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.


Premier League Preview: Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 06:  Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace battles with Emre Can of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Liverpool at Selhurst Park on March 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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  • Palace 5W-1D-3L in last 9 vs. Reds
  • Reds lead all-time 18W-7D-9L
  • Liverpool two-straight wins at Selhurst Park

Liverpool’s title aims meet a struggling foe in Crystal Palace in a Saturday match at Selhurst Park (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and streaming via NBC Sports Live).

The Reds are level on points with Arsenal and Manchester City but behind on a pair of goals in differential. Jurgen Klopp‘s side had to contend with Spurs at midweek in the EFL Cup, but the Reds used a few youth players to stay fresh for the weekend.

[ MLS: Seattle beats KC | Montreal tops DC ]

Palace has a lone point in three matches, and has dropped to 11th place in the table. That’s four points clear of the drop zone, and Alan Pardew‘s teams have fallen victim to long losing streaks in the past. He’ll want to stop the rot straightaway.

And, for whatever reason, Palace has been able to find points against Liverpool. The Eagles have won five of nine against the Reds, and Christian Benteke will be fired up to face the manager who didn’t have much of a need for the big Belgian striker.

What they’re saying

Yohan Cabaye on playing for CPFC boss Alan Pardew:He wants us to be really focused and determined through the week because if not he knows that otherwise come the weekend it will be very difficult to be fit and play at 100 percent. He tries to keep us really focused on the details because now, in modern football, details are really important.”

Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum on young players contributing vs. Spurs“You see a lot of young players when they come into the first team and play a big game, they are nervous and you don’t see their quality immediately. I don’t know if they were nervous but it didn’t seem like it. They just played their game and played how they train.”


Palace has several dangerous components in Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye, and Andros Townsend. If they are delivering plays to what will be an extremely motivated Christian Benteke, check out how Liverpool’s back line handles the big man. Look for Palace to be in this one all 90 long, and the Eagles just may nick a point at home. 2-2.

Barcelona asks court to act against Spanish league president

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  FC Barcelona celebrates after Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona scored his team's third goal from the penalty spot during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona is asking a sports tribunal to consider sanctioning the Spanish federation and the president of the Spanish league after they condemned a goal celebration and accused players of provoking rival fans.

The club said Thursday it has formally requested the Administrative Court of Sport open disciplinary proceedings against Javier Tebas and members of the federation’s competition committee after their “unacceptable public declarations and assessments” about Barcelona players.

[ MORE: Spanish FF chastises Barcelona ]

The competition committee fined Valencia 1,500 euros ($1,600) on Wednesday after water bottles were thrown at Barcelona players celebrating a late winner in a Spanish league match on Saturday in Valencia.

It also condemned the attitude of the players by saying they shouldn’t have turned to the stands to celebrate and that they exaggerated after some of them were hit by one of the bottles. It said their actions exposed them to ridicule.

Barcelona said the committee “is not there to make assessments but rather to take disciplinary action, or not, in order to make an example of incidents that occur” on the pitch.

“Making statements regarding the actions of the players adds even more tension to a situation that must be deescalated,” Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said.

[ MLS: Seattle beats KC | Montreal tops DC ]

Bartomeu also had harsh words for Tebas, who told Spanish media that he didn’t like the attitude of some Barcelona players, hinting that they provoked the fans during their celebration.

“The declarations made by Tebas are irresponsible and unbecoming of a sports executive,” Bartomeu said.

Barcelona’s next game is Saturday against last-place Granada at the Camp Nou.

Premier League Preview: Manchester United vs. Burnley

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 11:  Chris Smalling of Manchester United scores the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Burnley at Old Trafford on February 11, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • Burnley hasn’t won at OT since 1962
  • Man Utd leads all-time 58W-20D-44L
  • Clarets sit 14th, United 7th

Manchester United seeks its first Premier League win in four tries when it hosts pesky Burnley at Old Trafford on Saturday (10 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live).

Burnley has picked up their fair share of draws at Old Trafford in their long history, but wins have not been found at Manchester United in more than half a century.

[ MLS: Seattle beats KC | Montreal tops DC ]

The Clarets are coming off a win over Everton, and Sean Dyche‘s crew waited until the 90th minute to score the winner through Canadian international Scott Arfield.

United will be buoyed after beating rivals Manchester City in a midweek EFL Cup clash that moved the Red Devils into the final eight of the tournament.

What they’re saying

United’s Ander Herrera on playing at Old Trafford: “I feel it like them. I know I am not English and I am not from Manchester, but I really love this club and I have enjoyed my time here. I don’t want to be just one more player. I want to show that I am very happy here and I want to be here for as long as possible.”

Burnley keeper Tom Heaton on returning to OT“It’s a special game back. I still hold a lot of affection for the football club. I spent 13 years there and almost grew up there. I’m still pleased I made that decision to earn those stripes and get back to the Premier League and be involved in the international set-up. It’s always a nice feeling going back there but, as ever, there will be a job to do and that will be the focus.”


Burnley will be rested and ready to grind out a result, but United knows it needs to start stacking wins to stay in the mix for a European place. The Red Devils will open Burnley up early en route to a scrappy 3-1 win.

MLS conference semifinals schedule set for Sunday

Toronto FC's Justin Morrow (left) celebrates his goal with teammates Sebatian Giovinco, Jonathan Osorio (right) and Jozy Altidore (back) against the Chicago Fire during second half MLS soccer action in Toronto, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Major League Soccer’s “play-in” round of the playoffs is over, with the chalk going 3-for-4.

[ MLS: Seattle beats KC | Montreal tops DC ]

The Impact’s 4-2 win over DC United was the only upset of the first round, with Seattle, Los Angeles, and Toronto all handling their business at home.

Now we know who plays Sunday, and what order they’ll take the pitches of MLS.

all times ET

Montreal vs. New York Red Bulls — 3 p.m.
LA Galaxy vs. Colorado Rapids — 5 p.m.
Toronto FC vs. New York City FC — 7 p.m.
Seattle Sounders vs. FC Dallas — 9:30 p.m.

November 6

New York Red Bulls vs. Montreal — TBD
Colorado Rapids vs. LA Galaxy — TBD
New York City FC vs. Toronto FC — TBD
FC Dallas vs. Seattle Sounders — TBD