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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.

 

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur receives treatment from the medical team during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.

MLS SuperDraft Rounds 3 & 4: Thierjung to SJ, all picks

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Major League Soccer put the finishing touches on its four round SuperDraft of (mostly) college player with the third and fourth rounds on Tuesday.

[ MORE: First and second round wrap ]

Here’s how they played out:

  1. Colorado Rapids – Jaime Saij, Pfeiffer
  2. Atlanta United – Andrew Wheeler-Ominu, Harvard
  3. Chicago Fire – Brandt Bronico, Charlotte
  4. Real Salt Lake – Andrew Putna, Illinois-Chicago
  5. Columbus Crew SC – Connor Maloney, Penn State
  6. San Jose Earthquakes – Christian Thierjung, California
  7. Vancouver Whitecaps – Jorge Gomez Sanchez, Temple
  8. Toronto FC – Robert Moewes, GK, Duke
  9. FC Dallas – Austin Ledbetter, SIU-Edwardsville
  10. New York City FC – Chris Wingate, New York City FC
  11. Philadelphia Union – Chris Nanco, Syracuse
  12. Seattle Sounders – Doug Goodman, Georgetown
  13. Real Salt Lake – Pass
  14. Sporting KC – David Graczek, Rutgers
  15. FC Dallas – Dakota Barnathan, VCU
  16. New York City FC – Michael DeGraffenriedt, Louisville
  17. New York Red Bulls – Jordan Scarlett, Iona
  18. FC Dallas – Wulito Fernandes, Mass-Lowell
  19. Montreal Impact – Pass
  20. Orlando City SC – Danny Deakin, South Carolina
  21. Toronto FC – Oyvind Alseth, Syracuse
  22. Seattle Sounders – Jake Stovall, Wright State

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

Round 4

  1. Minnesota United – Tanner Thompson, Indiana
  2. Atlanta United – Alex Kapp, Creighton
  3. Chicago Fire – Matej Dekovic, Charlotte
  4. Houston Dynamo – Robby Sagel, Penn State
  5. Columbus Crew SC – Logan Ketterer, GK, Bradley
  6. San Jose Earthquakes – Auden Schileder, GK, Washington
  7. Vancouver Whitecaps – Nazeem Bartman, USF
  8. Real Salt Lake – Pass
  9. New England Revolution – Joshua Smith, San Francisco
  10. Portland Timbers – Russell Cicerone, Buffalo
  11. Philadelphia Union – Jack Elliott, West Virginia
  12. DC United – Pass
  13. Real Salt Lake – Pass
  14. Portland Timbers – Romilio Hernandez, Louisville
  15. LA Galaxy – Pass
  16. Philadelphia Union  – Santi Moar, Pfeiffer
  17. Toronto FC – Lars Eckenrode, Michigan
  18. FC Dallas – Marco Carrizales, Furman
  19. Montreal Impact – Pass
  20. Colorado Rapids – Peguy Ngatcha, Wright State
  21. Toronto FC – Juan Pablo Saavedra, Virginia Tech
  22. Seattle Sounders – Kyle Bjornethun, Seattle

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FOLLOW LIVE: Three PL sides face FA Cup replays

Burnley's Andre Gray, right, and Sunderland's Lamine Kone battle for the ball as Burnley's mascot Bertie Bee looks on during their English Premier League match at Turf Moor, Burnley England Saturday Dec. 31, 2016. (Richard Sellers/PA via AP)
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Five Premier League sides face FA Cup third-round replays this week, with three of them in action on Tuesday.

Most in-focus will be Sunderland’s visit to Burnley. Usually a match like this would be considered an unnecessary obstacle, but the Black Cats need to find some semblance of form.

If David Moyes‘ group could nab a win, just their second in 10 outings, maybe they could drag those good vibes into the Hawthorns for a weekend PL match against West Brom.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: FA Cup third round replays ]

Burnley has surged into the top half of the Premier League table, 10 points above the drop, and can consider the idea of a Cup run.

The other PL match sees Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace hosting Bolton.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Full FA Cup third-round replay schedule

Burnley vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET
AFC Wimbledon vs. Sutton United — 2:45 p.m. ET
Barnsley vs. Blackpool — 2:45 p.m. ET
Fleetwood Town vs. Bristol City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Crystal Palace vs. Bolton — 3 p.m. ET
Lincoln City vs. Ipswich Town — 3:05 p.m. ET

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Premier League Power Rankings: Tight at the top… and bottom

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01:  Diego Costa of Chelsea pulls on the shirt of Harry Kane of Spurs during the Capital One Cup Final match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium on March 1, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Chelsea’s 7-point lead atop the Premier League table still feels relatively safe, even if Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United continue their table-surging form.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

That makes a set of Power Rankings, designed to combine table situation with form, even tighter, and Spurs have really made life difficult for our rankers.

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

The bottom of the table is even closer, with four teams within a single point of the final spot of safety in the Premier League.

Here are this week’s rankings.

TEAM RANKING
source: 20 (19) Sunderland: “Hello darkness, my old friend.
I’ve come to talk with you again.”
source: 19 (18) Crystal Palace: Big Sam Allardyce has famously “never been relegated”, but at this point it looks like he may go down with a better squad than he’s had at a lot of other stops. We’ll see.
source: 18 (17) Swansea City: Reinforcements are coming, but the back line is still wobbly.
Hull City logo 17 (20) Hull City: Tigers looking a lot better under Marco Silva, even in a 2-0 EFL Cup semi loss to Manchester United.
source: 16 (15) Watford: The Hornets have not won a league game since Dec. 10, its only PL win since mid-November.
200px-Middlesbrough_crest 15 (16) Middlesbrough: Aitor Karanka‘s side looks like a group that can beat the drop, but Boro needs to turn a draw into a win at some point soon.
source: 14 (11) Southampton: Claude Puel‘s unit is struggling, losers of four-straight in Premier League play. Saints are, however, a result away from the EFL Cup final.
Leicester City logo 13 (14) Leicester City: The Foxes’ 3-0 loss to Chelsea feels worse than it is, as Leicester has looked better in recent weeks.
source: 12 (9) Bournemouth: The 3-0 lead against Arsenal turned into a draw, and the Cherries backed it up with a 3-1 loss to Hull City. Down they go.
source: 11 (10) West Ham United: The Dimitri Payet saga keeps the Irons from rising even higher in the Power Rankings. Michail Antonio is fantastic.
source: 10 (12) Stoke City: The Potters haven’t made the leap to a top-end club, but continue to win most games they should.
source: 9 (8) West Bromwich Albion: No shame in getting crushed by red-hot Spurs, though it may serve as a reality check for Tony Pulis and Co.
burnley fc crest 8 (13) Burnley: Three wins in four, with the outlier being a close loss to Man City. Enjoy the high life, Clarets!
Logo_Manchester_City 7 (6) Manchester City: The mighty have indeed fallen, and how bad might it look after another match against Spurs?
Source: Everton FC 6 (7) Everton: That win over Man City is going to linger for a while, and don’t forget the Toffees took care of Arsenal not too long ago. Six with a bullet?
source: 5 (4) Arsenal: It remains hard to get a read on the Gunners, who are still aching for a statement win since back-to-back losses against Man City and Everton.
source: 4 (3) Liverpool: The EFL Cup setback doesn’t push them in our rankings, but the Reds were second-best — not by a ton — to United on Sunday. That’s enough for a flip-flop.
source: 3 (4) Manchester United: The better team in the draw against Liverpool.
source: 2 (2) Tottenham Hotspur: Took everything in our power not to boost them, but a 7-point gap is a lot. Beat Man City this week and we’ll revisit the issue.
source: 1 (1) Chelsea: Costa situation is a problem, but you wouldn’t know it from the steadied ship that ushered hosts Leicester to a 3-0 defeat.

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