Lots of love and links for Arsenal, Bayern Munich and today’s premier Champions League clash

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As Real Madrid and Manchester United became the big fire that sucked so much oxygen from the Champions League room last week, we may have given short shrift to another dandy Round-of-16 contest in the world’s best club competition.

Bayern Munich and Arsenal, similarly representing two of the better European brands, begin their home and away series today. (Kickoff is 2:45 p.m. on Fox Soccer Channel.)

Nothing will come easily today for the home team in north London, especially considering the wealth of attacking options open to Bayern München boss Jupp Heynckes and his Bundesliga leaders.

Bayern has been good lately (winning five of five in 2013) and outstanding on the road all season (winning 10 of 11 road matches this year in league play). Check out some of the other impressive numbers for Bayern this year.

Some European outlets are speculating Heynckes will leave Arjen Robben (pictured above) and Mario Gomez on the bench, deploying them as second-half game-changers if needed. Robben and Gomez on the bench!  Meanwhile, top Bundesliga striker Mario Mandžukić, who has seven goals in Bayern’s last five matches, will surely be around to give Arsenal’s back line everything it can handle.

The Germans are certainly mission-focused, still determined to make amends for last year’s blown opportunity; they advanced to the final but fell to Chelsea inside their own gleaming Bavarian arena.

In league play Heynckes’ club is sprinting away with the title, now 15 points clear of second-place Borussia Dortmund. And check out the stunning plus-50 goal difference! So many games have been lopsided affairs there is even worry in some corners that goalkeeper Manuel Neuer will need to shake some rust just to find tip-top form in this one. The big German ‘keeper hasn’t had much to do lately, posting five consecutive shutouts.

None of this means Arsenal doesn’t have a chance. Bayern’s do-all midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger reminded everyone of a certain English international who is having a wonderful campaign, bouncing back wonderfully from a big injury as Jack Wilshere has.

I don’t think one player makes the team but in his position he [Wilshere] is one of the best there is, he is a difficult player. … Wilshere is very dynamic, he has a very good left foot and he has a really good eye for the way he views the players around him. Those are his strong qualities.”

Finally, we mentioned something yesterday of the mounting pressure on Arsene Wenger; Champions League represents the proud club’s final chance at a title this year, and it’s difficult to fancy the Gunners chances with the likes of Bayern, Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid and others still hanging around.

Watch the clip in this link (or just read the text) for more evidence of the building heat. Wenger got quite snippy with some members of the local press yesterday.

Antonio Conte thanks Diego Costa after Chelsea departure

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These will likely be the final questions Antonio Conte faces about Diego Costa.

[ MORE: Liverpool’s Matip talks to JPW ]

On Thursday it was announced that Chelsea has sold their leading scorer in each of the past two seasons back to Atletico Madrid with a protracted fallout between Conte and Costa finally coming to a logical conclusion.

After Conte reportedly sent Costa a text message stating he was no longer needed at Chelsea, just days after they lifted the Premier League title together, the Brazilian born striker refused to return to preseason training and remained in Brazil with family as he demanded to be sold back to Atletic Madrid.

He was fined by the club but has finally got his wish with a $77 million move back to Atleti sealed for the 28-year-old who won two Premier League titles in three season at Chelsea but also brought controversy with him on many occasions as the bullish striker upset opponents and teammates alike.

Speaking at Stamford Bridge on Friday ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Stoke City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) Conte thanked Costa for his efforts.

“About this issue, we want to thank him for what he did with this club. We wish him all the best for the future,” Conte said.

Asked about the deterioration of his own relationship with Costa and if his team will miss the goals of the Spanish international, Conte was less open.

“Now it is not important, I am not interested to continue talking about this issue,” Conte said. “I am working with my players and am happy to work them them. We must work and fight to win every competition. We are Chelsea and we need to try to do this in this season. We have to try to do our best in every competition. Our target is to do our best every day, every week, every month in this season.”

Stating multiple times that he was “not interested in talking about the past” and that only the current and building for the future was important, Conte did thank Costa once again and said he will remember the success they achieved together last season.

“I do not forget we won together last season,” Conte said. “For sure we want to thank him for his effort last season with us but not only last season, the period he played for Chelsea.”

With this saga now over, Chelsea will turn to Alvaro Morata and Michy Batshuayi to score the goals they need to be successful on all four fronts this season.

After recovering well from a sluggish start to the season it appears Conte’s decision to oust Costa will, long-term, be the correct one. Even though Morata has taken a little time to settle and Batshuayi blows hot and cold, the Blues have goals everywhere you look with Eden Hazard, Pedro, Willian and others able to chip in.

There’s only one Diego Costa and Conte must be somewhat relieved to see the back of him.

West Ham, Chicharito raise funds for Mexico earthquake victims

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Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and West Ham United are doing all they can to help the victims of Tuesday’s devastating earthquake in Mexico which killed over 270 people.

Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer posted the following message on Instagram to help raise funds as he has set up the #YoXMexico initiative with fellow Mexican international Miguel Layun.

Hernandez, 29, detailed exactly why he wants to get involved in helping any way he can.

“Being so far from Mexico and seeing the suffering of our compatriots in the distance has been very painful,” Hernandez said. “So, after discussing it, we decided to take the initiative for Mexico and give our people a helping hand. We know that many see us as a source of inspiration, but in this case, what has inspired us is to see millions of Mexicans take to the streets and to lend a hand without asking for anything in return.

“We hope, with this initiative, to help those who need it and motivate more people to do it with us. Miguel and I are very grateful to have the backing of everyone at West Ham United and all of its supporters at this difficult time for our country.  It is a fantastic gesture and we hope it can help us raise funds that will make a difference in Mexico.”

The Hammers have announced they will hold a shirt auction for jerseys worn in their match against Tottenham on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with all of the proceeds going directly to the victims of the tragedy.

West Ham United will auction all match-worn shirts from this weekend’s London derby against Tottenham Hotspur, with all proceeds going to the victims’ families and survivors of this week’s devastating Mexican earthquake.

The Club will then double the figure raised by the auction, before donating the total amount to an appeal organised by Hammers striker Javier Hernandez and his fellow Mexico international Miguel Layun to aid the relief effort in Mexico City and the surrounding area.

To donate directly to #YoXMexico please visit youcaring.com/yoxmex or follow #YoXMexico on Twitter at @YoXMexico.

Top Storylines for Premier League Week 6

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After a week of League Cup action domestically, the Premier League returns this weekend with a myriad of interesting matchups and storylines.

Let’s take a look at some of this week’s top story’s to follow:


Can Manchester City continue its torrid form?

Manchester City has finally found its groove under manager Pep Guardiola.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The club has won five successive games, the last three coming on the road while scoring a combined 19 goals. Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are a terrific 1-2 punch while David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have been stars in midfield, with De Bruyne pulling the strings for Man City all season.

There’s every likelihood that Man City will continue its impressive run on Saturday. The club hosts floundering Crystal Palace, which is still adjusting to new manager Roy Hodgson.

(more…)

On This Day: The Battle of Old Trafford

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Fourteen years ago today, Arsenal headed north to Manchester for a famous matchup with Manchester United.

Taking the field at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unbeaten to start the season, having won its first four Premier League matches before drawing a week prior at home against Portsmouth. Manchester United meanwhile had four wins and one loss in that span.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

By way of Arsenal’s FA Cup title and Man United’s Premier League title the year before, the two teams met for the annual Community Shield a month earlier, and the game descended into a physical battle. Five yellow cards were shown, Arsenal substitute Francis Jeffers was shown a red card and defender Sol Campbell was later banned for kicking at an opponent, and Man United – backed by a young Tim Howard in goal – won 4-3 on penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after extra time.

With numerous physical encounters over the years, the September 21 encounter was shaping up to be another monumental showdown, and in terms of physicality, it didn’t disappoint.

Each team were shown four yellow cards and there was a combined 31 fouls. The match took a turn when Patrick Vieira was shown a second yellow card and subsequent red card for kicking out at Man United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy after Van Nistelrooy had fouled Vieira going for a header. The decision set off a scrum in the middle of the field.

Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal held on until the final minutes, when Martin Keown was whistled for a foul in the box on Diego Forlan, giving Man United a penalty kick. But whether it was karma or lady luck, Van Nistelrooy’s penalty clanged off the crossbar and away to safety. Arsenal held on for a goalless draw, which helped boost the team’s belief in itself.

The Gunners went on to finish the 2013-2014 season undefeated, the only team to finish a Premier League season without a defeat. Man United wound up taking the FA Cup crown, settling for third place in the Premier League.

Watch some highlights from the match below.