Champions League preview: 4 teams that could surprise

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With the Champions League group stage set to begin play on Tuesday, the world’s biggest annual soccer tournament is back in our lives on the big stage.

To get the content started, we look at four teams who aren’t favorites that could potentially make noise this season.

Last year, Malaga, Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk and Schalke shocked many and not only progressed into the knockout stage but Malaga and Schalke actually won their groups ahead of teams such as Arsenal and AC Milan.

Malaga’s run to the quarterfinals actually vaulted manager Manuel Pellegrini to a big stage, where he landed the job at Manchester City.

So who this year could surprise the world under its brightest spotlight?  The gaps between top, mid-tier, and bottom are quite large, so surprises may be hard to come by.  But we here at ProSoccerTalk enjoy the banter as always, so we dive in:

1) Schalke 04

This season, success from the German club wouldn’t be nearly the surprise it was last season, but they still haven’t garnered the world-renowned respect they possibly should.  They went undefeated in group play last season, beating Arsenal 2-0 on the road and maintaining a bend-don’t-break attitude that led to three draws but the goose egg in the loss column.

Maybe the reason last season’s surprise group stage run made almost no noise is because they proceeded to fizzle out against Group H runners-up Galatasaray in the first knockout round, losing 2-3 at home in a disappointing second leg.

This season, they’ve vastly improved, landing a coup by signing one Kevin Prince-Boateng from AC Milan.  It was rumored, unsurprisingly, that Boateng had offers from many top clubs but Schalke turned his head the most and the midfielder with both holding and attacking skills will be a force in the middle.

They brought in attacking options as well to support the aging but still reliable Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.  Schalke signed Adam Szalai from FC Mainz, and partnering with young star Julian Draxler (pictured, right) on the wings, this German club is a good bet to come out of a group with Chelsea, Basel, and Steaua Bucuresti.

source: Getty Images
Can Rafa Benitez lead Napoli to European success?

2) Napoli

Somehow a Pot 4 team despite numerous European appearances in the past few years, naturally the Serie A club created a terrible Group of Death with Arsenal, Marseille, and last year’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund.

Having finished 2nd in Italy last season, Napoli brought in Rafa Benitez to replace the departed Walter Mazzarri who left for Inter.  The former Chelsea manager completed a run of absolutely brilliant transfer business, making this squad much-improved on an already successful base.

Benitez sold Edinson Cavani to PSG for a hefty price, and used the cash to buy players like Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, and Pepe Reina.

The overhaul has worked to perfection so far, as Napoli have begun the Serie A season with three wins in three, on a total goal differential of 9-2.  Higuain has two, Callejon has two, and – perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Napoli’s market moves – incumbent attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik has four.

Despite a worst-case-scenario draw, Napoli have the tools to make a Group of Death splash and ruin the Champions League for Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund.

3) Bayer Leverkusen

Not the strongest German team to ever grace the Champions League, but with a good draw, Bayer could make some group stage noise.

Led by German international Lars Bender and striker Stefan Kiessling, they’ve started the Bundesliga season scorching hot, with wins over quality opponents in Wolfsburg, Monchengladbach, and Stuttgart, and their only loss coming to Schalke.They added Korean striker Heung-Min Song from Hamburg, and invested a fair bit of money in him, and he’s rewarded them with two goals and an assist in six matches so far.

Their group is interesting – Manchester United is the only top-tier team in the pack, leaving presumably the second spot open for the taking.  However, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad are no pushovers, and thus it will be a battle.

4) Anderlecht

American Sacha Kljestan has gotten his Juliper Pro League season off to a roaring start, and he brings that with him into the Champions League Group C.  Kljestan has 4 goals in 7 league matches so far, a hefty tally for a defensive midfielder.

Anderlecht are a wild card this year, drawn into a really weak group – possibly the weakest one of the tier.  Their Pot 1 team Benfica is a weak Pot 1 side, and only PSG look like a lock.  It’s tough for any Pot 4 team to ever make noise, so Anderlecht have their work cut out for them no matter where they end up, but this is an intriguing scenario for the Belgian side.

They’re led by red-hot Argentinian striker Matias Suarez, who at 25 years of age is just entering the prime of his career.  He has a whopping six goals and six assists in Anderlecht’s seven league matches so far, and he will look to bring that success into Tuesday’s match with Benfica in Portugal.

So who do you have advancing in the 2013/2014 Champions League? We’ll have much more coverage here on ProSoccerTalk of the upcoming group stage openers on Tuesday, including a complete preview, group analysis, and predictions.  Stick around!

MLS Snapshot: Red-hot RSL end Sounders’ unbeaten run at 13

Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake
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The game in 100 words (or less): With the Seattle Sounders’ 13-game unbeaten run now a thing of the past (and the final four of those games all draws), Real Salt Lake (two losses in their last two, including wins in four of their last five) might just be the hottest team in MLS not named Atlanta United (just one loss in their last 12, including wins in three of their last four; combined score: 17-3). Furthermore, Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium boosts RSL into fifth place in the Western Conference, two points clear of the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, as Mike Petke’s side makes this year’s improbable, late charge toward the MLS Cup Playoffs, in much the same fashion Brian Schmetzer’s Sounders did a year ago. Jefferson Savarino, who scored one and assisted one on Saturday, has proven himself a star on the rise in recent weeks, and has RSL playing their best soccer of the year at exactly the right time.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

52′ — Savarino slams home Rusnak’s pass for 1-0 — RSL have themselves an attacking trio (Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Brooks Lennon) that loves to play together, and that joy really shines brightly in moments like this.

66′ — Mulholland slams home from Savarino’s cross for 2-0 — Savarino turned provider just 15 minutes later, getting in behind Joevin Jones, corralling Joao Plata’s through ball, and picking out Mulholland atop the six-yard box.

92′ — Rimando makes a stunning save to deny Dempsey — Clint Dempsey tried to sneak a quick free kick past Nick Rimando, but the all-time greatest goalkeeper in MLS history was over it.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jefferson Savarino

Goalscorers: Savarino (52′), Mulholland (66′)

MLS Snapshot: FCD’s winless skid hits 10 in loss to MNUFC

Photo credit: Minnesota United / @MNUFC
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The game in 100 words (or less): Just when FC Dallas think they’ve hit rock-bottom, the fall a little bit farther. Oscar Pareja’s side saw its winless skid hit 10 games on Saturday, with a 4-1 loss away to Minnesota United, a side themselves with all of three wins from their last dozen games. Gone now are the games in hand that buoyed FCD’s hopes just a few weeks ago, as they’re now level on games played with many of the sides presently ahead of them in the race for a Western Conference playoff spot, save for Real Salt Lake (level on points) and the San Jose Earthquakes (one point ahead). Following their sixth loss in 10 games, FCD remain eighth in the West, a point behind the Houston Dynamo for the sixth and final playoff place (RSL play later on Saturday with a chance to go fifth themselves. Minnesota, meanwhile, distance themselves from the 10th-place LA Galaxy and sit just six points behind FCD, having rebounded nicely after an appalling start to their expansion season.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

14′ — Akindele arrives late, slams home for 1-0 — Tesho Akindele waltzed through the penalty area, unnoticed and unmarked, before arriving at the top of the six-yard box just in time to meet Michael Barrios’ cross.

24′ — Ramirez finishes after a beautiful through ball sets him up — Kevin Molino picked the right pass, and played it perfectly (with a bit of help from Walker Zimmerman), and Christian Ramirez made no mistake with the finish.

35′ — Ibarra volleys past Gonzalez to make it 2-1 — Ramirez turned provider on Minnesota’s second goal, lofting the ball into the penalty area for Miguel Ibarra, whose first-time take beat Jesse Gonzalez to put the home side ahead.

68′ — Shuttleworth denies Diaz from the spot — Two games, two saves from the penalty spot for Bobby Shuttleworth.

71′ — Finlay finishes some fancy build-up for 3-1 — Heartbreak on one end of the field, heartbreak on the other end of the field. Anything and everything that could go wrong for FCD, continues to go wrong for FCD.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Christian Ramirez

Goalscorers: Akindele (14′), Ramirez (24′), Ibarra (35′), Finlay (71′), Danladi (88′)

MLS Snapshot: Fire lose again, continue slide into KO round

Photo credit: MLS / @MLS
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Chicago Fire’s slide toward the mean — some might call it regression, indicating maybe, just maybe, they overachieved during the first half of the season — continued on Saturday, following a brief reprieve to begin the month. Veljko Paunovic’s side lost its seventh game in 11 outings, falling 3-1 away to the Philadelphia Union. Bastian Schweinsteiger remains sidelined with a calf injury, but the rest of Chicago’s key figures — Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty, David Accam and Matt Polster remain in place. Chris Pontius did the majority of the damage on Saturday, bagging Philadelphia’s first two goals, followed by CJ Sapong for the third. Luis Solignac grabbed a consolation goal inside the final 25 minutes, but the damage had been done. The result means Chicago (48 points) remain third in the Eastern Conference, still four points back of New York City FC and just two points clear of Atlanta United, who have two games in hand.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

10′ — Pontius heads the cross home for 1-0 — Keegan Rosenberry cut inside and delivered a delicate, left-footed cross into the box. Pontius got away from his man and met the ball with his head at the top of the six-yard box.

55′ — Pontius again, this time on the rebound — Fafa Picault’s shot was saved by Matt Lampson, but no one followed up to boot the rebound clear. Pontius reacted quickest, and the lead was two.

64′ — Sapong pokes it home for 3-0 — This is Sapong’s 14th of the season, tying Sebastien Le Toux’s club record (2010), and reminded me once again the Peter Vermes insisted on playing Sapong as a winger for multiple seasons before trading him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Chris Pontius

Goalscorers: Pontius (10′, 55′), Sapong (64′), Solignac (67′)

Serie A: Dybala scores two more, Juve win 4-0; Napoli perfect, too

Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
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MILAN (AP) Paulo Dybala continued his astonishing start to the season as he netted twice to help Juventus beat 10-man Torino 4-0 in a Serie A derby on Saturday.

Miralem Pjanic and Alex Sandro scored the others after Torino midfielder Daniele Baselli was sent off after 24 minutes of the Derby della Mole.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

Dybala took his tally to 10 goals in the opening six league matches, just one less than he scored in the whole of the last campaign.

Juventus stayed perfect in Serie A, as did Napoli which won at Spal 3-2 earlier.

Roma, which has played a match less, remained six points behind after beating Udinese 3-1.

Torino shot itself in the foot early on, first by gifting Juventus the lead as Baselli and Tomas Rincon gave away possession and Dybala drilled into the bottom right corner from the edge of the area.

Matters grew worse for Torino eight minutes later when Baselli, who had already been booked, clumsily clattered into Pjanic and he was shown a second yellow card and dismissed.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

“I was too eager for the derby, I cared too much about this game. I made a mistake. I apologise to my teammates, our fans, the club,” Baselli wrote on Twitter.

Pjanic doubled Juve’s lead shortly before halftime, curling into the left side of the net after Juan Cuadrado cut back a cross.

Sandro headed in a corner in the 57th and it could have been more for Juventus but Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu pulled off some fine saves, and Mario Mandzukic hit the post.

In stoppage time, Dybala dinked the ball over Sirigu after good linkup play between Pjanic and substitute Gonzalo Higuain.

Algeria left back Faouzi Ghoulam was the unlikely match-winner for Napoli seven minutes from time, with a run from the halfway line.

[ MORE: Mauricio Pochettino — “I am in love with Harry Kane” ]

“If Spal plays like this all year, this will be a difficult place,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said.

“We don’t feel we’re the `anti Juve,’ we’re a team which is getting a lot of points and we have improved in comparison to the past years: We are more able to withstand negative moments of matches.

“We have had a good start, that gives us confidence and enthusiasm to continue working.”

Spal lost its previous three matches but took a surprise lead early when Mirco Antenucci rolled the ball across for Pasquale Schiattarella, who is from Naples, to smash it into the bottom left corner.

The home side’s lead lasted only 77 seconds. Lorenzo Insigne curled an effort inside the near post.

Spal was causing Napoli problems but it was the visitors who led in the 71st when Jose Callejon headed in Ghoulam’s cross.

[ MORE: Mourinho bewildered by sending-off; Man United beat Southampton ]

Federico Viviani put Spal back on level terms seven minutes later with a free kick but Ghoulam scored what was to be the winner shortly after.

Stephan El Shaarawy scored twice to keep up the pressure on Napoli and Juventus.

All the Roma goals came in the first half, with El Shaarawy pouncing after Edin Dzeko‘s opener.

Capital side Roma has played a match less than most Serie A teams coming into the weekend, as its fixture at Sampdoria was postponed because of bad weather.

Dzeko seems determined to retain the Serie A top goalscorer award he won last year and he opened the scoring with his fifth goal in three matches.