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.

 

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern Munich wins 27th German title in style

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Make it five in-a-row and a record 27 titles for German powers Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Sunderland relegated ]

No other club has won more than Nurnberg’s nine titles, while Borussia Dortmund (8), Schalke (7), and Hamburg (6) are deep in the rear view mirror.


Wolfsburg 0-6 Bayern Munich

Bayern entered the day knowing a win would put the title out of reach for RB Leipzig, and David Alaba scored before the match was 20 minutes old to put the Bavarians on their way.

Robert Lewandowski added to the score line twice before half, passing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund) atop the goal scoring chart with his 27th and 28th of the season.

Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, and Joshua Kimmich contributed second half goals.

Here’s Lewandowski’s first.

RB Leipzig 0-0 Ingolstadt

Despite a 15-6 advantage in shot attempts and three times as many passes completed, RB Leipzig cast aside its slim chances for a Bundesliga title. Still, a shot at second in their first season is far from a shame.

Elsewhere
Bayer Leverkusen 1-4 Schalke – Friday
Borussia Dortmund 0-0 Koln
Werder Bremen 2-0 Hertha Berlin – Bartels, Kruse score
Mainz 1-2 Borussia Monchengladbach – Schulz scores winner
Darmstadt 3-0 Freiburg – 3rd-straight W for basement dwellers
Augsburg vs. Hamburg – 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Hoffenheim vs. Eintracht Frankfurt – 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 31 22 7 2 79 17 62 11-4-0 11-3-2 73
 RB Leipzig 31 19 6 6 56 31 25 12-2-2 7-4-4 63
 Borussia Dortmund 31 16 9 6 65 35 30 11-4-0 5-5-6 57
 1899 Hoffenheim 30 14 13 3 57 32 25 10-5-0 4-8-3 55
 Hertha BSC Berlin 31 14 4 13 38 37 1 12-1-2 2-3-11 46
 Werder Bremen 31 13 6 12 52 51 1 8-1-7 5-5-5 45
 SC Freiburg 31 13 5 13 38 55 -17 9-1-5 4-4-8 44
 1. FC Köln 31 10 12 9 43 37 6 7-6-2 3-6-7 42
 Mönchengladbach 31 12 6 13 41 45 -4 7-3-5 5-3-8 42
 FC Schalke 04 31 11 8 12 43 36 7 8-4-4 3-4-8 41
 Eintracht Frankfurt 30 11 8 11 32 34 -2 7-6-2 4-2-9 41
 Bayer Leverkusen 31 10 6 15 44 50 -6 5-5-6 5-1-9 36
 FSV Mainz 05 31 9 6 16 40 51 -11 6-4-6 3-2-10 33
 VfL Wolfsburg 31 9 6 16 30 49 -19 5-2-9 4-4-7 33
 Hamburger SV 30 9 6 15 30 55 -25 7-3-5 2-3-10 33
 FC Augsburg 30 8 8 14 29 49 -20 4-5-6 4-3-8 32
 FC Ingolstadt 04 31 8 5 18 33 54 -21 4-3-8 4-2-10 29
 Darmstadt 31 7 3 21 26 58 -32 6-3-7 1-0-14 24

Crystal Palace 0-2 Burnley: Clarets finally claim road win

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  • Barnes scores in 8th minute
  • Gray nabs substitute goal
  • Clarets eight points clear of drop
  • Palace one point behind Burnley

It took 18 tries, but Burnley’s first road win of the season came at a very good time.

Ashley Barnes‘ early goal sent Burnley over Crystal Palace in Saturday’s game at Selhurst Park and on the table with a 2-0 win.

Andre Gray came off the bench to finish the scoring in the 85th minute.

Burnley rises to 14th place with 39 points, one ahead of now 16th place Palace.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Palace was on the front foot for the first five minutes, but Burnley found the opener when Ashley Barnes couldn’t redirect Stephen Ward‘s with his cross first touch but kept the ball at his feet long enough to score through Wayne Hennessey‘s legs.

The game was delayed when James Tarkowski was hit in the head with a projectile during the celebration, but was able to stay in the game.

Wilfried Zaha was wrongly ruled offside on a break which would’ve given a penalty to Palace had the flag not been raised before Tom Heaton took down Zaha.

Barnes had a second goal taken back for a handball after he settled the ball with his arm before beating Hennessey low.

The Clarets were tricky to break down. On one sequence after the half-hour mark, Burnley smothered space until Patrick Van Aanholt‘s shot from the left was blocked away from danger.

Luka Milivojević fired a prime shot wide of the frame in the 36th minute.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Clarets were stout after the break, and Palace’s effective wingmen Zaha and Andros Townsend remained lively but grew frustrated by aggressive treatment from Burnley.

Damien Delaney hit a classy side volley on goal in the 65th minute that Heaton palmed out for a corner, which Burnley handled well.

Sam Allardyce swapped Benteke for Loic Remy in the 71st minute, and brought on Fraizer Campbell for James McArthur.

Sam Vokes turned and burned to get a break on Hennessey, but his third touch was a problem and Martin Kelly slid to force a Burnley corner.

Jon Flanagan caused penalty shouts for Palace when he jabbed his leg between Zaha’s and was adjudged to have caught ball.

That’s when Sean Dyche brought Andre Gray into the game for Barnes.

Remy cued up Zaha for a curling rip in the 81st, but Matthew Lowton blocked it over the goal.

Gray raced onto a long ball in the 85th minute, curling his finish around Hennessey to cement the three points.

Five games to go: What remains for Chelsea, Tottenham?

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Crunch time has arrived.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With five games remaining for Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League it is Chelsea who sit at the top of the table, four points clear of their London rivals.

Both teams play on Sunday with Chelsea heading to Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) and Tottenham hosting Arsenal (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in the North London Derby.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule

The gap could be down to just one point 24 hours from now but both teams have vastly different paths in the final weeks of the season with Spurs facing tough tasks and Chelsea handed a very favorable schedule.

That said, Tottenham are in better form with eight wins on the spin and Chelsea’s shaky defensively displays suggest there could be plenty of twists and turns ahead.

Below is a look at the final run-in for the two title contenders as Jenna Corrado and I predict the outcome of the title race.


CHELSEA

TOTTENHAM

Championship playoff contenders all but confirmed

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It was a pivotal day in England’s second-tier as the four playoff teams set to battle it out for a place in the Premier League have all but been confirmed.

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After the results in the penultimate weekend Huddersfield Town, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday are definitely in the playoffs (where they will finish in the standings is still up in the air) and Fulham have all but joined them after they drew 1-1 with Brentford at Craven Cottage.

That means they’re three points clear of Leeds United who are seventh and they also have a goal differential of +27 to Leeds’ +14. So, there needs to be a 13 goal swing on the final day of the Championship season for Leeds to finish above Fulham and nick the final playoff spot.

Yup. Not going to happen…

For fans of U.S. Soccer there will be plenty of intrigued in these playoffs as USMNT players Danny Williams (Reading) and Tim Ream (Fulham) will feature, plus German-American manager David Wagner has guided Huddersfield to the top six in his first full season in charge of the Terriers.

The two-legged playoff semifinals will take place after the regular season ends on May 5 and then the winners of those semifinals will compete in the Championship playoff final, known as the richest game in soccer, at Wembley on May 26 for a place in the Premier League.

Below is a look at the Championship table with one round of games to go as Brighton (already promoted automatically to the PL along with Newcastle) can seal the title with a win against Bristol City late on Saturday.