UEFA Champions League Preview: Moyes’s debut, Guardiola’s challenge, and Casillas’s call highlight Tuesday action

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage begins on Tuesday an eight-match slate, Groups A through D in action during the first day of the full competition. With special focus on matches in Manchester, Munich, and Istanbul, here’s a preview of the day’s action:

ANOTHER EARLY TEST FOR MOYES
Manchester United (England) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m., Manchester (Old Trafford), England

David Moyes’s first year at Manchester United is destined to be defined by his predecessor, but given the Red Devils are about to embark on their first European campaign in 28 years without Alex Ferguson, you can understand why this ever-present storyline, already in danger of being driven aground, has resurfaced. After one, failed attempt to get into the competition with Everton (falling to Villarreal in 2005 third-round qualifying), his appointment with United has given him a pass into the show. It’s only natural to wonder if he’s up for it.

With only four competitive games managing United (five if you count the Community Shield), it’s far too early to judge Moyes. That’s the obligatory caveat, one that’s interjected into the conversation about the former Toffees boss. With its reproaching tone, the reminder’s would have believe any evaluation of Moyes is verboten. But with Manchester United looking more passable than dominant through the season’s first month, it’s worth considering whether the team is slowly starting to emulate his Everton squad’s conservatism.

Consider these remarks from Rio Ferdinand, on the adaptation United players are undertaking with their new manager:

“Obviously, [Moyes] is here now and he has implemented his ideas and told us what he wants to see from us, and it’s up to us to take those ideas and put them out on the pitch … That’s what we’re trying to do and in the first few games we’ve had some good performances, individually and as as a team. It’s about continuing that and building on that.”

(source: UEFA)

It’s a fairly innocuous, almost obligatory quote from one of United’s key veterans, but if you take it at face value, it implies the Red Devils have not only been happy with their 2-1-1 start but are performing according to plan. That’s a concerning prospect, considering the team’s underlying form.

That’s why tonight’s visit from Bayer Leverkusen should spark concern. Leverkusen have never won in England (including two previous visits to Old Trafford) but have a squad with more talents than the normal Premier League fan would expect. They’re not one of Germany’s big two, so they shouldn’t have a player like Stefan Kießling (the thinking holds). The now former Germany international (elective retirement) leads the Bundesliga in scoring in 2013 (17 goals).

Sidney Sam and Son Heung-Min, wide players in Sami Hyypiä’s attacking three, are capable of beating even the best defenders, but those aren’t the type of talents a typical English league follower will associate with the name Leverkusen. They round out an attack that can score against anybody, making the midfield battle all the more important. But with Manchester United rarely able to win that battle recently against quality European sides, Bayer may have a chance.

If the Red Devils play to their potential, they should beat Leverkusen, comfortably if not easily. But they haven’t played to their potential under Moyes yet, and with the approach that’s starting to be instilled, they may leave the door open for Kießling, Sam, or Son to steal a point. That’s why this game is such a test for Moyes.

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Pep Guardiola has won two European titles in four years as a head coach, but given two chances to defend his titles, the former Barcelona boss came up short, failing to replicate the accomplishment of Arrigo Sacchi at Milan. (Photo: Getty Images.)

LET THE DEFENSE BEGIN
Bayern Munich (Germany) vs. CSKA Moscow (Russia)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m., Munich (Allianz Arena), Germany

No team has retained the European Cup since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1989-90. Twice Pep Guardiola has had a chance, his Barcelona teams that won Champions League in 2008-09 and 2010-11 favored to retain their title the following years. Each season, they fell short, eliminated in the semifinals by the eventual champions (Inter Milan in 2009-10; Chelsea in 2011-12).

A new challenge gives Bayern Munich’s boss a chance at new history, though early returns have been mixed. Bayern’s been dominant in league, allowing only two goals while taking 13 points from five games, but they’re not clicking to the extent they did last season. In both the UEFA and German Super Cups, they’ve shown there’s work to do if they’re to remain champions of Europe.

That work continues on Tuesday against a CSKA team who, while talented, are obvious underdogs. Unbeaten in eight in Russia, Leonid Slutski’s team is in form, a four-match winning streak accompanying Nigerian international Ahmed Musa (five goals in eight games), Japanese attacker Keisuke Honda (15 goals over the last two seasons), and emerging Swedish midfield linchpin Pontus Wernbloom to the Allianz.

Unfortunately, Russian international Alan Dzagoev will not be available in attack, and the aging, slow central defense pairing of Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezoutski are likely to have trouble when wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben cut in augment Mario Mandzukic.

Fitness concern for Bayern: The hamstrung team that took on Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup hasn’t gotten much healthier. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s ankle keeps him iffy. Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez, and Mario Götze are all out. Natural fullback Philipp Lahm could get another start in defensive midfield.

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Captain for club and country, Iker Casillas has been relegated to a backup’s role at Real Madrid. However, Carlo Ancelotti is ready to hand him a start in Istanbul. (Photo: Getty Images.)

WELCOME BACK, SAINT IKER
Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. Real Madrid (Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m., Istanbul (Türk Telekom Arena), Turkey

Coming off a performance that saved his team embarrassment at El Madrigal (though Real Madrid still drew at newly-promoted Villarreal), goalkeeper Diego López has been rewarded with a trip to the bench. Merengues head coach Carlo Ancelotti will go with Iker Casillas in Champions League, valuing the captain’s experience in one of Europe’s most intimidating venues. Going forward, it looks like López will play in league, with Casillas taking Champions League (and potentially, Copa del Rey).

The decision has slightly overshadowed what should be an enticing rematch. Last spring, in the second leg of the teams’ Champions League quarterfinal, Galatasaray beat Real Madrid, 3-2. Unfortunately for Fatih Terim’s side, they were still eliminated from the tournament, having lost the first leg 3-0 at the Bernabéu.

The result emboldens the Turkish champions, and with the talent in their squad, Gala have the potential to upset the still consolidating Blancos. Didier Drogba will face his former Chelsea boss Ancelotti for the first time since the Italian left Stamford Bridge, while Wesley Sneijder gets another chance to inspire envy in his former club. With Terim calling on the crowd to help push the team, Real Madrid face a surprisingly difficult Champions League opener.

Stumbling into Europe: Real Madrid suffered their first blemish on Saturday, but they’ve yet to truly click this season, part of the reason why they’re now chasing Barcelona and Atlético Madrid in Spain. In Turkey, Galatasaray have drawn their last three games and sit seventh after four rounds.

OTHERS
All games kickoff at 2:45 Eastern.

  • Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) vs. Manchester City (England), Štruncovy Sady Stadium, Plzen – City will choose a full team despite the weekend’s upcoming Manchester Derby, according to Manuel Pellegrini. A must win attitude reflects the uncertainties the Sky Blues carry after two disappointing Champions League campaigns. Plzen, last in Champions League in 2011, possess a quiet optimism despite the probable absence of defender Marián Čišovský, who scored five goals in qualifying.
  • FC Copenhagen (Denmark) vs. Juventus (Italy), Parken, Copenhagen – Ståle Solbakken, in his first year back at Copenhagen (who he led from 2006 to 2011), can capture his first win of the season against Juventus, the defending Danish champions struggling in the Superliga (sitting 10th out of 12). Even in the best of forms, a result would be a big ask of the hosts, facing one of the teams with legitimate hopes of claiming this year’s title.
  • Olympiakos (Greece) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France), Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus – Laurent Blanc is emphasizing patience on the road, an approach that could result in undo conservatism for a team coming off their season’s strongest performance (2-0 win at Bordeaux). They’ll need to retain that form against a team off to a perfect start in league, with striker Kostas Mitroglou posting a weekend hat-trick.
  • Real Sociedad (Spain) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Anoeta, San Sebastian – Skakhtar survived last year’s tough draw, finishing second in a group that included Juventus and Chelsea. This year, however, they ride a disappointing start into another tough group, their two points in their last three games their worst spell since April 2011. Real Sociedad are also misfiring, going 1-1-2 through four rounds in Spain, but coming off their playoff win over Lyon, La Real embark on their first Champions League game in 10 years.
  • Benfica (Portugal) vs. Anderlecht (Belgium), Estádio do Sport, Lisbon – Jorge Jesus views Anderlecht and Olympiakos as on the same level as Benfica, putting pressure on the Eagles to hold serve at home. Coming off a strong weekend performance against Paços de Ferreira, last year’s Europa League runners-up appear ready to defend their ground, even if they will be without Nicolas Gaitan, Rúben Amorim, and Eduardo Salvio. Anderlecht, having already lost twice in Belgium, will hope Matias Suarez can continue a hot start that’s seen him score six goals in the season’s first seven games.

Hazard and Co. set up NASL club in San Diego

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Soccer in SoCal continues to boom.

[ MORE: Sanchez, Aguero swap deal?

The North American Soccer League (NASL) announced Monday that San Diego will have a second-tier team for the 2018 season as professional soccer returns to San Diego County.

In a statement from the NASL it was revealed that San Diego’s new expansion franchise is owned by star players Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Moussa Sow, as well as executives with experience of the San Diego market.

Hazard, a star for Chelsea and Belgium, revealed exactly why he believes San Diego deserves a soccer team.

“San Diego is a beautiful place and the love and passion that the people have for soccer made this an easy choice for us,” Hazard said. “My friends and I are honored to turn this dream into a reality and we can’t wait to get started and win some games.”

The quartet do not have a name, logo or colors for the team, but that is expected to be announced in the coming months. Bob Watkins will serve as the club president and Ricardo Campos, former technical director for thew New York Red Bulls, will serve in the front office alongside Katy Temple as the pieces are put in place for another new soccer team in California.

NASL will have 10 teams for the 2018 season with Orange County also joining the league that currently shares second-tier status with the much-larger USL which boasts 30 teams.

With Orange County and San Diego arriving in NASL in 2018, LAFC to join Major League Soccer in 2018 and a consortium led by former USMNT star Landon Donovan hoping for an MLS expansion team in San Diego in the years to come, soccer in SoCal is booming.

How involved Chelsea star Hazard, Crystal Palace midfielder Cabaye, Shanghai Shenhua striker Ba and Al-Ahli forward Sow get remains to be seen but they’ve obviously seen a gap in the market in San Diego.

Bakayoko to Chelsea, Matic to Man United close

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Two defensive midfielders will have new homes very soon.

[ MORE: Aguero, Alexis in swap deal? ]

Tiemoue Bakayoko, 22, is closing in on a move to Chelsea from AS Monaco as he is set to replace the outgoing Nemanja Matic who will link up with his former boss Jose Mourinho at Manchester United.

Multiple reports, including this one from the BBC, state the deal for Bakayoko is close to completion with Chelsea and Monaco agreeing the $41.8 million fee and the French midfielder is expected to be a Chelsea player in the next 48 hours.

As for Matic’s imminent arrival at Old Trafford, the Serbian destroyer, 28, will reportedly complete his move this week with the Guardian stating the clubs have agreed a price of around $50 million and wages of $197,000 per week have also been agreed between the player and United.

United badly needed a defensive reinforcement in central midfield and Matic (who has won two Premier League titles in three seasons since rejoining Chelsea in 2014) would fit the bill. Able to start attacks and possess the ball as well as a fine reader of the game who uses his lanky frame to intercept passes and sweep up in front of the defense, Matic would surely be the perfect foil for Ander Herrera in United’s engine room and they’d allow Paul Pogba to roam free.

As for Chelsea, there’s no doubt that losing Matic is a blow but Bakayoko is rated as one of the top defensive midfielders in Europe after excelling for French champions Monaco in Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League last season. He’s a more composed version of Victor Wanyama and alongside N'Golo Kante he’d provide Chelsea’s defense with a formidable shield. This is just the type of midfielder Antonio Conte loves.

Both United and Chelsea would considerably improve their central midfield areas with these additions.

Frank de Boer named new Crystal Palace manager

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The Eagles have gone Dutch.

Crystal Palace appointed Frank de Boer as its new manager Monday, announcing the Dutch legend has signed a three-year deal at Selhurst Park.

De Boer, 47, previously won four consecutive Dutch titles in charge of Ajax from 2010-16 before a less successful spell in charge of Inter Milan last season as he lasted just three months (and just 14 matches) in charge of the Italian giants.

“I am thrilled to be appointed as manager of Crystal Palace Football Club. It is a great honor to take charge of such an historic club, a club that is known around the world for its hugely proud and passionate fan base,” De Boer said. “This role is a hugely exciting opportunity for me, and I cannot wait to get started in the Premier League with the players and staff here in south London.”

There’s no doubt De Boer’s playing career means he will demand the utmost respect from Palace’s players — he won five Dutch titles, a UEFA Champions League and Europa League at Ajax, a Spanish title at Barcelona and was capped 112 times by the Netherlands — but adapting to a new league may be difficult for the Dutchman, although he did spend time with Glasgow Rangers and had stops in Turkey and Qatar during his illustrious playing career. He’s no stranger to change.

Palace chairman Steve Parish revealed that De Boer’s arrival aligns with the ambitious plans for the club who also aim to develop their young players.

“We have undertaken a thorough interview process to ensure we are in a position to appoint a manager of the caliber and experience that Frank brings with him,” Parish said. “I am pleased to welcome him to Crystal Palace and I know he cannot wait to get started and prepare for our record breaking fifth season in the top flight.”

After Sam Allardyce announced his retirement at the end of the 2016-17 season after keeping Crystal Palace up in the Premier League, the Eagles have been searching for a new boss diligently. Parish is said to have favored former Hull boss Marco Silva to take charge of the south London club, but Silva opted for Watford.

Palace stretched out their managerial search with Mauricio Pellegrino, appointed by Southampton on Friday, also on their shortlist, but De Boer has now arrived to take charge of the ambitious London club.

With big money spent on the likes of Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye in recent seasons, the Eagles were supposed to be challenging for a top 10 finish. The past two seasons they’ve flirted with relegation under Alan Pardew and then Allardyce, with new American majority owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer yet to see the success they’d hoped for.

De Boer stated he would give every player at Palace a chance before making signings, but judging by the inconsistent displays by a squad largely built by Pardew and then patched up by Allardyce the Dutch coach will have a big job on his hands to turn the squad around and create a new identity for the Eagles.

He is a big name in the soccer world and Palace’s passionate fans will no doubt be excited by the prospect of De Boer bringing a new possession-based playing philosophy to Selhurst Park.

Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero swap deal in place?

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A huge swap deal for two of the Premier League’s biggest stars is reportedly being discussed.

[ MORE: Mourinho’s father dies ]

The Daily Star reports that Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero could involved in a swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester City this summer.

Per the report, the deal would be a straight-swap and when you think about it for a moment, it would be the perfect solution for almost everyone involved and with Aguero aged 29 and Sanchez 28, it’s a close to a perfect swap as you’ll find for both clubs.

The South American superstars are both in tough situations with their current teams, but this would also be a tough deal to get done.

Arsenal do not want to sell Sanchez, especially to a Premier League rival, but with the Chilean superstar having just 12 months left on his contract his transfer value is rapidly diminishing each week he doesn’t sign a new deal. And with Aguero dropped by Pep Guardiola on multiple occasions last season despite scoring 33 times in all competitions, the Argentine would get the chance to be the main man at Arsenal.

Everything should be on board with this, right?

Well, Aguero would have to sacrifice UEFA Champions League action for at least one season with Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League in 2017-18 which could throw a considerable spanner in the works of this rather outrageous deal. However, Arsenal would be getting one of the greatest finishers of his generation, and in Premier League history, which would mean they’d finally have the prolific forward they need to finish off the multiple gilt-edged chances per game they create.

Wenger went after Jamie Vardy last summer but failed and with Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott around, all three are far from prolific. Aguero would be one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw for Arsenal but both clubs would argue they’d want to keep their stars and add the other. The only way City would be able to add Sanchez is if they offer up Aguero.

Sanchez was signed by Guardiola at Barcelona and the Chilean would perfectly slot into City’s fluid front three alongside Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. Aguero didn’t fit that system well last season and despite Pep stating the Argentine striker would be at the club in 2017-18, you have to think he’d pick Alexis over Aguero.

Although this swap deal seems to suit almost everyone, it still seems incredibly far-fetched. That said, both Premier League clubs would save face in losing a star name and financially there would be no huge losses.

Hmmm. The more you think about it, the more this makes sense.