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Champions League preview: Borussia Dortmund will not face the same Real Madrid

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Wednesday’s match at the Westfalenstadion marks the third of four times Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid will meet this season – exactly four times more than the reigning Bundesliga and La Liga champions usually meet each year. Before meeting in group stage, the two clubs hadn’t played a competitive match since 2003, when a 1-1 draw in Dortmund allowed the Merengues to move past BVB and into the Champions League quarterfinals.

This latest meeting is the first leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League semifinal, a match set to build on the two games the sides played in group stage. Taking four points from Real Madrid, BVB used the Spanish titans to establish their Champions League bonafides, putting last year’s disappointment behind them as they claimed first in the group.

Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp’s team, a number of things have changed since the teams met last fall, none of which augur well for his young team’s chances:

Real Madrid rebuilt

Looking back on the fall, Real Madrid seemed like a team that needed a rest. Playing below expectations both domestically and in Europe, los Blancos were putting their boss’s job in jeopardy. José Mourinho needed to shake things up.

What followed were two months of The Special One challenging Madrid player power. Conflicts with Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos saw the captain dropped and the defense’s leader temporarily lose time, with Mourinho throwing Real’s dressing room into upheaval. When the team was reformed, Diego Lopez was in goal, Raphael Varane was getting some of Pepe’s time in defense, and Real Madrid had a team capable of eliminating Manchester United in the quarters.

They’re much stronger now than when the teams last met: a 2-2 draw on Nov. 6 at the Bernabeu.

“The four goals we conceded against Dortmund in the group stage were all our mistakes,” Mourinho explained on Tuesday. “Should we concede again in these two games, I hope it would be because of fantastic and unstoppable goals, not ones created by our mistakes.”

Dortmund’s close call

BVB needed one of the biggest Champions League comebacks ever to make it to the semifinals, with two-second leg stoppage time goals allowing them to eliminate Málaga. Against an experienced coach employing a pragmatic approach, Dortmund nearly allowed themselves to be eliminated on home soil, and while those descriptions also apply to José Mourinho’s team, Málaga aren’t Real Madrid. They’re nowhere near their level.

There are two ways to interpret what happened in the quarterfinals:

  • One: BVB still have a lot to learn on their way to being European elite. Málaga’s performance illustrated just how far they have to go.
  • Two: The close call will serve as a type of end of innocence, educating Klopp’s side to the commitment required to navigate Champions League.

Option two seems much more likely. Borussia Dortmund have to know they can’t play as bad as they did against Málaga and expect to eliminate Real Madrid. Whether they truly realize the task at hand, however, is another question entirely.

source: Getty ImagesMario Gotze: Distraction

Borussia Dortmund tried to keep Götze’s impending move under wraps, but when German outlet Bild learned the news, BVB had to fess up. One day before their first leg against Madrid, the club was forced to confirm their best player would be leaving for a rival on July 1.

“On a scale of one to ten [news of Götze’s transfer on the eve of the game] would be a nine,” Klopp admitted on Tuesday. “The only way the timing could have been worse would have been if it came four hours before the match.”

There’s no way this isn’t a major distraction. Klopp’s conceding as much. The Götze affair can be overcome or put into perspective, but a team doesn’t learn about the departure of a key talent and just set that aside. You can’t just pretend that doesn’t exist.

For a squad of players who’ve never been this far in Champions League, this is another obstacle that could potentially derail them. Klopp:

Everyone should support the team tomorrow, no matter what – Real Madrid cannot capitalise on this. If someone does not understand how much heart has gone into getting this far, they should not come. Those who understand will support the team unconditionally. Our fans have reacted extremely well in extreme situations in the past. I think that will be the case again.

Now or never for Real

Mourinho was brought in to win the decima – Real Madrid’s 10th European title – and with it all but guaranteed he’ll move on after this season, it’s now or never for this group of players. They either claim the title and bring to fruition the hopes Florentino Perez fostered when he started spending four years ago, or they fall and light the fuse on a project that will be blown up.

All of which is to say the stakes are much higher now than they were in November. Then, Real Madrid knew they would get through group stage one way or another, and having taken two teams from second place group finishes to Champions League titles (Porto 2003-04, Internazionale 2009-10), José Mourinho knows early stage stumbles don’t have to derail a campaign.

He also knows when to have his team turn it up. With his time at Real Madrid to be defined by these next three Champions League matches, the Merengues will be at their best.

“When I joined this club, it was already very successful,” Mourinho explained, “but we were not among the top seeds. The club has been developed. Madrid are one of those clubs where finishing second counts for nothing – so we have to reach the final and win.”

Notes

  • Real Madrid come into the match off a 3-1 Saturday win over visiting Real Betis.
  • Dortmund led the entire way against visiting Mainz, a first minute goal from Marco Reus spurring BVB to a 2-0 win.
  • Neither team has any injury concerns that will affect their starting XIs, with the only absence likely to be on the Real Madrid side. Alvaro Arbeloa is suspended after picking up a late yellow card in the second leg against Galatasaray.
  • Robert Lewandowski extended his club record scoring streak on Saturday, recording a goal in his 12th straight Bundesliga match.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo comes into the game as the competition’s leading scorer with 11 goals in 10 games. His 50 all-competition goals mark the third straight year the Portuguese has hit the half-century mark.

Possible lineups

Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weindenfeller; Marcel Schmeltzer, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Pisczcek; Ilkay Gundogan, Sven Bender; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakub Blaszczykowski.

Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Diego Lopez; Fabio Coentrao, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Michael Essien; Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira; Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria; Karim Benzema.

LIVE – Europa League group stage finale: Saints, Man United in crucial deciders

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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This is it, don’t get scared now.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Premier League duo Southampton and Manchester United both go into their final group game of the UEFA Europa League needing to avoid defeat if their going to make the knockout rounds.

For United, their task is simple. Jose Mourinho’s men need just a point from their trip to Ukraine to play Zorya Luhansk to advance to the Round of 32, while a win could see them finish top depending on the result of the Feyenoord vs. Fenerbache game.

As for Southampton, it’s a little bit more complicated.

A win for Claude Puel‘s side at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva at a sold out St Mary’s would see them safely through to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the first time in club history. A 0-0 draw would also do the trick but a score draw (1-1, 2-2, 3-3 etc) would send the reigning Israeli champions through instead as they’d have the advantage in head-to-head away goals after the duo drew 0-0 in Israel back in October. Making the knockout rounds of this competition would be a huge deal for Southampton and would keep their cup momentum going after they reached the semifinals of the EFL Cup last week.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]   

Elsewhere there is plenty on the line across the 12 groups, with the standings page in the link above very handy to work out the permutations as the top two teams from each group (first place team is seeded, the second unseeded) advance to the Round of 32 and will be joined by the eight teams who finished third in their respective groups in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s game which kick off in three separate time slots, while you can follow live commentary and stats on the games by clicking on the link above.


Full Europa League schedule, Thursday Dec. 8

11 a.m. ET
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. ET
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. ET
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

Bob Bradley will remain in charge, says Swansea chairman

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With reports circulating in the British press that American coach Bob Bradley could be fired after just seven games in charge of Swansea City, their chairman has publicly backed the former U.S. national team head coach.

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Bradley, 58, has just one win in his opening seven games in charge of the Swans who currently sit bottom of the Premier League table on nine points, three points off safety.

That poor form, coupled with many other issues at the club, has reportedly prompted new American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien (they took over as majority owners in July) to conduct an extensive review of every department at the club.

However, chairman Huw Jenkins has moved to quell rumors about Bradley becoming the second Swansea manager to be fired through the opening 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know where that story came from, but it’s natural in football that everyone wants and needs results. But the last thing we need at this moment of time is a continual change in manager. We need stability first and foremost,” Jenkins told talkSPORT. “Take a team like Fulham, they changed managers three times in the season they tried to stave off relegation and we’re in a similar position now.”

“Perhaps in the summer I could have made a better decision – from pre-season onwards I don’t think things were right, it was too flat at the club. That had a knock-on effect and obviously it’s taken us a while to work through it. But we’re with Bob now to try and turn that corner – that’s what we’re working towards. We look at the January window as a chance to reinforce things. There are players not hitting the form levels they have done in the past and we have to find out why that is and get that right as well.”

So, it seems that sense is prevailing after all.

Jenkins took the blame for Swansea’s poor start to the season in media interviews on Wednesday and now the long-time chairman is backing his manager.

The south Wales businessman was part of a consortium which saved Swansea in 2004 and then led them on an incredible journey up from the fourth-tier to the Premier League, plus winning the League Cup and getting to the group stages of the Europa League. He and other directors have come in for some serious stick from Swansea’s fans for selling their stake to the new American owners and Jenkins is believed to have made just over $10 million from selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club.

On the pitch, it’s difficult to blame Bradley for the current situation Swansea finds itself in.

After some woeful moves in the transfer window last summer (Jenkins has admitted they weren’t great with Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew allowed to leave for big profits but their replacements just haven’t been good enough) the American coach needs at least one transfer window to bring in better players and the Swans are only three points off safety with a pivotal stretch of six games to come in the Premier League.

Home games against Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth, plus trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace will see the Swans go up against direct relegation rivals between now and Jan. 3.

The next four weeks will be huge not only for Swansea’s future but also for Bradley and ahead of their crunch home game against Sunderland on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the American coach is eager to cut out defensive mistakes as the Swans have now conceded 19 goals in his seven games in charge.

“When you are a manager it (the pressure) goes with the territory,” Bradley said. “It is work as usual, knowing from the beginning when I got here that it would be a big challenge, and it is. When you see a scoreline like that it is easy to jump on us. We are not going to survive if we keep on conceding goals like this.”

Man United’s Europa League clash in doubt over frozen pitch

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho may not play their UEFA Europa League game against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez leaving Arsenal? ]

Amid freezing conditions in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Zorya cannot play their games at home due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine) the pitch underwent an inspection on Thursday and with covers and heaters on the playing surface overnight, there is hope the game should go ahead.

However, Jose Mourinho has already talked about the state of the pitch as not being ideal, while the likes of Daley Blind and Paul Pogba looked far from impressed when they went out for a training session on Wednesday in freezing conditions.

Remember, United only needs a point from the game against Zorya to qualify for the Europa League Round of 32 and Mourinho has selected a strong 19-man squad for the trip. 

A statement from Zorya said the following on Thursday morning, as they remain hopeful of the game going ahead.

“Everything depends on the weather. The pitch is not brilliant at the moment. We are expecting temperatures of two or three degrees and everything should be okay.”

Below was the scene in Odessa yesterday for United’s training session, via Simon Peach of the Press Association.


Yep, the pitch doesn’t look great.

Barcelona invites Chapecoense to play friendly

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 22: Supporters of Chapecoense cheer their team during the match between Chapecoense and Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Series A 2014 at Arena Conda on October 22, 2014 in Chapeco, Brazil. (Photo by Alan Pedro/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has extended an invitation to host a friendly match against the Brazilian soccer club involved in last week’s plane crash.

Chapecoense was on its way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, one of South America’s most prestigious club tournaments, when its flight went down in Colombia, killing all but six of the 77 players, officials and journalists on board.

The match would be played in August. The friendly, called the Joan Gamper trophy, is used as Barcelona’s traditional curtain raiser for the new season.

Barcelona says it sent a formal invitation to Chapecoense on Thursday.

Barcelona says it wants to “pay homage to the 71 people who died in the accident as well as their families.”