Los Angeles Soccer: UEFA Europa League
RSC Anderlecht's aim is to remind everyone in Belgium who's boss. Rangers just wants more hardware.
The second-tier European powerhouses, both featuring Southern California talent, have quickly made their points, racing atop their leagues' standings -- and one of them is threatening to run away from the field.
Scottish giant Rangers, with Alta Loma's Carlos Bocanegra and Fontana's Maurice Edu, returned from the international break on a sour note -- a 1-1 home draw with St. Mirren -- but stand seven points ahead of Motherwell and 10 in front of archrival Celtic. More impressive: Gers has a plus-19 goal difference after just 11 games.
The Glasgow club, founded in 1872, has won 54 top-tier league titles -- that's a world record -- and is seeking its fourth straight championship. Hated crosstown/sectarian rival Celtic, which has won 42 Scottish league championships, is, as always, the real competition.
Rangers or Celtic have won every title since 1986.
Brussels-based Anderlecht, Belgium's foremost club, blew it last year, nosediving during the playoff phase after winning the regular-season title, and the Mauves must make amends.
With Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan taking on a more influential role in midfield this season, RSCA is off to a 7-1-2 start, good for a one-point lead on Club Brugge, and coming off a 5-0 rout of Standard Liege, last year's runner-up and the Jupiler League champion in 2009.
EUROPA REDUX: UEFA's Europa League returns to action Thursday. Group L leader Anderlecht (2-0-0) plays at Austria's Sturm Graz (1-1-0). Tottenham (1-0-1), without former UCLA star Brad Friedel -- he's Spurs' league goalkeeper -- is home against Russia's Rubin Kazan in first-place showdown.
Michael Bradley has moved into Chievo Verona's starting lineup after his move from Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Bradley debuted for the Flying Donkeys in a 2-1 loss last weekend at Parma, coming on in the 72nd minute for Paolo Sammarco. The 24-year-old central midfielder, whose family is based in Manhattan Beach, went the full 90 in Wednesday's 1-0 surprise home victory over Napoli.
Bradley is the first American to start in Italy's Serie A since Alexi Lalas played for Padova in 1994-96.
EUROPA ROMP: Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan assisted the last goal in Matias Suarez's hat trick as Belgian power RSC Anderlecht opened UEFA Europa League group play with a 4-1 Group L victory over Greece's AEK Athens.
Brad Friedel's club, Tottenham, drew, 0-0, at Greece's PAOK Salonika in a Group A opener, but the former UCLA star was not on the 18-man game roster. Italy's Carlo Cudicini has been in the nets for the European matches, with Friedel getting the call for league duty.
Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan (Huntington Beach HS) is expected to be in Belgian power RSC Anderlecht's midfield for a Group L home game against AEK Athens.
Former UCLA star goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who is Tottenham's starter in league games, figures to back up Carlo Cudicini or Heurelho Gomes as Spurs head to Greece to take on PAOK Salonika in Group A of Europe's No. 2 club competition.
Kljestan's influence is growing at Anderlecht, where he had a roller-coaster first season but nailed down a starting job, with some very good reviews, last spring.
The Mauves met AEK in Europa group play last year, too, winning at home, 3-0, without Kljestan.
TWO DEBUTS?: Van Nuys' Tristan Bowen made his debut for his new club, but Michael Bradley will have to wait another week.
Bowen, on loan from Chivas USA to Belgian second-division side KSV Roeselare, went the the full 90 up front in a scoreless tie Sunday with Standaard Wetteren.
Bradley, whose family lives in the South Bay, was on the 18-man game roster but did not play for Italy's Chievo Verona in a 2-2 tie against Novara in its Italian Serie A opener. The Flying Donkeys play this weekend at Parma.
Rangers FC's back-to-back Scottish Premier League titles might not get another “-to-back.” Sunday's 3-0 loss in the fourth of seven “Old Firm” meetings this season with archival Celtic FC has left Gers on the verge of elimination in two competitions.
And the Bhoys can end Rangers' title hopes in two more competitions, too.
Gary Hooper scored twice in the first 28 minutes Sunday at Celtic Park as Celtic's lead over Rangers (18-4-2) reached eight points, 64-56. The Blues, with Fontana's Maurice Edu a constant in central midfield, have two games in hand, but another loss could leave a gap too great to be bridged.
“Celtic deserved to win the game -- I don’t think we can have any complaints,” Rangers manager Walter Smith told reporters. “Our possession and defending was poor. It was as disappointing an Old Firm game since [returning to the club in 2007 after a decade away]. … The pressure is now on us to try and get a level of consistency in our game to make sure that when the next Old Firm game comes round, we’re in better shape.”
There are three more Old Firm meetings to go: in a March 2 Scottish Cup fifth-round replay at Celtic Park, in the March 20 Scottish League Cup final at Hampden Park, and at Rangers' Ibrox home in the championship bracket during the SPL season's final phase. Celtic is 2-1-1 in the first four this season, with two successive SPL wins.
Rangers has won 53 Scottish League titles, but not three in a row since a string of nine ended in the 1997-98 season. Celtic has 43. The last time a club other than Rangers or Celtic won? 1985 (Aberdeen).
Rangers' first priority: getting past Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League's round of 32, a task made more difficult by last week's draw at Ibrox.
EUROPA LEAGUE: Neither Rangers nor Belgian champ RSC Anderlecht managed the kind of result their were looking for in the Europa League's knockout openers. At least Rangers remains alive.
Maurice Edu's Rangers FC and Sacha Kljestan's RSC Anderlecht return to European action this week with the resumption of the UEFA Europa Cup, the continent's No. 2 club competition.
Scottish champion Rangers is home against Sporting Lisbon and Belgian titlist Anderlecht plays host to Ajax Amsterdam on Thursday as the knockout stage begins with round-of-32 first legs. All second legs will be a week from Thursday.
Fontana's Edu, who last month returned from a knee injury, has been a fixture in central midfield for the Blues, who joined the Europa League fray after finishing third, at 1-2-3, in group play in the first-tier UEFA Champions League.
Sporting won its Europa League group and is 7-3-0 in the competition, but that was last fall. The club is in crisis after selling top star Liedson, then firing sporting director Costinha when he railed publicly against the move. The president is leaving, chief creator Marat Izmailov is looking for a new home, and manager Paulo Sergio seems to be cracking under the pressure.
Huntington Beach's Kljestan, who has been in and out of Anderlecht's lineup (and has been a late substitute the past two weeks after sitting out the previous two), went 2-3-1 in Europa group play; Ajax, like Rangers, falls from the Champions League after finishing a point behind AC Milan in its group.
If Rangers reaches the round of 16, French club Lille or Holland's PSV Eindhoven will be the foe. Anderlecht's opponent would be Russian power Spartak Moscow or Switzerland's FC Basel.
The full Europa League slate:
Manchester City (England) at Aris Thessaloniki (Greece)
Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands) at RSC Anderlecht (Belgium)
Sporting Lisbon (Portugal) at Rangers FC (Scotland)
Villarreal (Spain) at Napoli (Italy)
Sporting Braga (Portugal) at Lech Poznan (Poland)
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) at Besiktas (Turkey)
FC Twente (Netherlands) at Rubin Kazan (Russia)
VfB Stuttgart (Germany) at Benfica (Portugal)
Paris St.-Germain (France) at BATE (Belarus)
Liverpool (England) at Sparta Prague (Czech Republic)
Spartak Moscow (Russia) at FC Basel (Switzerland)
Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) at Young Boys Berne (Switzerland)
CSKA Moscow (Russia) at PAOK Thessaloniki (Greece)
FC Porto (Portugal) at Sevilla (Spain)
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) at Lille (France)
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) at Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: The first four of eight round-of-16 series begin this week in the UEFA Champions League. Tottenham visits AC Milan and Schalke 04 plays at Valencia on Tuesday; Barcelona plays at Arsenal and Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk at AS Roma on Wednesday. The other four series begin next week.
BRADLEY'S FIRST: Manhattan Beach's Michael Bradley made his English Premier League debut Saturday, struggling to make an impact as a second-half substitute in Aston Villa's 1-1 draw at Blackpool.
Rangers FC has finally set a solid target for Maurice Edu's return: Boxing Day.
The midfielder from Fontana, out since sustaining a knee injury Nov. 10, could be back on the field when the Scottish Premier League leader takes on Motherwell next Sunday in the traditional day-after-Christmas match.
Rangers is slated to play Tuesday at Dundee United, but three of its past four league matches have been postponed because of harsh weather. Saturday's clash with St. Mirren at Ibrox was called off when pipes burst during a post-snow and ice thaw.
“[Last] weekend would have been too soon for Maurice,” Rangers manager Walter Smith told the club's Web site. “But I would think he would start to get a run-out in training this weekend, and we'll see where we go from there.
“I don't think he'll be ready for the Dundee United match … but [next] weekend at Motherwell looks like a real possibility.”
Edu (Etiwanda HS) has missed only five games since he was hurt in a 3-0 loss to Hibernian, the Blues' only league defeat this season. He was out for Rangers' final two group-stage matches in the UEFA Champions League but can look forward to UEFA Europa League action in February.
Poor weather has impacted every club in Scotland. Rangers (12-1-2) maintains a three-point lead in the SPL over archrival Celtic FC (11-2-2), and the Glasgow powerhouses have two games in hand over their nearest rivals.
EUROPA, EUROPA: Belgian champion RSC Anderlecht, with Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan (Huntington Beach SH) now a regular contributor in midfield, booked its passage to the second-tier UEFA Europa League's round of 16 with a simple 2-0 triumph over Croatia's Hajduk Split in a Group G finale, getting the required aid from group winner Zenit St. Petersburg -- a 3-0 winner at AEK Athens -- to push ahead of the Greeks and into second place.
Their reward: a Low Countries showdown with Ajax Amsterdam, a former European powerhouse unable to compete with the big-country giants since the Bosman ruling brought a form of free agency to European soccer in 1995. The draw was held Friday in Nyon, Switzerland.
RSC Anderlecht is in a must-win situation Thursday, and its going to need a little help, too.
The Belgian champion will advance to the UEFA Europa League's round of 32 with a win Thursday over visiting Hajduk Split and a victory by Zenit St. Petersburg over AEK Athens.
Anderlecht, with former Chivas USA captain Sacha Kljestan (Huntington Beach/Huntington Beach HS) in midfield, is 1-3-1 in Group G of Europe's No. 2 club competition and sits three points behind AEK (2-2-1) in the battle for second place. RSCA holds the tiebreaker with the Greeks and will advance if they finish even on points.
The Mauves might seem to be in an advantageous position. Zenit (5-0-0) has won all but one of its group matches by two goals, and the Russian group leader romped to a three-goal lead in the other victory, a 3-2 decision over Hajduk Split in Croatia.
All AEK needs is a draw to advance, but if they lose, Anderlecht is ready to take advantage.
Scottish champion Rangers FC, with midfielder Maurice Edu (Fontana/Etiwanda HS) expected back shortly from a knee injury, dropped into the round of 32 after finishing third in its group in the top-tier UEFA Champions League.
A draw Friday in Nyon, Switzerland, will set up eight four-team brackets for round-of-32 matches Feb. 17 and 24 and round-of-16 games March 10 and 17. The survivors will be drawn March 18 into an eight-team bracket. The final is May 18 in Dublin, Ireland.
Fontana's Maurice Edu didn't make the trek to Turkey for Rangers FC's UEFA Champions League finale Tuesday, but he's expected back soon -- possibly this weekend.
The former Etiwanda High School standout has been sidelined since going down with a knee injury in a Scottish Premier League match Nov. 10 against Hibernian, and the club's Web site reported that he "isn't far away from returning to the fray."
He won't play Tuesday in Rangers' meaningless clash with Bursaspor in Bursa, Turkey, but he might return for Saturday's league game at Inverness Caledonian Thistle -- if it goes off.
Tuesday's game counts for nothing: The Blues (1-2-2) have clinched third place in the four-team Group C -- and will drop into the second-tier UEFA Europa League's round of 32 -- and Bursaspor (0-5-0) is last. Edu, the Web site said, is building fitness and recovering from tonsillitis.
Edu has missed only three games, and he can thank the harsh weather that has hit Scotland the past month. Rangers hasn't played since it was eliminated from the Champions League by Manchester United on Nov. 24. Its last two Scottish Premier League matches were postponed because of icy conditions that left fields unplayable.ANDERLECHT, TOO?: Belgian champion Anderlecht, with Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan, also is hoping to be in the Europa League's knockout stage, which begins play in February. The Zebras are third in Group G of the Europa League with a 1-3-1 mark following last week's 3-1 loss to Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia and must finish in the top two.
It could lead to another move, to a bigger club.
Taylor (Irvine HS/UCLA), who joined the third-tier 3.Bundesliga club in the traditional Muenster region of western Germany at the end of August, has scored four goals in his last three games as Rot Weiss has quickly climbed from 16th to ninth in the standings.
He netted the 81st-minute winner Saturday in a 2-1 victory at SV Jahn Regensburg, the Red and Whites' third successive victory after winning just once in their first 12 matches.
Taylor has six goals in nine games -- when he scores, Rot Weiss (4-4-7) is 4-0-0.
He tallied twice in a 3-0 win Sept. 18 over Carl Zeiss Jena, then started on his current streak two weeks ago with the second goal in a 3-2 triumph over Bayern Munich's second team. He scored two more last week in a 4-1 romp over SV Weben Wiesbaden.