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Champions League Preview: Real Madrid looks to restore confidence against decimated Dortmund

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When Real Madrid drew Borussia Dortmund after UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16, the pairing looked fortuitous pairing for the surging favorite. Back then, Carlo Ancelotti’s team appeared primed to be Bayern Munich’s main obstacle, with a rise to the top of La Liga showing its quality relative to fellow contenders Barcelona and Atlético Madrid.

Jump to the present, and an unexpected slide finds Real Madrid occupying the Primera’s third place once more. A disappointing home loss to Barcelona followed at an upset at Sevilla highlighted the team’s long-discussedfragility. For all the success los Blancos experienced this winter — as ascent that left all of fall’s questions in 2013’s distance — they were still sent spinning by a Lionel Messi hat trick, a Sergio Ramos red card, and the same misgivings that have kept the team’s current core from claiming the club’s long-sought decima.

It makes El Real’s pairing with Borussia Dortmund even more fortuitous. Had the nine-time champions been drawn with Bayern Munich or Barcelona in this round, the wounds they suffered in league may have sufficiently healed. But against a Dortmund team that has struggled all season with injuries, Real Madrid may be getting just the right level of opponent to ease them back toward their title-contending form.

“We have done well in the competition up until now,” Ancelotti reminded the media on Tuesday, “we are one of only two teams unbeaten. We are 100 percent ready for this match.”

(MORE: Real Madrid’s path: Landslide at Schalke | Finish the job at home)

In the last round, however, Jurgen Klopp’s team’s four-goal outburst in Russia reminded the field of Dortmund’s persisting danger, something the Merengues will remember from last year’s semifinals. But with up to seven first choice players set to be sidelined on Wednesday, Dortmund will look little like the team that routed Real Madrid in Germany last season.

Robert Lewandowskiwho posted four goals on El Real in last year’s first leg, is suspended for Wednesday’s match in Madrid. Though he’ll return for leg two, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Sven Bender, Ilkay Gündogen and Jakub Blaszczykowski will not, with Lukacz Piszczek’s fitness concern potentially leaving the full back with his injured teammates. Dortmund is decimated.

But Dortmund has been decimated for most of the season. Yet they still won their Champions League group. They’re still in the tournament’s final eight. They still sit second in Germany, and they were still able to put their Round of 16 match against Zenit St. Petersburg away within 90 minutes. Those focusing on Borussia Dortmund’s misfortune usually overlook the fact that Klopp has made his adjustments.

“I’m not a magician but we have had to get over much adversity this season,” Klopp explained. “I have very good players and my duty is to make them better; so far we’ve done that very well.”

(MORE, Dortmund’s road to the quarters: Explosion in St. Petersburg | Struggles at home)

source: APThose duties leave summer buy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the likely starter up top. Marco Reus (right), capable of finding goals on his own (as he did three times this weekend), will star in an attacking line of three with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and (likely) Jonas Hoffman. The debilitated defense will rely on Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the middle beside Mats Hummels, with Kevin Großkreutz moved back on the right to play opposite left back Erik Durm. It’s a makeshift team, yet one which, thanks to players like Reus, can still pull off an upset.

It’s also a group that’s more capable than the Sevilla team that beat Real Madrid in the middle of last week, though that loss is likely to have served as a wake up call. If so, Borussia Dortmund’s hamstrung defense risks being overrun by Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, with a midfield trio of Luka Modric, Ángel Di María, and Xabi Alonso capable of dictating the affair. At home and carrying memories of last years’ first leg embarrassment, Real Madrid’s stars can be expected to try and post a decisive result.

(MORE: Mourinho, Chelsea stand in the way of PSG’s semifinal goal)

“Playing the second leg at home may be a slight advantage but I fear Madrid trying to settle the tie here,” according to Klopp. “I have seen many of their games and they never finish a match without one scoring opportunity. They have incredible quality and we can’t ignore that. If we play our game and keep our heads up, we will have chances.”

On Wednesday, Dortmund’s main goal has to be to survive until leg two. Then, they’ll have Lewandowski back. Piszczek might return. They’ll be at home, and they may be able to use that Real Madrid fragility in their favor. Dortmund could be the next team to draw a decisive Sergio Ramos red card.

They just need to survive the Bernabéu.

Ranking toughness of UCL groups for Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City

Kompany and City's defense struggled to contain Messi and Barca in the first half.
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Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City all entered the UEFA Champions League at the group stage and they found out their fate on Thursday following the draw in Monaco.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

Right now Leicester, Arsenal and Spurs will be feeling pretty good about their chances of advancing to the UCL’s Round of 16. As for Man City, boy, it will be a tough route through the group stage once again for them.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins top award ]

Below is a look at the toughness of the group stage draw for all four PL teams.


GROUP G: Leicester City, FC Porto, Club Brugge, Copenhagen

Their first-ever season in the UCL, the draw could not have gone any better for reigning PL champs Leicester in terms of their dreams of advancing. Claudio Ranieri‘s side have FC Porto, who will be a very tough test, but in Club Brugge and Copenhagen they drew two of the easier teams they could have faced. Overall, this is not a tough group especially when you see the full draw. Looks like the fairytale for the Foxes will go deep in the Champions League this season. Toughness ranking: 3/10


GROUP A: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, FC Basel, Ludogorets

Arsenal will fancy their chances against PSG and when it comes to FC Basel and Ludrogorets they will expect to take two wins from each of these teams. But this is Arsenal so they’ll probably need a 3-0 win in their last group game to make the knockout rounds… Seriously, though, Arsene Wenger will be a relieved man to avoid the likes of Bayern Munich and Barelona in the group stage but Arsenal’s games against PSG will be pivotal in their chances of getting a good draw in the last 16. Overall, could’ve been a lot tougher. Toughness ranking: 4/10


GROUP C: FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchendgladbach, Celtic

It just had to happen for Pep Guardiola, didn’t it? He will return to the Nou Camp in his debut season at City to face his beloved Barcelona and Man City’s fans will be sick of the sight of Lionel Messi and Co. after they knocked them out of the competition in two of the last three seasons. That said, there will be two magnificent games between the giants with Barca the favorites to win the UCL this season. As for Monchengladbach, they are quietly a very strong team and even Celtic (who famously beat Barca in the group stage in 2012) will provide a tough challenge for City at Celtic Park in the away game. All in all, couldn’t have been tougher for City but they will likely squeeze through with Barca to the Round of 16.

Toughness ranking: 8/10


GROUP E: CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, Monaco

Maurcio Pochettino’s side will be grinning like a Cheshire cat with this draw. Arguably it is even easier than Leicester’s with CSKA Moscow perennial strugglers in the UCL, plus German side Bayer Leverkusen very beatable and Spurs have done well against Monaco in the Europa League recently. Overall, if Spurs don’t win this group they will be very disappointed. A great draw for the north London club. Toughness ranking: 3/10


Best Player in Europe: Cristiano Ronaldo beats Bale, Griezmann to win award

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal kisses the Henri Delaunay trophy to celebrate after their 1-0 win against France in the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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Cristiano Ronaldo was named the Best Player in Europe by UEFA on Thursday in Monaco, following the group stage draw for the UEFA Champions League.

Ronaldo, 31, beat other finalists teammate and Welsh international Gareth Bale and France and Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann to the award for the 2015-16 season. Barcelona duo Lionel Messi came fourth and Luis Suarez finished in fifth.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

The Portuguese striker scored 51 goals in 48 games for Real Madrid last season and led Portugal to its first-ever major title as a nation, winning the EURO 2016 trophy.

Ronaldo said on stage that he was “living his dream” by playing football as he won the award for a second time in his career, the list title coming in 2014.

Previous winners of this prestigious award, which takes into account the form of the player both for this club team in Europe and also for his national team, include Messi (the only other player to win the award twice), Andres Iniesta and Franck Ribery.

UEFA Champions League group stage: Premier League teams learn their fate

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  The  UEFA Champions League trophy is displayed prior to the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Premier League teams got off very lightly, overall, in the UEFA Champions League group stage draw.

The draw took place in Monaco on Thursday as reigning Leicester City were handed a very comfy group of opponents in Group G with FC Porto, Club Brugge and Copenhagen, as were Tottenham Hotspur who were placed in Group E with CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco.

Arsenal also got a very decent draw with Paris Saint-Germain, FC Basel and Ludogorets in Group A, but Manchester City once again got a very tough draw at the group stage along with FC Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach and Celtic in Group C.

[ MORE: Full UCL schedule

Reigning champs Real Madrid have been drawn in Group F alongside Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon and Legia Warsaw, with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid drawn together in Group D.

Below is the group stage draw in full with the opening group games to take place on Sept. 13/14 and a further five group games taking place — each team plays one another home and away — between September and December. The knockout stages then begin in February 2017 ahead of the UCL final in Cardiff, Wales on June 3.

You can click on the link above for the full schedule for group games.


GROUP A
Paris Saint-Germain
Arsenal
FC Basel
Ludogorets

GROUP B
Benfica
Napoli
Dynamo Kiev
Besiktas

GROUP C
FC Barcelona
Manchester City
Borussia Monchendgladbach
Celtic

GROUP D
Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid
PSV Eindhoven
Rostov

GROUP E
CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen
Tottenham Hotspur
Monaco

GROUP F
Real Madrid
Borussia Dortmund
Sporting Lisbon
Legia Warsaw

GROUP G
Leicester City
FC Porto
Club Brugge
Copenhagen

GROUP H
Juventus
Sevilla
Lyon
Dinamo Zagreb

LIVE – Europa League play-offs: West Ham within reach of group stage

STRATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Reece Oxford of West Ham United and Elvis Bratanovic of NK Domzale in action during the UEFA Europa League Qualification round match between West Ham United and NK Domzale at London Stadium on August 4, 2016 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the UEFA Europa League play-off round takes place on Thursday with the final 22 places in the group stage

West Ham United are drawing 1-1 from their first leg in Romania against Astra Giurgiu, the team who knocked them out in the qualifying rounds last season.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ] 

Slaven Bilic‘s men have a vital away goal and will fancy their chances of getting past Astra this time  as the second leg takes place at their new home at the London Stadium.

Plenty of the 22 ties hang in the balance with Shakhtar Donetsk, Sparta Prague and Olympiakos all with a little work to do to secure their spot in the next stage.

Premier League sides Southampton and Manchester United have already qualified for the Europa League group stage and the draw to decide their opponents will take place in Monaco on Friday.

Below is the full schedule for the second legs which take place on Thursday, while you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.


Europa League schedule 

FK Qarabag vs. IFK Goteborg (0-1)
Brondby vs. Panathinaikos (0-3)
Grashoppers vs. Fenerbache (0-3)
Rosenborg vs. Austria Wien (1-2)
Slovan Liberec vs. AEK Larnaca (1-0)
Partizan Tirana vs. FC Krasnodar (0-4)
PAOK vs. Dinamo Tblisi (3-0)
Genk vs. NK Lokomotiva (2-2)
Osmanlispor vs. Midtjylland (1-0)
Sparta Prague vs. Sonderjyske (0-0)
West Ham United vs. Astra Giurgiu (1-1)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (1-2)
AZ Alkmaar vs. Vojvodina (0-3)
Anderlecht vs. Slavia Prague (3-0)
BATE Borisov vs. Astana (2-0)
FK Shkendija vs. Gent (1-2)
Hajduk Split vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv (1-2)
NK Maribor vs. Gabala (1-3)
Red Star Belgrade vs. Sassuolo (0-3)
St Etienne vs. Beitar Jerusalem (2-1)
Olympiakos vs. Arouca (1-0)
Rapid Wien vs. Trencin (4-0)