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?

Ligue 1: PSG return to comfort zone, thrash Strasbourg

AP Photo/Francois Mori
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PARIS (AP) After falling short in the Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain returned to its French league comfort zone and beat Strasbourg 5-2 on Saturday.

Edinson Cavani netted twice, and Julian Draxler, Angel Di Maria, and Neymar also scored to ensure PSG stayed 12 points clear of second-place Monaco at the top.

But not without a fright.

Strasbourg took the lead in the sixth minute and pulled back to 3-2 as PSG continued to show alarming signs of weakness at the back. Strasbourg had a late goal incorrectly ruled out for offside after PSG’s defense was again easily breached, although it was already 5-2 by then.

PSG lost at Real Madrid 3-1 on Wednesday in the first leg of the last 16. The way PSG capitulated by giving away two late goals heaped pressure on coach Unai Emery over his team selection.

“The atmosphere was a bit tense. That’s normal,” Cavani said. “We have to look forward now. We played well today, although at times we could have been better.”

Emery was booed by sections of the home crowd when his name was announced over the loudspeaker before the game. Later, Cavani stopped short of giving Emery his personal backing when asked if the under-fire coach has the full support of the players.

“We’re a team and big teams stick together in the important moments,” Cavani said. “That’s the only way you can win.”

Strasbourg beat PSG at home in December, and stunned the crowd at Parc des Princes by taking the lead when midfielder Jean-Eudes Aholou was left completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

PSG hit back hard and was 3-1 up after 23 minutes thanks to Draxler, Di Maria and Neymar’s 19th in 19 league games.

Stephane Bahoken scored against PSG for the second time this season after a quick counterattack. Strasbourg poured forward but the hope didn’t last for long.

Cavani gave PSG some breathing space with an assured finish in the 72nd, clipping the ball over goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja, then lobbed him for his league-leading 23rd goal.

“It was important to win after Wednesday’s match. We have to get our fans ready for the games to come against Marseille (next weekend) and Real Madrid,” Emery said. “We have to show we can maintain this level of play against better sides, with all due respect to Strasbourg.”

To celebrate Chinese New Year, PSG players’ names were written in Mandarin on the back of their shirts and a Chinese dragon paraded around the pitch. PSG says it has 1.3 million Chinese followers.

In order to better serve the soccer market in Asia, the league match between Nice and PSG on March 18 has been moved forward to 1 p.m. local time (1200 GMT).


Marseille players will also have their names in Mandarin for Sunday’s home game against Bordeaux at Stade Velodrome. Marseille recently launched an account on Chinese social media site Weibo.

Striker Giovanni Sio’s second-half equalizer gave Montpellier the point it needed to take fifth place after drawing with Guingamp 1-1.

Two goals from newly signed striker Diafra Sakho gave Rennes a 2-2 draw at Caen, which missed two penalties.

Saint-Etienne won at Angers 1-0, Troyes beat last-place Metz 1-0, and Amiens drew with Toulouse 0-0 in another relegation scrap.

In Sunday’s other games, fourth-place Lyon goes to Lille, and Nice hosts Nantes.

Pardew ‘furious’ after four WBA players steal taxi in Spain

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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At least when you’re bottom of the Premier League table and appear headed for relegation, as West Bromwich Albion now find themselves, you can take the positive approach that “the only way to go from here is up.”

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Alternatively, four of your most senior players — Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill, in this case — might have other ideas and elect to steal a cab during a late-season training camp in Barcelona. That’s the current state of affairs for the Baggies and manager Alan Pardew, who openly admits he was “furious” and felt “let down” — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is obviously not ideal. They broke the curfew and that’s unacceptable and I feel a bit let down by that.”

“It’s difficult for managers. Obviously, I was furious with what happened but at the same time I’ve got to stay faithful to the players and give them a chance to remedy the situation.”

The night’s timeline reads something like this: the quartet wanted to go out in the city center, but everything was closed late at night; they got a taxi to a McDonald’s by the Barcelona port; the driver left the car, at which point the players decided to drive back to the team hotel around 5:30 a.m.; the care was returned to the cab driver around 8 a.m.

Evans was stripped of his captaincy for Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Southampton. The players have since released the following statement through the club’s website:

“We felt it important we identify ourselves as the players involved in an incident which occurred during the training camp in Spain this week out of respect for team-mates who otherwise could be implicated by association. We freely acknowledge and apologize for the break of curfew which we accept represented a breach of the standards of professionalism required of us as representatives of West Bromwich Albion.

“The club has informed us that it will now conduct its own inquiry into the incident and we will cooperate fully. In the meantime, we would like to assure our supporters that this incident does not reflect the determination and resolve we possess to do all we can to recover a difficult season.”

With 11 games left to play, West Brom currently sit seven points adrift of safety; Pardew’s position grows more and more tenuous with each point dropped; and three of their final 11 games are against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.

Serie A: Turkish youngster Under fires Roma back into 3rd

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ROME (AP) The rapid development of 20-year-old Turkey winger Cengiz Under is playing a big role in Roma’s revival.

Under scored his fourth goal in three matches and Roma won at Udinese 2-0 for its third straight win in Serie A on Saturday.

Roma moved into third place, two points ahead of Inter Milan, which lost at Genoa 2-0.

It’s a drastic improvement from where Roma was a month ago, when the Giallorossi were mired in a five-match winless streak that risked dropping them out of contention for the Champions League places.

“We’re getting back on track to where we were in the first half of the season,” forward Diego Perotti said.

Roma went ahead when Under unleashed a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area in the 70th.

Perotti sealed the victory in the 90th with an angled effort after Udinese gave the ball away near midfield.

Under is having a breakout month.

First, he scored after 43 seconds when Roma ended a five-match winless streak by beating Hellas Verona 1-0. Then he had a brace and also delivered an assist in a 5-2 win over Benevento last weekend.

All this after not being involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma.

“He plays far more for the team than himself,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said of Under. “His greatest strength is being able to prepare his shot with great speed, making him difficult to close down.”

Added Perotti, “He’s very humble and he doesn’t speak Italian yet but he’s well behaved and is a great kid. He deserves all of this.”

On Wednesday, Roma visits Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.

“We’ve got to make the most of the fact they’ve had a winter break and might not be match fit,” Di Francesco said of the Ukrainian side. “They have a lot of quality in attack and are dangerous, but we shouldn’t change our attitude.”


Inter’s defense was in shambles against Genoa.

The hosts took the lead before the break when a failed clearance attempt from Milan Skriniar ricocheted off of a stunned Andrea Ranocchia, who was charged with an own goal.

Then former Inter striker Goran Pandev was left unmarked to score from the center of the area midway through the second half.

Inter hasn’t won at regional rival Genoa in more than seven years.

Chievo Verona took a big step toward avoiding relegation with a 2-1 win over visiting Cagliari.

Emanuele Giaccherini and Roberto Inglese scored late for the hosts before Leonardo Pavoletti pulled one back for Cagliari.

Chievo moved up to 14th, level on points with Cagliari, eight points above the drop zone.

La Liga: Barca’s 31-game unbeaten run ties longest in club history

AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Eibar 0-2 Barcelona

Barcelona, the last remaining unbeaten side from Europe’s five major domestic leagues, warmed up for Tuesday’s Champions League round-of-16 clash with Chelsea by dismantling seventh-place Eibar side away from home on Saturday and extending their unbeaten run to 31 games in the league, tying the club’s all-time record in the process.

The Blaugrana took the lead after 15 minutes, when Lionel Messi slotted an inch-perfect through ball for Luis Suarez who rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home (WATCH HERE) for his 17th league goal of the season (20 in all competitions).

Messi played his part in Barca’s second goal, which came three minutes before full-time. The Argentine’s shot was initially saved, but Jordi Alba arrived on the scene moments later to clean up and finish off the 10-man Basque minnows.

The victory sends Barca 10 points clear of second-place Atletico Madrid, who play on Sunday, and 20 points clear of fourth-place Real Madrid, who have played two fewer games thus far.

Malaga 1-2 Valencia

Valencia, who spent the majority of the season’s first half as Barca’s nearest title rivals (while never really challenging), fell to third when they recently lost three straight league games, but have since regained their footing with back-to-back wins, including Saturday’s come-from-behind triumph away to last-place Malaga.

Brown Ideye put Malaga ahead just before the half-hour mark, a lead which remained intact for more than 50 minutes. Alas, Francis Coquelin bagged his first goal for Valencia in the 80th minute to draw level, followed by a penalty kick converted by Dani Parejo five minutes later.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 1-2 Sevilla
Alaves 1-0 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Sociedad vs. Levante — 6 a.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao — 10:15 a.m. ET
Espanyol vs. Villarreal — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Real Madrid — 2:45 p.m. ET