UEFA Champions League Preview: Elites meet in Madrid; City’s big group stage test

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage continues on Wednesday, with Groups A through D completing the phase’s third round. With special focus on the day’s big match in Madrid, here’s a preview of the week’s final eight games:

Real Madrid (Spain) vs. Juventus (Italy)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Madrid (Santiago Bernabéu)

Real Madrid versus Juventus became the stage’s marquee matchup when the teams were drawn in the same group, but although the legacies of both sides rest among Europe’s elites, the teams current exist on subtly different levels. Whereas Real Madrid has made three straight Champions League semifinals, Juventus is still trying to find regain their European footing. They’ve yet to threaten for a UEFA honor since returning to Serie A.

Domestically, they’ve actually out-performed Real Madrid, winning five honors over the last two seasons (El Real: two), but this year’s Champions League has shown the extent of the teams’ continental divide. Real Madrid has cruised through opening matches against Galatasaray and Copenhagen, scoring 10 times while conceding once. Juventus have yet to win a game against the same competition.

It’s not breaking news to note Real Madrid are probably better than Juventus, but it is interesting to speculate on the extent of that divide. Where most of Juve’s recent acclaim is tied to their dominance in Italy, it’s worth noting that Italy’s prestige has fallen dramatically over the last five years. That drop in stature provides a completely different context to those five Italian honors. And with this year’s Serie A having already laid a few bumps in their road, Juventus is looking even more vulnerable that before.

“We always see our mistakes and try to work out solutions,” Juventus head coach Antonio Conte said, addressing Juve’s 4-2 loss this weekend to Fiorentina. “We try to improve and I think we have done these past two and a half years [under Conte]. It’s true we are making some individual mistakes we shouldn’t be. We are working on it and are sure we can move forward doing what we are doing.”

With that mindset, Juventus’s results may be a momentary downturn. It’s not like Real Madrid hasn;t had its own share of domestic hiccups. Yet in this battle of European titans, there’s one team that’s slightly more titanic than the other. Whereas the addition of Carlos Tévez was supposed to help Juventus push on, seeing an attack that features Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco, Angel Di Maria and/or Karim Benzema puts things in perspective. Right now in Europe, there’s elite, and then there’s super elite.

“They are potential UEFA Champions League winners, Conte says of Real Madrid, “but we will be positive; we have no fears.”

That’s not to say Real Madrid are unbeatable (clearly, they aren’t), but it does highlight Juventus’s task. Over the next 180 minutes, they’ll be trying to take down a team that’s on a distinctly higher level. And worse, because they stumbled in their first two rounds, Juventus may need to claim some points. If a talented Galatasaray gets their act together under Roberto Mancini, Juventus could be left to rue going the first three or four rounds without claiming full points.

Ins and Outs: Xabi Alonso’s still out for Real Madrid, but that’s it as far as their absences. Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Fabio Coentrao and Raphaël Varane, all doubts this weekend, are eligible to be selected on Wednesday. For Juventus, Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarella and Stephan Lichtsteiner are all out.

CSKA Moscow (Russia) vs. Manchester City (England)
Kickoff: 11:00 a.m. Eastern, Moscow (Khimki Arena)

Until Manchester City claim a spot in the knockout round, there’ll always be doubts about whether they’ve made the changes necessary to transcend their previous failures. Bringing in Manuel Pellegrini’s nice, and a summer spend that brought Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic to Manchester can’t hurt, but until they’ve actually clinched a spot in the tournament’s second round, it’s all means without an end.

A Wednesday win over CSKA would be a huge step forward. The Russians are going to be City’s biggest obstacle to reaching the second round, an obstacle they’ll be through with in two weeks’ time. If City can take four points in these next two games, they’ll put one foot into the final 16. Get full points in Moscow, however, and the Citizens will have dealt their prime opposition a swift, potentially decisive blow.

“Neither team will qualify or be eliminated after the game,” CSKA head coach Leonid Slutsky explains, “but it will be crucial in terms of our hopes of making the knockout stage. The third and fourth matches in the group are always key.”

Consider the implications for City if they slip – if, with six points available over the next two games, they only get three. They’ll remain even with CSKA in Group D. Both teams have a game remaining with Bayern Munich, but CSKA’s is in Moscow. If City doesn’t out-point the Muscovites over the next two rounds, another crash out of Champions League becomes far more likely.

That’s the importance of Wednesday’s game. If they can’t get a point, they set out on a course that relies on fortune, upsets, or tie-breakers. Even if that gets them into the final 16, a team of City’s talent should still pulling away from CSKA, not competing with them.

Bayern Munich (Germany) vs. Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Munich (Allianz Arena)

Manchester United (England) vs. Real Sociedad (Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Manchester (Old Trafford)

Anderlecht (Belgium) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Constant Vanden Stock Stadium (Brussels)

Three Wednesday games feature group favorites matched with teams sliding toward the bottom of their groups. With back-to-back wins in these next two rounds, those favorites and pave their paths to the knockout round.

For Bayern, Pep Guardiola’s trying to say the right, respectful things of his visiting minnows, but the emphasis is on the defending champions. Philipp Lahm’s expected to be back at right back, Bastian Schweinsteiger should resume a holding role, and the newly healthy Mario Götze will be back in midfield. How Bayern plays with something resembling their first choice team will be as interesting as their opposition.

With Manchester United, it’s all about the performance, with onlookers guaranteed to dissect the match looking for progress under new manager David Moyes. Hosting Real Sociedad, that progress won’t be measured in a win or loss. United’s expected to not only win but impress while doing so.

In Brussels, Paris Saint-Germain will try to maintain their perfect record against an Anderlecht side again struggling to make an impact in group stage. PSG coach Laurent Blanc has said a win is a “must,” a demand looking more toward the knockout rounds than Group C’s dynamics. If his team is going to accomplish it’s bigger goal (having a real impact in Champions League), they need to manage the smaller ones.

All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern time.

The rest of the day’s matches feature teams hoping to position themselves for their group’s second spot. In two cases, those teams are seen as the second and third best sides in their groups, while the other duo will hopeto collect enough points to compete with Juventus in Group B.

  • Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. Copenhagen (Denmark), Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul – Coming off a draw at Juve, the Turkish champions hope their new coach, Roberto Mancini, can help them push for a second straight appearance in the knockout round. That goal means getting the best of Copenhagen, with a home win on Wednesday crucial to their upset hopes. It’s uncertain how the Danes will cope with the Istanbul crowd.
  • Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), BayArena, Leverkusen – Two teams with similar levels of talent meet with vastly different Champions League experience. Mircea Lucescu’s Skakhtar side has been in this situation before, whereas a Leverkusen team that has less experience showed their nerves against Manchester United. Both teams are extremely dangerous going forward, potentially testing who blinks first. Will Sami Hyypiä be the first to protect his defense? Or will Lucescu feel the need to offset the threats of Stefan Kießling and Sidney Sam.
  • Benfica (Portugal) vs. Olympiacos (Greece), Estadio da Luz, Lisbon – Paris Saint-Germain’s going to win this group, but Benfica and Olympiacos are vying to claim Group C’s second knockout stage spot. Both teams have beaten Anderlecht and lost to PSG, results that could be replicated in the group’s last two rounds. How these two do against each other should decide who’s still in this tournament come February.


UCL roundup: Real Madrid nearly blow 4-0 lead; PSG roll in Sweden

Luka Modric, Real Madrid CF
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A roundup of all of Wednesday’s action in the UEFA Champions League…

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Juventus 1-0 Manchester CityFULL RECAP

Mario Mandzukic scored the game’s only goal (WATCH HERE), putting Juventus back atop Group D as Man City tumble into second place. With just one game left to play, City sit two points behind last year’s CL runners-up and risk going into the runners-up side of the draw for the knockout stage, which could mean a date with Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the round of 16.

Manchester United 0-0 PSV EindhovenFULL RECAP

The red half of Manchester has even more to worry about, however, as Man United failed to qualify for the knockout stage on Wednesday by drawing 0-0 with PSV Eindhoven. With one game left to play, United sit second, just a point ahead of the Dutch side, with a difficult away trip to face Wolfsburg looming in two weeks’ time. PSV, meanwhile, will host CSKA Moscow on Dec. 8.

Shakhtar Donetsk 3-4 Real Madrid

Rafa Bentiez is truly special, isn’t he? From 4-0 up, to holding on for dear life and a 4-3 victory over Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk, Benitez’s position may, somehow, be even more untenable today than it was following Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona. Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice (WATCH HERE), and Luka Modric and Dani Carvajal provided the other two goal before three goals from minutes 77 to 88 put the final result in serious doubt.

Malmo 0-5 Paris Saint-Germain

Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his triumphant return to his boyhood club and marked the special occasion with — what else? — a goal (WATCH HERE). PSG were up 2-0 after 14 minutes thanks to goals scored by Adrien Rabiot and Angel di Maria, so the result was never really in doubt. Ibrahimovic added the third before Di Maria and Lucas Moura ballooned the lead in the game’s final 25 minutes.

Elsewhere in Champions League action

Group B

CSKA Moscow 0-2 Wolfsburg

Group C

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Galatasaray
FC Astana 2-2 Benfica

Group D

Borussia Monchengladbach 4-2 Sevilla — WATCH FABIAN JOHNSON’S GOAL HERE

Man United 0-0 PSV Eindhoven: UCL hopes hang in the balance

Wayne Rooney, Jorrit Hendrix
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Manchester United drew 0-0 with PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford on Wednesday as Louis Van Gaal‘s side were frustrated as they missed the chance to qualify for the knockout round and now face a pivotal final Group B game away at Wolfsburg.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

Jesse Lingard, Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial had the best of the chances for United but PSV threatened in the second half as Phillip Cocu’s side can still qualify for the last 16 heading into their finale against already eliminated CSKA Moscow.

As for United, they know a win in Germany in two weeks time against group leaders Wolfsburg will seal their spot in the last 16 and top spot but anything less and a PSV win would mean an early UCL exit.

United started brightly with Anthony Martial trying to play in Wayne Rooney and then Bastian Schweinsteiger smashed a shot in on goal which was easily saved. As the first half wore on it was one-way traffic with the Red Devils pushing hard. Rooney almost got in at the back post but the ball flashed by, then he set up Jesse Lingard but a poor first touch saw the chance go to waste.  Morgan Schneiderlin came close to scoring as he tried to bundle the ball home at the back post after Daley Blind‘s corner caused havoc but Jeroen Zoet saved bravely.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule

Finally, PSV began to wake up with Luuk De Jong setting up Jorrit Hendrix but David De Gea was equal to his curling effort as the Dutch side flexed their offensive muscles. With half time approaching United pressed hard as Anthony Martial got free on the left side of the box but his shot was saved when he really should’ve scored. The Frenchman went close again before half time but Zoet saved his shot at the near post as United were frustrated by the reigning Dutch champions.

At the start of the second half United began brightly with Lingard flicking a header past the far post and then Memphis wriggled free of his marker but sent a shot straight at Zoet.

With 30 minutes to go United made two changes with Memphis and Schweinsteiger replaced by Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini, however Davy Propper had a decent strike on goal but De Gea saved well after the Dutch midfield juggled his way into a good spot. Young whipped in some delicious crosses after coming on but PSV pressed hard and United looked to have run out of steam.

Propper forced De Gea into a stop after his rasping shot from 35-yards out, and PSV were giving it a right go late on at Old Trafford. That said,  Lingard squandered a gilt-edge chance as Young’s cross deflected right into his path but the local lad couldn’t keep his half volley down and sent the ball over with the goal gaping. Fellaini just failed to get on the end of a cross to the back post with the Red Devils huffing and puffing in the final moments but they couldn’t find a way through as they fired a blank to set up a nervy finale in Germany on Dec. 8.

Juventus 1-0 Man City: Mandzukic puts Juve past City, top of Group D

Mario Mandzukic, Juventus FC
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A first-half goal from Mario Mandzukic resigned Manchester City to UEFA Champions League defeat on Wednesday, taking control of Group D out of their own hands and putting it into those of Juventus, 1-0 winners on the night.

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Juve took the lead through a simple tap-in off the boot of Mario Mandzukic in the 18th minute. Alex Sandro sent a high, looping ball toward the back post where Mandzukic lost his marker, Nicolas Otamendi, when the Argentine tumbled over backwards after a slight touch on the shoulder from Mandzukic.

The Croatian striker nearly doubled Juve’s lead 10 minutes later, but his right-footed side-volley was very well saved by Joe Hart at his left-hand post. Claudio Marchisio sent a long ball to the corner of the six-yard box, where Paulo Dybala laid back a soft, cushioned header to Mandzukic for his low, powerful strike to the near post.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UCL roundup — Barca, Bayern clinch spots in KO round ]

Sergio Aguero had Man City’s best chance of the first half, just before halftime, when Marchisio played an unthinkable back pass toward Gianluigi Buffon. Aguero was quick to react and suddenly found himself one on one with the legendary Juve and Italy goalkeeper, but his first two touches took him away from goal and Buffon did very well to rush out and close down the angles quickly.

It was Otamendi who went inches from equalizing for City shortly after halftime. Kevin De Bruyne‘s free kick found the Argentine center back at the top of the six-yard box, where he headed the ball for the far post, but the outstretched hand of Buffon tipped the ball onto the inside of the post and back into his hands.

[ MORE: UCL standings | Schedule ]

Juve went straight down to the other end of the field and would have doubled their lead, if not for a pesky post. Alvaro Morata, introduced into the game seconds earlier, got behind the City defense and lifted the ball over Hart toward the far post for Dybala, but the Argentine striker’s deft touch found only the outside of the post, denying the bianconeri a classy goal.

Juve’s victory means the four-time reigning Serie A champions have leapfrogged City for top spot in Group D, two points ahead with one game left to play. City will be home to Borussia Monchengladbach, while Juve will play away to Sevilla on the group stage’s final matchday.

VIDEO: USMNT’s Johnson scores stunning goal in UCL

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U.S. men’s national team star Fabian Johnson put the icing on the cake for Borussia Monchendgladbach against Sevilla on Wednesday.

Johnson, 27, cut inside and hit a dipping, curling shot into the far corner to give Monchengladbach a 2-0 lead late on and give themselves a great chance of finishing third in Group D and qualifying for the Europa League.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

The German-American cleared up his differences with USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after being sent home following the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico in October, and in this type of form he has proven why Klinsmann has recently played him in a left-wing role for the U.S. instead of at full back.

Watch the video below to see Johnson’s superb strike, his second UCL goal in as many games and the second of his career.