Champions, Europa League: Looking ahead to the week in UEFA action

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TUESDAY

David Moyes has been to Champions League before: One time; in 2005; with Everton exiting after group stage. Suffice to say expectations will be much higher this time, with Manchester United fans unlikely to have forgotten the controversial circumstances that saw them eliminated last year by Real Madrid.

Group A play sees Manchester United start their quest for redemption against Bayer Leverkusen, a team whose Bundesliga form suggest they could be a dark horse to challenge for the group’s top spot. With Skahktar Donetsk (visiting Real Sociedad) struggling in the Ukrainian Premier League, the meeting at Old Trafford could provide quick insight into the group’s balance.

Group B’ has two teams who will have title aspirations, with both Real Madrid and Juventus starting on the road. Los Blancos return to Istanbul for a rematch of last season’s quarterfinal against Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder, and Galatasaray, while the Italian champions visit Danish powers FC Copenhagen.

Group C favorites Paris Saint-Germain, coming off their most impressive performance of the season (at 2-0 win Friday at Bordeaux), travels to Greece to face Olympiacos, while Sacha Klejstan and Anderlecht’s visit to Lisbon to face Benfica will provide an early peek as to who will be PSG’s main rivals.

And in Group D, two renown bosses make their Champions League debuts with their new teams. Pep Guardiola has the unenviable task of trying to guide Bayern Munich to last year’s heights. The European champions start their defense against CSKA Moscow. Meanwhile, Manuel Pellegrini takes Manchester City to the Czech Republic to face Viktoria Plzen, with the Sky Blue’s hoping to improve upon last year’s fourth place group stage finish.

Full Schedule

2:45 p.m. Eastern kickoffs

Manchester United (England) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Real Sociedad (Spain) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)
FC Copenhagen (Denmark) vs. Juventus (Italy)
Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. Real Madrid (Spain)
Bayern Munich (Germany) vs. CSKA Moscow (Russia)
Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) vs. Manchester City (England)
Olympiacos (Greece) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Benfica (Portugal) vs. Anderlecht (Belgium)

source: Getty ImagesWEDNESDAY

Two teams perfect in league play will meet in Naples in the day’s marque matchup, with Rafa Benítez (right) and Napoli hosting last year’s finalists, Borussia Dortmund. BVB sits on top of the Bundesliga at 5-0-0 while Napoli lead Serie A with a perfect record through three rounds, but teams managing to excel despite the offseason loss of arguably their best players (Mario Götze for Dortmund; Edinson Cavani with Napoli).

In Group F’s other game, Olympique Marseille, the only team in this group not on top of their domestic league, will look to slow down the Premier League-leading Gunners when Arsenal comes to town. OM, who won their first three games of the Ligue 1 season, sit fourth in France, while Arsenal have amassed a five-game winning streak between the Premier League and Champions League qualifying.

In Group E, José Mourinho and Chelsea welcome a talented but outgunned Swiss champion, Basel, while Schalke, knockout round qualifiers last year, will hope to avoid an upset when Romanian champions Steaua Bucharest visit the Veltins-Arena. Recovering from a slow start to the season, Schalke have won three in a row.

Porto, the “seeded team” in Group G, are in Vienna to face Austria Wien, a match where the Portuguese champions will be pressed to take full points. With Atlético Madrid and Zenit St. Petersburg (meeting in Madrid) also in the group, points dropped against the Austrians could end up deciding who’s still playing Champions League soccer come 2014.

And in Group H, Bojan Krkic’s circuitous route back to the Nou Camp end when his new team, Ajax, visit Spanish champions Barcelona. Meanwhile in Italy, AC Milan will hope their indifferent form in Serie A doesn’t carry over against a Celtic team coming off an appearance in last year’s knockout stage.

Full Schedule

2:45 p.m. Eastern kickoffs

Schalke (Germany) vs. Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
Chelsea (England) vs. Basel (Switzerland)
Austria Wien (Austria) vs. FC Porto (Portugal)
Atletico Madrid (Spain) vs. Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)
AC Milan (Italy) vs. Celtic (Scotland)
Barcelona (Spain) vs. Ajax (Netherlands)
Marseille (France) vs. Arsenal (England)
Napoli (Italy) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

source: APTHURSDAY

The chaos that is the 24-game Europa League day be will feature a couple of squads that can claim Champions League quality (Tottenham, Fiorentina most notably). They’ll host two of the day’s marque matches, while names like Valencia, Lyon — clubs that we more often find in Champions League — begin this year’s sojourn in UEFA’s second-level competition. Matches to watch:

  • Valencia vs. Swansea City – Michael Laudrup will be familiar with the Mestalla from his time coaching and playing in Spain, but his team will be short on rest after playing Monday in Liverpool.
  • Fiorentina vs. Paços de Ferreira – Last year’s third-place finishers in Portugal get the misfortune of opening their tournament in Florence, though Vincenzo Montella’s side will be without Mario Gomez, who went down with a knee injury this weekend.
  • Real Betis vs. Olympique Lyonnais – At one time they were automatic to make Champions League’s knockout stage. Now Lyon start their campaign in Spain, having previous been relegated to Europa League by another Spanish side (Real Sociedad).
  • Tottenham Hotspur vs. Tromsø – André Villa-Boas won this tournament at Porto and took it seriously in his debut season at White Hart Lane, possibly to their detriment of Spurs’ Champions League hopes. Back in Europa, Tottenham open with a team who will draw them north of the Arctic Circle in the reverse fixture.

Full Schedule

1:00 p.m. Eastern kickoffs

Valencia (Spain) vs. Swansea City (Wales/England)
St. Gallen (Switzerland) vs. Kuban Krasnodar (Russia)
Dinamo Zagreb (Crotia) vs. Chornomorets (Ukraine)
PSV (Netherlands) vs. Ludogorets (Bulgaria)
Salzburg (Austria) vs. Elfsborg (Sweden)
Standard Liege (Belgium) vs. Esbjerg (Denmark)
Zulte-Waregame (Belgium) vs. Wigan Athletic (England)
Maribor (Slovenia) vs. Rubin Kazan (Russia)
Fiorentina (Italy) vs. Paços de Ferreira (Portugal)
Pandurii Targu Jiu (Romania) vs. Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine)
Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany) vs. Bordeaux (France)
Maccabi Tel Aviv (Isreal) vs. APOEL (Cyprus)

3:05 p.m. Eastern kickoffs

Thun (Switzerland) vs. Rapid Wien (Austria)
Freiburg (Germany) vs. Slovan Liberec (Czech Republic)
Estoril (Portugal) vs. Sevilla (Spain)
Real Betis (Spain) vs. Olympique Lyonnais (France)
Vitoria Guimaraes (Portugal) vs. Rijeka (Croatia)
Apollon (Cyprus) vs. Trabzonspor (Turkey)
Lazio (Italy) vs. Legia Warszawa (Poland)
Sheriff (Moldova) vs. Anzhi Makhachkala (Russia)
Tottenham Hotspur (England) vs. Tromsø (Norway)
PAOK (Greece) vs. Shakhter Karagandy (Kazakhstan)
Maccabi Haifa (Israel) vs. AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands)
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) vs. Genk (Belgium)

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.