League races make decisions easy for Champions League coaches

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When Galatasaray take the field tonight for today’s derby against Istanbul BB, Fatih Terim’s will have to wrestle with one of the default dilemmas of European success. With key players just returning from the March international break, it’s tempting to rest them ahead of important mid-week matches, with the first legs of Champions League’s quarterfinals taking place Tuesday and Wednesday. Yet late in campaigns with domestic honors and Champions League spots at stake, managers must often decide whether to push players through their congested schedules or sacrifice one goal for another.

Gala has led the Turkish Süper Lig for most of the year, but headed into the 27th of 34 rounds, they’re only four points up on rival Fenerbahçe. While Fener looks a safe bet for three points from 17th place Akhisar Belediye on Sunday, Terim’s team gets a crosstown rival that hasn’t lost in five. Any Gala stumble could allow Fener to reclaim the title when Fenerbahçe hosts the season’s final derby on May 11.

So does Terim put his full team out against Istanbul in an attempt to keep Fener at arm’s length? Or does he pursue Champions League glory in a low-percentage play against Real Madrid, implicitly better his team can either recover by Wednesday (if he pushes his starters) or reclaim any points lost by choosing reserves on Saturday?

This time of year, managers are typically forced to embrace that balancing act, though this season is a little different – perhaps disappointingly so. League titles are all but decided in Germany, Italy and Spain, and the good teams chasing those league’s leaders are often safely clear of a fight for Champions League qualification. As a result, few teams actually face any risk today should they rest their starters.

Bayern Munich and Juventus play one of Tuesday’s two matches, but neither of their coaches will leave their teams exposed should they sit their best players. Juventus are nine points clear of second place Napoli in Itay’s Serie A, and while their trip to Inter is one of the higher profile games on the domestic calendar (the Derby d’Italia), Antonio Conte would be justified to rest his more aged legs ahead of Tuesday’s visit from Bayern. As for München, they are 20 points clear of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, so while a visit from Hamburg is usually a marquee match, Jupp Heynckes can lean on his squad’s depth on Saturday (and for the rest of the season, for that matter).

Also on Tuesday, Barcelona visits Paris Saint-Germain, who came into the weekend with a five-point lead on second place Lyon in France. The Parisians were given a Friday fixture by the FFF, allowing them an extra day’s rest ahead of Barça’s arrival. That helped Carlo Ancelotti play an almost entirely first-choice side against defending champion Montepellier, with a late goal from Kevin Gameiro extending PSG’s lead to eight points.

Barcelona may not be as eager to put their top talent in harm’s way. With a 13-point lead in Spain, Barça face few risks should they pick a second-choice side today at Celta de Vigo.

Real Madrid also play Saturday, facing Real Zaragoza ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Galatasaray. With the league title out of reach, they’re playing for little more than domestic pride. Thirteen points out of first and 14 points into a Champions League spot, El Real’s place in the Primera standings gives José Mourinho every reason to be cynically pragmatic.

Lower down the table, Málaga also have nothing to play for, though for far different reasons. The Andalusians have been banned from next year’s European competitions for failing to pay wages, tax bills, and other fees. Currently sixth in Spain, Manuel Pellegrini’s team has had all of their eggs put into one basket, whether they like it or not. They have little incentive to risk anybody today at Rayo Vallecano.

Then there’s Borussia Dortmund, a contender for this year’s title who may receive a perverse benefit from no longer being about to contest their Bundesliga crown. With players like Kevin Großkreutz, Nuri Sahin, and Felipe Santana in reserve, Jurgen Klopp’s side has the depth to compete on multiple fronts, but thanks to their 20-point deficit in Germany, they can keep that powder dry as they pursue a second Champions League title.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.