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.

Hull City 0-1 Manchester United: Rashford strikes late on the road

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  • Rashford plays hero after entering as substitute
  • Jakupovic makes seven saves in losing effort
  • Hull held to two shots on target
  • United remains unbeaten in first 3 matches

Hull City did just about everything right to earn a draw on Saturday, but Marcus Rashford decided to flip the script in the dying minutes.

Manchester United came away with a 1-0 victory at the KC Stadium after the second-half subsitute smashed home Wayne Rooney‘s cross in the 92nd minute.

Robert Snodgrass nearly handed Hull the lead after 25 minutes when the midfielder’s free kick narrowly missed wide of David De Gea‘s net. The Spanish goalkeeper was easily beaten by the shot, but United dodged a bullet as he watched the attempt go off target.

Chances were aplenty for United throughout the match, including the first half, which saw the Red Devils’ claims for a handball inside the penalty area denied.

The Red Devils found another chance to break the deadlock on the stroke of halftime but Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t find the back of the net. The Swedish striker appeared to be offsides on Wayne Rooney’s free kick but Hull survived the sequence unscathed.

It always seemed like United would find a breakthrough, despite Hull’s best defensive efforts, and Rashford’s late finish ensured the Red Devils would remain unbeaten to start the 2016/17 season.

Conte pleased with Hazard’s performance vs. Burnley

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates his sides third goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Burnley at Stamford Bridge on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte‘s debut season at Chelsea couldn’t have started off brighter with three wins in as many matches, but Saturday’s victory against Burnley was certainly the most convincing yet.

[ MORE: Chelsea moves to 3-0 after convincing win vs. Burnley ]

The Premier League upstarts were never really a match for the Blues, but Conte’s group dominated from start to finish in their 3-0 win against the Clarets.

The Italian spoke about his pleasure with the team’s effort post-match while also praising Eden Hazard‘s work rate.

“I am pleased to see the team play well and create a lot of chances,” Conte said following the win. “After 13 games where we have conceded at home, we didn’t this time and that is very important. Now we must continue.

“I want Hazard to be decisive at the beginning and I am pleased because I saw this today. However we must continue with his work and the work of the whole team.

Hazard notched the game’s first goal after just nine minutes, but it was his organization and possession that helped pace the Blues throughout the entire contest.

Chelsea dominated the game’s share of the ball, particularly down the wings through Hazard and Willian, giving the home side a decisive advantage against their opponent.

While Conte has every right to be happy with the team’s progression through the opening month of the new season, the veteran manager stressed that the club continues to look to improve.

“I am pleased to work with these players but if we find a right solution, we want to improve this squad,” Conte said.

Petr Cech after Arsenal’s first win: “We want to win the title”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  Petr Cech of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Swansea City at Emirates Stadium on March 2, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Arsenal’s goal for this season is clear: to win the Premier League title.

That’s according to goalkeeper Petr Cech following Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Watford on Saturday as the north London club aim to go one better than last season’s second place finish.

With manager Arsene Wenger entering the final year of his contract, the time is now got Arsenal.

Yes, Arsenal will have their work cut out with the two Manchester clubs strengthening massively this summer but on their day they can blow teams away.

Saturday was one of those days as the Gunners destroyed Watford in the first half, scoring there times through Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. It could’ve been more too.

Although Cech had to make two good saves in the second half and Roberto Pereyra pulled one back for Watford, the win was about as a routine as it comes in the PL.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, Cech couldn’t help but mention Arsenal’s title aspirations when summing up the victory.

“The first half we did well, scored three goals and could have scored more. The second half they were 3-0 down and as a good Premier League side pushed for something and it was tougher,” Cech said. “Everybody has to do their bit to help the team get three points. I am not happy because we conceded but a win is a win. We needed to respond after the first two games and got the vital three points.

“There are 35 more games to play and we will fight to win every game and be in the mix in the last game. We want to win the title, there is no hiding in that and we will do our best.”

When Arsenal play like this they are unstoppable as Ozil and Sanchez ripped Watford apart with incisive runs, passing and clinical finishing.

There is a long way to go this season, as Cech acknowledged, but when everyone is back fit and new players arrive, Arsenal will be sniffing around the top four once again this season.

Whether or not they can do better than that remains to be seen but Cech seems confident and focused to deliver the elusive title Arsenal has been waiting 12 long years for.

One step at a time, Petr.

Southampton 1-1 Sunderland: Defoe, Rodriguez score late in draw

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Jay Rodriguez of Southampton shoots during the Premier League match between Southampton and Sunderland at St Mary's Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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  • Rodriguez nets late equalizer
  • Defoe opened scoring from PK spot
  • Sunderland picks up first point of 2016

Jermain Defoe looked to give Sunderland three points on Saturday, but it was Jay Rodriguez who provided Southampton with a late equalizer at St. Mary’s in their 1-1 draw.

Defoe converted from the penalty spot with 10 minutes to play in regulation after Jose Fonte took down the Englishman inside the area a minute before.

The home side didn’t quit though with five minutes remaining, when Rodriguez smashed home the equalizer following a pass from James Ward-Prowse.

With the result, Sunderland picks up its first point of the new season, while Southampton sits directly above the Black Cats on the table with two points of their own.