Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Colorado Rapids

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(Over the next week we’ll look at two or three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Oscar Pareja’s remodel around Dicks Sporting Goods Park didn’t go much as expected last year.

The first-time head coach wished to remake Colorado from its previous version, which was fairly effective, although with a lesser aesthetic appeal. But balls that staid more reliably on the ground and possession that remained more reliably with the Rapids could not make amends for a defense that yielded 50 goals. (And teams that yield 50 goals almost certainly aren’t visiting the playoffs.)

So it’s Year 2 for Pareja’s way. Here are the pressing questions he’ll want to answer in preseason drills:

  • Is his captain, Pablo Mastroeni, back to impact-player status?

What a blow it was in 2012 to have captain Pablo Mastroeni (pictured) stuck on the side, fingers perpetually crossed that he could make it back at all from concussion-related symptoms. Now Mastroeni, 36, is working out full-speed so far, excellent news for everyone involved with the Rapids.

They’ll certainly need him, especially after Jeff Larentowicz’s trade earlier this month to Chicago. If Mastroeni can’t fulfill the holding midfield role, Pareja will likely turn to Hendry Thomas or Martin Rivero.

  • What formation will the Rapids deploy in 2013?

Injuries and personnel incompatibility prevented the full conversion to the 4-3-3 Pareja desired last year. There were simply too many ill-fitting parts. When the injuries and a long stretch of poor summer results added pressure to the whole thing, Pareja down-shifted into the more conservative 4-4-2, hoping to restore some temporary stability. So he’s got to get that sorted out over the next six weeks, whether the off-season additions and subtractions have given him the men needed that fit that 4-3-3 vision.

  • Can the Rapids arrest Edson Buddle’s spiral?

Clearly, the one-time Galaxy bright light needed some kind of career re-set. Last year was a fairly miserable one for Buddle, who came off an unsuccessful spell with Ingolstadt in Germany to have an equally unsuccessful three-goal season with Bruce Arena and Los Angeles.

If Pareja can get Buddle pointed in the right direction, the outlook at DSG Park this year looks a lot brighter.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Report: Pep Guardiola affirms commitment to Man City

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According to a report by Sky Sports journalist Kaveh Solhekol, Pep Guardiola has met with the Man City players as a squad and affirmed his commitment to the club despite future uncertainty thanks to Financial Fair Play sanctions handed down by UEFA on Saturday.

For FFP violations, the club was banned from the Champions League for two years and handed a hefty fine, but the punishments will not be certain until after Man City’s appeal of the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. There are even still questions about whether the club’s status in Premier League play could be affected.

[ MORE: Man City punished | Key takeaways, questions ]

Plenty of clouds hover over Man City’s future, and one of them is the standing of manager Pep Guardiola who could theoretically decide to leave if the club’s Champions League ban remains intact after appeal. Guardiola’s contract expires in the summer of 2021, leaving room for movement.

The Spaniard reportedly met with players and told them, “Whatever league we are in, I will still be here. Even if they put us in League Two, I will still be here. This is a time for sticking together.” Club CEO Ferran Soriano went one step further, assuring this would all blow over and that the appeal will be successful. “Trust me like I trust you, this will be dropped,” Soriano reportedly said.

To follow Solhekol’s report, BBC journalist Simon Stone also reported that Guardiola is telling his close confidants that he will remain committed to the club.

The aim is likely to convince players to stick with the club despite any future sanctions, but the message could still be received as a mixed message. At 49 years old, Guardiola is already one of the world’s most heralded managers, and two years leading a cash-infused club like Man City outside Europe’s greatest competition could be easy to swallow. For top players who typically see a solid career last 10-14 years, two prime seasons outside of Champions League play could be viewed as an enormous missed opportunity.

[ MORE: Mikel Arteta talks Man City ban ]

Players like Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, and Fernandinho will be entering the last years of their Manchester City contracts next season. Meanwhile, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and John Stones all have contracts that expire no later than the summer of 2023 and could look to continue for a way out to maintain Champions League experience through the primes of their careers.

UCL Tuesday preview: Liverpool visits Atletico, Dortmund hosts PSG

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After what feels like AGES, the Champions League is back, and the opening pair of first-leg fixtures could be potential classics.

Knockout stage play begins on Tuesday in the Round of 16 as reigning title-winners Liverpool visit Atletico Madrid while Borussia Dortmund hosts Paris Saint-Germain, as both matchups are dripping with possible fireworks.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

For both Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, the Champions League games are the most important remaining fixtures left on the schedule, but for very different reasons. The Reds are 25 points clear atop the Premier League table, and while the players will never admit it, the top flight is all but won and the true focus now shifts to defending its European crown. For Atleti who sit 13 points behind Barcelona in the La Liga table, are out of the Copa del Rey, and continue to struggle creating chances, the Champions League appears to be Diego Simeone’s last stand in what is otherwise a lost season.

To make matters worse for the Mattress Makers, there are reports that teenage sensation Joao Felix will be unavailable for the match due to illness, leaving the hosts already a step behind at the Wanda Metripolitano. The 20-year-old has been underwhelming in his first season after becoming the Atletico Madrid record signing at $147 million, but the heavy attacking weight on his shoulders hasn’t helped and his presence will nonetheless still be sorely missed.

Atletico has scored just 25 league goals this season, good for joint-12th in the league, on an expected goals tally of around 37. In comparison, Liverpool has blitzed the Premier League with 61 goals on an xG of 59.3. Atletico’s defense has been its usual stellar self, just 17 goals all year long in La Liga play, but they have made a habit of conceding goals at the worst possible times and have struggled to pick up the slack of a slumping attack.

[ MORE: Former PSG attacker Weah injured again ]

Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain will bring its fully potent attack to Germany as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are in the squad to face Dortmund and expected to play. The pair had missed the weekend draw with Amiens in Ligue 1 play to get them ready for the Champions League, which PSG has publicly targeted for years as its coveted competition. Neymar’s inclusion is specifically of note for PSG as he had missed the last three league matches with a bruised rib.

The French side will need all its available firepower to counter a Dortmund attack that is white hot, with Jadon Sancho in electric form. Dating back to the return from the November international break, Sancho has scored in 11 of the club’s 14 games across all competitions. All three of the games Sancho did not score in, the club lost – two in Bundesliga play to Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen and one against Werder Bremen in the DFB-Pokal. However, Dortmund has also struggled mightily at the back, resulting in near-weekly shootouts to stay alive in the Bundesliga title race. Since a mid-December 3-3 draw with RB Leipzig, Dortmund has conceded three or more goals four times across all competitions.

Even PSG has been questionable at the back of late, failing to keep a clean sheet in three straight Ligue 1 matches including the draw with Amiens this weekend that required PSG to come from a 3-0 deficit. With all that attacking firepower and defensive frailties, the game at Westfalenstadion could be a barnburner.

Round of 16 Champions League schedule:

2/17 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atletico Madrid v. Liverpool
Borussia Dortmund v. Paris Saint-Germain

2/18 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atalanta v. Valencia
Tottenham Hotspur v. RB Leipzig

2/25 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Chelsea v. Bayern Munich
Napoli v. Barcelona

2/26 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Lyon v. Juventus
Real Madrid v. Manchester City

Report: Joao Felix unavailable against Liverpool

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Atletico Madrid is facing a defining moment of its 2019/20 season as Liverpool visits the Wanda Metripolitano on Tuesday in Champions League Round of 16 action. In such an important match, the Spanish side may be without one of its most creative attacker.

According to a report by Goal.com, Joao Felix will not be available as he has been struck down by tonsillitis, missing training on Monday. Felix has not played since picking up a muscle problem on January 26, and while he has mostly recovered from that injury, his unavailability for training means he is not able to fully prove fit to play, so between that and the illness itself, he has been ruled out.

The 20-year-old moved to Atletico Madrid this summer for a whopping $147 million, and while fans have had high hopes for the Portuguese youngster, he has flopped in his first season in Spain. Still, despite his struggles to carry the entire Atleti attack on his shoulders, Felix remains one of the club’s best attackers playing alongside true striker Alvaro Morata, and his presence will be missed in what is already an anemic attack.

Atleti is 13 points back of leaders Barcelona, sitting fourth in the La Liga table. The side is also out of the Copa del Rey, shocked in late January by third-tier side Cultural Leonesa. The Champions League is Diego Simeone’s last chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise struggle-filled season.

Atleti is also without midfielder Hector Herrera who is also suffering from an illness, while Kieran Trippier continues to recover from a groin injury.

Lacazette thanks Arteta, Arsenal teammates for support

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Alexandre Lacazette‘s 95th minute goal to finish off a 4-0 victory over Newcastle may seem meaningless, but to him it meant the world.

The 28-year-old Frenchman snapped a 10-match goalless streak across all competitions when he found the back of the net for the first time since a Champions League match on December 12. In total, Lacazette had been on the field for nearly 470 minutes without scoring before his goal in the final seconds against Newcastle.

“It has been really hard and complicated,” Lacazette said of his goal drought. “Sometimes I had some games with no chances, sometimes I missed or the goalkeeper saved it. Of course for a striker it is always hard to not score, but it happens in football. Hopefully it is the last time for me.”

However, Lacazette says both new manager Mikel Arteta and his teammates were supportive during the time he struggled to find the back of the net.

“He [Arteta] talked with me to give me confidence. I am really, really happy because I waited for this moment for a long time.  I am touched as well because of the way all my team-mates reacted when I scored that goal.  It means a lot to me and a lot for the spirit we have in the team. This is good.”

Arteta kept faith in Lacazette for much of his goal drought, starting in seven straight Premier League matches between late December and early February, but he was dropped for the Newcastle game for Eddie Nketiah, only coming on for the final five minutes when he found his moment. Lacazette confirmed that Arteta spoke to him about the match decision, saying “he explained it well” before pausing to say he cannot go into more details about the conversation.

Arsenal is on a six-game unbeaten streak in league play and eight overall, without losing since a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at the Emirates on December 29.