European weekend: Five (random) matches to watch

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Last time we did this, it was easy – not that it’s difficult when you have one of the world’s great intra-city derbies, a cup final, and a one versus two battle in one of Europe’s best leagues. It’s just that in our last edition of five to watch, we had Barcelona. We had Juventus. We had big, glamorous, self-explanatory names.

This week, the matches are no less interesting, but things being a little less self-explanatory, I have to do a little bit more writing, starting with the rivalry:

5. Austria Wien vs. Rapid Wien, Austrian Bunesliga, 10:00 a.m. ET, Sunday

Austria’s two most successful, most popular clubs saw their rivalry get some unfortunate international attention last year when pitch invaders caused a May meeting to be abandoned. If you look at the numbers and organization of police in this video, you can’t help but think these type of incidents (or the potential for them) is pervasive in this derby:

Let me be clear: That kind of nonsense is no reason to watch. It’s reason to be thankful that this part of the world has a soccer culture that precludes idiots forcing matches to be called off. Knock on wood.

Since last May, three Wien derbies have been waged, making Saturday’s the 300th meeting between the clubs. Rapid will be looking for the 125th win, while Austria sits on 109.

More important: Both clubs are chasing Red Bull Salzburg for the Bundesliga’s title. Rapid are only one point back with seven matches left, and with Salzburg facing a tough Saturday visit to Sturm Graz (fifth place), the Green-Whites could find themselves first at day’s end.

For Austria, it’s a must win match. Five points back of first, the Violets can’t afford to lose any more ground on the leaders.

Player to watch: Last season with Sturm Graz, Roman Kienast finished second in goals to Austria’s Ronald Linz (19 to 21). He moved to Austria in the winter window but has been unable to replace the goal output of the departed Nacer Barazite (who moved to Monaco in January). With only one score in 10 league appearances, Kienast has been an early bust.

4. Zenit vs. CSKA Moscow, Russian Premier League, 11:00 a.m. ET, Saturday

This match is difficult to resist, even if Zenit has put the RPL to bed. In this transition season that’s been played over 18 months (as Russia moves to a fall-spring schedule), Zenit has pulled away from their Muscovite adversaries, sitting 11 points clear with six matches remaining.

Unfortunately, the achievements of Luciano Spalletti’s side are being overshadowed by a story that has become ridiculously common to Russian soccer. Earlier this week, Zenit was fined after fans directed monkey noises at Lokomotiv Moscow’s black players.

On the field, it’s a potential great news, bad news scenario for CSKA. The bad news: Captain and best defender Sergei Ignashevich will miss the match with a broken toe. The potentially great news: One of the world’s best goalkeepers, Igor Akinfeev, could return after a long-term injury absence stemming from a controversial fall collision with Spartak attacker Welliton. The 26-year-old’s return from major knee surgery could be a huge boost to Russia’s Euro 2012 hopes.

Player to watch: Sergei Semak could also be in frame for Euro 2012, if Russia head coach Dick Advocaat sees things like Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The Zenit attacker claims his 36-year-old teammate could help the national team this summer, and looking around at Advocaat’s other deep-lying midfield options, you can see the logic. The former national team captain has three goals in his last eight appearances, and against his former club on Saturday, Semak could continue making his case.

3. PSV vs. AZ, Netherlands’ Eredivisie, 12:45 p.m. ET, Saturday

Possibly the most interesting title race in Europe was dealt a blow mid-week when AZ was drawn at home by Twente. The result meant the league’s second and third place teams lost ground on pace-setting Ajax, who’ve rode the crest of an up-and-down year to a three-point lead.

The circuit’s other traditional power, PSV, has also been on a roller coaster. At one point, the club was storming through Europa while sitting in control of league. Since the calendar turned, however, things have fallen apart. Valencia rolled them out of Europa while the club fell to fifth in the table, leading to Phillip Cocu to replace Fred Rutten as head coach. Since, PSV has claimed the Dutch Cup, though nobody will be satisfied finishing so low in league.

AZ, however, has been the Netherlands’ most consistent team (on Thursday, Johan Cruyff went as far as to call them the best in Holland), and on Saturday, they’ll take the league’s best defense to Philips Stadion. In August’s reverse fixture, goals from Maarten Martins, Nick Viergever and Jozy Altidore led AZ to a 3-1 victory, and while the bookmakers have PSV big favorites ahead of Saturday’s rematch, don’t be surprised if Gertjan Verbeek’s side creates another dip in PSV’s rollercoaster.

Player to watch: If you’re going to watch this one, you’ll likely tune in to see Altidore. I can’t blame you, but if you have time for one more player, keep an eye on PSV’s 22-year-old midfielder Kevin Strootman. Already in the plans of the national team, Strootman gives Bert van Marwijk a decidedly less violent, more creative option in the pivot.

2. Udinese vs. Internazionale, Italian Serie A, 2:45 p.m. ET, Saturday

This is really happening. This Inter Milan zombie may really get back into Europe.

The Nerazzurri sit in seventh, their 48 points only two back of Roma in fifth (otherwise known as a Europa League spot). Their seven points in three matches have converted a fews believers to the Andrea Stramaccioni movement. Now, the six-point gap to third doesn’t look so big, particularly with a season-closing match at Lazio. With six matches left, maybe Champions League isn’t out of the question after all.

Udinese’s won once in their last seven matches, and while they’re only three points out of that Champions League spot, the parade of big names behind them force the Bianconeri to be mindful of a fall. If Inter hand Udinese their second home loss of the season, Udinese could be in seventh come Sunday night.

Player to watch: With Walter Samuel suspended, it will be up to Lucio to handle Udinese’s Toto Di Natale, Italy’s second leading goal-scorer. Having conceded seven times since Stramaccioni took over, Inter desperately needs somebody at the back to assert themselves.

1. Olympique Lyon vs. Olympique Marseille, France’s Coupe de la Ligue final, 3:00 p.m. ET, Saturday

In addition to being ninth-place Marseille’s last chance for Europe, Saturday’s final is a snapshot of the changing face of Ligue 1. Well, perhaps describing it as the “face” is wrong. With former perennial titlists Lyon fighting for their Champions League lives while a club as big as Marseille regresses to mediocrity, this match is more France’s disappearing jawline than its face.

The game also see rivals at different ends of the form table. After being eliminated from Champions League by APOEL, Lyon has won six, drawn one in seven games, registering victories over Rennes, PSG, Lille as well as winning their derby at Saint-Étienne. Marseille, one the other hand, has not won a lead match since Jan. 29 and have lost 11 of 12.

Form aside, this is still two of the biggest clubs in France, and they’re playing for silverware. Given it’s the last chance for Didier Deschamps’ side to salvage anything from a horrible season, expect the best l’OM has to offer.

Player to watch: Lisandro Lopez is always worth watching, but during Lyon’s resurgence, the talisman has six goals in seven. Having struggled through injuries all year, the Argentine attacker appears to have hit a run of form that could carry OL into Champions League.

Also worth following: Schalke 04 vs. Borussia Dortmund, Germany, 9:30 a.m. ET, Saturday; Benfica vs. Gil Vicente, League Cup Portugal, 3:45 p.m. ET, Saturday

Lampard, Azpilicueta back Barkley after penalty drama

Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images
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Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta claims that Willian was encouraging Ross Barkley in the run-up to the latter’s ill-fated penalty attempt in a 1-0 loss to Valencia at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday in the UEFA Champions League.

“Ross  is one of the best penalty takers in the team and one who takes them. He had the confidence and he was unlucky hitting the bar. They were encouraging him to have the confidence to score. There was high expectation. They were trying to get him into the best condition. Hopefully next time it goes in.”

[ MORE: Recap, 3 things ]

That is genuinely amusing from cheeky and likable “Dave.” Let’s take a look at the encouragement, shall we?

Barkley is literally, repeatedly motioning and even saying, “Nah, I got this. I’ll be fine.”

Chelsea boss Frank Lampard says Barkley was the penalty taker for the game, and doesn’t see the drama in it.

“Ross is a penalty taker and is when he starts games. He took it and missed it. It is a great story to say there is contention between players. If he scores it is not a story. But he took it and missed. That is it. The disappointment to all of us is that we didn’t get chance to win the game. There is no issue in the dressing room.”

Chelsea was the superior team over 90 minutes, but that can mean so little in a tournament where winning at home can be vital to the chances of advancement.

Champions League wrap: Ajax, RB Leipzig, Salzburg win; Barca held

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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While Liverpool and Chelsea lost in shutout fashion, only three other teams saw zeroes next to their names after 90 minutes of UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday.

[ UCL: Scores, full lineups, stats, box scores ]

You may be surprised to see that Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund kept each other off the board, while Lille was cooked by Ajax.

Red Bull Salzburg 6-2 Genk

Jesse Marsch is now officially the first American man to manage a team to a win in a UEFA Champions League game. The Red Bull Salzburg boss got a hat trick from red-hot 19-year-old striker Erling Braut Haland, who has 17 goals in nine matches this season and is also the son of former Leeds, Man City, and Nottingham Forest manager Alf-Inge Haland.

Ajax 3-0 Lille

Mexico’s Edson Alvarez now has two goals in two career UEFA Champions League games, as he joined Quincy Promes on the score sheet in a 2-0 win. American-Dutch right back Sergino Dest played 90 minutes in the win, and Nicolás Tagliafico recorded two assists. USMNT forward Timothy Weah was again absent with a hamstring tear.

Borussia Dortmund 0-0 Barcelona

Lionel Messi spent most of the match on the bench, and Marco Reus missed a Jadon Sancho-won penalty thanks to a Marc-Andre ter Stegen save.

And what a save it was!

Elsewhere

Chelsea 0-1 Valencia — RECAP
Napoli 2-0 Liverpool — RECAP
Inter Milan 1-1 Slavia Prague — RECAP
Lyon 1-1 Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Benfica 1-2 RB Leipzig

Barkley sails late penalty as Chelsea falls at home

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Ross Barkley missed a late penalty as Chelsea lost its UEFA Champions League opener 1-0 to Valencia on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Rodrigo scored the lone goal, and Valencia will be thrilled to collect all three points in London.

Christian Pulisic was an unused sub for Chelsea, who out-attempted Valencia 22-8 on the day.


Three things we learned

1. Pulisic down the pecking order: The American star didn’t start, and wasn’t the first name called when Mason Mount was injured. Granted Pedro played a little deeper, but not a good week for the Hershey-born Pulisic

2. Wide men the danger men: Willian was the likely Man of the Match for Chelsea despite the lack of goals, and full backs Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta were also key to the resutl.

3. Penalty drama: VAR gave Chelsea a chance to level from the spot, but Ross Barkley stepped ahead of Willian and missed the chance. The Brazilian looked aggrieved before and after the miss, and Barkley looked mighty confident right until the moment he missed his shot. Sort yourself out!

Man of the Match: Willian — No wonder he was angry to see Barkley demand the penalty, as a Willian goal would’ve been a fitting result for his clever and industrious day at the office.


Valencia keeper Jasper Cillesen made two stops early, denying Tammy Abraham to concede a corner before collecting a Marcos Alonso header on the ensuing set piece.

Would it be Christian Pulisic time when Mason Mount left the match with injury following a challenge from former Arsenal man Francis Coquelin? Nope. Pedro was called upon to fill the void.

It was a sleepy second half, with Pedro conceding a free kick to Valencia that didn’t amount to anything exciting.

Those who stuck around were rewarded with late drama, as Valencia took the lead through a Rodrigo flick off a free kick.

However, Valencia then had to watch through its fingers as Chelsea was gifted a chance at the spot through VAR when Fikayo Tomori headed a ball off the arm of Daniel Wass.

Willian was upset to see Ross Barkley take the penalty, and the English midfielder probably wishes he let someone else take it after missing over the bar.

Napoli scores on late penalty, rare Van Dijk error in 2-0 win

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The good news is that Liverpool lost to Napoli last season in the UEFA Champions League, then went on to win the whole darn thing.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Jose Callejon won a late penalty that Dries Mertens converted, and Fernando Llorente took advantage of a Virgil Van Dijk error to pad the lead as Napoli held serve at home with a 2-0 win over Liverpool on Tuesday.


Three things we learned

1. Goalkeepers immense: No, he’s not Alisson Becker, but Adrian is probably the biggest reason Liverpool didn’t open its UCL defense with a loss. He made a pair of early stops on Dries Mertens before a show-stopping effort in the second half. Napoli got two fine saves from Alex Meret, including a terrific denial of Mohamed Salah in the 65th.

2. Salah, Mane can’t deliver in key moments: Take away Salah’s penalty in the UCL Final, and Liverpool’s two top threats have not accounted for a goal in four matches inside the competition. Mane was mostly good on the day, but misled Salah on an early second half pass which would have almost certainly been a goal. Salah simply had an off day

3. Callejon sells the drama: Liverpool’s Andy Robertson lost a 50/50 with Jose Callejon, who ran into the fulback and hit the deck to win a penalty. That was the difference here, as Mertens beat Adrian.

Man of the Match: Meret was especially good, the 22-year-old Italian goalkeeper big in several key moments to edge Mertens for the honor.


Napoli thought it had gone ahead through El Tri star Hirving Lozano, who nodded over the line following two Alisson Becker saves on Dries Mertens, but the Mexican was offside.

Sadio Mane had a 20th minute chance at the other end, but pumped a point blank low shot to Napoli keeper Alex Meret which led to a corner kick.

Fabinho intervened in the 53rd minute as Napoli emerged from the locker room with energy, but the best chance of the early second half was flubbed in uncharacteristic fashion: Sadio Mane was through 2v1 with Mohamed Salah but made a miserable pass to his teammate.

The first goal arrived when Callejon tapped the ball past Robertson and leapt into the defender to earn a penalty from referee Felix Brych.

It was 2-0 in stoppage time when Fernando Llorente ran onto a Virgil van Dijk error and passed beyond Adrian.