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.

Roma-Chelsea reports could see Dzeko, Batshuayi… and Sturridge on the move

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Here’s a wild rumor out of Italy, as Gianluca Di Marzio has UEFA Champions League Round of 16 sides Chelsea and Roma working out a big transfer.

[ MORE: PST chats with Dzeko in July ]

Again, before we lay it out, we know that both clubs would not be able to use Cup-tied players in the UCL and that gives the rumor its unrealistic bent.

Chelsea reportedly is willing to send $62 million and striker Michy Batshuayi on loan to Roma in exchange for Edin Dzeko and Emerson Palmeiri. Reports say Roma is holding out for another $20 million, potentially add-ons.

Dzeko isn’t producing at his otherworldly rate of last season, but is far and away i Lupi’s leading scorer and bagged a brace against Chelsea in the UCL. And Batshuayi scored in Chelsea’s first two matches of the tournament.

There is something to the rumor, at least in terms of Emerson. The London Evening Standard quotes the player’s agent as saying talks are ongoing and the move is a “dream” one for Emerson, who is behind Aleksandar Kolarov on the left back depth chart since returning from injury.

Roma would need a UCL-eligible center forward, as Czech youngster Patrik Schick has been unable to find his scoring boots since a summer move from Sampdoria. Football Italia says, sensationally, that Roma would use some of the money to pry Daniel Sturridge from Liverpool.

Maybe the Emerson move goes through, but the striker swap feels like a headscratcher for Dzeko and Chelsea.

Pardew the latest to scratch head at transfer fees

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West Bromwich Albion manager Alan Pardew is the latest to find himself baffled at the prices on the transfer market.

To be fair to the Englishman, 56, it doesn’t sound like he’s raving in ‘old man yelling at the sky’ fashion. Rather he thinks the numbers are hard for fans to gauge and perhaps it’s causing a disconnect.

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And for him, at least, it’s a challenge to sort out whether the prices he’s being quoted are reasonable relative to the market. That makes sense, considering that as Newcastle boss in 2012 he sold Fraser Forster to Celtic for about $3 million and PSG bought Yohan Cabaye — then 28 — from him for $26 million.

Both fees would be a little different right now, we think (from the BBC).

“It’s difficult with the prices now to gauge what’s good value,” Pardew said. “We live in a hyper-inflated world because of the TV money received by the football clubs. Therefore, transfers and wages are going way out of kilter with real life. I think we’re all losing the plot with the figures. It’s just becoming, ‘Oh okay,’ and not even reacting to things any more.”

Now, to play devil’s advocate, if Pardew is actually just old man yelling at the sky, he’d better get out of the manager’s box. The fees aren’t changing for top clubs, which is why Jonny Evans is at risk from a Man City bid but not Newcastle United or Crystal Palace. And the TV money he talks about is going to allow clubs like WBA to hold onto players by offering better wages if they choose that route.

But it’s a fair sentiment regarding how to gauge these numbers. While it’s usually a bit laughable when fans and writers estimate whether clubs have paid too much or sold for too little, managers and administrators risk looking foolish if they agree too low or too high a fee relative to other teams.

Stanford’s Andi Sullivan is the No. 1 pick in NWSL draft

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The Washington Spirit have selected midfielder Andi Sullivan out of Stanford with the first pick in the National Women’s Soccer League draft on Thursday.

Stanford won the NCAA College Cup championship last season. Sullivan scored in the 3-2 Cardinal victory over UCLA. She also won the Mac Hermann Trophy for the nation’s best soccer player.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 24  ]

Sullivan has made seven appearances with the U.S. national team and has been called into January training camp as the team begins to prepare for World Cup qualifying in the fall.

The Spirit also had the third overall pick, which they used to select midfielder Rebecca Quinn out of Duke.

The Boston Breakers took forward Savannah McCaskill out of South Carolina with the No. 2 overall pick.

The day also featured a number of high-profile trades, including a deal between the Reign and the Royals that sent midfielder Diana Matheson to Utah in exchange for veteran defender Yael Averbuch.

Stoke City adds versatile Greek left-sided man on loan

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New Stoke City boss Paul Lambert is tasked with shoring up a defense which has been bottom half in goals allowed for several seasons, and has made his first move.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 24  ]

Kostas Stafylidis is a 24-year-old left-sided player with 22 Greek caps to his name, but he’s fallen out of favor at Bundesliga side Augsburg and managed just 31 minutes this season.

He’ll head on loan to the Potteries, where he’ll attempt to aid the leakiest side in the Premier League. Stoke’s 50 goals allowed are eight more than its closest competitor (Watford).

Stafylidis has played left back and left mid for club and country, though he had his most league success last season at left back. He scored four goals and was rated Augsburg’s best field player by WhoScored and its top player overall by Squawka.

And he wants to be there (from StokeCityfc.com):

“As soon as I heard I told my agent directly that I wanted this move,” he added. “I left it to him then, he spoke to the Club more, and then to the trainer and we all wanted to make this move happen. It is good for me, it is good for the Club to bring me here for five months and I am very happy about that.”