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.”

Zlatan confirms Manchester United departure

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has confirmed myriad reports he’s leaving Manchester United with a perfectly-Zlatan Instagram message.

Ibrahimovic is expected to join the LA Galaxy next week.

[ MORE: MLS All Stars vs. Juventus ]

The words aren’t too important, but Ibrahimovic posted an old graphic of him in Greek god garb, arm-wrestling a devil. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

The living Swedish legend, 36, has been limited to seven appearances, one start, and one goal in returning from a season-ending knee injury, but finishes his Manchester United tenure with an impressive 29 goals and 10 assists in 53 games (deduct the seven and one for peak impressiveness).

Bale breaks Wales scoring record

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Gareth Bale has now unquestionably written his name into Wales history.

The 28-year-old Real Madrid scored a hat-trick for Wales in its 6-0 demolition of China, taking his overall tally to 29 goals, breaking Ian Rush’s record.

“It is right up there, maybe as the best,” Bale told reporters after the game. “I suppose when I was a little boy I never dreamed of being a record-breaker for Wales. It is a massive honor. I was not thinking about it, but now it has come it’s an incredible honor and one of the best things I’ve achieved in my career. On a personal note it’s great to break the record, but I could not have done it without my team-mates.”

Bale was unable to carry Wales to the 2018 World Cup, but he first became a National Team legend by helping take Wales to the Euro 2016 semifinals, scoring three goals along the way.

Here’s a look at Bale’s record-breaking goal.

Sporting KC giving away creative “Bike Opara” bobblehead

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In his ninth Major League Soccer season, Ike Opara has scored just a dozen regular season goals.

He’s known more for his physicality in the backline, for creating space for teammates on set pieces, or heading balls on to teammates with slightly more fleeter feet.

But in June 2017, it all came together for Opara in a magical moment, where he beat an offside trap from the LA Galaxy and scored an insane bicycle kick for Sporting Kansas City.

Now, to honor Opara’s ridiculous goal, Sporting KC has announced the first 10,000 fans through the gates at Children’s Mercy Park on March 31 will get a “Bike Ike” bobblehead, with him in flight kicking the ball towards goal over his shoulder.

You’ve gotta love the creativity and fun the Sporting KC marketing department is having. Hopefully, Opara can give the team another memorable goal in 2018.

Van Dijk named new Netherlands captain

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Virgil Van Dijk has had a pretty decent last three months since moving to Liverpool, and the towering defender earned a new personal achievement on Thursday.

Van Dijk was named the newest captain of the Netherlands National Team, where he’ll play under former manager Ronald Koeman. Van Dijk’s first game as captain will be against the nation where he currently plies his trade, England, on Friday.

“I am very happy with it, it is a great honor to be the captain of your country,” van Dijk said at a pre-match press conference Thursday. “Everyone knows that Koeman gave me the chance at Southampton, I am very grateful to him. This is very special.”

Van Dijk’s commanding presence in the Liverpool backline and previous stops at Southampton and Celtic make him an obvious choice for captain, taking the place of the now-retired Arjen Robben. At just 26-years old, van Dijk could carry the armband for a half dozen years if he keeps up his strong form.