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.

Preview: Everton v. Newcastle

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  • Everton have won seven of their last eight games v Newcastle
  • Newcastle have won four PL games in a row
  • Wayne Rooney has more goals (15) against Newcastle than any other PL team

Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both setting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game

The Toffees sit in ninth, with Newcastle in 10th and just one point behind Everton with a game in hand. Rafael Benitez has been lauded for taking his newly-promoted side into the top 10 with defensive solidity, while Sam Allardyce has been lambasted for a defensive style of play despite getting Everton out of a relegation fight following his appointment back in November.

In team news Everton have Mason Holgate and Gylfi Sigurdsson out injured, while Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu but Islam Slimani could make his first start.


What they’re saying 

Sam Allardyce on the job Rafael Benitez has done at Newcastle: “From a difficult period they have managed to recover and get in the Premier League and they have turned it around. They have put together a run of games and we’ll see a better Newcastle than we saw up there [when Everton won 1-0 in December]. Rafa has progressed very well. He has always expressed his disappointment with not enough funds – we can all say we don’t have enough funds. What he has managed with the funds he has, particularly in the January months, has been excellent.”

Rafael Benitez on his Newcastle future: “I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time. I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.”

Prediction
Two teams who are very similar in terms of their style of play should see a bit of a stalemate take place at Goodison. 1-1 draw, which is a much better result for Newcastle and will pile more pressure on Big Sam.

Paul Pogba: “Transfers are not in my head”

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Paul Pogba has been discussing his future at Manchester United beyond this season.

The Frenchman delivered a stunning assist in United’s 2-1 win against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, with the midfielder now named Man of the Match in each of his last two games after plenty of speculation about his future at United in recent months.

Jose Mourinho left Pogba out of his starting lineup on multiple occasions, while Pep Guardiola claims he was offered to buy Pogba in January and speculation about him joining Paris Saint-Germain, going back to Juventus or heading to Real Madrid continue.

Speaking to French outlet Canal Football Club, Pogba had the following to say about his own future.

“Right now, I am at Manchester United and I am honestly only thinking about the present. Transfers are not in my head. We are in the [FA] Cup final and the World Cup is around the corner,” Pogba said.

Pogba also addressed the rumors regarding his relationship with Mourinho with reports stating that the duo do not get along and United’s manager is fed up with the Frenchman’s attitude off the pitch.

“I don’t have a problem with him, and I don’t think he has a problem with me,” Pogba said. “He’s the coach and he has to make choices. I am a player and I accept them. I have to answer on the pitch.”

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

Serena Morones/The Oregonian via AP
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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United