UEFA Champions League Preview: Manchester United, Bayern Munich look to finish group stage on top

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The final match day of UEFA Champions League’s group stage begins on Tuesday, with Groups A through D completing the process of sending two teams into the tournament’s second round, a third into Europa League. Here are today’s matchups and scenarios, with each game kicking off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern:

Group A 

  • Manchester United (England, 11 pts., first place) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine, 8 pts., second), Old Trafford, Manchester
  • Real Sociedad (Spain, 1 pt., fourth) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Germany, 7 pts., third), San Sebastian, Anoeta

First place goes to … Shakhtar Donetsk if the Ukrainian champions win at Old Trafford, a result that would give Mircea Lucescu’s team the head-to-head tiebreaker over Manchester United. Any other result gives the group to the Red Devils.

Second place goes to … Bayer Leverkusen if they better Shakhtar’s result. Else, second will be decided in Manchester.

What to know: Manchester United has dropped two-in-a-row at home for the first time in 11 years, and while Everton and Newcastle have their virtues, they’re not appreciably better than Shakhtar. In fact, neither may be better than a team that’s overcome a bad start in Ukraine to surge back to the top of their league, Shakhtar posting a 6-1-1 record in their last eight games. With United having won their last Champions League match 5-0 in Germany, there’s a chance the clubs’ European form could transcend its Premier League troubles, but if they lose to Shakhtar, it wouldn’t even be their worst result of the week.

If, however, United get a result from Shakhtar, the door will be open for Bayer Leverkusen, visiting a Real Sociedad side with nothing to play for. Despite a resurgence in Spain, La Real have been terrible in Europe, having already clinched last in this group. Between two teams that lost by a combined 9-0 two weeks ago, this may be a battle of who struggles least, neither team able to bring their league form into Champions League.

Leverkusen will still be missing attacker Sidney Sam, while Sociedad central defender Iñigo Martínez is suffering from a thigh injury. In Manchester, the Red Devils are still missing midfielder Michael Carrick, while Shakhtar are fully healthy.

source: APGroup B 

  • Galatasaray (Turkey, 4 pts., third place) vs. Juventus (Italy, 6 pts., second), Turk Telecom Arena, Istanbul
  • Copenhagen (Denmark, 4 pts., fourth) vs. Real Madrid (Spain, 13 pts., first), Parken, Copenhagen

First place goes to … Real Madrid. They’ve already clinched, making today’s match in Denmark meaningless to the Merengues.

Second place goes to … Juventus if they get a result in Istanbul. If Gala win at home, they will make the knockout round at Juve’s expense.

What to know: Since taking over at Galatasaray, Roberto Mancini has won seven of 13 games, a span that started with a surprise 2-2 result in Turin on Oct. 2. Juventus, however, are unlikely to be as lax on Tuesday, the favorites having conceded an 88th minute goal to Umut Bulut in the teams’ first meeting. Unbeaten in nine, Juve are playing their best soccer of the season, the experience of their veteran squad set to come in handing in Istanbul.

If the Old Lady does come through, Copenhagen can vault out of the group’s cellar and into Europa League. All they have to do is out-point Galatasaray, even if those points will have to come at the expense of Real Madrid. El Real, however, have nothing to play for, which means a number of young stars (Jesé, Álvaro Morata, Casemiro) could see time. Real Madrid will still be favored, but particularly without Cristiano Ronaldo, they’ll be more vulnerable than usual.

The visitors will also be without Sami Khedira, Fabio Coentrão, Raphaël Varane (injuries) and Sergio Ramos (suspended), while Rúrik Gíslason and Daniel Braaten are expected to miss out for Stale Solbakken’s side. In Turkey, Gala will be without first choice goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, the Uruguayan recovering from a broken toe, while Juventus is missing regista Andrea Pirlo.

source: APGroup C 

  • Benfica (Portugal, 7 pts., third place) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France, 13 pts., first place), Estadio do Luz, Lisbon
  • Olympiacos (Greece, 7 pts., second place) vs. Anderlecht (Belgium, 1 pt., fourth place), Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus

First place goes to … Paris Saint-Germain. The Ligue 1 champions won this group with a win over Olympiacos on match day five.

Second place goes to … Benfica if they better Olympiacos’s result, but with the Greek champions at home against an Anderlecht team with no chance at Europa, the Portuguese club will need some luck to advance to the knock out round.

What to know: First and fourth are settled, and with Anderlecht offering little opposition in this group. Olympiacos are unlikely to cede control of the packet’s second knockout round spot. Having already won in Belgium, the Super League leaders need only duplicate their road performance to join Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16.

Even if Olympiacos stumbles, Benfica has to better their result to advance, meaning they’ll likely need to beat a PSG team that hasn’t lost in group stage. While the Parisians’ place cemented atop this group means they’re unlikely to put their best foot forward, the depth at Laurent Blanc’s disposal means the Eagles will still be challenged at home.

Two people who won’t be in Blanc’s lineup are Gregory van der Wiel and Marco Veratti, both suspended. Oscar Cardozo and Rúben Amorim will be injury absences for Jorge Jesus. In Greece, star striker Kostas Mitroglou is out with a foot injury, while John van den Brom will miss Matías Suárez, Olivider Deschacht and Massimo Bruno.

source:  Group D 

  • Bayern Munich (Germany, 15 pts., first place) vs. Manchester City (England, 12 pts., second), Allianz Arena, Munich
  • Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic, 0 pts. fourth) vs. CSKA Moscow (Russia, 3 pts., third), Štruncovy Sady Stadium, Plzen

First place goes to … Bayern Munich with a result in Germany. Even if they lose, they can still finish first if they prevent Manchester City from fully reversing the 3-1 loss the Citizens suffered to the holders on Oct. 2. A one-goal loss still sees Bayern top this group.

Second place goes to … Bayern or City. The teams have clinched the group’s top two spots.

What to know: Bayern take a record 10-game UEFA Champions League winning streak into Tuesday’s game, form augmented by their 7-0 league result this weekend at Werder Bremen. They may be without Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweisteiger and Philipp Lahm, but as has been the case all year, injuries seem to have not effect on last year’s champion. There’s no question which team is the best in the world, and while City are only three points behind, there’s little reason to think they’ll end Bayern’s run. Manuel Pellegrini’s left looking for his first career win against Pep Guardiola without starters Yaya Touré (suspension) and Matija Nastasic (calf injury).

The group’s other game will determine the quartet’s Europa League spot, with CSKA holding a three-point advantage on Viktoria heading into Tuesday’s game. But although the Czech champions have yet to register a point this tournament, they can still claim third place, needing only to turn around October’s 3-2 loss in Russia to push Leonid Slutsky’s team into the cellar. With head coach Pavel Vrba set to take over the Czech national team after the game, Viktoria may be looking to send their boss off with a Champions League break through.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.

Wenger called ref Dean “not honest,” “a disgrace” to earn ban

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LONDON (AP) Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger accused a referee of being “not honest” and called him “a disgrace” in a rant inside the match officials’ changing room that led to a three-match touchline ban for one of English soccer’s most experienced coaches.

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

The English Football Association published Tuesday the written reasons behind its decision to ban Wenger for being abusive toward referee Mike Dean after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Dec. 31.

In his match report given to the FA, Dean said Wenger “was pointing aggressively at me saying, ‘You’re not honest’ on numerous occasions.” Dean then said Wenger said “you’ve done this to us many times before, you’re supposed to be professional, you’re a disgrace.”

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

Wenger had been incensed at Calum Chambers being penalized for a handball and West Brom converting the resulting penalty to equalize late in the game.

The FA said “there is simply no justification for this behavior” and considered a stadium ban for Wenger.

Wenger was also fined $54,200 for his conduct.

FA Cup: Leicester, West Ham survive replays to reach 4th round

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Two more Premier League sides reached the fourth round of the 2017-18 FA Cup on Tuesday, winning their respective replays and joining 10 other top-flight clubs already through to the next round…

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

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town

Kelechi Iheanacho moved to Leicester from Manchester City for $33 million this summer and has, through his first half-season in the East Midlands, failed to live up to that price tag. In nine PL appearances, he is yet to score his first league goal. Tuesday, however, saw the 21-year-old Nigerian international put forth a bit production and performance more befitting a player of his promise and pedigree.

Manager Claude Puel picked a side consisting of first-team regulars and lesser-used squad players for the Foxes FA Cup third-round replay against League One side Fleetwood Town. It was Iheanacho, who started alongside/just behind target man Islam Slimani, who shown brightest with a pair of goals, in the 43rd and 77th minutes, to send Leicester into the fourth round. Iheanacho’s second, the one that put the game away for Leicester, was originally ruled out for offside, but was eventually after consultation of the video-assistant referee.

Leicester will travel to League One side Peterborough in the fourth round, on Sat. Jan. 27.

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town

It took far longer than Hammers fans would have liked — or expected — but West Ham, over the course of 120 minutes, survived the Cupset bid of third-division Shrewsbury Town. With eight minutes remaining before Tuesday’s replay went to penalty kicks at the London Stadium, 21-year-old defender Reece Burke fired home from inside the box to break the scoreless deadlock.

West Ham will be away to the winner of the replay between Bournemouth and Wigan Athletic (Wednesday), on Sat. Jan. 27.

Elsewhere in FA Cup replay action

Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Wednesday’s FA Cup replay schedule

Chelsea vs. Norwich City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Swansea City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 2:45 p.m. ET
Wigan Athletic vs. Bournemouth — 2:45 p.m. ET

Report: Newcastle sale talks between Ashley, Staveley collapse

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Talks between Mike Ashley and Amanda Staveley over the much-desired and -rumored sale of Newcastle United are off, according to a report from Sky Sports and various other UK news outlets.

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

Sky has quoted a source close to Ashley as having said: “Attempts to reach a deal (with Staveley) have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time.” (Full quote below)

Ashley, the club’s current and long-beleaguered owner, has been seeking a potential buyer since putting the club up for sale back in October. Staveley emerged as the front-runner (the only runner, perhaps) in the days following Ashley’s announcement, and reportedly tabled an offer of $335 million in early December before reportedly offering something closer to $400 million a couple weeks later.

Ashley selling the club — and doing so before the end of the January transfer window, which now appears nigh impossible — appeared to be one the few scenarios in which Rafa Benitez would remain the Magpies’ manager beyond the end of the current Premier League season (Newcastle currently sit 15th, just three points clear of relegation) after constant rumors of his discontent and lack of financial backing last summer.