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.

Bundesliga wrap: Pulisic’s late winner sends BVB 3rd (video)

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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While Bayern Munich continue to run away with their sixth straight Bundesliga title, the royal rumble over who’ll finish second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth — seven sides are currently separated by four points from second to eighth — rages on.

[ MORE: Man City make it 16 straight wins | Three studs, three duds ]

Stuttgart 0-1 Bayern Munich

You’ll quickly notice an emerging theme from Saturday’s games: late, result-altering goals.

Bayern dominated every phase of play the way they usually do, but were made to wait 79 minutes for a breakthrough. It was beginning to look as if their lead might shrink to seven points this weekend, but Thomas Mueller was more than happy to play the part of hero.

There was further heartbreak for Stuttgart, who then had a penalty kick saved by Lars Ulreich in the 93rd minute.

Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Hoffenheim

Dortmund have won back-to-back league games, for the first time since September, since firing manager Peter Bosz last week, and this one came courtesy of a certain, well-known American teenager.

Mark Uth put Hoffenheim ahead in the 21st minute, and Dortmund appeared to be headed for their first loss under new boss Peter Stoger. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang brought the home side back to level terms in the 63rd minute, but again, it seemed for the longest time that it wouldn’t be enough.

Then came the 89th minute, time for Christian Pulisic to shine. The presence of mind to flick the ball over the goalkeeper with his first touch, the control to drop the ball exactly where he wanted it on the other side, the quick feet to maneuver his way around the ‘keeper. The euphoric feeling as he slams the ball into an empty net.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Schalke

Schalke are making something of a routine out of falling behind by multiple goals, only to roar back to life and rescue a point in the game’s dying moments. First, there was the comeback from 4-0 against Dortmund. Today, the hill to climb was halved in size, but the point won is no less significant.

After falling 1-0 behind in the 1st minute and 2-0 behind in the 64th, Domenico Tedesco’s side got goals from Breel Embolo in the 81st minute and Naldo — scorer of the final goal in that 4-4 thriller — in the 94th.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away Pts
 Bayern Munich 17 13 2 2 37 11 26 7-1-0 6-1-2 41
 FC Schalke 04 17 8 6 3 28 21 7 5-3-1 3-3-2 30
 Borussia Dortmund 17 8 4 5 39 24 15 4-1-3 4-3-2 28
 RB Leipzig 16 8 4 4 25 22 3 5-2-0 3-2-4 28
 Moenchengladbach 17 8 4 5 27 28 -1 5-2-2 3-2-3 28
 Bayer Leverkusen 16 7 6 3 30 19 11 4-4-0 3-2-3 27
 1899 Hoffenheim 17 7 5 5 27 22 5 5-3-1 2-2-4 26
 Eintracht Frankfurt 17 7 5 5 20 18 2 2-2-4 5-3-1 26

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Augsburg 3-3 Freiburg
Werder Bremen 2-2 Mainz
Cologne 1-0 Wolfsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hannover vs. Bayern Leverkusen — 9:30 a.m. ET
RB Leipzig vs. Hertha Berlin — 12 p.m. ET

Three stars, three duds from Man City 4-1 Spurs

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Spoiler alert: Our three stars and three dudes from Man City’s 4-1 demolition of Spurs fall neatly along club lines.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things from the Etihad ]

Three stars

  1. Kevin De Bruyne — Short of Lionel Messi, is anyone anywhere near the Belgian’s level right now? The passing, the shooting, the resilience in the face of constant fouling; KDB is a magician.
  2. Leroy Sane — The 21-year-old has more than justified his $62 million price tag — as much as such a thing can be justified — with terrific service, blinding pace, and wise reading of the game.
  3. Ilkay Gundogan — His header ushered City in front and he could’ve scored a second, but the ex-Borussia Dortmund man was a marshall in the middle of the park.

Three duds

  1. Dele Alli — Hasn’t scored since bagging a brace against Real Madrid on Nov. 1, and had miserable positioning when Gundogan headed home the opener. Then stamped Kevin De Bruyne with an outrageous blade in the second half. Not being sent off is hilarious;
  2. Kieran Trippier — For as dangerous as Trippier can be moving forward, he was out to lunch as Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne — might wanna mark them, fella — raced down the left to make it 2-0 City.
  3. Hugo Lloris — Spurs’ sensational goalkeeper didn’t have many moments in him at the Etihad Stadium, dribbled around for the final goal.

Three things we learned from Man City’s win v. Spurs

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MANCHESTER — The juggernaut that is Manchester City shows no signs of slowing down as they beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 to extend their record-breaking run of victories. 

As the freezing fog rolled in and hung over the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, there was nothing misty about Man City’s play. Clarity remained as Pep Guardiola‘s men secured their 16th consecutive win in the Premier League with minimal fuss thanks to a goals from Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne and a double from Raheem Sterling.

The Premier League leaders missed a penalty kick and both Harry Kane and Dele Alli could have been sent off as City stretched their lead atop the Premier League table to 14 points.

Here’s what we learned from the Etihad.


THE OLD SWITCHEROO

Man City played like Tottenham and Tottenham tried to play like Man City on Saturday.

City perfected the high-press in the first half, putting the usually unflappable Hugo Lloris under pressure with several skewed clearances to show for it. They continued that ruthless pressing in the second, even though Tottenham predictably had a spell where they dominated possession at the start of the second half.

Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane squeezed Spurs’ back four high and the rest of the team followed. Spurs looked dangerous on a few breakaways when they did manage to manipulate the ball away from their own box but City were relentless and they taught Tottenham, so often the masters of the high-press, a lesson in how to strangle your opponents.

City’s incredible winning run owes plenty to their incredible individual ability on the ball, but their relentless work rate without the ball is often overlooked.

Their 16-game winning streak shows no signs of stopping and they’re not only beating their rivals but humbling them.

They are the first team since the 1953-54 season to beat each of Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham in a top-flight season before the New Year. There is simply no stopping City.


DE BRUYNE DELIVERS AS CITY ROAR ON

With David Silva missing this clash due to “personal reasons” it was up to Kevin de Bruyne to run the show in central midfield without his partner in crime. He did it admirably, as we all thought the runaway leader for the Premier League Player of the Year would.

Dominating proceedings in the game with his sublime range of passing, the Belgian ace clipped killer balls behind Spurs’ defense on multiple occasions in the first half with incredible ease.

With City leading 1-0, he was then clattered by Dele Alli with a studs up challenge worthy of a red card. You do not want to make de Bruyne angry. How did he respond?

De Bruyne picked himself up and on the next attack drove into the box and smashed a left-footed effort past Lloris. He then showed his class by holding up 21 to salute Silva. Moments later he won a penalty kick (which Gabriel Jesus missed) and he helped City ease to victory with flicks and tricks galore.

He is on another planet.


DELE ALLI THE ENIGMA

Dele Alli hasn’t scored in his last seven Premier League games but aside from his reduced offensive output, you can tell something isn’t quite right with the reigning PFA Young Player of the Year.

This was supposed to be Dele’s year. He’s shown his class in spurts this season with a double against Real Madrid in the Champions League and fine display against Liverpool in the PL, but it’s happened all too often.

He is just 21 years old. We should remember that. His form over the past two seasons at Tottenham have rightly seen him labeled as one of the most promising midfield prospects in Europe.

His lunging tackle on Kevin de Bruyne said it all. He looks frustrated and low in confidence and was upset at being hauled off in recent games as his drought continues. Dele was also subbed late in this thrashing for Spurs with jeers coming from all around the Etihad.

Dele Alli can get out of this rut, but there’s no denying he’s hit the toughest patch of his career so far.

Sweet Sixteen: Man City clobbers Spurs

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  • Gundogan opens scoring off corner
  • De Bruyne rips insurance goal off Lloris
  • Sterling salts it away (x2)
  • City’s PL record win streak reaches 16

Manchester City wasn’t at its best, but still waltzed past Tottenham Hotspur in a 4-1 win at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

[ MORE: 3 things from JPW at the Etihad ]

Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, and Raheem Sterling (two) scored for Man City, which also missed a penalty kick in the win. City moves 14 points clear of second placed Manchester United and Chelsea.

It could’ve been worse, as awful tackles from Harry Kane and Dele Alli were somehow not given as straight red card. Spurs finish the day seventh, two points behind fourth placed Arsenal. Christian Eriksen scored Spurs lone goal in the third minute of stoppage.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Everything Pep Guardiola touches turns to gold, and starting Gundogan looked a stroke of genius when he took advantage of poor marking from Dele Alli to head a Leroy Sane corner kick home.

Hugo Lloris stymied Sergio Aguero on a 24th minute shot, and Raheem Sterling worked Kieran Trippier but failed to beat the keeper on the rebound.

Aguero dragged a 33rd minute shot wide of the far post as City kept pushing for an insurance goal.

Invisible for most of the first half hour, Kane came close to tying it up with a curling shot in the 35th.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Kane was fortunate not to be sent off for a studs up tackle into the leg of Sterling early in the second half.

The English striker forced Ederson into a 55th minute save and Spurs had a corner.

Not to be outdone, Dele should’ve been sent off for a stamp on Kevin De Bruyne in the 68th. He saw yellow.

The Belgian got his revenge within moments, played down the left wing and lashing a shot off Lloris and into the goal.

De Bruyne was then scythed down for a penalty, but Gabriel Jesus‘ short run-up clattered off the post and Sterling mailed the rebound over the gaping cage.

The third goal came via Sterling at the back post, as Spurs had no answers for the PL leaders, and Sterling’s second came off an awful gaffe from Spurs at the back.