UEFA Champions League Preview: Paris Saint-Germain opens knockout round at Bayer Leverkusen

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The current version of Paris Saint-Germain has never been coy about its ambitions, but playing in the relative shadows of French soccer, one of the wealthiest and most talented teams in the world escapes the European headlines that dwell on Spain’s big two, the chaos and commotion in England, and the region’s current juggernaut in Munich. It’s only during Champions League that we remember PSG has two of the world’s top strikers, it’s best defender, and a recently strengthened midfield that already proved its worth while pushing Barcelona to the limit in last year’s competition. Until they break through and knock one of Europe’s elite out of this tournament, Paris Saint-Germain will remain a dark horse, but they’re still a dark horse you don’t want to face. The Spanish champions were lucky to get by them last season.

Whether PSG can go one step further and derail one of UEFA’s elites this year will be answered in another round. Beginning the knockout round on the road against Bayer Leverkusen, Laurent Blanc’s team got one of the easiest draws possible. As a result, their Round of 16 will be less of a test of their continental mettle than a chance to show how much distance they’ve put between themselves as a median Champions League qualifier. Bayer may be second in the German Bundesliga, but they’ll be decidedly out-classed by the Parisians.

That is a harsh assessment, sure, but consider how Leverkusen performed in group stage, where being drawn in a group with Manchester United as its one-seed gave Sami Hyypia’s team a chance to challenge for top honors. Instead, against a Red Devils team that has rarely impressed under David Moyes, Bayer lost both games by a combined 9-2. Where United has spent the season looking incapable of getting production that matches their talent, they scored no fewer than four goals in their two games against Bayer.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Preview: Barcelona, Manchester City meet in round’s marquee matchup]

Paris Saint-Germain is a much better team than Manchester United. While Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney can match the Parisians’ attacking duo of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, Blanc can also choose from Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura, Javier Pastore, and Jeremy Menez in attack. With Cavani having missed the last three weeks, that depth will be put to good use. The winter addition of Yohan Cabaye complements Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta to form a midfield that can compete with the competition’s best, while a back line led by Thiago Silva has given up only 16 goals in 25 games this year in Ligue 1. If Bayer couldn’t compete with Manchester United, there’s little reason to think they’ll have better luck against PSG.

A devil’s advocate would look at Bayer’s attacking trio — Stefan Kießling, Sidney Sam, and Heung-Min Son — and break out the puncher’s change cliché. Unfortunately for Hyypia, an attack that can’t match PSG’s is the best thing his team has going for it, with a central defense of Emir Saphic and Philipp Wollscheid unlikely to slow down an in-form Ibrahimovic (33 goals in last 27 games for club and country). Having lost twice in the last six days, Bayer also enter Tuesday’s game in a slump.

So why bother with this game, particularly with the festivities in Manchester? Nobody’s saying you should, but given the inherent variability the the sport, everything written above may prove wrong. Luck may shine on Bayer, PSG’s goals may dry up, the Hyypia’s team might pull an upset in leg one. Despite the inevitability we’re cast on PSG winning this tie, a win by Leverkusen on Tuesday would make any lists of the greatest upsets in Champions League history.

More readily, however, you’ll watch this game to see if Paris Saint-Germain is ready. Even on the road, they have an opportunity to put this tie away early, and by doing so show they may be more than mere dark horses. Put in a convincing performance in Germany, and PSG will remind the field that they are one of the most talented teams in the world.

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.

David Moyes faces FA charges after being sent off during EFL Cup

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David Moyes and Sunderland have gotten off to one of the worst starts in Premier League history.

If they fail to earn a point against Arsenal this weekend, they will tie the 1995-96 Manchester City team for the worst start ever through 10 matches with two points.

It appears those frustrations carried over to the EFL Cup for Moyes. On Wednesday, the manager was forced to leave the dugout toward the end of Sunderland’s 1-0 loss to Southampton after he protested a no-call from referee Chris Kavanagh.

Moyes was charged by the FA for his protests, saying the manager “used abusive and/or insulting words towards a match official”.

It’s just another thing to add to Moyes’ plate as he looks to keep Sunderland’s hopes of safety alive in the Premier League.