Champions League draw: Messi's PSG to face Man City, Man Utd eye Villarreal revenge

By Sports Desk August 26, 2021

Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi will go up against each other in the Champions League after Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain were drawn into the same group.

Messi and Guardiola enjoyed a close relationship during their time together at Barcelona, but for the first time they will meet with neither of them representing the Catalans.

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi left Barca at the end of June when his contract expired, and while he was expected to sign on with them again, the Blaugrana's hands were tied due to financial restrictions.

As such, Messi was swiftly snapped up by PSG despite previous links with City and a potential Guardiola reunion.

Another narrative could yet enter the conversation with respect to City versus PSG, as Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo – Messi's long-time rival – has been strongly with a move to the Etihad Stadium.

If Ronaldo does not leave Juve, he will go up against the holders Chelsea – who beat City in last season's final – in Group H.

There will be a repeat of the 2020-21 Europa League final in Group F as Manchester United have been offered the opportunity for revenge against Villarreal, who defeated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men in a remarkable penalty shoot-out in Belfast at the end of May.

Three of Spain's other representatives have tough groups to contend with: Barcelona were drawn with Bayern Munich, Benfica and Dynamo Kiev; Real Madrid will again face Inter and Shakhtar Donetsk as they did in 2020-21; and Atletico Madrid must go up against Liverpool, Porto and Milan.

Sevilla, on the other hand, are in the seemingly even Group G with Ligue 1 winners Lille, Salzburg and Wolfsburg, the latter of whom are back in the competition for only the third time.

First-time qualifiers Sheriff of Moldova joined Madrid, Inter and Shakhtar in Group D.

 

Group A: Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge

Group B: Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Porto, Milan

Group C: Sporting CP, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Besiktas

Group D: Inter, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sheriff

Group E: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Benfica, Dynamo Kiev

Group F: Villarreal, Manchester United, Atalanta, Young Boys

Group G: Lille, Sevilla, Salzburg, Wolfsburg

Group H: Chelsea, Juventus, Zenit, Malmo

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    Christian Eriksen believes he and Bruno Fernandes have formed a strong relationship in Manchester United's midfield due to their complementary qualities. 

    Eriksen has become a key part of Erik ten Hag's new-look United team since swapping Brentford for Old Trafford in July, playing behind Fernandes in a deep-lying midfield role.

    The Denmark international produced a masterful showing in United's last Premier League game against Arsenal, claiming an assist and leading his team-mates for passes completed (33) and chances created (three) in the 3-1 victory.

    Speaking to United's media channels after winning the club's Player of the Month award for September, Eriksen said playing alongside Fernandes was a key reason for his success.

    "Some people see us as very similar players, but they probably only look at the stats and don't see us, the player and the qualities," Eriksen said.

    "We have different qualities, a different style of play and, with Bruno and in general, I think I'm learning to get to know all my team-mates better. 

    "We're starting to get that connection. With Bruno, it's a good connection and it's nice to have such a good footballer in front of me.

    "I think, from my own point of view, it's only been a few months but it feels like I've been here longer. 

    "It's to do with the club, the people working for the club, the team. In general, I've been made to feel very welcome since day one and I felt at home straight away."

    Eriksen carried his strong club form onto the international stage this month, scoring in Denmark's Nations League defeat to Croatia before producing a strong performance in a 2-0 win over France.

    The 30-year-old will hope for a similar result when Denmark are reunited with Didier Deschamps' team in the World Cup group stages in November, but he expects to face a much-improved France side.

    "We play France very often! In the Nations League, also before in the World Cup [in 2018], we played against France and now again," he added.

    "The game was good for us the other day. It was a nice send-off before the World Cup, to get a good feeling before the World Cup. 

    "We know, at the same time, France will be a completely different team when we play them next, with different players compared to what they had, but, for us, as a team, it was a perfect goodbye before the World Cup.

    "Now there's no more breaks and I can be fully focused on United until the World Cup."

    Ten Hag's team will face their toughest test to date when they travel to Manchester City on Sunday – each of United's last five managers have lost their first Manchester Derby in the Premier League (David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick).

    But Eriksen is looking forward to his first trip to the Etihad Stadium as a United player, adding: "It's going to be a tough test. 

    "We're feeling good and in a good place, really flowing and I'm looking forward to the game. 

    "It's a first derby for me personally, in Manchester, and hopefully it's going to be a fun game to play in and a fun game to watch."

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    Week 4 of the NFL season could well have a substantial bearing on how the playoff race shakes out.

    Through three weeks, the 2022 campaign has delivered excitement at almost every turn, and there are plenty of high-stakes matchups to whet the appetite this weekend.

    There are conference championship and Super Bowl rematches on the docket, as well as extremely intriguing matchups between some of the season's early pacesetters.

    But which of the games on the schedule are likely to deliver the best contests? Stats Perform can provide some insight in that regard, using its SmartRatings as a guide.

    SmartRatings is an AI-based platform that provides excitement ratings for sporting events, teams and players. The excitement scale, ranging from 0-100, is powered by complex algorithms that are predicated upon six primary variables: pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context and social buzz.

    The weight of each variable is dynamic and adapts as a season progresses. The excitement scale translates to the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game), 85-100 (Great Game).

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    SmartRating: 67

    Win probability: Buffalo Bills (55.3%)

    Key Matchup: Lamar Jackson vs. Bills linebackers

    The Bills only need to look to their AFC East rivals the New England Patriots for a reminder of what can happen when a defense fails to defend 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson effectively.

    Last week, Jackson threw for 218 yards and four touchdowns with one interception while rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries. He became the first player in Ravens history to throw at least three touchdown passes in each of the team's first three games of a season.

    Limiting his efficiency on the ground will be critical for the Bills' hopes of outscoring a potent Ravens offense. On designed runs, Jackson is averaging a remarkable 13.47 yards per carry, with his threat as a runner naturally helping fuel the Ravens' play-action game. Baltimore's average of 10.85 yards per play on play-action is well above the league average of 9.15.

    In Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills possess two athletic and intelligent linebackers. They will need to display their physical gifts and their awareness to help limit Jackson's impact with ball in hand and ensure they do not bite too hard against play-action and open large throwing windows for him to attack. An evenly matched clash between two AFC heavyweights promises to be a classic, and Milano and Edmunds may have a crucial say in it tilting in the favour of Buffalo.

    Kansas City Chiefs @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    SmartRating: 75

    Win Probability: Kansas City Chiefs (54.7%)

    Key Matchup: Travis Kelce vs. Antoine Winfield Jr.

    The Chiefs are unlikely to find much joy targeting the Buccaneers outside corners, Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis, who have each enjoyed excellent starts to the season as they look to gain a measure of revenge for their blowout loss to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV.

    Instead, Patrick Mahomes will probably look to his most trusted weapon, All-Pro tight end Kelce, to help him get the Chiefs back on track following their shock loss to the Indianapolis Colts last weekend.

    Kelce has run 24 routes from the slot this season compared to nine from his in-line tight end spot. Having consistently thrived in the 'power slot' role throughout his career, Kelce will hope to do significant damage from that position while going against one the premier young safeties in the league.

    Winfield has spent 63 percent of his snaps this season in the slot but has conceded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on seven of his 11 targets. He has given up a big play on four of those targets.

    With Kelce registering a burn on 18 of his 24 targets, the matchup looks to be in his favour. Winfield must find a way to ensure it isn't if the Bucs' defense is to provide yet more critical support to an offense that continues to struggle.

    Los Angeles Rams @ San Francisco 49ers

    SmartRating: 85

    Win Probability: Los Angeles Rams 53.0%

    Key Matchup: Aaron Donald vs. 49ers' Offensive Line

    Even after losing their starting quarterback and All-Pro left tackle to injury, the 49ers are still only seen as slight underdogs in Monday's rematch of last year's NFC Championship Game.

    But it is how the 49ers perform up front in the absence of Trent Williams that will likely determine if the Niners can continue their regular-season hoodoo over the Rams.

    The Niners have won the last six regular-season meetings with Los Angeles, but the Rams – who finally knocked off their rivals in the game that mattered most – will be confident of ending that streak if Donald and Co. can take advantage of San Francisco sliding Colton McKivitz in at left tackle as Williams' replacement.

    Much of that confidence will be based on how Jimmy Garoppolo performs when he is pressured. Among quarterbacks with at least 10 throws under pressure, Garoppolo's well-thrown percentage of 54.5 is the second worst in the NFL.

    Donald has already racked up 13 pressures on 40 pass rush snaps and is known for his ability to create pressure from anywhere on the defensive line. McKivitz, right tackle Mike McGlinchey and an extremely inexperienced interior offensive line must deliver their best for San Francisco to avoid falling to 1-3.

  • Ancelotti expects fit-again Benzema to get back to his 'spectacular' best Ancelotti expects fit-again Benzema to get back to his 'spectacular' best

    Carlo Ancelotti has confirmed Karim Benzema will start against Osasuna on Sunday and backed the Real Madrid captain to get back to his "spectacular" best.

    Benzema has been sidelined for three weeks due to a knee injury but will be in action in the champions' first LaLiga game after the international break at Santiago Bernabeu this weekend.

    The France striker has scored four goals in six appearances for Los Blanco this season after an outstanding 2021-22 campaign.

    Benzema found the back of the net a staggering 44 times last season as Madrid secured a famous Champions League and LaLiga double. 

    Head coach Ancelotti expects the Ballon d'Or favourite to hit those heights again after recovering from an early-season injury setback.

    "Benzema is doing very well, he is going to start the game," he said. "He's been with the team all week. His physical condition is good because he was able to recover well and then work well."

    When it was put to Ancelotti that Benzema has not looked the same player he was last season, the Italian replied: "Well it's true he didn't score in the last few games – he didn't score because he didn't play.

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    Ancelotti revealed midfielder Luka Modric will not face Osasuna and could also miss the Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday.

    He said: "Modric has a minor injury, not a very serious one. I'm not sure he will make it for Wednesday. He will train on Monday, let's see how he feels. If not fit for Wednesday, he will play next weekend [at Getafe]."

    Ancelotti plans to make full use of the options at his disposal with such a hectic schedule to come ahead of the World Cup.

    "It's an important moment, with many games in a short time," he said. "League, Champions [League]... We have to think that rotating would be important, because we play every three days. Everyone will give and put in their quality and commitment."

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