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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:

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ELITES AND TITANS
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.

source:  MANCHESTER CITY’S MOMENT OF TRUTH
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.

source: Getty ImagesFAVORITES TRY TO PULL AWAY
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.

Others
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.

 

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern held to draw, but Dortmund can’t capitalize

Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, top, and Bayern's David Alaba challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Germany’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 Bayern Munich

The race for Bundesliga title could have been blown wide open pried open ever so slightly after Bayern Munich dropped two points away to 5th-place side Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. It was far from a classic encounter, with just 15 shots managed between the two sides (3 on target). Bayern’s best chance came during the game’s final 10 minutes, when Robert Lewandowski nearly won it very late on.

The hosts’ best chance at pulling off the shock upset came on 53 minutes, when Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s volley from 25 yards out flashed just wide of Manuel Neuer’s right-hand post.

Hertha Berlin 0-0 Borussia Dortmund

The above possibility hinged, of course, on the only side within 18 points of Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, taking all three points from their visit to 3rd-place Hertha Berlin. They could not do so, thus remain eight seemingly insurmountable points behind the three-time defending champions.

U.S. national team defender John Brooks, who last week signed a new contract to remain at Hertha, is now one point closer to qualifying for the UEFA Champions League with his hometown club.

Schalke 3-0 Wolfsburg

Right on Hertha’s heels, two points back in fourth, is Schalke, who hammered Wolfsburg on Saturday, thanks to goals scored by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Johannes Geis and Alessandro Schopf. That’s three wins in their last four league games for Schalke, while Hertha have left the door wide open with three straight draws.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Borussia Monchengladbach 5-1 Werder Bremen (Friday)
Eintracht Frankfurt 2-4 Stuttgart
Hannover 0-1 Mainz
Ingolstadt 2-1 Augsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hamburg vs. Koln (9:30 a.m. ET)
Hoffenheim vs. Darmstadt (11:30 a.m. ET)

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 20 17 2 1 50 9 41 10-0-0 7-2-1 53
Borussia Dortmund 20 14 3 3 52 24 28 8-1-0 6-2-3 45
Hertha BSC Berlin 20 10 5 5 29 21 8 6-3-1 4-2-4 35
FC Schalke 04 20 10 3 7 29 26 3 6-2-3 4-1-4 33
Bayer Leverkusen 20 9 5 6 29 21 8 5-3-2 4-2-4 32
Mönchengladbach 20 10 2 8 40 35 5 7-1-3 3-1-5 32
FSV Mainz 05 20 9 3 8 25 24 1 5-1-4 4-2-4 30
VfL Wolfsburg 20 7 6 7 29 28 1 6-3-1 1-3-6 27
FC Ingolstadt 04 20 7 5 8 14 21 -7 4-2-4 3-3-4 26
1. FC Köln 19 6 7 6 20 25 -5 3-4-3 3-3-3 25
VfB Stuttgart 20 7 3 10 31 41 -10 4-1-5 3-2-5 24
Hamburger SV 19 6 4 9 21 27 -6 2-2-5 4-2-4 22
FC Augsburg 20 5 6 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 3-3-4 21
Eintracht Frankfurt 20 5 6 9 26 34 -8 3-3-4 2-3-5 21
Darmstadt 19 5 6 8 19 29 -10 1-4-5 4-2-3 21
Werder Bremen 20 5 4 11 24 41 -17 1-2-6 4-2-5 19
1899 Hoffenheim 19 2 8 9 18 28 -10 1-5-3 1-3-6 14
Hannover 96 20 4 2 14 19 35 -16 2-0-8 2-2-6 14

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea vs. Man United, Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

Manchester United's Ander Herrera reacts after missing a chance during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes are quickly slipping away, thanks to their current four-game winless run — not to mention Leicester City’s red-hot form — much like Manchester United see themselves falling away from the race for the top-four.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Bournemouth are desperately hoping just to avoid a relegation dogfight that goes down to the wire, and Chelsea… well, they’re just kind of there, still sitting in the bottom half of the league table. Sunday’s pair of PL fixtures is full of storylines and implications in the context of the season as a whole.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Arsenal’s recent form couldn’t have come at a worse time, which is hardly surprising when considering they’d been far and away the best team in England for a little over 12 straight months; they were bound to slip up at some point. Having been top of the league themselves barely two weeks ago, the Gunners have fallen to fourth, eight points behind Leicester. Not even the return of Alexis Sanchez has provided the much-needed spark for an attack that has failed to find the back of the net in three straight games (305 minutes in total, dating back to their 3-3 draw with Liverpool).

As for Bournemouth, only Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur (9 each) have won more points from their last three league fixtures than the Cherries (7). Callum Wilson (five goals), whose season ended back on Sept. 26 (knee), remains Bournemouth’s leading scorer on the season, though Arsenal youth academy product Benik Afobe has proven an inspired January signing thus far (three goals in four games). Bournemouth are winless in their two all-time meetings with the Gunners, dating back to a 3-0 League Cup defeat in 1987. When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Dec. 28, it was Arsenal who were victorious, 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium.

On the injury front, Bournemouth have a mostly clean bill of health, as Junior Stanislas (knee) is the only recent addition to long-term absentees Wilson, Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings. For Arsenal, Santi Cazorla (knee), Tomas Rosicky (thigh) and Carl Jenkinson (knee) will all miss another month at least, while Jack Wilshere (leg) and Danny Welbeck (knee) remain without definitive timetables to return.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Chelsea vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

This one used to really mean something. Those were the days, weren’t they? These days, Chelsea need a win just to leapfrog Crystal Palace for 12th place. On a positive note, the Blues are unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions since the departure of Jose Mourinho, but have won just three of eight league games during that period. Diego Costa is scoring goals semi-regularly again, but he’s also acting out in his usual Sunday League-like manner, which means he could either spontaneously combust on the field of play, or hop the next flight back to Madrid without telling anyone what’s going on.

As for Man United, they’re actually scoring goals these days (six combined in their last two games – all competitions), which has Louis Van Gaal dreaming of a title challenge once again. On a really positive note, Wayne Rooney has scored seven goals in his last seven games in all competitions (five in five in the PL) and has forged a really sound partnership with 20-year-old Anthony Martial up top (three assists, one goal in last two games – all competitions). A top-four place is still a very realistic target for the Red Devils — though it likely won’t matter with regards to Van Gaal’s job status — but it’ll take everything Rooney and Martial have between them to overcome Van Gaal’s ultra-defensive tactics and score enough goals to get there.

When these sides met on the final matchday of 2015, the proceedings at Old Trafford ended a stale 0-0 draw one might expect from a Van Gaal-versus-Mourinho meeting of the minds, if only the Portuguese had still been in charge at the time. On the injury front, Chelsea are nearly 100 percent healthy, with only Radamel Falcao (leg) still unavailable for selection. For United, the latest injury report is extensive: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Phil Jones (ankle) and Marcos Rojo (shoulder) will all miss Sunday’s clash, while Marouane Fellaini (knock) is questionable.