UEFA Champions League Preview: Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich

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Manchester United fans have been looking toward the past all season, mostly to keep themselves sane in the face of the Red Devils’ shocking swoon. Sitting seventh in the Premier League with six games to go, past years’ glory is all fans have in the face of what’s been an expected post-Alex Ferguson awakening. So it makes sense, one day before the three-time European Champions face last year’s UEFA Champions League winners, that new manager David Moyes is also looking at happier times for inspiration in the face of enormous odds.

“We are playing against a good side, but it is the sort of night where in recent history United have risen to the occasion,” Moyes said, with Bayern Munich set to visit Old Trafford on Tuesday. The teams’ first leg in Stretford represents a virtual one-versus-eight matchup, with the tournament’s worst surviving team drawn against a club trying to become the first team in 24 years to win back-to-back European titles.

München carry that favorites’ flags, with the team two-time Champions League-winner Pep Guardiola inherited this summer looking even stronger than the group that took last year’s title. Having already clinched their second-straight Bundesliga crown, the Bavarians had the luxury of resting half their squad for this weekend’s visit from Hoffenheim, with the resulting draw 3-3 shrinking their lead at the top to a still staggering 23 points. It also raised their goals allowed total to 16, with only Italy’s Roma having allowed fewer among Europe’s top five leagues.

(MORE, this weekend: United comeback against Villa | Bayern held to draw)

“Coaches around the world don’t like being called favorites before the game, but I can’t argue,” Guardiola confessed, begrudgingly. “I have to accept it because last season Bayern won everything and this season we have won the title with seven games to spare.”

It’s not a view that’s shared by everybody on the opposing bench.

“[W]e are Manchester United, it’s at Old Trafford and we’ve seen so many great nights there, in Europe especially. As players we don’t see ourselves as underdogs,” Ryan Giggs explained, his presence at the pre-match press conference hinting he’ll play on Tuesday, “we see ourselves as Man United playing at home in the Champions League.”

Perhaps that kind of naiveté is necessary when you’re in the Red Devils’ position, but you need only look to Bayern’s other trips to England this season to realize United’s long. In the Round of 16, Bayern took a 2-0 result out of the Emirates on its way to eliminating Arsenal. In October, the same Manchester City team that recently won 3-0 at Old Trafford was handed a 3-1 by the defending champions. Even at Old Trafford — even against a team United beat in the 1999 final (a reference point that has been alluded to in bizarre fashion this week) — the Red Devils are decisive underdogs.

(MORE, United’s Round of 16: Upset in Greece | Comeback in Manchester)

It’s a status that forces us to ask how United can win, but with Robin Van Persie sidelined with a knee injury, a team needing a puncher’s chance is without one of its best weapons. Though Wayne Rooney will be available, Juan Mata will not, the former Chelsea man cup-tied as a result of his time with the Blues. Starting left back Patrice Evra is suspended, leaving Alexander Buttner to match up against Bayern right winger Arjen Robben. Defenders Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are also out.

Thiago Alcántara’s knee injury means Bayern has its own fitness concerns ahead of Tuesday’s match, while Dante will join Evra among those banned from the match. But with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, and Phillip Lahm all available, Guardiola will still have everything he needs to leverage his biggest advantage: an overwhelming edge in the middle of the park, one that matches up against what’s generally perceived to be Manchester United’s greatest weakness.

(MORE, Bayern’s Round of 16: Edge on 10 in London | Control in Munich)

Perhaps under Ferguson, the Red Devils could navigate England with the likes of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley in midfield. But even then, teams that relied on Darren Fletcher or an aging Paul Scholes would be overwhelmed by Guardiola’s Barcelona, who beat the Ferguson twice in Champions League finals. Now, with a team that’s keeping 69.2 percent possession in Europe (71.4 pct. in Germany), Guardiola is again set to highlight what United fans have said for years: The Red Devils need to be stronger in the middle.

Over the course of one leg, however, anything can happen. Execute on a set piece, benefit from a sending off, or get a magical night from goalkeeper David de Gea, and United can get an unlikely result. But contrary to what Giggs says, that result is very unlikely. As Arsenal and City found out, home field can only do so much against a superior opponent.

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.