UEFA Champions League Preview: Galatasaray tasked with bringing down Chelsea’s fortress

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Take three factoids, stare at them long enough, and you can talk yourself into a Galatasaray win on Tuesday. That very well might happen, but if it does, it won’t be because Aston Villa upset Chelsea on Saturday. It won’t be because the Blues were pulled back in Istanbul three weeks ago, nor will be because of the 12-match unbeaten run Gala brings into the team’s second leg. If Chelsea are bounced out of UEFA Champions League in the Round of 16, it will be because they gave an unexpectedly poor performance.

Which, of course, occasionally happens in soccer, and with Roberto Mancini’s team possessing talents like former Blue Didier Drogba and fellow Champions League-winner Wesley Sniejder, the Turkish champions are capable of taking advantage of any Chelsea mistakes. But under José Mourinho, mistakes at Stamford Bridge have almost been non-existent. Now in his second stint at the club, Mourinho has still yet to lose a game at home in the Premier League, and while that record didn’t prevent Switzerland’s FC Basel from claiming three points at the Bridge in group stage, it does speak to the rare feat Galatasaray hopes to accomplish on Tuesday.

(REVIEW: Chelsea fails to kill off Galatasaray as home side earns a 1-1 draw)

“[W]e are here and we know it will be really difficult because Chelsea are one of the best teams in Europe,” Gala head coach Roberto Mancini said on Monday. “But in football you never say never. Anything can happen if you believe in yourself.”

That belief will have to find a way through the best defense in England. Chelsea is allowing only 10.3 shots per game, a rate that’s led to only 23 goals allowed through 30 rounds. The back four of Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, John Terry, and César Azpilicueta has become England’s best, one that’s maintained its numbers in a league where multiple clubs can match the firepower of Drogba, Sneijder, and Burak Yilmaz. If they can continue to make goalkeeper Petr Cech’s job an easy one, Chelsea’s away goal will take them into the quarterfinals.

That scenario assumes Mourinho’s team can be kept off the scoresheet, something Gala’s unlikely to do. Saturday’s match in Birmingham represented the first time Chelsea had been shutout in five games – only the third time they’ve been blanked in 17. In the four games leading up to their visit to Villa Park, Chelsea had scored nine times. Only one team (West Ham) has kept Chelsea of the scoresheet at Stamford Bridge since Mourinho’s return.

Though they held Chelsea to one goal in the first leg, it’s unclear how Galatasaray can stop Eden Hazard if the Belgian is at his best. Combed with Willian and either Oscar or Andre Schürrle, the Blues attacker are poised to tempt the card-prone Felipe Melo in Gala’s defensive midfield. With Fernando Muslera alternating the spectacular with the inexplicable in goal, Galatasaray are unlikely to keep a clean sheet in London.

(MORE,  UEFA Champions League Preview: Youth on display for Real Madrid, up five against Schalke)

All of which is a long way to say the obvious: Chelsea are favorites on Tuesday. You really didn’t need 445 words to detail why. They are one of the most well-funded, talented teams in the world. The broad, reductive strokes we usually see describe a match between England and Turkey’s best happen to be accurate in this case. At home against one of Turkey’s best, Chelsea should be able to preserve the slight advantage they took out of Istanbul.

That the advantage is only slight — that Chelsea has left itself within reach of luck, misfortune, mistake, or variance — gives the Turkish champions reason to hope.

“If you look at the (first leg’s) result – 1-1 – and if you look at the game, one team was better in the first half, another was better in the second,” Mourinho explained. “It’s the kind of match that could go to the wire. I very much doubt the game will be decided by half-time.”

Reports: Barcelona holding talks with Verratti’s agent

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Barcelona has their eyes set on a new Andres Iniesta.

Sure, projecting anyone to meet Ballon d’Or finalist standards is silly, but news that Barca has had multiple meetings with Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti does inspire comparison hunting.

[ MORE: Klopp explains Lovren extension ]

An influential and creative central midfielder, the 24-year-old Verratti is 8.5 years younger than Iniesta and wowed Barca in the first leg of PSG’s ill-fated UEFA Champions League tie with the Catalans.

Mundo Deportivo, amongst others, reports that Verratti feels life at PSG has gotten stale and that Barca is one of the few clubs that represents a significant jump up in class. He’s also been linked with Real Madrid and Manchester United in the past few transfer windows.

Verratti has a contract through 2020-21, so any purchase will not be cheap considering PSG’s desire to continue growing its status as a UCL contender. The Italian is 21 times capped by the Azzurri.

Klopp talks new Lovren deal, Top Four worries, Watford

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Liverpool announced a new contract for Dejan Lovren on Friday, complete with the requisite “I love my club” comments from the defender.

Then Jurgen Klopp got his hands on a microphone.

The outspoken manager explained that re-signing Lovren to a new “long-term” deal ensures that the Croatian spends the best years of his career with the Reds.

[ MORE: Top PL Storylines ]

He also spoke plainly about Lovren’s perceived struggles and successes since arriving at Anfield from Southampton in 2014.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“If Dejan played for another club you would want to sign him – and pay a lot of money. He is 27, the best time is still to come.”

“If you’d asked fans after the Dortmund game they would said give him a 20-year contract. After the Palace game fans would have said ‘can we find another team who will have him?’ Truth is somewhere in between.”

Turning to Monday’s trip to Watford, Klopp isn’t concerned about the chance that his Reds will open the day outside the Top Four if Man City and Manchester United both win at the weekend.

He also says the Reds could have Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge at Vicarge Road, though Jordan Henderson remains out.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth

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  • Sunderland won 2-1 on Nov. 5
  • Fourth meeting since 1990
  • Sunderland leads all-time 5W-3D-1L

Sunderland looks to keep its faint hopes of Premier League safety alive by managing a season sweep of Bournemouth when the two sides meet at the Stadium of Light on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Black Cats are a mess, having lost to Tees-Wear Derby rivals Middlesbrough on Wednesday and living 12 points back of 17th place Swansea City.

Bournemouth battered Middlesbrough 4-0 last weekend to move seven points clear of the drop zone, and can finish the day in the top half with a win up north.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss David Moyes on calls for him to quit“I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose. There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Bournemouth captain Simon Francis on Sunderland’s woes“It just show how things can happen when clubs are not run properly. If we do lose Sunderland from the Premier League it will be a real shame. They are an enormous club and playing at grounds like theirs is the pinnacle of anyone’s career.”

 

Prediction

The Black Cats haven’t quit, but manage two fewer points than they need, all but heading for the Championship after a 2-2 draw.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Hull City

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  • Hull won 2-1 on Nov. 6
  • Tigers two points clear of drop zone
  • Saints lead all-time 23W-20D-15L

After back-to-back losses to Man City and Chelsea, Saints meet a different kind of desperation when Hull City arrives at St. Mary’s (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With a win, Hull can move five points clear of the final relegation spot and heap pressure on Swansea City, who plays Sunday. With a loss, Marco Silva’s men open the 17th place door for Swans.

[ MORE: JPW on Romeu the Destroyer ]

Since the start of the 2011-12 season in the Championship, Southampton has won six of seven matches against Hull. That seventh, however, was the match at the KCOM Stadium earlier this season, one that saw now-West Ham man Robert Snodgrass spur a Tigers comeback.

Saints open the day four points back of eighth place West Brom, and also hold a match-in-hand on the Baggies.

What they’re saying

Saints boss Claude Puel on slump busting“After two losses it’s important to move forward now and take points on Saturday in front of our own fans. We have to improve in the right areas and find a good balance of play, but also a good clinical edge in both penalty areas.”

Marco Silva on Hull’s away troubles““We have conceded goals on the counter-attack away from home in games when the result has been looking good for us – we cannot make it possible for our opponents to do this to us. The second goal we conceded at Stoke is an example of this – conceded at a time when we were in control of the game. Details like this are making the difference and these are things we must look to change. This is clear to me and I pass this on to my players.”

Prediction

Saints have more quality than Hull, but may not have as much fire in the belly. Still, home field means a lot here and Southampton should reverse the score line from November’s tilt. 2-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic leading the way.