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.

LIVE – UCL group stage finale: Leicester, Tottenham both in action

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his sides first goal with team mates during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium on November 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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The final matchday of the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League group stage takes place on Wednesday with two Premier League teams in action.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Leicester City is already through and has topped Group G with Claudio Ranieri‘s men securing a top spot for next Monday’s Round of 16 draw. The Foxes face FC Porto in Portugal with the hosts needing just a point to secure second place in the group and their spot in the last 16. Putting their Premier League worries aside, Leicester will aim to stay unbeaten throughout all six of their UCL group games.

Tottenham Hotspur wish they could say the same but Mauricio Pochettino‘s men have already crashed out of the Champions League with one game to go. They host CSKA Moscow at Wembley Stadium in Group E with Spurs needing just a draw to secure a place in the Europa League knockout stages. Bayer Leverkusen and AS Monaco has already qualified from Group E but Spurs’ Harry Kane insists they now want to go on and win the Europa League.

[ MORE: Permutations for each UCL group ]

Elsewhere Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund clash to decide top spot in Group F, while Juventus, Lyon and Sevilla are all still in the mix in Group H with the final game to come.

Below is a full schedule for Wednesday’s Champions League games, with each game kicking off at 2:45 p.m. ET.

You can follow live commentary and stats of each game by clicking on the link above, while we will have reaction right here on ProSoccerTalk.


Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League schedule

Group E
Tottenham Hotspur vs. CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Monaco

Group F
Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund
Legia Warsaw vs. Sporting Lisbon

Group G
FC Porto vs. Leicester City
Club Brugge vs. FC Copenhagen

Group H
Juventus vs. Dinamo Zagreb
Lyon vs. Sevilla

Power Rankings: Top five players in the Premier League, right now

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The Premier League Player Power Rankings are out and now it is time to focus on the top five.

[ MORE: PST’s top 20 players, Week 14 ]

With two players from Chelsea and two from Arsenal, plus another from Tottenham Hotspur in the top five, Week 14 delivered plenty of goals and attacking players dominate our rankings.

Click on the link above to see our full list of the top 20 players in the Premier League, while in the video above Jenna Corrado and I discuss my top five players based on the last seven days of action.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC Sports ] 

Hit play on the video above to enjoy watching some silky skills and terrific goals as we guide you through the creme de la creme.

Why are Leicester struggling so much? Where can Man City improve?

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Last season Leicester City vs. Manchester City was a clash between two rivals fighting for the Premier League title.

This season? Not so much.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Leicester host Man City on Saturday at the King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), with the reigning champs embroiled in a relegation battle with just three wins from their 14 PL games this season.

As for City, Pep Guardiola is finding the Premier League a little tougher to handle than Spain and Germany early on with City winning just three of their last eight games in the Premier League but they’re still sitting just four points off top spot. That said, City has lost to both Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea already and their status as preseason title favorites is already being severely questioned.

For Leicester, their problems are worse than those at Man City.

There are multiple issues at play which could explain their stunning drop-off compared to last season. After 14 games this season the Foxes have 13 points. At the same point of their incredible title-winning campaign in 2015-16 they had 29 points and were joint-top of the table with Manchester City who actually have one more point this season than they had at this stage last season.

Back to Leicester and right now they are just two points off the relegation zone and have lost three of their last four games. Ranieri is very worried about relegation, as his recent comments in press conferences show.

“This moment is not the right moment for us. We wanted to get points here but of course it was a relegation battle, they won, well done to them,” Ranieri said after the defeat at Sunderland. “I said two, three weeks ago, always I look behind me. We are in the battle of relegation. For this reason we must stay calm, together and continue to work hard.”

At least Ranieri knows it, but how has it got to this point with Leicester breezing through their UCL group and into the knockout stages?

The loss of N'Golo Kante in midfield has been huge for Leicester with the French international midfielder already proving indispensable for Chelsea this season as he breaks play up, shields the back four and sets the tempo of the game for his team. Kante’s departure has left a huge hole in Leicester’s midfield but they’ve been equally hit just as hard with a lack of goals from Jamie Vardy who has scored just twice in the PL and Riyad Mahrez has suffered from a lack of creativity.

Mahrez set up 22 goalscoring chances for Vardy last season. This season the duo have combined just once. Maybe that is because Ranieri has been chopping and changing his team so much to cope with the demands of the UCL and PL, with Mahrez and Vardy often preferred for European action, but there’s no doubting that their level has dropped off and that’s happened across Leicester’s entire squad.

When you look at Leicester’s defensive displays, not much has changed but perhaps the rub of the green is going against them and they are falling behind to opponents extremely often which is making them chase the game and they’re getting out of their comfort zone. Simply put: Leicester isn’t doing what it is best at.

Ranieri knows it and said as much after their latest defeat at Sunderland which has put them further in trouble with plenty of tough games on the horizon.

“It is difficult to say what we miss. We miss everything,” Ranieri said.

In the latest PST Extra Jenna Corrado and I discuss the recent poor form of both Leicester and Man City and if fans of both teams should be worried heading into this big match on Saturday.

Click play on the video above to see us break it down.

Report: FIFA president backs 48-team World Cup, 16 groups of three teams

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 14: FIFA President Gianni Infantino poses for a photo after part II of the FIFA Council Meeting 2016 at the FIFA headquarters on October 14, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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Gianni Infantino wants to freshen things up a bit.

The new president of FIFA has been steadfast in his desire to increase the number of teams participating at a World Cup to 48.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars

After all it was a huge part of his presidential mandate which got plenty of the smaller nations of the soccer world on board to vote for him, and reports from AFP are now circulating that Infantino and key figured at FIFA have indeed backed a 48-team World Cup from 2026 onwards.

Members of the FIFA Council had previously received outlines of four proposed formats, including staying with a 32-team World Cup, but it is believed Infantino wants a 48-team World Cup and the decision could be made next month at a FIFA Council meeting.

It is also being widely reported that Infantino wants to try something new and have 16 groups with three teams in each. It is also believed the top two teams would go through from each group to a Round of 32 knockout stage and then to a Round of 16 and so on.

On the face of it, that doesn’t seem too bad an idea.

It would certainly eliminate some of the boring third group games we have endured at most World Cups recently as the two teams going through to the last 16 are usually sewn up by that point and the two other teams are left around with another game to play. However, it will be intriguing to see how the game schedule is set up in the three team group scenario.

The cynical folks out there suggest that Infantino is merely trying to ramp up more revenue from increasing the number of teams from 32 to 48 but when you look at it, the number of games would actually stay the same if there were 16 groups with three teams in each.

Think about it: more upset stories, more first-time qualifiers and more riding on each of the two group games for each team before heading straight to the knockout rounds.