Thomas Mueller

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.

source: Getty Images
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.

source:
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.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”