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.


Porter’s Timbers just wanted in the playoffs, now they’re 90 mins away from a title

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers looks on from the bench before the match against the FC Dallas at Providence Park on November 22, 2015 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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Midway through the season, it was reasonable to question whether Caleb Porter could hang onto his job as Portland Timbers coach. With two games to play in the regular season, the Timbers were on the verge of missing the playoffs entirely, that job status still hung in the balance.

[ MORE: Timbers hold off Dallas | Crew advances past RBNY ]

Yet, this is Major League Soccer, where anything is possible. “Hot at the right time” is a mantra, and Portland hasn’t tasted defeat since early October. The Timbers are 6W-2T since losing to Sporting KC on Oct. 3.

Whether that’s “more exciting” than another league’s system is a conversation for another day, because today’s conversation is about what Porter and the Timbers have done in rising to within 90 minutes of an MLS title.

From Timbers.com:

“When we started the year, we wanted to get into the playoffs and win a trophy,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said in his post game comments outside a champagne and beer-drenched locker room. “That was the goal, and here we are. We’ve won one, and now we want to win the big one. So it’s very satisfying.”

And that’s the thing: You just have to get in. I imagine most Portland fans aren’t thinking, “Does this feel good in relation to how it would feel if we went wire-to-wire as champions?” They are thinking, “This feels good.”

The Timbers just needed to get in. Columbus, too. And now they are playing for a title with some of the better all-around players in the league, running the gamut from veteran savvy (Nat Borchers) to youthful flair (Lucas Melano).

MLS Best XI comes from a wide variety of backgrounds

Toronto FC 's Sebastian Giovinco, center,  tries to take the ball between Columbus Crew's Harrison Afful, left, and Ethan Finlay during the second half of an MLS soccer game in Toronto, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Major League Soccer rolled out its Best XI on Sunday, with few surprises.

Though the lack of fullbacks perhaps rightly cause Taylor Twellman and others to roll their eyes, the MLS’ 3-4-3 formation looks daunting.

[ MORE: Timbers hold off Dallas | Crew advances past RBNY ]

With expected MVP attacker Sebastian Giovinco of Toronto pacing the field, the XI is strong and filled with players from different backgrounds.

From American College Soccer, to Costa Rica, Serie A and the Premier League, there’s no one unifying thread. Heck, Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara mark careers reborn with the win, perhaps shining as bright as ever.

Best XI
Goalkeeper: Luis Robles (RBNY)
Defenders: Laurent Ciman (Montreal); Matt Hedges (Dallas); Kendall Waston (Vancouver)
Midfielders: Ethan Finlay (Columbus); Dax McCarty (RBNY); Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC); Fabian Castillo (Dallas)
Forwards: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto); Kei Kamara (Columbus); Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy)

It’s hard to call out snubs on a team this loaded, but David Ousted from Vancouver certainly deserves a shout, and Darlington Nagbe is probably the most aggrieved omission. But who comes out for the recently-made USMNT star?

Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi are Ballon d’Or finalists; USWNT’s Lloyd up for women’s honor

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 17:  Soccer player Carli Lloyd poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 17, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Carli Lloyd and Neymar are among the new names on the shortlists for FIFA’s top individual honors.

Of course, Barcelona’s Brazilian joins a pair of familiar faces in Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. One will win the Ballon d’Or on Jan. 11.

On the ladies side, USWNT star Carli Lloyd has to be considered a front-runner to become just the third American to win the FIFA World Player of the Year on the women’s side.

[ MORE: La Liga & Serie A roundup | Bundesliga wrap ]

Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm have also won the award, though Germany has won two-straight behind the heroics of Nadine Angerer and Nadine Kessler.

This time, it’s German striker Celia Sasic who will try to bring home the honors, and Japan’s Aya Miyama is also on the shortlist.

The coaches for Lloyd and Miyama, Jill Ellis and Norio Sasaki, are up for Women’s Coach of the Year, along with England’s Mark Sampson.

On the men’s coach side, the honor is between Luis Enrique (Barcelona), Pep Guardiola (Bayern Munich) and Jorge Sampaoli (Chile).

Premier League Playback: Costa’s time up at Chelsea?

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Diego Costa took his time as he strode out to warm up on the sidelines late in the second half of Chelsea’s draw at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. Costa, 27, looked unhappy, to say the least, and then as he returned to the bench as a petulant act occurred which may be seen as the beginning of the end of his Chelsea career.

[ MORE: Costa “privileged” at Chelsea ]

Costa took off his his warm-up bib and tossed it towards Jose Mourinho and his coaching staff flippantly as youngsters Kenedy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were instead selected to come off the bench with Chelsea’s main striker left to stew and sit in the cold at White Hart Lane. No less than 10 minutes after the full time whistle Costa waltzed past the mixed zone and walked straight onto the Chelsea team bus where he sat for over an hour waiting for the rest of his teammates to arrive.

[ MORE: Poch trolling Mourinho? | 3 things we learned

I wonder what the Spanish international was thinking… Anyway, here’s what Mourinho (who said he has no issue with Costa) had to say post-game when asked about benching Costa following their public disagreement in Chelsea’s win away at Maccabi Tel-Aviv last week.

“Diego is very privileged because he was the last one to be on the bench,” Mourinho said. “Everyone else has been: the captain; Ivanovic, Cahill, the vice-captain of England, Fabregas, Pedro, Hazard, player of the season, Oscar, everyone was on the bench. Diego was privileged because I kept him in the team for all these matches. Today we thought the best strategy was this one. We are happy with the decision and the players. If we had won 1-0, our performance would have been considered tremendous. You will still say it was good.”

With just four goals in 17 appearances for the Blues this season, Costa’s slump is clear for all to see compared to his start to the season last year where he scored 11 goals in his first 17 games. It’s not just recently he’s struggled either, and without scoring goals regularly and being more interested in fighting, pushing, shoving and diving, Costa doesn’t seem to be adding much to Chelsea’s attack after initially taking to the PL like a duck to water.

Rumors suggest Mourinho is looking to buy a new striker in January to replace Costa, with the Brazilian born forward going through a tough time and Chelsea sticking by him despite two bans from the FA in 2015 for misconduct on the pitch.

Premier League Schedule – Week 14

Result Recap & Highlights
A. Villa 2-3 Watford Recap, watch here
B’mouth 3-3 Everton Recap, watch here
C. Palace 5-1 N’castle Recap, watch here
Leicester 1-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Liverpool 1-0 Swansea Recap, watch here
Man City 3-1 Saints Recap, watch here
Norwich 1-1 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Sunderland 2-0 Stoke Recap, watch here
Tottenham 0-0 Chelsea Recap, watch here
West Ham 1-1 WBA Recap, watch here

Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao are both set to return to action this week, so Chelsea will have options up top and given the way Eden Hazard led the line in a false nine formation at Spurs on Sunday, Costa could soon be well down the pecking order. If he continues to react anything like he did on Sunday then Mourinho will have a big decision to make with regards to his main man up top.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Hazard, who replaced Costa in the lineup, was superb. The diminutive Belgian battled against Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen on his own and won balls in the air, made intelligent runs in-behind which Mourinho applauded and the only thing he didn’t do was score as he headed over in the first half and forced Hugo Lloris into a terrific save in the second half from a wonderfully controlled volley.

ProSoccerTalk asked Mourinho about Hazard’s display and if the reigning PFA Player of the Year is getting back to his best.

“I think that was his best game of the season,” Mourinho said. “His game was more complete, in both directions: with and without the ball and he was attacking people with the ball and attacking the space without it. He was jumping and trying in the air against the two Belgian boys who are two meters tall. He did fantastically well. Even without scoring, his appetite to be important in the game and make an impact was there.”

Is Hazard, supported by Oscar, Willian and Pedro, the answer for Chelsea? Will Costa return to the starting lineup? Will Mourinho use Falcao or Remy instead?

Plenty of questions remain around the reigning champs but Mourinho has sent a clear message out to Costa which he must absorb quickly: nobody is bigger than the team. Shape up or get out.


He did it. Jamie Vardy, 28, became the first player in Premier League history to score in 11-straight games as his opener put Leicester City 1-0 up against Manchester United in a game they eventually drew 1-1.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Leicester 1-1 Man United ]

Vardy’s remarkable rise from non-league to the Premier League and the English national team has been much documented and he deserves all the praise he is getting for beating Ruud van Nistelrooy’s long-standing record and doing something the greats of the PL didn’t manage.

Soak in the atmosphere from the King Power Stadium in the video above as the Vardy party went on long into the night. Next up: Jimmy Dunne’s record of scoring in 12-straight games for Sheffield United in the 1931-32 English top-flight season.


Arsenal’s fans had their hearts in their mouths as Alexis Sanchez went down clutching his hamstring in the second half of the Gunners’ draw at Norwich City on Sunday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Despair then turned to anger, most of which was directed at Arsene Wenger, as the Chilean forward was forced off with what looked like a serious hamstring pull which could keep him out of a pivotal stretch of games. In his pregame presser on Friday Wenger admitted that Sanchez was struggling with a hamstring knock. He selected him anyway and now Arsenal’s main man is out, with others dropping like flies around him.

Wenger was less than impressed when the press hounded him after the game asking: why on earth risk Sanchez when your talisman was already struggling?

“Nobody is scientifically developed enough, not even the press, to predict exactly when a guy will be injured,” Wenger said. “I would have rested him but he felt perfectly alright before the game. We declared that he had no problem. Despite all the tests he looked alright. The players are there to play football not to be rested when the press decides that they need to be rested. He [Alexis] says it is a kick on his hamstring but I believe that is not really the reality.”

The reality is that Wenger got this wrong. His vast experience should have told him that Sanchez resting against Norwich was the right decision.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Now, the Chilean superstar joins Francis Coquelin, Laurent Koscielny and Santi Cazorla (both injured in the game at Norwich), Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott on the treatment table. No matter how influential all of those players are, Sanchez is the key ingredient and Wenger simply had to manage the situation better. Not just on Sunday but in recent weeks he’s had the chance to bring Sanchez off for the final 30 minutes of games in blowout wins but has failed to do so. In truth, this is nothing new. November is always the month when Arsenal’s squad seems to suffer with injuries as their early-season promise evaporates before the festive season arrives and then reemerges around Easter when the squad is back to full health.

In the past Wenger has said that resting Sanchez has actually had an adverse impact on his play, so maybe that swayed his mind. Regardless, Wenger is a manager and has to manage the situation. Sanchez was always going to declare himself fit because, well, he’s a player. It’s up to Wenger to be a manager and make the tough decisions in the short-term which will benefit Arsenal in the long-term. Now, Sanchez could be out for a long-time and Arsenal will suffer greatly because of that.

Highlights from Arsenal’s clash with Norwich, and every game during Week 14, can be found in the video below.


The latest episode of Premier League Download is out as Roger Bennett goes behind-the-scenes to find out what Crystal Palace’s fanatical supporters are all about.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Below you can watch “South London and Proud” in full as the Eagles continue to soar up the table and American investors are ready to take over during the festive period.

Fun times ahead at Selhurst Park.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an in-depth look at the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.