What’s at stake on UEFA Champions League Wednesday

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Porto head coach Vitor Pereira may believe “[t]here are no such things as favorites in [Champions League],” but there are certainly teams more likely to win games than others. Some might even call that a favorite. Pereira’s is team one, hence his dismissive, containing attitude ahead of the Dragons’ match with Dinamo Zagreb, even if Pereira’s right to be skeptical of frontrunners. Milan, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Manchester City — all in action on Wednesday — have failed to find results commensurate with their talent.

Those teams may still be hoping for a turnaround, but time’s running out. Wednesday marks the end of group stage’s fifth of six rounds. Up to seven teams could be eliminated after the day’s matches, and unless Luciano Spalletti and Roberto Mancini (right) can find solutions to their teams’ Champions League travails, Zenit and City will be among them.

Group A

Porto (Portugal) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), Estadio Dragão, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France), Olympic Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Porto 10 pts, PSG 9, Dynamo Kyiv 4, Dinamo Zagreb 0

Calling a side’s last performance “weak-willed and unfocused” while claiming there could be “major changes during the winter break” might seem like a dangerous, potentially mutiny-inspiring way to approach an important match, but Dynamo Kyiv’s poor run of form leaves Oleh Blokhin little choice. Instead of gloss over his team’s woes ahead of Ukraine’s winter break, Blokhin’s made it clear. Sitting third place in league and staring at a probable relegation to Europa League, the team could be in for a major shakeup.

If Dynamo beat PSG, they stay alive ahead of a matchday six meeting with Dinamo Zagreb, against whom a win could put them through to the knockout round. In order for that to happen, PSG would have to follow their upset in Ukraine with a home loss to Porto, a team who’d likely have a knockout round birth sewn up. Even if with the Parisians coming off an embarrassing Saturday loss, that’s a lot of planets that need to lineup for Dynamo to be playing Champions League soccer come January.

Group B

Schalke (Germany) vs. Olympiacos (Greece), Veltins-Arena, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Arsenal (England) vs. Montpellier (France), Emirates Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Schalke 8 pts, Arsenal 7, Olympiacos 6, Montpellier 1

After taking four points off Arsenal, Schalke’s control of this group goes beyond their one-point group lead on the Gunners. Hosting Greece’s champions before visiting struggling Montpellier (who somehow managed a point in Gelsenkirchen), Schalke’s facing the easiest run-in possible. If form holds, they’ll earn first place and the benefit of an easier Round of 16 matchup.

Coming off a weekend loss in the Bundesliga (where they’ve dropped two of three), Schalke may be vulnerable, though it’s unclear how much of a threat Olympiacos will pose. The Greek champions haven’t lost since Oct. 3, but that’s against a kind Champions League schedule (back-to-back with Montepellier) and a weakened Greek league.

Schalke wins this game if they play to their potential, but what happens if they have an off day, like they did this weekend at Leverkusen? Can they still get three from Olympiacos?

Group C

Zenit (Russia) vs. Málaga (Spain), Petrovsky Stadium, 12:00 p.m. Eastern
Anderlecht (Belgium) vs. Milan (Italy), Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Málaga 10 pts, Milan 5, Anderlecht 4, Zenit 3

Anderlecht “could be Alexandre Pato’s game,” insists Milan coach Max Allegri, who also talked up the improved form of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Robinho during his Tuesday press conference. Anybody who’s followed Milan’s season might be quick to accuse the embattled Rossoneri boss of burying the lead. These days, Milan is all about Stephan El-Shaarawy.

The 20-year-old Italian international scored twice this weekend in Naples, single-handedly helping Milan recover from a terrible first 30 minutes to claim a point at Napoli. With six goals in his last nine games (plus his goal for Italy against France last Wednesday), the former Genoa attacker is up to 11 all-competition goals this season. In a Milan season that’s been defined by disappointing results and the memory of sold stars, El-Shaaraway is doing his part to make up for the summer loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If El-Shaarawy stays hot and gets help from the rest of Milan’s talented attack, the Rossoneri may be in the knockout round by day’s end. They’ll need a result from Málaga in St. Petersburg, but given how the two teams’ have fared in this year’s competition, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Manuel Pellegrini take three points from Zenit.

Group D

Ajax (Netherlands) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Amsterdam ArenA, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Manchester City (England) vs. Real Madrid (Spain), Etihad Stadium, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Standings: Borussia Dortmund 8 pts, Real Madrid 7, Ajax 4, Manchester City 2

Sometimes you wonder if Prozac might help Roberto Mancini’s press conferences.

“We don’t have much chance to go through,” he conceded on Tuesday. “It was a difficult group from the start and now it’s very difficult because of the mistakes we made in the first two games.”

The last two games have been much more damaging. Against Ajax — a team that should have been a distant fourth of four in this group — Manchester City claimed a single point. Had they claimed all six, they would still be fighting for a spot in the knockout round.

Thanks to Real’s stumbles against Dortmund (taking only one point in two games), City still has a chance to advance. Unfortunately, for Mancini, that means beating Real Madrid boss José Mourinho. The two will forever be linked after Mourinho replaced Mancini at Inter Milan, taking the Nerazzurri to a European title.

“[I]t’s not Mourinho v. Mancini,” the City boss said, “it’s between the players, they are more important than we are.”

Contrast that with Mourinho’s attitude.

“I don’t think it is normal when you are out of the competition at a very early stage,” was a combative Mourinho’s blunt assessment of the job his rival’s done in Champions League. “I speak for myself, and if Real Madrid lost a final, or a semifinal, or even a quarterfinal, that’s football. But when you are out at the group stage it is more difficult to accept and to understand. Last season, they were out [at this stage] and this season I think they will be out again.”

Even if City pulls off an upset, they could still be in last place come Wednesday night. Conversely, if Dortmund gets a result in Amsterdam, the German champions clinch a spot in the next round.

VIDEO: Portugal lead Iran at HT; Spain 1-1 Morocco

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We’re through the first 45 minutes of Monday’s Group B finales at the 2018 World Cup, and things are happening. A quick rundown…

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos combined to commit a disastrous gaffe at midfield, resulting in a goal for Khalid Boutaib in the 14th minute. At this point, Spain would have finished second, behind Portugal, and headed to the far more difficult side of the knockout bracket.

Five minutes later, it was Iniesta who, with a little help from some slightly lesser geniuses, unlocked the Moroccan defense to set up Isco for an emphatic finish. La Furia Roja moved back to the top of the group, on goals scored.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

In the afternoon’s other game, Portugal and Iran appeared destined for a 0-0 scoreline at halftime, until Ricardo Quaresma unleashed a stunning, outside-of-the-foot curler from outside the box to beat the goalkeeper and put Portugal ahead — both on the day, and in the table. As things currently stand, Portugal would win the group and Spain would finish second.

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 4

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In the fourth episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England players have been preparing for their next match in an unusual way, Argentina has a huge meltdown, and more.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

Click play on the video above to watch the fourth episode in full.

Atlanta leads way with six All-Star Fan XI selections

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It may be hard to believe with all the World Cup festivities going on, but the Major League Soccer season is nearly halfway over.

[ MORE: Toronto FC’s 2018 has been far from their cup-winning 2017 ]

And that means it’s almost All-Star time.

The MLS All-Stars will continue their recent tradition of facing a European superpower in August, with Juventus being welcomed to the United States in early August.

But, which players from MLS will we see in action?

Last season’s expansion sweetheart Atlanta United leads the way in the fan voting with six players from the Eastern Conference side voted into the Fan XI, including attackers Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe and Josef Martinez.

Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender/captain Michael Parkhurst also made the team from Atlanta.

In all, only five clubs were represented based on the Fan XI, with the LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela and Laurent Ciman, Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi and Portland Timbers star Diego Valeri each rounding out the squad.


Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)

Defenders: Michael Parkhurst (Atlanta United), Laurent Ciman (Los Angeles Football Club), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Miguel Almirón (Atlanta United), Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United), Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)

Forwards: Josef Martínez (Atlanta United), Zlatan Ibrahimović (LA Galaxy), Carlos Vela (Los Angeles Football Club – EA SPORTS™ “More Than a Vote” Challenge)

Saudi Arabia steals late win over Egypt in Group A finale

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Saudi Arabia pulled off a late 2-1 win against Egypt on Monday in their Group A finale, as the two nations ended their 2018 World Cup run in the group stage.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Salem Al Sawsari scored in the fifth minute of second half stoppage time to give the Saudis a late winner in the match, as the attacker struck the post in the dying moments before the ball crossed the line.

The Pharaohs took the lead in the 22nd minute, after a tremendous run from Mohamed Salah and lob over the Saudi Arabia goalkeeper.

Salah has two goals at the World Cup for Egypt, who were already eliminated heading into Monday’s match.

Saudi Arabia was granted a chance to equalize prior to halftime, however, goalkeeper Essam El Hadary brilliantly stopped Hattan Bahebri’s penalty kick in the 41st minute to preserve the Egypt advantage.

El Hadary became the oldest player in World Cup history to appear in a match at the age of 45.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

The Egypt keeper wasn’t as lucky the second time around though, with Salmon Al Faraj converting a penalty kick in the 51st minute.

Saudi Arabia finishes group play in third place on three points, while Egypt goes winless in its three matches.