How Premier League clubs will fare in the Champions League group stage

1 Comment

With the Champions League group stage draw completed, let’s turn our attention to what to expect from the four Premier League clubs in Europe’s top competition.

Manchester United (Group A with Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad)

David Moyes has been gifted a very negotiable group as he enters his second ever Champions League contest following Everton’s 2005 loss to Villareal in the qualifying round.

Bayer Leverkusen is managed by ex-Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia who guided the club to third place finish behind Munich and Dortmund last season. The squad is led by goal-scoring dynamo Stefan Kießling, who is partnered by new signing Son Heung-Min. Factor in midfielders Lars Bender and Simon Rolfes as well as center-back Omer Toprak and Leverkusen has the tools to compete with United.

Playing in the Ukraine is never an easy feat but with the loss of Willian, Fernandinho, Razvan Rat and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shakhtar lost a tremendous amount of their top talent. Manager Mirceu Lucescu has moved fast to replace those losses by buying Brazilians Bernard, Fred, Fernando and Wellington Nem but cohesion issues should be expected.

Real Sociedad is a La Liga club on the rise. La Real stomped Lyon 4-0 on the aggregate to advance to the group stage and have a tricky group of strikers in 21 year Swiss Haris Seferovic, Mexican international  Carlos Vela and 22 year old Frenchman Antoine Greizmann. Running the show is Xabi Prieto, who was recently joined by Esteban Granero on season long loan from QPR.

United should win this group but don’t be surprised if they take a couple of nicks while doing so. Leverkusen and Shakhtar will provide challenges but the shocker will be when Sociedad qualifies in second place.

Manchester City (Group D with Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen)

Manchester City were dealt a blow when they drew title holders Bayern Munich but that was softened after CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen were added to the group. 

The Russian and Czech outfits are by no means light-weights but if City is to prove itself as one of the best clubs in Europe these are scalps they have to nick. City boss Manuel Pellegrini has taken both Villarreal and Málaga to the latter stages of the competition and there would be disappointment if he could not do the same with a club blessed with such a deep pool of talent.

Munich should take the group with City a close second.

Chelsea (Group E with Chelsea, Schalke 04, Basel and Steaua Bucharest)

Chelsea should have little problem conquering Group E.

The Blues will be quite familiar with Basel and Steaua Bucharest after facing both sides in last year’s Europa League title run. Basel were particularly impressive in that tournament, knocking out Tottenham in the quarterfinals before Chelsea cruised to a 5-2 aggregate semifinal victory.

Steaua made a decent run Europa League run themselves, bowing out to Chelsea 3-2 on aggregate in the Round of 16. Things will be tough for Bucharest as they have yet to advance beyond the group stage in the Champions League era.

Schalke arguably represents Chelsea’s biggest competitor to win the group as Dutch striker Klaus Jan Huntelaar and attacking midfielder Julian Draxler are two of the best players in the Bundesliga.  Jens Keller’s club enters the group stage of the tournament in questionable form, however, after narrowly defeating PAOK 3-2 in the Champions League play-offs.

If Jose Mourinho’s men do not win this group it will be a significant failure. Expect Schalke to lock down the second spot.

Arsenal (Group F with Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli)

Arsenal was handed a tough draw when they were matched up with last year’s beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund, Rafael Benitez’ Napoli and French runner-up Marseille.

The Gunners possession based style of play will be tested by the up-tempo attack of Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund squad. The two sides met in the 2011-12 Champions League group stage with Arsenal winning 2-1 at home before playing to a 1-1 draw in the return leg at Signal Iduna Park. Dortmund ended that campaign finishing last in the group while the Gunners claimed the top spot.

One year later and it was a different story for BVB as their eye-opening brand of football brought them all the way to the Champions League final, where they lost 2-1 to Bayern Munich. Arsenal also bowed out to Munich as well but not without a fight. After losing 3-1 at the Emirates they fired back at the Allianz Arena with a sound 2-0 victory, coming up just short on the aggregate.

Another side known for their quality football is Napoli, who also ended up securing the services of Arsenal target Gonzalo Higuain. Gunners boss Arsene Wenger later claimed that he halted his pursuit of the Argetine striker, claiming he was “not a special player.” Factor in Wenger’s antagonistic past with Napoli manager Rafa Benitez and this should prove to be a hotly contested affair.

Marseille is yet another team Arsenal faced in the 2011-12 Champions League group stage. Both sides advanced but Arsenal claimed the top spot after Aaron Ramsey’s injury time goal handed the Gunners a key 1-0 victory at the Stade Vélodrome.

If Arsenal are to advance to the Round of 16 it won’t come easy. Dortmund will likely take the group but the Gunners pedigree in Europe runs too deep and should be enough to help outwit the challenge posed by Napoli.

Manchester City defeat a “cruel” reminder for Hull City’s Bruce

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Hull City Manager Steve Bruce during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Hull City at Ashton Gate on November 21, 2015 in Bristol, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
Leave a comment

For nearly 90 percent of Hull City’s League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City, the Tigers hung tough.

A 1-0 deficit made dreams of an Etihad equalizer far from absurd, and Hull had to be thinking about the possibility of another extended Cup run after making it to the 2014 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: League Cup roundup sees Man City, Stoke, Everton advance ]

Then, the 80th minute hit Hull. Seven minutes later, it was 4-0 Man City. Boom. It finished 4-1.

From the BBC:

“If we needed a reminder how cruel it was to play against the big boys, we just had one.

“After 80 minutes we just had our best spell of the match and after 87 minutes it was 4-0. It was never a 4-1.”

Hull is three points off the lead in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Their only loss since Sept. 12 came Saturday against Derby County, so the gifts of Man City were likely a surprise.

With loads of genuine respect to Bruce and complete understanding of what he’s inferring, it did feel more like a 4-1 than the 1-0 his Tigers faced for 68 minutes after Wilfried Bony‘s 12th minute tally.

What would it mean for MLS if Portland wins it all on Sunday?

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Randy Rasmussen
Leave a comment

It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Would there be an underlying thread, a lesson, or a copycat inspiration inside of Portland scoring a minor upset of Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on the storylines from a post-Timbers title.

1) Stick with the boss

Caleb Porter’s reputation is rather “hate or love”, and people (including this “perhaps still bitter from the Olympics” writer) were expecting his days to be numbered after a rough start to this season.

In his first year in PDX, Porter engineered a 20-point upgrade to the West’s No. 1 slot, but Year Two featured no playoffs and it looked headed that way for much of this year.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But after leaping into control of its playoff destiny with a game to play, Porter now has a Conference Final and an MLS Cup Final (at least) on his resume inside of three seasons.

Where other teams have gone through coaches like candy, Portland keeps going with Porter. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, as in 102 games he’s posted 41 wins and 36 draws to go with just 25 losses (and he was missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri for the critical moments of his bum season).

2) Spend* at the back, and spread it out

Portland spent the league’s 10th highest total dollars on players when including Designated Players, but that total leaps to sixth if you discount the big money guys (Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri).

You have to get to 19th on the list of top MLS salaries to find Portland’s first entrant (Ridgewell), and you don’t hit another until No. 33 (Fanendo Adi).

[ MLS: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

But Portland has six players in the Top 100, compared to Columbus’ four. High-end spenders NYC (five players), Toronto (four), and L.A. (four) all don’t hit that figure inside of the Top 100 (and to be specific, Portland does in 98).

They also rank ninth in spending on forwards, 14th on midfielders, and third in defenders. Of the 15 players making more than 100k in base salary, four are defenders and one is goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

All numbers come from Spotrac*

3) Get Darlington Nagbe

This will be harder to copycat, seeing as there’s only one Darlington Nagbe, but the Timbers’ midfielder is versatile and helps Porter challenge opposing coaches because of the unpredictable nature of how he can be deployed on the pitch.

In fact, when you run numbers on advanced statistics site Squawka, you’ll see something quite interesting. Among players who hit the pitch in at least 2/3 of their teams’ games this season, Nagbe is fourth in MLS in combined score. More intriguing? Besides Michael Bradley, he’s the most complete contributor (offense, defense, possession) of any top scorer.

[ MORE:  Who is the favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Nagbe stats4) Parity continues to reign

For the same reason people barely celebrate the NHL’s Presidents Trophy, the MLS Supporters Shield is a bit of a fallback party for fan bases who fail to capitalize on a season’s worth of solid play.

In much of world soccer, the season-long title matter more than a tournament, but North America is about the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that only one team in MLS this season finished more than four wins out of a playoff spot (Chicago), and most teams that missed the playoffs by a bunch (New York City, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Houston), earned their gaps off the playoff pace by losing a lot once they were officially eliminated.

Even Chicago, who was awful, had a shot at the playoffs when August ended, only to lose seven of eight to finish the season. MLS, for better or worse, literally is anyone’s ball game at nearly any time.

League Cup roundup: Man City, Everton, Stoke knock off Championship clubs

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Wilfried Bony of Manchester City celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Capital One Cup Quarter Final match between Manchester City and Hull City at Etihad Stadium on December 1, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

There will be no lower league wonder story in the League Cup semifinals.

Southampton and Liverpool’s marquee matchup in the quarterfinals of the League Cup will hit your screens on Wednesday, but three other Premier League teams booked their spots in the semis with Tuesday wins.

[ REPORT: Club America transfer lists USMNT’s Alvarado ]

Man City last won the League Cup in 2013, while Stoke last won in 1972 and Everton has never hoisted the Football League Cup. As for Wednesday’s quarterfinalists, Southampton’s last League Cup final came in 1979, while Liverpool most recently won in 2012.

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Romelu Lukaku (L) of Everton celebrates scoring during their Capital One Cup Quarter Final at Riverside Stadium on December 1, 2015 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Middlesbrough 0-2 Everton

The Toffees got two goals in eight first-half minutes, with Gerard Deulofeu scoring a goal off a magnetic dribble and shot in the 20th minute and Romelu Lukaku adding another in the 28th.

Manchester City 4-1 Hull City

Steve Bruce‘s Tigers still have plenty of power from last season’s relegation campaign, and planted men behind the ball in hopes of springing an upset on Manchester City. The defense was broken in the first half by Wilfried Bony after just 12 minutes. Kelechi Iheanacho scored late, before Kevin De Bruyne put home two more. Andrew Robertson provided late consolation for Hull.

Stoke City 2-0 Sheffield Wednesday

The Potters got a wonderful left-footed volley goal from Ibrahim Afellay on the half-hour, and that was about all they’d need against the visiting Owls. Phil Bardsley hammered in a low free kick late to insure and ensure the victory.

Report says Club America transfer lists USMNT back Alvarado

Ventura Alvarado - Club America
Leave a comment

Could Ventura Alvarado be leaving Club America? And where would the young USMNT defender go?

MLSSoccer.com, citing a Mexican web report, says Alvarado has been transfer listed by Club America after making just 7 appearances during the Apertura season.

Alvarado, 23, has earned 13 caps for the U.S. (all in 2015), but his performances have been uneven for country since debuting in late March. A dual national, he was cap-tied during the Gold Cup.

[ MORE: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

Given that status, will he be attractive to other Liga MX clubs? Could he fit the plans of an MLS club? At age 23 and without consistent playing time for club, could a European stop be in the mix?

Transfermarkt estimates his value to about $1.6 million, and he comes with valuable international and CONCACAF Champions League experience. It will be interesting to see his destination, should the reports be true, as we continue to weigh what it means to be a U.S. international on the world stage.