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

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Barcelona’s recent Champions League success casts it as favorites in many’s eyes, but that should give the team little solace come Tuesday night at the Etihad. Slotted with Manchester City in UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16, the four-time champions drew the toughest opponent from those that finished second in their groups. While City boss Manuel Pellegrini placates himself knowing his Citizens would have to beat a Barça-caliber opponent at some point, an semifinal-quality matchup guarantees one of the tournament’s best teams will be eliminated over the course of the next two weeks.

With four players in the FIFpro World XI, Barcelona is likely the more talented side, making this one of the few times this season City can claimed to be outgunned. But to the extent that Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and the rest of the Catalan side have that edge, City still have the firepower to compete. With the likes of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, and David Silva, the Citizens have players that will ensure planning, execution, and health — not talent, alone — will settle this tie.

Yet while their guests will come into the first game of the teams’ two-legged tie at full strength, City will still be without their most dangerous player. Attacker Sergio Agüero will miss his chance to take on close friend Messi, with hamstring injury continuing to sideline the Argentine international. While midfielder Fernandinho, having yet to appear in February, has been deemed fit for the match, Edin Dzeko or Silva will likely claim Agüero’s spot along side forward Álvaro Negredo.

Barcelona, in contrast, have all their key players available. Neymar, out for a month with an ankle injury, returned this weekend. Xavi has been battling a calf problem but will play on Tuesday. Andrés Iniesta is approaching 100 percent, while the health of Carles Puyol means Gerado Martino the Barcelona head coach will be able to start his first choice back four. Coming off a 6-0 win this weekend in La Liga, Barcelona appear to have hit their stride as Champions League resumes.

That stride, and the health that goes along with it, will demand a few key choices from Martino. With Xavi, Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets all available, Cesc Fábregas will be pushed to the bench despite enjoying his best season since his time at Arsenal. Likewise, the health of Neymar means one of Alexis Sanchez or Pedro Rodríguez could sit, despite the duo having accounted for 28 league goals. On the road to start the tie, though, Martino may elect to keep the young Brazilian in reserve.

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

With Martino having already said possession will play a key part on Tuesday, the pressure will be on Touré and Fernandinho to withstand the numeric disadvantage the Citizens will have in the middle. Between Xavi and Iniesta, Messi dropping back and Busquets serving as the anchor, Barcelona has the potential to overwhelm City in the middle, even if the home team plays more of a 4-2-3-1 formation without Agüero (as opposed to their normal 4-4-2). While it’s not uncommon for City’s duo to have to play 2-on-3 in the middle, they never have to do so against Barça’s three.

Perhaps as important as the match ups, mentality could have a decisive impact on how the first leg unfolds. Unfortunately for  spectators, each team has an incentive to play conservatively in game one. For Barcelona, a draw on the road will be seen as a success, leaving them within a home win of the quarterfinals. Manchester City might look at the same situation as a chance to go to Spain, try to strike first, and use that lead and their road goal to see out the upset. Rather than try to play their normal style — one that would leave their defense exposed to Barcelona — Pellegrini may evoke some of his previous Champions League squads and try a more opportunistic approach.

Regardless, Barcelona’s experience against Paris Saint-Germain in last year’s tournament could prove informative, particularly against a City team that’s never been this far in Champions League. In last year’s quarterfinals, the Parisians arguably outplayed the Catalans but went out on away goals, Barcelona’s experience able to guide them past one of UEFA’s emerging threats. If City can learn PSG’s lessons and not merely content themselves with outplaying their opponents, the Citizens capable of springing the upset Pellegrini’s Málaga nearly pulled on Borussia Dortmund last year. Otherwise, Barcelona’s ability to navigate Champions League may see them past another European upstart.

More on Barcelona’s visit to Manchester City:

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.