Paris St Germain's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Beckham attend a training session at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona

Champions League preview: Sharp rise has taken Paris Saint-Germain to Barcelona

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Paris Saint-Germain’s project is as much about brand as it is their soccer, and in both respects, Qatari Investment Authority’s plans seem to be ahead of schedule. After disappointingly giving up last season’s Ligue 1 title to Montpellier, PSG’s running away from France’s top division, while in Champions League, the team’s made it as far as anybody could reasonably expect: A quarterfinal matchup with Barcelona, currently the world’s marqueé club, where the teams sit tied at two after 90 minutes.

Before we pull over the changes of PSG pulling off an upset Wednesday at the Nou Camp, consider how far the club has come since QIA took over in June 2011. Of course they’ve had nearly unlimited cash to fund their progress, but money hasn’t been enough for Manchester City to make a dent in Europe. Málaga’s economic might turned out to be a rouse, while clubs like Anzhi Makhachkala and Zenit St. Petersburg have yet to see their European impact parallel their expenditures. PSG’s rise is more reminiscent of Chelsea’s, a club that’s firmly established themselves as one of the world’s premier brands while winning almost every trophy imaginable.

Yet there’s a star power PSG’s already established that Chelsea has never been able to achieve, a quality that’s sure to create a celebrity-fueled buzz as the Parisians descent on Camp Nou. Only Real Madrid has stars to rival the likes of David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – players whose gravities are comparable to the Blaugrana’s own Lionel Messi. And of course there’s Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi – players whose celebrity doesn’t match their talent, no matter how dangerous they are on the field. Paris Saint-Germain may not be seen as top-level contenders for this year’s title, but when Cataluyna hums with the arrival of their star-laden squad, there’ll be little doubting the power of what’s destined to be one of the world’s sexiest soccer brands.

In that vein, PSG’s already accomplished what it set out to do when it began this year’s competition. Now that they’re here, of course they want to beat Barcelona, but at the onset of the tournament, nobody expected them to challenge for the title. Carlo Ancelotti and squad may have given lip service to their potential, but nobody at the Parc de Princes was reserving seats at Wembley. This first year back in Champions League was as much about establishing a presence as it was challenging for a trophy. Now with a chance to eliminate Barcelona at the halfway point of their quarterfinal, PSG’s established their European credibility – one of the things QIA set out to do two years ago.

Whether they can transcend those modest goals and stay alive in Champions League will depend in large part on Messi’s health. The Barcelona focal point left last week’s game at halftime with a right thigh injury, an ailment that kept him out of Saturday’s win over Mallorca. With interim coach Jordi Roura describing him as akin to a game time decision, there’s a chance Messi won’t play in Wednesday’s match. Same does for Pedro Rodríguez and Adriano, while Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol are definitely out.

Roura’s team is set to be a makeshift one. If that includes the absence of Lionel Messi, a PSG team that was already competing with Barcelona could become favorites to claim an unlikely semifinal spot.

As much of a long-shot as it seemed a week ago, there’s a decent chance Paris Saint-Germain can pull and upset that would allow their results to keep pace with their brand. Regardless, both are far ahead of schedule.

Notes

  • Without Messi this weekend, Barcelona beat Mallorca 5-0 thanks to a hat trick from Cesc Fábregas and two goals from Alexis Sanchez.
  • Get past Paris Saint-Germain, and Barcelona will qualify for their sixth straight Champions League semifinal.
  • Barcelona sought recourse with UEFA after a sequence of disputed calls led to PSG’s first goal last Tuesday. Not surprisingly, UEFA’s stayed quiet.
  • Eric Abidal, who underwent a liver transplant last year, made his return on Saturday, playing the last 20 minutes against Mallorca.
  • Despite his comeback, Abidal’s unlikely to get the start in Mascherano’s spot. Roura will choose between natural midfielder Alex Song and 22-year-old Marc Bartra.
  • For PSG, midfielder Blaise Matuidi, scorer of last Tuesday’s stoppage time equalizer, will be suspended for yellow card accumulation.
  • If Thiago Motta isn’t healthy enough to return, Ancelotti will be scrambling to replace Matuidi. Clement Chantome is a possibility, but so is Thiago Silva, with the defender used in midfield earlier this season.
  • Silva, however, has a knee problem which may keep him out. He’ll need to pass a late fitness test, as will central defense partner Alex, who was able to train with the full team on Tuesday.
  • With a team that only kept four starters from last week’s Champions League match, PSG won at Rennes on Saturday, getting goals from Jeremy Menez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on their way to a 2-0 result.

Possible Lineups

Barcelona (4-3-3): Víctor Valdes; Jordi Alba, Alex Song, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves; Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández; David Villa, Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez

Paris Saint-Germain (4-4-2): Salvatore Sirigu; Maxwell, Thiago Silva, Alex, Christophe Jallet; Javier Pastore, David Beckham, Thiago Motta, Lucas Moura; Ezequiel Lavezzi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Klopp played three positions in Liverpool staff team’s draw with Stanford

Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool FC (Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer)
Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer
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From the Endearing Jurgen Klopp Tales file, the Liverpool manager reportedly starred in defense, midfield and attack for a squad full of Reds coaches against Stanford on Sunday.

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Liverpool, who have based themselves on the sunny, warm Stanford University campus as part of their preparations for the 2016-17 Premier League, took on the collegiate side and played the youngsters to a 1-1 draw.

Klopp failed to get his name on the scoresheet, though the former Mainz striker had one golden chance turned away by Stanford’s goalkeeper. The same couldn’t be said for physiotherapist Ruben Pons, who scored from beyond the halfway line on a mishit long ball over the top.

With all the goodwill Klopp has banked with Reds fans in his first nine months at the club, he’s now only a PL title away from securing his place as an eternal Liverpool legend.

Liverpool will take on Chelsea in each side’s first International Champions Cup fixture Wednesday night (11 p.m. ET) in Pasadena, Calif.

Former Fergie assistant Phelan wants Hull job — “I want to be a manager”

SCUNTHORPE, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Hull City interim manager Mike Phelan prior to kick off in the pre-season friendly between Scunthorpe United and Hull City at Glanford Park on July 23, 2016 in Scunthorpe, England.  (Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images)
Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images
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Following Steve Bruce’s sudden and unexpected resignation this week, Hull City find themselves without a first-team manager 20 days before the 2016-17 Premier League opener, which will pit the PL newcomers (again) against the reigning PL champions (not again) Leicester City on Aug. 13.

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The man presently in charge of the club, Mike Phelan, who served as Sir Alex Ferguson‘s no. 2 for a number of years at Manchester United, has essentially no first-team managerial experience, but he’s eager to cut his teeth and wants the job anyway — quotes from the Hull Daily Mail:

“I want to be a manager. I don’t really see why I shouldn’t want to be a manager. Time will tell. That decision doesn’t sometimes come down to you.

“I’ve had a small chat and I was asked if I would carry on being in charge for now. We have games, we have preparations, we’ve still got three weeks to go.

“My job is no different to what it has been except now I’m stood on the touchline in games doing my bit. We just have to do our job, there’s nothing else we can do until the powers that be make their decisions.”

Here’s why it’s (obviously) crazy for the club to delay a final decision any longer than absolutely necessary: with every passing day, important preparations for a PL season, a campaign in which the Tigers will almost certainly be fighting for their top-division status, are being undertaken by an interim boss who, based upon the daily whims of an outgoing owner, may or may not be the man to lead Hull into that 38-game battle.

Phelan previously served as interim manager for Norwich City in 2015, for a period totaling four days.

Int’l Champions Cup: Aurier scores twice as PSG throttle Inter Milan

Paris Saint-Germain's Serge Aurier, right, gets a shot past Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, left, in the first half of the International Champions Cup soccer match at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., Sunday, July 24, 2016. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP)
Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP
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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Serge Aurier scored twice and Paris Saint-Germain beat Inter Milan 3-1 on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.

Layvin Kurzawa also scored for PSG on a free kick in the 61st minute in the International Champions Cup match. Stevan Jovetic scored for Inter Milan on a penalty kick in stoppage time following the first half.

Autzen Stadium, the home football field of the Oregon Ducks, hosted the match, part of the International Champions Cup. Real grass was laid down on the artificial turf field, obscuring the yellow `O’ at midfield.

The International Champions Cup is an exhibition tournament involving 17 teams playing on four different continents. It serves a tuneup for the regular season.

Inter Milan was coming off a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake earlier in the week in Utah. Striker Mauro Icardi played in that match, and was given the day off against PSG.

Paris Saint-Germain, which beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 its last time out on July 14 in Austria, is embarking on its first season under Unai Emery, who took over for Laurnet Blanc. In addition to the new manager, PSG will also need to adjust to the departure of enigmatic forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who signed with Manchester United earlier this month.

Ibrahimovic had 38 goals in 31 French league games last season, helping PSG to a fourth successive title. On Sunday midfielder Javier Pastore wore No. 10.

Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier entered as subs for Paris Saint-Germain in the second half.

Di Maria had just returned to his club team earlier in the week after taking some time off following the Copa America tournament. He played for his native Argentina in the final, which Chile won on penalty kicks.

David Luiz apparently did not make the trip to Eugene from Los Angeles, where PSG was training.

Aurier, who played in the 2014 World Cup for his native Ivory Coast, left-footed the rebound of a free kick off goalkeeper Samir Handanovic into the bottom left corner.

Inter Milan evened it on Jovetic’s penalty kick into the top right corner in extra time following the first half. The penalty was awarded when Lucas Moura was called for a handball.

Aurier had a good chance in the 57th minute but his shot hit the crossbar. A few minutes later, Kurzawa struck a perfectly placed free kick that Handanovic couldn’t reach that put PSG in front.

Aurier’s second goal was a header off a cross from Alec Georgen in the 87th minute.

Is MLS MVP a three-horse race at the All-Star “break”?

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco laughs after being named Major League Soccer's 2015 Most Valuable Player in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec.  2, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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With the 2016 MLS All-Star Game set to be played Thursday night (versus Arsenal, at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif.), it got me thinking about the race for this year’s Most Valuable Player award. (If MLS is going to continue holding the All-Star Game every year — and they are — it should include an actual break, as is the case in all other America sports.)

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While the field is a small one at this point of the campaign, it’s also much closer than it was last year, when Sebastian Giovinco took home the honor in an absolute landslide of a vote.

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

The reigning MVP is on pace for something of a come-down in his second season in MLS, but when you put up 22 goals and 16 assists in your debut campaign, can you really expect to replicate that kind of production from one year to the next? Still, 11 goals (on the most shots in the league – 124) and 7 assists through 20 games (Giovinco has played in 19) has him on pace for 18 goals and 12 assists. Of course, when you consider he snapped a skid of eight games without a goal with a hat trick Saturday night, and that he’s unlikely to endure such a slump through the final 14 games, 18 and 12 should be considered the proverbial floor.

TFC have scored just 25 goals this season, and Giovinco has scored or assisted 18 of them (72 percent).

As for TFC’s present standing and how that impacts Giovinco’s MVP candidacy, fifth place through 20 games is a disappointment considering this was to be “the year” where they were less of a collection of talent, and more a functional team. Of course, injuries (and national team call-ups) have robbed the Reds of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Will Johnson for lengthy periods already. That TFC find themselves presently a playoff team, and a measly six points back of the Eastern Conference’s top spot with two games in hand, should benefit Giovinco’s case more than hurt it.

David Villa, New York City FC

This one’s pretty simple: NYCFC weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the top spot of the East this season, yet that’s where they find themselves at the break, and Villa has spearheaded their unlikely run by scoring 13 goals (most in MLS – on 117 shots – 46 more than the next-closest player) and one assist through 22 games (Villa has played in 21). The question is this, though: will Patrick Vieira’s side still be there come the end of the season? So much of Villa’s claim to MVP is that he’s been the best player on one of the best (and certainly most surprising) teams in MLS this year.

If they’re to fall back into the pack (they’re just two points clear of the New York Red Bulls following Sunday’s 4-1 derby disaster, and only four points from fourth), Villa will quickly fall from MVP candidate to “the best best player on a subpar team.”

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
(AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact

The Impact have, for my money, the most complete roster in the Eastern Conference. Didier Drogba is arguably the most dominant goal-scoring force MLS has ever seen (8 goals in 12 appearances this season; 11 in 11 last year), and the depth in midfield and defense is unparalleled, yet Piatti has been the unrivaled star through the first 20 games of the season (he has played in 18). His 12 goals and 5 assists are rivaled only by Giovinco’s numbers, and he’s been a far more consistent contributor than the Italian (never more than three games without a goal, while playing as a non-forward, unlike Giovinco).

The knock on Piatti has always been his inability to stay healthy and approach a pace of 30 appearances in a single season. Finally consistently healthy in 2016, he’s taken his short-term production and replicated that same kind of output over 90 percent of his team’s games this season. If he can reach 30 games played this year, Piatti has the best chance of stopping Giovinco from becoming the first back-to-back MVP winner in league history.

Montreal Impact's Ignacio Piatti, left, of Argentina, scores a goal as Vancouver Whitecaps' Kendall Waston, of Costa Rica, defends during first half MLS soccer action, in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

On the fringe, with a chance to catch the leaders: Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls – 5 goals, 12 assists), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers – 9 goals, 5 assists)