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

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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.

LIVE, FA Cup: Wigan v. Southampton in quarterfinal

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The Mark Hughes era begins at Southampton with upset alerts ringing loudly in the background.

[ LIVE: Wigan v. Saints ]

Premier League side Saints travel to third-tier Wigan on Sunday (9:30 a.m. ET) in the FA Cup quarterfinal knowing that the hosts have already knocked out Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City during their incredible run to the last eight.

Paul Cook’s men will fancy their chances of upsetting a fourth Premier League team in a row to reach the FA Cup semis at Wembley next month, as Southampton sit in the bottom three of the PL table and sacked Mauricio Pellegrino as their manager earlier this week after just five wins in 30 league games.

With Tottenham and Manchester United booking their spot in the last four on Saturday, Wigan remain the lowest ranked team left in the competition.

In team news Hughes starts with Manolo Gabbiadini and Guido Carrillo up top in a 4-4-2 formation.

Wigan bring in Gary Roberts for Nick Powell.


Wigan Athletic


Salah “on his way” to Messi’s level

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Mohamed Salah scored four goals on Saturday and grabbed an assist as Liverpool beat Watford 5-0 in the Premier League.

It was special. But it was almost as if we’d come to expect this. He is one of those players you pay the entrance fee alone to watch and most PL defenders spend the 90 minutes watching him run by them.

Following the stunning display from the Egyptian winger, Jurgen Klopp was asked about the current level Salah is at as he now leads the PL scoring charts with 28 goals and is the highest scoring Liverpool player ever in a debut season at Anfield with 36 in all competitions.

“I don’t think Mo wants to be compared with Lionel Messi,” Klopp said. “Messi has been doing what he’s been doing for what feels like 20 years or so. The last player I know who had the same influence on a team performance was Diego Maradona. But Mo is in a fantastic way, that’s for sure. As it always is in life, if you have to have the skills you have to show that constantly and consistently, and he is very good.”

Salah’s rise to prominence has been hugely unexpected with the $50 million Liverpool paid to Roma for his services last summer raising plenty of eyebrows.

That transfer fee now seems like a bargain.

The 25-year-old who struggled to break through at Chelsea after arriving from Basel as a youngster is now, like Messi, a genuine global superstar. Everyone knew he was quick and nimble around the box as a winger but nobody expected these gaudy numbers and this kind of output in his debut season at Liverpool.

With Liverpool facing Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League last eight, plenty of City’s defenders will already be having sleepless nights as to how to stop Salah.

Sitting in third place in the table with seven games to go and in the latter stages of the UCL, Liverpool have a hugely talented squad with the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino consistently delivering goals and assists and Klopp’s project is kicking on.

But like Messi at Barcelona, one man helps Liverpool climb above the rest: Salah.

On this form Kevin De Bruyne will have a serious run for his money when it comes to the player of the year awards in England this season.

Salah is still some way off Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of consistent excellence as his subdued display at Manchester United showed last weekend. However, he is getting towards that level and the Egyptian wizard is in the perfect team for his talents to flourish.

Three MLS Things: Growing pains in ORL; hat-trick hero

Photo credit: Atlanta United / @ATLUTD
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The third Saturday of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and we learned a few (more) things along the way.

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

One game is just one game; two games is too small of a sample size; but three games is the beginning of a trend…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Lots of changes, lots of kinks to work out

Inside the last nine months alone, Orlando City SC acquired the following who’s-who list of MLS star-level players: Dom Dwyer, Yoshi Yotun, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram and Uri Rosell. That’s one half of an uber-talented, but brand new, starting lineup (at a massive cost) — which is to say, Jason Kreis and Co., have made serious changes, and everything isn’t going to coalesce overnight.

Throw in the fact that Kljestan was suspended the first two games, Dwyer has battled multiple muscular injuries since January and is yet to make his 2018 debut, and Rosell didn’t arrive in Orlando until the week before the season opener and hasn’t played either, and you begin to understand how “such a talented team can have just one point from their first three games.”

Saturday’s 2-0 loss away to a David Villa-less New York City FC was frustrating in more ways than just “we’re still figuring things out, but we’re getting there.” Both of NYCFC’s goals resulted from self-inflicted, avoidable mistakes in possession which turned into easy counter-attacking chances going the other way.

Rosell will undoubtedly fix many of Orlando’s problems with regard to ball circulation and defensive organization/transitions, but only upon his arrival into the lineup can his tricky and important integration begin.

NYCFC, on the other hand, have three wins from three games, have conceded just once (while scoring six) and now hold a nine-point lead on the defending champions from Toronto. Oh, and did I mention they looked just fine without David Villa?

Martinez closing in on history

Just 23 games into his MLS career, Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez is one hat trick from tying the all-time record for hat tricks in a career (6 – currently held by Landon Donovan, Stern John and Diego Serna). To put that into perspective, the three aforementioned players made 340, 55 and 124 appearances during their respective MLS careers.

Assuming he doesn’t pick up another long-term injury (he missed 10 games between March and June last year) and/or transfer back to Europe in the summer, Martinez should summit the hat trick-scoring chart by early June. Given the veracity and vigor with which Atlanta engulf their opponents, Martinez scoring at least two more hat tricks this season feels like the safest bet one could make in a league full of constant flux.

Take, for example, Saturday’s 4-1 thrashing of the Vancouver Whitecaps, which not only saw the Five Stripes fire 21 shots (4 on target – 100 percent, obviously), but more importantly hold more than 72 percent of possession and limit the visitors to just five shots in total (Kendall Waston was sent off in the 13th minute, leaving the ‘Caps a man short for much of the evening). Jeff Larentowicz has solved most of the problems in midfield and allowed Darlington Nagbe to settle in quickly and thrive. If that trend is to continue, the sky is truly the limit for Tata Martino’s boys, and Martinez will bag goals by the handful.

Where’s the real Sporting KC defense?

Should we be a little worried about the Sporting Kansas City defense, a group which finished 2017 as the league’s stingiest unit and returns its entire back-six in 2018? After conceding just 29 goals in 34 games last season, the group led by past Defender of the Year award winners Ike Opara and Matt Besler has conceded seven goals in their first three games this year.

If it were any other team, and any other group of MLS veterans, with any other coach, I’d be officially worried right now. But, given their (perennial) stake to one of the league’s best defensive records, I remain in a holding pattern, even after giving up another soft/sloppy goal in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.

Sporting head coach Peter Vermes made a fair and valid point following the game, reminding the assembled media that playing more freely going forward — a massive weakness for Sports in recent seasons — comes at the expense of defensive positioning and numbers. Sure enough, they’ve scored seven goals in three games (tied for the most in MLS – all coming in the last two). Sporting scored their seventh goal of the 2017 season on April 29.

Here’s the thing about Sporting’s recent seasons: they’ve been a lock-down side throughout the regular season and never figured out how to consistently score goals, and it cost them plenty of points along the way and ultimately they played on the road in the knockout round each of the last four seasons. That style, which they’ll surely settle back into come playoff time, doesn’t lend itself to playing on the road. Securing a home playoff game, which would the first for the team since winning MLS Cup 2013 at home, is priority no. 1, and Vermes might just be willing to sacrifice a little bit of defense for a whole lot more offense (finally).

MLS: NYCFC with 3 wins in 3; defending champs TFC point-less

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP
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NEW YORK (AP) Ismael Tajouri and Maximiliano Moralez scored 12-minutes apart in the second half and New York City FC opened the season with three straight wins for the first time in the club’s short history with a 2-0 victory over Orlando City on Saturday.

Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik misplayed a back-pass that went right to Tajouri inside the 18-yard box and Tajouri took a few touches to the penalty spot for an easy finish in the 62nd minute. After an Orlando giveaway to Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jesus Medina settled it for an oncoming Moralez to slide it home.

NYCFC (3-0-0) was without start David Villa due to a minor injury.

Orlando City (0-2-1), led by NYC’s former coach Jason Kreis (2014-15), has its share of injury problems as well. Striker Stefano Pinho had a right ankle injury last Saturday, leaving on crutches, and playmaker Dom Dwyer will be out for at least two more weeks.

Sacha Kljestan made his debut for Orlando after serving a two-game ban. The club arrived late due to the St. Patrick’s Day parade traffic.

MONTREAL (AP) Jeisson Vargas scored four minutes before the intermission to lift Montreal to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in the Impact’s home opener Saturday.

It was the first MLS goal for 20-year-old Vargas and the first win for new coach Remi Garde, who replaced Mauro Biello in December as coach of the Impact (1-2).

Toronto (0-2) played its first game since a rousing victory in the CONCACAF Champions League over Mexican side Tigres. The travel to Mexico may have sapped some energy from the defending MLS champions, who nonetheless started most of their top players.

Garde seemed to catch everyone off guard by starting a three-man backline with former Marseille defender Rod Fanni making his debut in the middle.

It made for a mostly uneventful first half until Saphir Taider intercepted a ball and sent Ignacio Piatti up the middle. Three Toronto defenders focused on the Impact captain, leaving Vargas open on the right side to take the pass and slice a shot inside the goalpost in the 41st minute for their first lead in three games.

Piatti was inside the Toronto penalty area on two more occasions before the break but Nick Hagglund blocked one dangerous shot and another was also turned away.

Eight minutes into the second half, Piatti sent Taider in alone but Alexander Bono pushed the shot.

Toronto threatened in the 64th when Sebastian Giovinco got the ball to striker Jozy Altidore. He lifted a shot over goalie Evan Bush but saw it bounce just wide. Toronto looked to have tied it in the 84th minute when Altidore’s shot got behind Bush and was rolling slowly to the goal line, but Michael Petrasso swept it away at the last second.

Montreal striker Matteo Mancosu, who missed practice this week for what the team called precautionary reasons, didn’t dress.

Midfielder Victor Vazquez, who has had back trouble, didn’t dress for Toronto. Chris Mavinga (suspected sports hernia) was in the lineup but did not start.