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:

Javier Hernandez reflects on Premier League return

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Javier Hernandez is ready to get back to scoring goals in the Premier League.

If that happens, get ready to see plenty of Claret and Blue shirts with “Chicharito” on the back of them.

[ MORE: Where will Chicharito slot in? ]

Chicharito, 29, signed a three-year deal with the Hammers on Monday making him the best paid player in club history with wages of just over $180,000 per week. He won two Premier League titles in five seasons at Manchester United and is still lauded at Old Trafford for his crucial goals in big games with 59 goals in 157 appearances in all competitions.

Speaking to West Ham’s in-house TV channel, the El Tri star revealed exactly why he’s looking forward to a return to the PL.

“I am very excited. The last three years – the loan in Madrid and the two years with Leverkusen – were fantastic for me, and they helped me to improve a lot. But before then I was in England for four years – it was my first chapter in my European career – and now to be back makes me very happy,” Hernandez said.

“For me it is the most competitive in the world. There are no easy games, you can see that the top 10 can change a lot. The Premier League challenges you and that is why I am here – I want to improve. I’m very desperate for the season to start now, and help the team to achieve their objectives next season.”

West Ham’s objectives may have changed slightly after Slaven Bilic‘s side pushed through four new signings this summer and three in quick succession.

Chicharito has joined Marko Arnautovic and Joe Hart by signing for the east London club over the past 10 days, while Pablo Zabaleta had already arrived on a free transfer.

With vast PL and international experience in the four summer signings, Bilic’s aims have probably jumped from finishing in the top 10 to pushing for seventh place and the final Europa League spot. The Hammers finished last season strongly after a poor start which was them compounded by failing to settle into their new London Stadium home, the Dimtri Payet saga and then multiple defensive injuries.

Chicharito has the fifth-best goals per minute ratio in Premier League history so in theory combining his predatory skills with the creativity of Manuel Lanzini, Arnautovic and Michail Antonio should work very well indeed.

Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer hasn’t slowed down his production in the Bundesliga over the past two seasons, scoring 28 goals in 54 league appearances for Leverkusen and his displays in recent 2018 World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup proved his movement is as sharp as ever.

The Hammers have gambled on Chicharito providing the goals to help them challenge for Europe once again and on paper it looks like a smart bet.

Ronald Koeman confirms Ross Barkley to leave Everton

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Ronald Koeman has confirmed that Ross Barkley will not play for Everton.

[ MORE: Mbappe to Man City? ]

Barkley, 23, has just one year left on his current deal at Everton but the playmaker has turned down a new deal with his boyhood club and Koeman revealed he wants a “new challenge” elsewhere.

When asked if he was certain Barkley would leave Koeman replied “100 percent” but he did state that there aren’t any offers on the table as things stand.

Ahead of Everton’s UEFA Europa League third qualifying round firs leg against MFK Ruzomberok at Goodison Park on Thursday, Koeman revealed the new about Barkley. 

“His personal situation is not so difficult. We made a really good offer to him to sign a new contract and he declined that contract and he told me he is looking for a new challenge,” Koeman said. “It is not Everton’s future anymore. It is his decision. I need to respect that and we will see what happens because what I heard from the board at the moment, it’s not really an offer on the table for Ross.”

The England international is currently recovering from surgery on his groin and is expected to be out until the end of August.

With Davy Klaassen, Wayne Rooney and Sandro Ramirez arriving this summer, plus the Toffees pushing hard to sign Gylfi Sigurdsson from Swansea City, it’s not difficult to see why Barkley sees his future elsewhere and the enigmatic attacking midfielder was criticized by Koeman on multiple occasions last season.

Where could Barkley go?

Tottenham and Arsenal are destinations which keep cropping up but neither are likely to spend over $30 million to bring him to north London and neither are exactly short of playmaking midfielders. It’s probably right that Barkley, once the brightest hope of English soccer, gets a fresh start elsewhere as his contract situation has left the fanbase, and Koeman, more than a little frustrated over the past 12 months.

After losing his starting spot with the English national team to Dele Alli over the past year, plus his regular spot at Everton under severe threat, Barkley’s career is reaching a pivotal stage.

The young talent who burst onto the scene ahead of the 2014 World Cup was supposed to be the next Rooney but his career is in real danger of petering out if he doesn’t find the right club to fit his talents and help him regain his form. The talent is there with Barkley but many, including Koeman, have questioned his commitment to truly realize his potential.

Jose Mourinho slams “dangerous” summer of spending

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Manchester United’s manager isn’t happy with the amount of money being spent this summer in the transfer market.

[ MORE: Mbappe to Man City?  

He has spent $156 million on just two players, but we will leave that fact to one side, like Jose has, for the moment…

Speaking in Washington D.C. ahead of United’s final game of their U.S. tour against Barcelona on Wednesday, Mourinho defended United breaking the world transfer record to sign Paul Pogba last summer and then spending a total which could rise to $117 million on Romelu Lukaku this summer.

“Every club is getting good players, every club is investing a lot and some clubs are paying too much and by paying too much they create a very strange and out of control market,” Mourinho told the BBC. “But this is the reality now. I always thought the problem is not what you pay for these kind of (top) players, I don’t think the problem is what you pay for Pogba, I don’t think the problem is going to pay crazy for Neymar.

“I think the problem is with the other group which is a big group because players like Pogba, there is one or two (big) transfers (like that) per transfer window. The other ones are where you have 100 transfers and for me that is the dangerous area of the market. Some clubs are paying or they don’t buy because they don’t accept the numbers that are now ruling the market, or to do it they have to go the same levels and for me that’s what worries me a little bit because now we speak about £30million, £40million, £50million in such an easy way.”

Has he got a point?

The elite players will always demand the biggest fees with the likes of Messi, Pogba, Lukaku, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez rightly demanding huge sums given their output of goals and assists. Yet when defensive players are being bought for over $65 million, e.g. Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy at Manchester City, that’s when eyebrows being to raise.

Of course, Mourinho is throwing stones from inside a glass house because United have been big spenders for quite some time and although they aren’t shelling out the sums Manchester City could for Kylian Mbappe this summer and what Chelsea have over the last 15 years in their dramatic rebuild under Roman Abramovich, they have still spent almost $900 million in transfer fees alone over the past four seasons.

Mourinho has spent over $341 million on new players since arriving last summer…

Yes, he has got a point that good to very good players are now costing more than world-class players did five years ago, but the main debate here is whether or not these fees are sustainable. The answer is, probably not, and Mourinho wants to let United’s fans know he won’t pay over the odds as he intimates crosstown rivals Man City are…

The mind games never end with Jose.

Pep Guardiola gives update on Kylian Mbappe interest

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Pep Guardiola has given an intriguing update on Manchester City’s pursuit of Kylian Mbappe.

[ PHOTOS: Man City’s new away kit ]

With reports in Spain stating that Real Madrid had agreed a $208 million deal for the 18-year-old striker, Man City and others were still said to be pushing hard to sign the French international with the Premier League side waiting to hear back from Monaco.

Speaking in Los Angeles ahead of City’s International Champions Cup game against Real Madrid on Wednesday, Guardiola revealed he hasn’t given up hope of signing the powerful forward.

“The player is still at Monaco – still on that team,” Guardiola said via the Manchester Evening News. “Anything can happen – we are still looking at a lot of other players, but he is still on that team. The Premier League is so attractive and the agreements are good. All the clubs think about their potential and their squads getting better. We try and we will see. Now there is a period where there are a lot of doubts in terms of the players who are here and who will be here or not. We have to wait and meanwhile prepare the team as well as possible.”

Pep has just left enough there to suggest City hope they can lure Mbappe to the Etihad Stadium. He also insisted they can compete financially with Real Madrid and Europe’s superpowers when it comes to spending.

“Madrid doesn’t have more than Manchester City have,” Guardiola said. “Players are very important and we always try to get the best players possible. Abu Dhabi came in and invested in the team. Over the past five or six years we climbed to the top and we’re now in the top three or four. In order to get to the level of Madrid or Barcelona we just need time.”

So, they need time and to keep splashing the cash.

City have already spent over $255 million this summer, bringing in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Ederon and Danilo in the largest spending spree in one transfer window the Premier League has ever seen.

If they can somehow lure Mbappe to Manchester (maybe linking up with former Monaco teammates Silva and Mendy will give them the edge) it boggles to mind to see where and how Guardiola will slot him into the side. Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling are all fighting for the front three positions, plus Bernardo Silva is now in the mix with David Silva in a deeper midfield role.

Mbappe — who scored 26 goals last season as Monaco won Ligue 1 and reached the UEFA Champions League semifinals — was said to be worried about moving to Real Madrid due to a lack of chances playing in the first team, but with these kind of offers flying around for him he shouldn’t be too worried about playing time.

Even though he’s only been on the scenes for one season, Mbappe showed enough potential for Monaco to suggest he will challenge the glut of stars Real Madrid, Man City and others possess.