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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.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET