UEFA Champions League roundup: Milan tosses PSV aside; Lyon out; Celtic dramatically through

2 Comments

PSV were supposed to be a significant test for Milan, and at times during today’s first half, the possession the Dutch runners-up held hinted they could knock the Italian giants out of Champions League. Unfortunately, the final score ended as you might have predicted when an Italian side faces a Dutch team in Europe. Despite some engaging skill from PSV’s enviable young talent, they were relegated to Europa League after today’s 3-0 loss at the San Siro, the 4-1 aggregate costing them a chance at Champions League’s group stage.

Last week’s 1-1 in Eindhoven already put Phillip Cocu’s club in a difficult situation, requiring them to get a result out of Italy. After eight minutes, their situation got worse, with a Kevin Prince Boateng blast from outside the penalty area eluding Jeroen Zoet, sneaking inside the right post to make it 2-1. Boateng added a second after half time, adding to Mario Balotelli’s 55th minute goal from Stephan El Shaarawy to give Milan their three-goal win.

The final score was deceiving, though, as the numerous tests PSV put on Christian Abbiati would have landed them on the scoresheet most nights. But it’s always a bit disingenuous to separate a goalkeeping performance from a team’s overall quality. Abbiati is, after all, a well-tenured Rossoneri player – a vice-captain, even. Better to note that a performance like today’s hints PSV’s draw may have been an unlucky one. Had they gone up against one of the other “seeded” teams, Cocu’s team would have been more likely to go through.

Instead, Milan joins Juventus and Napoli as Serie A’s representatives in group stage, though the playoff round’s other third place teams were unable to up their leagues’ allotments. Both Lyon (France) and Paços de Ferreira (Portugal) will play in Europa League, each on the wrong side of lopsided aggregates:

Real Sociedad 2-0 (4-0) Lyon

The ease with which La Real took a two-goal win out of Stade de Gerland was one of the first legs’ more surprising results, given OL’s strong start in France. But Spain’s fourth place finishers took a commanding lead in their road leg, leaving them only to hold out at home to qualify for the full competition.

Initially, it seem as if they were going to merely hold out, with Lyon controlling much of the early play before Sociedad came into the match. In the second half, La Real asserted themselves, got a double from Mexican not-so-international Carlos Vela, are cruised to a surprisingly easy 4-0 win.

Zenit St. Petersburg 4-2 (8-3) Paços de Ferriera

Paços were always over their head in this one, and after losing 4-1 last week in Portugal, the Beavers were already practically eliminated. Today Portuguese international Danny had two goals by the 48th minute, giving Russia’s runners-up a 6-1 lead. Goals by Manuel José and Carlão balanced tallies from Aleksandr Bukharov and Andrei Arshavin over the final 24 minutes, putting Luciano Spalletti’s team into group stage.

Celtic 3-0 (3-2) Shakhter Karagandy

The Kazakhstani club was unknown in Western Europe before being drawn against the Celtic, but after taking a two-goal win from their tie’s first leg, their sheep-sacrificing ways became well-known throughout the British Isles. Jokes about Celtic manager Neil Lennon hiding all the sheep in Scotland, preventing his visitors from completing their pre-match, good luck ritual, made light of the tradition, but given the Hoops’ big turnaround, perhaps Lennon was successful.

Kris Commons pulled the first back from 25 yards out just before halftime, with Greece international Georgios Samaras equalizing in the 48th. Tied 2-2 and seemingly headed for extra time, Shakhter were shockingly shown out of the competition when James Forrest scored in the second minute of stoppage time, sending the Scottish champions through.

Maribor 0-1 (1-4) Viktoria Plzen

Maribor’s hopes of turning around their two-goal deficit were squelched in the third minute, with Stanislav Tecl’s early goal not only pushing the Czechs to a three-goal lead but also canceling out the Slovenians’ road goal. The current Czech league-leaders return to Champions League’s group stage after a one-year absence, having qualified for Europa League with a third place finish in 2011-12.

Totti out to ‘destroy’ Lazio in what could be his last derby

Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILAN (AP) Roma great Francesco Totti is out to “destroy” Lazio in what could be his last derby.

Totti’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the 40-year-old forward is likely to retire and move upstairs into a director’s role at the club where he has spent his entire career.

“It’s a different match to all the others,” Totti said. “It’s a team you always try to destroy on the field but with the maximum respect.

“For the city, for the curva, for the fans, you always try to give 101 percent. It’s a match you always want to win.”

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Roma won the last derby 3-2 last month but still lost to Lazio in the two-legged Italian Cup semifinals. Totti played less than 10 minutes in each match.

That semifinal defeat still hurts Roma and its fans, which are likely to fill the Stadio Olimpico again after ending a 14-month protest following the removal of deeply unpopular security barriers.

“It will be like all the other derbies, a must-win match,” Totti said. “It’s important because we all remember how the last one finished. We have to get our revenge.”

Sunday’s match is also crucial for the battle for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the group stage of the Champions League.

Roma is currently second, four points ahead of Napoli, which visits Inter Milan on Sunday. The team which finishes third has to go into a playoff for Europe’s premier club competition.

Roma has a more difficult run-in than Napoli. After the derby, it next faces AC Milan and Juventus before ending its season against Chievo Verona and Genoa. Napoli plays Cagliari, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

[ MORE: Henry, Aguero on playing for Pep ]

“It will be a very important derby for the standings and we will try everything to have a great game to bring home the three points,” Totti said. “We are going through this battle for second serenely and calmly, also because now we have a four-point advantage on them.

“There are only a few matches left until the end of the season, even if three out of five are very difficult on paper. We will try everything to finish second.”

Lazio is fourth, seven points behind Napoli.

Totti has been playing for Roma for 25 years – remarkably more than 28 percent of the club’s existence – since making his debut in the final stages of a 2-0 win at Brescia on March 28, 1993.

Totti, who also won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, could have won more than the solitary Serie A title, two Italian Cups and two national Super Cups he claimed with Roma, but he rejected offers of more money and glory to remain with his childhood club.

His face adorns murals and posters across Italy’s capital, where he is loved by Roma fans and respected by supporters of Lazio, despite his antics against them.

Totti has scored 11 times against Lazio and often celebrates these extra-special goals with T-shirts made for the occasion. One famously said, “I have purged you again,” while he revealed another reading simply “Game Over” after a victory in May 2015.

He hit the headlines in January of that year when he scored the second of two goals against Lazio and, in a pre-planned celebration for becoming the all-time leading scorer in the derby, grabbed his phone off Roma’s goalkeeping coach and took a selfie under the Curva Sud with thousands of adoring fans in the background.

In the Eternal City, Totti is Roma’s eternal leader – first made captain in 1998 when he was only 22.

Nike alluded to his “King of Rome” nickname at a promotional event on Wednesday to unveil new gold-colored boots to mark the Roma captain’s 25 years at the club.

Totti, who was greeted by about 200 chanting fans, was instructed to sit on a throne with the steps leading up to it bearing the names of the seven kings of ancient Rome, with his name placed on the final step.

“I have nothing to do with these kings,” Totti said. “I prefer to be judged than to judge.”

Bayern Munich activates clause to make Coman permanent

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
Leave a comment

Bayern Munich has announced its decision to make Kingsley Coman’s loan from Juventus a permanent move.

Coman, 20, operates as a right wing and striker, and can also play on the left. He’s made 40 Bundesliga appearances with six goals and six assists over two seasons for Bayern.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

It’s a $24 million option, and will bind Coman to Bayern through the 2019-20 season.

From FCBayern.com:

“Kingsley Coman is a crucial player for the future of our team, so we’ve decided to exercise the option,” commented Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge: “Kingsley is a promising player with great potential. We’re convinced he’ll help us in the coming years.”

Coman, Renato Sanches, and Joshua Kimmich are all under the age of 22.

Mourinho has chance to make major statement in Manchester Derby

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The betting market says Man City is more than even money to beat Manchester United, and wagering on the latter to win Thursday’s derby match is a longer shot than the Red Devils finishing in the Top Four (an achievement to be sure).

The worth of those metrics is debatable, but allows a sincere thought: Given their thin depth and the road challenge, a win for Jose Mourinho would be as impressive as almost anything Manchester United has accomplished this season.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Maybe that’s obvious to many of us, but a twirl through the spheres of United supporter social media shows something different. Many Red Devils are confident of their teams’ fortunes in Thursday’s Manchester Derby, with one even predicting a 3-1 win in a comment on the NBC Sports Soccer Facebook page.

That could be an outlier, sure, but shows the demands Manchester United supporters place on their big spending club. United won’t have Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two of the best players in the world, and it’s not as if the club has had time to adjust to their absences. No one has played more minutes for United than Pogba and Ibrahimovic this season.

United is also without Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Phil Jones at the heart of their defense as it attempts to shut down Sergio Aguero and/or Gabriel JesusDavid Silva is a doubt for City, who also may not have John Stones, but Guardiola has options.

How Mourinho attacks — or doesn’t attack — City, and how Guardiola sets up his XI, will be interesting leading into the match, because parking the bus lacks its usual luster given the center back carnage. Will Mourinho trot out Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera in a bid to clog the midfield? Will he run Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as a strike pair?

The answers to these questions and the unlikely event of a United road win may end up shining all over Thursday. And while that win would wind up being overshadowed by United’s finish on the Premier League table and UEFA Europa League, there’s little doubt it would stake a serious claim for Mourinho’s time at United being on the rise.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images
Leave a comment

One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.