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.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.

Win over Las Palmas again has La Real on edge of CL spot

GETAFE, SPAIN - DECEMBER 11:  Xavi Prieto of Real Sociedad in action during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium on December 11, 2015 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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All it took was one mistake. Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto capitalized, and has La Real once again on the verge of next year’s Champions League.

La Real finished 7th in 2013/14, and 9th in 2015/16, and this year, they’re closer than ever. Preito’s goal on the mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas gave Real Sociedad the 1-0 road win and has them just a point off a Champions League place.

[ MORE: Antonio Conte pulling from experience to keep Chelsea on top ]

That could be even closer next week, as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid has to welcome Barcelona to the Calderon tomorrow, leaving the door open for La Real to make another move next weekend.

The goal down the stretch is not just to win the games they should, but make the teams above them work. La Real has won seven of their last ten matches, but the three losses came to Real Madrid, Villareal, and Sevilla, all teams fighting at the top of the table. They still have chances down the stretch, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Eibar coming up, with the latter on the docket next weekend.

Conte pulling from prior experience as title race pushes on

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on February 18, 2017 in Wolverhampton, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has recalled some painful memories to push himself and his players forward despite their commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Chelsea sits eight points clear of Manchester City, and has the chance to go even further in front with many of the top teams off this weekend, but that won’t give the Italian any better sleep at night.

In the 1999/2000 season, Conte was nearing the end of his 13-year Juventus tenure. He’d won three league titles already, plus two league cup trophies and a Champions League title with the Serie A giants. With a comfortable nine point lead after 26 matches, the club became complacent. They would lose four of their final eight matches, collapsing on the final day in the pouring rain, allowing Lazio to come roaring back to win the title.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Week 26 ]

“I was captain of the team,” Conte said. “I remember after this game I must go to the European Championships with the national team. I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Clearly, that still haunts him. “I have experienced this,” Conte continued. “When I continue to repeat that there are 13 games, there are 39 points… there is a long time before we can say we won the title. We must be focused, we must go step by step.”

The Blues host Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday before a trip to West Ham next weekend. If anyone believes the Chelsea players are complacent holding such a significant lead with 13 matches to go, it’s clear that’s not nearly the case. Anything can happen in three months.

Sean Dyche says Joey Barton should have a TV show

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Joey Barton of Burnley (L) and Matt Rhead of Lincoln City (R) exchange words during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Burnley and Lincoln City at Turf Moor on February 18, 2017 in Burnley, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Burnley manager Sean Dyche says Joey Barton‘s life is chock full of fascinating moments, so much so that he should have his own TV show.

Except when he’s behind closed doors at Burnley, of course. Then he’s a stand up individual. Right, sure.

“It could be a TV series,” Dyche said in his pre-match press conference ahead of an away tilt with Hull City. “Being Joey. It’d be interesting. Never a dull moment.”

But of course, immediately after that, Dyche switched gears. “Unless he’s in here, training with me,” he backtracked. “I think it’s pantomime stuff. I’ve seen a lot more controversy around Joey than that. If that’s as far as it goes, I’ll be a happy man.”

“That” referred to Barton’s embarrassing dive in the FA Cup loss to non-league opponents Lincoln City where the midfielder play-acted after nothing more than a brush of the elbow from Matt Rhead, falling to the ground and clutching his head. Barton was involved in a number of heated moments during that match, adding to his already massive list of controversial moments in a mercurial career.

“Joey’s been terrific,” Dyche said. “I thought by a mile, by an absolute mile, he was the best player on the pitch last weekend. So he’s been absolutely fine. He’s in good nick – as you can see – and he’s definitely up for the challenges that come in front of us.”

But word of Joey Barton apparently hasn’t reached London. A few weeks ago, ahead of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at Burnley on February 12th, Blues manager Antonio Conte was asked if he was familiar with Burnley’s squad and Barton in particular – an admittedly leading question – and Conte was unable to give an immediate answer. He instead asked his press officer muttering, “Joey Barton?” under his breath. The press officer embarrassingly tried to save face before Conte stepped back in giving a generic answer that they had already played once and he was familiar with the squad.