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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.

 

Mascherano to stay at Barcelona through 2018-19 season

Javier Mascherano, FC Barcelona
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Argentina international Javier Mascherano has agreed to extend his contract with the Spanish champions until June 2019.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Club executive Albert Soler says “we have reached an agreement to improve (Mascherano’s) contract” without specifying the financial details.

The 32-year-old Mascherano plays as a central defender for Barcelona alongside fellow first-choice centerback Gerard Pique.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Since his arrival in 2010 from Liverpool, he has played in 282 games for Barcelona and helped it win 16 titles, including two Champions League crowns.

Also on Wednesday, Barcelona presented new midfielder Andre Gomes.

Transfer Rumors: Koulibaly to Chelsea, Stones to Man City, Arsenal chase CB

MILAN, ITALY - APRIL 16:  Mauro Icardi (L) of FC Internazionale Milano controls the ball against Kalidou Koulibaly of SSC Napoli during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and SSC Napoli at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on April 16, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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It has been reported by Sky Italy that Chelsea have made a $50 million bid for Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly.

The towering Senegalese defender has been liked with both Chelsea and Everton and Koulibaly’s agent has recently said that his client will leave the Serie A side this summer.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Koulibaly, 25, is refusing to sign a new deal with Napoli and with John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill as Chelsea’s three experienced options at center back — Kurt Zouma is still recovering from a serious knee injury and Matt Miazga is still developing at Stamford Bridge — new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte appears to favor strengthening his central defensive options.

Leaking goals was a big problem for the Blues last season as their title defense started woefully and they ended up finishing 10th in the Premier League table. Conte will shore things up and this reported bid for Koulibaly suggests he is ready to splash some more cash, despite questioning the sustainability of big money transfers less than 24 hours ago.


Manchester City is reportedly closing in on deals for four different players as Pep Guardiola looks to bring in plenty of new faces ahead of his first season in charge.

According to the BBC, Everton and City are discussing the transfer of John Stones for $65 million. The 22-year-old center back has long been linked with City and the England international has reportedly told Everton he wants to leave Goodison Park. Stones struggled for most of last season after breaking through in the previous two PL campaigns but he believes his fluid passing from the back game will flourish in Guardiola’s system.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Three attacking players are also linked with City as Leroy Sane returned to training with Schalke on Wednesday. The 20-year-old attacker is valued at over $52 million by Schalke and Sky Sports is reporting that the two clubs are in talks about the transfer fee.

Sky also says that City are close to tying up two deals for South American teenage forwards Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno. Atletico Nacional in Colombia want around $11 million for Moreno, while Palmeiras value Jesus at over $26 million. The latter will be playing for Brazil at Rio 2016 Olympics and there is a slight snag with both of these deals as obtaining work permits could be an issue.


Arsene Wenger has made his transfer target clear: “We have to look for an option to get a bit more experience.”

He was, of course, talking about an experienced center back.

The Gunners could be without Laurent Koscielny for the start of the season as he continues to recover from a busy summer with the French national team, while Per Mertesacker has been ruled out with a long-term knee injury leaving Wenger with only Gabriel, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers (maybe even Nacho Monreal shifting in from left back) to choose from.

It will be interesting to see who Arsenal go for in their hunt for some cover. Maybe Martin Demichelis who is a free agent?

Ranking the top 20 players at Rio 2016 Olympics

Brazil's Neymar celebrates his goal on a penalty kick against the United States during the second half of a friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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It is just one week until the Olympic soccer tournament kicks off at Rio 2016.

Pumped? Yeah, I thought so.

[ STREAM: Watch Olympic soccer here ]

With the likes of Neymar, Hirving Lozano and Manuel Lanzini in the men’s tournament, plus Carli Lloyd, Marta and Alex Morgan on the women’s tournament, the battle for Gold is always intense and we often see plenty of rising stars come of age at the Olympics.

Below is a list of the top 20 players in both the men’s and women’s competitions in Rio.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.


Men’s

  1. Neymar (Brazil)
  2. Gabriel Barbosa (Brazil)
  3. Julian Brandt (Germany)
  4. Marquinhos (Brazil)
  5. David Selke (Germany)
  6. Max Meyer (Germany)
  7. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
  8. Lars Bender (Germany)
  9. Felipe Anderson (Brazil)
  10. Manuel Lanzini (Argentina)
  11. Thiago Maia (Brazil)
  12. Teo Gutierrez (Colombia)
  13. Ali Adnan (Iraq)
  14. Oribe Peralta  (Mexico)
  15. Son Heung-min (Korea Republic)
  16. Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
  17. Angel Correa (Argentina)
  18. Giovanni Simeone (Argentina)
  19. Matthias Ginter (Germany)
  20. Jonathan Calleri (Argentina)

Women’s

  1. Carli Lloyd (USA)
  2. Marta (Brazil)
  3. Alex Morgan (USA)
  4. Christine Sinclair (Canada)
  5. Eugenie Le Sommer (France)
  6. Amandine Henry (France)
  7. Dzsenifer Marozsan (Germany)
  8. Camille Abily (France)
  9. Anja Mittag (Germany)
  10. Alexandra Popp (Germany)
  11. Becky Sauerbrunn (USA)
  12. Forminga (Brazil)
  13. Hope Solo (USA)
  14. Lotta Schelin (Sweden)
  15. Caroline Seger (Sweden)
  16. Saskia Bartusiak (Germany)
  17. Megan Rapinoe (USA)
  18. Kosovare Asllani (Sweden)
  19. Julie Johnston (USA)
  20. Tobin Heath (USA)

Zlatan to MLS? David Beckham wants him in Miami

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 18: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of PSG celebrates with team mate David Beckham after scoring to make it 3-0 during the Ligue 1 match between Paris Saint-Germain FC and Stade Brestois 29 at Parc des Princes on May 18, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Zlatan Ibrahimovich is keen on Major League Soccer.

The Manchester United striker, 34, just linked up with his new team for the first time on their return to Europe and is ready to get going in preseason ahead of his first-ever season in the Premier League. .

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However, in an interview with Goal.com he has revealed that former teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, David Beckham, wants him to join his MLS expansion side in Miami.

Here’s what Zlatan had to say about a potential link-up with Becks once again:

“David is a good friend of mine, and he has asked me to play for his [Miami] team,” Ibrahimovic said. “For now, I want to achieve big things with Manchester United, but I have a lot of respect for the MLS, and anything is possible. I am not ruling out the MLS. Once I had decided to leave PSG there were many offers, but with Zlatan that is normal.

“I know that teams from the MLS were interested, but the opportunity to play for Manchester United, and of course to work with my good friend Jose Mourinho again, was impossible to turn down. I would never rule out the MLS in the future. I have a contract with Manchester United, but I feel in great shape. I feel as though I could play until I am 40. It is impossible to predict the future.”

So, there you go. The enigmatic Swedish striker is certainly keen on a move to MLS and who wouldn’t be if this Miami franchise ever gets off the ground?

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Although a stadium site is almost sorted in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, Beckham and his ownership group still have plenty of hurdles to overcome to make his team a reality.

It would certainly help if Zlatan was around though — both on and off the pitch — and the towering striker has only signed a one-year deal with Manchester United so unless he rips it up in the Premier League this season, expect the Zlatan-to-MLS talk to fire up around January 2017.