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.”

FIFA worried about government interference in Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation, FIFA said Friday it will send a delegation to the country to investigate government meddling.

FIFA said in a statement written in Spanish that it had recently sent a letter to the federation “expressing our concern for the situation that the federation is going through and reminding (its officials) that, according to the Statutes of FIFA, all member federations must manage their affairs independently and assure that there is no interference by third parties.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported earlier Friday that the FIFA letter warned of a possible suspension because of the government’s push to hold elections following the arrest of federation president Angel Maria Villar in July on suspicion of corruption.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

According to El Pais, FIFA is concerned that the government’s interest in federation elections could be considered outside meddling and break its rules. If the national federation were to be suspended, Spain’s team would not be allowed to play at next year’s World Cup.

FIFA’s statement made no mention of a suspension or other punitive measures.

But the scare was big enough for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to say that Spain will not miss soccer’s biggest event.

“I am sure that Spain will go to the World Cup in Russia and that it will win it,” Rajoy said at a news conference in Brussels.

FIFA added in its statement that “in the coming days” it will send a delegation, which will include representatives from UEFA, to Madrid to “observe and analyze the situation” of the Spanish soccer federation.

The federation said in a separate statement that its interim president, Juan Luis Larrea, had spoken with FIFA and UEFA officials at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 and that he had passed on their “enormous concern” to Spain’s minister of education, culture and sport.

The Spanish federation said it was waiting for the ministry to set a date for a meeting.

Spanish police arrested Villar, his son, and two other soccer officials in July on suspicion of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar was replaced by Larrea, the body’s treasurer for three decades. Critics of Villar argue that elections are needed to make a clean start for the institution that has been tarnished by the scandal.

Newcastle linked with targets as Benitez begins transfer quest

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Newcastle United’s players have canceled their Christmas party, as manager Rafa Benitez admits he’s working on January gifts for the St. James’ Park set.

The Magpies have one point from their last eight matches, and face Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester City in the run-up to the New Year, closing off a run of five matches in 16 days with Brighton and Stoke.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City vs. Spurs ]

Benitez says he’s begun talks with managing director Lee Charnley about the January window. The team is expected to make moves whether Mike Ashley completes a reported sale of the team or not. From Sky Sports:

“At this time it is just to talk about ideas,” he said. “You might say ‘I would like to sign this player’ and someone will say ‘£40m’ – maybe it is not realistic.

“The main thing, we had this conversation, then we have to move forward quickly. I don’t know the details but at least we were talking about that. We have to progress and it is so obvious that we have to improve things.”

Newcastle has been linked with a number of notable names a few weeks from the start of the January market, including Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, prolific Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun, as well as Liverpool’s Danny Ings and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace

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  • Leicester leads all-time 26W-18D-23L
  • Foxes 3W-1D vs. Eagles since Oct. 2015
  • Palace won at Leicester in Feb. 2015

The Claude Puel revolution at Leicester City has the Foxes surging up the Premier League table, and Saturday’s visitors from Crystal Palace are making moves of their own (Watch live Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Leicester has won four-straight matches, the latest a 4-1 beatdown of Southampton at St. Mary’s, and returns to King Power Stadium with a chance to make a dent on the five-point deficit between the Foxes and the Top Four.

 

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After beginning the season 0-7, Crystal Palace has claimed 14 of 30 points to move from 20th to 18th on the table. Roy Hodgson’s men have two wins and four draws in their last six matches.

What they’re saying

Leicester’s Harry Maguire on the task at hand:

Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek on his high-flying loan spell from Chelsea: “It’s what you aspire to be when you’re younger. Right now it’s a case of trying to improve as much as I can and to keep the performances up. As long as I’m enjoying it I think I’ll do well, so I’m really happy. The experience of playing week in week out and the physical side of things, getting my body used to playing games – sometimes three in a week – has been a massive thing for me, especially when I haven’t played for two years regularly. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to get away from Chelsea, to play regular football, get my body used to it, get more robust and I think once you have that then it’s a platform to play better.”

Prediction

This could be a fun one, with names like Zaha, Townsend, Loftus-Cheek, Vardy, Mahrez, and Gray ready to bless the match with pace and creativity. Goals have come in bunches when Leicester’s on the pitch, and we’ll call it 2-1 to the Foxes.

RBNY’s Grella heads to Columbus (through Colorado)

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Mike Grella didn’t get to pick No. 20 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft, but that didn’t stop Columbus from getting their hands on the New York Red Bulls veteran.

Colorado selected Grella with the third overall pick, then sent him to Columbus for a second round pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.

[ MLS: Ousted “blacklisted” by MLS? ]

The only other pick was made by Minnesota United, who took Tyrone Mears from Atlanta United.

Grella, 30, is a well-traveled Duke product who has played in England and Denmark. He scored 18 times with 13 assists in 89 matches for the Red Bulls, but missed most of the 2017 season with a pair of knee injuries.

It’s a good gamble for the Crew, and an extra draft pick for 2019. Second-round picks have become long odds to make MLS rosters, with Tommy McNamara and Aaron Long the last impact players to come out of the round. That was in 2014, and both needed changes of scenery before hitting their MLS strides.