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UEFA Champions League semi preview: Pellegrini the avenger; Pep vs Simeone again

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The first legs of the UEFA Champions League semifinals take place this week, as two La Liga clubs hope to take steps toward making the 2016 final a repeat of the 2014 Madrid Derby final.

That final, of course, carries one of the most deceptive score lines in soccer history, as Sergio Ramos’ stoppage time goal pushed Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid into stoppage time before Real completed the comeback with three extra time goals to win 4-1.

[ MORE: Pardew says LVG’s career could hinge on FA Cup ]

The roadblocks to a rematch are massive; Atletico Madrid has to knock off Bayern Munich while Real will square off with Manchester City.

Manchester City vs. Real Madrid — 2:45 p.m. ET Tuesday

There’s no love lost between Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini and his former employers. The Argentine was sacked after a season in which he won 75 percent of his matches for Real, leading to the legendary comment, “It’s no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist.”

Manchester City's manager Manuel Pellegrini poses for photographers with the trophy after the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and West Ham at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Sunday May 11, 2014.  Manchester City won the Premier League for the second time in three seasons on Sunday, completing its campaign with a comfortable 2-0 victory over West Ham that lacked any of the drama of its previous title.  (AP Photo/Jon Super)
(AP Photo/Jon Super)

And so Pellegrini’s defiant final months as Man City boss continues with the chance to also tick off a former club. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

The Premier League powers enter this match as the underdog of this round, and will have to limit Real’s expected infliction of road goal damage in Leg No. 1.

No Yaya Toure is a blessing and a curse for Manuel Pellegrini’s Man City, as the mercurial playmaker would certainly be amped up to hit the big stage. But City may be better suited to implement its defensive system without the Ivorian.

[ MORE: Another 4-goal haul from Suarez keeps Barca top ]

The attacking talent is there on both sides, to be sure, as Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero meet Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale in an All-Star showdown.

There’s one area where City has a significant edge: Real boss Zinedine Zidane is a good managing prospect and a legend in the game, but only the craziest of Madridistas would claim he’s better prepared to contest this round than Pellegrini.

Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern Munich — 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Head coach Josep Guardiola (L) of Barcelona shakes hands with head coach Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid prior of the La Liga match at Vicente Calderon Stadium on February 26, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Pep’s crew has allowed just 14 goals in 31 matches while scoring 74 in Bundesliga. Atleti? It’s allowed just two more goals in four more matches.

It’s difficult to judge records across leagues, but the defensive records are almost as magical. The Bundesliga is a better league top-to-bottom than La Liga, but both records are impressive.

Both Diego Simeone and Pep Guardiola have great records in the tournament, but the edge in paper goes to Bayern’s explosive attack. Expect Atleti to explore a similar system to the tactical one employed in its upset of Barcelona.

Bayern presents a bigger physical challenge than Barca, though, and that could be the determining factor with Guardiola’s unit favored to advance to another final.

Champions League: PSG ruin Atalanta fairytale with stoppage-time comeback

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Atalanta were within five minutes of knocking off PSG and reaching the Champions League semifinals, but those final five minutes were to be played after the proverbial midnight, and their carriage turned to a rotten pumpkin so very close to the final whistle.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

Paris Saint-Germain’s stoppage-time comeback brought about the harsh end to a fairytale run which had captured the hearts and minds of neutral fans the world over.

The three-time reigning Ligue 1 champions were quickest out of the starting blocks and jumped all over Atalanta with a flurry of early chances. They were, however, wasteful to an alarming degree — none more egregious and disappointing than Neymar’s one-on-one chance in the third minute.

Atalanta treaded water in those opening 25 minutes before hitting PSG with a blindside haymaker in the 26th. With three defenders surrounding — and winning — the ball atop their own penalty area, PSG were a bit unlucky to see it pinball into a patch of open space where Mario Pasalic was lurking completely unmarked. He still had plenty to do, though, and he left no doubt whatsoever with the left-footed finish.

Unfortunately for Neymar and PSG, his earlier blunder wasn’t his only shocking moment of the game. On most any other day, he scores one or two — maybe even all three — of these chances. It wasn’t his day, clearly.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Kylian Mbappe (ankle) was introduced as a substitute right on the hour mark, and the 21-year-old instantly threatened and gave PSG energy and life. His first great scoring chance — and PSG’s best chance since Neymar’s early miss — came in the 74th minute, but Marco Sportiello was up to the task of denying one of the world’s most expensive signing.

Six minutes later, it was the exact same story.

Finally, with 89:35 on the clock, Marquinhos broke through Atalanta’s stout defense and drew level. It was anything but pretty, which made it all the more painful for Atalanta.

Two minuets after drawing level, Mbappe teed up Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for the close-range winner that PSG largely deserved on the whole of their dominant performance.

Up next for Thomas Tuchel’s side is a semifinal clash with the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal between Atletico Madrid and RB Leipzig.

Thiago to Liverpool: Bayern boss urges Premier League move

Thiago to Liverpool
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Thiago-to-Liverpool gaining momentum: Bayern munich manager Hansi Flick has taken the unexpected step of not only endorsing, but seemingly urging, Thiago Alcantara’s rumored transfer to Premier League champions Liverpool this summer.

[ MORE: Paul Pogba contract talks to begin after Man United season ends ]

Contract negotiations have stalled and perhaps reached an impasse with just 12 months remaining on Thiago’s contract, therefore the logical expectation is that he will leave the club in the coming weeks. Flick is fully understand, and accepting, of the situation — both from the standpoint of the club and that of the player — quotes from the Metro:

“As a person and as an athlete, I can understand him. Thiago played for Barcelona, and seven years for Bayern. Now he wants a new challenge, which in my opinion must be the Premier League.”

It has previously been reported that Liverpool had agreed personal terms with Thiago, but the two clubs are yet to agree a transfer fee as of yet.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Promes to Arsenal ]

PST’s Joe Prince-Wright, on how Thiago-to-Liverpool might look on the field, from last week:

The deep-lying playmaker is a totally different central midfielder to what Liverpool currently have as Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are all hard-working more defensive minded players. And then there’s Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who provide a bit more attacking intent with forward runs from central midfield.

Thiago Alcantara would help Liverpool control games better when opponents sit back and don’t allow them space to operate in-behind. He is a silky pass-master who is wanted by PSG, Liverpool, Manchester United and others, but it appears he will be heading to Anfield to give Liverpool a totally new dimension to their play. If this happens, it will make an already strong Liverpool side stronger.

Pogba contract talks to begin after season ends

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Pogba contract update: For all the talk of Paul Pogba leaving Manchester United this summer, last summer and the summer before that one, the 27-year-old midfielder now appears ready to commit to the Red Devils for the foreseeable future.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Promes to Arsenal ]

According to a report from Sky Sports, not only is Pogba happy at Man United these days, but he also expects negotiations over a new contract to begin after the club’s Europa League run ends. United are set to face Sevilla in the quarterfinals on Sunday, with the final looming large next Friday, Aug. 21.

“Pogba is happy at United and he’s expecting them to open contract talks once their Europa League campaign is over.

“His current deal runs out next summer but United always insert this year option so they don’t get caught out with free transfers.

“It should be said United are in a better position to negotiate with Pogba and the returning Dean Henderson, as it stands from Sheffield United, following the departure of Alexis Sanchez and all of the money his wages have now freed.

“There appears to be a willingness from all parties to get around the table as far as Pogba is concerned.”

The part of the report referring to Sanchez’s now-offloaded contract is of the utmost importance. Not only was the transfer itself — and the Chilean’s time at Old Trafford — an incredible flop, but his massive (reported) $500,000-per-week contract was a huge obstacle for the club when it came time to sign new players and/or negotiate new contracts with players already at the club.

[ MORE: Ranking new Premier League kits: 2020-21 ]

It’s not just the Pogba contract which needs resolving in the coming months, but budding superstar Mason Greenwood is almost certain to get another pay rise following his standout performances over the second half of the 2019-20 season. The 18-year-old signed a new contract back in October, but he will likely be rewarded — and locked down — with the longest possible terms as United move to fend off any interest from other clubs in the Premier League and around Europe. Without the Sanchez money off the books, taking care of such business would have been that much more difficult.

Key battles in Champions League quarterfinals

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The UEFA Champions League quarterfinals take center stage this week and we’re going to select one key battle which should determine the outcome of all four games.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

With Manchester City the favorites against Lyon, a massive clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, plus intriguing ties between Atalanta and PSG, plus RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid, the final few games in the 2019-20 Champions League campaign will be so tight to call.

[ MORE: Man City beat Real Madrid ]

In the next few days the Champions League quarterfinals will excite as the mini tournament in Portugal begins.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate to reach the last eight and Pep Guardiola’s boys will be confident but wary after Lyon dumped out Juventus in the Round of 16. Bayern v. Barcelona should be all-out attack, while Atletico v. Leipzig will be full of grit and Atalanta and PSG could end up 6-5 to either team as two free-flowing attacks collide.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, and there will be one heck of a show over the next few days.

Below is a look at the key battles, as well as how to watch and follow all of the Champions League quarterfinal fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League quarterfinals

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


Key battles

Atalanta – PSG: Marten de Roon v. Ander Herrera

Yes, that Marten de Roon from Middlesbrough. The Dutch midfielder has been a sensation at Atalanta and does most of the dirty work for Gomez, Zapata et al. to score boat loads of goals. His battle in the engine room against Ander Herrera will be crucial. Marco Verratti is out injured and that is a big blow, especially with Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria out too for PSG. Neymar and Icardi will be looking for the midfield to give them the ball as much as possible and if that happens, PSG could run riot. That said, if De Roon can win that battle with Herrera, Atalanta’s attackers can cause PSG’s defense big problems. Whoever wins the midfield battle will win this game. It should be tight and full of goals. Enjoy.

RB Leipzig – Atletico Madrid: Dayot Upamecano v.Diego Costa

This should be an epic head-to-head. Costa loves the one-on-one scraps and Upamecano is among the finest center backs in Europe right now. The young Frenchman doesn’t get bullied often but Costa will have a good go. Costa has hardly been prolific in his second spell at Atletico but he so often sets the tone for their scrappy displays under Diego Simeone. Leipzig like to play a back three at times and that could leave space for Costa to run at Upamecano. This will be intriguing. Watch out for Costa to put down his marker early on with elbows and everything else flying at Upamecano.

Barcelona – Bayern Munich: Lionel Messi v. David Alaba

Barcelona - Bayern
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Okay, so, we know how Jerome Boateng v. Lionel Messi went before. Somewhere, somebody is still using that gif of Boateng tangling his own legs like spaghetti as Messi bamboozled him to score at the Nou Camp. So it’s probably best if versatile Austrian star David Alaba goes up against Messi. It’s likely that Alaba will play at the back but he should basically mark Messi, and when (or if, because this is Messi) he gets the ball back he has the quality to start attacks. Bayern and Barcelona both score plenty of goals but defensively they have to improve if they’re going to win the Champions League this season.

Manchester City – Lyon: Aymeric Laporte v. Memphis Depay

Everyone is tipping Man City to beat Lyon easily, but that’s what everyone said about Lyon against Juventus. Memphis Depay is a real threat up top and Lyon usually do very well against Man City. Pep Guardiola needs Aymeric Laporte to be at his very best and it is likely he and Fernandinho will again line up together at center back. Laporte will line up on the left and Memphis will start on the right side of Lyon’s central strikers, so this will be a battle to look out for. Laporte has class but his pace is sometimes questioned and if City leave him exposed on the break, Memphis can take advantage of those situations.