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

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A five-goal gap kills the sugarcoating. There are no clichés in the arsenal to make Real Madrid’s Tuesday visit from Schalke  an important game. The managers aren’t even trying. Carlo Ancelotti’s opening discussing resting players. Jens Keller is discussing playing for pride. Nobody’s under any illusions about the 6-1 lead Real Madrid takes into Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match at the Santiago Bernabéu.

Three weeks ago, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo each bagged two in Gelsenkirchen, with only a spectacular volley from 19 yards out by Klass-Jan Huntelaar giving the Royal Blues a reprieve. Even memories of the strike, as technically perfect as it was, have been almost entirely buried. Schalke fans don’t want to remember leg one. Real Madrid fans are ready for the quarterfinals.

(REVIEW: Real Madrid sends Champions League message with 6-1 demolition of Schalke)

All of which makes Tuesday’s second leg a small nuisance – a game neither team really wants to play. Fans showing up at the Bernabeú tomorrow night are likely to see a series of great young talents, with Jesé, Álvaro Morata, and Isco all set to start. But this is Champions League. This the knockout round. As domestic races hit their home stretches and cup competitions reach their final stages, Europe’s commitments aren’t supposed to be so meaningless. It’s enough to ask why the game’s even happening, let alone why we should watch it.

We know why it’s happening (there’s no mercy rule in Champions Legaue). Why we should watch, however, takes more imagination. Jesé, the 21-year-old attacker who tore up last summer’s U-20 World Cup, is worth it on his own. Watching him try to blow by Schalke defenders is worth two hours of your time. Álvaro Morata, also 21, will provide another glimpse of Real Madrid’s enviable cadre of young attackers, while Isco (yes, 21) gets a chance to rejoin the starting XI. Though the likes of Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, Tuesday will give fans a glimpse of Real Madrid’s future alternate present.

“Real Madrid and Bayern München are the strongest teams in the world,” Keller said. “We must be realistic – Real Madrid are an amazing team and when you lose 6-1 in the first leg it is not easy to reach the quarter-finals.”

Unfortunately for Schalke fans, that team may still be better than the XI Keller will choose in Madrid, especially since Cristiano Ronaldo is slated to start. When he comes off, Gareth Bale may come on (Benzema, however, has a bad thigh). Ahead of Sunday’s visit from Barcelona — a game that could end Barça’s title defense — Ancelotti has to balance rest with a desire to keep his team sharp. This weekend, however, will be his obvious priority.

“We will make some changes because some players are physically tired,” Ancelotti said on Monday. Thoguh the team carries a 30-match unbeaten run into Tuesday’s game, the Real Madrid boss is intent on resting his stars. “The Málaga match was tough and we had to travel.”

It only adds to the meaningless quality of the game. Given the opportunity, Real Madrid would rather concentrate on Sunday. And Schalke would rather stay in Gelsenkirchen then travel for 90 perfunctory minutes in Madrid. Unless you’re a hardcore Madridistra or can’t get enough of the team’s battalion of young attackers, Chelsea versus Galatasaray is the game for you.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.