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Champions League teams make big changes for weekend matches

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With most domestic races in Europe long decided, it’s interesting to note the huge changes Champions League teams made in league action. Six of the eight teams chancing the European Cup made seven changes on Saturday. Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich was one of two teams to keep over half their lineup in place, making only five changes, while Turkish leaders Galatasaray returned seven players who started Wednesday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu.

For a veteran team like Juventus, the changes are necessary. An aging squad can’t play three games in nine days (which is why it was so curious that Antonio Conte started a full-strength team last Saturday at Inter Milan). For teams with younger legs, there are two schools of thought. You don’t want to do anything to disrupt whatever rhythm or momentum your team’s built; however, fatigue and injury have to be considered. If you’re facing struggling opposition in a game that won’t influence your league fortunes, the benefits of maintaining a routine don’t outweigh using caution.

Some of this weekend’s moves were forced by fitness. After a mid-week injury, Toni Kroos is out for much of the rest of the season, as is Javier Mascherano. Lionel Messi, a doubt for Wednesday against Paris Saint-Germain, was out this weekend.

Here are the ins and outs for each team on Saturday. Players in italics came on as substitutes:

Changes Club Out In
7 Barcelona

in progress

Jordi Alba
Sergio Busquets
Xavi Hernandez
Javier Mascherano
Lionel Messi
David Villa
Victor Valdes
Thiago Alcantera
Marc Barta
Cesc Fabregas
Martin Montoya
Pedro Pinto
Alexander Song
Cristian Tello
Borussia Dortmund

won vs. Augsburg, 4-2

Mario Gotze
Ilkay Gundogan
Sebastian Kehl
Robert Lewandowski
Lukasz Piszczek
Marco Reus
Roman Weinfeller
Sven Bender
Leonardo Bittebcourt
Jonas Hofmann
Moritz Leitner
Nuri Sahin
Julian Schieber
Marcel Schmelzer
Juventus

won vs. Pescara, 2-1

Andrea Barzagli
Gianluigi Buffon
Giorgio Chiellini
Claudio Marchisio
Alessandro Matri
Andrea Pirlo
Fabio Quagliarella</td>
Kwadwo Asamoah
Emanuele Giaccherini
Sebastian Giovinco
Luca Marrone
Poul Pogba
Marco Storari
Mirko Vucinic
Málaga

lost at Real Sociedad, 4-2

Julio Baptista
Willy Caballero
Martin Demichelis
Isco
Joaquin
Javier Saviola
Jeremy Toulalan
Ignacio Camacho
Sebastian Fernández
Carlos Kameni
Diego Lugano
Pedro Morales
Francisco Portillo
Roque Santa Cruz
Paris Saint-Germain

won at Rennes, 2-0

Alex
David Beckham
Christophe Jallet
Ezequiel Lavezzi
Lucas Moura
Javier Pastore
Thiago Silva
Zoumana Camara
Clement Chantome
Kevin Gameiro
Jeremy Menez
Mamadou Sahko
Marco Veratti
Gregory van der Wiel
Real Madrid

won vs. Levante, 5-1

Fabio Coentrao
Angel Di Maria
Michael Essien
Sami Khedira
Mesut Ozil
Cristiano Ronaldo
Raphael Varane
Alvaro Arbeloa
José Callejon
Gonzalo Higuain
Kaka
Marcelo
Luka Modric
Pepe
5 Bayern Munich

won at Eintracht Frankfurt, 1-0

Luiz Gustavo
Toni Kroos
Mario Mandzukic
Franck Ribery
Daniel van Buyten
Jerome Boateng
Mario Gomez
Xavi Martinez
Arjen Robben
Xherdan Shaqiri
4 Galatasaray

won vs. Mersin Idmanyurdu, 3-1

Emmanuel Eboue
Selcuk Inan
Semik Kaya
Albert Riera
Hakan Balta
Emre Colak
Sabri Sarioglu
Gokhan Zan

How important is Philippe Coutinho to Liverpool?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores their fourth goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Hull City at Anfield on September 24, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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With reports circulating that Philippe Coutinho‘s agent is in talks with Liverpool over a new deal, it is easy to see why the Reds want to reward the Brazilian playmaker.

[ MORE: Klopp on title chances

Coutinho, 24, is undoubtedly the key cog in Jurgen Klopp‘s offensive machine and since he went down with an ankle injury in November against Sunderland they’ve missed him being back to his best.

In the nine games since Coutinho was injured Liverpool have dropped 12 points in the Premier League. In the 13 PL games before his injury they dropped just nine.

Now, this isn’t down to one man but there’s no coincidence here. He makes Liverpool tick and as good as Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino have been, Coutinho is the main man. Even when you look at Liverpool’s defensive record, their much-maligned backline is slightly better with Coutinho in the team. They conceded 14 goals in 13 games before he was injured and they’ve conceded 13 in their last nine games.

Maybe that’s because Coutinho takes the pressure off his teammates by getting on the ball, dipping between the lines of defense and attack and easing pressure to allow Liverpool to dominant play rather than seeing them susceptible to counter attacks like we did against Swansea.

Klopp’s main man started at Plymouth last week and against Swansea City at the weekend, playing over an hour in each game and showing flashes of his ability. Slowly but surely he is getting back to his best and Liverpool need him to be fully fit for a pivotal stretch of games.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

On Wednesday they host Southampton in the EFL Cup semifinal second leg as the Reds trail 1-0 from the first leg. They then play an FA Cup game against second-tier Wolves and host Premier League leaders Chelsea next Wednesday in a game which they simply must win to have any hope of overhauling Chelsea to win the Premier League title.

Top four is the priority for Klopp’s men but keeping Coutinho fit and in-form is a close second.

This season he has scored five goals and added five assists in just 13 starts in the Premier League and Coutinho’s ability to thread balls in-behind to onrushing attackers, always seem to have time on the ball and ability to change the direction of play has been much missed by Liverpool over the past two months. It is inevitable that in recent displays Coutinho hasn’t looked as sharp as he did before he got injured but Klopp will be hoping the rust has been shaken off and he’s back to his best in the next week.

Along with Sadio Mane‘s absence at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal (which will likely be until the first week of February at least as he led them to the knockout stages) Liverpool’s attack looks less dangerous and that extra bit of quality and pace is missing.

That’s because Mane and Coutinho have been missing.

With Mane away, more pressure is now on Coutinho’s shoulders.

Last season was Coutinho’s most productive of his career with 10 goals and seven assists in all competitions. He is well on the way to breaking that record this season based on goals and assists in the Premier League alone.

If Liverpool is going to at least finish in the top four this season and make at least one Wembley final, they have to keep calm and pass it to Coutinho.

He’ll do the rest.

Yaya Toure slams big money moves to China

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 21:  Yaya Toure of Manchester City looks on during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Manchester City and Sevilla at Etihad Stadium on October 21, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Yaya Toure is sick of hearing about players moving to the Chinese Super League for big money.

[ PLAYBACK: Ref calls cost Man City ]

Toure, 33, is out of contract at the Etihad Stadium this summer but after coming back into the fold at Manchester City in recent weeks (thanks to an apology from his agent to manager Pep Guardiola) he has been a key cog in central midfield and wants to stay at City.

The towering Ivorian midfielder has been instrumental since joining City in 2010 from Barcelona. Toure has won the FA Cup, two League Cups and two Premier League titles with City and has questioned what means more to players.

Money or enjoyment?

“I always say that if I went to China I would end up feeling angry there. Do you play football because you love football, or do you play because you want to make money? What’s the purpose?” Toure said. “Me, I just want to play football because I enjoy it, I love playing. I enjoy helping my team-mates, I enjoy playing against the big players and teams. I want to carry on in that way. Some people have the mentality that they want to do that, to try something different but, for me, my feeling is that I want to play more football.”

Toure also said that he hopes to remain at City beyond the end of his current deal which expires in the summer.

“I’ve said before that I’ve been involved with a lot of clubs but, especially at City, I want to give something back to the fans,” Toure said. “I’d like to continue to work hard for them, keep giving them entertainment, keep them happy – that’s what I want. If I was tired, I’d say ‘no more, move on’, but I don’t feel like that. I feel very, very good. I feel young.”

Over to you Pep and Man City. Toure clearly wants to say.

Toure certainly has a lot more to give and now that Pep is on board, a two-year extension would surely be signed if it was offered.

The song below becomes more and more poignant. All together now…

Hull give latest update on Ryan Mason after skull fracture

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Ryan Mason of Hull City is examined by a medical staff after the collision with Gary Cahill of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Ryan Mason is making “excellent progress” after fracturing his skull in Hull City’s 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Mason, 25, collided with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill when challenging for a header in the first half.

The English midfielder has since been diagnosed with a fracture in his skull and has undergone surgery at a central London hospital

On Tuesday the Premier League club gave the latest update on Mason’s condition.

The Club can confirm that Ryan Mason continues to make excellent progress after sustaining a skull fracture in Sunday’s game against Chelsea. He will continue to be closely monitored by staff at St Mary’s Hospital over the next few days, whilst also remaining in contact with our medical team to assess his progress. There will be no further updates from the club until there are any changes in Ryan’s condition. We also ask that people respect Ryan and his family’s privacy whilst he remains in hospital.

Mason has been visited in hospital by Chelsea’s John Terry, Gary Cahill and assistant manager Steve Holland, plus Hull captain Michael Dawson and members of their staff have also been by his side.

This is very promising news.

Sunderland sign Lescott on short-term deal

WATFORD, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Joleon Lescott of Aston Villa reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Aston Villa at Vicarage Road on April 30, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Sunderland have signed defender Joleon Lescott on a short-term contract until the end of the season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Lescott, 34, will add plenty of experience to Sunderland’s defense and will link up with former manager David Moyes who helped him become an England international during their time together at Everton from 2006-09.

The two-time Premier League winner with Manchester City in 2011-12 and 2013-14 has bounced around in the past two years since leaving the Manchester club, playing for West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and AEK Athens after spending five years at City.

Lescott has also made 26 appearances for England, playing and scoring at EURO 2012 as his header put England ahead against France in their group opener.

Speaking about the deal, see the video below, Lescott is ready to help out the Black Cats in whatever way he can.

With Lamine Kone, John O'Shea and Papy Djilobodji around, Moyes now has options at the back and could play a three-man central defense to help bolster Sunderland’s chances of survival.

The Black Cats currently sit bottom of the table, three points from safety.