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.

VIDEO: Can Leicester stun the world? Man United title favorites?

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The Foxes are top of the Premier League and are led by a surging Jamie Vardy but how long can they keep shocking the world?

With six tough games coming up between now and the start of 2016, Claudio Ranieri‘s men will be pushed to their limit but so far this season they’ve been sensational and Vardy has equaled Manchester United legend Ruud van Nistlerooy’s record of scoring in 10-straight PL games.

[ MORE: Full PST Extra archive ]

Can he make it 11 in a row on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra) when United visit the King Power Stadium? As for the Red Devils, they sit in second place and are just one point behind the flying Foxes’. Louis Van Gaal‘s men have certainly flown under the radar so far and our churning out wins at an impressive rate.

Jenna Corrado and I discuss that and more in the latest edition of PST Extra. Click play on the video above to see our chat in full.

Men in Blazers podcast: The Leicester fairytale goes on

Men In Blazers - Sept. 22
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Rog and Davo revel in another chapter of the Leicester City fairytale, break down Liverpool’s shock dismantling of Manchester City and discuss Arsenal’s slip against West Brom.

Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

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Pellegrini updates status of Joe Hart’s hamstring injury

Joe Hart, Manchester City FC
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Joe Hart was forced to leave Manchester City’s 1-0 defeat to Juventus in UEFA Champions League play on Wednesday due to a hamstring injury, which he seemed to incur while making a spectacular one-on-one kick-save late in the second half.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini confirmed after the game that Hart’s injury is indeed a hamstring issue, and went on to say that he would need further tests once the team arrives back in Manchester to determine the severity and how long, if at all, City and England’s no. 1 would be out of action.

Man City, currently third in the Premier League on 26 points, will host eighth-place Southampton at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Three things we learned from Manchester United vs. PSV

Jesse Lingard, Marouane Fellaini
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Manchester United missed the chance to clinch a spot in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday with a draw against PSV Eindhoven and now their hopes of making the knockout round hang in the balance.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

Louis Van Gaal‘s side failed to take their chances and now have a do-or-die clash at Wolfsburg in two weeks time. If United win, they are in. Anything less and a PSV win in their final group game means it’s the Europa League for LVG and his boys.

Tense times. Here’s three things we learned from yet another 0-0 draw for United.


With Wayne Rooney playing in the hole and front three of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Memphis interchanging, it was the formation and personnel many of United’s fans were calling for. Well, it didn’t quite work out. With Martial and Lingard both guilty of squandering chances and Memphis failing to get into the game, LVG will be left scratching his head as he watched his side draw 0-0 for the fourth home game this season and for the third time in their last five matches at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]  

United looked labored in attack with Wayne Rooney unable to dictate play from a No. 10 role and the PL side had to resort to long balls up to Marouane Fellaini in the final 30 minutes to try and win the game. Surely they’re better than that? At times in the first half the fluidity was there as the aforementioned quartet all went close. However, they ran out of ingenuity and as boos rang out at full time, it was clear the United faithful was, once again, unhappy with their teams attacking output.

“We are not ruthless enough – we have to score more goals as a team, they were able to nearly hit us on the break a few times,” Rooney said. “It is a learning curve but we cannot go on saying that. We have to change these games into victories.”


After a tough stretch of games on heavy pitches, the way United rallied and grabbed a late winner at Watford last weekend was impressive. However, those battling displays full of grit and detetmination seem to be catching up on them. Fast. In the second half it was noticeable that Davy Propper and Andres Guardado had a growing influence on the game as Morgan Schneiderlin gave the ball away on multiple occasions and Bastian Schweinsteiger was subbed out. True, Fellaini came on in his place so United sacrificed a holding midfield spot for the final 30 minutes, but by that point the tide was already turning.

United looked tired, lethargic and failed to get proper service to their front three and a frustrated Rooney kept dropping deeper and deeper to try and get the ball. With Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera out injured, plus Juan Mata only given six minutes at the end, the main reason United failed to win this game was the lack of drive in midfield and the fact that the entire team simply seemed to run out of steam. With a tough slog of seven games in the next four weeks coming up, tiredness at this stage of the season is a worrying sign.


Yeah, so, in case you hadn’t noticed by now, United are in a bit of a pickle by not clinching a last 16 spot on Wednesday. That means they head to Wolfsburg on Dec. 8 having to win to top the group and bad news United fans, the German outfit have yet to lose at home in the UCL or Bundesliga this season. They’ve won eight of their nine home games, scoring 23 times and conceding just five. It will certainly be an uphill battle at the VW Arena.

“Going to Germany is always tough,” Rooney said. “We have to believe in ourselves and have confidence we can do that, it’s not the way we wanted but that is the way it is and we have to believe we are good enough to get three points.”

Chris Smalling reaffirmed United’s belief that they can go to Wolfsburg — even if they fell behind to Wolfsburg at home in the home game but rallied to grab a victory — and win but the Red Devils certainly haven’t made it easier for themselves.

“We had more than enough to win the game and make the difference in the final game. Coming in we saw Wolfsburg as the toughest game – and we have given ourselves a lot of hard work,” Smalling said. “We needed to move the ball quicker – and if we got the first goal it would’ve made it a lot easier. We go there with hope because we have beaten them here.”