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.

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

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It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.