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Arsenal, Schalke’s chances to pull away – UEFA Champions League Group B preview

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Group B is gearing up for the defining Arsenal-Schalke home-and-home that will take place on matchdays three and four, two games which should define Olympiacos and Montpellier’s hopes of getting out of group. In the interim, the favorites get Wednesday home games and a chance to move to a perfect six points:

Arsenal (England) versus Olympiacos (Greece)
Emirates Stadium, London, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

This is the third time in four tournaments Arsenal and Olympiacos have been met in the group stage, posting identical outsomes in 2009 and 2011. Arsenal won at home. Olympiacos won on the road. Since Wednesday’s match is in London, this case must be closed. Right?

Obviously not, though it’s difficult to come up with a reason Olympiacos will be successful on Wednesday where they’ve failed before. Having already lost at home (to Schalke on matchday one), the Greek champions may not be as strong as they’ve been in the past, even if they’ve started 5-0-0 (with an easy schedule) in league. Arsenal, on the other hand, have hinted this squad could be stronger than the ones that limped into previous group stages smarting from summer departures. While the Gunners again had their share of offseason defections, the additions of Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski have Arsenal performing at a higher level than they’ve achieved in recent autumns.

Two unsung parts of that improvement were on display this weekend against Chelsea, where Arsenal suffered their first loss of the season. Fullbacks Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson are quietly shaking off the yips that befall young players, and while they still lack consistency, their play has improved enough for their potential to shine through. They’ve both proved valuable contributors at positions where (thanks to Bacary Sagna’s injury) Arsenal looked weak. With those positions strengthened, a well-rounded team can focus on improvement over acquisition.

That well-rounded team will be without one of is vital pieces on Wednesday, with Abou Diaby out after picking up an injury Saturday against Chelsea. While Diaby is not Arsenal’s best player, he may be their least replaceable, the summer sale of Alexander Song leaving them without another physical presence in midfield. Arsène Wenger conceded as much on Monday, telling reporters “We don’t have many physical players but Mikel Arteta has shown he can be a great defensive midfield player.”

Can Olympiacos take advantage of a Arteta-Aaron Ramsey-Cazorla midfield? Of course they can, but with Arsenal likely to dominate possession, Olypimpiacos won’d get many chances to do so. Like all of Arsenal’s opponents, their best chance will be with set pieces and the hope Arsenal hasn’t figured out how to defend them since Saturday.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Schalke 04 (Germany) vs. Montpellier (France)
Arena AufSchalke, Gelsenkirchen, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Montpellier may have found themselves after a rough start. Posting only five points in their first five Ligue 1 matches, the defending champions were giving off the impression of one-year wonders. Since, they gave a strong (albeit losing) performance against Arsenal before taking four points in league matches against Saint-Etienne and Reims. Though they’ve lost Olivier Giroud, a team with Younes Belhanda and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa could still be formidable.

That doesn’t shake the feeling that Champions League may be too much. This a team that skyrocketed to the top of France last year. Their actual level may be slightly lower, and without significant European experience to draw on, Montpellier may be out of their depth in a group with three quality, experienced sides.

Schalke, for example, are not considered a major threat in this competition, yet they’re still a team that went to the semifinals two years ago. Many of their pieces have changed (Manuel Neuer, Raúl, and José Manuel Jurado are gone), but the cupboard’s far from bare. Joel Matip and Kyriakos Papadopoulos have solidified the defense supporting a formidable front six: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in front of the trio of Jefferon Farfán, Lewis Holtby, and Tranquilo Barnetta; Roman Neustäder and Jermaine Jones in support.

That’s a pretty strong side, particularly when you stack it up against Montpellier’s, bringing us back to the original question: Are the French champions out of their depth? Looking at the rosters gives you that feeling, but if Rene Girard can continue his team’s improvement – including improving on their result against Arsenal – Montpellier may prove plucky once again.

Miss Tuesday’s Champions League coverage?

Ex-Leicester boss Pearson hired by Derby County

Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC
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Nigel Pearson lives.

The combustible former manager of Southampton, Hull City and Leicester City will now lead Derby County in the hopes of Premier League promotion.

Derby has been on the edge of promotion to the Premier League for several seasons, but neither Steve McClaren and Darren Wassall could do the trick.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Enter Pearson, 52, who has been hired on a three-year deal. It’s his first stop since a roller coaster ride saw him guide Leicester into the Premier League, only to be fired in the aftermath of some players being involved in a racist sex tape incident on a tour of Thailand.

This was after a bizarre season that saw him put his hands on an opposing player’s throat, call a journalist an ostrich, and ultimately save Leicester from the drop.

From Derby County’s site:

“I am honoured to be named as the Manager of Derby County, which is one of the biggest clubs in the country, a club in excellent shape and one with strong ambitions. It is firmly focused on achieving Premier League football.

“I will give absolutely everything I have to this role and do all I can to bring exciting, entertaining and winning football which our supporters can be proud of.”

At the very least, the Rams will be interesting to watch next season.

Castillo called up to take place of injured Chandler on USMNT roster

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Edgar Castillo #23 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
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The United States men’s national team has applied to have left back Edgar Castillo take the place of Timmy Chandler on the Copa America Centenario roster.

The Monterrey back played well in the Yanks’ 4-0 win over Guatemala in World Cup qualifying, but was passed over for Chandler and others in the 23-man roster for this summer’s tournament in the United States.

[ MORE: USMNT-Bolivia preview ]

But Chandler has picked up a quadriceps strain and Jurgen Klinsmann will add Castillo in his stead.

Perhaps this is a sign that fate is on the Yanks’ side.

USMNT-Bolivia preview: Yanks look for momentum ahead of Copa America

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Michael Bradley #4 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
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Momentum is a funny thing. Numbers don’t really back it up, claiming the better team has momentum simply by nature of being better, but many players and coaches swear by it.

And the United States men’s national team might just have a bit of it heading into next week’s Copa America Centenario if it can topple Bolivia on Saturday.

The Yanks played their best half in ages on Tuesday night, eventually getting a deserved winner against Ecuador when Darlington Nagbe rifled in his first national team goal in the 90th minute.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

All told, the Yanks are 6-1-1 in their last eight, the lone blemish a deplorable loss to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying. That’s kinda the story of the U.S. under Jurgen Klinsmann: pretty good record despite the on-field not always matching the numbers.

Again, that changed in Tuesday’s second half. With Michael Bradley lying deep and Darlington Nagbe attacking, the U.S. had plenty going for it even with Bobby Wood’s finishing touch a bit off. Whether Klinsmann goes back to Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes in the Starting XI will go a long way to see if the coach feels he learned anything (at least if Dempsey is a center forward again).

Juan Carlos Arce of Bolivia (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Bolivia made a surprise run into the quarterfinals of last year’s Copa America, but recent history hasn’t been kind to them outside of that.

La Verde is 3-9-1 in its last 12, a pair of the wins coming against Venezuela and the other over Ecuador. That said, the losses come against far superior competition than many confederations, as CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying is an onslaught of desperate, talented teams.

Longtime Club Bolivar attacker Juan Carlos Arce is at the forefront of Bolivia’s attack, with New York Cosmos striker Yasmani Duk breaking into La Verde’s scoresheet in recent matches. Goalkeeper Romel Quinonez is also integral to a defense that can yield big chances.

The United States should pick up a win at home against Bolivia, and if they do it in style we may see an invigorated USMNT fan base heading into the Copa America. If not, unease may abound.

Atleti’s Torres ready for “game of his life” in UEFA Champions League final

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 21: Atletico de Madrid players Saul Niguez (L) and Fernando Torres (R) stretch during the training session during the Club Atletico de Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final match against Real Madrid CF on May 21, 2016 in Majadahonda, Spain.
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Fernando Torres has won the UEFA Champions League before, but a victory on Saturday would ring as true as ever.

Calling it the game of his life, the Atletico Madrid striker spoke about this year’s final against Real Madrid.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determined UCL final ]

A lot has changed since the 2012 victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, when Torres subbed into Chelsea’s comeback win.

His decline at Chelsea found him on loan to Milan, where he transferred before finding another loan back home to Atleti. Now 32, Torres has his most goals since 2013 and is preparing for a Madrid Derby final.

From Sky Sports:

“Tomorrow [Saturday] is the game of my life, without doubt,” said Torres. “To me it means everything. Everything you dream when you’re a kid, I have the chance tomorrow to make this dream come true.

“I’ve played for great teams, and won many things, but this one is special, it is different, it’s what I wanted when I was a kid.”

Later lauding Atleti for giving him the chance “to come back and fight for what I wanted”, Torres is clearly hungry for a bit of redemption. And if his side comes out on top, he’ll likely be a big part of it.