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Champions League Group Stage Draw: Parity makes ‘Group of Death’ a tough label

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Parity prevailed in today’s UEFA Champions League Group Stage draw where 32 teams were slotted into eight of the most evenly matched groups in tournament’s history.

The balance of the draw makes identifying a ‘Group of Death’ difficult but if it must be done, then Arsenal finds itself on the short end of the stick in Group F. The North London side, that qualified for the group stage by eliminating Fenerbahce 5-0 on aggregate in the play-offs, have been pitted against last year’s finalist, Borussia Dortmund, big spending Italian side Napoli and French outfit Olympique Marseille.

The matches are set to kick-off on September 17th. Below is a complete breakdown of all the groups.

source: Getty ImagesGroup A: Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad

David Moyes’ hopes at winning a Champions League title took a huge boost when his side enjoyed a favorable Champions League draw when it was paired with Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk, German side Bayer Leverkusen, La Liga outfit Real Sociedad. 

On paper, United should have little difficulty waltzing through this group, as their talent and experience is far superior to their competitors. On the pitch, however, they’ll do well to take nothing for granted.

Shakhtar are European veterans, having won the UEFA Cup in 2009 and produced some fine Champions League performances of late, including last year where they made it to the Round of 16 before falling to finalists Dortmund 5-2 on aggregate.

After losing starters Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho and Ravzan Rat the Ukranian squad is in a rebuilding year and will face stiff competition for the second spot in the group with Leverkusen and Sociedad, who are both currently playing high quality football. The German side will look to goal-scorer Stefan Kießling to provide the edge while Mexican forward Carlos Vela will be primed to guide his side to the Round of 16.

Group B: Real Madrid, Juventus, Galatasaray, Copenhagen source: Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid face one of the most difficult groups in the Champions League as they match up with Italian champions Juventus, Turkish Super League champions Galatasaray and Danish Superliga champions FC Copenhagen.

Madrid and Juventus will be the heavy favorites to come out of this group but traveling to Turkey is never an easy feat, especially when Didier Drogba is leading the line. Copenhagen will be the long shot to advance but the Danish side has plenty of European experience of late.

source:  Group C: Benfica, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympiacos, Anderlecht

Big money spenders Paris Saint-Germain have what is perhaps the easiest route through to the Round of 16.

Traveling to Portugal to face Europa League finalists Benfica and to Greece to play Super League winners Olympiacos will not be easy but the quality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani should be more than enough to overcome any hostile environments Le Parisiens may face.

Sacha Kljestan’s club Anderlecht, who won the 2012-13 Belgian Pro League, enter the tournament with a solid backbone of European experience but advancing through this group looks to be an uphill battle.

Group D: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Manchester City,  Viktoria Plzen source:

Champions League title holders Bayern Munich have relatively clear-cut route through Group D as they face Manchester City, Russian champions CSKA Moscow and Czech champions Viktoria Plzen.

Manchester City will be relieved at having escaped the ‘Group of Death’ for the first time in three years and will look to the tactics of Manuel Pellegrini to guide them Champions League success as he did at Villareal and Malaga.

source:  Group E: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Basel, Steaua Bucharest 

2012 Champions League winners Chelsea will be licking their chops as they face German side Schalke 04, Swiss club Basel and Romanian outfit Steaua Bucharest.

Schalke have the talent to find their way out of Group E but doubts have been raised after the German side narrowly snuck into the group stage after defeating Panathinaikos 4-3 win in Athens.

Swiss champions Basel can’t be counted out after Mohamed Salah and Fabian Frei helped the RotBlau to some impressive performances in last year’s Europa League. Basel stands alongside Steaua Bucharest as long-shots to make it through the group and return to the stage for the first time since 2008-09, where they finished in last place.

Group F: Arsenal, Olympique Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli source:

If this group looks familiar that’s because three of the four clubs – Arsenal, Marseille and Dortmund – all met in Group F back in the 2011-12 Champions League.

Borussia Dortmund will enter the stage as slight favorites after progressing to last year’s final, where they lost 2-1 to Bayern Munich. BVB lost playmaker Mario Gotze to Munich this summer but managed to hang on to striker Robert Lewandowski and replenish the ranks with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, to name a few.

Dortmund is anything but safe, however, with Arsenal and Napoli in the group. Arsenal’s Champions League resume speaks for itself while Napoli have lost Serie A golden boot winner Edinson Cavani but have added quality signings that include Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Raul Albiol and Pepe Reina.

Marseille will struggle to do damage in the group after qualifying for the UCL after finishing as runners-up in last season’s Ligue 1.

source:  Group G: Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Austria Wien

Group G poses yet another incredibly competitive group, with Portuguese champions Porto the slight favorites to advance.

It will be anything but easy, however, as Zenit Saint Petersburg will look to make up for last year’s showing where they finished third and were banished to the Europa League. Atletico Madrid will also be fancying their chances after finishing third in last year’s La Liga and starting this year’s campaign in an equally bright light with two straight victories.

Austria Wien will be up against it but the opponents would do well to avoid underestimating the side that knocked off Dinamo Zagreb 4-3 in aggregate in qualifying.

Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax, Celtic source:

If Group F is worthy of the moniker ‘Group of Death’, Group H is a close second.

The group is highlighted by Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, who will look to re-establish their European dominance under UEFA Champions League neophyte Gerardo Martino. It will be up to the Argentinian boss to guide the Blaugrana past Celtic, who famously defeated Barca 2-1 in the second leg of the two sides’ meeting in last year’s group stage.

Barcelona will also face off with AC Milan in a repeat of last year’s Round of 16 tilt where the Spanish giants roared back from a 2-0 first leg loss to score four goals in the second leg and win 4-2 on aggregate. Completing the group is Dutch powerhouse Ajax, who impressed in last year’s tournament when they finished 3rd in a group with Dortmund, Manchester City and Real Madrid.

The Group Stage matches will take place over the course of six matchdays beginning September 17th and concluding on December 11th. The top two teams from each Group will move on to the Round of 16, while the third place side will drop into the Europa League and the fourth placed club will be eliminated from European competition.

The Round of 16 will be played over two legs in February and March 2014, with the winners continuing on to a two-legged Quarterfinal in early April. The winners will march on to the Semifinals, which will be played in late April, before the winners head to the final at the Estadio de Luz in Lisbon, Portugal on May 24th, 2014.

Pellegrini says announcing departure was mistake; Won’t jump into job

Manchester City's manager Manuel Pellegrini, right, and Bayern Munich's manager Pep Guardiola during the Champions League group D soccer match at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Clint Hughes)
AP Photo/Clint Hughes
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Former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini thought it was the right thing to do; His club was reportedly looking for his successor, so why not let them do it in the open.

[ MORE: Barcelona could chase Mata ]

What followed Pellegrini’s announcement that he would leave at the end of season were three straight losses and, arguably, City’s chances at a Premier League title.

From Sky Sports:

“After Guardiola said he was coming to England it was my decision [to go public] because all the media was talking about Guardiola here, Guardiola in Arsenal, Guardiola in Manchester United,” he told The Guardian.

“It was not fair for all managers – when everyone knew he was coming here. If I ask if I would do that again… I have some doubts.”

Pellegrini said the announcement didn’t make it difficult for him, but for his players.

The Argentine also said he’ll wait for an interesting job to come calling, and that he could be done managing forever if such an opportunity doesn’t present itself. That said, we think he’ll find a job that’s to his liking given this comment:

“Of course, I would miss it. The challenge keeps me alive.”

Life is a good motivator.

Will upsets continue in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s third round?

SANDY, UT - OCTOBER 1: The U.S. Soccer Championship trophy sits on display before the game between DC United and Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium October 1, 2013 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images
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The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup hits the third round on Wednesday, with NASL teams entering the fray and at least one fourth-tier or lower side guaranteed to advance to face MLS competition.

The USASA had three teams win second round matches, and two will face each other on Wednesday. The L.A. Wolves knocked off the USL’s Orange County Blues, while L Maquina FC handed the NPSL’s Sacramento Gold an ouster. They will tangle for the right to a high-profile match-up with the L.A. Galaxy.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gonzalez wins Liga MX with Pachuca ]

We’ll also see NASL vs. USL geographical rivalries when Carolina faces Charlotte and Rayo OKC meets Oklahoma City.

Wednesday’s third round matches
Chattanooga FC (NPSL) vs. Harrisburg City Islanders (USL)
Fort Lauderdale Strikers (NASL) vs. Richmond Kickers (USL)
Jacksonville Armada (NASL) vs. Charleston Battery (USL)
New York Cosmos (NASL) vs. Jersey Express (PDL)
Carolina RailHawks (NASL) vs. Charlotte Independence (USL)
Miami FC (NASL) vs. Wilmington Hammerheads (USL)
Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) vs FC Cincinnati (USL)
Rochester Rhinos (USL) vs. Lansdowne Bhoys FC (USASA)
Indy Eleven (NASL) vs. Louisville City FC (USL)
Saint Louis FC (USL) vs. Minnesota United (NASL)
Rayo OKC (NASL) vs Oklahoma City Energy (USL)
Des Moines Menace (PD) vs. San Antonio FC (USL)
Arizona United (USL) vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks (USL)
La Maquina (USASA) vs. L.A. Wolves (USASA)
Kitsap Pumas (PDL) vs. Sacramento Republic (USL)

Iranian woman “sneaks” into Persian League match dressed as a man

Persepolis FC
@PersepolisFC
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An Iranian woman wanted to see her favorite team play badly, but knew well the unspoken rule: no females at the stadium.

The Independent has the story of a woman who dressed in layers and filmed herself in case trouble came from her attendance.

[ MORE: Police free kidnapped Mexico striker ]

Persepolis FC is the name of the club, and they play in the Persian Gulf Pro League.

From The Independent:

There is no official ban on women attending sports events in Iran, but they are often refused entry so it is rare for women to attend.

In a third video, the woman explains that she layered five T-shirts and five pairs of trousers to hide her figure and covered her face with face paint.

I recognize that this is the norm over there, but it’s still a striking story.

Report: Barcelona ready to swoop if Mourinho deems Mata surplus at Manchester United

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA - OCTOBER 01: Juan Mata (L) of Chelsea shakes hands with manager Jose Mourinho (R) after being substituted during the UEFA Champions League Group E Match between FC Steaua Bucuresti and Chelsea at the National Arena Stadium on October 1, 2013 in Bucharest, Romania.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
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It’s a $40 million question for Manchester United: Will Juan Mata and Jose Mourinho work well together?

Their time at Chelsea was fractured when Mourinho deemed Mata surplus to requirement and shipped the Spaniard to Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Rashford signs new 4-year deal ]

Mata, 28, has been a consistent performer for United, but will his reunion with Mourinho be short-lived? It’s easy to imagine both as ready to move on and Barcelona could be an option if that happens.

Mundo Deportivo says Barcelona could make a bid of close to $40 million in order to help the midfield continue to tick. Mata was a key part of United’s possession-based approach under Louis Van Gaal, and as a player really does fit the bill of a Mourinho-minded mid.

We’re just hoping that if Mata moves, he doesn’t switch anywhere that would change his English language blog posts.