UEFA Champions League

Barcelona makes managerial change
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Reports: Barcelona fires Valverde, hiring former Betis boss Setien

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Quique Setien is set to replace Ernesto Valverde at Barcelona, according to numerous reports in Spain.

The former Las Palmas and Real Betis boss, 61, would be a surprise successor to be sure.

Valverde has been under fire for Barca’s uneven season, though that phrase happens to describe a tie for first in La Liga with rivals Real Madrid.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

According to Marca, “The Barcelona board approved the decision for the 61-year-old to become the new Blaugrana boss unanimously, with the former Betis coach’s stock having gone up since this morning.”

The club has not announced any changes. Reporter Guillem Balague says the silence from Barcelona is down to the resolution of Valverde’s contract with the Catalan club.

He also proffers a thread with lofty praise for Setien.

Barcelona’s attack has been lethal but it’s defending subpar; Valverde’s proverbial hot seat was engulfed in flames when the Blaugranas wasted a 2-1 lead in the Spanish Super Cup semifinal versus Atletico Madrid.

Valverde led Barcelona to La Liga titles in both of his full seasons in charge, but disappointing collapses in the Champions League soured the domestic triumphs.

Defending will become even more important with Luis Suarez out for four months.

There’s time to get sorted for the stretch run, with a manageable run of fixtures. There’s Valencia away as the stiffest challenge of a half-dozen La Liga outings before Napoli arrives for the Champions League Round of 16, followed by the away El Clasico.

Guardiola: Man City focusing on UCL, preparing for next season

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Pep Guardiola has unofficially conceded the Premier League title to Liverpool, saying it is now “unrealistic to think” that Manchester City could the runaway leaders and champions-elect.

[ MORE: Arteta urges Xhaka to reject transfer to Hertha Berlin ]

Liverpool lead the two-time defending champions by an eye-popping 14 points at the halfway point of the season, and have a game in hand which could stretch their advantage to 17. Guardiola admits that his side will now turn its full focus to this season’s UEFA Champions League and, already, preparing for a title challenge of their own next season — quotes from Goal:

“A team which has the numbers of Liverpool, why should we think about that? It’s just preparing, play good and better to be as close to the top of the league as we can, prepare for the knockout competitions and for the next season.

“Every game helps us to improve for next season. Hopefully we can do better. The motivation is to improve because when we improve we win games and that is the way to live better. That is the best motivation for all of us. Even in the past.”

“The fans can say or do whatever they want but they cannot deny that the team in the last three years was incredible in every single competition.”

City will kick off 2020 when Everton visits the Etihad Stadium on New Year’s Day (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Their quest for European glory will resume when they face Spanish giants Real Madrid in the round of 16 in February.

Analyzing the UCL draw for Premier League sides

Champions League draw Klopp Simeone
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The UEFA Champions League draw has been held, and Premier League sides face Bundesliga and La Liga tests.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

What awaits them? Read on…

  • Liverpool v. Atletico Madrid
    Feb. 18 at the Wanda Metropolitano
    March 11 at Anfield

Atletico Madrid may be six points off La Liga’s leaders with one more match played, but no one doubts Diego Simeone’s acumen in Europe. Yes, that’s even true after Atleti needed the final day to escape a group stage with Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, and Lokomotiv Moscow.

The Madrid side has made the knockout rounds in six of seven seasons, twice losing the final to derby rivals Real.

Atleti have allowed a miserly 10 goals in 18 league matches, and five in six in the UCL.

The problem has been finding an attacking chemistry following the departure of Antoine Griezmann. Alvaro Morata leads the way with eight goals in 19 matches, while Joao Felix is second with four in 17. No one else has more than two.

The reigning champions get a tournament-savvy opponent, and Jurgen Klopp versus Simeone has to be near the top of the Round of 16’s managerial dog pile.

  • Tottenham Hotspur v. RB Leipzig
    Feb. 19 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
    March 10 at Red Bull Arena

Current Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig have scored Germany’s most goals while conceding the fewest, and won Group G with Benfica, Lyon, and Zenit Saint-Petersburg. Timo Werner leads the way with 21 goals and nine assists in 23 matches, and American fans will hope healing midfielder Tyler Adams is back in the fold and firing by February.

Jose Mourinho will match wits with 32-year-old managerial phenom Julian Nagelsmann, who led Hoffenheim to the Champions League groups stage in 2018-19. You might remember their twice scoring first in 2-1 losses to Man City.

Leipzig boss Julian Nagelsmann on facing Spurs: “They’re one of Europe’s top teams, playing in a fantastic city with star players who have a lot of experience. It won’t be easy but we’re really looking forward to it, especially playing in that stadium. Spurs have a world-class manager in Jose Mourinho. The games will be exciting and we’ll need to put in two top performances. We’re more than capable of doing that. What a tie! We can’t wait!”

  • Chelsea v. Bayern Munich
    Feb. 25 at Stamford Bridge
    March 18 at the Allianz Arena

It’s been an off season for Bayern Munich at home in Germany, the fifth place side nevertheless stream rolling Group B of the UCL with 24 goals scored and just five conceded versus Spurs, Olympiacos, and Red Star Belgrade.

Frank Lampard doesn’t really know his opposing manager yet, as Bayern handed the interim tag to Hansi Flick through the end of 2019 after firing Niko Kovac.

Bayern has not been great at the back in league play and has suffered numerous injuries, but Chelsea has plenty to worry about in 29-goal Robert Lewandowski. The Polish center forward is having one of the best seasons in the world.

  • Manchester City v. Real Madrid
    Feb. 26 at the Bernabeu
    March 17 at the Etihad Stadium

Real Madrid is currently second in La Liga on points, trailing rivals Barcelona on goal differential ahead of Wednesday’s El Clasico. Real was clearly second best in its UCL group, taking just one point from PSG while struggling with Club Brugge and sweeping the points from Galatasaray.

Los Merengues can certainly score, but their league strength this season has been in defense.

Man City has not beaten Real Madrid in four meetings all-time, but its manager has a fine record against his longtime Spanish rivals.

Pep Guardiola is 9-4-4 all-time against Real Madrid, the club he’s faced joint-most in his managerial career (Arsenal). However, he’s lost his last three against Los Merengues: one Clasico and the 2013-14 UCL semifinals as Bayern Munich boss.

Wouldn’t Real relish the chance to sour Guardiola’s tenure at the Etihad?

UCL: Man City, Liverpool off to Madrid

Guardiola Zidane UEFA Champions League
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The UEFA Champions League draw sends two Premier League sides to Madrid and another two to Germany.

Pep Guardiola will get another chance to meet his longtime El Clasico rivals as the longtime Barcelona boss leads Manchester City against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League this season.

The Round of 16 draw also saw Premier League leaders Liverpool draw a Madrid side, with Atletico Madrid on the docket for Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Bayern Munich will face a London side for the second-straight round as Chelsea meets the German champions, while Tottenham Hotspur gets a German opponent as well in the form of RB Leipzig.

Full UEFA Champions League draw

Bayern Munich v. Chelsea — Feb. 25 and March 18

Juventus v. Lyon — Feb. 26 and March 17

Paris Saint-Germain v. Borussia Dortmund — Feb. 18 and March 11

Valencia v. Atalanta — Feb. 19 and March 10

Barcelona v. Napoli — Feb. 25 and March 18

Manchester City v. Real Madrid — Feb. 26 and March 17

Liverpool v. Atletico Madrid — Feb. 18 and March 11

RB Leipzig v. Tottenham Hotspur — Feb. 19 and March 10

Five match-ups we’d love to see in the UCL Round of 16

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We know who each UEFA Champions League knockout round contestant can draw in the Round of 16, but some would be juicier than others.

From an American angle, we’ve been deprived of a Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund reunion for now, though we could see a CONCACAF young star duel if Pulisic’s Chelsea draws Alphonso Davies’ Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

But let’s be honest: That’s simply a subplot for our North American audience. The big intrigue lies elsewhere.

Alas, most of Jose Mourinho’s old employers Chelsea and Real Madrid are unseeded like current club Spurs. Barcelona cannot draw Man City, another beauty.

5. Tottenham Hotspur v. Barcelona — Jose Mourinho and Barcelona have a history, while Spurs are winless in four outings against La Liga’s storied club.

4. Juventus v. Real Madrid — Wouldn’t it be something if Cristiano Ronaldo and his longtime buddies met up in the Round of 16.

3. Manchester City v. Real Madrid — Guardiola v. Zidane, with a heaping helping of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Pep might not be able to draw Bayern Munich nor Barcelona, but he sure wouldn’t mind tangling with a side who was involved in a number of incredible Clasicos as a player and manager.

2. Liverpool v. Borussia Dortmund — We got Jurgen Klopp against his old Der Klassiker rivals Bayern Munich last season, and it’s only natural that the Reds could match up against Klopp’s former club and maybe future star in Jadon Sancho. The two sides met in the 2015/16 Europa League quarterfinals, but this stage — with Klopp as a UCL reigning champ — would be extra delightful.

1. Juventus v. ChelseaMaurizio Sarri went to Chelsea for one season, won the Europa League over a crosstown rival and came within penalty kicks of upending Man City for the League Cup. The Blues are doing well under Frank Lampard, but an “our guy versus the guy we didn’t like” would be a cigarette-chewing wonder, wouldn’t it?