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PSG’s total dominance removes any drama from French league

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PARIS (AP) By regularly talking about the Champions League game against Chelsea so early in advance, Paris Saint-Germain coach Laurent Blanc is doing a great job of under-selling the French league.

Not that he needs much help.

PSG’s dominance this season has been so absolute – it leads Monaco by 21 points – that the race for second place is more exciting.

[ WATCH: PSG scores two incredible goals… 10 minutes apart ]

At the current rate, PSG will finish the season with 104 points – smashing its own record by 15 points. In 22 matches, PSG has scored 56 goals for only 10 conceded, putting it on course to score around 100 and break the record for least goals conceded in a season.

A second straight domestic treble is odds-on, with PSG playing in the League Cup semifinals on Tuesday, and if PSG avoids defeat at Saint-Etienne on Sunday it will equal the longest unbeaten league run of 32 games, set by Nantes in the 1994-95 season.

“PSG will be judged on the Champions League, they are far too strong for France,” France’s World Cup-winning defender Bixente Lizarazu said.

Therefore, it is understandable that Blanc has spent the past two weeks talking about the importance of being ready to face Chelsea in the last 16 – even though the first leg is not until Feb. 16.

But in doing so he may as well grab a megaphone and tell everyone how weak PSG’s competition is. The quest for a fourth straight title is a total procession, albeit a brutal one, with Saturday’s 5-1 hammering of Angers extending an unbeaten league run dragging back to March 15.

Added to that, it was a club record-equaling 11th straight win and improved its whopping goal difference to + 46. At the ripe age of 34, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is on course for his best ever league goal tally – he has 17 so far, despite missing five games – while winger Angel di Maria has already beaten his personal scoring record over a season, as well as setting up the most goals in Ligue 1.

PSG will fancy its chances of finishing the league season unbeaten, and the only defeat anywhere has been a 1-0 reverse away to Real Madrid in the Champions League on Nov. 3.

[ MORE: Manchester United’s Mata pledges passion for an FA Cup run ]

In boxing terms, PSG’s dominance would be the equivalent of a heavyweight champion knocking out petrified middleweights within a minute of the opening round.

Lyon and Marseille challenged PSG last season but both now languish 30 points behind.

Monaco threatened to upstage PSG after a massive cash outlay under Russian billionaire owner Dmitry Rybolovlev three years ago, but then did everything to undermine that bid.

In the past two seasons, Monaco has sold Colombia’s World Cup star James Rodriguez to Real Madrid, France midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia to Inter Milan, speedy winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco to Atletico Madrid, lynchpin defender Aymen Abdennour to Valencia, and rising star Anthony Martial to Manchester United – as well as letting once-feared striker Radamel Falcao join United on loan.

For a club hoping to challenge PSG, that is a funny way of showing it.

Instead, Monaco has now become a profit-making club – and a very good one – using its vast scouting network to recruit exceptionally talented young players and sell them for a profit.

Even if Monaco does finish second, it would be hard to bet against the club selling more of its promising assets.

[ MORE: Klopp demands better defending; comments on “serial killer” glasses ]

Monaco has achieved one thing PSG never has, though – reaching the Champions League final, in 2004 – while Marseille remains the only French club to win it, back in 1993.

But Marseille only has an outside shot of qualifying for next season’s Champions League and behind the scenes things are as hectic as usual. Having spent several seasons clearing debts, it also has scant funds available.

Owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus is increasingly keen to sell – the asking price is around ? 85-100 million euros – with potential buyers from Kazakhstan, Kuwait and China showing an interest, according to a report Sunday on football show Telefoot.

However, any buyer would have to invest considerably more to attract the likes of Di Maria and Edinson Cavani – PSG’s ?64-million striker who now sits on the bench.

Buying Marseille comes with another snag: the Stade Velodrome is owned by the city and mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin does not want to sell it.

“As long as I’m mayor of Marseille, it won’t change,” he adamantly told Telefoot.

The example of Lens should be a warning sign to clubs hoping for a miracle investor, too.

Having secured considerable backing from major shareholder Hafiz Mammadov of Azerbaijan, all seemed promising when the northern club won promotion back to the first division two seasons ago.

That was until the league’s financial watchdog (DNCG) spotted missing funds in the club’s proposed budget for 2014-15, the promotion was ruled invalid and Lens was ordered to be relegated no matter where it finished in Ligue 1 last season.

Lens is now in seventh place in the second division.

The best hope of a long-term challenge to PSG rests with Lyon, which has now moved into a new stadium – which it fully owns – and always has promising players coming through from its superbly-run youth academy.

But Lyon only has a slim chance of keeping star striker Alexandre Lacazette, who recently gave an interview saying he would relish playing in the Premier League.

Therefore, next season could be the same all over again – with little excitement outside of PSG’s Champions League campaign.

Furthermore, club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi has lamented how the atmosphere at Parc des Princes is far less passionate than at Saint-Etienne, Marseille or Nantes – storied clubs with a loyal and noisy fan base.

The atmosphere at Parc des Princes is stifled and much akin to a theater crowd in the way it is excessively demanding – with some fans even jeering 20 minutes into Saturday’s rout of Angers, while others were still taking their seats.

Unlike other major European cities, Paris does not have a cross-city rival to at least make for some exciting local derbies and PSG’s fans appear only vaguely interested until their team gets into heavy scoring mode.

Spoilt home fans even jeered Ibrahimovic when he missed a chance a few games ago – astonishingly harsh on such an entertainer who, in just four seasons, has become the club’s all-time leading scorer with 126 goals.

But with no rivals, PSG fans have the luxury of picking holes in their own team.

Solskjaer warns “could have been one of those nights” for Manchester United

Manchester United Solskjaer
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clearly relieved after his dominant but wasteful Manchester United finally beat goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson and Copenhagen in extra time of their Europa League quarterfinal in Cologne.

“I think it was just one of those nights,” he said after the win. “I think we deserved to win, that’s clear, but they made it very hard for us.”

Johnsson made 13 saves as United out-attempted the minusM-1000 underdogs from Denmark by a 26-9 margin. The Red Devils blocked several Copenhagen chances in tight, making the Danes’ total of zero shots on target a bit deceiving.

[ RECAP: Manchester United 1-0 Copenhagen ]

“Their keeper was unbelievable and we hit the post a few times,” Solskjaer said. “It could have been one of those nights that you end up with a shootout. We had to block, defend well and they made it hard for us.”

But United was clearly the better team on the day, as expected. Juan Mata entered late in the game and was an influential sub in extra time.

He says the Red Devils were a bit beat up on a hot night in Germany.

“The team is quite tired physically,” Mata said. “At this stage of this season it is important to win games like today and we go through. We stay in Germany for quite some time and hopefully we can win.

“Both teams got a little tired and there were more spaces and more chances. They played some good football and credit to them. We could have scored more goals in extra time but we are through.”

United will meet either Sevilla or Wolves in a dynamite semifinal in one week.

Manchester United breaks through Copenhagen in extra time

Manchester United - Copenhagen
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Manchester United – Copenhagen: The Europa League’s biggest underdogs of the quarterfinals took the tournament favorites to extra time before succumbing 1-0 in Cologne.

Bruno Fernandes highlighted his Man of the Match performance by converting an Anthony Martial-won penalty in the 95th minute for Manchester United, the only way past Copenhagen’s terrific goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson.

But Fernandes gave United a scare, needing care for his hamstring at the final whistle.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Johnsson made 13 saves, seven from inside the box, to keep Copenhagen within a sucker punch of eliminating the Red Devils over 90 minutes.

Manchester United heads to Dusseldorf for an Aug. 17 semifinal against the winner of Tuesday’s tilt between Wolves and Sevilla.

Three things we learned

1. Copenhagen plays prime tournament soccer: The heaviest underdogs in the quarterfinals, Copenhagen executed a traditional 4-4-2 in a less-traditional low block for much of the match. The low block wasn’t the surprise, but instead of two banks of five, the rows of four with two men hassling up front challenged United for time and helped spring a number of dangerous counters. The Danes opened up in extra time after going behind, but taking it to extra time was more than many expected out of them.

2. VAR denies the Red Devils: A rout would’ve been on if this match was staged a year ago without VAR, as the assistant referee twice allowed United goals to go to video. Harry Maguire was offside before assisting the first would-be Red Devils goal, while Mason Greenwood was off before ripping a rocket off the far post and into the goal.

3. Bruno is a beast: Fernandes was everywhere, cueing up his teammates for chances when he wasn’t smashing them off the frame in a bid to win it himself. The Portuguese playmaker registered three key passes, put three of his five shots on target, and won the majority of his duels on top of scoring the game’s lone goal (SofaScore). Now United must hope his late leg injury was just a product of 120 minutes and nothing major.

Man of the Match

Fernandes, and yes we had him here before he smashed his penalty home. Fernandes is now the Europa League’s leading scorer with seven goals between Sporting Lisbon and United.

Manchester United – Copenhagen recap

United has plenty of the ball in the first 10 minutes but Copenhagen provided legitimate danger that Eric Bailly managed in his own six.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka blocked a cross with his face and needed treatment, looking quite dazed before returning to the game.

Another Copenhagen chance was blocked in the six by Bailly (again), who proved a wise choice over Victor Lindelof.

VAR had a look at an early United goal and rightly chalked Harry Maguire offside in the build-up. And it took Mason Greenwood’s hammer off the far post off the board for offside early in stoppage time.

Copenhagen was in it at the break. Would United pay?

[ MORE: Lukaku leads Inter past Bayer Leverkusen ]

The early stages of the second half remained with the Red Devils, Copenhagen parking all its men behind the ball at times.

Rashford flubbed a chance to shoot or pass to Paul Pogba when Bruno Fernandes spotted him at the back post just after the hour mark.

Fernandes tried his luck from distance in the 63rd, ripping a shot off the far post.

Ex-Everton man Bryan Oviedo nearly put Copenhagen ahead in the 66th only to see Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bailly clog his shooting lane after Rasmus Falk dazzled to get into the box.

Karl-Johan Johnsson made a flying save on Anthony Martial to force an 84th-minute corner that came to nothing for United.

Johnsson denied Martial again in-tight at the start of stoppage time, but the high was short-lived as the Frenchman was dropped in the box moments later.

Fernandes stepped to the spot and used a stuttering run-up before blasting his penalty home.

Martial nearly had it 2-0 after the restart when he dribbled through the Copenhagen 18 but took it himself instead of laying off to Juan Mata in what would’ve been a fairly straight-forward chance for the Spaniard.

Johnsson denied Fernandes at the end of the first 15 minutes of extra time, United unfortunate to not score on the ensuing corner when Mata’s shot was blocked to Lindelof, who fired off the outside of the post.

Lindelof made a fine intervention to block a close-range equalizer bid in the 116th.

Inter Milan rides early goals past Bayer Leverkusen

Inter Milan - Bayer Leverkusen
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While Manchester United and Copenhagen played chess across the country, Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen were staging double jumps all over a checkerboard in Dusseldorf.

Romelu Lukaku and Nicolo Barella scored twice in six first-half minutes before Kai Havertz answered in the 24th to account for all the goals in Inter’s 2-1 defeat of Bayer.

Lukaku has scored in nine-straight UEL matches, a new record.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Inter now waits for an Aug. 16 semifinal in Cologne, where it will meet the winner of Tuesday’s match between Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk

Bayer now must settle for the Europa League again via its fifth-place finish in the Bundesliga.

The three goals in the nine minutes were highlighted by Lukaku doing his best “Harry Kane versus Leicester City” falling down finish.

Nicola Barella put Inter ahead after a quarter-hour when he made the most of a loose ball outside the 18.

A Manchester United connection saw Inter ahead by two when Ashley Young found Romelu Lukaku and the Belgian striker maintained his composure while being dragged to the ground, beating Lukas Hradecky with a low shot.

Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland’s interplay near the box ended with the transfer rumor mainstay slipping a shot home to bring Bayer back within one.

Lukaku had penalty decisions taken off the board by VAR in each half.

Who’s next for Manchester United if Sancho stays at Dortmund?

Chiesa to Manchester United
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The transfer rumor mill is usually buzzing this time of year, but it’s nearly a cacophony following Michael Zorc’s announcement that Jadon Sancho will be staying at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Reports say Manchester United is not quitting on the idea of Sancho at Old Trafford, but here are some other targets if the Red Devils have to look away from the English phenom.

Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina

Linked with United for some time including a Monday nod from Football-Italia, Chiesa’s approximately $80 million price tag is high but half of what Dortmund is asking for Sancho.

The versatile playmaker has often been linked with Juventus, though Fiorentina is loathe to do business with The Old Lady unless absolutely necessary after big sales of Roberto Baggio and Federico Bernardeschi to Juve in the past.

The 22-year-old already has 17 Italian caps and scored 10 goals with six assists for La Viola this season in Serie A play, career bests in both.

Douglas Costa, Juventus

This one could become even more feasible if Juve latched onto Chiesa.

Juve desperately needs to get younger and Costa doesn’t figure to fit into the plans of Andrea Pirlo, a month away from his 30th birthday.

Costa works better on the right side and would be a worker bee looking to set up Rashford and Martial or cut back for Bruno Fernandes. He boasts double-digit assist seasons in the Bundesliga (Bayern), Serie A (Juve), and Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk).

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 19: Douglas Costa (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Raul Jimenez, Wolves

This one still feels like a long shot of long shots given the players’ age and status at Wolves, but the El Tri star has been linked with United in the past.

Jimenez doesn’t solve the wing issue presented by Sancho staying at BVB, and you’d fancy the Red Devils to go after one of Wolves’ wingers before Jimenez.

But Solskjaer enjoys Marcus Rashford at left wing and could use Anthony Martial at right wing a bit more often than center forward. Throw in Mason Greenwood and the boss would have a lot of permutations to use around Bruno Fernandes in a front three or four.

Ivan Perisic, Inter Milan

Mentioned as part of a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez, that’s less on the cards after the Chilean accepted a Man United payoff to move to Inter for free.

The 31-year-old favors the left wing and Inter would be happy to offload him after Bayern declined its option to buy the loanee who managed seven goals and 10 assists in just over 1600 minutes.

That’s pretty good output for a part-time player who kept some tread on the tires.

Perisic to Manchester United
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 15: Ivan Perisic of Croatia (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

James Rodriguez, Real Madrid

If you’re sensing a thread amongst most of these players, it’s no surprise considering United has a wage scale to meet the needs of many wantaways.

Real desperately wants to get something for Colombian star James, who at 29 played less than 800 minutes for La Liga’s champions this season.

His two-year loan stint at Bayern also saw him as a part-time player, but like Perisic a productive one. James scored 15 times with 20 assists over two seasons with the Bavarians.

Kingsley Coman, Bayern Munich

This would cost a lot of dough.

The 24-year-old has been a part of nine-straight league winners between Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, and Bayern.

Okay that’s cheating a bit considering his Ligue 1 crowns came off a handful of appearances over two seasons at the Parc des Princes.

But the left and right winger might be on for a change of scenery with Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane set to dominate the preferential places at Bayern.