Champions League set to begin most challenging group stage

France's defender Lucas Digne controls the ball during the UEFA Nations League Group A3 football match between Croatia and France at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb on October 14, 2020. (AFP / FRANCK FIFE)
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Updated 17 October 2020

Champions League set to begin most challenging group stage

GENEVA: As a second wave of coronavirus cases hits Europe, the Champions League is going to again send elite players criss-crossing the continent.
But soccer’s biggest club competition has a back-up plan to ensure the group stage can be completed, even if there is a delay caused of the pandemic.
The fast-track schedule will begin Tuesday, one month later than normal. The plan is for 32 teams to each play six games in only 50 days, finishing by Dec. 9. But with COVID-19 infections spiking across Europe, and Cristiano Ronaldo among multiple current cases at Italian champion Juventus, UEFA will let games be made up by a Jan. 28 deadline.
Keeping the entire competition on schedule will also protect a prize fund of 2 billion euros ($2.3 billion).

GROUP A
Defending champion Bayern Munich and battle-tested Atlético Madrid are strong favorites to advance from Group A.
Robert Lewandowski, voted UEFA’s best player in Europe last season, has started this season by scoring at a goal-a-game ratio for the German club. Atlético added Luis Suarez, who fell out of favor at Barcelona.
Salzburg impressed in its Champions League debut last season under American coach Jesse Marsch, but the club has since sold its three main forward, including Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund.
Lokomotiv Moscow, the Russian league runner-up, finished last in its group in the past two seasons.

GROUP B
Real Madrid has never failed to advance from the group stage and is looking to do it for the 24th straight season.
The record 13-time European champions lead a group with perhaps the most depth in quality.
Shakhtar Donetsk reached the Europa League semifinals in August, but the Ukrainian club was routed by current group opponent Inter Milan 5-0. That was part of Romelu Lukaku’s streak of scoring in eight straight European games.
Madrid will play home games at its tiny training ground while no fans are allowed into Spanish venues. The Santiago Bernabeu Stadium is being renovated.
Shakhtar will play in Kyiv amid its seventh season of exile from Russian-backed conflict in Donetsk.

GROUP C
Pep Guardiola will be trying to lead Manchester City to its first title in the competition for the fifth time — in a season in which the club was originally banned from playing.
Guardiola will go up against three Portuguese coaches.
Marseille coach André Villas-Boas made his reputation at Porto, capping a treble-winning debut season in 2011 by winning the Europa League at the age of 33. Sérgio Conceição led Porto to a domestic double and now a 24th appearance in the group stage. And Olympiakos, coached by Pedro Martins, won its first Greek league title in three years and is in the group stage for the 20th time.

GROUP D
Liverpool leads a group ideally formed for hipster analysts and lovers of pure, attacking soccer.
Liverpool and Ajax have combined for 10 European titles since they last met in the competition in 1966.
Like Ajax’s run to the semifinals two seasons ago, Atalanta was a revelation last season before losing to Paris Saint-Germain on two late goals in the quarterfinals.
Danish club Midtjylland is another debutant. The club was created only 21 years ago and has a reputation for management decisions based on statistical analysis.

GROUP E
The past two Europa League champions and two more newcomers with very different histories will compete in Group E.
Sevilla and Chelsea have won six of the past eight Europa League titles, and Chelsea also won the Champions League in 2012.
Chelsea strengthened its squad for this season by buying Rennes’ goalkeeper Édouard Mendy last month.
Rennes has kept gifted France midfielder Eduardo Camavinga, who at the age of 17 is older than the Krasnodar club.
Krasnodar was founded only in 2008 — 107 years after Rennes — but qualified to enter UEFA competitions in each of the past six seasons.

GROUP F
As champion of Russia, Zenit St. Petersburg is the top-seeded team in Group F despite placing last in its group last year.
Dortmund and its fleet of young attackers — including Haaland and 17-year-old American Giovanni Reyna — should start as the favorites.
Lazio is back after a 12-year absence with one of the most diverse squads, including players from at least 12 non-Italian nations.
Club Brugge is also in the group.

GROUP G
The first match between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is scheduled for Oct. 28, when Juventus hosts Barcelona. The return match is on Dec. 8.
Barcelona has advanced to the knockout round in 16 straight seasons, while Juventus has for the past six.
Ferencváros is the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams in the competition, currently at No. 118 in UEFA’s list. Tuesday’s game at Barcelona is the club’s first in a Champions League group in 25 seasons, and the first for a Hungarian team since 2009.
Ferencváros coach Serhiy Rebrov was in charge of Dynamo Kyiv in 2016 when the Ukrainian club played its only knockout games in the last 20 years.
Dynamo is now coached by 75-year-old Mircea Lucescu, a Champions League regular during his 12 years at Shakhtar.

GROUP H
Edinson Cavani was playing for Paris Saint-Germain when his new club, Manchester United, last won a game in the Champions League.
The teams meet again on Tuesday at Parc des Princes, where a stoppage-time penalty for United in March 2019 eliminated PSG in the round of 16.
Also reunited are PSG and Leipzig after their semifinal match in August, won by the French champions 3-0.
Turkish champion Istanbul Başakşehir starts its first group campaign after slumping to last in its league and failing to score in four games.


World Cup winner Rose Lavelle eyes FA Cup glory with Manchester City

Updated 30 October 2020

World Cup winner Rose Lavelle eyes FA Cup glory with Manchester City

  • The American midfielder will face Everton at Wembley just over two months after moving to England
  • On Sunday, Lavelle and her team-mates take on Everton at Wembley in the delayed 2020 FA Cup final

DUBAI: For a second or two, the World Cup winner was left speechless.

“No way, wait really? Your name is my name?” she asks the star-struck little fan standing in front of her just weeks after playing a major role in the US Women’s National Team triumph at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

Rose Lavelle had just met Rose Lavelle. 

The video of the Manchester City’s new American star meeting her mini-me namesake went viral, confirming her own popularity on the back of the wildly successful World Cup.

“That was so cute, I thought I was being pranked for a second,” Lavelle, preparing for the FA Cup final on Sunday, told Arab News. “It was so cool, and I think it’s so special to be able to give back to the sport that same way that it gave to me. I know how huge it was for me to have role models that I looked up to, that I tried to envision myself being in their shoes one day. So I think it’s so cool now that I’m able to hopefully serve that same inspiration and motivation for younger players to be in my shoes one day.”

(When Rose Lavelle met Rose Lavelle: YouTube video)

Lavelle is being modest, playing down her own astonishing rise over the last few years.

At last year’s World Cup, she scored her nation’s second goal in the final against the Netherlands and was named in the tournament’s best 11. She also claimed the Bronze Ball as the third best player in the tournament. Later she was ranked sixth in the The Best FIFA Football Awards 2019. In August this year, having been transferred from Washington Spirit to NWSL rivals OL Reign, she made the move to Manchester City.

Lavelle joined a team bursting with some of the game’s best players including England captain Steph Houghton, 2019 UEFA Women's Player of the Year Lucy Bronze, England stalwart Jill Scott, former Olympique Lyonnais left-back Alex Greenwood and fellow USWNT World Cup winner Sam Mewis.

“I’ve obviously played against a lot of these girls at international level, but I think coming here I have even more respect for them because I see how talented they are and how much they know the game,” Lavelle said. “It’s been awesome to come here and play with them, and not against them, and also to be able to learn from them every single day. I feel like I’m constantly learning and getting better every day.”

For obvious reasons, the move could not have come at a more complicated time, and Lavelle had to quarantine for two weeks on arriving in England. Still, the 25-year-old has taken the disruptions in her stride.

“It’s been pretty good being on the team and there was definitely a little bit of adjustment,” she said. “To be fair, I still feel like I’m kind of adjusting and learning. But it’s something that’s making me so much better. It’s great to be in this environment, I’m really grateful to have this opportunity especially with everything that’s going on, having this avenue to play every single day.”

Manchester City’s women’s team are now fifth in the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) standings, having won two, drawn two and lost one of their early season matches. They also beat Everton 3-1 in the FA Women’s League Cup, a match in which Lavelle scored a brilliantly kicked equalizer.  All have been played to the backdrop of empty stadiums.

“Obviously the fans make the atmosphere so fun and incredible, and I would love to experience playing in front of an English crowd,” she said. “I’ve never played in front of a crowd in England before. I’ve only ever trained in England, I’d never played a game. But obviously health and safety are the most important things, so it’s understandable. I think whenever sports allow fans again, something that we all know and take for granted, it’ll be a fun time.”

On Sunday, Lavelle and her team-mates take on Everton at Wembley in the delayed 2020 FA Cup final, the competition’s 50th, with Manchester City having beaten West Ham 3-0 in the 2019 edition. There will also be an opportunity to reach the 2021 FA Cup final later this season. 

“One of the reasons I wanted to come here was there were so many different opportunities to win different titles, so it’s so exciting to have this opportunity to play in a final, a final so early in the season,” Lavelle said. “And also, potentially to play in another FA Cup final this [season], that would be unprecedented.” 

A win on Sunday will come just 16 months after the finest moment of Lavelle’s career, a winning role in the USWNT’s triumph at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France.

“Winning the World Cup was such an incredible moment, we had put so much work the past three years during that cycle into it,” she said. “So when the whistle blew, oh my gosh, thank God we had a team that accomplished what we set out to do, it was such an amazing thing seeing how hard we worked and how much we pushed each other. It was that much more rewarding because we knew how much we put into that moment. So to see it come to fruition, I don’t even have words for it, it was incredible.”

Winning the World Cup was a big moment in Rose Lavelle's career, but she's too humble to take all the praise. (AFP)

It takes a lot to get Lavelle to talk about her wonderful goal in that final, a run, shimmy and left-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area to seal the 2-0 win on 69 minutes. But when she does, it is typically to shower praise on her colleagues with a forensic description of the team’s move that led to her big moment. 

“Honestly that goal was a testament to our whole team I think,” she said. “When you look at the play, so much had unfolded because of so many other players on the field. It started with Crystal (Dunn) winning a great tackle stopping their transmission, she passed it off to Sam [Mewis] in midfielder, and I was able to take up the space I needed. In the final couple of seconds leading up to that, Alex was holding up their center back the whole time, and I was waiting to slip to her but she was occupying them, so I was able to get a shot in because of that. More than anything it was testament to our team, the relationship we have on the field.”

The USWNT have now won the World Cup a record four times, producing some unforgettable final moments along the way.

Michelle Akers dramatically slicing through Norway’s stumbling defenders in 1991. Brandi Chastain’s iconic celebration in 1999 after scoring the winning penalty in the shootout win over China. Carli Lloyd’s devastating first-half hat-trick against Japan in the 5-2 win in 2015. And now, the image of Lavelle, fists pumping in pure elation after her goal had finally floored the Netherlands.

You’d never hear her say it, but she has now earned the right to be mentioned alongside USWNT heroes like Akers, Chastain, Lloyd, Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan.

“I always say that I was obsessed with the US Women’s National Team growing up,” Lavelle said. “That was the team that I watched religiously, I was just the biggest fangirl. They were such an inspiration to me and I wanted to be in their shoes so bad that it inspired me to keep working and to keep playing.”

On the horizon will be the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and a chance of a fifth American title, and before that plenty of opportunities to win the trophies Lavbelle craves with Manchester City. In the immediate future, Manchester City face Liverpool in the League Cup three days after the FA Cup final, before a double header of WSL and League Cup matches against local rivals Manchester United later in November.

But for now, the FA Cup final at Wembley, and another winner’s medal, is all that matters.

“Obviously I’ve never played in an FA Cup final, but I think it will be something I’m going to remember forever,” Lavelle said.

The list of unforgettable Lavelle moments is growing by the day.