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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?

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
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When it comes down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clear.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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Three things we learned from Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph

Seattle Sounders players chase defender Roman Torres (29) after he scored the game-winning shootout goal to defeat the Toronto FC during shoot out MLS Cup soccer final action in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP)
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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MLS Cup 2016 was the most well-played game of soccer all year — far from it, in fact — but the Seattle Sounders are MLS champions for the first time in their eight-year history anyway.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS Cup coverage ]

Three thoughts on a poorly-played, but thoroughly intense 2016 finale…

A cup final, it most certainly was

The numbers of cup finals which feature brilliant, composed attacking play is hugely outweighed by the number of cup finals featuring a total lack thereof. Whether it was down to nerves, the frigid conditions in which the game was played, or a combination of the two, Saturday’s final at BMO Field was yet another example of the latter.

The telling stats: 40 fouls between the two sides (just three yellow cards shown); zero first-half shots attempted by the Sounders, and just three shots in total over 120 minutes (zero on target).

The only moment of true quality came in the 108th minute, when Stefan Frei made the best save you’ve seen all year to deny Jozy Altidore and keep the Sounders on level terms (WATCH HERE).

Michael Bradley, man of the match (until his PK)

As we’ve come to expect, Bradley was anywhere and everywhere on the field for TFC, at all the right times. With Osvaldo Alonso playing the part of warrior in the Sounders midfield, and Jonathan Osorio’s attacking prowess preferred to the defensive chops of Will Johnson alonside Bradley, it was up to the U.S. national team captain to singlehandedly track and mark Nicolas Lodeiro out of the game. He did just that, and so much more.

Then, came his penalty kick, TFC’s second, which was hit with so little pace and no more than three feet to Frei’s left for the easiest save he’d make all night.

The greatest comeback in MLS history

You’ve heard it all by now, but it doesn’t make what the Sounders did from August to December any less remarkable — from ninth place on the day Sigi Schmid was fired (two days before Lodeiro arrived), to the MLS summit in four and a half months. Clint Dempsey, the Sounders’ highest-paid player, was then lost for the rest of the season a month later (irregular heartbeat). No team in MLS history had ever overcome a points gap that large (10) that late in the season to even qualify for the playoffs, let alone advance in said playoffs, reach MLS Cup, and lift the trophy.

Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native and member of the Sounders family since his own playing days beginning in 1980, replaced Schmid with (presumably) the idea that he’d see out the lost season as interim head coach before making way for a big-name hire this winter. He won eight of his first 14 games as a head coach instead, led the Sounders to the four-seed in the Western Conference, and delivered to his hometown the ultimate prize on Saturday.

Watching the Portland Timbers lift MLS Cup 2015 was undoubtedly the toughest pill to swallow for anyone in Rave Green, but to end their Cascaida Cup rivals’ reign as defending champions by winning that very piece of silverware themselves … that’s a one-up that’ll last a lifetime.