UEFA Champions League Preview: Surging Real Madrid takes 26-match run to Schalke

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Now it’s Real Madrid’s turn. We’ve seen Bayern Munich take a two-goal lead on Arsenal, Barcelona earn the same result at Manchester City, and Paris Saint-Germain put their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 matchup away early against Bayer Leverkusen. After Borussia Dortmund romped in St. Petersburg, all the top contenders, be they favorites or dark horses, impressed in their away legs. Now it’s Real Madrid’s turn to keep up.

If recent form is any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem. Real Madrid cruised to a 3-0 win this weekend against Elche, a result that extended an unbeaten run that started after October’s trip to Barcelona to 26 games. With six wins in a row, including two against Atlético Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti’s team has claimed a place alone at the top of La LigaIn the process, los Blancos may have also established themselves as the biggest threat to Bayern’s goal of becoming the first team since 1990 to claim back-to-back European titles.

“After Bayern, Real Madrid are maybe the second-best team in the world at the moment,” Schalke head coach Jens Keller said on Tuesday. “They have extraordinary players in every position … To be successful, everybody will have to be at 100%. Only then might it be possible to pull off a little miracle.”

Even that may not be enough to keep up with a Real Madrid team that’s firing on all cylinders.

“I do not have to tell my players much – they want to win every competition,” Ancelotti said in Tuesday’s press conference. “At the moment the team are in a good shape, but we have to prepare for every match very methodically so that our run continues.”

(MORE: UEFA Champions League Preview: Mourinho controversy unlikely to diminish Chelsea’s chances against Galatasaray)

Real Madrid’s surge as coincided with a small tactical shift from Ancelotti, moving away from the two-man midfield that was typically left in this fall’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Shifting to a 4-3-3 that features Ángel Di María and Luka Modric above Xabi Alonso, Ancelotti has finally found away to compensate for the loss of Sami Khedira (early season knee injury). The formation also creates a regular spot of Di María – the invaluable, natural wide player whose spot on the flanks disappeared with the addition of Gareth Bale.

source: Getty ImagesThe change has also given Bale (right) and Cristiano Ronaldo more space to maraud without worrying about their spacing with a third attacking midfielder. The setup is also a better fit for prospect Jesé Rodríguez, who was so impressive for Spain’s U-20s this summer. Filling in amid Ronaldo’s Liga suspension and Bale’s knocks, Jesé has scored five goals in El Real’s last seven games, passing promising Málaga import Isco in Carlo Ancelotti’s pecking order.

The result is a potential nightmare for a Schalke side who carries seven-game unbeaten run into Wednesday’s game. With former Real Madrid striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar back healthy and a talented line of three (Kevin-Prince Boateng, Julian Draxler, and Jefferson Farfán) behind him, Jens Keller’s team has enough talent to be dangerous. But whereas that attack will have to break through a defense featuring Sergio Ramos, Pepe, and Daniel Carvajal in front of Iker Casillas, Ronaldo, Bale, and Karim Benzema will take aim at central defenders Joel Matip, Felipe Santana and goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann.

“They are very well-organised, especially at the back and have a good balance between young talented players like Max Meyer and Julian Draxler, and players with a lot of experience like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar,” Ancelotti said of Schalke. ” They do not play spectacular football but they are solid and consistent.”

It’s not clever, or nuanced, or even particularly insightful to note the match ups leave huge advantages for Real Madrid. Whereas Schalke’s players are the envy of more clubs in Europe, the Merengues talents are world-class. As in almost every game they play, los Merengues will have a huge edge on their opponents, with little beyond the vagaries of an inherently low-scoring game to embolden Schalke’s chances over 180 minutes.

“Real Madrid have an incredible team but we’re not bad either,” Keller quipped. “We’re in very good shape, as you can see from our recent results. But it is not just the results, but the manner in which we have achieved them.”

Even in that category, Schalke don’t measure up. The typically flakey Miners may be experiencing one of their good runs, but it’s nothing compared to the momentum Real Madrid will carry into Wednesday’s match. While Keller’s team may be able to threaten El Real’s six-game winning streak, handing them their first loss since October is unlikely.

MLS Snapshot: Jozy double downs Dynamo, Toronto wins 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): Toronto FC had too much firepower for defensively challenged Houston, and the hosts carved up the Dynamo for a 2-0 win north of the border. Giovinco was creative and flashy if not sharp, and Jozy Altidore was the benefactor as the American bagged both goals. After an early spell of Houston possession off the opening whistle, Toronto dominated from start to finish, with the midfield bossing the game.

Three moments that mattered

16′ – Raheem Edwards on the ball out wide, he burst into the box and – seeing Giovinco draw 2 defenders in an offside position – he cut back for Altidore who finished cooly from the spot. Too easy for the opener.

32′– Jozy doubled his lead as he played an absolutely brilliant one-two with Giovinco. The Italian popped it over the top as Altidore slipped through the line, and the USMNT star had the simplest of finishes.

85′ – Houston looked to get back into things by pouring men forward, but to no avail. The closest they came was off a corner as Alex ripped off a shot that sailed over the bar.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Victor Vazquez/Marco Delgado

Goalscorers: Jozy Altidore (16′, 32′)

Juventus bumped by Atalanta at the death

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Juventus is still in firm control of the Serie A title race, but they were dealt a slight setback as Atalanta secured a 2-2 draw with a dramatic 89th minute equalizer in Bergamo.

Dani Alves had given Juventus the lead in the 83rd minute on a header after a brilliant far-post cross by Miralem Pjanic, but Remo Freuler answered late as he grabbed a point.

The goal came on a fortunate bounce as Pjanic and substitute Stephen Lichtensteiner got tangled up on the ball and failed to clear, and the ball squirted to Freuler who suddenly found himself free in front of Gianluigi Buffon. The Juventus keeper came off his line to smother the chance, but he failed to completely collect, and the ball again popped free. Freuler followed up the loose ball, and with a trio of Juventus defenders flying in, the 25-year-old Swiss attacker knocked it in.

The draw was deserving for Atalanta, who had controlled the game for much of the first half, and went ahead just seconds before the break on a goal by Andrea Conti. Atalanta outshot Juventus 7-4 in the first half, 3-1 on shots on target. Juventus took over control in the second half, and got back on level terms just five minutes after the break as Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola put one in his own net.

Alves’ goal put Juventus in front, but that lead only lasted six minutes. Juventus goes nine points clear at the top of the Serie A table with the draw, but Roma has the chance to cut that to six if they can beat Lazio at home on Sunday.

MLS Week 8: Litmus tests across the board

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Week 8 in MLS action could teach fans a lot about clubs with plenty to prove.

With questions still abound regarding teams like NYCFC, New England, Seattle, Portland, and New York Red Bulls, all those teams have a chance to make statements regarding their potential strength this season.

[ MORE: Week 8 MLS Power Rankings ]

In addition, struggling teams such as Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Montreal all have opportunities for much-needed points against arguably weaker opposition.

Let’s take a look at the weekend slate chronologically:

Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. ET Friday

Toronto got a pair from Giovinco last time out, and sitting near the bottom of the crowded East mid-tier, they need points fast to avoid finding themselves in a hole behind the top of the table. There’s goals in this one, with Houston defensively challenged and Cubo Torres on fire to start the year.

Montreal Impact vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
3:00 p.m. ET Saturday

An all-Canadian clash actually serves as a vitally important match for both clubs. With each side near the bottom of their conference standings, they both need a result badly to jump-start the campaign. A draw does nobody any good here moving forward.

Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids
4:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Lions are one of 2017’s surprises, and Cyle Larin is on an absolute tear. Unfortunately, so far, anyone who shuts down Larin shuts down Orlando City. That said, good luck to Colorado shutting down an early MLS Golden Boot challenger.

Cyle Larin has 6 goals in 6 games this season (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images).

NY Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

New York has seen bumps on the early-season road, but overall remains a strong Supporter’s Shield contender. They face a big test against another strong Eastern Conference side, and a win here would make it three straight, all over good competition. Chicago is reeling after its defeat to Toronto, out-shot 9-1, but has another chance to pick up a road win before heading back home.

Columbus Crew vs. NYCFC
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Columbus has been poor on the road, but they return home to Mapfre Stadium to take on a strong NYCFC side. This game could potentially teach us a lot about whoever comes out on top, as both look to build separation from the rest of the pack in the East. Both have lost two of three, but both still appear strong up front, and three points in this game could prove to be a marquee win to point to later in the season.

Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Minnesota United, owners of one of the worst starts to the season, has shown signs of life. Can they keep it going against another team struggling for points?

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

This is a marquee matchup, and with FC Dallas unbeaten so far, represents a huge test but also a huge opportunity for Portland to announce itself as a true top contender in the West. They’re top of the table, but have played at least one more game than most teams just below them. Can the Timbers find a way through the strong Dallas D?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

A big rivalry game with big table implications, Sporting KC has the unfortunate luck of catching RSL after hiring Mike Petke and not before. This should be a fun one.

Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution
10:00 p.m. ET Saturday

We still don’t know exactly what New England is. For every step forward they’ve taken one back, and for every setback they’ve had they’ve found a way through. This is a fantastic test. There are plenty of excuses for a potential loss with the team going cross-country to face one of the league’s best attacks, but a result could be a true statement.

LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union
10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

With Philadelphia struggling and now traveling a long way, this should be a chance for the Galaxy to turn things around. Should be.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
3:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Atlanta is back home for the first time in over a month. They have slipped a bit since the torrid start, but still appear a dangerous club. D.C. will have its work cut out.

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.