Milan adrift, Zenit’s new firepower – UEFA Champions League Group C preview

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Group quality in Champions League is a zero sum game. It’s like that in all tournaments. If you have a very strong group (like Group D, this year), either the rest of the groups become easier or one, maybe two groups become so easy that the winner’s less likely to be determined by quality than which team can get their act together in time to advance.

And that’s how we get Group C. It’s a collection of teams that have the talent to make the knockout rounds, but with issues surrounding each at the start of group stage, it’s hard to tell which pair is going to be alive come 2013.

Málaga vs. Zenit St. Petersburg

La Rosaleda, Malaga, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Continuing Tuesday’s theme of teams having never played each other, Zenit makes the 2,580 mile trip southwest to face Málaga, one of three clubs making their Champions League debut. Sitting second in Spain, Málaga no longer seem like the speed bump they were projecting after the sale of Santi Carzola. Instead, they’re exactly what they were last year: a team Manuel Pellegrini’s made tough to score on, even if they often seem in incapable of scoring more than one goal.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Málaga’s Champions League debut introduces another possible problem, one we saw in Borussia Dortmund’s unexpected troubles in last year. The German champions finished last in their group, reminding us experience in Champions League (and balancing it against domestic concerns) might actually matter. The increased travel, lack of familiarity with opponents, fixture congestion and increased on-field demands are issues clubs often have to confront before they can master. Even clubs that bulk import players and coaches with Champions League experience face trouble. Like Dortmund, Manchester City failed to make last year’s Round of 16.

Zenit did qualify for the knockout rounds, though based on the new blood they’ve brought in, expectations may be higher. Brazilian goal scorer Hulk and Belgian midfielder Alex Witsel made high-priced moves to St. Petersburg earlier this month, right around the time Luciano Spalletti’s team was dropping out of first in the Russia’s Premier League. After a perfect 4-0-0 (W-L-D) start, Zenit’s gone 1-2-1, losing at home to Rubin Kazan and Terek Grozny.

Travelling with only three days rest and having never won in Spain, Zenit’s list of problems creates a matchup of a more talent but travel weary, out-of-form side against tournament neophytes who have the luxury of playing at home. Maybe this one is destined to draw.

AC Milan vs. Anderlecht

San Siro, Milan, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Until proven otherwise, Milan are Group C favorites. Unfortunately, the Rossoneri seem to be making their opponents’ case. They’ve already lost at home to Atalanta and Sampdoria, with only a Giampaolo Pazzini hat trick at Bologna keeping Max Allegri’s side from a completely disastrous start. After selling Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic this summer (and letting a number of veterans go), Milan was supposed to take a step back, but with an easy schedule to start their Serie A campaign, more was expected in the season’s first month.

If Milan lose to Anderlecht, the club will be in full crisis mode, particularly considering the Belgians’ history on the peninsula. The Jupiler League champions have made 14 trips to Italy and never won, and while the Italians’ struggles make this as good a time as ever to make history, Anderlecht has had their own problems in Belgium. Though they sit second in league, Anderlecht’s won only three of their seven league matches.

Unfortunately for the Belgian Champion (already without  injured Argentine attacker Matías Suarez), Serbian Milan Jovanovic is suspended, leaving the Purple and Whites without two of their four main scoring options from last season. At the rate Milan’s scoring, that may not be an issue, but if Anderlecht’s going to make history instead of merely drawing, they’ll likely need Dieduonné Mbokani to maintain his form (seven all competition goals this season) or Guillaume Gillet (14 goals last year) to regain his scoring touch.

Three German organizers of 2006 World Cup indicted for tax evasion

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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) Three German organizers of the 2006 World Cup have been charged with tax evasion linked to a payment to FIFA.

German news agency dpa reported that Theo Zwanziger, Wolfgang Niersbach and Horst R. Schmidt confirmed Wednesday they are indicted by Frankfurt prosecutors in a long-running investigation.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

They are accused of falsifying tax returns on behalf of the Germany soccer federation (DFB) in 2006. The DFB has already paid 19.2 million euros ($22.4 million) in back taxes. All three deny the charges, which were first reported by German daily Bild

The allegations are also being investigated by Swiss federal prosecutors and FIFA’s ethics committee. They have targeted German soccer great Franz Beckenbauer, who led the 2006 tournament organizing committee.

Beckenbauer, Zwanziger and Niersbach were members of FIFA’s executive committee in turn from 2007 through 2016.

In 2016, the DFB published an inquiry report into a complex payments trail including 6.7 million euros ($7.8 million) to FIFA in April 2005. Zwanziger and the DFB claimed the money was for a World Cup opening gala and therefore tax-deductible.

However, the payment went through FIFA and ended in a Swiss account belonging to former Adidas chief Robert Louis-Dreyfus, who died in 2009.

The inquiry report did not rule out, but could not prove, that votes were bought when Germany beat a Nelson Mandela-supported South Africa bid for the hosting rights in a 12-11 vote of FIFA executive committee members in 2000.

Swiss prosecutors said in 2016 they had opened a criminal proceeding against the four German officials the previous year, on suspicion of fraud, money laundering, criminal mismanagement and misappropriation. That case spun off from a wider Swiss investigation of suspected corruption linked to FIFA and World Cup hosting votes that is ongoing.

Niersbach lost his seat on FIFA’s ruling committee when he was banned for one year for failing to disclose possible unethical conduct.

The various investigations have tarnished the reputation of the 2006 World Cup that was a popular success in the host nation, which called it the “Summer Fairytale.”

Would Real three-peat be most impressive feat in UCL history?

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When Franz Roth’s 57th minute goal gave Bayern Munich a 1-0 win over Saint-Etienne in Glasgow on May 12, 1976, it marked the last time a club won three-consecutive European Cups.

Oddly enough, Ajax turned the trick in the previous three seasons to Bayern’s run, and Real Madrid won the first five from 1955-60 when the tournament required a side of its ilk win only four ties. By 1976, the tournament began with the Round of 32.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

While there were certainly reasons the tournament was more difficult, consider that travel was far more taxing on the body and officiating far less advanced if even impartial, what Real Madrid would do this weekend would be an incredible achievement.

Winning three-straight competitions in any of the elite league is insane, and the UEFA Champions Leagues is especially bonkers.

Yes, an injury to Neymar made the PSG defeat a little less impressive, but consider that Real has advanced to the final while playing a murderer’s row (especially in relation to their opponents). Juventus was next, and then Bayern Munich. Now, Liverpool.

While no one, maybe ever, should cry for Real Madrid, this third run is more impressive than the first two in that the club simply isn’t as strong as previous iterations. That’s evidenced by their relatively poor performance in La Liga play, finishing almost 20 points back of rivals Barcelona and three behind Atleti.

Real sold nearly $100 million worth of players this offseason than it bought, with Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos the biggest names through the door while Alvaro Morata, Danilo, and James Rodriguez skipped town.

Who knows what’s in the water in Real, but its veteran squad continues to produce big results. Cristiano Ronaldo is 33. Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric 32. Marcelo and Benzema 30.

If Real holds off Liverpool, there will be some myopic notes about how it should’ve been expected to win the match, but that ignores that in a competition as deep as ever, Real took on all comers and triumphed for the third-straight year.

In doing so, they are likely achieving the most impressive feat in modern UCL history, certainly at least since Porto won the 2003-04 tournament under Jose Mourinho… and that was a one-off.

Report: Earnie Stewart in negotiations for U.S. Soccer GM job

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Philadelphia Union sporting director and USMNT centurion Earnie Stewart is reportedly in negotiations to become the United States men’s national team general manager.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The report, from Metro NY reporter Kristian Dyer, says the Netherlands-born executive has the proverbial ball in his court.

Stewart, 49, racked up 103 caps and 18 goals for the Yanks and had a glittering playing career spent between Willem II, NAC Breda, and DC United.

He later had high-ranking positions with NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar.

Here’s Dyer, quoting a source:

The source, speaking to Metro on the condition of anonymity, said that Stewart is believed to be the frontrunner and is in negotiations for the position following an impressive showing during the interview process.

The club, when asked for a comment, told Metro that “Since Earnie’s first interview with U.S. Soccer, we have respected their process, and as such, we will decline further comment until a final decision has been made.”

Stewart scored against Colombia in the 1994 World Cup and added markers in qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 tournaments.

His familiarity with both MLS and European leagues would be a boon for the U.S., and Stewart’s Union has brought along a number of promising young players including Auston Trusty and Keegan Rosenberry (the latter drafted out of Georgetown).

Carrick: Haven’t entertained possibility of Pogba leaving Man Utd

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Michael Carrick is hammering the idea of a Paul Pogba exit from Manchester United.

Pogba’s had his problems with manager Jose Mourinho, but recently praised the boss for the season’s education.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

But is an exit is just not going to happen, says Carrick as he heads toward a coaching role at Old Trafford.

From Sky Sports:

“Of course he’s got a future, he’s a big player for us, he’s a great age, he’s got his peak years ahead of him. It’s not even something I’d give a second thought to, to be honest.”

The retired midfielder also said he’s looking forward to working under Jose Mourinho, whom he calls “the best man to learn from.”

He also said United’s trophy-less season wasn’t ideal, but it’s more about them their competition.

“We’re not looking at City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, anyone. We’re looking at ourselves to improve, we believe we’re capable of improving a lot and we’ll see where that takes us.”