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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.

 

Patrick Vieira discusses Mix Diskerud and NYCFC’s offseason plans

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While the general feel of Tuesday’s MLS MVP ceremony in New York City was upbeat for New York City FC, the club has a challenging road ahead this offseason as they look to retool ahead of 2017.

[ MORE: David Villa wins 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors ]

Captain and star striker David Villa accepted honors on Tuesday as the Landon Donovan MLS MVP after notching 23 goals and four assists for the Eastern Conference, but outside of the Spaniard the team will have several noticeable holes that need plugging prior to next season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira proved to be a strong hire in his first season with the club, but his potential success moving forward will be dictated by how he and technical director Claudio Reyna fill out the rest of the roster.

Key pieces such as Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola have since left the club after providing stability in the midfield this past season, while Jason Hernandez, Claudio Bravo and Steven Mendoza were among the other roster casualties following the team’s first playoff appearance in 2016.

While Vieira admits losing players like Lampard certainly presents a challenge, the Frenchman believes that NYCFC can just as easily recruit more talented members in the buildup to next season.

“Of course we lost Frank [Lampard],” Vieira said. “We lose some other players as well. We have to bring some new players. Something that is very important to us is that we have to be better and we have to bring players that can match out targets and we have different options on the table.

“You would not believe how many players would love to play for New York City FC. We will have some difficult decisions to make and it’s important for us to bring the right people, like David, because it’s important to bring people who want to come, people who want to work hard, prepare to sacrifice themselves for the football club because we have to do well next year.

As it stands, NYCFC currently has 18 players under contract ahead of the 2017 season, including two Designated Players (Villa and Andrea Pirlo).

One name that certainly jumps out on the list of 18 though is U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Mix Diskerud, who has seen more downs than ups in his two seasons in the Bronx. After making 27 appearances for NYCFC in the team’s inaugural season, Diskerud’s playing time was dwindled down significantly in 2016 under Vieira to just nine starts in 12 overall appearances.

The 26-year-old was the fourth-highest paid player on NYCFC in 2016 — making $761,250 — however, he scored just one goal and added two assists. The club is still looking to figure out the best way to handle the Diskerud situation though, according to Vieira.

“He’s looking for playing time,” Vieira said. “We’re having discussions with him and trying to find the best way to satisfy both Mix and ourselves.”

LIVE – UCL group stage finale: Man City, Arsenal both in action

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 23:  Olivier Giroud of Arsenal (L) celebrates his sides second goal with his Arsenal team mates after Marco Verratti of PSG (not pictured) scored a own goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between Arsenal FC and Paris Saint-Germain at the Emirates Stadium on November 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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With their passage into the Round of 16 secured, Premier League duo Arsenal and Manchester City is both in action on Tuesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The Gunners know a win at Basel combined with PSG dropping points at home to Ludogorets would mean clinching top spot in Group A and an all-important top seed for the last 16 draw. As for Man City, they have secured top spot in Group C and can’t finish above Barcelona so Pep Guardiola will likely start plenty of fringe players against a Celtic side already out of Europe as they will finish in fourth place.

Elsewhere there is plenty to play for as the winner of Napoli vs. Benfica will make it to the UCL’s last 16 and Besiktas know a win in Kiev will also sent them through. There is also the small matter of a battle between two heavyweights in Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, although Atleti already have first place sewn up and Munich has to settle for second irrespective of the result.

Below is a full schedule for Wednesday’s Champions League games, with each game kicking off at 2:45 p.m. ET. You can follow live commentary and stats of each game by clicking on the link above, while we will have reaction right here on ProSoccerTalk.


Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League schedule

Group A
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Ludogorets
Basel vs. Arsenal

Group B
Napoli vs. Benfica
Dynamo Kiev vs. Besiktas

Group C
Barcelona vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
Manchester City vs. Celtic

Group D
Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid
PSV Eindhoven vs. FC Rostov

Brazil anti-trust body says bids rigged for 2014 World Cup

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Brazil’s anti-trust body says several construction companies rigged bids for 2014 World Cup stadiums, driving up costs by overcharging for the work.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Five stadium projects were mentioned in the report by the anti-trust body CADE. They included Rio de Janeiro’s famous Maracana Stadium, where Germany defeated Argentina 1-0 in the 2014 World Cup final.

CADE says three other stadiums used in the World Cup also could have been tainted by corruption.

[ MORE: Pogba told to stop showboating ]

CADE says it obtained the bid-rigging information in a leniency agreement with construction company Andrade Gutierrez.

Reports have been widespread about corruption linked to World Cup stadiums, and construction projects tied to this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Champions League permutations: Who can reach last 16?

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 23: Marquinhos of PSG (R) is chased by Mesut Ozil of Arsenal (L) during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between Arsenal FC and Paris Saint-Germain at the Emirates Stadium on November 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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The final matchday of the UEFA Champions League group stage is here and there are plenty of permutations to wrap our heads around for the matches on Tuesday and Wednesday.

[ MORE: Full UCL schedule ]

Remember, the top two teams from each four team group go through to the last 16 with the team who finishes top the seeded team, while the team who finishes second the unseeded team. As well as that, the team who finishes third automatically qualifies for the UEFA Europa League Round of 32.

Below is a look at how things stand in each group with one game to go and what each team has left to play for.


Group A
Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain have already qualified but if PSG win against Ludogorets and Arsenal beat Basel both teams will finish on 14 points. However, PSG will top the group due to their two away goals against Arsenal in the first head-to-head tiebreaker. Basel and Ludorogets are both in the hunt for the Europa League spot as they each have two points. If both teams finish on the same number of points then Ludogorets will go through as they similarly lead Basel in away goals in games between the duo.

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Group B
Everything is set up for an epic showdown between Napoli and Benfica in Italy as the winner of that game knows they will definitely go through and seal to spot. However, the loser may advance if Besiktas lose to bottom side Dynamo Kiev. The equation is quite simple for Besiktas: if they beat Kiev in Ukraine, they’re in the last 16. Kiev is on two points and can’t finish any higher than fourth. If Napoli and Benfica draw and Besiktas win, then Besiktas and Napoli would qualify as they beat Benfica 4-2 away from home. Benfica will still qualify if they lose and Besiktas draw, as they have a better head-to-head record. If Besiktas draw and Napoli lose, the Turkish side will be through.

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Group C
Everything is sorted in Group C with Barcelona sealing top spot, Man City finishing second and Bourssia Monchengladbach finishing third. Celtic is guaranteed to finish bottom and is out of Europe.

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Group D
Atletico Madrid have sealed top spot in Group D, while Bayern Munich have second spot guaranteed as both heavyweights are through to the last 16. The only thing left to play for is third place and if PSV Eindhoven beat Rostov at home in the final game then they will finish in third ahead of the Russian side.

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Group E
Monaco have sealed top spot, while Bayer Leverkusen is guaranteed second spot with both going through to the knockout stages. Tottenham Hotspur crashed out of the Champions League and need just a point in their home game against CSKA Moscow to qualify for the Europa League. A defeat for Spurs against CSKA would mean the Russia side go to the Europa League instead.

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Group F
Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid are safely through to the last 16 and a win or a draw for Dortmund at Real Madrid on the final matchday will seal top spot. If Dortmund lose to Madrid then the reigning European champs will finish top of Group F. The battle for third place is on as Legia Warsaw host Sporting Lisbon in Poland. Sporting only need a point to advance to the Europa League Round of 32, while Legia must win.

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Group G
Leicester has sealed top spot in the group and has qualified as a top seed for the last 16. Porto host Leicester in the final game and a win would guarantee them a spot in the last 16. A draw may be enough for Porto of Copenhagen lose or draw at Club Brugge, but if Copenhagen win then Porto must also win to finish second and make the knockout rounds. If Copenhagen win and Porto draw then Copenhagen will go through as they have an equal head-to-head record with Porto but better goal difference.

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Group H
Juventus is safely through to the round of 16 but they’ve yet to seal top spot. A win for the Italian champions at Dinamo Zagreb will guarantee first place. As for the battle for second, Sevilla know a point at Lyon will see them through but Lyon know a win would see them leapfrog Sevilla and make the last 16. If Sevilla beat Lyon and Juventus draw or lose against Zagreb then Sevilla will finish in top spot.

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