UEFA Champions League roundup: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain clinch knockout round spots

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Group A: Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) 0, Manchester United (England) 5

From today’s preview:

Between talent, form, venue, and opponent’s fitness, Bayer has everything going for them ahead of this match, and while the healthy talents United possesses are still capable of winning this match, they shouldn’t. If Bayer can avoid being frightened out of their game, they should go top of Group A.

Smash cut to the present, and Bayer’s again undermined our faith. From our recap, courtesy of Steve Davis:

A sluggish start to the David Moyes era at Manchester United keeps gaining speed. Another mighty puff of steam was acquired Wednesday as the fabled English club qualified in highest possible style for Champions League knockout stages, with a full match to spare …

Wayne Rooney assisted on Antonio Valencia’s early goal and then provided the stinging free kick that turned into an own goal and a 2-0 lead after just 30 minutes at the BayArena. Jonny EvansChris Smalling and Nani provided United’s second half goals in what must surely be the most impressive win yet under Moyes.

The Arsenal win was nice, as was United’s first win over Bayer Leverkusen. But today’s thrashing came out of nowhere. Who needs midfielders when you can have goals?

[MORE:  5-0 Stunner! Manchester United gallops impressively past Bayer Leverkusen, into Champions League knockout stage]

Group A: Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) 4, Real Sociedad (Spain) 0

The Ukranian champions’ most impressive performance of the tournament sets up a showdown for first place Dec. 10 in Manchester, Mircea Lucescu’s team staying within three of the Red Devils with a clinical effort Wednesday at the Donbass Arena. Luiz Adriano opened the scoring in the 47th minute, with fellow Brazilians Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa tripling their lead by the 69-minute mark. A second for Costa just before the end of regulation time launched the hosts into second place, one point ahead of Bayer Leverkusen.

[MORE: Updated list of teams qualified for Champions League knockout stage]

Group B: Juventus (Italy) 3, FC Copenhagen (Denmark) 1

Winless in Champions League coming into today’s match, Juventus woke up, with a hat trick from Arturo Vidal lifting them to second in Group B. Penalty kicks on either side of halftime were complemented by a 63rd minute header, leaving the Chilean on five goals for the tournament.

From our recap:

Up two, Juventus clicked it into neutral, only giving up one more shot on target after [Olof] Mellberg’s goal. Finally putting in the type of performance most expected in their first four games, Juve claimed the Group B place they were supposed to occupy all along. Though they’ve won once in five matches, that may be all they need to advance to the round of 16. A draw at Galatasaray in two weeks will clinch second place and put them into the knockout round.

[MORE: Arturo Vidal hat trick gives Juventus first win of Champions League, vaults team second in Group B]

Group B: Real Madrid (Spain) 4, Galatasaray (Turkey) 1

Sergio Ramos saw red in the 26th minute, a dismissal that was irrelevant before Gareth Bale put the Merengues up eight minutes before half with a 30-yard free kick. Galatasaray answered a minute later through Umut Bulut but gave up second half goals to Álvaro Arbeloa, Angel di María, and Isco, finishing -8 in their two group stage matches against El Real.

From our recap:

El Real were without their best player, and 26 minutes into the match, arguably their best defender was given his marching orders. For a Galatasaray team that has designs on Group B’s second spot, this was a gift: their best chance to claim points at the Bernabeu. Yet after 64 minutes of playing against 10 men, the Turks were left with another embarrassing loss.

If they thought their 6-1 defeat to the Blancos in Istanbul was bad, think again. At least they were playing a full team last time around. This time, they may have been better off if Ramos had stayed on.

[MORE: Ronaldo-less Real Madrid overcome early red card, cruise past Galatasaray, 4-1]

Group C: Paris Saint-Germain (France) 2, Olympiacos (Greece) 1

Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke through after six minutes, but a 80th minute equalizer from Kostas Manolas left PSG in danger of being drawn from behind for the second straight Champions League match. Edinson Cavani, however, pushed the Parisians to 13 points and a guaranteed first place finish with his 90th minute goal, Olympiacos potentially needing three points against Anderlecht on Dec. 10 to go through.

[REVIEW: UEFA Champions League roundup: Arsenal leading Group F; Barcelona, Chelsea upset]

Group C: Anderlecht (Belgium) 2, Benfica (Portugal) 3

A back-and-forth affair saw Chancel Mbemba’s opener pulled back by Benfica’s Nemanja Matic, the visitors taking their first lead in the 52nd minute through a Mbemba own goal. When Massimo Bruno brought the Belgian champions to the brink of their second point of the tournament, Benfica needed a stoppage time winner from Rodrigo to move to move even on points with Olympiacos.

[REVIEW: Untangling Champions League Group F: What Arsenal needs to advance]

Group D: CSKA Moscow (Russia) 1, Bayern Munich (Germany) 3

In the day’s early match, the defending champions took a quick lead through Arjen Robben, with München doubling the margin shortly after halftime through Mario Götze. Swpaped penalty kicks just after the hour put Keisuke Honda and Thomas Müller on the scoresheet and left CSKA Moscow launching ill-fated shots from distance on Manuel Neuer. The FCB keeper managed to record seven saves without being truly bothered from open play, Bayern maintaining their perfect record through five games.

[REVIEW: Late Mohamed Salah goal gives Basel second straight win over Chelsea]

Group D: Manchester City (England) 4, Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) 2

Goals from Sergio Agüero, Samir Nasri, Álvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko saw Manchester City outlast a Viktoria side that put up an unexpectedly strong fight, with Stanislav Tecl’s second half score making it 2-2 after 68 minutes. City needed to bring Jesus Navas, Yaya Touré, and Negredo in to seal the game, with Navas assisting on two of the hosts’ three second half goals.

[REVIEW: Reus, Blaszczykowski, Aubamenyang goals see Borussia Dortmund down Napoli, move second in UEFA Champions League group]

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80