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Chelsea’s Zouma hails Hiddink; “We have to start winning a lot of matches”

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Chelsea may have had a poor season so far but the emergence of young center back Kurt Zouma has been one of the major success stories.

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The French international, 21, has been the standout defender on plenty of occasions for the Blues and is hopeful they can continue their good run after four games unbeaten in all competitions.

In an exclusive partnership with Chelsea Football Club, NBCSports.com provides even more access to life at Stamford Bridge.

Join Chelsea Fan Club Plus now to read the full matchday programme from Stamford Bridge featuring notes from the manager and captain. Members also gain access to Chelsea TV for behind-the-scenes action from the Chelsea training ground and exclusive interviews with Guus Hiddink and his players.

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Below is the feature article on Zouma from Chelsea’s magazine ahead of their clash against West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday.


Eye on the ball

Kurt Zouma is looking focused when we catch him after training during a busy run of fixtures, nodding seriously as we discuss the opportunity to make a good start to 2016.

This run of consecutive home games offers a chance to build momentum and, after the FA Cup third-round tie against Scunthorpe on Sunday, we now head into back-toback Premier League matches against West Bromwich Albion and Everton. Zouma is very much in favour of the “take each game as it comes” mentality and tells us the players are determined to make these matches count by continuing the kind of form they showed at Selhurst Park 10 days ago.

“After the Crystal Palace game, we had these three games in a row at home, and we want to win every match at home,” the big centre-back asserts. “Let’s see what happens tonight first of all and then we can think about the Everton game. We are confident, we are a big team with big players in the squad and we know that. When things go wrong, we are always together. More good results now would give us more confidence, for sure.”

Guus Hiddink has discussed his desire to see how “eager” the players are and their energetic display in that 3-0 win over Palace combined the requisite composure to overcome a hard-running opposition with an injection of urgency when going forward. Zouma believes we will need to show similar qualities tonight against a tough West Brom side.

“We played away against them earlier in the season and it was a difficult game, although we won 3-2,” he recalls. “They are very strong and, defensively, they are organised. They wanted to play on the counter-attack in the first game and at Stamford Bridge I think it is going to be the same, so we have to play our own game, but we also have to keep a balance, and be
very careful on set plays.”

Zouma admits he also has to bewary when he makes his trademark slide tackles, explaining that, when a last-ditch challenge is required, he isn’t afraid to make the most of his athleticism. There were a few “you don’t see many of them these days” comments as he tracked back to cut out the darting runs of Wilfried Zaha with a telescopic leg at Selhurst Park a week-and-a-half ago.

“I just go in to try to win the ball,” he says. “Sometimes the striker gets in behind and you have to use the tackle to win the ball back. It’s a risk you take and you have to make sure you take the ball. I’m very confident when I make these tackles. You have to calculate it a little bit, ask yourself some questions, but sometimes you have to make the tackle. But I am always confident, I tackle the same way I play, and if I think I have to make the tackle then I will make it, 100 times out of 100. That’s not a problem. I don’t have to rely on my pace, though. We are a compact team, but when the ball goes over you, you have to defend – that’s my job. I have some pace, so I can recover sometimes, but the most important thing is to stay in position  throughout the game.”

That defensive understanding across the back four was one of many positives to emerge from our last Premier League encounter, but Hiddink was clear in his post-match interviews
that one result, one performance, is not enough to get carried away with. Zouma echoes those sentiments and adds that he has been impressed by the new manager’s manner during his early weeks in the job.

“It’s been very nice because he is a friendly guy, who is always close to the players,” the defender says. “He doesn’t speak a lot, but he speaks when he sees something is wrong. Most
importantly, us players now have to move forward.”

As we head into these back-to-back home league games, there are reasons to be optimistic about the direction the team is heading in, but Zouma says we have to keep winning and build some tangible upward momentum before we can truly talk about turning a corner.

“Slowly, we are starting to improve,” he says. “It’s a new year, it’s 2016, and we have started well. After beating Crystal Palace, we had a good game in the FA Cup at the weekend, now we move forwards and think about game after game. Last year was a good one for me personally. I had a lot of chances to play, I played in some big games and won two titles, so I am happy with the year on a personal level. It’s not quite new year, new start, because the season started in August! But, mentally, it’s a new year and that’s a way you can think about it – we have to because we have no other choice.

“We are not doing well in the table, so we have to start winning matches, but not win one and lose two – we have to start winning a lot of matches. We have to keep going and working for the team, and I hope we will move up the table.”

Report: Salzburg star Haland meets with Borussia Dortmund

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Erling Braut Haland is one of the most promising young names in European football, his career trajectory shooting up, up, up after several dynamite performances in the UEFA Champions League.

The Red Bull Salzburg striker, 19, wasn’t in full fitness when his side was bounced from the UCL by Liverpool on Tuesday, but he’d made his presence felt earlier in the competition.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Haland bagged eight of his 28 season goals in the UCL, including three against Napoli and one against the reigning champion Reds.

Now the Leeds-born Norwegian is eyeing up his next step. Having been linked with Manchester United and his dad’s club Leeds, Haland reportedly flew into Dortmund for a Wednesday meeting with Borussia Dortmund.

Dad, Alf-Inge Haland, played 22 years between Bryne, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Manchester City, and Rosseland.

Now should Haland find a new home, it seems awfully likely it would work similar to Christian Pulisic‘s move to Chelsea from Dortmund last season; The twice-capped Norway international could sign for BVB (or another club) and head back to Salzburg to star in the Europa League (he’s cup-tied in the UCL).

Plus, Salzburg would love to give coach Jesse Marsch a full year with the star. They’re unbeaten in league play.

Europa League preview: Injured Arsenal still seeking knockout round berth

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The Europa League got a lot trickier on Wednesday, as it tends to do when UEFA Champions League outcasts transfer to the competition.

Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, and Red Bull Salzburg will join the competition for knockout stage.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Two of three Premier League sides have already laid claim to places in the next round, Wolves and Manchester United handling their business while Arsenal left its fate in the balance for Thursday’s final group stage match day.

Joining Man United and Wolves as already through to said Round of 32 are Sevilla, APOEL Nicosia, Basel, Sporting Lisbon, LASK, Celtic, Espanyol, Gent, Wolfsburg, Braga, and AZ Alkmaar.

So what hasn’t been decided? Let’s begin with the Gunners.

Arsenal needs just a point from Standard Liege in Belgium on Thursday to advance, although an unlikely Eintracht Frankfurt home loss to Vitoria SC would send a defeated Gunners onto the Round of 32.

Freddie Ljungberg is missing a lot of firepower. Nicolas Pepe is now dinged up, joining Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka, Rob Holding, and Dani Ceballos as unavailable.

“But we’ve brought a lot of firepower here, we have younger players here who have played earlier in the group stages, not just now. They’ve been playing the whole time. So it’s a big game and we’re here to get a result. We have a lot of respect for the opponents.”

While Ljungberg’s status as Arsenal boss feels likely to be short-term, another club whose UEL status is up in the air sees its manager looking long-term.

Rangers boss Steven Gerrard is coming off the disappointment of what would’ve been a deserved silverware triumph off an age-old rival, and now immediately has to get his team to bounce back and earn a spot in the next round.

[ MORE: Five UCL match-ups we’d love to see ]

Celtic saved a penalty and scored an offside goal — no VAR — in lifting the Scottish League Cup this weekend in a 1-0 win over Rangers, but the defeated Glaswegians will be buoyed by the news that Gerrard is making progress on an improved deal.

“(Only being here for a couple of years) wasn’t in my thinking, it has been in the thinking of the majority of everyone else – ‘Oh, Rangers is a stepping stone’ or ‘He’s just going there to rehearse for something else.’ It’s a load of nonsense – I’ve come here as this is a big opportunity for me and I have no plans of going anywhere else.”

Rangers (eight points) simply need a point at home against Swiss powers Young Boys, who enter the game one point back of Glasgow’s blue side. Porto is also a point back of Rangers, and they’ll meet last place Feyenoord (five points).

Full Thursday slate

12:55 p.m. ET
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Vitoria
CFR Cluj v. Celtic
LASK v. Sporting Lisbon
Copenhagen v. Malmo
PSV Eindhoven v. Rosenborg
Qarabag v. Dudelange
Standard Liege v. Arsenal
Basel v. Trabzonspor
Dynamo Kiev v. Lugano
APOEL Nicosia v. Sevilla
Rennes v. Lazio
Getafe v. Krasnodar

3 p.m. ET
Rangers v. Young Boys
Wolves v. Besiktas
Espanyol v. CSKA Moscow
Gent v. Oleksandriya
Borussia Monchengladbach v. Istanbul Basaksehir
Porto v. Feyenoord
Ludogorets Razgrad v. Ferencvaros
Slovan Bratislava v. Braga
Roma v. Wolfsberg
Manchester United v. AZ Alkmaar
Wolfsburg v. Saint-Etienne
Partizan Belgrade v. Astana

Five match-ups we’d love to see in the UCL Round of 16

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We know who each UEFA Champions League knockout round contestant can draw in the Round of 16, but some would be juicier than others.

From an American angle, we’ve been deprived of a Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund reunion for now, though we could see a CONCACAF young star duel if Pulisic’s Chelsea draws Alphonso Davies’ Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

But let’s be honest: That’s simply a subplot for our North American audience. The big intrigue lies elsewhere.

Alas, most of Jose Mourinho’s old employers Chelsea and Real Madrid are unseeded like current club Spurs. Barcelona cannot draw Man City, another beauty.

5. Tottenham Hotspur v. Barcelona — Jose Mourinho and Barcelona have a history, while Spurs are winless in four outings against La Liga’s storied club.

4. Juventus v. Real Madrid — Wouldn’t it be something if Cristiano Ronaldo and his longtime buddies met up in the Round of 16.

3. Manchester City v. Real Madrid — Guardiola v. Zidane, with a heaping helping of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Pep might not be able to draw Bayern Munich nor Barcelona, but he sure wouldn’t mind tangling with a side who was involved in a number of incredible Clasicos as a player and manager.

2. Liverpool v. Borussia Dortmund — We got Jurgen Klopp against his old Der Klassiker rivals Bayern Munich last season, and it’s only natural that the Reds could match up against Klopp’s former club and maybe future star in Jadon Sancho. The two sides met in the 2015/16 Europa League quarterfinals, but this stage — with Klopp as a UCL reigning champ — would be extra delightful.

1. Juventus v. ChelseaMaurizio Sarri went to Chelsea for one season, won the Europa League over a crosstown rival and came within penalty kicks of upending Man City for the League Cup. The Blues are doing well under Frank Lampard, but an “our guy versus the guy we didn’t like” would be a cigarette-chewing wonder, wouldn’t it?

Champions League wrap: Mbappe, Neymar on fire; Atleti, Atalanta advance

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The UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 contestants are confirmed after Atletico Madrid and Atalanta made sure only teams from the top five leagues in Europe made the jump.

[ RECAPS: D. Zagreb 1-4 Man City | Bayern 3-1 Spurs ]

What does that mean for the four Premier League sides? Here’s who they can draw.

As for a recap of Wednesday’s action and some fun highlights, read on…

Club Brugge 1-3 Real Madrid

All the goals came in the second half here, as Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior scored before Luka Modric rounded out the markers in stoppage time. Hans Vanaken scored for the Belgian set, which again used Simon Mignolet between the sticks knowing Galatasaray could’ve passed them with a win.

Olympiacos 1-0 Red Star Belgrade

Longtime Moroccan striker Youssef El-Arabi scored the lone goal as the Greeks moved into third place and a Europa League spot.

Shakhtar Donetsk 0-3 Atalanta

The Serie A side surged past their Ukrainian hosts, who saw star right back Dodo sent off. Three different players scored for the visitors, with Mario Pasalic and Robin Gosens leading the way. Timothy Castagne scored Atalanta’s first goal.

Paris Saint-Germain 5-0 Galatasaray

Kylian Mbappe and Neymar each had a goal and two assists, while Mauro Icardi, Edinson Cavani, and Pablo Sarabia also scored for the hosts.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Lokomotiv Moscow

Lokomotiv keeper Anton Kochenkov pushed a Kieran Trippier penalty off the post in the first few minutes of the contest, but Joao Felix converted Atleti’s second chance from the spot as Diego Simeone’s team handled its business to reach the Round of 16. Felipe scored the side’s other goal via a Koke assist.

Bayer Leverkusen 0-2 Juventus

Atleti would’ve made it through anyway, as Bayer couldn’t spring an upset on group winners Juve. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain scored the goals in Germany.