UEFA Champions League Preview: Barcelona, Manchester City meet in round’s marquee matchup

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Barcelona’s recent Champions League success casts it as favorites in many’s eyes, but that should give the team little solace come Tuesday night at the Etihad. Slotted with Manchester City in UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16, the four-time champions drew the toughest opponent from those that finished second in their groups. While City boss Manuel Pellegrini placates himself knowing his Citizens would have to beat a Barça-caliber opponent at some point, an semifinal-quality matchup guarantees one of the tournament’s best teams will be eliminated over the course of the next two weeks.

With four players in the FIFpro World XI, Barcelona is likely the more talented side, making this one of the few times this season City can claimed to be outgunned. But to the extent that Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and the rest of the Catalan side have that edge, City still have the firepower to compete. With the likes of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, and David Silva, the Citizens have players that will ensure planning, execution, and health — not talent, alone — will settle this tie.

Yet while their guests will come into the first game of the teams’ two-legged tie at full strength, City will still be without their most dangerous player. Attacker Sergio Agüero will miss his chance to take on close friend Messi, with hamstring injury continuing to sideline the Argentine international. While midfielder Fernandinho, having yet to appear in February, has been deemed fit for the match, Edin Dzeko or Silva will likely claim Agüero’s spot along side forward Álvaro Negredo.

Barcelona, in contrast, have all their key players available. Neymar, out for a month with an ankle injury, returned this weekend. Xavi has been battling a calf problem but will play on Tuesday. Andrés Iniesta is approaching 100 percent, while the health of Carles Puyol means Gerado Martino the Barcelona head coach will be able to start his first choice back four. Coming off a 6-0 win this weekend in La Liga, Barcelona appear to have hit their stride as Champions League resumes.

That stride, and the health that goes along with it, will demand a few key choices from Martino. With Xavi, Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets all available, Cesc Fábregas will be pushed to the bench despite enjoying his best season since his time at Arsenal. Likewise, the health of Neymar means one of Alexis Sanchez or Pedro Rodríguez could sit, despite the duo having accounted for 28 league goals. On the road to start the tie, though, Martino may elect to keep the young Brazilian in reserve.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Preview: Paris Saint-Germain opens knockout round at Bayer Leverkusen]

With Martino having already said possession will play a key part on Tuesday, the pressure will be on Touré and Fernandinho to withstand the numeric disadvantage the Citizens will have in the middle. Between Xavi and Iniesta, Messi dropping back and Busquets serving as the anchor, Barcelona has the potential to overwhelm City in the middle, even if the home team plays more of a 4-2-3-1 formation without Agüero (as opposed to their normal 4-4-2). While it’s not uncommon for City’s duo to have to play 2-on-3 in the middle, they never have to do so against Barça’s three.

Perhaps as important as the match ups, mentality could have a decisive impact on how the first leg unfolds. Unfortunately for  spectators, each team has an incentive to play conservatively in game one. For Barcelona, a draw on the road will be seen as a success, leaving them within a home win of the quarterfinals. Manchester City might look at the same situation as a chance to go to Spain, try to strike first, and use that lead and their road goal to see out the upset. Rather than try to play their normal style — one that would leave their defense exposed to Barcelona — Pellegrini may evoke some of his previous Champions League squads and try a more opportunistic approach.

Regardless, Barcelona’s experience against Paris Saint-Germain in last year’s tournament could prove informative, particularly against a City team that’s never been this far in Champions League. In last year’s quarterfinals, the Parisians arguably outplayed the Catalans but went out on away goals, Barcelona’s experience able to guide them past one of UEFA’s emerging threats. If City can learn PSG’s lessons and not merely content themselves with outplaying their opponents, the Citizens capable of springing the upset Pellegrini’s Málaga nearly pulled on Borussia Dortmund last year. Otherwise, Barcelona’s ability to navigate Champions League may see them past another European upstart.

More on Barcelona’s visit to Manchester City:

Smalling considering full-time Roma switch: “Long may it continue”

Chris Smalling
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Manchester United loanee Chris Smalling is talking up life in Rome amidst a possible Serie A Team of the Season campaign.

Smalling had a disappointing 2018/19 season at Old Trafford, so it’s not a surprise that Solskjaer thought he could do better than the 30-year-old.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Instead, Smalling’s numbers are close to that of record-signing Harry Maguire in a Serie A league with slightly more scoring. Smalling ranks in Italy’s top ten for interceptions (2.2), clearances (4.5) and blocks (1.2).

Roma boss Paulo Fonseca wants the player to stay, as i Lupi are fifth in Serie A and Smalling when has played nearly every minute when healthy. Smalling told our friends Sky Sports that he has “an interesting decision to make.”

“Some of the other players said if you really hit the ground running, the love that you can have in this city is unbelievable. That’s really what I’ve felt and so have my family. Long may it continue.”

His age makes it tricky, but the advanced stats show that Smalling has been a very effective Premier League center back for four of his last six seasons.

Smalling may want to leave if Solskjaer isn’t prepared to hand him regular football, which would be a given in Rome. Now what’s the price tag?

According to WhoScored’s player comparison tool:

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Watch Live: Liverpool v. West Ham

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Liverpool v West Ham takes center stage at Anfield on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Reds aim to reclaim their 22-point lead at the top of the Premier League table.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Jurgen Klopp‘s side remain unbeaten this season and with five more wins needed to guarantee the Premier League title, the finishing line is in sight. They are aiming for an 18th consecutive Premier League win which would equal Man City’s record for the most victories on the trot in top-flight history.

As for David Moyes and the Hammers, they are scrapping for their lives at the other end of the table and their daunting run of fixtures makes them one of the favorites for relegation.

Last season the Hammers did draw at home against Liverpool in the PL which was a key factor in the Reds not winning the title last time out but West Ham look extremely far from the team they were last season.

Liverpool v West Ham is first against 18th and all signs point to a big win for the home side as their unbeaten season continues with 25 victories from 26 games so far.

In team news Liverpool are without captain Jordan Henderson who has suffered a hamstring injury and will be out for the next three weeks.

Naby Keita comes in for Henderson in midfield as the rest of the Liverpool team is what you expect.

West Ham are without the injured Ryan Fredericks who suffered a shoulder injury in the 2-0 defeat at Man City on Wednesday.

Teenager Jeremy Ngakia comes in to replace Fredericks, while Felipe Anderson also comes into the lineup.

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Kids under 12 banned from heading in UK

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LONDON (AP) Children up to the age of 12 will be banned from heading a soccer ball in practice sessions in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland as authorities look to address the potential long-term impact on health of head injuries.

[ MORE: US Soccer bans heading ]

The governing bodies of the three regions announced the new heading guidelines on Monday, months after a Scottish study found former professional players there were less likely to die of common causes such as heart disease and cancer compared with the general population but more likely to die with dementia.

The guidelines say there will be a “graduated approach” to heading in practice for kids from 12-15, while the heading will be restricted to one practice session per week for kids 16 and 17.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

There will be no change in terms of heading in matches, taking into consideration the extremely limited number of headers which actually occur in youth matches.

The Scottish study did not state that heading a ball was the cause of the increased prevalence of neurodegenerative conditions among soccer players, but the decision to update the guidelines was taken to “mitigate against any potential risks”, the English Football Association said in a statement.

“This guidance is a responsible development to our grassroots coaching,” FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said, “without impacting the enjoyment that children of all ages take from playing the game.”

The associations said the guidance had been produced in parallel with the UEFA medical committee, which is seeking to produce Europe-wide guidance later this year.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Champions League score predictions: Round of 16

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The 2019-20 UEFA Champions League is finally back as the Round of 16 kicks off this week and two of the four Premier League clubs are in action.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Man City and Chelsea face Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively and both know they face tough tasks to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals as they do battle with two European heavyweights.

Glory in the Champions League is now the main focus for Pep Guardiola and Man City following their two-season European ban from UEFA which they are appealing. Frank Lampard‘s young Chelsea side host the Bundesliga leaders and hugely experienced Bayern, with the German giants the favorites to advance.

[ MORE: Which Premier League team(s) will reach last eight? ]

The Premier League sides are up against it but both teams are extremely capable of scoring goals for fun but it is at the other end of the pitch where they struggle as both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will be hoping their star attackers shine on the big stage once again.

In the other two last 16 clashes this week Napoli host Barcelona as Lionel Messi warmed up very nicely with four goals against Eibar, while Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus head to Lyon for the first leg as the Italian giants are expected to advance with ease.

Both Messi and Ronaldo badly want another Champions League title to their name but Lyon and Napoli are more than capable of picking up big first leg wins at home.

Below we predict the scores for the UCL round of 16 games taking place over the next two days. Feel free to make your own predictions in the comments section below, too.


Tuesday
Napoli 1-1 Barcelona
Chelsea 1-2 Bayern Munich

Wednesday
Lyon 1-3 Juventus
Real Madrid 2-3 Man City