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Tuesday Champions League preview: Chelsea v. Ajax, Liverpool v. Genk

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The Champions League group stage is halfway complete, and while the groups are taking shape, there’s still plenty to sort out as teams look for openings through to the knockout stage.

Two Premier League teams are in action – both at home – as Chelsea hosts Ajax at Stamford Bridge while Liverpool gets set to host Genk at Anfield.

[ MORE: Liverpool to rotate squad in Champions League? ]

The Reds will be watched closely as this could be a potential trap game for Liverpool, knowing the massive tilt against Manchester City looms over the weekend. Jurgen Klopp as refused to answer questions about Man City, saying he is “not in the mood” to talk about the weekend’s game knowing they still must traverse the 90 minutes against the Belgian side.

The match is a critical one for Liverpool, who sits second in Group E, a point behind leaders Napoli and three ahead of third-placed Red Bull Salzburg. Dropped points against Genk could see Liverpool placed in a perilous position, especially should Salzburg shock the Italian side in Naples. The Reds have looked vulnerable at times in Europe this season, losing at Napoli for the second straight season while staving off a Salzburg comeback at home in a wild 4-3 win. Klopp may rotate the squad with the Man City game looming, but he will almost surely not take this game for granted.

Napoli, meanwhile, hosts Salzburg in the other Group E fixture, with an opportunity to bounce back from the weekend’s loss to Roma in Serie A play. The Napoli defense, anchored by Kalidou Koulibaly, gave up 17 shots to the home side in the nation’s capital despite a 57% possessional advantage. That defense will now deal with a Red Bull Salzburg side that leads the Austrian Bundesliga table and has scored an astonishing 53 goals in 13 league matches.

Chelsea hosts a quality Ajax side in London with the two teams level on points atop Group H in a game that could put any winner on the brink of qualification should other results go their way. The Blues won the reverse fixture in the Netherlands two weeks ago thanks to a late Michy Batshuayi winner, but Chelsea is in even better form now than they were at that point.

American Christian Pulisic has risen to a contributing role at the club in Premier League play, and therefore could be rested should manager Frank Lampard wish to save him for the domestic match against Crystal Palace over the weekend, potentially giving Calum Hudson-Odoi a chance to shine. Should Pulisic find the field, he could once again match up with international teammate Sergino Dest, who recently committed to the United States long-term. He beat Dest to assist Batshuayi’s winner last time these teams matched up.

A fascinating match in Germany sees Borussia Dortmund host Inter Milan at Westfalenstadion with both teams in good form. Inter has lost just twice all year in all competitions – to Barcelona and Juventus – sitting second in the Serie A table. They also knocked off Dortmund at home in the reverse fixture behind bookend goals from Lautaro Martinez and Antonio Candreva, with the former in incredible form having scored in five of his seven October matches. Dortmund, meanwhile, has lost just once in league play and is on a seven-match unbeaten run, but only three of those produced wins and a poor result to Inter would leave them vulnerable in Group F, currently level with Inter on four points behind leaders Barcelona on seven.

Barcelona welcomes Slavia Prague to the Camp Nou looking to put the Catalan giants on the brink of qualification to the knockout stage. A win plus a Dortmund or Inter victory in Germany would mean the La Liga side’s magic number decreases to just one. The reverse fixture in the Czech Republic saw a 56th minute own-goal prove decisive in a 2-1 Barcelona win, but they were poor on the ball and gave up a whopping 24 shots – nine on target – on the road. A repeat of that performance could see Group F thrown into deepening chaos.

RB Leipzig travels to Zenit St. Petersburg in a matchup of the two top teams in Group G in a critical game for both sides as the group remains logjammed, with just three points separating top from bottom. The trailing two sides Lyon and Benfica meet in France as they both look to pounce on any potential slips of the aforementioned squads leading the pack. Finally, Valencia hosts Lille as the Spanish side hopes to capitalize on any potential Group H loser in London.

DC United acquires Julian Gressel from Atlanta

Atlanta United trades for Julian Gressel
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How much is Major League Soccer’s best assist man worth?

About $750,000.

DC United paid Atlanta United that fee in allocation money for the rights to Julian Gressel, who had been at a contract impasse with the club who drafted him in 2017.

That fee could hit $1.1 million in incentives, and even so could be a bargain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Gressel was due to make around $133,000 this season and wanted an improved deal from Atlanta given his massive production since becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

That salary is less than hundreds of players, most of them nowhere near Gressel’s impact. Nineteen Atlanta United players made more than him last season, so it’s understandable that the 26-year-old wanted to get paid.

We don’t know what he was asking, or why Atlanta wouldn’t get there. From MLSSoccer.com:

“If we really wanted to, we could have had him play on $130,000 this season, extend him a bona fide offer at the end of the season and (we’d still own his MLS rights),” said Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra. “We’re also trying to do the right thing for a guy who has given so much to the club and is really just a good kid all around.”

It’s a weird one, given what the club’s been paying others.

Gressel arrived at Providence College from Eintracht Bamberg and immediately started delivering for the Big East side. He finished his four years with 30 goals and 26 assists and All-American status.

There was some adapting to MLS, but he’s gotten better with every season. He scored 10 goals with 13 assists in all competitions last season.

Spurs chairman reportedly met with Real Madrid about Gareth Bale

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As a neutral, the idea of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham Hotspur would be a delight to our Premier League matchday viewing.

Obviously this applies to Spurs fans to the nth degree, especially after a dull 0-0 with Watford at the weekend.

In the short-term, Bale would be a terrific stopgap as Spurs struggle to find themselves without Harry Kane in both the PL and Champions League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

In the long-term, Bale and Heung-Min Son on the wings of Harry Kane would be enough to make any PL power trio blush (unless Liverpool really does add Timo Werner).

A report out of Spain says Real Madrid president Florentino Perez met with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy about several things including the availability of Bale.

The Welsh star has been long admired by Jose Mourinho, and of course knows Spurs well having become a superstar after arriving from Southampton.

Bale is 30 and his wages would easily top Spurs’ pay list. His 21 goals and nine assists in the 2012/13 Premier League season join his 19 and 11 in 2015 La Liga as his top league seasons.

Spurs host Norwich City on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Guardiola praises Laporte, “the best left central defender in the world”

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Chelsea admit they miss USMNT’s Pulisic

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LONDON — Since USMNT star Christian Pulisic was injured in training in the first week of January, Chelsea have lost against Newcastle, drawn with Arsenal and blown away Burnley.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

In the two games where they’ve dropped points they’ve missed Pulisic’s genius in the final third with both Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi easily shackled by Arsenal in their London derby. Chelsea admitted as much when speaking after the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, an Arsenal side who played with 10 men for over 60 minutes of the game.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about Pulisic’s adductor injury and if they missed him during the draw against Arsenal, downbeat Chelsea boss Frank Lampard noted that Pulisic, 21, was “playing really well” before his injury.

“Yeah, a game like today could have been a good where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

When will Pulisic be back?

Lampard confirmed he is making good progress but will not be fit until after the mid-season player break in February, which means he will miss their FA Cup trip to Hull City this Saturday and their clash at Leicester City on Feb. 1. He may not be back until Feb. 17 when they host Manchester United in the Premier League, which means in total he will have been out for a period of six weeks.

“In terms of when he’s back, it is not going to be a week, it is probably be the other end of the early February break but he is getting better and he isn’t far away,” Lampard said.

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who scored their late second goal which looked like being the winner, lavished praise on Pulisic when asked about his absence over the last week.

“Christian is a magnificent player. Since he joined us in the summer he has shown us his potential and we know that he can make the difference at any time. Whenever a player is injured it is not good for a team because we lose potential and I hope to have him back soon,” Azpilicueta said.

Chelsea’s skipper is expecting big things from Pulisic when he does return to fitness, as the fourth-place Blues now have just a six-point cushion to those outside of the top four and have played a game more.

It seems like everyone at Chelsea hopes the USMNT star can rejuvenate their attack in the final months of the season.

“After coming to Europe as a young boy to Germany, he came to Chelsea and it is one step forward, playing for Chelsea every game, fighting to win and fighting for trophies,” Azpilicueta said. “In my role I’ve tried to help in settle into the city and the club. He has a brilliant attitude. Always trying to improve. I am sure he will become bigger and bigger.”