup qualifier versus the United States

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The pressure may be off the United States national team for now – but the pulse remains rapid in its bitter border rivalry with Mexico.

All the heat of the ongoing hostilities between the region’s dominant men’s soccer powers has shifted toward Mexico for tonight’s World Cup qualifier. The venue, as always when the CONCACAF heavyweights meet south of the border, will be pulsating through the smoggy, thin and hostile air of Estadio Azteca.

The United States landed Sunday with fresh burst of confidence and evidence of improved team accord following Friday’s restorative 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the unforgettable snow globe that was DSG Park outside Denver.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s highly regarded team was finishing off its second consecutive disappointing result, a 2-2 draw at Honduras. That followed the Mexicans’ draw at home with Jamaica to open final stage World Cup qualifying – so fabled El Tri is winless after two rounds of play in the ongoing final round, saddled with just two of a possible six points.

That’s a full-on crisis in Mexico, where El Tri manager José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre is taking a beating in the press and in public confidence. A loss tonight to the United States would surely mark his Waterloo; kickoff from inside sold-out Azteca is set for 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN).

Obviously, the United States would love to steal a win and send the crowd of 100,000-plus home disappointed. But of the region’s six teams still alive for three automatic bids for World Cup 2014 in Brazil, none studied their final round schedules and circled Mexico as a place where points could be expected. Teams may generally come into Mexico City with dreams of something historic, but the real world is that they’d all be giddy just to steal a draw.

(MORE: Should Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactics and choices be more conservative tonight?) 

The Americans, for instance, have one victory and one tie to go with 23 losses all-time in matches on Mexican soil. Mexico is a daunting 68-1-6 against all opposition in World Cup qualifiers inside Azteca.

That formidable dominance may have been slightly dented last August in a historic U.S. win; it was just a friendly, but a 1-0 upset over Mexico last summer remains among the highlights of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s 20-months in charge.

So with the weight of the world on Mexico tonight and plenty of home games ahead in 2012, the United States stands today in decidedly better mental shape than just four days ago, prior to the weighty match in Denver. Plus, players held a clear-the-air meeting before that Costa Rican contest, with apparent progress in closing the fissures revealed publicly in Brian Straus’ Sporting News piece.

“In the past stretch, even going back to the last stage of qualifying, the things that our team always has to be about,  the fight, the commitment … we looked at each other and said this isn’t what it needs to be,” veteran midfielder Michael Bradley said. “As we move forward and the big games come, in order for us to be a team that competes at the highest level that has to be at its absolute highest whenever we step on the field.”

(MORE: Bradley talks about the fight, commitment that prevailed Friday)

All that said, the United States still has questions along a battered back line, one missing its longtime captain Carlos Bocanegra (not selected), veteran right back Steve Cherundolo (injured) and two ailing young fullbacks.

First-choice goalkeeper Tim Howard is out with injury, too, although backup Brad Guzan continues to establish his trustworthiness at highest level through his work in U.S. goal and with defensively-challenged Aston Villa in England.

Jermaine Jones and Danny Williams, the team’s first choices in the holding midfield role, are also ailing and not available for this one.

(MORE: Looking at Jermaine Jones’ absence)

But neither is El Tri at full strength for this one. Center back Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and left back Jorge Torres Nilo will miss due to yellow card accumulation.

Giovani dos Santos, who destroyed the U.S. back line last time these teams met in a meaningful match, back in the summer of 2011, seems to be missing some confidence.

But Mexico does have Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, a man as blessed with pure scoring instincts as anyone you’ll ever see. The Manchester United striker struck for both goals in Friday’s 2-2 draw in Honduras, and he will surely test the next version of a makeshift back line, whatever that looks like.

(Check back for much more later today at ProSoccerTalk)

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”