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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.

Klopp hopes for speedy solution in club, fans’ ticket-price dispute

Liverpool's fans wave flags during the English League Cup semifinal second leg soccer match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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From his time at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp is used to a much more positive, family-like, everyone-pulling-in-the-same-direction atmosphere at his club of employment, so the present goings-on at Liverpool understandably have the Reds’ first-year manager feeling more than a little uneasy.

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Saturday’s late 2-2 draw with Sunderland wasn’t the first time Liverpool fans have headed for the exit before the final whistle, leaving Klopp feeling all alone, but it was the first time the fans have departed from Anfield early in a pre-planned, organized manner (Klopp missed the game himself with appendicitis). The Anfield faithful didn’t walk out on 77 minutes due to their team’s poor performance — Liverpool were 2-0 ahead at the time — but in protest of steadily rising ticket prices, which were unveiled at $111 per game to sit in the 132-year-old stadium’s new main stand next season.

Klopp, coming from the Bundesliga, where a season ticket at clubs the size of Bayern Munich and Dortmund doesn’t cost much more than a single-game ticket at many Premier League grounds, understands the fans’ frustration. At the end of the day, though, he works for the club, which is why he just wants the whole thing settled quickly, for the sake of his squad — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s not what we want. What I know is everyone in the club has a big interest in finding a solution for this. We don’t want people to leave the stadium before the game is finished.”

An LFC TV appearance by Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre, in which he was expected to answer fan-submitted questions, was consequently canceled on Monday due to the ongoing dispute.

West Ham want Payet to sign new contract for fear of losing him this summer

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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Dimitri Payet is going to be a red-hot commodity during this summer’s transfer window, there’s no doubt about it.

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Given he’s currently contracted to one of the Premier League’s “smaller” clubs — in comparison to some of the giants which are bound to be interested — West Ham United, there’s a decent-to-good chance he could be wearing a different club’s shirt come August. Especially if the 28-year-old attacker shows up and shows out at this summer’s European Championship in his native France.

If I can foresee the interest in Payet, then so too can the executives at West Ham, which is why manager Slaven Bilic took to the press on Monday to convey his desire for Payet to consider signing a new, increased contract at his earliest convenience — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are moving, the club is moving, with the new stadium, with the revenue and everything. We have to move and the most important move is to keep your best players and to add some new players who are needed and Dimitri Payet is our best player — I have no problem whatsoever to say that. Of course, I would love to have him happy, long term, at the club.”

Of course West Ham want Payet to sign a new deal immediately — doing so would accomplish two things in the club’s eyes: 1) increase the likelihood he remains at the club next season, or 2) insure the club receives a higher transfer fee for the player if he leaves in the summer anyway. The more total money remaining on his West Ham contract, the more they can demand of a prospective buyer.

[ MORE: Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018 ]

From Payet’s side — unless he has absolutely zero desire to move to a club like Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United, where he’d likely be paid close to $200,000 per week — he’d be crazy to sign a new contract at this point. Not only would it make a move this summer more difficult, but a strong showing at EURO 2016 could be worth another $15,000 or $20,000 per week on a new contract with West Ham (his current contract is rumored to be close to $100,000 per week).

With as many as five seasons still remaining on his current contract (a one-year club option can be exercised at any point), and his stock perhaps at an all-time high, the next six months could hold Payet’s last chance to get really, really paid before he hits the downside of his career.

USWNT players’ union responds in USSF lawsuit

FILE - In this Sunday, July 5, 2015 file photo, the United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s original lawsuit against the union for its champion women’s national team has been sealed after the governing body realized it had disclosed the home addresses and email accounts of many players, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
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(AP) — The union that represents the Women’s World Cup-winning American national team opposed an expedited schedule in the lawsuit filed against it by the U.S. Soccer Federation last week, insisting no collective bargaining agreement exists.

The federation sued in an attempt to establish it has a contract with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association that runs through this year’s Olympics until Dec. 31. The union maintains the memorandum of understanding agreed to in March 2013 can be terminated at any time.

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The USSF filed a motion Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago asking for an expedited schedule, and the submitted opposition papers Monday that claim “facts asserted in the motion are nowhere near accurate and are hotly disputed.”

The union also maintains the USSF knew about the disagreement since July but did nothing about it.

An initial status conference is set for April 4.

Lionel Messi to undergo tests for lingering kidney problems

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds the ball during a quarterfinal, second leg, Copa del Rey soccer match against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi is to undergo medical tests to assess a recurrence of kidney problems.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup | Barca win on Sunday

Messi missed the Club World Cup semifinal in December due to a renal colic, an abdominal ailment often related to the presence of kidney stones within renal ducts.

Barcelona says in a statement Monday that the tests to be conducted by Tuesday at the latest, are “to assess the evolution of the kidney problem he suffered last December.”

[ MORE: Champions League returns next week — KO round matchups ]

The statement says Messi will resume training with the squad on Wednesday, when Barcelona travels to Valencia for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals in which it carries a 7-0 lead.