Will United surge towards the top four with 14 games to go?

UEFA Champions League Preview: Talent not the issue for Manchester United against Olympiacos

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Between league, cups, and Europe, Manchester United has already lost 10 times since David Moyes took over, and while many of those defeats have come against teams more talented than the Red Devils’ Tuesday opponents, Olympiacos’s mere two loses force us to reconsider our assumptions. There’s supposed to be a huge divide between the quality needed to compete in the Premier League and a squad that can claim Greece’s Super League, but given United’s stumbling outside of England’s Champions League spots while Olympiacos has a 20-point lead in Greece, the contrast is not so clear. With the Greek champions’ only defeats during the 2013-14 campaign coming against French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, the assumed gap between United and their Tuesday hosts may not exist.

“United are a top-class team and I will not comment on their form,” Olympiacos head coach Michel said about the Red Devils’ stumbles under Moyes. The Spain-born boss eventually relented, conceded United’s league form is not completely irrelevant. “They cannot afford to make any errors given their position in the Premier League. We also can’t afford to give anything less than 100 percent.”

But what does 100 percent get Olympiacos, particularly given the club’s willingness let their most dangerous player, Kostas Mitroglou, leave for Fulham in the January window (albeit for $20 million)?  Young Costa Rican international Joel Campbell represents a point of danger up top, as does the recently acquired Nelson Valdez, who will be able to compensate for the absence of the injured Javier Saviola. But throughout the rest of the team, their lack the talent is still evident when compare to the considerable names at Moyes’ disposal.

[MORE: Premier League Playback: Rooney’s revolution at Manchester United, Everton slides, top teams accelerate]

Among those names is Wayne Rooney, who celebrated a new contract that pays him in excess of $25 million per year with a wonderfully volleyed goal at Crystal Palace. The England international is complemented by Dutch forward Robin Van Persie, with the likes of midfielder Michael Carrick and goalkeeper David de Gea adding to the list of enviable talents likely to feature in Moyes’ Wednesday XI. Position-for-position, whether we’re talking about Ashley Young (who will likely start in place of the cup-tied Juan Mata) or Darren Fletcher (a potential choice along side Carrick in the middle), Moyes will start 11 players who would start of Olympiacos, making the Red Devils decisive favorites if we were to judge this match up on talent alone.

But talent hasn’t been United’s problem. Results have. Though critics continue to (perhaps correctly) harp on a midfield that can’t match up against Europe’s elites, United still enter a vast majority of its games as the most talented team on the field. It’s Moyes’s inability to translate that talent into results has defined the campaign, one that’s likely to leave United outside Champions League for the first Premier League era.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Preview: Zenit sees opportunity against Borussia Dortmund]

That’s where the teams’ 2013-14 records becomes particularly informative. Olympiacos may have an easy time of it in Greece, but in a Champions League group that also included Anderlecht, Benfica, and Paris Saint-Germain, they only lost to the high-powered Parisians, sending the favored Portuguese to Europa League. In that sense, Michel’s team’s transcending their talent, having reached the final 16 when few thought they’d get out of their group. Even before being drawn against United, Olympiacos showed they can transcend the names on the teamsheet.

In contrast, though they have been impressive against Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk in Champions League, Manchester United has spent the better part of the season playing down to their opponents’ level, as evidenced by their 10 losses. Though they are rightly considered favorites ahead of Tuesday’s kickoff, these new Red Devils have shown a new tendency to play beneath that role. Combine that pattern with a trip to face an Olympiacos team that’s not accustomed to losing, and it’s enough to wonder if a Mata-less United can carry over the form they exhibited this weekend against Crystal Palace.

LIVE – Europa League play-offs: West Ham within reach of group stage

STRATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Reece Oxford of West Ham United and Elvis Bratanovic of NK Domzale in action during the UEFA Europa League Qualification round match between West Ham United and NK Domzale at London Stadium on August 4, 2016 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the UEFA Europa League play-off round takes place on Thursday with the final 22 places in the group stage

West Ham United are drawing 1-1 from their first leg in Romania against Astra Giurgiu, the team who knocked them out in the qualifying rounds last season.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ] 

Slaven Bilic‘s men have a vital away goal and will fancy their chances of getting past Astra this time  as the second leg takes place at their new home at the London Stadium.

Plenty of the 22 ties hang in the balance with Shakhtar Donetsk, Sparta Prague and Olympiakos all with a little work to do to secure their spot in the next stage.

Premier League sides Southampton and Manchester United have already qualified for the Europa League group stage and the draw to decide their opponents will take place in Monaco on Friday.

Below is the full schedule for the second legs which take place on Thursday, while you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.


Europa League schedule 

FK Qarabag vs. IFK Goteborg (0-1)
Brondby vs. Panathinaikos (0-3)
Grashoppers vs. Fenerbache (0-3)
Rosenborg vs. Austria Wien (1-2)
Slovan Liberec vs. AEK Larnaca (1-0)
Partizan Tirana vs. FC Krasnodar (0-4)
PAOK vs. Dinamo Tblisi (3-0)
Genk vs. NK Lokomotiva (2-2)
Osmanlispor vs. Midtjylland (1-0)
Sparta Prague vs. Sonderjyske (0-0)
West Ham United vs. Astra Giurgiu (1-1)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (1-2)
AZ Alkmaar vs. Vojvodina (0-3)
Anderlecht vs. Slavia Prague (3-0)
BATE Borisov vs. Astana (2-0)
FK Shkendija vs. Gent (1-2)
Hajduk Split vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv (1-2)
NK Maribor vs. Gabala (1-3)
Red Star Belgrade vs. Sassuolo (0-3)
St Etienne vs. Beitar Jerusalem (2-1)
Olympiakos vs. Arouca (1-0)
Rapid Wien vs. Trencin (4-0)

Sturridge complains about playing out wide; Klopp responds

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06:  Substitute Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool walks to the bench past Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Liverpool at St James' Park on December 6, 2015 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Daniel Sturridge isn’t too happy to be playing out wide.

[ MORE: Bravo signs for Man City ]

He’s said it many times in the past (most noticeably during his time at Chelsea) and the Liverpool forward said it again following their 5-0 win over Burton Albion in the EFL Cup in midweek.

Sturridge, 26, came on as a second half sub for Jurgen Klopp‘s side and scored twice.

[ MORE: Boufal to Saints ]

However, speaking to reporters after the game the man who usually plays as a central striker had the following to say about playing in a wide position.

“Of course it is more difficult for me to play wide,” Sturridge said. “I’m a center-forward. I have to do a job for the team. That’s not saying I am happy to do it. That’s saying I have got to do a job for the team. It’s a team game. If I am put in that position, I have to play there.”

Tell us how you really feel, Daniel.

Yet Klopp, speaking on Thursday in his press conference ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports) effortlessly diffused what could’ve been a sticky situation for Sturridge.

“It wasn’t a fixed position. Daniel is a very smart player,” said Klopp. “He’s good at getting himself into positions where it’s not easy to defend. There is absolutely no problem.”

Okay, so everyone is cool. Fair enough.

You do get the lingering feeling that Klopp may have a quiet word with Sturridge behind closed doors in the next day or so as these kind of complaints from a star player should really go to the manager first before he speaks publicly about them.

Sturridge is a passionate player who can often be seen showing his frustration on the pitch as his winning desire sometimes gets the better of him.

That’s obviously the case for certain media interviews too.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Zaha to Spurs, Lucas to Arsenal

West Bromwich Albion v Crystal Palace - Premier League
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Sky Sports is reporting that Tottenham Hotspur have made a $21 million bid for Wilfried Zaha and are in talks with Crystal Palace.

Zaha, 23, is in his second spell with the Eagles after returning to Selhurst Park in 2015 following his $13 million move to Manchester United not working out.

[ MORE: Bravo signs for City ]

The pacey winger has reportedly told Alan Pardew he wants to leave Palace and is obviously keen on being part of Spurs’ squad which will take part in the UEFA Champions League group stages this season.

Productivity is the main issue with Zaha but he did score five goals and addes seven assists across 43 games in all competitions last season as Palace reached the FA Cup final and started brightly in the Premier League but then faded badly to just stave off relegation.

With Christian Benteke arriving for a club-record $41.5 million last week, Palace may be interested in getting some of that money back but Pardew has already sold Yannick Bolasie to Everton for $37.5 million this summer and although he has Andros Townsend around, he is unlikely to be happy about losing another pacey and direct winger who can provide crossed for Benteke to finish.

As for Spurs, Zaha would provide some much-needed pace out wide. In the current system Mauricio Pochettino has Harry Kane and Vincent Janssen in a two-man forward line with Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen breaking forward from midfield to support them. However talented those players are, Pochettino may be looking for extra pace on the break, especially late in games, and Zaha has that in abundance.


A battle is brewing for Deportivo La Coruna forward Lucas Perez Martinez.

The Spanish forward, 27, is reportedly subject to two bids from both Everton and Arsenal. The latter are said to be closing in on $22.5 million transfer, with the BBC reporting that Arsenal are deemed the favorites for his signature.

[ MORE: Solo ban about more than comments ]

Known simply as Lucas, the striker scored 17 goals in 36 La Liga appearances last season and could be the answer to Arsene Wenger‘s problems up top. Wenger has pursued Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette all summer long but the French club are demanding over $55 million from the Gunners. Lucas would be a much cheaper option and the journeyman (he’s spent time in Greece, Ukraine and Spain with five different teams) was prolific in a Deportivo team which finished in 15th place in Spain’s top-flight. Given service by Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, he could be deadly.


Joe Hart, 29, will not be moving to Everton according to Ronald Koeman.

Everton’s manager was asked about Hart’s availability on Thursday and the Dutchman emphatically denied reports linking the Manchester City goalkeeper with a loan move to Goodison Park.

“No interest,” was the blunt response from Koeman and after Hart played, captained and kept a clean sheet for City in their 1-0 win over Steaua Bucharest in their UCL second leg play-off game on Wednesday, it looks like he is now in an awkward situation.

Hart was lauded by City’s fans throughout the game but with Claudio Bravo arriving from Barcelona on Thursday it seems like England’s first-choice goalkeeper could now be third-choice at Man City after Pep Guardiola preferred veteran Willy Caballero to him.

With Everton no interested, plus reports of loan moves to Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund going quiet, it appears Hart’s options are limited. If he wants to stay in the PL, perhaps Liverpool is his only option among the clubs who are expected to be challenging for the top four and beyond.

Manchester City confirm $22.5 million signing of Claudio Bravo

FOXBORO, MA - JUNE 10:  Claudio Bravo #1 of Chile passes the ball during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Group D match between Chile and Bolivia in the first half at Gillette Stadium on June 10, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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It’s done.

Claudio Bravo, 33, has signed a four-year contract at Manchester City as the club announced his $22.5 million transfer from Barcelona on Thursday.

[ MORE: Saints close to Boufal deal ]

Bravo flew in to Manchester earlier this week and Pep Guardiola finally has the goalkeeper he’s been craving as he revealed the Chilean international is someone “he’s admired for a number of years.”

With Joe Hart given the cold shoulder and veteran Willy Caballero handed the starting spot in goal for City’s first two Premier League games of the season, it always seemed likely that a goalkeeper was lined up.

[ MORE: Solo ban about much more ]

Speaking to the club website about his move to City after spending the last two seasons at Barcelona, Bravo is looking forward to the challenge ahead.

“I’m very proud to be joining Manchester City. I know the Club is building something very special and I hope I can be part of many successes in the coming years,” Bravo said. “I have followed City’s progress in recent years and obviously know some of my new team-mates from the Copa America.

“It is not easy to leave a club like Barcelona where I had two fantastic years, but the opportunity to work with Pep Guardiola was too good to refuse. Now I will challenge the other great goalkeepers the Club has and together I hope we can win many trophies.”

So, now the picture is even clearer for Hart as despite Bravo claiming he is at the Etihad Stadium to “challenge the other great goalkeepers” they have, we all know he is the new numero uno. Hart will have to find a move elsewhere if he wants to play regularly but his options are running out with Everton’s manager Ronald Koeman saying they are no interested in signing Hart.

Over the last two seasons Bravo has split time with Marc-Andre ter Stegen at Barca but the man who has already made 100 appearances for Chile and has won back-to-back Copa America titles is now ready to be a bonafide star as he enters the prime of his career.

Comfortable with the ball at his feet and a sublime shot-stopper, Bravo’s acquisition is another key moment in Guardiola’s masterplan at City.

The Spanish coach has now spent $260 million on John Stones, Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito, Marlos Moreno, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bravo this summer.

Four games into Pep’s tenure as City’s boss the Citizens are perfect with four wins as they’ve qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stages.