Down and out? Arsenal's luckless first leg vs. Bayern has Wenger's men on the brink of elimination.

Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: Bayern Munich 3, at Arsenal 1

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At halftime, Arsenal had 51 percent of the possession, hardly indicative of a team that had been dominated. Yet thanks to a huge disparity in execution on the final third, Bayern Munich took a 2-0 lead into halftime, a scoreline that carried the Germans through the final whistle.

Though Arsenal were able to pull one back after Lukas Podolski headed home a second half corner, the Gunners still face the daunting task in the tie’s return leg, especially after allowing Bayern Munich to restore their two-goal lead late. Having dropped their home leg 3-1, Arsenal must now find a way to score at least three on the road against a club that’s allowed only seven in league this season.

That their defensive prowess abandoned Bayern for a brief moment in the second half now seems like a footnote, but it did give Arsenal brief reason to hope. After conceding a corner along their left, FCB allowed Arsenal’s 55th minute cross to drop in the middle of their area, near the six-yard box. Germany No. 1 Manuel Neuer, committing an ironically characteristic error, failed to catch a ball that bounced for former Bayern attacker Lukas Podolski, who had gotten ball-side of Bastian Schweinsteiger for an easy goal.

It was Arsenal’s first shot of the match, a testament to that first half disparity. Despite superficially even play, Bayern still reached halftime without allowing Neuer to be tested. Conversely, their ability to execute the isolated chances they generated led to a comfortable halftime lead.

The first goal came early, an errant fifth minute cross from right ring Thomas Müller finding attacking midfielder Toni Kross just inside Arsenal’s penalty area. The German international one-timed a shot into the right of Wojciech Szczesny’s net, giving the Gunners’ goalkeeper no chance to prevent the opening goal.

Mid-way through the half, Kross hit a perfect in-swinging corner near post where defender Daniel van Buyten, having cut across Aaron Ramsey, headed onto Szczesny. The Arsenal No. 1 did well to push the shot off the line, but with Müller alone in the box to play the rebound, the Gunners found themselves two goals down after 21 minutes.

They were Bayern’s only shots of the half – Kroos’s goal, van Buyten’s header, and Müller’s putback – but they highlighted the difference between the two sides. Given as much of the ball as their opponents, the Bundesliga leaders created to clean goals. With the same amount of possession, Arsenal couldn’t challenge Manuel Neuer.

“You have to give them credit for their class,” Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger said after the match. “In the first half in patches there was a difference in quality.”

In the 73rd minute, after Arsenal’s ascendancy had forced Jupp Heynckes to sacrifice Kroos for the more defensive Luiz Gustavo, a direct ball that Mario Mandzukic chested down for Arjen Robben gave Bayern a chance to put Phillip Lahm behind the defense. The right back’s ball through the six-yard box met Mandzukic as he beat Bacary Sagna, allowing the Croat to put home München’s third goal.

It was another example of the match’s defining theme: Bayern’s superior execution. It wasn’t that the Bavarians dominated the game; rather, they converted the chances they created. Arsenal not only failed to create enough opportunities, they didn’t execute as well on the ones they did. The prime example: Substitute Olivier Giroud’s chance to equalize in the 72nd minute off a cross from Theo Walcott was drilled right at Neuer, failing to convert on Arsenal’s best chance to get back in the tie.

That execution gap (and the talent that enables it) is why Arsenal is the middle of a minor identity crisis, and despite a strong second half showing that mitigated their poor start, the night at the Emirates provided further evidence of a team that has slipped from their place among Europe’s elite.

Meanwhile, Bayern has affirmed their status as one of the two favorites to claim this year’s Champions League.

(MORE: The day’s other day, Porto holding serve against Málaga)

Man of the Match: Getting two early goals on the road, Bayern settled into an approach that inhibited standout individual performances, though Toni Kroos’s contributions to the game’s first two goals are still worth of recognition. A perfect hit on Müller’s fifth minute cross left Szczesny flat-footed as the opener sailed into his nett, while a great corner that swung in and dove at the near post allowed van Buyten to take advantage of the space in front of Arsenal’s first defender.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

source: ReutersBayern’s midfield was too much for Arsenal’s – The talent and flexibility of Kroos, Schweinsteiger, and Javi Martínez were on display on Tuesday, the trio able to control that determinative period of the first half. Though Arsenal had a good amount of the ball, the positioning of Schweinsteiger and Martinez at the base of midfield allowed Bayern to stay organized and prevent Arsenal from mounting a significant threat. Going forward, the duo (Martínez in particular) were able to take advantage of Arsenal’s trio of Jack Wilshire, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, moving into available space as well as helping to pressure the sitters into hasty clearances.

That they were able to get that high and provide that help was a major difference between the two sides. Bayern’s play and the quality of their midfielders allowed their two deep midfielder to push forward, the 15-20 yards of space they sometimes kept between themselves and their central defenders standing in stark contrast to Arsenal’s holders. While Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey were often 8-10 yards away from their defensive line, Bayern was content to let van Buyten and Dante deal with Arsenal’s attack.

The positioning was a metaphor for the difference between the two sides, and that was just their deployment. In terms of actual play, if you were to rank the games six starting midfielders based on their Tuesday performance, Bayern’s three would be at the top of the list while Arsenal’s ranked fourth through sixth. The Gunners’ trio were never able to have an impact on the match.

Is it worth it? Moving Cazorla wide to make room for Ramsey? – It’s difficult to say how much this mattered. Cazorla playing in the middle wouldn’t have prevented either of the first two goals.

Ultimately, that’s what dictated how this match played out; however, with Arsène Wenger electing to put Cazorla wide right in the defensive phase and leave Jack Wilshire as the through-the-middle outlet, Arsenal moved their best player farther away from the action. Although he came into the middle in the attacking phase (and Wilshire was active enough in his role trying to connect out of the back), you can’t help but wonder if Arsenal would have been a little more potent with their first half possession had Cazorla been the man receiving the ball out of the final third.

It’s not unheard of for Arsenal to play like this. When Aaron Ramsey is in the team (which he was on Tuesday), Wenger adjusts by pushing Wilshire forward and Cazorla wide. But that choice comes with costs. Today, Ramsey played a part in both first half goals (see below), Arsenal didn’t have Wilshire’s quickness and distribution deeper in their formation, and Cazorla was pushed away from the action. It’s hard to see how those costs were offset by getting Ramsey into the team.

Bayern is otherworldly right now – Even with Arsenal’s dip in quality and Bayern’s second half slip, consider the result: Bayern takes a 3-1 lead out of the Emirates.

That’s huge. For comparison’s sake, look at what Barcelona’s taken from the Emirates in recent years. In 2010-11, Barcelona was trailing after their first leg in London, eventually turning around a 2-1 deficit to advance 4-3. The year before, Barcelona was drawn 2-2 at the Emirates before routing Arsenal at the Nou Camp, 4-1.

Even for the half hour the game sat 2-1, Bayern never looked as vulnerable as Barcelona did in those games. That history left a voice in your head saying “Arsenal could do this again,” but ultimately, Bayern showed that may be on another level. Tonight’s game just wasn’t that close.

“We are currently in astonishing form,” Heynckes said after the match, “our quality is that we can punish the smallest mistakes of our opponents.”

Packaged for takeaway

  • Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up an 39th minute yellow card and will miss the second leg in Munich. Look for Luiz Gustavo to take his place along side Javi Martínez. Given the score, don’t look for it to matter that much.
  • Other Bayern yellow cards: Phillip Lahm and Thomas Müller. Losing either of them would be a significant blow.
  • Nacho Monreal, cup-tied thanks to his time with Málaga, was ineligible for tonight’s game. As a result, Thomas Vermaelen slid out to left back, with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker getting the call in central defense. The Belgian international did a good job on Müller.
  • Aaron Ramsey failed to get to the cross that led to the first goal. It was a difficult play, one that would have required him to react immediately to Müller’s ball, but it’s one other players would have made. The same could be said on the 21st minute corner, when van Buyten ran into Ramsey’s zone to flick the ball on goal. It wasn’t a good night for the 22-year-old Welsh international, and approaching five years since he arrive in London from Cardiff City, you wonder if he’s ever going to live up to the speculation that surrounded him as a 17-year-old.

Bob Bradley will remain in charge, says Swansea chairman

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With reports circulating in the British press that American coach Bob Bradley could be fired after just seven games in charge of Swansea City, their chairman has publicly backed the former U.S. national team head coach.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Bradley, 58, has just one win in his opening seven games in charge of the Swans who currently sit bottom of the Premier League table on nine points, three points off safety.

That poor form, coupled with many other issues at the club, has reportedly prompted new American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien (they took over as majority owners in July) to conduct an extensive review of every department at the club.

However, chairman Huw Jenkins has moved to quell rumors about Bradley becoming the second Swansea manager to be fired through the opening 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know where that story came from, but it’s natural in football that everyone wants and needs results. But the last thing we need at this moment of time is a continual change in manager. We need stability first and foremost,” Jenkins told talkSPORT. “Take a team like Fulham, they changed managers three times in the season they tried to stave off relegation and we’re in a similar position now.”

“Perhaps in the summer I could have made a better decision – from pre-season onwards I don’t think things were right, it was too flat at the club. That had a knock-on effect and obviously it’s taken us a while to work through it. But we’re with Bob now to try and turn that corner – that’s what we’re working towards. We look at the January window as a chance to reinforce things. There are players not hitting the form levels they have done in the past and we have to find out why that is and get that right as well.”

So, it seems that sense is prevailing after all.

Jenkins took the blame for Swansea’s poor start to the season in media interviews on Wednesday and now the long-time chairman is backing his manager.

The south Wales businessman was part of a consortium which saved Swansea in 2004 and then led them on an incredible journey up from the fourth-tier to the Premier League, plus winning the League Cup and getting to the group stages of the Europa League. He and other directors have come in for some serious stick from Swansea’s fans for selling their stake to the new American owners and Jenkins is believed to have made just over $10 million from selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club.

On the pitch, it’s difficult to blame Bradley for the current situation Swansea finds itself in.

After some woeful moves in the transfer window last summer (Jenkins has admitted they weren’t great with Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew allowed to leave for big profits but their replacements just haven’t been good enough) the American coach needs at least one transfer window to bring in better players and the Swans are only three points off safety with a pivotal stretch of six games to come in the Premier League.

Home games against Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth, plus trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace will see the Swans go up against direct relegation rivals between now and Jan. 3.

The next four weeks will be huge not only for Swansea’s future but also for Bradley and ahead of their crunch home game against Sunderland on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the American coach is eager to cut out defensive mistakes as the Swans have now conceded 19 goals in his seven games in charge.

“When you are a manager it (the pressure) goes with the territory,” Bradley said. “It is work as usual, knowing from the beginning when I got here that it would be a big challenge, and it is. When you see a scoreline like that it is easy to jump on us. We are not going to survive if we keep on conceding goals like this.”

Man United’s Europa League clash in doubt over frozen pitch

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho may not play their UEFA Europa League game against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez leaving Arsenal? ]

Amid freezing conditions in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Zorya cannot play their games at home due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine) the pitch underwent an inspection on Thursday and with covers and heaters on the playing surface overnight, there is hope the game should go ahead.

However, Jose Mourinho has already talked about the state of the pitch as not being ideal, while the likes of Daley Blind and Paul Pogba looked far from impressed when they went out for a training session on Wednesday in freezing conditions.

Remember, United only needs a point from the game against Zorya to qualify for the Europa League Round of 32 and Mourinho has selected a strong 19-man squad for the trip. 

A statement from Zorya said the following on Thursday morning, as they remain hopeful of the game going ahead.

“Everything depends on the weather. The pitch is not brilliant at the moment. We are expecting temperatures of two or three degrees and everything should be okay.”

Below was the scene in Odessa yesterday for United’s training session, via Simon Peach of the Press Association.


Yep, the pitch doesn’t look great.

Barcelona invites Chapecoense to play friendly

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 22: Supporters of Chapecoense cheer their team during the match between Chapecoense and Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Series A 2014 at Arena Conda on October 22, 2014 in Chapeco, Brazil. (Photo by Alan Pedro/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has extended an invitation to host a friendly match against the Brazilian soccer club involved in last week’s plane crash.

Chapecoense was on its way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, one of South America’s most prestigious club tournaments, when its flight went down in Colombia, killing all but six of the 77 players, officials and journalists on board.

The match would be played in August. The friendly, called the Joan Gamper trophy, is used as Barcelona’s traditional curtain raiser for the new season.

Barcelona says it sent a formal invitation to Chapecoense on Thursday.

Barcelona says it wants to “pay homage to the 71 people who died in the accident as well as their families.”

Wenger discusses future of Sanchez, Ozil at Arsenal

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With just 18 months left on their current contracts, the futures of both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal is becoming a daily topic.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

This week alone Sanchez has been linked with a move to China on Wednesday, plus Real Madrid and Chelsea on Thursday, while another report from the Telegraph suggest the Gunners are willing to listen to offers for 28-year-old Ozil who isn’t willing to back down on his hopes of getting a $487,000 week contract at Arsenal where he is currently the top earner on $180,000.

To try and clear up any of the speculation Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger, who only has a contract at the Emirates until the end of the current season, has been speaking to the media about the reports.

Asked if Arsenal was willing to break their transfer structure, he said they’ll “do the maximum of what we can for every single player” to remain at the club.

He then reinforced the notion that Sanchez and Ozil would remain at Arsenal for at least 18 months, and hopefully much longer.

“Eighteen months is quite long in football. They have 18 months on their contracts and are completely committed to do well as long as they are here,” Wenger said. “Beyond that we will try to extend their contracts but I can’t make that a subject of every press conference as that is normal. These players have 18 months, they will be staying 18 months and hopefully much longer. I don’t believe that it is a problem.”

“A contract is between two parties and on my side the best position is to achieve it early. You have to accept that negotiations are private and secret and we don’t have to explain what we do with negotiations.”

Asked about the astronomical sums of cash reportedly being offered to Sanchez to go and play in the Chinese Super League — reports state the Chilean star has offers of $505,000 per week on the table — Wenger believed it was true but questioned why either would leave England.

“Why should you go to China when you are playing in England? We live in a world where the great players like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil earn a lot of money and have the privilege to choose where they want to play,” Wenger said. “The commitment of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil is absolute total and I’m very pleased with that. We are professionals and the first quality is to give 100 percent, it is here and now, that is what it means to be professional and to be fully committed to the cause.”

So, Wenger is confident the superstar duo will stay. Should he be?

With Paul Pogba earning over $368,000 as the current top earner in the Premier League, it’s easy to see why Ozil and Sanchez believe they’re worth more than Pogba is currently earning at Manchester United.

Sanchez, 27, has been ripping it up this season, scoring 11 times in 14 PL outings and Ozil has already matched his goal tally from last season with eight strikes in all competitions.

Arsenal’s wage structure is said to be set at $250,000 per week, with an insistence on no player earning more than Wenger does.

Unless they change that stance it’s difficult to see how Sanchez and Ozil will remain at the Emirates Stadium with so many suitors from across the Premier League, Europe and worldwide willing to double, or even treble, their current wages.

Of course the Premier League is the most-watched in the world and there are many advantages to playing in it for Sanchez, Ozil and other superstars but money talks. If these huge offers from the Chinese Super League are true, why wouldn’t players move there to cash in on their relatively short playing careers?