Champions League Preview: Málaga’s one advantage over Borussia Dortmund

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Manuel Pellegrini has been here before: Seven years ago, when the current Málaga boss was leading another tournament debutant to a surprise Champions League run. Back in 2006 the debutant was Villarreal, with the Yellow Submarine tasked with derailing a characteristically talented Internazionale in the quarterfinal round. Turning around a 2-1 first leg loss at the San Siro, Villarreal used Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s looping 56th minute free kick and a clean sheet upset the Nerazzurri, launching the upstart Valencians into an improbable Champions League semifinal.

Squint until you can’t see the details, and Pellegrini’s current team looks awfully similar. This is Málaga’s club first appearance in Champions League, and like that Villarreal team, a star playmaker is at the center of its success: Juan Roman Riquelme back then; 20-year-old Isco now. With the likes of Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal and Solamon Rondón having departed over the last year, Málaga’s resembles the solid but superstar-light club team that eventually lost to Arsenal. And just as this Málaga team has Isco heading the underrated contributions of Willy Caballero, Jeremy Toulálán, and Weligton, Villarreal had only Riquelme and Diego Forlán to claim as star attractions.

But whether he’s had them or not, Pellegrini’s never needed those star attractions to have success. At Villarreal, Real Madrid, Málaga or his various stops in South America before jumping to Europe, Pellegrini’s teams have always been built on the same principles. Strong in possession but conservative with their chances, the Chilean’s teams have typically waited for opportunities present themselves. When they do, his sides act directly and with confidence. In that way, most of Pellegrini’s tactics are worked out on the training ground, his methods eschewing constant tweaks and adjustments in favor of a consistency that’s regularly produced competitive sides.

(MORE, from Tuesday: PSG-Barça inconclusive | Bayern illustrates the gap to Juventus.)

It’s why Pellegrini has won titles in three different leagues with four different clubs. It’s why his teams have always competed near the top of La Liga, even when his Villarreal and Málaga teams have been outgunned by their competition. It’s why former Chile international produced a then-club record 96-point season during his only campaign with Real Madrid.

It’s also why people may be taking his current team for granted in their quarterfinal with Borussia Dortmund, a tie that kicks of Wednesday in Spain. And given the three-year buildup that’s gone into this Dortmund team, it’s understandable. BVB has one of the most talented teams in Europe, and after two straight titles in Germany, there is a sense that the team’s Champions League time is now. Unless their opponent has the name value of Real, Barcelona, or Bayern, Dortmund is going to be favored to go through.

But that’s where Pellegrini’s experience matters, the Málaga coach having previous defied the odds. In 2006, his Yellow Submarine went up against a team with Adriano, Luis Figo, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Zanetti, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, and Julio Cruz. And he managed to move past them.

source: Getty ImagesSo Dortmund have Robert Lewandowski (right), who has scored 12 goals in his last 12 appearances. They have Mario Gotze and Marco Reus behind him, Ilkay Gundogan in midfield, with Neven Subotic and Lukasz Piszczek in defense. At almost every position, they have players who would best their Málaga counterparts.

But none of that guarantees Dortmund will go through. Between two teams with little Champions League experience in their squads, Málaga has one thing that BVB lacks: Someone who has been here before.

(MORE, Highlights: PSG-Barcelona | Bayern-Juventus.)

Notes

  • Borussia Dortmund will be without Mats Hummels, the central defender having yet to recover from his ankle injury. Felipe Santana will start along side Subotic.
  • Jakub Blaszczykowski could already return, the winger having been held out of Saturday’s game at Stuttgart after picking up an injury while with Poland.
  • Marcel Schmelzer and Sebastian Kehl should also be available despite knocks. Each with in the team on Saturday.
  • After Juventus lost on Tuesday, Dortmund are the only team without a loss in the year’s Champions League. Málaga have only lost once: Last round at Porto.
  • On Saturday, Pellegrini started Julio Baptista alone up top at Rayo Vallecano, hinting Roque Santa Cruz could get the call on Wednesday.
  • With only 28 goals allowed, Málaga have the second-best defensive record in Spain. In five matches at home in this year’s Champions League, Pellegrini’s side has kept four clean sheets.

(MORE: Gala looks for breakthrough at Real Madrid.)

Possible lineups

Málaga (4-4-2): Willy Caballero; Antunes, Weligton, Martín Demichelis, Jesús Gamez; Isco, Iturra, Jeremey Toulálán; Javier Saviola, Roque Santa Cruz.

Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weidenfeller; Marcel Schmelzer, Felipe Santan, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Piszczek; Ilkay Gudongan, Sebastian Kehl; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakub Blaszczykowski; Robert Lewandowski.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.