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Europa League preview: Scottish powers, AC Milan in focus

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Let’s be real: There are few top teams still working for their Europa League lives — and we’ll get to them — but there’s much more intrigue regarding the eight new teams set to join the competition after finishing third in their group at the Champions League.

[ MORE: Who can PL clubs draw in UCL? ]

Here are the new boys:

Club Brugge
Inter Milan
Napoli
Galatasaray
Benfica
Shakhtar Donetsk
Viktoria Plzen
Valencia

If we’re being honest, all but two have a legit chance to make a run to the final given the right draw (Club Brugge and Viktoria Plzen seem just a bridge too far here).

And, more importantly, we’ve got the chance for a Sarri Ball reunion special between Chelsea and Napoli, and a Milan Derby (should AC Milan handle its business on Thursday).

Next, here are the teams who’ve already clinched their spots in the UEL:

Bayer Leverkusen
Zurich
Red Bull Salzburg
Zenit Saint Petersburg
Dinamo Zagreb
Fenerbahce
Arsenal
Sporting Lisbon
Real Betis
Eintracht Frankfurt
Lazio
Dynamo Kyiv
Chelsea

And, finally, here are the matches that carry the most interest, aside from already-clinched Chelsea heading to MOL Vidi and Arsenal hosting last-place Qarabag:

Group B: Celtic vs. Red Bull Salzburg; RB Leipzig vs. Rosenborg

RBL has the tiebreaker should it beat Rosenborg, who hasn’t won, and Celtic fail to gain a point from RBS, who hasn’t lost. Will Brendan Rodgers be able to rally his men to a draw or better at home against the team that beat it 3-1 in Austria?

Group F: Olympiacos vs. AC Milan

Gennaro Gattuso’s Milan has a three-point edge on the Greeks for the group’s second spot in the knockout rounds, and took the home leg 3-1. That away goal means 2-0 would do the job for Olympiacos, but any one goal win wouldn’t be enough for the hosts.

Group G: Villarreal vs. Spartak Moscow; Rapid Vienna vs. Rangers

This group is nuts, with all four teams alive for the knockout rounds. Villarreal, however, can make it simple by drawing or beating Spartak. Steven Gerrard‘s Glasgow Rangers also have a straight-forward angle, needing to topple Rapid Vienna.

Vela leaves door open for Barcelona move

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LAFC striker Carlos Vela has been the surprise subject of new rumors of a January move to Barcelona, and when asked about the prospect of such a departure from the United States, the 29-year-old wasn’t about to rule out the La Liga giants.

ESPN Deportes first reported the move, and while they say such a deal is “unlikely,” it’s not a complete uncertainty. They did report, however, that Barcelona has yet to make a permanent bid and that a loan deal has not yet been floated.

When ESPN contacted Vela for comment on the subject, he shed responsibility, suggesting he’s not even in control of his immediate future. “They are issues for the clubs and agents,” Vela said to ESPN. “I’m relaxed, working on the preseason and the most important thing is to be happy in the place you are. In the future we’ll see what happens.”

While Vela said he is “happy” at LAFC, he also made it sound like the wheels are in motion to explore his options. “Whatever I may decide or happens I’ll be happy because I’m loving being in Los Angeles with my team enjoying the day-to-day and I don’t have anything to lose in any case.”

Vela came up as a youth player in the Chivas Guadalajara setup, and moved to Arsenal in 2006. He made 64 appearances for the Gunners but spent a significant time out on loan at clubs like West Brom and Osasuna. He made a permanent switch to Real Sociedad in 2012 and spent six seasons there before joining LAFC in the club’s inaugural season in Major League Soccer. He scored 14 goals in 28 MLS appearances, which has apparently caught the eye of Barcelona.

Vela’s session at MLS Media Day was cancelled Sunday after he failed to show.

Dembele hurts leg in Barcelona victory

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Ousmane Dembele injured his left leg during the second half of Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Leganes in the Spanish league on Sunday.

The 21-year-old France forward slipped while trying to dribble past an opponent, causing him to fall back on his own leg.

After being attended to by team doctors he limped off and was substituted.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde says it seemed his player had “slightly twisted” his ankle, but more tests are planned on Monday.

Dembele scored Barcelona’s opening goal, taking his tally to 13 goals in all competitions this season as he excels as a strike partner to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

Longtime Mourinho assistant Faria earns first managerial job

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Rui Faria, best known for his 17 years as a Jose Mourinho assistant, has earned his first managerial job, taking charge of Qatari side Al Duhail.

The 43-year-old Faria has followed Mourinho since 2001 at Uniao Leiria, where he linked up with the fellow Portuguese coach and followed him to Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea again, and then Manchester United. The two parted ways last year, with Faria leaving Manchester United last May.

Without a job since leaving Old Trafford and Mourinho recently fired at Manchester United last month, Faria has chosen to finally venture out on his own.

Faria has been linked with a number of jobs in Europe over the years, with teams always looking for a coach with the experience and pedigree Faria has built despite not ever holding a head coaching job. In the past, he has been linked with clubs like Arsenal and Aston Villa. Mourinho said amid links to Arsenal last summer that “if my friend one day has the possibility of a big job, I would help him to pack and carry the bags and to wish him luck.”

Al Duhail won the Qatari Stars League champions last season under manager Nabil Maaloul, who left his post at Tunisia to take charge of the team last July. The two parties went their separate ways 15 days ago. The Doha club claimed Faria chose this job over “great European offers.”

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Higuain nearing Chelsea move, City looking for Fernandinho cover

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Gonzalo Higuain has been linked with a move to Chelsea almost all winter, and all signs point to a move away from the San Siro any day now. The 31-year-old striker was left out of the AC Milan squad to take on Genoa on Monday, the most recent sign of his imminent departure.

In his pre-match press conference, Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso spoke about the likely move, saying angrily, “I spoke in my office with Higuain and it is right to leave him out. We are still waiting on the move and there’s nothing completed but I want to see people who are mentally ready and available and if I don’t get that, I’ll go into battle with those who are more prepared.”

Chelsea has had trouble finding a productive striker of late, with Alvaro Morata benched for poor performance. With Olivier Giroud injured and inconsistent, Maurizio Sarri has utilized Eden Hazard as a false nine, and the result has been just five goals over the last six matches across all competitions.


Manchester City is reportedly looking to find a player to back up defensive midfielder Fernandinho, and the name mentioned is Schalke’s Sebastian Rudy.

The 28-year-old German arrived at Schalke from Bayern Munich this past summer, but has logged just 644 league minutes. While Rudy likely wouldn’t find the starting lineup more often at the Etihad, Pep Guardiola is known for his effective player rotation at Man City, and the club could tempt him with a title race.

Fernandinho has been one of the world’s best defensive midfielders over the past few years, but with the Brazilian on the sideline for two matches earlier this season, Manchester City dropped both games and slipped behind Liverpool in the title race. Center-back John Stones was utilized in the defensive midfield role in Fernandinho’s absence, but Crystal Palace and Leicester City scored a combined five goals.

According to multiple reports in England, a short-term loan would be effective in giving Fernandinho cover for the rest of the season as City looks to catch up with Liverpool and hold of Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arenal.


Arsenal fans were put on alert with Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti in attendance at the Emirates for Arsenal’s win over Chelsea. The French defender is currently injured, and with Barcelona playing on Sunday, Umtiti was able to make his way to England and watch his countrymates Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette.

It would be highly unlikely for Umtiti to move this winter, as he is vitally important to the Barcelona squad and is out injured for another few weeks due to a long-term knee problem. It’s plausible Arsenal could make a play over the summer, but given how Barcelona’s defense has sagged in his absence, it’s unlikely the La Liga leaders would be willing to let him go. Umtiti’s contract with Barcelona runs through the summer of 2023, so he is under clear club control for the time being.


Rumblings in England have suggested that Tottenham defender and American international Cameron Carter-Vickers could leave Spurs this winter after the club has decided the 21-year-old will not break into the first team. According to a report by TeamTalk.com, Wigan Athletic could be in play for a permanent move for Carter-Vickers, who is currently on loan at Swansea City, but has struggled for playing time with the Championship club.

The American was also linked with Ipswich Town earlier this January, although that was mentioned as another loan. Either way, it sounds increasingly likely that Spurs could recall Carter-Vickers and look for a new club to deploy him at this winter.