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.

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Liverpool

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  • Leicester City has won 2 straight home PL games vs Liverpool
  • Jamie Vardy has 5 goals in 3 PL games vs Liverpool
  • Liverpool leads the PL with 40 shots on target this season

Jamie Vardy is good to go for the Foxes as they welcome Liverpool to the King Power Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 a.m. ET on NBC or live online via NBCSports.com).

These two teams matched up midweek in League Cup play, with Leicester City winning 2-0, and they did so without Vardy who missed out with a groin strain. He’s since recovered, and will likely play a part. Christian Fuchs and Leonardo Ulloa are also ready to go, with Fuchs back after an eye injury in training, while Ulloa took a knock to the head midweek but is ready to go.

The Foxes need a win in the worst way, as a loss would leave them with their joint-worst point total through the first six matches of a top flight season since 1994/95, the year they were relegated.

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League games

Liverpool, meanwhile, has issues of its own to sort out. They are winless in all competitions since August 27th, and on a larger scale, Jurgen Klopp is taking heat for having less points than Brendan Rodgers did through his first 73 league games of his Liverpool tenure.

The Reds are also facing a bit of injury trouble, with Dejan Lovren still out with back problems, while Joel Matip and Emre Can both suffered slight injuries in the midweek loss and are questionable for Saturday. Should all those miss out, the already leaky defense would prove even more porous.

What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Liverpool chasing the ball: “We come too close together in the situation where the first ball is going after a throw-in and it means for the second ball we don’t have a good formation. We need to get more natural in these things because it’s not that difficult to be honest but it happens too often. Now we have to work and then it will be even more difficult to create something against us.”

Craig Shakespeare on Jamie Vardy vs. Liverpool: “Is he a bogeyman? I am hoping so. Sometimes strikers will have good memories of playing against certain teams. Centre forwards go through these purple patches and everybody would like one who can get you 20 goals a season.”

Prediction

If anything is certain in a Liverpool match, it’s that the first goal doesn’t matter. Since the start of last season, the Reds are tops in the league with 20 points from losing positions. However, they’re also fifth in the league in that same timeframe with 20 points lost from winning positions. With that in mind, a wild game is likely in store, but with the inconsistent form for either side of late, it’s tough to pick a winner. A 2-2 draw is a likely result.

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 17 of its last 23 Premier League games
  • Alvaro Morata has 3 goals and 2 assists, all with his head
  • Stoke has lost just 1 of its past 7 home games vs defending champions

Eden Hazard is back and at full strength as Chelsea travels to the Britannia to take on Stoke City Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

With Hazard back and Diego Costa finally shed to Atletico Madrid, the Blues have positioned themselves to make a run at the Premier League’s top spot. Chelsea has not lost since their Opening Day misstep against Burnley, and despite firing a blank in last weekend’s 0-0 draw with the Gunners, Chelsea is still just three points off the top spot, and will look to put pressure on the Manchester clubs.

In addition to Hazard, the Blues also get Temoue Bakayoko and Pedro back in the lineup as well, although David Luiz is suspended after his late red card last weekend.

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League games

This season has been a roller coaster ride for Stoke City, having picked up four points against Arsenal and Manchester United, but also losing to Newcastle and Everton, plus a very disappointing defeat midweek to Bristol City in the Cup. The Potters are missing a host of defenders, with Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross both injured, plus Kurt Zouma ineligible to face his parent club. Kevin Wimmer is also touch and go with a hamstring injury, not expected to be available.

What they’re saying

Mark Hughes on Chelsea’s discipline issues: “Chelsea at the moment look like they are getting yellow and red cards more frequently, but that might be just an anomaly, something happening in the moment. I don’t think it is prevalent in their team. They are just strong when they need to be. It is not going to be tactic we are going to irritate them with, to step over the line, because if I’m honest I don’t think I’ll have the players to do that.”

Antonio Conte on Stoke: “The most important thing for us is to go game by game. Tomorrow it will be a really tough game. We must prepare very well this game in all the situations, tactically, physically, to be disciplined. Stoke won against Arsenal and then drew against Manchester United. It means Stoke is a really good team.”

Prediction

Stoke City has given tough teams trouble, and could again if Maxim Chupo-Moting shows up at his best again, but it’s much more likely that Chelsea will ease by in this game. The Potters have fallen off slightly this season, and while their draw against Manchester United shows they pack some punch, it won’t be enough to see off a Chelsea side buoyed by the return of Eden Hazard. Chelsea could win their opening three Premier League away matches for the first time since 2009…their third away fixture of that campaign was a 2-1 victory at Stoke, so we’ll go for the same scoreline here.

Hope Solo says she has settled grievance with US Soccer

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Hope Solo has settled a grievance with U.S. Soccer over her suspension from the women’s national team following comments she made at the Rio Olympics.

The settlement was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The 35-year-old goalkeeper was suspended for six months and her contract with the federation was terminated after she called the Swedish team “a bunch of cowards” following the U.S. team’s quarterfinal loss.

Details about the settlement, reached last month, were not released. The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Players Association filed the grievance on Solo’s behalf.

In a statement provided Friday to The Associated Press, Solo reiterated her regret over the comments.

“As I expressed in my apology to the Swedish captain immediately following the match, I have tremendous respect for the Swedish team, and in describing the style of play, I used a choice of words that was both offensive and not at all what I had intended to convey,” she said.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“We have amicably resolved the matter and are moving forward in a positive way,” she added.

U.S. Soccer did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Women’s Soccer Team Players Association declined to comment.

Solo anchored the team in goal for the 2015 Women’s World Cup victory, allowing just three goals in seven games with five shutouts during the tournament – earning her a second straight Golden Glove Award.

For her career, Solo has made 202 total appearances with the national team, with 153 wins and an international-record 102 shutouts.

The defending champion U.S. women were ousted from the Olympics last summer when Sweden advanced 4-3 on penalty kicks following a 1-1 draw.

Solo’s “cowards” quote came immediately following the loss. Sweden went on to play in the gold-medal match against Germany.

Solo told the AP in an interview late last year that she spoke to coach Jill Ellis and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati following the loss, and felt that the issue was put to rest. After she returned to the United States, she said she was blindsided by the announcement about her suspension.

She said she believes U.S. Soccer wanted her off negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Solo has been an outspoken advocate for equal pay and was among the players who filed a complaint against the federation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination.

“Let’s call it what is, which is a firing,” Solo told AP then. “It was a termination of my contract effective immediately with severance. That is a firing. It wasn’t a suspension, that’s what they told the media because it looked better. But I got fired. I got fired for what they say was using the word `cowards’ but in reality they got rid of an adversary in the fight for equal pay.”

U.S. Soccer said at the time that Solo was suspended following a culmination of actions, and separately her contract was also terminated with the team.

Awful goalkeeping howler dooms Bayern to draw

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Bayern fans are already counting down the days until Manuel Neuer’s return in goal.

In his absence, Sven Ulreich has earned a pair of starts in Bundesliga play, and the most recent has not ended well. With Bayern leading Wolfsburg 2-0, Ulreich completely botched a simple save leading to Wolfsburg’s first goal, sparking a comeback from the visitors.

As Max Arnold delivered a free-kick 10 minutes after halftime, the ball sailed just over the wall and directly at Ulreich’s head. Instead of catching the attempt or using both hands to parry the shot, Ulreich raised just his right hand and failed to connect fully. The ball glanced off the side of his palm and into the back of the net to bring Wolfsburg a goal back.

The free-kick had decent pace, and it didn’t help that Sebastian Rudy made a poor attempt to block the delivery, but Ulreich won’t want to see a replay of that chance, as he made a hideous attempt to stop the shot. Wolfsburg would eventually equalize with just seven minutes remaining in the match as Daniel Didavi scored a pinpoint header in off the post. Ruddy let Didavi sneak behind him, and Paul Verhaegh delivered a fantastic long ball into the box for the 27-year-old to redirect in. The final whistle marked the first time since March 2004 that Bayern had blown a two-goal halftime lead at home.

The draw means Bayern has failed to put pressure on Borussia Dortmund this weekend, leaving Die Roten level with their Dortmund rivals on 13 points with the latter still to host Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday.

Neuer likely won’t be back until January thanks to yet another foot injury, leaving Bayern to either continue along with Ulreich and hope he improves, or look for other options either in-house or on the free agent market. Ulreich came over from Stuttgart in the summer of 2015 and has backed up Neuer since.