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.

Injury update as Premier League returns

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With the international break over and 10 Premier League games coming your way this weekend, there is plenty of injury news to catch up on.

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Below we take a look at some of the key injury updates from across the PL.


Arsenal
Petr Cech is out with calf injury he suffered against West Brom but could return next weekend
Lucas Perez is out with a thigh injury
Santi Cazorla is out for the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his injured Achilles

Burnley
Steven Defour is available and could start against Tottenham Hotspur

Chelsea
Eden Hazard was seen taken part in full training session after missing the win at Stoke, plus Belgium’s games on international duty, with a thigh injury

Everton
Seamus Coleman is having surgery on two broken bones in his right leg as the Toffees’ right back will be out until next season
Ramiro Funes Muri is also out for the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury with Argentina on international duty
James McCarthy has once again been injured while on international duty with Ireland, reportedly leaving Ronald Koeman fuming

Liverpool
Adam Lallana is out for the next four weeks with a thigh injury he picked up on England duty
Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino will be checked up on after the duo flew back to Liverpool on a private jet on Wednesday following their displays for Brazil in World Cup qualifiers

Manchester City
Bacary Sagna suffered a tear in his adductor while on international duty with France
Kevin De Bruyne did not feature for Belgium after suffering a groin injury and is doubtful

Manchester United
Paul Pogba is out with a hamstring injury
Chris Smalling is missing with a knee injury he picked up when playing for England
Phil Jones is out with a toe injury suffered on international duty
Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo have both returned late from international duty and will be assessed

Southampton
Manolo Gabbiadini will not play against Bournemouth after picking up a groin injury against Tottenham two weeks ago
Virgil Van Dijk may well be out for the season as he continues to recover from an ankle injury he picked up in January

Tottenham Hotspur
Harry Kane is back working on the training pitch after his ankle injury and is ahead of schedule. Reports state he may be back on April 22
Danny Rose will see a specialist about his knee ligament injury but he is not expected to return until late April at the earliest
Erik Lamela is out for the season

Sanchez: “I’d like to stay in London… but with a team that wins”

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Alexis Sanchez may have some explaining to do when he arrives back at Arsenal…

[ MORE: Sanchez, Ozil to stay?

The Chilean forward starred for Chile on international duty, scoring and grabbing an assist in their 3-1 win over Venezuela to get their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track.

He also spoke to Chilean media outlet Publimetro and is quoted as saying the following about his future as he has just 15 months left on his current contract at Arsenal.

“I am happy in London and hope to finish my contract there,” Sanchez said. “I’d like to stay in the city but with a team that is winning things, that has a winning mentality. I’m 28 years old, I still have a lot of years ahead of me. I am a player who looks after himself.”

With Chelsea linked heavily with a move for Sanchez this week, those comments will fuel the fire further that Arsenal’s leading scorer could cross England’s capital this summer and the Gunners could lose yet another top talent to a direct Premier League rival (see: Van Persie, Robin. Cole, Ashley and Nasri, Samir).

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Arsene Wenger responded to Sanchez’s reported comments in a light-hearted manner as he revealed that he believes both Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, who also has just 15 months to run on his current deal too, want to stay at Arsenal.

“In a positive way, there’s only one team in London, so he’s happy,” Wenger smiled. “He wants to win the championship, that’s what everybody wants. You have to be cautious when they give interviews in their home country. The interpretation is not always correct.”

“I have not a lot to add. I think he’s happy here. We have not extended his contract, I hope he will stay at the club. It happened before when we had to sell our best players. But that’s not the case any more. He has one and half years contract. I don’t think it is an immediate concern for Arsenal.”

So, Sanchez’s comments may have been lost in translation a little but it is intriguing to decipher what he’s saying as this whole game of cat and mouse plays out. Wenger has said that contract talks regarding Ozil and Sanchez will not happen until the season is over and that means the duo will have just one year left on their deals when they sit down to discuss a huge raise.

With Arsenal also having another eight players out of contract in 2018 there could be a huge rebuild on the way at the Emirates with or without Wenger. There’s no doubting Sanchez is the best player Arsenal have with Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Juventus all linked with him and the fact he’s won one FA Cup in his three previous seasons with the Gunners obviously isn’t enough success for a player who seems to have an insatiable hunger for success.

If Sanchez does leave then that could be the signal for several other stars to move on too.

Mourinho gives update on Ibrahimovic, Neymar

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Jose Mourinho cut to the chase when asked about two superstars.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez to stay at Arsenal? ]

Ahead of Manchester United’s clash with West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) Mourinho has been talking about a potential $217 million move for Barcelona’s Neymar this summer, plus the future of Zlatan Ibrahimovic as United’s top goalscorer revealed on Wednesday he’s in talks about extending his contract for another season. 

First up, speaking to ESPN Brazil Mourinho responded to reports claiming he had been in touch with Barcelona and Neymar’s representatives about a move for the Brazil superstar.

“It’s speculation. I always try to be objective and pragmatic with clubs and to ask them what they can give me. To ask for Neymar is absurd. A club like Barcelona cannot and will not lose Neymar,” Mourinho said. “Although Lionel Messi is still a young player with years ahead of him, he’s almost 30, and Neymar will be the great player of Barcelona post-Messi. So much that I think it is like trying to break into a safe – impossible.”

In a separate interview with Sky Sports, Mourinho revealed he will put no pressure on Ibrahimovic to stay at United for another season and will support him no matter what.

“I am just calm and waiting for the decision,” Mourinho said. “If the decision is for him to stay and he is happy with that, we are delighted with that. If his decision is to leave and try to find a different challenge, I will be also happy for him. He is [a big part of our success this season] but the human being is more important than the player and the team. If his decision is to leave and try to be happy with his family and have a different reality, so be it.”

What should we make of all this? It’s just Mourinho being Mourinho.

He’s not getting people’s hopes up about Neymar arriving at Old Trafford but if there’s a slither of a chance that could happen, you can bet your bottom dollar Mourinho will try to push it through. Neymar’s incredible release clause of $217 million would have to be met with the biggest wages on the planet (he only signed a new five-year deal at Barca in October) and although United could afford that will Barca really let him leave the Nou Camp after grooming him to be Messi’s successor?

As for Ibrahimovic, the 35-year-old Swedish striker has scored 26 goals in 41 appearances for United this season and although his deal runs out this summer he has a clause which can trigger an extra year. Reports suggest he has an offer from the LA Galaxy waiting for him but if Ibra leads United to the UEFA Champions League next season can you really see him not having one last crack at winning major titles in the Premier League and Europe? Probs not.

Wenger says Ozil, Sanchez want to stay at Arsenal

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Arsene Wenger has being discussing the situation regarding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Chelsea? ]

Speaking to the media ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Emirates Stadium, Wenger is hopeful his star duo will both remain with the Gunners beyond this summer.

Both Sanchez and Ozil are contracted to Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but are yet to agree a new deal and talks will not begin until the end of the current season.

Wenger isn’t too concerned despite Sanchez being linked with plenty of the biggest clubs on the planet.

“I personally believe both of them want to stay. I hope the club will find an agreement with them,” Wenger said.

Asked about his own future, Wenger had no update about reports suggesting he was about to sign a new two-year contract extension. That was despite saying before the international break that he would reveal his decision soon.

“It’s a subject that at the moment it is not sorted completely out,” Wenger said. “I’m very clear in my mind. Do I stay two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same all the time. It does not influence my attitude.”

So, Wenger is standing firm and did not want to get into any details regarding his own future as his current deal runs out in the summer.

However, the fact he said it is “not sorted completely out” suggests that talks are ongoing and that would also seem to point towards Wenger staying on after 20 years in charge.

There’s no doubt that this situation rumbling on has impacted Wenger’s team in recent weeks as Arsenal crashed out of the UEFA Champions League 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich and have also lost four of their last five Premier League games.

Bagging a big win this weekend against City would significantly boost Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top four but perhaps everyone connected with Arsenal is more eager to have Wenger’s future sorted and then everything else will slot into place.