Cristiano Ronaldo

La Liga season preview, predictions: Can anyone outlast Real Madrid?

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Last season, La Liga closed up shop with its first champion not named Barcelona or Real Madrid since 2004. Manager Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid to the mountain top, their 90 points enough to outlast the usual names.

But Simeone has lost Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois amongst others in his search to repeat, while both Real and Barca have loaded up in the transfer market (a task especially important to the latter, who won’t be able to make another transfer between the end of this window and January 2016).

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La Liga would seem as unbalanced as ever, with 10 teams within 10 points of relegation and no one within 17 points of the ‘Big Three’, but is that an illusion? Who will win the league, who can make a charge and who will go down? Glad you asked…

Relegation battlers: Eibar and Cordoba are both making their first trips through La Liga in a long, long time. In Eibar’s case, it’s the first ever trip to the top flight, while Cordoba last played 42 years ago. Deportivo La Coruna is back after one year in the Segunda Division.

All three will struggle to stay up, but Almeria and Getafe both barely escaped with their safety last season. Can Rayo Vallecano replicated its second half of the 2013/14, and avoid the garbage dump that was the first half? Throw in Elche and Granada, and almost half the teams in the league could go down without qualifying as a major surprise.

source: AP
Can Sevilla improve on Europa League triumph?

The challengers: Athletic Bilbao finished in fourth place, 20 back of the title and 17 back of the third slot, and have not done much to replace the loss of Ander Herrera to Manchester United. Sevilla finished fifth and won the UEFA Europa League, though you get the feeling their place in La Liga would’ve been higher without the focus on winning Europa.

Real Sociedad faces major challenges to replicating its success, as Claudio Bravo, Antoine Griezmann and Haris Seferovic all skipped town, while Valencia made enough intriguing additions to move forward.

If you’re looking for a dark horse, try Malaga. They lost Wily Caballero but ably replaced the Man City-bound keeper with Mexican World Cup star Guillermo Ochoa, while also adding Arthur Boka from Stuttgart, Roberto Rosales from Twente and Luis Alberto on loan from Liverpool. Another dark horse is the aforementioned Rayo Vallecano, which has added Gael Kakuta and Alejandro Pozuelo.

The title tilters: Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti faces the challenge of dealing with an embarrassment of riches after his club picked up James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas to its already jacked lineup (and what if Angel Di Maria doesn’t leave?).

Atletico added Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Raul Jimenez, but may end up struggling to stay with Barcelona and Real thanks to the adjustment period. Barcelona will be very strong once Luis Suarez returns from his four-month ban, but also faces a bit of uncertainty as names like Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen acclimate to the Camp Nou and their teammates learn to live life without Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

Predicted order of finish (2013/14 finish)
1. Real Madrid (3)
2. Barcelona (2)
3. Sevilla (5)
4. Atletico Madrid (1)
5. Villarreal (6)
6. Valencia (8)
7. Malaga (11)
8. Rayo Vallecano (12)
9. Athletic Bilbao (4)
10. Celta de Vigo (9)
11. Espanyol (14)
12. Levante (10)
13. Real Sociedad (7)
14. Granada (15)
15. Getafe (13)
16. Almeria (17)
17. Cordoba (N/A)
18. Deportivo La Coruna (N/A)
19. Elche (16)
20. Eibar (N/A)

Champions League roundup: Roma self-destruct at home; Celtic sneak into group stage

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 23:  Felipe of FC Porto scores the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League qualifying playoff round second leg match between AS Roma and FC Porto at Stadio Olimpico on August 23, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
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A roundup of Tuesday’s action in the UEFA Champions League qualification play-off round…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Roma 0-3 (1-4) Porto

Roma finished Tuesday’s second leg with just nine players and no chance of Champions League glory this season after Daniele De Rossi and Emerson Palmieri were shown red cards either side of halftime. Of course, the home side had already conceded to go 1-0 down on the night (2-1 on aggregate). It was a simple header by Felipe that put the Portuguese side in front, a lead they would never relinquish.

Porto put the game and the tie away with a pair of goals scored by Mexican national teamers, Miguel Layun and Jesus Corona inside the game’s final 20 minutes.

Monaco 1-0 (3-1) Villarreal

Monaco came into the second leg with a 2-1 lead — and two away goals — meaning any drawing score would put them through. For 89 minutes on Tuesday, it was a scoreless stalemate with Villarreal, but Fabinho grabbed a late goal from the penalty spot and secured the Ligue 1 side’s place in the group stage.

Hapoel Beer Sheva 2-0 (4-5) Celtic

Brendan Rodgers‘ side made it as tight and nervy as they possibly could do, but Celtic are through to the group stage after dropping the second, 2-0 in Israel. It was 1-0 after 20 minute and 2-0 after 48 minutes, but the hosts needed a third goal to win the tie on away goals, and it never came.

Elsewhere in CL play-off action

Legia Warsaw 1-1 (3-1) Dundalk
Viktoria Plzen 2-2 (2-4) Ludogorets Razgrad

Wednesday’s schedule

Borussia Monchengladbach (3) vs. (1) BSC Young Boys
Rostov (1) vs. (1) Ajax
Red Bull Salzburg (1) vs. (1) Dinamo Zagreb
APOEL (0) vs. (1) Copenhagen

Changes to Champions League format, payouts up for discussion on Thursday

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)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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GENEVA (AP) The richest clubs and biggest leagues in Europe are set to tighten their grip on the Champions League’s future format and prize money this week.

A deal being prepared by UEFA should end threats by some elite clubs to break away and form a closed European Super League before 2021.

However, it could ensure that more guaranteed places in the 32-team group stage and bigger shares of billion-dollar prize money each season will go to teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus from the four highest-ranked national leagues.

In the hours before the group-stage draw on Thursday, a series of meetings with clubs and UEFA executive committee members in Monaco is expected to agree changes to entry slots for the 2018-2021 seasons.

UEFA and the influential European Club Association declined to comment on reports that the top leagues – in Spain, Germany, England and Italy – will each get four direct entries into the groups.

In a statement to The Associated Press, UEFA said only that it “expects to announce the evolution” of the Champions League at a news conference on Friday.

Italian clubs are looking to be the big winner. Serie A would offer four direct entries to the group stage, compared to two in the current three-season commercial cycle which expires in 2018.

Spain, England and Germany would also benefit by ending the risk of its fourth-placed club losing in the playoff round each August. Advancing through the playoffs is worth tens of millions of euros (dollars) as UEFA will share 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) among the 32 group-stage clubs this season.

Italy has a dire recent record in playoffs. Serie A sends its third-placed team to the final qualifying stage and only AC Milan in 2014 has advanced in the past six seasons.

Changing the Champions League format is possible only every three years. It must be agreed before UEFA’s retained marketing agency can sell Champions League and Europa League rights to broadcasters and sponsors for the next cycle.

The debate this year has been intense with clubs seeming to take advantage of a UEFA leadership gap since outgoing president Michel Platini was suspended by FIFA last year.

It should be resolved ahead of a Champions League draw missing recent winners Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan and Inter Milan. They all failed to qualify, but would expect to join an American-style closed European league where the likes of surprise English champion Leicester would not automatically appeal to most broadcasters.

Options favorable to the most influential clubs included more entries for the top leagues, bigger shares of the prize fund, protected places for storied clubs with a global fan base, and playing matches on Saturdays rather than midweek to appeal to Asian and American audiences. Outside Europe, viewers are judged to want more games between high-profile teams.

The deal now reportedly on UEFA’s table gives clubs some concessions, while keeping Platini’s vision for the world’s most prestigious club competition.

Platini, who played in the 1980s-era European Cup when only national champions were in a pure knockout bracket, had worked to protect entries for more teams from middle-ranking countries.

This season, Bruges, Basel and Besiktas – title winners in Belgium, Switzerland and Turkey – are among 22 teams with direct group-stage entry. It is unclear how those places could be squeezed if the big-four leagues get 16 guaranteed slots instead of 11 at present.

Basel president Bernhard Heusler declined to comment to The AP ahead of attending Thursday’s meeting of the UEFA club competitions committee.

UEFA acknowledged the next format is being agreed sooner than expected. A deadline of December’s meeting of the UEFA executive committee was set after tense meetings in Milan on May 28, ahead of the Champions League final.

The new timetable should see the tournament’s immediate future settled before the UEFA presidential vote on Sept. 14 to replace Platini.

The election front-runner, Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, has won public support from countries like Denmark and Sweden, whose title-holders regularly qualify for Champions League groups but are not seen as commercially attractive.

Some club leaders, including Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, say the Champions League is undervalued despite UEFA raising 2.24 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in annual commercial revenue for the Champions League and Europa League combined in the 2015-2018 cycle.

That gives a 12 million euro ($13.6 million) basic fee to each team in the Champions League groups. The top earner can get around 100 million euros ($113 million) from UEFA when results bonuses and TV rights shares are added.

Still, that is barely more than the English Premier League pays its last-place team from TV money, and the top European clubs want a bigger share of Champions League money from the next deal.

That deal could be struck, fittingly, on Thursday in a five-star hotel in Monte Carlo.

FOLLOW LIVE: Manchester City, Celtic, Roma aim for group stage

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, foreground, controls the ball away from Stoke City's Philipp Wollscheid, during the English Premier League soccer match between Stoke City and Manchester City, at The Bet365 Stadium, in Stoke-on-Trent, England,  Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (Nick Potts/PA via AP)
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Plenty of ties remain in the air as the UEFA Champions League playoff round winds up Tuesday and Wednesday.

One of those is not Manchester City vs. Romanian side Steaua Bucharest. City brings five road goals back to the Etihad Stadium, and is likely more concerned with Wednesday’s group stage draw.

[ MORE: U.S. teen headed to La Liga ]

Celtic is fairly comfortable as well, having put up a 5-2 score line at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in Scotland ahead of today’s match in Israel.

Notably, only two of these four clubs will advance to the group stage despite their status as competition regulars: Porto, Roma, Villarreal and Monaco.

Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League slateFOLLOW LIVE
Hapoel Be’er Sheva (2) vs. (5) Celtic
Legia Warsaw (2) vs. (0) Dundalk
Viktoria Plzen (0) vs. (2) Ludogorets Razgrad
Monaco (2) vs. (1) Villarreal
Roma (1) vs. (1) Porto
Manchester City (5) vs. (0) Steaua Bucharest

FOLLOW LIVE: 13 Premier League teams enter the EFL Cup

WATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring their winning goal during the Premier League match between Watford and Chelsea at Vicarage Road on August 20, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images
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Everton, Chelsea, and Liverpool all begin their EFL Cup runs on Tuesday, as 13 Premier League clubs enter the fray of the competition formerly known as the League Cup.

[ MORE: U.S. teen headed to La Liga ]

Newcastle United, linked with an imminent arrival of USMNT back DeAndre Yedlin, will play Cheltenham Town, while fellow relegated side Norwich City faces Coventry City.

Tuesday’s EFL Cup scheduleFOLLOW LIVE

Crystal Palace vs. Blackpool
Blackburn Rovers vs. Crewe Alexandra
Burton Albion vs. Liverpool
Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers
Derby County vs. Carlisle United
Everton vs. Yeovil Town
Exeter City vs. Hull City
Luton Town vs. Leeds United
Millwall vs. Nottingham Forest
Newcastle United vs. Cheltenham Town
Northampton Town vs. West Bromwich Albion
Norwich City vs. Coventry City
Oxford United vs. Brighton & Hove Albion
Peterborough United vs. Swansea City
Preston North End vs. Oldham Athletic
Queens Park Rangers vs. Rochdale
Scunthorpe United vs. Bristol City
Stevenage vs. Stoke City
Watford vs. Gillingham
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Cambridge United
Reading vs. MK Dons

Wednesday

Accrington Stanley vs. Burnley
Fulham vs. Middlesbrough
Morecambe vs. Bournemouth
Sunderland vs. Shrewsbury Town