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Germany: Win over Bayer caps turnaround week for Schalke

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They finished one place apart in last year’s standings, but for Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, the beginning of the Bundesliga season saw two of Germany’s better teams on divergent paths. Bayer impressed out of the gate, an attack led by Stefan Kießling, Sidney Sam, and Son Heung-Min leading an offense that’d scored eight times in their perfect, three-game start. Schalke, on the other hand, had conceded nine times in three rounds and, combined with a home draw in the first leg for their Champions League play-in against Greece’s PAOK, hinted at a tailspin to start the campaign.

Yet mid-week, ahead of today’s visit from Bayer, Schalke got a huge result in Thessaloniki. Two Adám Szalai goals bookended a key, second road goal via Julian Draxler, giving the Miners a 3-2 win which secured their place in Champions League group stage. Add in the Friday acquisition of Kevin Prince Boateng, the attacking midfielder surprising with a move away from Milan, and the week’s been a boon for the Blues. Though Prince’s transfer has rekindled speculation about Draxler’s future (speculation immediately shot down by the club), Schalke looked to have moved beyond their troublesome Bundesliga start.

If, however, Bayer got a win today at the Veltins-Arena, those good vibes would be squelched, potentially by the realization that Bayer, while still decidedly south of Germany’s two current elites, may be pulling away. A Big Two Plus One scenario would leave a talented but enigmatic Schalke to position itself as the best of the rest, seeking a Wenger-inspired honor for merely finishing fourth in your league.

To the joy of 61,793 in Gelsenkirchen, that realization never happened on Saturday. Schalke proved the better, more energetic side throughout, holding the previously firing Bayer off the scoresheet. Marco Höger’s first half, set piece conversion combined with Jefferson Farfan’s second half penalty kick to have Schalke a convincing win, the 2-0 result ruining Bayer’s perfect start. With Boateng proving influential debuting as Jens Keller’s number ten (pushing Draxler left), Schalke limited Bayer to one shot on goal, overcoming the continued absence of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (knee) to record their first victory of the season.

Despite Boateng’s acquisition, the key to this team, will continue to be Farfan (pictured, above), his often dominant displays on the right giving Schalke a player that’s near-impossible to match up against. For Huntelaar and Szalai, life is easier being able to plan on that threat from the right, but whereas Schalke’s inability to come up with more tricks may have contributed to their erratic form last year, now they have Boateng in the middle. Now Draxler’s out left, balancing the team in a way that proved promising during Michel Bastos’s brief tenure last season. As much as Bayer may be improving, the acquisition of Boateng gives Schalke the potential to keep up.

But even after today’s win, Schalke’s potential still needs to be realized. We’ve seen these highs before, and within a couple of weeks, we may see another low. This is Schalke, after all. They had a good win today, one that could prove important come spring, but they’re still in Germany’s bottom half, four points through four games leaving them 13th after Saturday’s results.

More from Germany: Bayern Munich played on Tuesday, drawing at Freiburg, while Borussia Dortmund play tomorrow … Hamburg, who like Schalke were off to a terrible start, woke up against visiting Braunschweig, posting a 4-0 win. Rafael van der Vaart had the opener … Borussia Moenchengladbach routed visiting Werder Bremen, with Juan Arango and Max Kruse among those who got on the scoresheet in a 4-1 win … Wolfsburg got goals from Ivica Olic and Diego (pk) in the last three minutes of the first half to hand Hertha Berlin their first loss of the season, 2-0 … Kevin Vogt’s late goal, scoring three minutes after coming on, allowed visiting Augsburg to take advantage of 10-man Nurnberg, 1-0 … Hannover won their third in four games, overcoming an early goal by Nicolai Müller to blow past visiting Mainz, 4-1.

League Cup roundup: Middlesbrough and Burnley fall to lower league foes

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Adam Forshaw of Middlesbrough is challenged by Tim Ream of Fulham during the EFL Cup second round match between Fulham and Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage on August 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Sunderland, Bournemouth, and Burnley all advanced to the League Cup third round, while Middlesbrough dropped out after finding themselves bested in extra-time.

A strong Boro lineup still saw its goal pummeled all evening by Fulham’s young squad, and Lasse Vigen Christensen won it in extra time with an assist from American youngster Luca de la Torre to complete the 2-1 scoreline. Middlesbrough went ahead early on an 8th minute header by David Nugent, but they were on the back foot the rest of the match. Scott Malone forced a Boro own-goal for the equalizer shortly after halftime, and Christensen won it seven minutes before penalties. The win for Fulham means they are unbeaten through five matches this season across Championship and League Cup play.

Burnley also went to extra-time after a scoreless full 90 minutes, and they were stunned by a goal from Accrington Stanley’s Matt Pearson in the 122nd minute, just ticks before penalties to down the Clarets 1-0. It was a dull match up to that point, and the League Two side earned its first-ever victory over a Premier League side in cup play with the late winner.

Bournemouth nudged past League Two side Morecambe 2-1 thanks to goals from Max Gradel and Marc Wilson, although Morecambe had leveled things for a bit between the two Cherries’ goals.

Sunderland also saw themselves through thanks to Adnan Januzaj‘s first goal for the Black Cats, an 83rd minute strike to down League One side Shrewsbury Town 1-0 at the Stadium of Light. The match was a relatively even affair until Januzaj’s late goal, but Sunderland likely deserved to win on number of chances, with Patrick van Anholt having the best prior opportunity just before halftime with a rocket saved by Jason Leutwiler.

Champions League playoff roundup: Man City eases through, Ajax bounced

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24:  Joe Hart of Manchester City looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League Play-off Second Leg match between Manchester City and Steaua Bucharest at Etihad Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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The result was never in doubt for Manchester City after a 6-0 demolition of Steaua Bucharest in the first leg, but the Premier League side made it official as they eased into the group stage with a 0-0 second leg result at the Etihad.

Joe Hart started and played what could be his final match in a City shirt, with Pep Guardiola handing him potentially one last showing in front of the home fans. The fan favorite received a thunderous welcome from the home fans who understood the situation.

Guardiola rested Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, and David Silva but still put forth a strong side, and Fabian Delph‘s 58th minute goal sent Man City home with an easy victory and clean sheet. There was a scary moment when Kelechi Iheanacho appeared to pull up lame with a hamstring injury, and then suddenly passed out on the field, but he came to just before a Bucharest player was about to attempt to resuscitate him. The young striker was brought off in favor of Fernandinho in the 75th minute.

Also through easily is Borussia Monchengladbach, with a 6-1 home win over Young Boys to complete a 9-2 aggregate victory. Thorgan Hazard opened the scoring just nine minutes in with a solid bit of skill, and Raffael continued his solid run of form with a hat-trick to easy the Germans through. Hazard would eventually cap off a hat-trick in the 84th minute as well.

In the surprise of the round, Dutch giants Ajax saw themselves bow out of the Champions League following a 4-1 aggregate defeat to last year’s Russian Premier League runners up FC Rostov. The spot in the group stage was there for the taking after a 1-1 first leg in the Netherlands, but Ajax was hammered on Wednesday 4-1 in Russia. Rostov managed four goals with four different goalscorers, including Ecudorian international Christian Noboa. The visitors, meanwhile, didn’t even manage a shot on target until the 73rd minute.

FC Koln needed a late equalizer to send them through over APOEL Nicosia, as Paraguayan international Federico Santander scored in the 86th minute to level the match at 1-1 and give the visitors a 2-1 aggregate win. Finally, Dinamo Zagreb completed a stunning comeback, scoring twice after the 87th minute to beat Red Bull Salzburg 2-1 on the day in Austria and 3-2 on aggregate. Junior Fernandes scored in the 87th to level things at 1-1 and requiring extra time. Then Algerian international El Arabi Hilal Soudani bagged the winner in the 97th minute, sending the Croatians through to the group stage.

Coleman explains why he stayed as Wales coach, rejected Hull

ZENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Chris Coleman of Wales celebrates after the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales at the Stadium Bilino Polje in Elbasan on October 10, 2015. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Chris Coleman says he chose to remain as Wales manager despite interest from Premier League side Hull because he’s in a job that is “close to his heart.”

The Football Association of Wales rejected an approach for Coleman from Hull this month, with the Welshman deciding to stay on rather than resigning.

Coleman, who guided Wales to the European Championship semifinals against the odds, said on Wednesday that “if someone comes and it’s the Premier League, anybody, you kind of look at it sideways. Of course.”

But, Coleman added, managing your country “comes around once, if you’re lucky.”

Coleman has made no secret of his desire to manage in club football in the future, but says “what I’ve got here is something very special and close to my heart.”

FOLLOW LIVE: The UEFA Champions League finds its last five group stage teams

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24:  Joe Hart of Manchester City warms up prior to the UEFA Champions League Play-off Second Leg match between Manchester City and Steaua Bucharest at Etihad Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Who’s going to join Porto, Monaco, Legia Warsaw, Ludogorets Razgrad and Celtic as playoff teams to join the UEFA Champions League group stage?

The biggest names of Wednesday’s slate are cruising after their first legs, with Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach putting five and three goals on the board, respectively.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. roundup ]

Could the match be Joe Hart‘s last for City? The longtime backstop gets the call with the transfer window a week away.

In the other three cases, things are wide open. Rostov plays Ajax, Red Bull Salzburg faces Dinamo Zagreb, and APOEL lines up Copenhagen.

Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League slateFOLLOW LIVE

Borussia Monchengladbach (3) vs. (1) BSC Young Boys
Rostov (1) vs. (1) Ajax
Red Bull Salzburg (1) vs. (1) Dinamo Zagreb
APOEL (0) vs. (1) Copenhagen
Manchester City (5) vs. Steaua Bucuresti (0)