Giroud returns to Montpellier, Schalke goes to Greece – UEFA Champions League Group B preview

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Montpellier vs. Arsenal

La Mosson, Montpellier, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Four months after leading Montpellier to one of the more improbable European titles in recent memory, Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud returns to La Mosson for a match that’s bound to inspire mixed feelings.

“I spent a beautiful, wonderful season there last year when we were champions and won the title,” Arsenal’s new 25-year-old striker told Arsenal Player. “It will be difficult for me to play against Montpellier, because there is a lot of emotion …”

It’s unclear how that emotion will manifest in the crowd. Getting $19.5 million for him this summer, Montpellier received a windfall for a player who was in the French second division two years ago. The fans, however, could see the departure as a player quickly abandoning a club that helped him become a star.

“I hope to receive a good reception from the Montpellier fans, because I finished the top goal scorer there last season and worked hard for the title,” Giroud said. “I think the reaction will be good, but there may be some people who will boo maybe. It is always like this.”

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

This all assumes Giroud plays. He’s yet to score in a competitive match since moving to Arsenal, something which leaves manager Arsene Wenger uncertain as to whether the former MHSC man will start.

“I felt that he is under much pressure at the moment and sometimes to get a little breather is good,” Wenger said, having left Giroud out of his starting XI this weekend against Southampton, a decision that could portend to Giroud starting on Tuesday.

Wenger is one person who will not be on the field at La Mosson. The Arsenal boss starts serving the first of a three-match touchline ban incurred for confronting officials after the Gunners’ elimination to Milan in last year’s knockout stage. Still fuming over the suspension, Wenger labeled UEFA “clueless.”

What he’ll miss is a battle between two clubs with vastly different Champions League resumés. Montpellier is making their first appearance in the competition. Arsenal is making their 15th straight, having progressed to the knockout round in 12 consecutive seasons.

Further tilting the scales, Arsenal has never lost at a Ligue 1 club in Champions League. They’ve also yet to lose this season in England, while Montpellier took four rounds to record their first Giroud-less win.

Olympiacos vs. Schalke 04

Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Like Arsenal and Montpellier, Olympiacos and Schalke have never met, so if we’re looking for insight into how these teams match up, we’ll need coincident results. Last season, German champions Borussia Dortmund were drawn into Olympiacos’s Champions League group and proceded to lose 3-1 on their trip to Piraeus. Arsenal would fall to an identical score, and with Olympiacos 3-0-0 out of the gate in Greece (with a +6 difference), there’s no reason to think the Greek champions have taken a step back.

Schalke is off to a hot start of their own, earning seven points from their first three games. Having already posted seven goals, concerns over the loss of Raúl’s 15 may prove unwarranted (the Spanish icon got hooked up with direct deposit with Al Sadd in Qatar). Lewis Holtby, Julian Draxler and Jermaine Jones, who combined for seven goals last season, have already found net four times. Huub Stevens has scarcely needed new acquisitions Ibrahim Afellay and Tranquillo Barnetta.

The question is whether Schalke can hold up at the back. Having only allowed two goals thus far, the team may be slightly improved on last year (when Christoph Metzelder got half the starts ahead of Christian Fuchs). Olympiacos’ Rafik Djebbour may provide their stiffest test to date. The 28-year-old Algerian has started the Greek season with four goals.

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.

Heynckes squashes Lewandowski rumors after Premier League rumors

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The English media – mainly the tabloids – has had a field day over the last 24 hours with rumors of a Robert Lewandowski move to the Premier League claiming, but the Bayern Munich manager is having none of it.

Jupp Heynckes told the German press during his pre-match press conference on Friday ahead of the club’s Saturday match against Hertha Berlin, “I can’t imagine there is a chance [the club executives] will sell Lewandowski.”

“Bayern is not a selling club,” Heynckes went on to proclaim. “They want to, and always will want to, keep their top players.”

The reports stated that Lewandowski was “flirting” with a move to the Premier League, and that while Manchester City and Chelsea were the more logical destination, Liverpool was actually the preferred landing spot as the Polish international was open to a reunification with former boss Jurgen Klopp, whom he worked with at Borussia Dortmund before his switch to Allianz Arena. Lewandowski’s contract at Bayern Munich currently runs through 2021, leaving the player with little say over his future.

While the rumors seem like a long shot, what does make sense is that, at 29 years old, Lewandowski doesn’t a ton of time left to convince a Premier League club he’s worth a heavy investment for the next couple of years. Many top teams – most notably Arsenal – are hesitant to sign players over 30 years old, and would be even less inclined to pay a hefty transfer fee for a player without a long future ahead of them. Manchester United just paid a cut-rate price for Alexis Sanchez, and while that was largely due to Arsenal’s position of weakness regarding the expiry of Sanchez’s contract, Sanchez’s age also partially contributed to that knocked down transfer rate.

Nonetheless, Bayern’s sale history is minimal, having only offloaded surplus players, such as defender Medhi Benatia this past summer, Mario Gotze back to Borussia Dortmund the summer before, and Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City in 2015.