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.

source: Getty Images
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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as do Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone

VIDEO: Reus scores stunning winner for Dortmund

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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BERLIN (AP) Marco Reus scored his first Bundesliga goal of the season to give Borussia Dortmund a 1-0 win at his former team Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday.

Reus, Andre Schuerrle and Mario Goetze started for the first time together for Dortmund, and the three Germany teammates were all involved in the 32nd-minute goal.

Goetze played the ball to Schuerrle, who crossed for Reus on the right. Reus looked up and lifted the ball over ‘Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer to score off the underside of the crossbar.

“It was a good goal. I think he wanted to do that,” Sommer said.

Reus, who returned from a serious knee injury last weekend against Hamburger SV, said he wanted to play the ball further to the left “but the important thing is it went in.”

Goalkeeper Roman Buerki was man of the match for producing a string of saves to deny the home side what would have been a deserved equalizer.

Dortmund moved second, 19 points behind Bayern Munich, while ‘Gladbach stayed 10th after its fourth consecutive defeat without scoring.

Dortmund forward Michy Batshuayi failed to score for the first time in four games since his deadline-day switch from Chelsea, though he wasn’t helped by the poor condition of the pitch. Some players lost their footing as the grass gave way.