Champions League Preview: It’s PSG-Barcelona, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic gets to play

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Anytime Zlatan Ibrahimovic faces Barcelona, the main subplot will be about one of the world’s best players facing the team that rejected him. Though Barcelona shelled out what was eventually booked as a $100 million price to get the Swedish superstar from Inter Milan in July 2009, the Catalans shipped him back to Italy 13 months later in what stands as the biggest failure of the all-world striker’s career. Despite winning a title in Spain, Ibrahimovic ended the season in Pep Guardiola’s dog house, with Barcelona eventually taking 30 cents on the dollar to give AC Milan one of the world’s transcendent talents.

While with the Blaugrana, Ibrahimovic (right) collected 22 goals and 13 assists in 46 appearances, many of which failed to give the striker his customary 90 minutes. In the two-plus years that’ve following, Ibrahimovic has 87 goals and 36 assists across 122 appearances with Milan and his current team, Paris Saint-Germain.

With Guardiola having left Barcelona, much of the underlying conflict between player and club is gone. In the buildup to the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal, Ibrahimovic has shown the same respectful awe most opponents hold ahead of a match against what he calls “the best team in the world.” Nearly three season after his disappointing year in Spain, “Ibra” seems to have found peace with his rejection.

source:  What’s left amid Ibrahimovic’s continued brilliance and Barcelona’s inability (read: unwillingness) to utilize a traditional striker or an attacker with any aerial ability is incredulity. Chalk it up to an anomaly, bad timing, or a conflict of styles between “Ibra” and a fellow superstar (Lionel Messi) being converted to a through-the-middle player, but it’s still remarkable one of the world’s best clubs couldn’t make room for one of the planet’s defining talents. Generations from now, fans who won’t have the time to watch all of their games will ask why a Messi-Ibrahimovic tandem couldn’t be made to work.

But Barça’s loss has ultimately become the Parisians’ gain, with Ibrahimovic having moved to Ligue 1 this summer. His addition has allowed PSG to put last year’s disappointing second place finish behind them. Thanks to Ibra’s 25 league goals, PSG sits seven points clear in France. To put Ibrahimovic’s performance in perspective, last season’s Ligue 1 Player of the Year (Eden Hazard) had 20 goals over the entire season.

Clearly Ibra would be a threat to any team has faces, but with Barcelona’s best defender (Carles Puyol) out, he is a particular threat to his former team. With the Parisians presumably willing to sit back, absorb Barça’s pressure, and use Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura, and Ezequiel Lavezzi to hit them on the counter, Ibrahimovic could find himself isolated against Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano.

That puts the big Swede in a position to be decisive in a match he was supposed to miss. A harsh red card in PSG’s first game against Valencia originally had Ibrahimovic suspended for Tuesday’s game. After UEFA corrected the error, France’s best player is set to take on a side he still calls “without doubt, the best team in the world.”

(MORE: Too soon for Bayern-Juventus.)

Notes

  • In addition to Puyol’s absence, Barcelona should be without attacker Pedro Rodríguez. Cristian Tello will likely start up top.
  • Left back Jordi Alba will return to Barça’s XI. Eric Abidal, returning from last year’s liver transplant, is expected to make Barcelona’s 18.
  • And David Beckham? Yeah, he’ll be there, likely starting on PSG’s bench.
  • PSG is still without midfielder Thiago Motta. Marco Veratti will start along side Blaise Matuidi in Carlo Ancelotti’s midfield, though it would be interesting to see Thiago Silva, the team’s best defender, put into a midfield role that would allow him more freedom to track Lionel Messi. PSG could then start Alex and Mamadou Sakho in central defense.
  • Messi set another record this weekend, scoring in his 19th consecutive La Liga match. His seven goals in Champions League trail Burak Yilmaz and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have each scored eight times.
  • Paris Saint-Germain returns to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995 when they eliminated Barcelona. That year’s semifinal appearance is the club’s best showing in Champions League.

Possible lineups

Paris Saint-Germain (4-4-2/4-2-2-2): Salvatore Sirigu; Maxwell, Thiago Silva, Alex, Gregory van der Wiel; Javier Pastore, Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi, Lucas Moura; Ezequiel Lavezzi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Barcelona (4-3-3): Víctor Valdés; Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Piqué, Daniel Alves; Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández; David Villa, Lionel Messi, Cristian Tello.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday