UEFA Champions League Wednesday Preview: Bayern visit Manchester City; bad timing for Moyes’ latest United test

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage continues on Wednesday, Groups A through D completing the competition’s second round of action. With special focus in Manchester, Donetsk, and Turin, here’s a preview of the week’s final eight matches:

GUARDIOLA’S COLD NIGHT IN MANCHESTER
Manchester City (3 pts., England) vs. Bayern Munich (3 pts., Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Manchester (Etihad Stadium), England

Before the Messi-versus-Ronaldo debate died, old-timey British punditry developed an imaginative way to back their guy (Cristiano Ronaldo). I’d like to see him do it on a rainy night in Stoke is what became of then-Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray’s 2011 assertion Lionel Messi would “struggle in a cold night at the Britannia Stadium.” Given Gray would later claim women “don’t know the offside rule,” the former Scotland international’s Messi critique proved to be one of his more prescient, if still terribly misguided.

But while the observation was about a player, it was also an implicit critique of the approach instilled by then-coach Pep Guardiola. For much of the world, Barcelona’s combination of style, technique, movement and vision helped correct the course of a game that’d become more power than skill. For a small sliver of English fandom (represented by Gray), Messi and his cohorts thrived because the continent were unwilling to get physical and take the game to them. They were unwilling to be Stoke.

Two years later, we have a test of sorts, albeit with important differences on each side. Wednesday’s marque match will take place an hour north of Stoke-on-Trent, with Manuel Pellegrini taking his home Champions League bow for Manchester City. On a night that’s supposed to draw showers, the Sky Blues will welcome one of Pellegrini’s former rivals: Guardiola, the new manager of Bayern Munich.

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Manuel Pellegrini faced Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona during tenures at Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Málaga. On Wednesday, he will be looking for his first victory over his former Clasico rival. (Photo: Getty Images.)

That’s where the similarities end, though there are facets of City’s team that will offer the physical challenge Stoke Truthers sought. Yaya Touré not only presents a persistent threat to any midfielder who hopes to retain the ball but can also leverage the experience of playing for three years at Barcelona. Vincent Kompany, one of the few rearguards with a claim to being the world’s best defender, won’t hesitate to stand his ground against the in-cutting Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, while the general style of a team used to playing in whistle-swallowing England could show down Bayern.

The extent to which Pellegrini leverages those qualities is the question. While facing Guardiola teams with Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Málaga, Pellegrini typically stuck to variants of the preferred 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) base he’s instilled at Manchester City (never finding a way to beat Guardiola). While one variant could include a 4-4-1-1 that would see a withdrawn striker tasked with coming back to mark Philipp Lahm in defensive midfield (how strange is it to read that?), Pellegrini’s unlikely to pack his formation with a true five-man midfield.

One other small detail bares mentioning: Bayern Munich aren’t Barcelona. Barça don’t have a forward with the tenacity of Mario Mandzukic. They don’t have an attacker with the versatility of Thomas Müller. Though they now have Neymar, they didn’t have the wide play of a Robben or Ribery when Guardiola was in charge. And if he players, Bastian Schweisteiger will provide a midfield option distinct from anything the Blaugrana utilized under Guardiola.

Not that any of that would matter. Pellegrini never meaningfully changed his approach while facing Guardiola in Spain, and he’s highly unlikely to make major changes on Wednesday. Instead of a Chelsea-esque bunker or a team of central defender archetypes Tony Pulis’s Stoke would have throw at the problem, we’re more likely to see two teams that reflect their manager’s core beliefs. Guardiola’s adapted his to Bayern’s personnel, his 4-1-4-1 threatening like a 4-3-3, while Pellegrini already has his City team employing his very recognizable approach.

“It’s always a game between the players”: Those were Pellegrini’s words at Tuesday’s press conference, speaking about another meeting between him and his former Clasico rival. But if the players truly are the key, Pellegrini will be happy to get David Silva and Sergio Agüero back from injury. Both players are expected to be available Wednesday. For Bayern, neither Mario Götze nor Bastian Schweinsteiger are 100 percent, but coming back from prolonged absences, both should be available for selection.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Roundup: Atlético, Arsenal shine; Chelsea rebound.]

[MORE: Where They Stand: Groups E through H after two rounds of Champions League.]

UNFAIR EXPECTATIONS FOR MOYES, MANCHESTER UNITED
Shakhtar Donetsk (3 pts., Ukraine) vs. Manchester United (3 pts., England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Donetsk (Donbass Arena), Ukraine

David Moyes had been Mr. Most-Likely long before Alex Ferguson made way in May. For years, the former Everton boss was thought to be the Manchester United legend’s likely successor.

Imagine what that must have been like, from his point of view: the frustrating of hearing you’re likely next-in-line; the temptation to look toward one of the world’s most-prostigious jobs; the irritation of never knowing for sure. Years go buy, you’re fighting the good fight at Goodison Park, but you can’t help but wonder when Ferguson will bow out. And when he does, are you really the man United wants?

source: Reuters
David Moyes opened his Champions League career with a 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen, but with Manchester United having fallen to 12th in the Premier League, the new Red Devils boss will face increased scrutiny if his team disappoints in Donetsk. (Photo: Reuters.)

Everton is one of the best jobs in English football, but compared to Manchester United, it’s the single-family home you buy while planning for your dream house. And every day, when you drive by those bigger, nicer houses you wish were yours, you have to go home to the perfectly adequate place you know you’ll eventually leave.

But now that Moyes has moved into his dream house, he’s discovering it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. His dreams didn’t include squeaking floors, leaky roofs, or the constant reminders from neighbors about how nice the place looked under the former owner.

Right now, Moyes doesn’t know how to fix the problems, and unfortunately for him, Wednesday’s game is unlikely to help. Under the best of circumstances, Manchester United would be stressed to get three points out of the Donbass Arena, but coming off a loss to West Brom that illuminated their continued vulnerability, even a sputtering Shakhtar Donetsk will be favored.

Unfortunately, because the Ukrainian champions don’t carry the name recognition of Europe’s elites, many fans won’t be forgiving if United can’t claim full points in Donetsk. So if United lose, regardless of the quality of their effort, the result will be tossed on the same pile as their Liverpool, Manchester City, and West Brom losses.

And if United happened to spring an upset? The accomplishment could be overlooked. We’re still not at the point where Shakhtar Donetsk’s talents are fully respected.

For Moyes, this type of match couldn’t come at a worse time. Recoiling from derby losses and an upset at home, this is not the time for a no-win scenario.

Although a victory would certainly quell some doubts snowballing after this weekend’s loss, it’s unlikely to alleviate much scrutiny.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Tuesday, full-time snapshot.]

[MORE: Atlético Madrid conquer Dragão, take 2-1 win from Porto.]

FAMILIAR FACE RETURNS TO TURIN
Juventus (1 pt., Italy) vs. Galatasaray (0 pts., Turkey)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Turin (Juventus Stadium), Italy

Roberto Mancini, who claims Juventus as his boyhood club, may have been the biggest single beneficiary from the punishment of Calciopoli. The 2006 match-fixing scandal that five Italian clubs punished, Juventus stripped of two titles, and Inter Milan awarded Juve’s 2005-06 scudetto. As Juventus fought back from their forced relegation to Serie B, Mancini’s Inter claimed two more titles, the coach’s reputation built on the three scudetti he won before being replaced by José Mourinho.

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After being fired by Manchester City in May, Roberto Mancini has landed another job. The three-time Serie A winner debuts with Galatasaray on Wednesday.

Now, for the fist time since leaving Internazionale, Mancini’s back in Turin, recently named Fatih Terim’s successor at Galatasaray. For many, he remains a symbol of Juve’s hardship, this teams’ success coming at a time when the Old Lady was at its weakest.

On Wednesday, Galatasaray will be in a position of weakness, particularly relative to a team that’s yet to lose a competitive match this season. Gala lost their Champions League opener 6-1 to Real Madrid and have won only one of their five Super Lïg games. Despite a squad that’s retained the likes of Didier Drogba, Burak Yilmaz, and Wesley Sneijder (doubtful for Wednesday’s match), Gala have been unable to recapture the form that claimed last year’s Turkish title and a spot in Champions League’s quarterfinals.

Getting a result on Wednesday may be asking too much. In the short-term, mere improvement will be considering progress. Long-term, however, Mancini will be expected to get Gala back in title contention. Improving on their Real Madrid performance will be the first step.

[MORE: Dominance then control see Arsenal cruise past Napoli.]

[MORE: Mesut Özil signing keeps getting sweeter for Arsenal.]

Others
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern with the exception of CSKA-Viktoria, which starts at noon.

  • CSKA Moscow (0 pts., Russia) vs. Viktoria Plzen (0 pts., Czech Republic), Petrovski Stadium, St. Petersburg – Poor field conditions in Moscow forcee this game to St. Petersburg, where CSKA will play at the home of Premier League leaders Zenit. His team having lost three of four, head coach Leonid Slutski called on playmaker Keisuke Honda to show more leadership while helping CSKA navigate their slump. Plzen coach Pavel Vrba identified the Japanese international when discussing the Russians’ key players.
  • Bayer Leverkusen (0 pts., Germany) vs. Real Sociedad (0 pts., Spain), BayArena, Leverkusen – Bayer disappointed in round one, losing by two at Old Trafford, yet their Bundesliga form (off to their best start in 30 years) hints they will contend to get out of this group. With Shakhtar having already claimed three points in Spain, Bayer need to defeat Real Sociedad lest they lose ground on the Ukrainian champions. La Real will be without captain Xabi Prieto and midfielder Esteban Granero as they attempt to slow down Stefan Kießling, Sidney Sam, and Son Heung-Min.
  • Real Madrid (3 pts., Spain) vs. FC Copenhagen (1 pt., Denmark), Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid – Coming off their Derbi loss to Atlético, Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti has identified Wednesday’s came as crucial to changing the club’s “attitude and spirit.” They will be without Gareth Bale (hamstring), Xabi Alonso (foot), and Marcelo (thigh). Copenhagen reach the Bernabéu emboldened by a round one draw with Juventus while still lodged in Denmark’s relegation zone. They may be without defender Olof Melberg, who left this weekend’s loss to Brondby with a concussion.
  • Paris Saint-Germain (3 pts., France) vs. Benfica (3 pts., Portugal), Parc de Princes, France – Benfica have been struggling in Portugal’s Liga but are still likely to present a stiffer challenge for PSG than Olympiacos did in round one. At the same time, PSG were outplayed for 45 minutes in Greece before exploding in the second half, finishing with four goals. As he’s sought to do all season, PSG head coach Laurent Blanc will set up with hope of controlling possession. The approach could limit the exposure of a defense that will be missing Thiago Silva and Alex.
  • Anderlecht (0 pts., Belgium) vs. Olympiacos (0 pts., Greece), Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels – With both teams coming off round one losses, this match will the “vital for setting the tone for the rest of [their] European campaigns,” according to Anderlecht boss John van den Brom. The Belgians hope a patient, possession-based approach will help control Olympiacos’s counter attackers, while the visitors will be wary of starting a second-straight group stage with consecutive losses.

Referee leaders want on-field official to see video replays

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LONDON (AP) Antoine Griezmann headed the ball into the net and was in full celebration mode with his France teammates when referee Felix Swayer pinned a finger into his left ear to block out the stadium noise.

[ VIDEO: VAR system used correctly

An assistant in front of a bank of monitors was assessing replays and had some bad news for Griezmann. Swayer was told through his earpiece that a player was offside in the buildup.

The goal was then ruled out, without Swayer seeing a replay. But that won’t necessarily be the case by the time video replays are fully approved to be rolled out across soccer.

For now, the experimental phase is still in full flow but if refereeing leaders get their way officials should always have access to the footage themselves around the field.

“The subjective decisions should be made by the on-field referee because they have got the feel for the game,” Mike Riley, general manager of English refereeing organization, told The Associated Press. “They can put it in the context of everything else. So as part of the process we have got to work out how we can do that as effectively as possible … without interrupting the flow of the game.”

The International Football Association Board, the game’s lawmaking body, is in its second year of trials with various versions of video assistant referees (VAR). Some games, like the France-Spain friendly, do not allow the referee to evaluate incidents and instead by rely on the VAR.

But VAR could end up only ruling on what Riley describes as “decisions of fact,” such as whether a ball was inside or outside the penalty area.

Ultimately, if you are appointing one of the top referees to preside over a major game, that person is seen as ideal for making the big calls, according to IFAB.

“Fundamentally we are told very much by players and coaches they want the referee to be making the most important decisions,” IFAB technical director David Elleray said, referencing England’s top referee. “They don’t know who is in a van out in the car park or 300 miles away in a match center.”

Soccer’s lawmakers only envisage video replays being used to correct game-changing decisions involving four situations: penalties being awarded, red cards, cases of mistaken identity and goals being scored.

That situation arose twice in the Stade de France on Tuesday as France lost 2-0 to Spain. After Griezmann’s goal was disallowed, video replays worked against France again but in Spain’s favor when an incorrect offside call against Gerard Deulofeu was overturned and his goal stood.

Swayer again relied on the information from a colleague benefiting from replays.

“Nicola Rizzoli was appointed to referee the last World Cup final because he is the best referee,” Elleray said. “But if actually the two most important decisions in the match are made by somebody watching a TV screen … the most important person is the man you put behind the TV screen not the man on the field.”

The challenges are how referees are able to view replays without lengthening the delay. For now the technology isn’t satisfactory for officials to use wearable devices and receive footage in real time. That means going to the side of the field to watch incidents with the eyes of thousands of fans in the stands on them. The screens are likely to be on the opposite side to the technical area to avoid coaches being able to surround and harangue the referee.

“Some of our stadiums don’t lend themselves to monitors by the side of the pitch because they are really tight,” said Riley, a former Premier League referee who is now in charge of appointments for games in the world’s richest soccer competition. “Is it right for referees to have to run 30 yards to go and look? Can you get the footage to the referee on the field somehow? All these things have to be explored through the experiment and come out with a solution that works for football.”

Live experiments are taking place in about 20 competitions this year, including the Confederations Cup in Russia in June and July that will serves as a World Cup test event.

Once IFAB adds video replays to the laws of the game, any competition meeting the requirements will be able to use them.

For Riley, permitting replays is “the most significant change in refereeing in the game for generations,” far more significant than the 2012 decision to allow technology that simply determines whether the ball crossed the goal line.

“If you are making such a significant change,” Riley said, “you need to really explore and understand all the potential implications.”

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Amid fanfare, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrives in Chicago

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Arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, it is clear Bastian Schweinsteiger is kind of a big deal…

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Posing for photos with fans as he stepped off the flight with his wife, former Serbian tennis star Ana Ivanovic, the former Bayern Munich midfielder was mobbed by Chicago Fire fans who are delighted he has arrived in Major League Soccer as the newest Designated Player.

The German legend has completed his move from Manchester United to the Fire and will be officially unveiled to the media on Wednesday after signing a one-year deal.

[ MORE: Latest MLS news ]

Schweinsteiger, 32, has already had a training session in the books and the World Cup winner is expected to make his debut in Chicago’s home clash with the Montreal Impact on Saturday at Toyota Park.

Below is a video of Schweinsteiger’s arrival in Chicago, his first training session and a collection of photos he took with ecstatic Fire fans.


Liverpool’s Emre Can scores stunning goal in training

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Emre Can, take a bow.

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Alongside Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, the German international stole the show as BT Sport rocked up for an episode of “Goals Recreated” at Melwood.

The premise is simple: can current day PL players recreate sensational goals of the past?

On this occasion each player had four attempts to mirror Papiss Cisse‘s stunning goal for Newcastle United against Chelsea, and although Mane came close Can was the man of the moment.

Click play on the video below to see the stunning effort.


Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.