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.

 

Mauricio Pochettino: “I am in love with Harry Kane”

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LONDON — It is easy to understand why Mauricio Pochettino is waxing lyrical about Harry Kane.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

On Saturday Kane scored twice in the first half to set Tottenham on their way to a 3-2 win at West Ham, as the English striker celebrated his inclusion into the FIFPro World 11 nominees (the only Englishman) earlier in the week.

Out of Europe’s top five leagues only Lionel Messi has scored more than Kane’s 25 goals in 2017.

Speaking to the media after the game Pochettino professed his love for Kane who has now scored six goals in his last four appearances for Tottenham in all competitions and eight in six if you include his two goals for England earlier in September.

“For me Harry Kane is one of the best strikers in the world. It is too hard to find the word to describe him. In the last three seasons I am telling you how he is. I am in love, like the fans are in love, like the teammates are in love, not only because he scores goals,” Pochettino explained. “He is professional, humble and he is very good example in football today that is a big business. He keeps all the values that managers like me appreciate a lot. That is why I say to you I am in love with him for many different reasons.”

Kane hit the post twice, created numerous chances for his teammates and led the line superbly against West Ham’s three central defenders.

Hammers boss Slaven Bilic believes Kane is among the top five to 10 strikers in the world and said his defenders couldn’t have done any more to stop Kane on Saturday.

Kane still scored twice and ultimately decided the outcome of the game.

“The best compliment I can give him, is that we played with three center backs. Fonte, Reid and Ogbonna had a really good game. My three center backs were against him and Dele Alli. They had a really good game and still he was using those situations and basically he decided the game and my center backs were good,” Bilic said, puffing out his cheeks.

After suffering a slow start to the season once again Kane is in fine form in September, ripping up Premier League defenses in his sleep as he linked up with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen fluidly in the final third.

Still only 24 years of age, it is scary to think about what Kane can become.

Three things learned from Tottenham’s win at West Ham

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LONDON — Tottenham Hotspur beat West Ham United on Saturday in a thrilling London derby at the London Stadium.

[ MORE: Pochettino “in love” with Kane ]

Spurs thought they had sewed up a routine victory after they went 3-0 up after an hour but Serge Aurier’s red card set up a nervy finish as Javier Hernandez and Cheikhou Kouyate scored headers for the Hammers.

Here’s what we learned from the London Stadium.


COMPLETE KANE

In 2017 Harry Kane has scored 25 goals. In Europe’s top five leagues only Lionel Messi has scored more (34).

Earlier this week Kane was the only Englishman to be named among the 55 nominees for the FIFPro World 11 for 2016-17. It’s easy to see why.

His first goal was a diving header, instinctively glanced into the far corner. His second was about being in the right place at the right time to slot home. He hit the post twice in the second half and could have easily had a hat trick.

Aside from his finishing and his hot streak (six goals in his last four games for Spurs and eight in his last six if you include his goals for England earlier this month) his vision and ability to drop deep, bring others into play and link up the game set him apart.

Kane is not a true predator like Sergio Aguero. He is not a forward who always scores spectacular goals like Alexis Sanchez or one who usually does his damage just in the box like Romelu Lukaku. He has it all.

Harry Kane is the complete forward and at the age of 24 it is hard to spot a weakness in his game.


AURIER AN ISSUE

Serge Aurier arrived at Tottenham with plenty of baggage off the pitch but on it he’s proving a real Jekyll and Hyde character.

The Ivory Coast right back made one superb covering tackle in the first half to deny Marko Arnautovic in the box but then also wandered out of position on multiple occasions and didn’t exactly bust a gut to get back into position.

His two silly challenges in the space of six minutes in the second half summed up his play. A rash tackle on Mark Noble was followed up by a wild lunge on Andy Carroll and Aurier was off.

That sending off rattled Spurs who could’ve easily coughed up a three-goal lead and let two points go.

Mauricio Pochettino knew he had plenty on his plate when he signed Aurier from Paris Saint-Germain on transfer deadline day. This performance showed he is perhaps not worth the risk and either Kieran Trippier or Kyle Walker-Peters deserve a chance at right back.


HAMMERS HUMBLED

The 3-2 scoreline doesn’t tell the story of this game.

Sure, West Ham scored twice in the final 25 minutes and rallied to try and grab an improbably point, but that papered over the cracks.

Slaven Bilic‘s future is still not decided and that uncertainty is ripping the team apart.

Not knowing if Bilic will be in charge beyond the next few months, let alone the end of this season when his current deal runs out, it feels like West Ham are at a real crossroads.

With the owners so far unwilling to give Bilic a new deal, performances like the one his side dished up from minutes 20-65 on Saturday won’t help his cause. The Hammers started well but fell apart when Michail Antonio went off injured and was replaced by Andy Carroll.

Bilic was backed with a team full of experienced international as Marko Arnautovic, Hernandez, Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart arrived in the summer but there doesn’t seem to be a real long-term plan at West Ham. That showed in their performance on Saturday as they battled back from 3-0 down which put a brave face on yet another jumbled display.


Kane after another brace: “I just want to score against every team”

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Harry Kane has three braces in September following his goal-free August, and Spurs continue to climb the Premier League table following a 3-2 win against West Ham United on Saturday at the London Stadium.

Spurs built a 3-0 lead through two from Kane and another from Christian Eriksen, but West Ham pulled one back before a Serge Aurier red card set the stage for a wild ending.

[ RECAP: West Ham 2-3 Spurs ]

The North Londoners held on for the win, boosting its standing to third on 11 points before the rest of the big boys play their weekend fixtures.

Here’s Kane, via the BBC:

“When you are 3-0 up and end up going 3-1 or 3-2 it is always nerve-wracking, especially with 10 men. But it is a great result.

“I see stuff go round on social media (about his goalscoring) but I don’t think about it. I just want to score against every team. I am delighted to get a couple and help the team win.

“We know we have to improve our home form and we will be right up there. To get nine points from three away games is really good.”

Kane now has September braces against Everton, West Ham, and Borussia Dortmund — not bad — and visits APOEL Nicosia and Huddersfield Town this week. Might he add another to his record?

Watch Live: Six Premier League games at 10am ET

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Six Premier League games are coming your way at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday and you can watch them all live online.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Man City host Crystal Palace in a top v. bottom clash, Chelsea head to Stoke, Manchester United travel to Southampton, Swansea host Watford, Everton host Bournemouth and Huddersfield head to Burnley.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for all six games at 10 a.m. ET is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


10 a.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Crystal Palace – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Chelsea – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Bournemouth – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Burnley vs. Huddersfield – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Manchester United – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Swansea City vs. Watford – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]