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.

Brighton 2-2 Stoke: Seagulls remain ninth thanks to Izquierdo’s equalizer

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Three Premier League newcomers remain in close contention with one another after 12 weeks, one of which picked up another positive result today.

[ MORE: Congested PL schedule challenges the big boys ]

Brighton & Hove Albion earned a 2-2 draw against Stoke City at the Amex Stadium on Monday after Jose Izquierdo’s persistence gave the home side the leveler in the 60th minute from Glenn Murray‘s clever pass inside the box.

The result made for Brighton’s sixth consecutive match unbeaten at home this season.

A back-and-forth first half saw the on-loan Chelsea defender give Stoke the lead heading into the halftime break after a disappointing spell of defending by Brighton allowed Zouma to finish of a corner kick.

Pascal Gross gave Brighton an equalizer one minute from halftime after Davy Propper had done superbly to create space for himself down the right wing.

The visitors struck in the 28th minute after Shaqiri delivered a perfect long ball into the path of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.

The Cameroonian proceeded to control the pass beautifully from his Stoke teammate, before tucking his shot from close range into the near corner past Brighton goalkeeper Maty Ryan.

Brighton thought they had the chance to level the score prior to the equalizer when the hosts appeared to have a penalty appeal after Murray went down inside the Stoke area. However, referee Lee Mason opted against spot kick.

The two sides will both be in action on Saturday when Brighton travels to Old Trafford to face Manchester United and Stoke takes on Crystal Palace.

At the half: Zouma’s header has Stoke in front against Brighton

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It’s been a wild one thus far at the Amex Stadium, and we’ve still got 45 minutes left to play.

Stoke City holds a 2-1 advantage against newcomer Brighton & Hove Albion after Kurt Zouma gave the visitors the lead on the stroke of halftime.

[ MORE: West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis ]

Zouma headed home close range in first-half stoppage time to restore the Potters’ advantage, after Pascal Gross had equalized in the 44th minute for Brighton.

Stoke opened the scoring just prior to the half hour mark when Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting finished off a stellar move that originated from a Xherdan Shaqiri long ball over the Brighton back line.

Brighton were fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men after Glenn Murray went in late on a challenge against Stoke defender Kevin Wimmer.

Murray thought he had won himself a penalty kick minutes prior, but referee Lee Mason decided to continue play.

Miguel Almiron named MLS Newcomer of the Year

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Unsurprisingly, one of Atlanta United’s biggest stars took home some hardware on Monday after a stellar first season in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS conference finals ]

Atlanta attacker Miguel Almiron was named MLS Newcomer of the Year today, beating out Chicago Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic and teammate Josef Martinez for the honor.

Almiron, who joined Atlanta from Argentine side Lanus, netted nine goals and added 14 assists for the Eastern Conference squad in 2017 and helped guide the club to the MLS Cup Playoffs after finishing fifth in the East.

The 23-year-old received an 37.38% average of the vote for the award, which was compiled based on votes from a combination of media members, MLS players and executives. Nikolic finished second with 24.92 percent, while Martinez checked in at number three.

Watch Live: Brighton and Hove Albion vs. Stoke City

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Chris Hughton looks to lead his Brighton and Hove Albion to a fifth-straight result as the Gulls welcome Stoke City to the Amex Stadium on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gulls have won two and drawn two, powered by goals from Glenn Murray and the playmaking of Pascal Gross.

Stoke’s 3-4-1-2 has Ramadan Sobhi, Eric Choupo-Moting, and Xherdan Shaqiri attacking the final third.

LINEUPS

Brighton and Hove Albion: Ryan, Bruno, Dunk, Duffy, Bong, Stephens, Propper, Knockaert, Izquierdo, Gross, Murray. Subs: Krul, Hemed, Goldson, Schelotto, Suttner, Brown.

Stoke City: Grant; Zouma, Shawcross, Wimmer; Diouf, Fletcher, Allen, Pieters; Shaqiri, Ramadan; Choupo-Moting. Subs: Haugaard; Berahino, Jese, Afellay, Martins Indi, Adam, Crouch.