Can Manchester City oust struggling Barcelona in UEFA Champions League?

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First up, let’s just say it hasn’t been a great weekend for Manchester City or FC Barcelona.

Both teams lost to opponents they should’ve really wiped the floor with, as they head into a UEFA Champions League showdown at the Nou Camp on Wednesday low on confidence and struggling for form.

Although City lost shockingly at home to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup quarterfinal on Sunday, Barcelona’s defeat to La Liga basement boys Real Valladolid on Saturday was arguably more damaging.

Barca’s new coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months as the Blaugrana have stuttered their way through the domestic campaign. Like David Moyes has found at Manchester United, Martino has found it difficult to kick start and rebuild a global soccer dynasty. Under Pep Guardiola and then Tito Vilanova, that’s what Barca had become. After their defeat to Valladolid they are now four points behind leaders Real Madrid, while if City win their three games in hand over Chelsea they go joint-top of the PL.

(MORE: How things stand in Champions League after first legs of knockout games)

This season — especially lately in the league as they’ve lost two of their last three games — there seems to be a little something missing from Barca’s play. Sure they went to the Etihad and won 2-0, giving themselves an extremely healthy cushion ahead of Wednesday’s second leg. However it wasn’t as if Barca outclassed City, rather that City handed victory to the Catalan club on a plate after a second half implosion that saw the Spanish side gratefully accept a penalty kick opener and a red card to City’s Martin Demichelis.

source: AP
Demichelis’ tackles which earned him a red card and gave Barca a PK which Messi converted. But did City deserve a 2-0 defeat in the first leg?

The rhetoric emanating from Barcelona before this game has been all about how City will now be facing a fully-fit Lionel Messi, as the Argentine star was apparently nowhere near 100 percent when the sides squared off at the Etihad in February. Well, that’s just fine. But what about Barca’s somewhat shaky defense coming up against a fully-fit Sergio Aguero?

In the first leg Barcelona didn’t have to deal with Messi’s good friend and predatory striker partner for the Argentine national team, Aguero. With the 26-year-old forward raring to make up for last time after suffering an ill-timed hamstring injury, expect City to come flying out of the traps at the Nou Camp with their diminutive top scorer — who has 26 goals to his name in 27 games — leading the line.

All the pressure is on Barca to kill off any City comeback effortlessly and put on a show. But as we’ve seen in recent seasons at the Nou Camp, they’ve failed to break down the likes of Inter Milan and Chelsea who came to defend. But this time they will be facing a team hell bent on attacking and trying to make up for their two-goal deficit as quickly as possible. Will that play into Barca’s hands, who knows? With makeshift center back Javier Mascherano easily overpowered by Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo, plus Aguero likely to run a few rings around Baca’s other central defender Gerard Pique, I fancy City’s chances to go and score a few in Barcelona… but can they keep a clean sheet at the other end?

City do not deserve to be two goals down from the first leg, but will Barcelona make them pay for one mishap in the second half of the opening match that spun the tie on its head? Or does Barcelona’s poor form heading into the much-anticipated encounter really mean anything at all?

On Wednesday we will find out. But it’s sure to be an intriguing game between two teams searching for form, one with nothing to lose, the other with everything to lose.

I know which position I’d rather be in. He who dares, wins.

Bobby Wood looks forward to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann

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A back injury kept Bobby Wood from United States men’s national team camp, but the Hamburg striker has been feeling good about the side’s World Cup fortunes since before the big win over Honduras.

Speaking with Hamburg’s team magazine, Wood gave a sprawling interview on his career and time with the national team. Wood praised Arena for scouting in Germany, saying the USMNT boss is a quiet coach who has his own style of playing, one that will prod the Yanks into the World Cup.

[ MORE: Complete USMNT-Panama preview ]

But the 24-year-old Hawaii-born striker saved his fondest words for ex-coach Jurgen Klinsmann, essentially calling him a career-saver. From HSV live (translated from German):

He’s very important to me. I believe if Jürgen had not been U.S. coach, then I might have stopped playing football or would have played somewhere in the fourth league.

That is why I am very, very grateful to him. At that time I was in a deep hole – it was real heavy. … He has believed in my quality. We are still in contact, he texts me.

Wood was a part-time player for 1860 Munich when Klinsmann first called him up to the national team side, and now he’s a Bundesliga striker who will be in demand if the club is relegated. Wood has also been mentioned as a target for Premier League clubs.

That’s a pretty good career jump. Klinsmann may have failed to deliver much of what he promised to the national team, but talent mining was done quite well.

USMNT-Panama preview: World Cup calm at stake

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Still wounded from the first two matches of the Hex but buoyed by its demolition of Honduras, the United States men’s national team faces an inspired Panama on Tuesday night in Panama City.

The Yanks arose from the ashes of losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to bury Honduras 6-0 Friday behind a Clint Dempsey hat trick and a goal and two assists from Christian Pulisic.

A win on Tuesday in Panama gives the U.S. something that can only soothe the nerves ahead of two summer qualifiers and the Gold Cup: Top Three status in the Hex (as is always expected).

Now the resurgent Americans face a Panama side which sits above them on the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table, having narrowed the gap on a Los Canaleros side who itself has narrowed its sights on a USMNT which burned them nearly four years ago.

[ USMNT-HONDURAS: Player ratings | Three things ]

Panama looked set to earn an interconfederation playoff berth with a 2-1 lead over the already-advanced U.S. when Graham “San” Zusi and Aron Johannsson led a shocking comeback at the Estadio Rommel Fernández to give Mexico the Hex’s fourth-place.

Los Canaleros shot out of the Hex gates with a win at Honduras and a 0-0 draw at home against Mexico, but fell 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago on Friday thanks to Minnesota United star Kevin Molino.

Now licking its wounds while eyeing revenge, Panama will hope its pair of draws with the U.S. at the 2015 Gold Cup are the start they need to pick up a first home World Cup qualifying win over the States. Panama won the third-place match over the USMNT via shootout at the that tournament.

Boss Hernán Darío Gómez is no stranger to international battles having led Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala. He deployed a 4-5-1 against T&T, and could opt for that again but has usually used either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 with two holding mids against deeper sides than the Soca Warriors.

The former has worked better, and the personnel sometimes serves as a surprise. Last time out, in a 0-0 draw against Mexico, Gomez kept Anibal Godoy and Luis Tejada on the bench in what looks like a 4-2-2-2 at times.

[ MORE: Making sense out of the 6-0 win ]

Bruce Arena faces his own issues. In addition to the absences of Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson, the USMNT lost Sebastian Lletget and John Brooks in the win over Honduras.

Lletget’s absence is quickly remedied by either Alejandro Bedoya or, more likely, Jermaine Jones, but Brooks is a bigger problem. The Hertha Berlin man cleaned up several messes made by Omar Gonzalez, the ex-LA Galaxy man who — for better or worse — may not have shaken Arena’s confidence thanks to their long relationship.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Geoff Cameron is his best option at CB, and could serve a similar purpose to Brooks. Still, he’s not 100 percent.

Gonzalez and Matt Besler worked well together a long time ago, but Tim Ream was Arena’s first choice when Brooks hit the turf with dehydration on Friday. There’s also wild card Walker Zimmerman, who would be taking the field in his highest-profile match yet.

Arena will want to take the match to Panama, even on the road. How will it look in front of Tim Howard? This is an option for Arena, though not one we expect:

Howard

Zusi — Cameron — Ream — Villafana

Jones — Bradley — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

Instead, Arena will probably roll the bones with Gonzalez again, and keep things close to the Honduras win. It would be silly to break up the Villafana-Nagbe partnership on the left, and the top three isn’t changing one bit.

The question is whether Arena ruffles Jones, who is both combustible and not part of the long-term future. But Jones, like all of us, would’ve seen 6-0. So, probably, this:

Howard

Cameron — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana

Bradley

Bedoya — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

If Bradley provides the same picture-perfect cover for the back four and Pulisic continues to hum off the veteran big bodies of Dempsey and Altidore, the latter of which who is due a goal or two, the Yanks win. At worst, they’re beaten for pace by Alberto Quintero and stymied by Jaime Penedo. But the former can be covered by an in-form Howard, and the latter can only hold out for so long.

A draw puts the U.S. behind Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico ahead of two months off and the knowledge that both Mexico and Costa Rica are home for both June qualifiers.

Schweinsteiger waiting on visa, training in Mallorca

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Bastian Schweinsteiger is waiting on a visa to make his trip to Chicago official.

It’s a formality, albeit a bit trickier now given the political climate in the United States. The former Manchester United midfielder is training at Real Mallorca ahead of the move.

The transfer was announced one week ago, and Schweinsteiger is anxious to get back on the pitch. Set for a 1-year, $4.5 million deal, the midfielder has not missed any Chicago matches yet.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Fire is 1-1-1 to start the new season under Veljko Paunovic, and has three home matches next: Montreal (Saturday), Columbus (Apr. 8), and New England (Apr. 15)

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.