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Champions League bold predictions: No sudden change for Man United, Barcelona get three crucial points

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The business end of the Champions League group stage on Paramount+ is upon us with matchday five. There are still 12 places up for grabs in the knockout stages with some of Europe’s biggest teams — including Manchester United and Barcelona — having work to do in their final group games. Here’s some key issues to keep an eye out for.

Villarreal vs. Man United: No sudden change for Red Devils

In sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United have removed the physical embodiment of the cocktail of steadfast belief in their own exceptionalism and utter confusion about how an elite football club operates that has tormented the club for the better part of a decade. But knocking down the figurehead does not change the underlying reality. As the banner in Atalanta’s away end said in the Red Devils’ recent Champions League game “the rot starts from the top”.

This is not the place to debate the credentials of the ruling Glazer family but instead to note that Solskjaer was not the root cause of United’s problems. Take the squad with which he lost his job (and which he was of course complicit in creating). One could not question the talent of many individuals but there is no cohesion to its design.

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So, when interim manager Michael Carrick comes to name his side at El Madrigal on Tuesday, he will still face the same issues in possession that bedeviled his predecessor. Who is the player out of Fred, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic or someone else to link up the disparate lines of attack and defense? Is it possible to fit United’s two most talented creators — Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba — into a team that exploits their talents? Is Jadon Sancho allowed to play football now?

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Then there is the great Cristiano Ronaldo question. Can Carrick mask his deficiencies when the ball is not at his feet to such an extent that his team can exploit his finishing qualities? From Real Madrid to Manchester United via Juventus, wherever he goes Ronaldo keeps delivering goals, it is just that in recent years a lot of managers seem to lose their jobs when he is around. He is a player coaches are compelled to indulge, that is not going to change whoever is in the dugout at Old Trafford.

Prior to signing Ronaldo you could gather something akin to a vision for how United might play football even if it was not one Solskjaer always followed: a team that could excel in broken play with dynamic, positionally fluid front men capable of ripping through opponents on the counter. Since mid-September that approach has scarcely ever been seen. It does not seem to click with the most important footballing figure at the club, a player whose crucial goals rightly or wrongly make him undroppable but who poses questions that Carrick’s predecessor could not answer. 

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Barcelona vs. Benfica: Further swift progress from Xavi

Carrick is not the only great of yesteryear who will be in the dugout for a first Champions League match this week. New Barcelona boss Xavi did at least get a first go at high stakes management this weekend, a 1-0 win over Espanyol. One game alone cannot tell us whether this team will be a success under one of their greatest ever players nor whether this crop of youngsters is on par with the core that so dominated European football with Xavi at their heart.

But it did at least offer cause for optimism going into one of the most decisive games of Barcelona’s season. Beat Benfica and they are assured of passage to the last 16. Fail to do so and with Bayern Munich to come in the final group stage game it may well be advantage to the Portuguese, who crushed Ronald Koeman’s side at the Estadio da Luz earlier in the campaign.

Benfica will likely be a tougher opponent than Espanyol. After all they even gave Bayern Munich a few headaches in their double header with the Bundesliga champions. They may have let in nine goals in those two games but particularly in the first 70 minutes of the first meeting — before Leroy Sane smashed through the levee — there were flashes of the same team that held PSV Eindhoven goalless with 10 men in the qualifiers, a team that can frustrate opponents and keep finding another body to throw in the way of shots.

Yet the initial signs from the win over Espanyol suggest that this team may be able to break down the most stubborn of defenses. In a challenging fixture Barcelona produced 16 shots, the second most they have registered in a La Liga or Champions League match this season. They hit the target from open play on five occasions, completed their third most attacking third passes of the campaign and played with greater width — indeed according to Opta sequencing data this was the most width they had played with all season.

This particular move, which ended with Xavi’s side quickly switching play for Ilias Akhomach to hang a dangerous cross to the back post, felt like a rather welcome return to what Barcelona were at at their best. Sergio Busquets was looking up to find movement all around him. He could have gone long to Jordi Alba — and for a moment he seemed to feint in that direction — before knocking it short to Gavi. Espanyol looked to get in the passers’ faces but the home team just moved it too accurately and elegantly before allowing Busquets to spread the play. 

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With Busquets, Gavi and Alba putting pressure down the left, note how wide Barcelona stretch the pitch with Ilias. It is a familiar sign for those who watched the Barca sides that Xavi played in
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The match winner at the weekend may ultimately have come from a debatable penalty converted by Memphis Depay, but the sheer pressure that Barcelona applied to their opponent’s low block meant that there was a good chance a critical mistake might come.

Perhaps Benfica will not play for the point at the Camp Nou. A defense of Gerard Pique and Eric Garcia, much improved in his first match under new management, could well be there to be got at early on. But eventually, if the game is square, it will surely make sense for them to not gamble with elimination in pursuit of three points. They should be wary of that impulse. First impressions would suggest that sitting deep could play into Barcelona’s hands. After all, if anyone knows from experience what it is like playing against a team holding on for just a point, it is Xavi.

Chelsea vs. Juventus: A quiet day for goalkeepers

There is plenty at stake at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday. For Chelsea, there is still qualification for the last 16 to be secured. It may look to be a formality now, but another defeat to the Group H leaders coupled with a Zenit win over Malmo might just bring some unnecessary nerves to their trip to Saint Petersburg for the final round of games. As for Juventus, a point or better guarantees them top spot while two games without defeat against the European champions offers a welcome fillip to take with them to next year’s knockout stages.

It is hard to know what to expect from both sides, particularly offensively, when they are monitoring the fitness of key forwards. Chelsea have hardly looked bereft without Romelu Lukaku, but if he is fit he may well go into the starting lineup at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, Paulo Dybala may only be fit enough for the substitutes bench with Massimiliano Allegri also sweating on the availability of a string of players, the most notable of whom include Giorgio Chiellini, Aaron Ramsey, Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Bernadeschi.

One wonders, however, whether these two strike forces would be able to break down the other’s defense whether they were at full compliment or not. With the caveat that Group H is not the strongest in depth in this season’s Champions League Chelsea (three) and Juventus (eight) have faced just 11 shots on target combined across their opening four games. The average side in the competition has faced 18.

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Juventus in particular look to have clicked into gear defensively after a slow start to the season. Both Lazio and Fiorentina only managed to draw one save from Wojciech Szczesny and Mattia Perin in the last two Serie A games the Bianconeri played in. Edouard Mendy, meanwhile, has a quite ludicrous record of 12 clean sheets in 16 Champions League games for Chelsea. In part, he has been the beneficiary of the excellent defense in front of him but last season in particular he proved himself to be a quite excellent shot stopper with 3.76 goals prevented according to Opta metrics.

Of the two defenses Juventus’ certainly looks the more vulnerable. Chelsea’s forward line coped ably without Lukaku, not least because its wingbacks picked up the slack, whilst they do not have to deal with an absence as significant as Chiellini’s could prove to be for the visitors. Still those heading to Stamford Bridge in the hope of goals aplenty on Tuesday night may want to adjust their expectations beforehand.





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Bowl projections: Clemson jumps into College Football Playoff as Kansas State upsets Oklahoma

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Despite a season that has already been filled with upsets, change finally comes to the College Football Playoff projection for the first time following Week 4 action. Falling 41-34 to Kansas State on Saturday night, Oklahoma has been bounced from the field of four and replaced by Clemson.

While the Sooners’ loss to the Wildcats for the third time in four seasons does not put them out of the running for the Big 12 championship, the Tigers are now far more likely to end their regular season as an undefeated conference champion out of the ACC. Clemson beat Wake Forest 51-45 Saturday afternoon and looks to only have one ranked opponent remaining on its schedule, which it gets at home (NC State next week).

Michigan beat Maryland 34-27 this week and was the first team out of the last projection; however, it still has top-15 programs Penn State at home and Ohio State on the road over the second half of the season.

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The other top-four teams held serve Saturday. Georgia was not as impressive as usual despite a 39-22 win over Kent State, Ohio State blasted Wisconsin 52-21, and Alabama routed Vanderbilt 55-3.

Check back Sunday for Jerry Palm’s complete bowl projections after Week 4.

College Football Playoff

Jan. 9

National Championship
Inglewood, Calif.

Title game Semifinal winners

Dec. 31

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Peach Bowl
Atlanta

Semifinal

(1) Georgia vs. (4) Clemson

Dec. 31

Fiesta Bowl
Glendale, Ariz.

Semifinal

(2) Ohio State vs. (3) Alabama

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Stampeders beat Lions, both teams lock up playoff spots

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VANCOUVER — The Calgary Stampeders avoided a season sweep at the hands of the B.C. Lions with a defensively impressive 25-11 win at B.C. Place on Saturday.

The win ensures the Stampeders will go to the playoffs for the 17th year in a row.

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A spectacular 54-yard catch by rookie Jalen Philpot of Delta, B.C., set up the only major score of the first half, landing the Stampeders (9-5) on B.C.’s three-yard-line for a touchdown conversion by Ka’Deem Carey.

Calgary failed on its two-point convert attempt. Peyton Logan added a 19-yard touchdown run with 1:57 left in the fourth quarter, and Dominique Rhymes caught B.C.’s lone touchdown pass from Antonio Pipkin with 29 seconds remaining. Pipkin carried the ball across the one-yard-line for a successful two-point convert.

Calgary’s field-goal kicker Rene Paredes was good on four-of-five attempts, from 39, 33, 31 and 33 yards. He added a convert for 13 total points.

For the Lions (9-4), Sean Whyte extended his CFL field-goal streak to 13 with a 34-yard kick to get his club on the scoreboard with 24 seconds left in the third quarter.

Paredes kicked wide to the right on his first field-goal attempt of the game. That came just 2:08 into the contest — the Stampeders had marched down to the B.C. 41-yard line after opening the first quarter by recovering Paredes’ 11-yard onside kick.

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One week after grabbing a 31-29 overtime win over the Stampeders at McMahon Stadium, the Lions could not find a spark to ignite their offence.

In his first home start at B.C. Place after being acquired in a trade with the Montreal Alouettes on Aug. 19, quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. was 12-for-24 in the air for 151 yards. He added 11 yards on the ground. Anthony Pipkin stepped in under centre late in the fourth quarter, going 4-for-6 for 66 yards and one touchdown throw.

Kicker Stefan Flintoft had a busy night for the Lions, punting for 417 yards.

The Lions also came out on the wrong side of the penalty tally. After last week’s thriller at McMahon Stadium included 215 yards in total penalties, B.C. was whistled for six penalties for 65 yards on Saturday. That included a critical major foul on Jordan Williams which gave Calgary good position near centre field before Philpot’s monster catch shortly before halftime.

A major foul for roughing the passer also negated an interception by T.J. Lee with just over three minutes left to play in the fourth quarter.

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As Calgary’s defence kept the Lions pinned in their own half of the field for most of the game, quarterback Jake Maier had a strong outing. He completed 27 of 33 pass attempts for 294 yards and added 14 rushing yards. The Stampeders finished with five penalties for 36 yards.

With the win, combined with losses this week by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa Redblacks, Calgary clinched its 17th-consecutive CFL post-season berth on the night Dave Dickenson coached his 100th career game with the Stampeders, improving his record to 70-28-2.

After the Lions won both matchups at McMahon Stadium for the first time since 2010, the Stampeders extended a winning record at B.C. Place that stretches back to 2016.

Despite the loss, B.C. also clinched its first playoff spot since 2018.

FOOT NOTES: Stampeders’ veteran offensive lineman Derek Dennis was taken off the field on a cart late in the first quarter after suffering a leg injury …Injured B.C. wide receiver Josh Pearson led the crowd in the singing of `O Canada’ before the game … The B.C. Football Hall of Fame inducted its Class of 2022 before Saturday’s game … The Lions also held their Salute to Amateur Football … Next week, the Lions will host the Ottawa Redblacks on Friday, while the Stampeders will be back at McMahon Stadium to take on the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday.

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College football Week 4 winners, losers, overreactions: Kicking blunders plague SEC teams, Oklahoma in trouble

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There’s one phrase that makes blood run cold from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Provo, Utah: College kickers. On Saturday, the fortunes of four SEC programs were changed in an instant by two college kickers missing critical kicks in painful fashion. 

Arkansas had a manageable 42-yarder to beat Texas A&M for a second straight season. The Razorbacks out-gained the Aggies by more than 80 yards and needed just one swing of the leg to remain ranked in the top 10. Unfortunately, Cam Little’s kick improbably bounced off the top of the upright — a doink unlike any in recent college football memory. 

All Missouri needed was for All-American kicker Harrison Mevis to make a 26-yard field goal. Easy enough, right? Mevis nailed 20 of 22 field goals last season, including three from more than 50 yards. A 26-yarder is child’s play … except not against Auburn on the Plains as Mevis shanked the kick to the right and the matchup went to overtime. The game swung again after Nathaniel Peat fumbled an open touchdown at the goal line, and that was that. The Tigers are still searching for their first Power Five win. 

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Here are more winners, losers and overreactions that highlighted the Week 4 action around the country. 

Winners

Kansas QB Jalon Daniels: Start the Jalon Daniels Heisman campaign. He’s been that ridiculously good through the Jayhawks’ 4-0 start. Daniels completed 83% of his passes for 324 yards, 83 yards rushing and accounted for five touchdowns in an emphatic 35-27 win over previously undefeated Duke. The junior from Lawndale, California, has been the catalyst for a Kansas program that had not won four games in a season in 13 years. He deserves the lion’s share of the on-field credit.

Tennessee: The Vols let things get a little hairy in the last five minutes thanks to some quick Florida touchdowns, but the performance was more dominant than the 38-33 final score. This was a coming-out party for Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who threw for 349 yards, rushed for 112 yards and had three touchdowns in a win over Florida. This was just the second Tennessee win over Florida since 2004, and gives the Volunteers a great chance to enter the AP top 10 when the polls come out on Sunday. 

Losers

Miami coach Mario Cristobal: The Hurricanes earned some early credit for beating up cupcakes, but the last two weeks have been a disaster. Miami had 27 first downs against Texas A&M, the most ever in a game without scoring a touchdown. On Saturday, a 45-31 embarrassment against Middle Tennessee sent any Miami hype train off the rails. Once-promising quarterback Tyler Van Dyke was benched after two interceptions, but rushing for fewer than 2 yards per carry and surrendering 500 yards to Middle Tennessee is nothing short of a disaster. Cristobal can’t blame talent in that kind of loss — this is coaching. 

Houston: The Cougars needed to score 10 unanswered points in the final five minutes to survive a challenge from 2-2 Rice. The Owls led for much of the game as the Coogs committed 10 penalties and turned the ball over to give Rice a chance. After the game, Houston coach Dana Holgorsen expressed frustration to the Houston Chronicle. 

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“I’m tired of yelling at them. Tired of motivating them. Tired of all that crap,” Holgorsen said. 

For a team that was thought at one point to be a serious contender for the New Year’s Six, narrowly avoiding a 1-3 start isn’t bringing many warm feelings.

Week 4 Overreactions

Oklahoma isn’t winning the Big 12: The Sooners flew up the polls after dominating an easy schedule featuring Nebraska, Kent State and UTEP. However, Kansas State to open Big 12 play was a rude awakening. The Wildcats scored more points (41) than the Sooners surrendered all season (30) thanks to a five-touchdown performance by Nebraska transfer QB Adrian Martinez. Suddenly, Brent Venables’ task in Norman feels far less turnkey than it did after eviscerating the rival Cornhuskers. Considering the depth the Big 12 showed in nonconference play, there are no easy games remaining. 

Kansas State has a tiebreaker over Oklahoma. Road trips to TCU, Iowa State and Texas Tech could be hairy. Battles with Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State remain. There’s too many speed bumps for the Sooners to make it to Arlington if this is the Oklahoma we’re getting in 2022.  

Wisconsin isn’t Wisconsin anymore: Between 2004 and 2017, Wisconsin was close to the most consistent program in college football. The Badgers went 141-45 and finished ranked in 13 of the 16 seasons, including five top-five finishes. Losing to No. 3 Ohio State was expected, but a noncompetitive 52-21 decision to fall to 2-2 suddenly brings up some existential questions. 

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The Badgers have finished ranked just once in the last five years under Paul Chryst. After the loss today, the Badgers have no ranked teams left on their schedule. It’s unlikely they can show enough to fight back into the polls. Additionally, Wisconsin has just one Rose Bowl since 2012. At one point, this was a program that could measure success by trips to Pasadena. 

Chryst went 34-7 in his first three seasons. Since 2017, he is 33-18 — a fine record but not one that satisfies the Wisconsin standard. Complicating things is the fact that Wisconsin likely has one of the most attractive coaching candidates in the nation on its staff in defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. 



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