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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.

Coutinho, Kaka headline preliminary Brazil roster for Copa America

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It appears that Neymar won’t be the only big name missing from Brazil’s star-studded squad this summer at the Copa America Centenario.

[ VIDEO: Previewing every Week 36 match around the Premier League ]

The Selecao revealed their preliminary 40-man roster for this summer’s competition, and it includes Orlando City midfielder Kaka, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa of Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: PST discusses how Leicester has gotten to the verge of an epic title ]

Chelsea pair Willian and Oscar also made the initial cut, in addition to Liverpool midfielder Roberto Firminho, who is coming off of a stellar season for Liverpool.

Among the biggest snubs for Brazil are a trio of defenders. Paris Saint-Germain duo Thiago Silva and David Luiz were each left off, while Real Madrid wing back Marcelo was also left out of the side.

Head coach Dunga will be forced to cut his roster down to 23 before the tournament starts for the Brazilians on June 4. The Selecao will take on Ecuador, Haiti and Peru in Group B play.

You can view the entire roster below:

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Freiburg promoted, returns to Bundesliga after 1 season away

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 03:  Mike Hanke of SC Freiburg controls the ball during the UEFA Europa League group H match between Sevilla FC and SC Freiburg at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on October 3, 2013 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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BERLIN (AP) Freiburg secured an immediate return to the Bundesliga, one season after relegation to the second division, with a 2-1 win at Paderborn on Friday.

Goals from Mike Frantz and Nils Petersen, both set up by Maximilian Philipp in a three-minute spell just after the break, ensured Freiburg will finish at least second, earning automatic promotion.

“It still has to sink in,” Petersen said.

With two rounds remaining, Freiburg has 69 points, five more than Leipzig, and 10 more than third-placed Nuremberg, which has a game in hand.

Even if Nuremberg, which is all but certain of at least a promotion/relegation playoff following St. Pauli’s 2-0 defeat at 1860 Munich, wins its remaining three games, it cannot catch Freiburg.

It is Freiburg’s fifth promotion to the top flight after 1993, 1998 and 2003 – all under Volker Finke – and then 2009 under Robin Dutt.

“I’m quite calm,” said current coach Christian Streich, who was relegated with the side last season. “There were a lot of ups and downs over the year. I’m simply happy we managed it, no more.”

With 72 goals in 32 games, Streich’s side has the best offense in the second division. A run of 10 wins and one draw from its last 11 games helped clinch its return to the top flight.

Video: Ranieri gets emotional after seeing Leicester fans tribute

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Claudio Ranieri in on the verge of leading Leicester City to the most improbable feat in Premier League history.

[ MORE: Pochettino verbally agrees to return to Tottenham ]

While the Foxes have given the club’s supporters the greatest ride they’ve ever seen, the fans put together a tribute video describing what the 2015-16 season has meant to them.

[ MORE: Previewing every Premier League match for Week 36 ]

Fans of all ages put in their two cents regarding the team’s quirky manager, and the 64-year old Italian began to shed tears.

We likely won’t ever see a team like Leicester again, not only in the Premier League, but any sports league. The club’s assembly of players and Ranieri have coincided perfectly and the Foxes faithful are clearly grateful for what they’ve witnessed at the King Power Stadium this season.

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Premier League Preview: Newcastle vs. Crystal Palace

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Georginio Wijnaldum of Newcastle United and Joel Ward of Crystal Palace compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Newcastle United at Selhurst Park on November 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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  • Newcastle has won one of their previous 10 PL matches
  • Palace is unbeaten in five of last six
  • Benitez is 1-3-3 since taking over Magpies

Newcastle host Crystal Palace on Saturday at St. James’ Park (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra) with the Magpies among the three sides battling to stay in the Premier League for the 2016-17 season.

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Crystal Palace isn’t mathematically out of the woods in the relegation battle, but they’re more than likely to remain in the PL next season. Palace has been in decent form of late, securing a win over Watford and draws against Arsenal and Everton. Yohan Cabaye and Connor Wickham are among the dangerous attackers that Newcastle will need to be wary of, each scoring five PL goals on the season.

[ MORE: Arsenal can put a damper on Norwich’s season with a win Saturday ]

A 5-1 drubbing towards the end of November gave Palace bragging rights, but at this stage of the season Newcastle must forget what happened in the past. While draws against Manchester City and Liverpool were certainly encouraging, the Magpies need wins. Anything else simply won’t do, particularly with Sunderland and Norwich each holding a game in hand.

The two-headed monster of Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic will be crucial if Newcastle is to pick up a vital three points at home for the sixth time this season.

What they’re saying…

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez: “I don’t bet. Obviously, I agree we have to win. In my experience, it’s the players who make the difference, not the managers. I can prepare for the game, but to talk about mind games, I don’t take too much notice.”

Palace boss Alan Pardew: “I’ve always encouraged other coaches and managers to be involved, with comments from them. I asked a bit of advice at the weekend from a couple of people which was very sound. I expect, as I do on occasion, to get calls from some of the players I’ve coached to ring me. You have to keep your network big.”

Prediction

Newcastle needs this game, or at the very least a point. Given the team’s poor goal differential though, this isn’t something Rafa Benitez and company will want to leave up to fate. Palace has dropped plenty of points this season, leaving Newcastle in an opportune position to gain ground on the coveted 17th place. The Magpies will push hard and I think they’ll be able to pull this one out at home, 2-1.

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