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UCL preview: Messi back for Barcelona v. Dortmund, Liverpool visits Napoli

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The Champions League group stage is back. So is Lionel Messi.

Tuesday kicks off the 2019/20 Champions League in earnest, with a litany of powerhouse matchups dotting the landscape. Most notably, Barcelona’s five-time Ballon d’Or winner is in the squad for the trip to the Rhur valley to take on Borussia Dortmund, potentially set for his first appearance of the season after missing Barcelona’s first four matches of the season with a calf injury.

[ PST writers predict the CL group stage ]

Those two teams are both roaring back from disappointing league losses, and come into this match in good attacking form. Barcelona fell to Athletic Bilbao on the opening weekend of the La Liga season, but is unbeaten in their last three with 12 goals in those three games. Dortmund, meanwhile, fell to Union Berlin at the end of August but crushed third-tier Ergenie Cottbus in cup action before blowing out fellow Champions League participants Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 this past weekend. 19-year-old Jadon Sancho provided two assists in that most recent game and will get his first crack at the La Liga giants.

Defending champions Liverpool are on the road at Napoli, with the Italians having integrated Hirving “Chucky” Lozano into the squad. The Mexican international got his first start against Sampdoria over the weekend in a 2-0 win, playing 65 minutes. The Reds fell in this same fixture last season en route to the title, losing 1-0 at San Paolo Stadium in one of their worst performances of the season. This time around they are top of the Premier League through five matches – all wins – but will be without Divock Origi, Alisson, and Naby Keita through injury while Andy Robertson is a game-time decision.

[ Villa, West Ham meet in scoreless draw ]

Chelsea hosts Spanish side Valencia in an absolutely wide-open and loaded Group H that features four quality sides, meaning every game will be a significant challenge. The Blues’ defense has been quite poor so far this season, and will again be without Antonio Rudiger thanks to a groin problem picked up after just making his return over the weekend from knee surgery. Chelsea has never lost to Valencia in six European meetings, their joint-most games without losing against any European opponent.

On the other end of that brutal Group H, new-look Ajax hosts French side Lille. The visitors finished second in Ligue 1 last season and have three wins in their first five this campaign, proceeding without Nicolas Pepe after his sale to Arsenal this summer. Ajax has also lost highly valued young talent, with Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt having left for greener pastures, although they have thus maintained an unbeaten record this season, earning a berth in the group stage while proceeding through two qualifying stages.

Benfica hosts RB Leipzig in another brutal group, Group G that also features Zenit St. Petersburg and Lyon who match up in France. Leipzig leads the Bundesliga with an unbeaten first four matches, including a draw against defending champions Bayern Munich. Striker Timo Werner has a fabulous five goal haul through RB Leipzig’s first four league matches including a hat-trick against Borussia Monchengladbach. Benfica has also started its league campaign well with four wins in five, a solid sign after the loss of young star Joao Felix to Atletico Madrid.

FC Salzburg takes on Genk in Austria, with Salzburg boss Jesse Marsch set to become the first American head coach of a Champions League side. He has quite the home record to protect, with the Austrian side unbeaten in 18 European home matches.


Tuesday Champions League matches:

Inter v. Slavia Prague (12:55pm ET)
Lyon v. Zenit St. Petersburg

Ajax v. Lille (3:00pm ET)
Benfica v. RB Leipzig
Borussia Dortmund v. Barcelona
Chelsea v. Valencia
FC Salzburg v. Racing Genk
Napoli v. Liverpool

MLS conference semifinal preview and predictions

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We’re not sure we should be allowed to make Major League Soccer playoff predictions after getting two upset bids wrong in the first round, but we go again anyway.

No, DC United did not outlast Toronto FC at BMO Field nor were the Portland Timbers able to get a win over Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto but… we got the other four right?

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

It gets trickier at midweek for the conference semifinals, as two of those six victors from the weekend face well-rested one seeds (We suppose they could be rusty, not just well-rested).

NYCFC v. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
TFC 4-0 NYCFC (April 29)
NYCFC 1-1 TFC (Sept. 11)

Toronto hasn’t lost since Aug. 3 (5W-6D) and is well-equipped to deal NYCFC’s possession system on a postage stamp pitch. NYC’s only loss in its last 11 was a throwaway loss to a desperate Revolution side in New England. TFC has a lot of experience in spots like this, but Dome Torrent’s done an incredible job with City. It’s a coin toss, but ultimately it feels like that coin lands TFC side up. 2-1 aet.

Seattle v. Real Salt Lake  — 10 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
Seattle 1-0 RSL (April 6)
RSL 3-0 Seattle (Aug. 14)

This one’s also close, as RSL has a number of players who won’t be bothered by the pressure but man is this home field advantage a real one. The Sounders only lost two home matches this season, and haven’t lost a home playoff match under Brian Schmetzer. Call it 2-0 for Seattle.

Atlanta United v. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
ATL 1-1 Philly (March 17)
Philly 3-1 ATL (Aug. 31)

The Union are resilient, and Jim Curtin seeing success is an absolute joy. So deserved, but Frank De Boer is showing his mettle in making the tough decisions and Ezequiel Barco looks a terror. A side that is able to bring Tito Villalba and Pity Martinez off the bench is unfair. Atlanta, 3-1.

LAFC v. LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
Galaxy 3-2 LAFC (July 19)
LAFC 3-3 Galaxy (Aug. 25)

Can hardly wait for this one. Bob Bradley and Carlos Vela look to send Zlatan Ibrahimovic packing after a riotous summer competition. LAFC is so, so good, and the lack of rest for the Galaxy is a problem. Still, betting against Zlatan seems borderline insane, and Jonathan dos Santos has big game mettle of his own. We’ll call it 2-2 and a place in penalty kicks, where David Bingham’s the difference for the Galaxy in a history-writing upset that takes El Trafico to the next level. Yes, we are predicting for storylines now.

Champions League preview: Chelsea, Liverpool hit the road

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Frank Lampard has a selection headache amongst his wingers as he tries to figure out Chelsea’s best avenue to break down Ajax on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League.

Youngsters Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic starred in the Blues’ weekend win, and Lampard also has Pedro and Willian available at Johan Cruyff Arena before a weekend visit to Burnley.

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

From ChelseaFC.com:

“Callum gave me that in his display from the start and Christian gave me that in his display coming on, and in terms of the wingers I have, Willian gave me that, Pedro gives me that so I have good selection problems when people come on and make a difference. That is what we are all about.

“The extra level that is the Champions League, the detail, the focus, concentration for 90 minutes, making the most of tiny moments, will be a test for all the young players, not just Callum.”

The good news for Pulisic in his bid to match wits with fellow USMNT (for now) player Sergino Dest is that he’s had experience on the UCL stage with Borussia Dortmund.

The other PL side in action is Liverpool, and the Reds will be expecting to get all three points in Belgium against Genk.

But Genk drew Napoli 0-0 at home on the second match day and the Reds will be wary of a slip-up.

“It’s a really good football-playing team,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “They are organized and brave in their positioning. They don’t play with the pressing line too much but go for second balls, have speed and good midfielders and very active full-backs.”

Klopp will not have Trent Alexander-Arnold (illness) and Joel Matip (knee).

Other highlights…

— American manager Jesse Marsch hopes to lead Red Bull Salzburg to a home win over Napoli when he matches wits with Carlo Ancelotti.

Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan could really use a result against tricky Borussia Dortmund in Italy.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Ajax v. Chelsea
RB Leipzig v. Zenit Saint-Petersburg

3 p.m. ET
Slavia Prague v. Barcelona
Red Bull Salzburg v. Napoli
Genk v. Liverpool
Inter Milan v. Borussia Dortmund
Lille v. Valencia
Benfica v. Lyon

Man City’s Guardiola issues Rodri update; Zinchenko also injured

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Man City boss Pep Guardiola expects to be without Rodri for at least a couple of matches after his heavily relied-on midfielder hurt his hamstring on Tuesday.

Rodri was removed from the match after 40 minutes, having partnered with Fernandinho at center back for the second-straight match.

[ MORE: Man City 5-1 Atalanta ]

A center mid and a fine one by trade, Rodri’s absence coupled with the still-hurt Aymeric Laporte leaves City significantly weaker in its heart.

“I think tomorrow we will know and hopefully it will be between 10 days if it is not broken,” Guardiola said. “If it is broken, it will be three weeks or one month.”

The club also announced before the match that Oleksandr Zinchenko had suffered a knee injury and will undergo tests.

City visits Aston Villa this weekend and then hosts Southampton in the League Cup and the Premier League before a visit to Atalanta in the Champions League.

That’s when Liverpool at Anfield arrives on the schedule, and the absence of Rodri would take some of the luster off of it for sure.

Report: Dest will announce international decision this week

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Ajax defender Sergino Dest is expected to make a decision on his international future this week, according to a report in Holland.

Dest turns 19 on Nov. 3 and has two caps for the United States men’s national team after a sensational career with the program’s youth club.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

But he’s also eligible to represent his birth nation of the Netherlands, and is the starting right back for its most celebrated club.

The back turned down a call-up from Gregg Berhalter last month as a cap in the CONCACAF Nations League would’ve tied him to the USMNT for the rest of his life.

It’s natural to feel that Dest would be inclined to choose the Netherlands, as Ronald Koeman‘s team is firing on all cylinders and Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT has been mostly miserable against significant competition. Berhalter also played Dest at left back in both of his caps versus Mexico and Uruguay, playing Reggie Cannon at Dest’s preferred right back.

But Dest has more history with the USMNT set-up, and the Yanks could still use him at the Olympics this summer (The Netherlands have not qualified for Tokyo). They have a puncher’s chance, but the timing of the announcement seems to lean toward Koeman.

The Dutch can qualify for EURO 2020 with a draw or better against Northern Ireland, meaning Koeman could blood a number of youngsters against minnows Estonia at Ajax’s home Johan Cruyff Arena four days later.

Not to mention the report is coming out of Holland. You’d feel a whole lot better if an American outlet was reporting it, but maybe that’s just negativity following the USMNT’s recent play. The Dutch set-up has a much better history than the USMNT. There’s a lure there, and we can hope that Dest feels tied into the USMNT.