Schalke 04's Draxler celebrates a goal with team mate Kolasinac during their German first division Bundesliga soccer match against SC Freiburg in Freiburg

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!

FA Cup slate set as Liverpool, Newcastle, Saints win

Newcastle United's DeAndre Yedlin, left, during the English FA Cup, third round replay soccer match at St James' Park in Newcastle, England, Wednesday Jan. 18, 2017. (Owen Humphreys/PA via AP)
Owen Humphreys/PA via AP
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The field is set for the fourth round of the FA Cup, as Newcastle United, Liverpool, and Southampton joined 29 other teams in the fourth round.

Newcastle United 2-1 Birmingham City

Matt Ritchie scored twice and Yoan Gouffran also scored as the Magpies clinched a trip to third-tier side Oxford United. David Cotterill scored in the 71st minute to provide an interesting finish, but Newcastle weathered the storm.

USMNT defender DeAndre Yedlin played 75 minutes for Newcastle before coming off for Isaac Hayden. Jonjo Shelvey had two assists in his return from suspension.

[ MORE: Depay off to Lyon ]

Plymouth Argyle 0-1 Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp chose another youth-heavy lineup, but a pair of Premier League vets got the job done for the winner. Philippe Coutinho assisted Lucas Leiva‘s 18th mintue goal to give the Reds a home date with Wolverhampton.

Divock Origi had a late penalty saved by Luke McCormick, but it didn’t come back to haunt the Reds.

Southampton 1-0 Norwich City

Saints got a much-needed albeit ugly win when Shane Long won a tussle in the box to score a stoppage time winner. Southampton will host Arsenal in the fourth round.

Full schedule

January 27
Derby County vs. Leicester City

January 28
Liverpool vs. Wolverhampton
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Wycombe Wanderers
Oxford United vs. Newcastle United
Lincoln City vs. Brighton & Hove Albion
Chelsea vs. Brentford
Rochdale vs. Huddersfield Town
Burnley vs. Bristol City
Blackburn vs. Blackpool
Middlesbrough vs. Accrington Stanley
Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City
Southampton vs. Arsenal
Millwall vs. Watford
Fulham vs. Hull City
Sutton United vs. Leeds United

January 29
Manchester United vs. Wigan Athletic

Men in Blazers podcast: Man Utd-Liverpool, Costa, Everton’s rout

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Rog and Davo break down Manchester United 1 – 1 Liverpool, discuss Diego Costa‘s absence from the Chelsea side and relive Everton’s 4 – 0 spanking of Manchester City.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Jermaine Jones, LA Galaxy make it official

instagram.com/jermainejunior/
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He’s been a club changer at both of his Major League Soccer stops, and Jermaine Jones will expect nothing less from his time with the LA Galaxy.

Jones, 35, helped spearhead turnarounds at New England and Colorado after a good career in Germany. He has four goals in 67 caps for the United States men’s national team.

[ MORE: PST’s feature on Jones ]

He won’t be a Designated Player for the Galaxy, who still have two slots available next to Giovani Dos Santos. The Galaxy watched two DPs, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard, skip town this winter.

From LAGalaxy.com:

“Jermaine is a winner who has experience in MLS and playing against the highest competition in the world,” said LA Galaxy Head Coach Curt Onalfo. “He has a relentless engine on the field and we are confident that he will strengthen our midfield. We look forward to him joining the Galaxy as we prepare for the upcoming season.”

When healthy, Jones remains a game changer at the MLS level. He was not healthy often during his season in Colorado, but the Rapids did not lose a regular season game in which he hit the pitch.

Report: Manchester United accepts Lyon bid for Memphis Depay

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14: Memphis Depay of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester United on August 14, 2015 in Birmingham, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Given the amount of buzz surrounding Lyon’s supposed interest in Memphis Depay, it’s no surprise this one got done.

The Ligue 1 side has agreed to buy the Manchester United winger for a fee that will range between $20 and $27 million. Reports claim the Red Devils have both buy back and sell-on clauses inserted in the deal.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Memphis was purchased for approximately $30 million from PSV Eindhoven in May 2015. That was hot on the heels of a 22-goal season that paced the Eredivisie.

After scoring two goals for United in his second appearance for the club, Memphis managed just 7 in 45 appearances. He hasn’t scored in seven matches this season.

Memphis has 27 caps with five goals for the Netherlands, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t reinforce his status with a prolific spell in France.

Lyon is fourth in the Ligue 1 table, eight behind third place PSG and 11 points back of leaders Monaco and Nice. The club is in the Round of 32 for the French Cup, and meets AZ Alkmaar in the UEFA Europa League.