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.

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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.

MLS Snapshot: Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones

Three things: Sounders cruise after (and before) early red

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The Seattle Sounders all but booked a return appearance in the 2017 MLS Cup final on Tuesday, doing so by beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first (away) leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. The game wasn’t as close at the final score might appear to indicate.

[ RECAP: Sounders take 2-0 lead over Dynamo ]

We learned the following three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


The red card hurt Houston

No way, you’re kidding, right? Clearly a 28th-minute red card (shown to Jalil Anibaba for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity) is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. But, it really crippled Houston, given the way they play — having a numerical advantage in the center of midfield is so important to Wilmer Cabrera’s side, in the name of frantically winning the ball back after conceding half or even two-thirds of the field.

MLSsoccer.com

When you have to haul off one of three central midfielders, in hopes of still being about to force-create chances on the rare occasion you recover the ball and move it forward, three things are bound to happen: 1) legs are going to get very heavy, very quickly; 2) the clock appears to be counting up in double-speed; 3) you begin to concede two-thirds and three-quarters of the field instead — every move Seattle worked during the second half came after a waltz in the final third before finally meeting resistance.

At right, you can see every Sounders pass originating in Houston’s half of the field — remember, Seattle are the away team here. Playoff games rarely, if ever, come much easier than that.


Addition by subtraction… again?

This one isn’t so much a lesson from Tuesday’s game, as much as it’s a trend played out over the course of an entire season: much like they wound up being in 2016 following Clint Dempsey‘s heart condition robbing him of the final four months of the season, the Sounders are once again, dare I say it, better without another indomitable figure: Osvaldo Alonso.

Here’s the numbers to back it up: without Alsono in the starting lineup this year, Seattle went 6W-2D-2L. In those 10 regular-season games, they scored 20 goals (2.0 per game, versus 1.3 with him in the lineup) and conceded 12 (1.1 per game, same when he played).

The central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan (7) and Gustav Svensson (4) has proven a formidable foe for anyone and everyone during the second half of the season. On Tuesday — granted, against 10 men for more than an hour — they could do no wrong. (Passes attempted on the right; defensive actions on the left — green triangles are tackles won, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, purple are clearances, red are tackles lost.)

MLSsoccer.com

Alonso has been an unbelievable servant for nine MLS seasons, he’s an MLS Cup champions, a four-time U.S. Open Cup winner, a Supporters’ Shield winner and one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history. He’s also 32 years old with a growing history of lower-body injuries that seem to never fully heal, and he’s now clearly third in the pecking order behind Roldan and Svensson. It’s clearly an oversimplification to say that soccer is a young, mobile man’s game these days, but it’s certainly true of MLS, and the results are in near total agreement.


May I have some hope, please?

Here’s a not-so-fun fact if you’re a Dynamo fan: your team won one — singular — game on the road in 17 tries this season. Not a dark enough outlook? OK, have this: that lone away win came against D.C. United, who finished 21st out of 22 teams if you put MLS into a single table.

Maybe Seattle weren’t so good at home this year… I’m really just searching for anything at this point, you’re thinking. OK, it’s possible, I suppose. They lost once at home all season, to Toronto FC, the best regular-season team in MLS history, by the final score of 1-0, in the month of May.

We’ll see you in Toronto or Columbus for MLS Cup, Seattle Sounders.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC hold Crew on the road

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The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

Three things: Being happy with 0-0, and sabotage by Precourt

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On what felt sure to be a seminal night in franchise history, Columbus Crew SC were held by Toronto FC to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Leg 2 will be played next Wednesday, Nov. 29.

[ RECAP: TFC hold Crew SC to scoreless draw in leg 1 of East finals ]

We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


Who’s happiest with 0-0?

There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.

TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).


TFC’s tactical adjustment pays off

For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.

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Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.

Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.


Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low

How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.

You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.

This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.