Borussia Dortmund's Lewandowski celebrates a goal against Augsburg during the German first division Bundesliga soccer match in Dortmund

Champions League preview: The exaggerated gap between Borussia Dortmund, Málaga

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This tie is still way too close, especially if you overlook last week’s result to dwell on what’s going on around it. Both Borussia Dortmund and Málaga made big chances this weekend, but still BVB rolled through Augsburg, 4-2. Málaga, despite playing a defender and midfielder set to start on Tuesday, gave up four goals at Real Sociedad, losing 4-1. Combined with the growing feeling that Manuel Pellegrini’s team were lucky to preserve last Wednesday’s 0-0 and you’re apt to forget how close Málaga is to springing this upset.

“The first leg was not a bad result for us,” Málaga defender Martín Demichelis was compelled to affirm on Monday. “[A]ny who believe Dortmund are as good as through are mistaken.”

There’s little doubt Borussia Dortmund are the better team, but the gap between the two sides isn’t that big. All it takes is any of number of one-goal scenarios to come good and Dortmund could be out: A Neven Subotic error; a Mats Hummels gaff; one unmarked man on a corner; a bad foul in the final third; or a single offside call where the flag doesn’t come up. Combine those possibilities, the away goals rule, as well as a team whose Champions League inexperience could belie their talent and you wonder why one narrative’s being buried below another.

There’s a reason Pellegrini was content with last week’s result. The away goals rule plays a big part, with Borussia Dortmund forced to score twice at the Westfalenstadion if they concede. A bigger reason, though, is the approach Pellegrini’s instilled, one that allows his teams to take advantage of small openings while relying on a backbone that can withstand long periods of time where the team’s not in control.

“It will be important to show the qualities which have made us so strong in the past: intensity, aggression, intelligence,” Demichelis said, offering some adjectives to characterize Pellegrini’s approach. “If we can bring all those qualities to life, we can be on a par with BVB.”

Those qualities were on display last week, albeit in limited quantities. Yes, Dortmund were better, and on some days, they convert some of those first half chances. But thanks to Willy Caballero, they didn’t. As the game wore on, Málaga were able to stabilize. By full time, they had their own small set of would have-could have scenarios.

Málaga doesn’t need to outplay Dortmund on Tuesday. They just need to have as many goals as their hosts. A score draw (or better) will get a second Pellegrini debutant to the semifinals. It doesn’t matter if they get there on technical or artistic merit.

If Málaga can outlast Dortmund’s initial surge and get to halftime scoreless, they can start playing for those one-goal scenarios that will vault them into the final four. It’s BVB’s job to take those scenarios out of play as soon as possible.

Notes

  • Topping the list of reasons all this Málaga talk could go for naught: Robert Lewandowski. On Sunday the Bundesliga’s goals leader came off the bench to score in his 10th straight league game. He’s now up to 21 goals this season and has 51 league tallies since moving from Lech Poznan three years ago.
  • Another reason to doubt Málaga: Suspensions. Weligton’s out. Manuel Iturra is also out. Diego Lugano’s going to come into the defense, while Ignacio Camacho will start along side Jeremy Toulalan in midfield.
  • Dortmund, on the other hand, are returning to full strength. Hummels and Jakob Blaszczykowski are expected to play after missing leg one in Málaga. Roman Wiedenfeller and Marco Reus, both held out against Augsburg, should also start.
  • Should Hummels and Blaszczykowski not make the starting XI, Felipe Santana and Kevin Großkreutz will keep their spots.
  • Manuel Pellegrini was not with the team on Monday, the Málaga boss having flown back to Chile after the death of his father. He is expected to arrive in time to oversee Tuesday’s match.

Possible lineups

Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weidenfeller; Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Piszczek; Ilkay Gundogan, Sebastian Kehl; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakob Blaszczykowski; Robert Lewandowski.

Málaga (4-4-2): Willy Caballero; Antunes, Diego Lugano, Martín Demichelis, Jesús Gámez; Isco, Ignacio Camacho, Jeremy Toulálán, Joaquin; Júlio Baptista, Javier Saviola.

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.

LIVE – West Ham vs. Liverpool in FA Cup 4th round replay

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 30:  Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool is watched by Dimitri Payet of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round match between Liverpool and West Ham United at Anfield on January 30, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Two Premier League teams clash in the FA Cup on Tuesday with a place in the last 16 on the line.

West Ham United welcome Liverpool to Upton Park (Follow live, 2:45 p.m. ET) following the 0-0 draw between the teams at Anfield 10 days ago.

[ LIVE: Follow West Ham-Liverpool here

Slaven Bilic‘s side will fancy their chances of getting past an injury-hit Liverpool squad and creating another famous FA Cup memory in their final season at the Boleyn Ground. With Dimitri Payet in contract negotiations about extending his stay at the Hammers, can the French playmaker lead them to a big win?

After missing Liverpool’s late collapse on Saturday during the 2-2 draw with Sunderland due to a bout of suspected appendicitis, manager Jurgen Klopp will return to the dugout. The German coach has already guided the Reds to one Wembley final during his debut season in charge as they face Manchester City in the League Cup final in less than three weeks time.

The winner of this clash will travel to second-tier Blackburn Rovers and they’ll be heavy favorites to reach the FA Cup quarterfinals.

Click on the link above to follow the game live, plus we will have a recap, reaction and analysis following the encounter in east London.

State of the USMNT: What is Klinsmann’s best XI for World Cup qualifiers?

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With the U.S. men’s national team ending their January camp with two narrow friendly wins over Iceland and Canada, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff will now be sitting back and thinking: “What did we learn? Who impressed? Who struggled?”

Or something like that.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

Each year the January camp provides domestic based players — mostly from Major League Soccer but a sprinkling of other guys too — with the chance to impress Klinsmann and his staff in close quarters for multiple weeks in California. Many current U.S. regulars earned their stripes in January’s gone by and have established themselves ever since.

This January was no different as the experienced core of players — Michael Bradley, Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore among them — showed their class and several promising players worked hard to get minutes in the friendlies.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

However, despite some glimmers of hope from youngsters such as Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter, what we learned about the USMNT heading into the two CONCACAF 2018 World Cup qualifiers in March is that the established players remain the best hope for success. Sure, the likes of John Brooks is impressing in the Bundesliga, Matt Miazga sealed a move to Chelsea and Lee Nguyen took his chance in January camp, but the old guard should remain in place through this next batch of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala home and away on Mar. 25 and 29 and the Copa America Centenario this summer.

Question marks remain regarding some veterans, which could keep the situation a little more fluid than it should be.

One of those is Tim Howard with speculation of him moving away from Everton mounting plus a straight-up battle between Howard and Brad Guzan for the starting spot, while Clint Dempsey‘s status with the national team still seems to be somewhat clouded. Overall, though, the settled core of players who played together at the World Cup — plus or minus a few who have performed consistently over the last 18 months — should be kept together by Klinsmann. During last summer’s Gold Cup disappointment there was plenty of experimenting, especially in defense, but now is the time to settle things down and realize the following guys are the players you should count on going forward.

Below is my selection — feel free to select your own in the comments section — for the best XI available to Klinsmann, plus seven subs, assuming everyone is fit and available.

USMNT’s Best XI as of Feb. 9, 2016

—– Howard —–

— F. Johnson — Cameron — Besler — Ream —

—- Bradley —- Williams —-

—- Bedoya —- Dempsey —- Zardes —-

—– Altidore —–

Subs: Guzan, Brooks, Jones, Yedlin, Nagbe, Morris, Johannsson

Ahead of huge title clash, influential Leicester scout transfers to Arsenal

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Ben Wrigglesworth might not be a man you’ve heard a lot about, but he has been influential in helping Leicester City’s unlikely charge to the top of the Premier League.

Now, he’s been poached by Leicester’s main title rivals: Arsenal.

[ MORE: Spurs, Arsenal to battle for title?

Ahead of the monster clash between the Foxes and Gunners at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the man who unearthed the likes of Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante has transferred to Arsenal and is now their First Team Video Scout.

Wrigglesworth, Leicester’s former Head of Technical Scouting, announced he would be leaving the Foxes via his Twitter page (see below) and he has now accepted a new role as part of Steve Rowley’s team at Arsenal.

It is believed he will not only help with the scouting of players but will also analyze Arsenal’s first team and the opposition.

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Arsenal will unveil a new player performance center at their training HQ this summer and have recently purchased a soccer data company based in America, statDNA, to help them with scouting and player analysis.

With several Premier League teams now having huge player databases monitored by a team of talented individuals — often, like Wrigglesworth, with no pro playing experience — scouring the globe for the next bargain, the Moneyball vibe is strong.