Real Madrid's Portuguese coach Jose Mour

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.

Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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Designing the perfect UEFA Champions League Round of 16

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 06:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona chips the ball over goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Bayern Muenchen to score his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final, first leg match between FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Muenchen at Camp Nou on May 6, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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With 16 teams settled into their spots for Monday’s UEFA Champions League draw, what would be the most tantalizing octet of matches for February’s Round of 16.

We’ll include a full list of seeded and unseeded teams at the bottom so you can pair ’em up however you like, but let’s start with our best ideas.

Remember: Teams can neither be drawn against teams from their own domestic leagues, or against the other advancing team from their group stage quartets.

[ MORE: USMNT GK off to Belgium? ]

Let’s begin with the reigning champions. Real Madrid is unseeded, and cannot draw Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and Borussia Dortmund. Our vote would be Juventus and a reprisal of the 2015 final in Berlin.

Real boss Zinedine Zidane would not be pleased.

Staying in Spain, seeded Barcelona only knows it will avoid Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Sevilla. We’re interested in attractive soccer, so how about a bombastic battle with Bayern Munich.

Manchester City is the lone Premier League team in the unseeded pool, and cannot face Arsenal, Leicester City, or Barcelona. We’re thinking Sky Blue vs. Sky Blue, and a match-up with Napoli.

Leicester City completes the Premier League trio. Given our above draw and group mates Porto, that leaves Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Sevilla, and PSG as potential rivals. We’ll chose Bayer Leverkusen as the match-up likely gives the Foxes their best chance to hit the snooze button and keep dreaming.

The biggest name left is Paris Saint-Germain (with apologies to BVB). Unai Emery’s bunch would be left with Atletico Madrid as the lone option, and another tete-a-tete between the ex-Sevilla boss and Diego Simeone works for us.

Now Arsenal… who do you draw with the hopes of a quarterfinal berth in ages? The remaining options are Benfica, Sevilla, and Porto. We’ll give Benfica a trip to the Emirates, leaving Porto to face Monaco, and Sevilla on the road to Borussia Dortmund.

Our final draw:
Arsenal vs. Benfica
Monaco vs. Porto
Borussia Dortmund vs. Sevilla
Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Napoli vs. Manchester City
Leicester City vs. Bayer Leverkusen
Juventus vs. Real Madrid


Seeded
Arsenal
Atletico Madrid
Barcelona
Napoli
Monaco
Leicester City
Juventus
Borussia Dortmund

Unseeded
Paris Saint-Germain
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Benfica
Bayer Leverkusen
Porto
Sevilla
Real Madrid

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Europa League preview: Saints, Man Utd hope to join Spurs in Round of 32

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Yuto Nagatomo of Internazionale (R) and Ivan Perisic of Internazionale close down Nathan Redmond of Southampton during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur will be seeded in the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 32. What do Manchester United and Southampton need to do Thursday to join them?

Both the Red Devils and Saints enter the final group stage match day in their respective groups’ second place, but only United can claim a seeded place in the Round of 32.

[ UCL: Scenarios for Premier League sides ]

United can still win Group A, and would need to better Fenerbahce’s result on Thursday. Jose Mourinho’s men are in Ukraine against bottom-dwelling Zorya Luhansk, while Fener are away at Feyenoord.

Manchester United will advance with a draw, and could also go through if they lose and Feyenoord doesn’t defeat Fenerbahce.

As for Saints, Claude Puel‘s men are level with Hapoel Be’er Sheva and welcome the Israel side to St. Mary’s after drawing 0-0 in the reverse fixture.

Southampton needs to beat Hapoel or hold them to a scoreless draw. A scoring draw would push HBS through via road goals.

Full UEL schedule

11 a.m. EDT
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. EDT
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. EDT
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

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