UEFA Champions League Preview: Leaky Real Madrid at Juventus; Manchester clubs looking for control

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage resumes on Tuesday, with Groups A through D completing the phase’s fourth round. With special focus on the day’s big match in Turin, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight games:

WHERE DISASTROUS WON’T CUT IT
Juventus (Italy) vs. Real Madrid (Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Turin (Juventus Stadium)

Two weeks ago, Real Madrid beat a 10-man Juventus 2-1, sending the Bianconeri to third in Group B. Since, the Merengues have allowed seven goals in three games, with head coach Carlo Ancelotti labeling his team “disastrous” after giving up two second half goals this weekend’s to Rayo Vallecano.

[REVIEW: Cristiano Ronaldo double helps Real Madrid see off 10-man Juventus]

[REVIEW: Despite 3-2 win, Carlo Ancelotti rips “disastrous” Real Madrid]

“We’ve been conceding too many goals and this is our problem,” Ancelotti says, staying coy on which pair he’d start in central defense. “[Raphaël] Varane will play tomorrow because he didn’t play on Saturday and will be fresh, then I’ll choose between [Sergio] Ramos and Pepe to partner him.

Obviously, disastrous is an exaggeration (Real Madrid did win, 3-2), but he was right to worry about his team. They haven’t been good enough. Three goals conceded to Sevilla? Two to Rayo Vallecano? It won’t work against Juventus. In fact, Real’s defending is enough to wonder what would have happened them if Giorgio Chiellini hadn’t picked up a second yellow card two weeks ago.

[REVIEW: Spain roundup: Ronaldo hat trick, Bale double lead Real Madrid’s rout of Sevilla]

Juventus was starting to control that game. They gave up an early goal to Cristiano Ronaldo, but after that, their midfield was dictating the terms of the game. They’d created a clear chance for Andrea Pirlo and cashed in on a goal by Fernando Llorente. Something was going to have to happen to turn that game back in Real Madrid’s failure, and it did. Chiellini got sent off.

He won’t be Juve’s only absence. Wing back Stephan Lichsteiner and forward Mirko Vucinic are still out, leaving Juve short-handed for a game which they need to win to keep their knockout round fate in their own hands.

[REVIEW: Where They Stand: Groups A through D after three rounds of UEFA Champions League]

“We’ve got to show on the field, as we did in Madrid, that we deserve to go through,” head coach Antonio Conte said Monday. “Otherwise we will be the first to kneel down and applaud those who make it through at our expense.”

Real Madrid, on the other hand, confirm a place in the knockout round with a win and, depending on what happens in Denmark, could secure first place in their group.

source: Getty ImagesBREAKAWAY TIME FOR MANCHESTER CLUBS

Manchester City (England) vs. CSKA Moscow (Russia)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Manchester (Etihad Stadium)

Real Sociedad (Spain) vs. Manchester United (England)
Kickoff: 2:45 Eastern, San Sebastián (Aneota)

Amid all the focus on racism from the previous match in Moscow, a potentially historic moment is being ignored for Manchester City. If they win, they’re through to the knockout round (unless Viktoria Plzen beats Bayern Munich). After two years of European failure under Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini could have the Sky Blues into the final 16 after four rounds.

[MORE: Manchester City hopes to leave racism controversy ‘in the past’ ahead of visit from CSKA]

“For Manchester City, [getting through the group stage] would be a great achievement,” Pellegrini confessed on Monday. “We all know what happened in the last two years, so for a club that is always trying to grow every day, progression in Europe is very important.”

Manchester United’s knockout round fate won’t be decided on Tuesday, but they have a chance to assume a commanding position in Group A. Beat Real Sociedad in Spain, and the Red Devils will move to 10 points. Last year, 16 of 18 teams who reached that plateau made it into the knockout round. The year before, it was 11 of 12 teams.

To reach that mark, Manchester United will have to improve on their performance of two weeks ago, where only a Iñigo Martínez own goal separated the sides at Old Trafford.

[REVIEW: Three points, few answers for Manchester United in Champions League]

“We have to play well if we’re going to get those ten points, which will get us over the line,” Manchester United boss said, emphasizing the importance of that double-digit mark.

“I won’t take anything for granted. I have a lot of respect for Sociedad.”

source:  THE BEST MATCH YOU WON’T WATCH
Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 Eastern, Donetsk (Donbass Arena)

The big, untold story of the last match day? Shakhtar, now consistent presences in Champions League, got blitzed in Leverkusen. In a battle between teams fighting for the spot behind Manchester United in Group A, Sami Hyypiä’s team scored a knockout, with Stefan Kießbling’s double leading Bayer to a 4-0 victory.

[REVIEW: UEFA Champions League roundup: All hail Ibra as PSG, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid stay perfect]

“The result in Leverkusen didn’t reflect what happened on the pitch,” Shakhtar coach Mirsea Lucescu said on Monday, an act of denial. “In the first half, they didn’t create anything except for the move that led to Stefan Kiessling’s goal, and before the break we were unlucky as Alex Teixeira missed the opportunity to equalise. Our task for the second half was to risk playing attacking football, but after the second goal we stopped doing the things that we spoke about.”

Perhaps predictably, Hyypiä sees things differently.

” Our victory was fully deserved,” Hyypia affirmed, “but I think that everything will be different here in Donetsk. They’re a very strong Shakhtar side and now they’re playing at home, so I expect it will be a very difficult match for us.”

Leverkusen rested players this weekend, so they’ll be ready for a Shakhtar team that lost in league on Friday (shocking, Shakhtar are still in second place in Ukraine). With Bayer carrying a two-point edge into Tuesday’s match, a draw will do nicely.

Regardless, these are two teams who, while unlikely to go far in the competition, have talented, dynamic, yet distinctly different attacks. With Shakhtar needing a win and Bayer coming off a four-goal victory, this could be the day’s highest scoring game, with the likes of Kießling, Luiz Adriano, Sidney Sam, and Teixeira capable of scoring against the best teams in the world, let alone sides a step or two down the pecking order.

It’s the best match you’ll have no access to on Tuesday, which is too bad. As much as the big names that you know will make the knockout round, these teams are what group stage is all about – getting to see talented sides that won’t normally cross your path outside of Champions League soccer.

Others
All games kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern time.

  • Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) vs. Bayern Munich (Germany), Štruncovy Sady Stadium, PlzenBayern ties a competition record with their sixth-straight win if they win in Plzen. Two weeks ago, they out-shot the Czech champions 30-2 en route to a 5-0 win.
  • Copenhagen (Denmark) vs. Galatasaray (Turkey), Parken, Copenhagen – Win this game and their match in Istanbul against Juventus (match day six), and Gala are into the knockout round, but the Denmark leg of that double will have to be conquered without goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and playmaker Wesley Sneijder. Both internationals have been ruled out for the game at Parken.
  • Paris Saint-Germain (France) vs. Anderlecht (Belgium), Parc de Princes, Paris – A win puts PSG in the final 16, and coming off a 5-0 win in Belgium, they’re heavy favorites to take full points. In this season’s competition, Anderlecht have the same number of points as goals: 0.
  • Olympiacos (Greece) vs. Benfica (Portugal), Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus – The Greek champions have already earned a point in Portugal, leaving head coach Michel wary of complacency within his squad: “We must avoid being over-confident … We are only thinking about the present, though, and not the future.” But teams are on four points through three rounds.

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Barca releases statement on terror attacks ]

And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.

Bundesliga preview: Schalke, BVB chase Bayern Munich

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The last time Schalke spent a season outside of European football, the celebrated German club finished second in the league en route to a Champions League semifinal the following campaign.

That’s one of the only silver linings from last season’s disappointing 10th place finish, 19 points behind fourth place Hoffenheim.

[ MORE: Schalke’s teen American impact ]

“Naturally, nobody is happy about not playing international this year,” center back Benedikt Howedes told ProSoccerTalk. “During the week we currently have more time to focus on the next opponent. We will battle the European positions with many teams this season. I think, the race is up in the air. The Bundesliga is very balanced.”

World Cup winner Howedes has 334 appearances for Schalke (Getty Images).

Schalke’s tumulutous 2016-17 season started poorly and never really found its footing. The club lost its first five league matches under Markus Weinzierl, who was fired in June, and saw marquee transfers Naldo, Breel Embolo, and Coke miss a lot of time through injuries.

Enter 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco. Don’t let the age fool you, he’s the boss not a player, and youth will be part of the team as well. Schalke still has Embolo, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, American teen Weston McKennie has been promoted to the first team, and Amine Harit has arrived from Nantes.

From the outside, that puts an emphasis on veteran leadership. Fortunately for Schalke, it has living club legend Howedes and ex-Man City defender Matija Nastasic amongst others in the fold.

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie told PST. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

[ MORE: Guide to two promoted Bundesliga teams ]

In the case of Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, his 24 years carry a lot of experience. He’s thrived at Fiorentina, become a staple of the Serbian national team, and rebounding from his injury-hit time at City and is a leader at Schalke.

And those young guys can learn from Nastasic, who’s seen it all at 24.

“When I just arrived in Italy I was only 18 and it was the first year out of my country,” Nastasic told PST. “I didn’t expect at the beginning that I would play that much. Then I changed to England, and it was totally different. Italy is more tactical. Football in England is physical with a lot of tempo and running. I was young also without so much experience but when I was fit I think I played good.”

Schalke will need its young attack to find more goals. Its defense was Top Five in goals conceded last season, but its 45 goals was mid-table.

“Everyone knows that last season was not as good as we had expected,” Howedes said. “With our new coach, we want to improve our game and make our fans happy again. We are training hard and I am sure, that we will be more constant and improve our performances this season.”

[ MORE: First female ref to make Bundesliga debut ]

“From the team I expect a much better season than last year,” Nastasic adds. “We are not playing international games so maybe that’s an advantage for us. We can concentrate on the Bundesliga.”

Both Nastasic and Howedes heaped praise on McKennie, as well as American teammate Haji Wright, who will spend the season on loan to Sandhausen, and the game overseas in general.

“Haji Wright started spectacular,” Howedes said. “For young players the most important thing is to play. On loan in Sandhausen the chance is greater than here. I rejoice for him he get this opportunity. The step in the 2.Bundesliga can be a good beginning of his career.

“The American soccer is really developing the last years. It is no coincidence that a lot of great players like Kaka and Gerrard joined Major League Soccer. And who knows, I also can imagine to play there some day in the future.”

Different champs (but probably not different champs): Bayern Munich will neither have Xabi Alonso nor Philipp Lahm this season, but that doesn’t mean they are runaway favorites to claim its 27th title and sixth-straight since Borussia Dortmund’s two-year reign ended with the 2011-12 crown. Carlo Ancelotti has reloaded with James Rodriguez and Corentin Tolisso, and will be favored to hold off BVB for the crown.

Here’s to the new Bosz: USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic is already making an impact in the mind of his new coach, Peter Bosz, and the manager will be pleased to note that reports say Pulisic has no interest in looking into his future until after the 2018 World Cup.

Sleepers? Eintracht Frankfurt dropped into 11th last season, and may benefit from not finishing in a European place. The club has added Mexican national teamer Carlos Saucedo, Dutch star Jetro Willems, and well-traveled Jonathan De Guzman for its new season.

Americans Abroad:
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Julian Green (Stuttgart)
Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
McKennie (Schalke)
Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen *expected to be sold)
Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)

Old faces, new places:
Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim, on loan from Bayern Munich)
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Dortmund, from ‘Gladbach)
Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC, from Ingolstadt)
Sven Bender (Bayer Leverkusen, from BVB)
Marcel Heller (Augsburg, from Darmstadt)
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Hamburg, from Bayer)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg, from Hertha)
Paul Verhaegh (Wolfsburg, from Augsburg)
Holger Badstuber (Stuttgart, from Bayern)

New faces, new places:
James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
Reece Oxford (Gladbach, on loan from West Ham)
Harit (Schalke)
Jonathan de Guzman (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Viktor Fischer (Mainz)

Opening weekend
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Hamburg vs. Augsburg — Saturday
Hertha Berlin vs. Stuttgart — Saturday
Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Mainz vs. Hannover 96 — Saturday
Schalke vs. RB Leipzig — Saturday
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — Sunday

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA