Preview: Barcelona, Manchester City stumble into Champions League second leg; PSG set to rest Ibrahimovic

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Manchester City’s draw against Barcelona in UEFA Champions League promised to give us a semifinal matchup in the tournament’s first knockout round, but after shock weekend losses, both titans find themselves limping into their tie’s second leg. Against a club battling to avoid relegation from La Liga (Real Valladolid), Barça lost 1-0 on Saturday, an indignity that pushed them into third in Spain. Manchester City somehow managed to do their Wednesday opponents one worse, losing 2-1 at home to second division Wigan Athletic in England’s FA Cup. Where at one time this meeting could have been the leaders of the world’s two best leagues, today’s second leg will feature Spain’s third-place team against a club that sits fourth in the Premier League.

That fourth place team, who’ll start Wednesday’s second leg with a two-goal deficit, will also be without their manager. Manuel Pellegrini begins a suspension incurred after criticizing officials in the wake of City’s 2-0 loss to Barça at the Emirates, one which puts leaves assistant coach Rubén Cousillas in charge. The 56-year-old Argentine, who has been with Pellegrini since the Chilean’s days coaching in South America, is tasked with not only making history in Catalonia but also moving the Citizens past an embarrassing Sunday result.

“We had a big sense of frustration because we wanted to be back at Wembley and win another cup,” Cousillas said, “but Wigan surprised us. We have turned the page and we have experienced and quality players, which means we are more united than ever and we have forgotten everything in preparation for tomorrow.”

Barcelona will need a similarly faulty memory to regain their confidence before kickoff on Wednesday. Whereas City can assuage themselves with having lost to the same team that beat them in last year’s FA Cup, Barça’s loss at Real Valladolid is less explicable. Shut out against a team that had not won in five games, Gerardo Martino suffered his second loss in three. While its +52 goal difference is still the top mark in the Primera Division, a third place standing is the lowest Barcelona has sat since the opening days of the Pep Guardiola era.

“After the match in Valladolid, I said we made mistakes but under different circumstances – because all our defeats this season have been different,” Martino explained. “There’s not a specific reason for us being inconsistent. We need to be more consistent at this stage of the season to maintain our chances of winning all three competitions.”

That need for improvement underscores a heightened urgency for Barcelona. Though they are unlikely to give up their two-goal leads to City, they are less than two weeks away from the season’s second Clasico – one they can’t afford to lose if they’re going to retain their La Liga title. Already four points behind first place Real Madrid, Barcelona have 180 minutes to raise their game before entering the Santiago Bernábeu.

Though they were missing midfield star Andrés Iniesta this weekend, against Manchester City, there’ll be no excuses. Both Lionel Messi and Neymar are fully fit. Xavi Hernández is ready to play in midfield. UEFA reports no injuries to Martino’s regulars along the back. Though Barcelona can claim Real Valladolid surprised them on Saturday, it won’t be able to use similar excuses on Wednesday.

“We have to think that 10 or 12 days ago,” Martino explained, “we played a very good match against Manchester City. I don’t see why we can’t do the same tomorrow and I’m sure we will play well.”

City is not as quite healthy as their hosts. In addition to Pellegrini’s loss, the Citizens will be without Martín Demechilis (suspended) and backup Matija Nastasic, leaving Joleon Lescott to start to the left of Vincent Kompany in City’s defense.

The rest of the team — from leading goal threat Sergio Aguero up top to former Barcelona defensive midfielder Yaya Touré in the middle — will be laid out according to Pellegrini’s plans, even if the Manchester City boss will be in the stands.

“The decisions are taken by Pellegrini,” Cousillas confirmed. “I have worked with him for 13 years and I know what he wants.”

What he truly wants may be out of Cousillas’s reach. Down two goals, Manchester City will be looking to make history in Spain, not only hoping to reach their first quarterfinal but also trying to become the first team to turn around a two-goal deficit incurred at home.

Barcelona’s recent results say City may be catching it at the right time, but the Citizens will have to shake off disappointment of their own if they’re to survive in Champions League.

source: APParis Saint-Germain try to kill off wounded Bayer Leverkusen

PSG’s matchup with Bayer Leverkusen joins Real Madrid’s pairing with Schalke as the most lopsided battles in the competition’s Round of 16. Whereas PSG put up a 4-0 win three weeks ago at the BayArena, all but eliminating Sami Hyypia’s team before they’d boarded their plane for Paris, Real Madrid posted a 6-1 victory in Gelsenkirchen. The German Bundesliga may be an up-and-coming league, but last year’s third and fourth place finishers are having trouble keeping pace with the league’s new reputation.

What that means for Champions League fans is a second, perfunctory 90 minutes in at the Parc de Princes, one that’s unlikely to feature PSG star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The main reason for watching today’s return leg is set to be held out of the team, with head coach Laurent Blanc sounding a cautious note about his focal point’s back injury ahead of the match. Likewise, Blaise Matuidi — a midfielder who nearly rivaled Ibrahimovic’s influence in Germany — is also unlikely to be held out, with Marco Veratti, Gregory van der Wiel, and Jérémy Menez joining him as doubts.

All of which would spark worry from Bayer Leverkusen if the score was closer. Even then, Bayer would have to have shown something more than one point in six games leading into Wednesday’s match – form that’s seen them relinquish second place in the Bundesliga. Only five points ahead of fifth place Wolfsburg, Bayer now have concerns about whether they can maintain a Champions League spot, especially with their annual trip to Bayern looming on Saturday.

“The team needs to build confidence and self-belief, and one way to do so could be with a good performance here.,” Hyypia explained. “The most important thing is we need to find some stability defensively, especially now that we’re going through difficult times.”

With PSG set to take a cautious approach, Bayer may get their reprieve. That doesn’t necessarily mean their winless run will stop.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

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Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.