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:

Sweden players, coaches left fuming after last-minute loss

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — A last-minute goal. A non-called penalty. A disrespectful celebration.

Sweden had a lot to be upset about when the final whistle blew on Saturday.

[ MORE: Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion” ]

The Swedes were within seconds of holding defending champion Germany to a draw, and moving into good position to advance to the round of 16 at the World Cup, when Toni Kroos scored deep into stoppage time to give Germany a 2-1 come-from-behind victory.

“I’m sorry that we didn’t get at least one point,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said. “But I’m not blaming anyone tactically or analyzing too much right now, there are so many emotions going around. This is probably the heaviest conclusion that I’ve experienced in my career.”

Kroos’ goal from a set piece came in the fifth and final minute of injury time. The draw would have kept Sweden ahead of Germany in Group F and needing only a draw against Mexico in the last match.

[ MORE: Germany snatches late win over Sweden to avoid elimination ]

“It was just bad luck,” Sweden forward John Guidetti said. “Now we need to try to find a way to win the last match. In a few days we play again and we have to win it. It’s simple.”

Germany, which is tied with Sweden on points and goal difference, will play against South Korea in the final round.

“We still have an excellent opportunity to qualify,” Andersson said. “Now we have to clean up, tidy up after this game. We’re going to do that.”

The Swedes were leading Germany at halftime thanks to Ola Toivonen’s goal in the 32nd minute at Fisht Stadium. They felt they could have been ahead even earlier if the referee had called a penalty when Marcus Berg appeared to be fouled inside the area with a clear chance to score. There was no formal video review called for.

“If we have the (VAR) system, it’s very unfortunate that he (the referee) can feel so secure in the moment that he doesn’t go and have a look at the situation,” Andersson said.

He and the Swedish players said they also couldn’t understand why Germany decided to celebrate near their bench.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“You shouldn’t celebrate in front of our bench the way they did, that’s disrespectful,” Guidetti said. “You can celebrate with your own fans. Don’t celebrate in front of our bench like that. That’s why they apologized, because they knew they did something wrong.”

Andersson said he was “very annoyed” by seeing the Germany team “running in our direction and rubbing it in our faces by making gestures.”

“We fought hard for 95 minutes,” he said. “And when the final whistle blows, you shake hands.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 11 — England, Colombia back in action

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Day 11 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Sunday, with England back in action and in need of three points — and a resounding win — to keep pace with Belgium in Group G.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Following Belgium’s 5-2 thrashing of Tunisia — the same side that England beat in stoppage time earlier in the week — on Saturday, the Red Devils have positioned themselves perfectly to win the group with a draw against the Three Lions on Thursday. England need a five-goal victory at 6-1 or higher to the finish top of the group following a draw on the final day.

Then, it’s a pair of Group H fixtures, kicked off with Japan (1st) versus Senegal (2nd) — both of whom won their first game — followed by Poland (3rd) versus Colombia (4th).

Below is Sunday’s schedule in full.

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


2018 World Cup schedule – Sunday, June 24

Group G
England vs. Panama: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group H
Japan vs. Senegal: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Poland vs. Colombia: Kazan, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

FIFA opens case against Xhaka, Shaqiri for celebrations

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FIFA’s disciplinary committee opened disciplinary proceedings against Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri for politically charged goal celebrations during their 2-1 World Cup win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

[ MORE: The meaning behind Xhaka, Shaqiri’s eagle celebration ]

FIFA also said Saturday it has opened disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian Football Association for crowd disturbance and the display of political and offensive messages by Serbian fans. FIFA also is reviewing statements that Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic made after the match.

Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrated their goals by making a nationalist symbol of their ethnic Albanian heritage. Both of their families come from Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The Polish Football Association was fined $10,100 and given a warning by FIFA’s disciplinary committee for a banner that the governing body deemed political and offensive. The banner was displayed during Senegal’s 2-1 win over Poland on Tuesday in Moscow.

The committee also opened disciplinary proceedings against the federations of Argentina and Croatia for crowd disturbances during Croatia’s 3-0 win Thursday at Nizhny Novgorod.

Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion”

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At 1-0 down, they were headed for elimination in the group stage (with a game still to play); once level at 1-1, they faced yet a steep hill to climb on the final day of the group stage; after Toni Kroos scored his stunning 94th-minute winner, Joachim Low could finally exhale and imagine himself managing the German national team for another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Sweden at the 2018 World Cup was, for most intents and purposes, a worrying performance for the defending world champions. Fortunately for Low and Co., the one place in which their comeback dramatic victory was a raging success is the only one that matters: the Group F table, where Die Mannschaft currently (somehow) sit second and control their own destiny — quotes from the BBC:

“This was a thriller, full of emotion, right up until the final whistle. Brandt hit the goal post just three minutes before the end too. We took out a defensive player and brought on an attacking player because we knew had to bring on everything we had to turn it round.

“We had a couple of great chances — Mario Gomez’s header being one of them. The last couple of minutes were full of drama but those matches exist in football. We’ve had these situations in other tournaments as well. For the viewers that’s part of the attractiveness of football.”

“Something I did appreciate today was that we didn’t lose our nerve, we didn’t panic after going a goal down. We kept a level head and said we needed to make quick passes and tire the Swedes out to open up spaces.

“We didn’t score a couple of good chances but we never lost hope we could win the match and I think the goal scored in stoppage time had a bit of luck involved but it did show the belief we had in ourselves.”

There’s still plenty of work to do for one of the most popular pre-tournament favorites — there’s a little matter of needing to beat, or at the very least, match Sweden’s result against Mexico — but that can wait until tomorrow, because Saturday unexpectedly became all about survival.