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

Leave a comment

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?

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

Ian Walton/Getty Images
2 Comments

Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

[ MORE: Chicharito talks heating up with LA FC ]

On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.