Top FA Cup storylines as third round arrives

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Can Liverpool overcome injuries, escape upset at Exeter? 

Liverpool’s injury list just keeps on growing and the Reds will be missing all four first-choice center backs on Friday down in Devon. League Two Exeter City know they have a big chance to cause an upset, as a string of hamstring injuries have caused Jurgen Klopp plenty of headaches over the past few days and the German coach — who spoke out against the congested schedule in England over the festive season — has been forced to recall Tiago Ilori and Kevin Stewart from loan spells.

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Jordon Ibe has joined Dejan Lovren, Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho, Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel on the considerable injury list at Anfield.

“It is a big tournament and we have a big respect for it,” Klopp said. “We have to find a solution. If we go out, you have to criticize us, no problem, but we have to think about more than only one game. Everyone wants to see the sensation [of an upset] and if this is a chance for Exeter, then they have to take it. I saw after the rain the pitch is not in the best shape. The dressing room should be small, I heard, so maybe we should not spend the longest time in it and go out and play football.”

The Grecians have lost four-straight games heading into this clash but the home fans will be fired up for an FA Cup upset as they kick off the third round on Friday (2:55 p.m. ET).

Premier League strugglers on upset alert

If it’s one thing we all love about the third round of the FA Cup, it’s an upset. The typical David vs. Goliath story has happened in recent seasons with Chelsea being knocked out by third-tier Bradford City last season and fourth-tier Cambridge United taking Manchester United to a replay. This weekend the upsets might not be as glamorous but some Premier League teams won’t have the best of sleeps ahead of some tricky clashes against lower-league opponents.

Aston Villa — without a win in the league since Aug. 8 — are rock-bottom of the Premier League and heavy big favorite for relegation to the Championship. Their trip to Wycombe Wanderers, sixth in League Two, screams of an upset. Remi Garde probably won’t rest his regulars as they try to gain some momentum. Last season’s runners up will head to Adams Park with a sense of foreboding before the whistle is blown for the first time. Another PL struggler heading away from home to League Two opposition is Swansea City. This week the Swans appointed caretaker boss Alan Curtis until the end of the season despite chairman Hew Jenkins searching far and wide for a replacement for Garry Monk but not being able to find one. Hearing that most candidates “didn’t want to put their reputations on the line by joining a club at the wrong end of the table” tells the whole story. Swansea are only worried about one thing this season: Premier League survival.

Spurs vs. Leicester City – Part I

On Sunday at White Hart Lane Tottenham host Leicester City. Three days later they do it again at the Lane in the Premier League. Two of the in-form teams in the PL will put on quite a show and it will be intriguing viewing to see how each team approaches this first battle. Earlier in the season these two teams drew 1-1 in an end-to-end cracker which saw Dele Alli and Riyad Mahrez trade late goals.

Spurs are currently in fourth in the PL after winning three of their last four and losing just once since the opening day of the season. Leicester — currently in second place — failed to score in any of their three festive fixtures and are sliding a little but progress in the FA Cup will be on the minds of both teams as they aim to seal a top four finish and battle for silverware. For Spurs that seems much more attainable than Leicester, but let’s see what the next three days bring before we make a more concrete judgement. The only shame about this clash is that Harry Kane will likely play for Spurs but Jamie Vardy, Leicester’s talisman during their sensational campaign so far, will be missing through injury. Seeing the England internationals go head-to-head would’ve made this tasty tie tastier. 

One non-league team still standing…

Every year the FA Cup throws up one team everyone falls in love with. This year it could be Eastleigh FC. The National League side (fifth-tier) are the only non-league side left in the FA Cup and they host struggling second-tier outfit Bolton Wanderers at their Ten Acres home. What’s that? Oh, you can smell it too? That’s right, it reeks of an upset. Former Premier League side Bolton — they were relegated in 2013 — are currently $251 million in debt and in real danger of being relegated to the third-tier. You can forgive them if Neil Lennon fields a weakened team. And he will. The Trotters are more focused on staying in the Championship.

As for Eastleigh, they are battling for promotion to League Two and their young manager Chris Todd — a leukemia survivor who has tried his hand at acting, operatic signing and much more to make the most of his newfound life — the Spitfires have been bankrolled by a wealthy investor and possess plenty of players with Football League experience. On Saturday evening they could also be in the fourth round of the FA Cup and become the fairytale team everyone is talking about this year.

El Tri winger Jurgen Damm headed for MLS this summer

Jurgen Damm
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This season’s Liga MX invasion of MLS continues with Jurgen Damm announcing that he’ll leave UANL Tigres this summer after five years with the club.

TUDN has the destination as Atlanta, though previous reports have linked Damm to the LA Galaxy is the spot.

And scribe Tom Bogert says the Houston Dynamo have his “discovery rights” (which remains the worst concept in the entire league).

Reports emerged over the past 48 hours that the El Tri man was headed for an MLS club.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 12-times capped winger has one goal for Mexico, but has not been capped since Oct. 2018. He has spent his entire career in Liga MX.

Damm spent the early part of his career with Tecos and Pachuca, but has been with UANL Tigres since 2015.

He won four league titles with UANL, as well as the 2018 Campeones Cup.

Ex-Arsenal man Gnabry: “London’s still red” after Bayern beats Chelsea

Serge Gnabry
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Ex-Arsenal man Serge Gnabry still has love for the club.

Gnabry tweeted that “London is still red” after he scored twice for Bayern Munich in a 3-0 beating of Chelsea on Tuesday in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

This after scoring four times against Spurs in a previous Champions League group stage match and Tweeting that “North London is Red.”

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

So what’s with the London form?

“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” Gnabry said after the game. “A lot of them were in the stands tonight, and it seems they give me a lot of good power.”

Gnabry only scored once during his time in England with Arsenal and West Brom but is a bona fide star in the Bundesliga.

With a three-goal advantage over Chelsea heading to Munich for a second leg, however, he’s not got his head in the clouds.

“Three goals ahead gives us a little bit of confidence, but we need to be prepared for the second leg. We can’t take it not seriously enough. … We’ve seen it last year with Liverpool beating Barcelona, so we have to be careful. We have to go into the second leg with all of our focus.”

Gnabry now has 51 goals and 29 assists in four seasons since returning to Germany from Arsenal. Not terrible production for a player the Gunners offloaded to Werder Bremen for under $6 million in 2016.

What color will London be when Chelsea buys him next year? We kid, we kid…

Champions League preview: Real Madrid renews rivalry with Pep; Lyon hosts Juve

UEFA Champions League preview
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The final two ties of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 begin Wednesday when Manchester City and Juventus head to Spain and France.

The focus for many will be on the former, as City continues to weather UEFA drama while its manager prepares for his fiercest foe as a player and manager.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Pep Guardiola has managed against Real Madrid 17 times and boasts a 9-4-4 record between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The Catalan wizard has lost his last three versus Real, two with Bayern and once in his final El Clasico as Barca boss.

Even as Guardiola stresses preparation and plan, he knows there will be bounces and that both teams will have to cope with them.

“We have to be strong, have quality and need to have luck,” he said, via The Manchester Evening News. “At this stage, it’s important but we cannot control that. We can control what we can control and we will see. This competition, last season, against Liverpool, there are decisions. You have to overcome. You need incredible concentration in our game and game plan plus try to be a little lucky.”

Real Madrid living legend Sergio Ramos has earned the ire of Guardiola on plenty of occasions, one of the few things Liverpool and City fans have in common.

Ramos wouldn’t get drawn into rivalry talk, sying the stage somewhat negates the opponent.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Ramos said via the club’s web site. “I think he’s a fantastic coach, with loads of experience, and his numbers speak for themselves. We’re motivated by the Champions League, regardless of the players or coaches who may have been rivals in the past. We’re up for the Champions League and our next task is to beat City. From a personal point of view, I’m just focused on making the next round.”

[ MORE: Key battles for Real-Man City ]

Wednesday’s other match sees a club long linked with Guardiola, as Juventus will play the role of heavy favorites against Lyon.

Maurizio Sarri‘s side is to bidding to win what’s eluded all Juve bosses since Marcello Lippi beat Ajax in 1996. If they succeed, it will be by going down a different path than it’s traveled in recent years.

Here’s Leonardo Bonucci, via Football-Italia:

“What the coach asks of us now is basically the opposite of what the previous coach did,” Bonucci mused. “It was usually individual against individual, now it’s more about organized team movements. Obviously, you need to train consistently to get that down and playing every three days makes it difficult. But we started this journey well aware of the positives it could bring and the difficulties of getting there.”

Lyon has been maddeningly inconsistent this season, sitting seventh in the Ligue 1 table, but has the tools to surprise if Juve doesn’t bring its best. That starts in France on Wednesday.

Lampard: Chelsea first leg loss ‘quite sobering,’ ‘harsh lesson’

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Chelsea manager Frank Lampard isn’t sugarcoating his side’s 3-0 first-leg loss to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on Tuesday.

“Sometimes you have to be brutally honest about it,” he said in televised remarks after the loss. “It’s quite sobering.”

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Lampard admitted that Bayern was firing on all cylinders at Stamford Bridge, and proffered tepid support for the idea of an unlikely comeback in Germany next month.

“The level of team they showed that they are, hence why they challenge in the Bundesliga and the Champions League,” he said, via Football.London. “I’m disappointed we couldn’t do better against them. It’s a reality check. Don’t look at anyone else apart from yourself.”

“We should never say the door is closed because our fans would never accept that. I’m more concerned with the bigger picture here. There’s a lot to be done.”

Sure is.

Chelsea leads fifth-place Manchester United by three points in the top four race and has a four-point edge on sixth-place Spurs in the scenario that fifth is enough for Champions League football.

That’s important because the UCL path back to the tournament looks like a massive ask. And Lampard said the players need to use Tuesday’s blowout loss at home “as a positive effect” moving forward.

But he also put it pretty plainly during his post-match comments.

“It was a harsh lesson,” Lampard said. “This is Champions League football.”