Rio Tinto-RSL

MLS playoff preview: LA Galaxy take slim lead into Thursday’s Western Conference semifinal second leg

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  • The LA Galaxy won the first leg, 1-0
  • Real Salt Lake has some history of not getting the job done at home in big games
  • Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan drive the Galaxy’s potent counter attack
  • The Galaxy is bidding for a record third consecutive MLS championship
  • If the teams are level on total goals at the end of 90 minutes, a 30-minute overtime will decide the series, followed by penalty kicks if necessary

Creeping doubt can be a terrible thing. When it comes to the LA Galaxy’s visit Thursday to Rio Tinto Stadium for a concluding playoff leg against Real Salt Lake, you have to wonder if one of the sides will succumb to it? Because both of these talented Western Conference sides have something to feel good about … but a little something to fear, too.

The two-time defending champion LA Galaxy takes a tenuous 1-0 lead into Thursday’s second leg of the Western Conference semifinal. Thursday’s winner from Rio Tinto (pictured above) advances into the conference final against Seattle or Portland.

Real Salt Lake has some disquieting history when it comes to these big deciders at home. That goes all the way back to a notorious (well, from RSL’s side it was notorious) 1-0 loss to New York back in 2008, just days after the stadium opened. Jason Kreis’ team was all over New York, pinging three of its 24 shots off the post but eventually falling and missing out on a trip to MLS Cup.

[MORE: MLS playoff focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Thursday’s second leg against the LA Galaxy]

The big crusher came a few years later when RSL missed out on a bid for meaningful history by not finishing the job at home. That came in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final. In need of a draw against Mexico’s Monterrey to claim the crown and play in the fancy FIFA Club World Cup, RSL fell at Rio Tinto, 1-0.

Even this year, RSL lost inside its swell ground at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in the U.S. Open Cup final. (Even worse yet, they lost that match to D.C. United, which just finished with the poorest record ever in Major League Soccer regular season play.)

Overall, Real Salt Lake has hosted eight elimination matches (MLS playoffs or cup competitions) at Rio Tinto Stadium, having advanced in just two of them.

Kreis has refused to talk about it. Team captain Kyle Beckerman did:

“For us, the way I look at it, you’ve got to keep putting yourself in those positions to play those games,” the RSL veteran midfielder said. “We’re doing something good to keep getting these games and getting an opportunity to win on our home soil. … We know there’s still a lot to play for, so I think we’re really excited to get another chance to advance in a game that’s played at our place.”

That meager history for the home side is likely to land as cold comfort to the visitors, the two-time defending MLS Cup champions whose bid for a historic three-peat (it would be Major League Soccer’s first) now dangles in the balance. It does so because the Galaxy could not convert more chances in the weekend opener at the StubHub Center.

[MORE: MLS playoff focus: Notes on the LA Galaxy ahead of Thursday’s second leg against Real Salt Lake]

The Galaxy counter attack was synched up wonderfully, the movement from Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan right in time. The finishing, on the other hand …

“I don’t think that Robbie and Landon will ever miss that many chances again,” Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “It’s a positive how many chances that they did get, but I think that they’ll finish a few of those on Thursday.”

source: AP
Major League Soccer’s all-time leading playoff scorer Landon Donovan.

But will they get all those chances? It just hasn’t happened that way for the Galaxy on the road this year. And that stands as the vulnerable spot for Bruce Arena’s team Thursday.

The Galaxy was just 4-9-4 on the road this year, matching Montreal for worst mark among MLS playoff teams. Take away one of those “road” wins, a victory over Chivas USA in the building the teams share, and Arena’s club was no better than 3-9-4 outside the StubHub Center this year. One of those wins came in Utah, at least; that was back in April, a 2-0 win at Rio Tinto.

Since then, however, Kreis’ men posted a commanding 3-1 win over the Galaxy at home, this one in June.

Beckerman warned that his team could not afford to lose sight of the big picture, one that says his team needs just one goal to pull level in this one. To do so, to panic and get rash about creating chances without careful game management, is to invite danger against the Galaxy counter.

“We’ll try to put some high pressure, but I don’t feel like we’re going to have to score like we have to score in the opening 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “It’s a 90 minute game and we’ll have time to get a goal to send it into overtime or whatever we need.  It’ll be key to not get caught up and give up opportunities for them to counter. We know that I’ll happen, but if we can limit their chances it’ll help our chances for sure.”

Xavi backs Dybala, Verratti to succeed at Barcelona over Pogba

TURIN, ITALY - JANUARY 24:  Paulo Dybala (R) of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal with team mate Paul Pogba during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and AS Roma at Juventus Arena on January 24, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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With Paul Pogba linked with a possible summer move to Barcelona worth more than $100 million, one legend at Camp Nou believes Pogba may not be the right signing.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

After making more than 700 appearances for Barcelona, Xavi knows the club as well as anyone, and he prefers Pogba’s Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala for a move to the Catalan giants.

Xavi also praised the play of Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, saying that while Pogba is a star player, Dybala and Verratti have “Barca DNA.”

There’s two players I really like, both of whom I think have Barca’s DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala.

They are amazing and, thanks to their quality and style of play, would easily integrate into the [Barca] machine. I see them as future stars at the club.

[Pogba] is a great player. He’ll be a star for France as he is for Juve, but I see him with a different game to ours.

Both Pogba and Dybala are 22-years-old, while Verratti is 23. All three players have been among the elite young talents in the world, with Pogba earning the most praise of the group and always linked with a big-money move to Europe’s top clubs.

[ RELATED: Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career ]

Dybala is enjoying a breakout season at Juventus, currently with 13 goals and eight assists in Serie A play. In Paris, Verratti is part of a PSG side that hasn’t lost in 25 matches and holds a 24-point lead at the top of the table.

Vincent Kompany set to make Manchester City return this weekend

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Manchester, England.
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Vincent Kompany is set to make his first appearance for Manchester City since Boxing Day as the defender has returned from injury.

City’s captain and center-back missed more than six weeks with a calf injury before Christmas, and then reaggravated the injury just minutes into his return at the end of December.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

However, Kompany has been back in training and manager Manuel Pellegrini said he is fit to play this weekend when City host Tottenham in a huge top-four matchup.

We’ll see what the starting XI is tomorrow – we’re not just thinking about one player and one game, we’re involved in a lot of competitions. Maybe we have a lot of criticism when we don’t play well but I’m happy with the squad over the whole season.

Every player must play a game when they’re 100%. Vincent has worked for three weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes in a friendly game against the under-21s and I think he’s ready to play.

Kompany’s presence in the City back-line has been pivotal this season. In the eight Premier League games Kompany has started, City have kept seven clean sheets. In the 18 matches without the big Belgian in the starting lineup, City have kept just five.

[ RELATED: Diego Costa suffers broken nose in Chelsea training ]

With City just a point behind Tottenham, Kompany returns from injury just in time for one of the biggest matches of the season. Tasked with slowing down Harry Kane and Spurs’ high-flying attack, Kompany’s play could prove crucial to the Citizens getting a result.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

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  • CFC unbeaten under Hiddink (W5, D6)
  • Newcastle have just 6 away goals all season
  • Diego Costa: 6 goals in his last 7 PL matches

Chelsea look to extend their unbeaten streak under Guus Hiddink to 12 matches on Saturday when the Blues host relegation-threatened Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

The Blues’ last loss came under Jose Mourinho in December.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Chelsea are up to 13th on the table, currently riding a run of 11 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Guus Hiddink is yet to suffer a loss after taking over for his second stint at Stamford Bridge in December, although draws have kept Chelsea from climbing further up the table. Diego Costa has had the hot-hand with six goals in his last seven appearances, but the Spanish striker will be forced to play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in training.

[ MORE: Hiddink has “no fear” of playing youngsters in Zouma’s absence ]

For Newcastle, the Magpies sit 17th on the table just one point above the drop. Their away form has hurt the club all season, as Steve McClaren‘s men have scored a league-low six goals on the road this year. The Magpies are coming off of a win over West Brom, and supporters will be hoping the club’s new January signings continue to produce. Seydou Doumbia could make his Premier League debut on Saturday, which would be a massive boost to the attack.

What they’re saying

Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink: “The status of being unbeaten sounds good but realistically we would have wished to have more victories, especially at home. And we have an opportunity to do so against Newcastle. They improved their squad with substance, some good signings, and they are more competitive now.”

Newcastle boss Steve McClaren: “In our home games we are starting to get a consistency in our performance and the way we play. We need to start transferring that to our away games and picking up points away from home – we owe it to the fans.”

Prediction

Newcastle have just two wins in their last 18 league matches away from home, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend. Chelsea have looked a new team with Guus Hiddink in charge, and they stay unbeaten under the Dutchman. Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United.

Pochettino enjoying best spell of career ahead of massive clash at Man City

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Mauricio Pochettino (R) Manager of Tottenham Hotspur is seen on arrival at the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.

The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.

When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”

[ MORE: Who are the Premier League title favorites? ]

Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.

Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.