Germany to Gain a Berth in the Champions League

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Germany will put a fourth team into the European Champions League, at Italy’s expense, for the 2012-13 tournament.
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Italian Champions League fortunes suffer blow, United held

PARIS (AFP) – Italian football’s Champions League fortunes suffered a further blow as holders Inter Milan could not stem the tide of home defeats as they went down 1-0 at the San Siro to the team they beat in last season’s final, Bayern Munich.

Mario Gomez’ last minute goal on Wednesday saw Inter join city rivals AC Milan and AS Roma in succumbing to home reverses in their Last 16 first leg ties and in real danger of seeing not one representative from Serie A in the last eight in a competition they once dominated.

By contrast England could well have four of the last eight as Manchester United were held 0-0 away at French champions and France’s only ever winners of the tournament Marseille in an instantly forgettable encounter.

However, the result appeared to please both coaches, Marseille’s young handler Didier Deschamps – who guided Monaco to a surprise final spot in 2004 – and United’s legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who has two Champions League trophies to his credit.

Inter suffered from a lack of attacking options with Samuel Eto’o their sole specialist striker – but even so Gomez’ late winner could well have knocked the stuffing out of the Italian champions.

However, Inter coach Leonardo refused to accept that the defeat meant he had to change their tactics radically for the return leg in Munich.

“Of course it’s a bad defeat but the only thing that changes is your mood, it doesn’t change the game in Munich where we’ll go and try to win,” said Leonardo, who has engineered a revival in Inter’s form since he replaced Rafael Benitez in late December.

“Nothing is compromised. It’s hard to lose in the last minute but we played well.”

Gomez, who has been outstanding in all competitions for Bayern this season after a disappointing start to his career there, said his goal was rich reward for Bayern’s positive approach to the game.

“That was certainly my most important goal in the Champions League,” he said.

“When you score a goal just before the end, which seals an away win, that is, of course, very nice.

“We fought for everything, everything at the back, everything up front and we were rewarded at the end.”

Deschamps, who captained Marseille to the 1993 trophy, had already gone on the record to say that he wanted his team to keep a clean sheet and he admitted he was proud of the fact they had managed to do so.

“I am very happy with my players because they have done their best tonight as Manchester United showed what a good team they are,” said Deschamps, who also captained France to the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 trophies.

“Maybe we will have an opportunity to score in the second leg. It is not a bad result for us but it is a good one for United,” he added.

Ferguson conceded that the result left the outcome delicately balanced, but he took solace from the fact his side still have their fate in their own hands.

“This sort of result can be dangerous if you concede a goal at home,” said the 69-year-old Scot. “But it’s simple because if we win, we go through.

“It was a disappointing game but they (Marseille) were desperate not to concede a goal.

“But I also expected more of us offensively, as we didn’t make the most of our chances when we got into good positions.”

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Steve Davis: CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal preview

With the departure of veteran stalwarts, Columbus needs the likes of Robbie Rogers to become more consistent.

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The CONCACAF Champions League’s chief imperfection may be the awkward gap separating group play and quarterfinal action, which begins this week.

Twenty-four teams from the United States, Mexico, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean began competing for the regional crown last summer. Next came the 16-team group stage, which wrapped up in October. Now it’s on to the quarterfinals, the “knockout phase,” where eight teams meet in four elimination series starting this week.

So the possibility always exists that a team undergoes significant turnover in the four-month interim — which is precisely what has happened to the Columbus Crew.

Columbus is one of two MLS sides remaining in Champions League, now facing an uphill climb as a bunch of new faces oppose reliably steady Real Salt Lake. Still, the prize at the end is a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.

Here is a look at all four quarterfinal matchups:

Columbus vs. Real Salt Lake

First leg: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Real Salt Lake at Columbus

Second leg: 10 p.m. March 1, Columbus at Real Salt Lake

The contrasts are stark. Real Salt Lake is perhaps the most stable of MLS teams, getting set to punch away in 2011 with pretty much the same core that won MLS Cup two years and ago and made such a fashionable account last year. Meanwhile, a roster in serious flux couldn’t possibly come at a worse time for Columbus.

Gone are longtime Crew staples Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, Adam Moffat and Gino Padula — essentially the heart of the side that captured MLS Cup 2008. Others are gone, too, like forwards Jason Garey and Steven Lenhart. Plus, the Crew is dealing with injuries to Eddie Gaven, Danny O’Rourke, Shaun Francis and Dilly Duka. All are likely 2011 starters when healthy, but their status remains in question for Tuesday’s first leg. Coach Robert Warzycha admitted that age-related roster turnover was further complicated by the expansion draft and by the league’s re-entry draft.

“There were more changes than we anticipated,” Warzycha said. “I’m not saying that’s good, I’m not saying that’s bad. We just have to do what we can.”

So several players need to graduate this year from JAG status (“Just a guy”) to game-breaker status, and fast. That means names like Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo and Andy Iro, men long on potential but still short on full arrival. The time is here especially for Rogers, who is just 23 but already entering his fifth season at Crew Stadium. He has just two goals and five assists over 42 regular season games in the last two years, hardly enough for a primarily offensive presence.

Warzycha said Rogers has been more of a “track star” much of his career, and he wants the fringe U.S. international winger to become more of a “soccer player.” Tuesday would be a great place to start.

Either way, the Crew will make things tough, especially in Ohio, where game time temperatures in the high 20s, possible snow flurries and a frozen or bumpy field could hammer RSL’s possession game. With good servers for Columbus hitting balls to Chad Marshall and Iro, set-piece plays and determined defense seem the home team’s best way forward.

The more technical Real Salt Lake may not be at its tiptop best so early. Still, Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson, Javier Morales and Andy Williams could easily overwhelm a lesser-tested Crew midfield, where the important holding position looks highly unstable.

Real Salt Lake’s players were bitterly disappointed at last year’s first-round MLS playoff elimination. A longer march through this year’s postseason and a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup would surely help atone for this confident group.

“This year, there’s so much out there for us to win, it’s real easy to keep everybody motivated,” Beckerman said last week after a preseason workout in Arizona. “It had to be intense right from the start. Most of the time, when the preseasons are longer, you can take the first two or three weeks and ease into it a little bit. This gave us something meaningful to look forward to right off the bat. For me, I was looking forward to it. It was a good change.”

Cruz Azul (Mexico) vs. Santos Laguna (Mexico)

First leg: 10 p.m. Tuesday, Santos at Cruz Azul

Second leg: 8 p.m. March 1, Cruz Azul at Santos

Five-time CONCACAF champion Cruz Azul has things moving in the right direction once again, currently second among six teams in the Group 3 of the Mexico’s Clausura. That includes a 2-1 win over Atlas on Saturday. Emanuel Villa is the danger man of the moment, striking for his team-leading fourth goal of the spring campaign Saturday. The Argentine has scored at a rate of about once every two matches since coming from Derby County in 2009.

As always, Gerardo Torrado is the Cementeros’ heart and soul; He’s been a holding midfield staple for the Mexico City side since 2005.

Santos (3-3-1 in the Clausura) travels to Estadio Azul in Mexico City off a hugely disappointing loss at home to Querétaro on Saturday. Queretaro had previously captured all three points in only one game of six.

To make matters worse, Argentine coach Ruben Romano was sacked Monday after he criticized the team’s fans for jeering his players. Newspaper photos had shown Romano making a finger gesture as he was leaving the pitch and facing the stands at the end of the Querétaro match.

Toluca (Mexico) vs. Monterrey (Mexico)

First leg: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Monterrey at Toluca

Second leg: 8 p.m. March 2, Toluca at Monterrey

Perhaps the Guerreros of Santos Laguna weren’t the only ones guilty of peeking ahead to this week regional competition.

No team was in better form than Toluca going into the weekend, undefeated in six matches with just one goal conceded in the Clausura before Sunday’s 3-2 loss at Necaxa. Plus, Toluca has a big match ahead this Sunday at famed Club America.

Still, this represents huge opportunity for Toluca, based in Mexico’s eighth largest city. A club from Mexico will definitely be in the Champions League final, given the bracket breakdown. A place in the FIFA Club World Cup would certainly be a grand day for Toluca and its popular midfielder Sinha, who has appeared 49 times for Mexico.

Monterrey is mid-pack in its Clausura grouping. But Chilean striker Humberto Suazo and inform setup man Dario Carreño can certainly make a difference. Suazo has five goals in seven matches this year, although the Chilean injured his shoulder against Tigres on Saturday and could miss Monterrey’s next two games.

Saprissa (Costa Rica) vs. Olimpia (Honduras)

First leg: 8 p.m. Thursday, Olimpia at Saprissa

Second leg: 8 p.m., March 3, Saprissa at Olimpia

These are the power brokers of their respective countries, so it’s odd that both have fallen on some hard times lately in domestic play. The Costa Rican giants didn’t even qualify for their country’s playoffs last year, although they did successfully negotiate Champions League group play.

Olimpia has won just once in its last five in the Honduran Primera division going into Monday’s match with rival Marathon.

Meanwhile, Saprissa’s Mexican manager Juan Manuel Alvarez made things sound downright dire when he told a Honduran newspaper that his team is lacking even the simplest of elements at the moment. Still, Champions League offers an escape hatch of sorts for both clubs; the winner here faces an MLS side in March that could be distracted by its league season, which opens about the same time.

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Tickets prices soar for Champions League final

LONDON (AP)—Going to the Champions League final will cost almost twice as much as two years ago for some fans.

For the May 28 final at Wembley Stadium in London, a category three ticket will cost ?175 ($ 235) compared with ?90 ($ 120) in 2009. The same ticket in Madrid last year to see Inter Milan beat Bayern Munich cost ?155.

The price of the second-most expensive ticket has risen by around 85 percent from ?140 in 2009 to ?260. Category one tickets, which will cost ?350, have risen ?50 for each of the last two finals.

On top of buying the ticket, fans will also have to pay an administration fee of ?31 ($ 40) for sales within Europe.

“This is the market price,” UEFA competitions director Giorgio Marchetti said at the ticket launch in London. “Do you think we would have trouble filling Wembley if the prices were higher? You think it would be different?

“We try to strike a balance between the interest of the supporters and the interest of the event. Why should we price the tickets lower than what we think is a fair level?”

UEFA expect income from the Champions League final to reach ?16.7 million, compared with ?11.5 million last year.

“The prices are based on the type of event and when you compare it to other events we don’t think that the Champions League final is overpriced,” Marchetti said. “We do not want to squeeze every single penny out of the market. We have to benchmark this event against other comparable events, like for example the final of the Euros and the World Cup.

“Last year there was already a significant increase compared to the previous editions but it’s nothing to do with being in London and it is still priced below comparable events.”

Each of the Champions League finalists receive 25,000 tickets after 11,000 have been on open sale from Feb. 24 to March 18.

The cheapest seats, which are sold only by the finalists, are ?95, compared with ?90 in 2010 and ?70 in Rome in 2009.

UEFA president Michel Platini has moved European club football’s biggest final from Wednesdays to Saturdays to attract more younger fans.

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Champions League rolling blog

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Champions League resumes with tasty last-16 games

LONDON (AP)—The Champions League resumes this week at the last-16 stage, with Arsenal and Barcelona ready to put on a show for the football purists and AC Milan in impressive shape ahead of the visit of injury-hit Tottenham.

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium will play host to arguably the two most easy-on-the-eye teams in European football, in a rematch of last season’s quarterfinal that Barcelona won 6-3 on aggregate.

The Spanish giants, who have won the competition three times, are among the favorites to land the trophy again and will look to Lionel Messi, the team’s leading scorer domestically and in Europe, to spark their potent attack on Wednesday.

“We play certainly the best team in the world next so it is important to go in strong psychologically,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said after a 2-0 win over Wolverhampton on Saturday that kept his team second in the Premier League behind Manchester United.

Tottenham is set to be without star winger Gareth Bale and playmaker Rafael van der Vaart on Tuesday when it returns to the San Siro, where the London side has already visited in this season’s competition.

On that occasion, Spurs lost 4-3 to Inter Milan in a group match despite a stunning second-half hat trick by Bale, who has been sidelined recently with a back injury.

Milan, a seven-time European champion, consolidated its lead in the Italian league with a 4-0 thrashing of Parma at the weekend and is unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions.

“We will need courage, concentration and quality to get through,” veteran Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf said. “This result (against Parma) means we are well prepared.”

Valencia hosts Schalke and Shakhtar Donetsk visits Roma in this week’s other first legs, with the other four two-legged series starting next week.

Arsenal was taught a lesson by Barca last season. Lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw from a thrilling first leg at home, the Gunners were smashed 4-1 in the return match—with Messi scoring all four goals in a sensational individual performance.

The Argentina playmaker has already scored six times in this season’s competition, as well as 24 goals in the Spanish league.

“When you play a team like Barcelona, you need all 11 to be at their best,” said Wenger, whose side lost 2-1 to the Catalans in the 2006 Champions League final.

“For us it is important we play with belief. We are not favorites in this game but I think we can do it.”

Barcelona comes into the game off a 1-1 draw at Sporting Gijon, a result that ended the team’s record of consecutive league wins at 16.

The champions had previously outscored their opponents 60-6 through the historic run. They had also won all their away games this season.

“Now we can see the merit of 16 consecutive wins,” coach Pep Guardiola said. “Now we have to recover so we can play well in London.”

Guardiola should have all his regular starters available after resting Spain midfielder Sergio Busquets and France left back Eric Abidal on Saturday. The only question mark is whether captain Carles Puyol recovers from a knee injury in time.

Milan is set to be without injured midfielders Kevin-Prince Boateng, Massimo Ambrosini and Andrea Pirlo against Spurs, so Brazil center back Thiago Silva may play out of position further upfield.

“Playing Thiago Silva in central midfield on Tuesday is a real possibility,” Milan coach Massimo Allegri said.

Spurs have injury problems on their own, with central midfielders Luka Modric and Tom Huddlestone expected to miss out. The probable loss of Bale and Van der Vaart (calf) would hit the side the hardest, however.

Despite the caliber of the opposition, manager Harry Redknapp has faith in his team, which topped its group ahead of Inter on its debut in the competition and is fourth in the Premier League after three victories.

“Milan are a dangerous side. They have got some real quality players. The front three—Robinho, (Alexandre) Pato, (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic—have all got goals in them. They are top-class players,” Redknapp said.

“It will be a big test, but I think we have got a big chance.”

Two-time runner-up Valencia, which is in the Champions League positions in the Spanish league after seven wins in its last eight matches, may be without injured forward Juanma Mata for the first leg against Schalke.

Former Real Madrid striker Raul Gonzalez makes his first return to Spain after his move to Schalke last summer. Raul scored 12 goals against Valencia at the Mestalla stadium when he was with Madrid.

Defenders Philippe Mexes and Nicolas Burdisso are likely to return to Roma’s starting lineup against Ukrainian champion Shakhtar after missing a 2-0 defeat by Napoli on Saturday through suspension.

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