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.

FIFA bans 3 soccer officials for life for taking bribes

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GENEVA (AP) Three soccer officials who pleaded guilty in American courts to accepting bribes were banned for life by the FIFA ethics committee on Tuesday.

They include former FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai of Guam, who testified in federal court that the source of his bribe money was Olympic powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait.

“His guilty plea related, amongst others, to schemes in which he received bribes in exchange for his support in relation to the FIFA presidential elections and to gain control and influence within the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA,” the soccer body said Tuesday in a statement.

Sheikh Ahmad referred his own case to the ethics committees of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee in April after Lai’s guilty plea was revealed. The Kuwaiti royal also withdrew from an election to retain his seat representing Asia on the FIFA Council.

Two former soccer federation presidents, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, were also banned for life Tuesday. They were arrested in Zurich in May 2015 in early morning raids on luxury hotels and later extradited to the United States.

FIFA said its ethics judges imposed “appropriate fines in relation to the amounts of the bribes that they have admitted having taken.”

Lai has agreed to pay “more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in April.

In court, the American citizen pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking about $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials.

Esquivel agreed to forfeit $16 million a year ago when he pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy linked to the awarding of contracts for the media and marketing rights.

Esquivel’s name was cited Monday in Brooklyn during testimony in the trial of three other South American soccer officials who deny corruption charges.

One witness who formerly worked for a marketing agency in Argentina said he kept a ledger of payments to officials, including a $750,000 payment to Esquivel for “Q2022.” Prosecutors did not specify if the payment was linked to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Rocha was a FIFA staffer and was working for its development department when he was arrested in 2015. He agreed to forfeit nearly $300,000 after admitting to racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges last December.

PL Playback: Pogba the key for Man United

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POGBACK

Paul Pogba‘s snake hips goal celebration had been dearly missed by Manchester United’s fans.

So too had his marauding runs from midfield since he injured his hamstring in early September. Jose Mourinho had previously said United were a totally different team without Pogba and his display in the 4-1 win against Newcastle on Saturday proved it.

Speaking to MUTV after the game, Pogba shared his belief that if all of United’s players stay fit they can challenge Manchester City for the title.

“The season is really long so we have to be fit – not only me but all the players,” Pogba said. “To win the league we need all our players. When you have one injured here, one injured there, it doesn’t help. It’s always better to have a full team. Zlatan’s back and Marcos after a long injury. It was hard for them but they kept believing and worked hard to come back. We need them to win the league and we’re really glad they’re here.”

Even if he didn’t jinx past Newcastle’s defense to clip in a wonderful cross for Anthony Martial to head home United’s first, or then make a 60-yard sprint to get on the end of Marcus Rashford‘s knockdown to make it 3-1, Pogba’s presence was felt.

His return gave United’s entire squad, and fanbase, a lift and everything is set up rather nicely for him to battle it out with Kevin De Bruyne in the Manchester derby on Dec. 10 at Old Trafford.

With Pogba this season United have played five games, winning four and drawing one.

Without Pogba United have played seven, won four, lost twice and drawn once in the Premier League.

His influence on this team is key to the way it has been assembled by Mourinho and his power, all-action displays and strong character get the best out of those around him. Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku tick because Pogba is linking the midfield and attack effortlessly with his energetic displays. Over the past two months there’s been a main reason why Lukaku had done seven games without scoring for United before last weekend: Pogba.

Pogba’s comments about United pushing City for the title if they stay fit appear misguided but if he stays fit then there’s no doubt United are the best version of themselves.


INFURIATING ARSENAL

When they play like they did on Saturday, the only team Arsenal will finish below this season will be Manchester City.

Seriously.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from the North London derby ]

The Gunners destroyed Tottenham Hotspur with a ruthless display in the first half as Mesut Ozil unlocked Spurs’ midfield and defense, Alexis Sanchez ran them ragged and Alexandre Lacazette played on the last shoulder of Tottenham’s disheveled defense.

Arsene Wenger was rewarded for a bold, attack-minded team selection and with Shkodran Mustafi back fit he now has his first-choice starting lineup at his disposal. If the Gunners stay fit, they can make real charge up the Premier League table in the coming weeks with a bunch of winnable games.

In four of their next five Premier League games they should beat Huddersfield, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle, with the big tests at home against Man United (Dec. 2) and Liverpool (Dec. 22) showing just how far they’ve come so far this season.

The Emirates, so often the site of protests and fan unrest in previous seasons, is become a fortress for Arsenal who have now won 11 PL games there on the spin, their best-ever run of consecutive wins at the stadium.

Between now and Dec. 22 we will get a very good idea as to what way this season will go for Arsenal.

If Wenger’s players stay fit and he remains positive in his team selection, the Gunners could be rewarded with not only a place back in the top four but much more.


WEST BROM’S GAMBLE

Tony Pulis is the man you want in a relegation battle. So, why did West Bromwich Albion sack him?

A run of two wins in 21 Premier League games sealed Pulis’ fate but what exactly did West Brom’s owners expect would happen?

Pulis’ short-term bump from taking over in January 1 2015 wore off midway through last season and his methods, although lauded by many for preserving his proud record of never being relegation from the Premier League, wear players down over time. Even the wily old crew he had assembled at West Brom (they had the oldest average starting XI in the PL) couldn’t cope with it anymore.

[ MORE: Baggies sack Tony Pulis. but what next? ]

The old adage “losing the dressing room” is frowned upon by folks in the industry but it is clear that’s what happened here. Players believe they are better than perhaps they are, most of the time, and get sick and tired of being told to just clip the ball long, stay compact and try to score from set pieces. Most of Pulis’ training session focus on team shape and denying the opposition the ball. Having the ball is an afterthought. That’s too much for some to handle day in, day out.

And we all know, despite the Baggies being a solid midtable club for seven years in the PL now, that getting rid of one manager is much easier than a squad of players.

Getting rid of Pulis was the only available option.

Yet, after a summer where they did some great business to bring in Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kieran Gibbs, Ahmed Hegazi and Jay Rodriguez, things seemed to be on the up. Yet that recruitment and losing the likes of Darren Fletcher caused issues in the squad balance and Pulis all of a sudden had too many newbies on board who either took too much time to get used to his methods or didn’t want to adjust their game to do so.

All in all, West Brom are now left with very few options to replace Pulis other than appointing someone extremely similar to him. Sam Allardyce is from the area (a boyhood Wolves fan, West Brom’s bitter rivals) is the bookmakers favorite and he would seem to be the perfect firefighter against a Premier League relegation battle.

But, like many PL clubs who have sacked their managers so far this season (hello, Everton, Crystal Palace, West Ham) or are contemplating it (Swansea, Southampton and maybe Stoke) the alternatives to their current boss aren’t plentiful. Keeping hold of Pulis was no longer an option West Brom had but, over time, it may seem like the correct one.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Champions League score picks: Week 5

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Round 5 of the UEFA Champions League group stage is here and plenty of teams will seal their spots in the Round of 16 over the next few days.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Below you will find score predictions for all 16 UCL games across Tuesday and Wednesday.

[ MORE: Group stage predictions ]

Feel free to join in down in the comments section.


Tuesday

Group E
Sevilla 1-3 Liverpool
Spartak Moscow 2-2 Maribor

Group F
Man City 5-2 Feyenoord
Napoli 3-0 Shakhtar Donetsk

Group G
Besiktas 2-1 FC Porto
Monaco 2-2 RB Leipzig

Group H
Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur
APEOL 0-4 Real Madrid

Wednesday

Group A
Manchester United 2-0 Benfica
Basel 3-0 CSKA Moscow

Group B
Paris Saint-Germain 4-0 Celtic
Anderlecht 1-3 Bayern Munich

Group C
Qarabag 1-4 Chelsea
Atletico Madrid 2-1 Roma

Group D
Juventus 1-2 Barcelona
Sporting Lisbon 2-1 Olympiacos

Top 15 new signings in the Premier League, so far

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Do you remember back in the summer when Premier League clubs were splashing the cash, new players were flooding in and fans of every single team believed they’d just signed either the “next big thing” or a “superstar” for the 2017-18 season?

Yeah, about that…

[ VIDEO: PL Saturday roundup ]

Regardless of how many new boys have so far been duds after arriving at their new team in the summer transfer window, plenty of players have made very impressive starts to life at their new clubs.

With that in mind, below is a look at the top 15 new guys in the PL after they arrived at their new PL clubs in the summer.


  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 14 goals in 18 games for Liverpool in all comps. has surpassed all expectations. A bargain at $45 million. Superb start.
  2. Ederson (Manchester City) – The missing piece of the jigsaw for Man City. Confident goalkeeper capable with his feet and eager to rush off his line.
  3. Richarlison (Watford) – Brazilian was an unknown before the season but youngster has five goals and two assists so far and has been a revelation.
  4. Kyle Walker (Manchester City) – $70 million for a right back? $70 million for a right back. Walker’s pace and power has added proper balance to City’s defense along with left back Benjamin Mendy before his unfortunate injury.
  5. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) – Spaniard has scored 8 goals and added 4 assists and is the main man at Stamford Bridge. $90 million well spent.
  6. Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United) – 12 goals in all comps, 8 goals in 12 in the PL, yeah, Lukaku’s doing well. His recent drought a little worrying.
  7. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) – Six goals and 1 assist, Lacazette has settled in very well at Arsenal. His runs open up space for Ozil, Sanchez.
  8. Pascal Gross (Brighton) – 5 assists and three goals this season for the German playmaker make him an absolute bargain for the new boys.
  9. Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) – Colombian arrived with a big reputation but the 21-year-old is exceeding it. Calm, powerful center back.
  10. Harry Maguire (Leicester City) – Towering defender is an elegant ballerina on the ball. Now an England international and key for the Foxes after leaving Hull for $22 million.
  11. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town) – Australian makes Huddersfield tick after making his loan move from Man City permanent. Smooth on the ball.
  12. Mario Lemina (Southampton) – Stunning start to life at Saints curtailed by injury. Combative midfielder looks like a $20 million bargain from Juventus.
  13. Jack Cork (Burnley) – A shrewd signing by Dyche and his early-season form earned him a first-ever England call-up. Direct, calm and experience.
  14. Mikel Merino (Newcastle United) – His loan move from Dortmund was quickly made permanent and he has class as well as guile in midfield.
  15. Erik Maxim Choupo-Moting (Stoke City) – Has provided extra quality up top for Stoke with 3 goals and 3 assists. Superb free transfer.

Notable mentions: Nemanja Matic (Man United), Chris Wood (Burnley), Jonas Lossl (Huddersfield), Sead Kolasinac (Arsenal), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Tiemoue Bakayoko (Chelsea), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Kurt Zouma (Stoke City, on loan from Chelsea), Tammy Abraham (Swansea City, on loan from Chelsea)