Honduras v United States - 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup

Will it be “Landon Donovan time” vs. Mexico once again?

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s just a hunch, a little premonition that Landon Donovan just might remind everyone tonight how important he remains to the United States national team, that while other U.S. men have cultivated their value and outright necessity to Jurgen Klinsmann’s current bunch, the program’s all-time leading scorer still has that “something special” in his game.

Donovan, now 31,  can still change a match in a white-hot flash, and I have a feeling he might just rise anew as that same Mexican national team killer he’s been for more than 10 years, since that blistering run and technically perfect header put that a Round of 16 match against Mexico at World Cup 2002 beyond reach.

Yes, after all these years of haunting Mexico, summoning a grudging respect from El Tri faithful along the way, the LA Galaxy man could once again play the border battle villain, further battering a badly listing Mexican World Cup effort, one that just cannot bale water fast enough right now.

The conditions just feel right for it. Donovan has been on such a roll lately, for the United States in the Gold Cup – where he dominated a tournament, start to finish, like so few U.S. men ever have – and then for the Galaxy in MLS contests. Or maybe you didn’t hear about that showy hat trick for Los Angeles less than a month ago.

There is also Donovan’s history of showing up in big games to consider. Not all of them, to be sure; even he frowns at reflective images of that deflated 2006 World Cup performance. But time and again, going back 10 years, Donovan has found a way to deliver the goods in World Cup qualifiers that matter most.

And this is Mexico! His fleet feet scored brilliantly against Mexico in one of Bob Bradley’s first games in charge. Donovan once set up Eddie Lewis for a goal in Mexico City in a World Cup qualifying (back when Mexico actually won in Mexico City). A couple of years later he set up Charlie Davies in Mexico City, giving the United States its first ever lead at fabled Azteca Stadium.

Heck, going all the way back to Donovan’s bright national team debut in October of 2000, he scored a goal in that one. Against Mexico. In a 2-0 win. There is it again, “Dos a cero.”

(MORE: The history of “Dos a cero,” and the history of U.S.-Mexico in Columbus)

I’m not the only one who feels something like this might be coming on. As one member of the U.S. Soccer staff here in Columbus put it (and I am paraphrasing): With Donovan, they feel like there is a “tornado watch,” so to speak, on some figurative big weather breaking out from Donovan right now, and they are hoping this turns into a full-on tornado warning in time for kickoff tonight.

source: Getty Images
In addition to being the national team’s all-time leading scorer (56 goals), Donovan is the program’s all-time leader in World Cup qualifying appearances (38).

(FYI, they also say Donovan’s re-integration into the team could not have possibly have gone any smoother, and that Klinsmann could not happier about the versatile attacker’s attitude.)

Frankly, the United States needs the “Big Donovan” tonight at Crew Stadium, where a Mexican team in crisis may be vulnerable, but may also be motivated by the coaching change and by its increasing desperation to stave off World Cup catastrophe.

(MORE: PST’s U.S.-Mexico preview)

The United States is missing Jozy Altidore. It is stripped of Michael Bradley’s ability to open up the defense with a killer pass or one of his wisely timed runs forward. And it is saddled with a version of Clint Dempsey that just isn’t as fit as he needs to be (especially as temperatures reach into the 90s today around Crew Stadium). In other words, the United States is running short on game-breakers. They need Donovan to be game-breaking Donovan.

His influence grew Friday against Costa Rica as Jurgen Klinsmann inserted Altidore and Eddie Johnson into the match, shifting Donovan out wide. He may be out there again tonight at Crew Stadium; Graham Zusi sometimes struggles to influence matches that get just a little faster and edgier, as tonight’s against Mexico surely will be.

Or Donovan could be back in the hole behind Clint Dempsey, more like what we saw Friday in Costa Rica. Either way, the Mexicans will know about Donovan, willing and able to pay extra attention, safe in the knowledge that Bradley is reduced to walking wounded on the sidelines.

And yet, Donovan and his savvy soccer brain can still find a way to tear open El Tri’s back line. He may or may not have a big game or a couple of massive moments in him – but I’m betting that he will.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”