Champions League Preview: Mourinho, Chelsea stand in the way of PSG’s semifinal goal

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Implicit in Paris Saint-Germain’s quick ascent (and French soccer’s willingness to go along with it) is the idea that what’s good for PSG is good for Ligue 1. This doesn’t goes as far as clubs wanting the Parisians to win at their own expense, but if the aspiring super club is going to be one of the world’s big spenders, best they do as much as damage as possible in Europe while doing so.

More success in Champions League leads to more exposure, which leads to more commercial power for the French league – something that will helps the whole circuit in the long run. As PSG grows and can buy up players like Blaise Matuidi, Lucas Digne, and the since departed Kevin Gameiro, the money can trickle down. If Ligue 1 is every going to close the gap between itself and Europe’s biggest leagues, it would have to be on the back of PSG.

“It’s very exciting for a manager to be involved in this kind of project – just as it is for any player,” PSG head coach Laurent Blanc said on Tuesday, the day before the first-year boss hosts Chelsea in UEFA Champions League’s quarterfinals. “Everything about our development is going very fast …”

(MORE, how PSG got here: Rout in Leverkusen | Close out in Paris)

That rapid rise helps explain France’s fixation on the Champions League semifinals. Since the season’s onset, French soccer has had that landmark in mind. After the Parisians forced away goals to be used to see them out of the quarterfinals last season, progress for the PSG project — and, by extension, French soccer — means making the final four. With PSG winning every other competition, Europe is now the only measuring stick.

“[I]n European competition we are among the least experienced clubs remaining,” Blanc cautions. “We will need time to be a regular player at the top level.”

But having drawn Chelsea (and not Bayern Munich, and to a certain extent Real Madrid), the Parisians are being expected to take the next step now, even if people like Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured) are also being cautious. But in light of last year’s result, the measured tones of PSG’s stars and staff can’t temper expectations. Whereas last year the French champions were within inches of knocking out Barcelona, this year a stronger team faces a Blues squad that’s perceived to be an easier challenge. With players like Edinson Cavani, Marquinhos, and Yohan Cabaye added to a squad already build around Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, and Batuidi, why shouldn’t people expect the semifinals?

(MORE, Chelsea’s path: Draw in Istanbul | Cruise in London)

The most common answer to that question: José Mourinho. The Champions League winning coach with Porto and Inter Milan has also made the semifinals with Chelsea (during this first stint) and Real Madrid. His teams are not used to exiting the competition this early, and while that’s largely because Mourinho tends to have one the tournament’s most talented teams, the manager’s part can’t be overlooked. Each time Mourinho’s won Champions League, he did so with a team that wasn’t the tournament’s most talented.

source: AP“Paris has a team full of fantastic attacking players, not to mention the other ones,” Mourinho (right) explained. “I could speak for hours about Thiago [Motta]. The offensive players are what really make the difference at this level.”

In this matchup, there may be little question which team has more talent. Chelsea, certainly one of the most gifted teams in England, don’t have the depth of stars that PSG possesses. While they can claim Eden Hazard among the world’s elite, the Parisians have Ibrahimovic, Silva, and Edinson Cavani. A player like Matuidi would walk into Chelsea’s Wednesday XI, particularly considering winter signing Nemanja Matic is cup-tied. Throughout the rest of Laurent Blanc’s squad, Mourinho might also find the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Thiago Motta of use. Whereas Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea would have never met a French team that could outclass his talent, his return to Stamford Bridge comes within a much-changed Champions League world.

But to the extent there even is one, the talent gap isn’t so big that Mourinho couldn’t traverse it, particularly given the experience Chelsea’s core carries from their 2011-12 Champions League-winning campaign. Against a Paris Saint-Germain team likely to have a big possession advantage, those veterans can stay in their more comfortable, counter attacking posture, relying on the likes of Hazard, Óscar, and Willian to execute in transition against the PSG defense.

(MORE: Real Madrid looks to restore confidence against decimated Dortmund)

“I watch a lot of Paris matches, and Laurent Blanc has a clear philosophy,” Mourinho explained. “They keep the same philosophy, even when they change three midfielders, like against Bayer Leverkusen in the [round of 16] second leg. Same goes for us; we have a philosophy and we won’t change it. And we have faith in what we do.”

“Chelsea and Paris have very different styles of play,” Blanc agreed, “they’re more inclined to counterattack while we like to keep possession. Which is more effective? We’ll see after the two legs, but we’ll stay true to our beliefs.”

Particularly on the road, in leg one, Mourinho will have his team embrace that less expansive approach, remaining conservative while looking for a quick but crucial away goal. The question is whether Blanc, making his second trip to this level of the competition, can identify his own team’s weaknesses and protect them against that Blues’ assault.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’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 – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE