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:

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.

Referee leaders want on-field official to see video replays

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LONDON (AP) Antoine Griezmann headed the ball into the net and was in full celebration mode with his France teammates when referee Felix Swayer pinned a finger into his left ear to block out the stadium noise.

[ VIDEO: VAR system used correctly

An assistant in front of a bank of monitors was assessing replays and had some bad news for Griezmann. Swayer was told through his earpiece that a player was offside in the buildup.

The goal was then ruled out, without Swayer seeing a replay. But that won’t necessarily be the case by the time video replays are fully approved to be rolled out across soccer.

For now, the experimental phase is still in full flow but if refereeing leaders get their way officials should always have access to the footage themselves around the field.

“The subjective decisions should be made by the on-field referee because they have got the feel for the game,” Mike Riley, general manager of English refereeing organization, told The Associated Press. “They can put it in the context of everything else. So as part of the process we have got to work out how we can do that as effectively as possible … without interrupting the flow of the game.”

The International Football Association Board, the game’s lawmaking body, is in its second year of trials with various versions of video assistant referees (VAR). Some games, like the France-Spain friendly, do not allow the referee to evaluate incidents and instead by rely on the VAR.

But VAR could end up only ruling on what Riley describes as “decisions of fact,” such as whether a ball was inside or outside the penalty area.

Ultimately, if you are appointing one of the top referees to preside over a major game, that person is seen as ideal for making the big calls, according to IFAB.

“Fundamentally we are told very much by players and coaches they want the referee to be making the most important decisions,” IFAB technical director David Elleray said, referencing England’s top referee. “They don’t know who is in a van out in the car park or 300 miles away in a match center.”

Soccer’s lawmakers only envisage video replays being used to correct game-changing decisions involving four situations: penalties being awarded, red cards, cases of mistaken identity and goals being scored.

That situation arose twice in the Stade de France on Tuesday as France lost 2-0 to Spain. After Griezmann’s goal was disallowed, video replays worked against France again but in Spain’s favor when an incorrect offside call against Gerard Deulofeu was overturned and his goal stood.

Swayer again relied on the information from a colleague benefiting from replays.

“Nicola Rizzoli was appointed to referee the last World Cup final because he is the best referee,” Elleray said. “But if actually the two most important decisions in the match are made by somebody watching a TV screen … the most important person is the man you put behind the TV screen not the man on the field.”

The challenges are how referees are able to view replays without lengthening the delay. For now the technology isn’t satisfactory for officials to use wearable devices and receive footage in real time. That means going to the side of the field to watch incidents with the eyes of thousands of fans in the stands on them. The screens are likely to be on the opposite side to the technical area to avoid coaches being able to surround and harangue the referee.

“Some of our stadiums don’t lend themselves to monitors by the side of the pitch because they are really tight,” said Riley, a former Premier League referee who is now in charge of appointments for games in the world’s richest soccer competition. “Is it right for referees to have to run 30 yards to go and look? Can you get the footage to the referee on the field somehow? All these things have to be explored through the experiment and come out with a solution that works for football.”

Live experiments are taking place in about 20 competitions this year, including the Confederations Cup in Russia in June and July that will serves as a World Cup test event.

Once IFAB adds video replays to the laws of the game, any competition meeting the requirements will be able to use them.

For Riley, permitting replays is “the most significant change in refereeing in the game for generations,” far more significant than the 2012 decision to allow technology that simply determines whether the ball crossed the goal line.

“If you are making such a significant change,” Riley said, “you need to really explore and understand all the potential implications.”

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Amid fanfare, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrives in Chicago

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Arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, it is clear Bastian Schweinsteiger is kind of a big deal…

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Posing for photos with fans as he stepped off the flight with his wife, former Serbian tennis star Ana Ivanovic, the former Bayern Munich midfielder was mobbed by Chicago Fire fans who are delighted he has arrived in Major League Soccer as the newest Designated Player.

The German legend has completed his move from Manchester United to the Fire and will be officially unveiled to the media on Wednesday after signing a one-year deal.

[ MORE: Latest MLS news ]

Schweinsteiger, 32, has already had a training session in the books and the World Cup winner is expected to make his debut in Chicago’s home clash with the Montreal Impact on Saturday at Toyota Park.

Below is a video of Schweinsteiger’s arrival in Chicago, his first training session and a collection of photos he took with ecstatic Fire fans.