Europa League Preview: FC Basel v. Chelsea

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When Chelsea head to St. Jakob’s Park to take on FC Basel in the first-leg of the UEFA Europa League semi-finals on Thursday, it will mark the first competitive encounter between the two clubs.

How They Got There

Basel made it to the semi-final stage after eliminating Tottenham 4-1 on penalties after a second leg 2-2 draw left the teams locked 4-4 on aggregate. The feat took the Swiss side’s record against English clubs to three wins, seven draws and eight loses, with all three victories coming on home soil. And it’s no secret that home fixtures are where the RotBlau thrive. Since the start of the group stage Basel have gone unbeaten in their last six Europa League contests at St. Jakob’s Park.

Chelsea qualified for the last four with a 5-4 aggregate win over Rubin Kazan. The Blues only previous encounter with Swiss opponents was a loss at the hands of FC St. Gallen in the first round of the 2000-01 UEFA Cup. After Chelsea managed a 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge, the Blues couldn’t handle the rigors of Zurich’s Hardturm Stadium and lost 2-0. This season, the road has been equally unkind to Rafa Benitez’ men who have lost four of their past five European away games.

What’s On The Line

Having entered the competition in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League, Basel has played more European matches this season (18) than any other remaining club. With a win on Thursday, Murat Yakin’s side, who have won three straight domestic titles, will become the first Swiss club to reach a European final.

Along with Benfica, Chelsea are the only side left in the Europa League that entered the competition after crashing out of the Champions League group stage. A win on Thursday will be a key step in Chelsea’s bid to become the first side to win the Champions League and Europa League in reverse order in consecutive seasons.

Key Matchups

The first matchup likely to have an affect on the outcome is between Chelsea striker Fernando Torres and Basel center-back Alexander Dragovic.

Torres, along with Basel’s Marco Streller and Benfica’s Óscar Cardozo, leads the competition in goals scored with four apiece. The Chelsea hitman has scored three goals in his last two Europa League competitions, the second being a dominant brace emblematic of the Spaniard’s new found confidence. Since donning the black face protector – which Torres claims is very uncomfortable – the striker has looked lighter on his feet, been more decisive in his decision making and shown an aerial dominance for which he is not typically known.

It’s a combination that Dragovic will be tasked to contain. The 6′ 1″ center-back is well known for his powerful style, which should make for a good physical battle with Torres. The Spaniard is never afraid to get his socks dirty but will likely be more inclined to use his pace to get around Dragovic, rather than blasting through him. While physically imposing, Dragovic is hardly a brute as he possesses a slick range of passes that has attracted the likes of various Premier League clubs including Arsenal. The Austrian previously displayed his talents to Manchester United in last season’s Champions League where his Basel side defeated the Red Devils, preventing them from advancing out of the group stage.

The second matchup set to decide matters will feature Basel’s Mohamed Salah (pictured) and Chelsea’s Ashley Cole.

Salah is a right winger with blazing speed, cat-like balance and a slick touch. So far this term the Egyptian international has run Zenit and Tottenham ragged and also managed to score the crucial 27th minute leveler in the 2-2 draw with Spurs that sent Basel through to the semi-finals. The goal was an important feat for Salah who has been criticized for not being clinical enough in front of goal. But with more assists than any player in the competition (four), Salah possesses a wide array of weapons with which to terrorize opponents.

Cole will be the target of Salah’s trickery. The Chelsea full-back is expected to start after recovering from injury and he’ll be hoping for a clean bill of health if he is to put the clamps on the Basel winger. Whereas William Gallas and Benoît Assou-Ekotto were unable to cope with Salah, Cole is faster and smarter than both Spurs defenders. Further, Cole is a creator who is capable of getting forward and providing opportunities for his teammates. Salah, not known for his desire to get back on defense, could be in for a stamina battle if Cole decides to push hard up the flank.

FOLLOW LIVE: Chelsea kicks off Champions League day

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There’s a Premier League side in action to kick off another day of UEFA Champions League action.

Chelsea is in Baku for a Noon ET match-up with Azerbaijan side Qarabag. A win boosts the Blues into the knockout rounds. CSKA Moscow and Benfica kickoff in Russia at the same time.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Here’s Antonio Conte‘s Starting XI: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Rudiger; Zappacosta, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Willian, Hazard, Pedro.

Manchester United is in Basel as one of six 2:45 p.m. ET kickoffs

Full schedule
Qarabag vs. Chelsea — Noon ET
CSKA Moscow vs. Benfica — Noon ET
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Celtic — 2:45 p.m. ET
Juventus vs. Barcelona — 2:45 p.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs. Roma — 2:45 p.m. ET
Sporting Lisbon vs. Olympiacos — 2:45 p.m. ET
Anderlecht vs. Bayern Munich — 2:45 p.m. ET
Basel vs. Manchester United — 2:45 p.m. ET

PST Survey results: Most exciting USMNT prospect

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The results of PST’s Big American Soccer Survey are in, and our staff will be walking through the results of thousands of votes in a series of posts this week.

We didn’t realize you could acronymize it to BASS, or else we would’ve done it sooner. Today’s question: Excluding Christian Pulisic, who’s no longer a prospect despite being just 19, who is the most exciting USMNT prospect.

[ MORE: All Big American Soccer Survey posts ]

Exciting performances in the U-20 and U-17 World Cups have given United States men’s national team fans plenty of hope for the future.

The most-mentioned write-in, collecting across all attempting spellings, was injured Arsenal playmaker Gedion Zelalem.

As for the serious contenders, Jonathan Gonzalez, Andrew Carleton Tyler Adams, and Lynden Gooch lagged behind this pack of four:

Cameron Carter-Vickers — 14 percent — He had a howling back pass in Sheffield United’s 5-4 loss to Fulham on Wednesday, but the on-loan Spurs 19-year-old center back is playing every minute for a club very much in the mix for Premier League promotion.

Weston McKennie — 18 percent — Another 19-year-old, McKennie was one of the Men of the Match as Schalke went second in the Bundesliga this weekend. He’s been a regular starter when healthy, and played advanced, central, and set back in Schalke’s midfield. Next up: a Revierderby meeting with Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund.

Josh Sargent — 21 percent — Off to Werder Bremen when he turns 18 in late February, Sargent has four goals in five matches for the U.S. U-20s, and 14 in 29 for the U-17s. That includes four goals and two assists in his last three outings, against Paraguay, England, and Hungary.

Tim Weah — 24 percent — The son of African legend George Weah, Tim turns 18 two days after Sargent. Unlike his countryman, Weah has been in Europe for some time. The Paris Saint-Germain prospect is slated to get his First Team bow some time soon, having scored four goals and added an assist for PSG in the UEFA Youth League.

Yannick Bolasie finally returns to Everton training (video)

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Among my most quoted coaching lines comes from former University at Buffalo and current Canisius College men’s basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon (and pretty sure it didn’t originate with him).

“It’s more about Jims and Joes than x’s and o’s.”

[ MLS: Seattle wins | Stalemate in Ohio ]

So if Everton rebounds from its rough start to the season to reach its preseason potential, there’s a good chance we’ll credit the return of one of the most electric attackers in the game and not necessarily their new boss.

Yannick Bolasie returned to training on Wednesday, and not a moment too soon following a near one-year layoff due to an ACL tear.

There’s no guarantee the 28-year-old Bolasie will have the same burst, of course, but he has the potential to be a season-changer.

Everton was 5-4-4 when Bolasie went down with his injury last season, and improved on the mark the rest of the way, but are a moribund 3-3-6 this season.

Player faces unsporting conduct charges for shoving ball boy

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ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) Adelaide United defender Michael Marrone has been cited for unsporting conduct for shoving a ball boy during the late stages of his team’s 2-1 loss to Sydney FC in the FFA Cup final.

Football Federation Australia on Wednesday issued a disciplinary notice to Marrone for “engaging in serious unsporting conduct,” with a hearing date to be set.

[ MORE: Liverpool fan trouble in Sevilla ]

Marrone knocked over the ball boy, reported by local media to be aged 10, while trying to get the ball to take a throw-in during extra time in the Tuesday night match.

The ball boy and his father were later allowed to take part in the trophy presentation ceremony.

“Just thankful that nobody was hurt,” FFA chief executive David Gallop said at a news conference Wednesday. “Perhaps some lessons for a few people in that one. Glad that it didn’t detract too much from what was a really exciting finish to the game and glad that the boy and his father got to share in the celebration at the end.”

While there are no precedents in Australia for such charges, Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard was banned for three games for violent conduct after kicking out at a ball boy in 2013.

In other countries, clubs have been fined if their ball boys have been found to be deliberately slowing play.