United-Real Madrid collide with preseason bragging rights on the line
It may still only be the preseason, but you aren't likely to ever see as much top-level talent do battle as on Saturday, when the 2014 International Champions Cup group stage finale takes place. All eight teams will face off with just two places in Monday's final in Miami (live, FOX Sports 1, 7:30 p.m. ET) to be won.
Manchester United sit in first place in Group A on five points -- courtesy of a penalty shootout win over Inter Milan and an outright win against AS Roma -- and have looked strong under new manager Louis van Gaal. They have zipped about the field and treated the ball with love and care, like the United of yore. And they are the favorites to advance to the final as group winners. They will face their fellow titans Real Madrid in Ann Arbor, Mich. (live, Saturday, FOX, 4 p.m. ET) in front of an expected 109,000 people, which will set a new American record for attendance at a soccer game.
Real, however, haven't looked sharp so far this tournament, picking up just a point from a lost shootout against Inter and then losing to Roma. They are the holders of the UEFA Champions League, as well as this tournament, but have yet to fire on all cylinders. In fairness, forwards Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and much-coveted and heralded recruit James Rodriguez, signed from Monaco for $107 million, have yet to feature as they are recuperating from injuries and strenuous World Cup campaigns. Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti confirmed that Cristiano Ronaldo will not face his former club United next in Michigan.
"Ronaldo has been working individually, separate from the team, and he is continuing to work," Ancelotti told reporters on Friday. "We will not put him out tomorrow, as he has not trained with the full squad. He will train with the squad in Madrid, as we plan to play him in the Super Cup final.
"The plan for Cristiano was right. We programmed a good rest for him. For one month, which started on June 26. We didn't want to take any risks with him, so he will start training with the rest of the squad on August 5."
The defeat to Roma earlier this week means Real Madrid will not be playing in the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup, and will return to the Spanish capital after the game with Louis van Gaal's side. The European champions will then travel to Cardiff to play fellow Spaniards Sevilla in the Uefa Super Cup on Aug. 13. "We will have more time to rest, but Madrid can never be happy about a defeat, and nor can a coach," added Ancelotti. "But we will be able to prepare better for the Super Cup."
The other Group A contest saw Nemanja Vedic and Yuto Magatomo score to help Inter Milan beat AS Roma 2-0 on Saturday.
Inter broke a scoreless tie just moments before halftime. On a free kick from the left outside of the box, Dodo's left-footed service found Vedic at the center of the penalty box and his deflected header ticked off the fingertips of goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski into the upper right corner.
Roma almost tied it in the 48th minute, but Mattia Destro's header barely missed. Nagatomo provided insurance in the 69th minute as he collected a loose ball in the right side of the box and buried it past Skorupski in the top right corner.
Inter finished its group games in the exhibition International Champions Cup with six points, a point ahead of Manchester United.
Over in Group B, Liverpool lead with five somewhat fortuitous points. They scored early on Olympiakos and then clung on for the win and twice came back against Manchester City before prevailing on penalties. They face AC Milan -- who have looked dire, losing 3-0 to Olympiakos and suffering a 5-1 spanking at the hands of City -- in Charlotte, North Carolina.
AC Milan and Liverpool have much in common these days. They are clubs of impeccable pedigree -- winning a dozen Champions League titles between them -- who are nevertheless grappling to stay competitive domestically. Milan no longer enjoy the financial spoils of billionaire owner Silvio Berlusconi and have had to rework their business model. Liverpool do okay financially but have a tough task in keeping up with the Premier League arms race. Their very best players tend to leave eventually, as star striker Luis Suarez did this summer. Liverpool are still figuring out how to function without him. Milan, meanwhile, looked shambolic with all those cut-rate players and need to work out how to stop bleeding so many goals.
Finally, Manchester City face Olympiakos in Minneapolis (live, FOX Sports 2, 3 p.m. ET). Either team can leapfrog Liverpool, should the Reds lose. City would need at least the two points from the shootout win; Olympiakos would need an outright win. If Liverpool win in regulation or a shootout, they are through no matter what. City, the defending Barclays Premier League champions, have been mighty impressive in this tournament -- and forward Stevan Jovetic in particular.
"I have said before that Stevan is a very important player for us, and he proved again what an asset he can be," said Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini this week. "He had a number of different injuries last season but now he is fully fit. I'm sure if he continues in this way he will show why he is here. If he's fit all the year, he will be a very important player for us."
Olympiakos, meanwhile, seemed to be punching above their weight by beating AC Milan so decisively and outplaying Liverpool for large stretches of their game. Or maybe they're the real deal and could really compete on the European stage this year.
We'll know more on Saturday.