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.

“Amazing Game” – Pep’s Man City reinforces UCL, PL bid with Napoli win

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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If it hasn’t already, Manchester City is one win away from making a Premier League-UEFA Champions League double a very real goal.

The hosts had to scrap to hold onto all three points against visiting and Serie A leading Napoli on Tuesday, giving away two penalty kicks after building a 2-0 lead at the Etihad Stadium.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-1 Napoli ]

But Ederson stopped Dries Mertens effort, and opened the door to further dreaming for supporters of Pep Guardiola‘s dreamy deep squad.

It wasn’t 7-2, or even 4-0, but Guardiola was gushing after a mutually adventurous football match between two electric squads.

“It was an amazing game. Outstanding. Both wanted to play against high pressing. Napoli are one of the best teams I have faced in my career. If you are not aggressive without the ball you have no chance to survive.”

There’s still a very tricky match week in the fourth round at Napoli, and we wonder whether Guardiola will prioritize the Premier League visit from Arsenal later that week. And, even better, it may not be a necessity to prefer either: The Gunners will have one less day’s rest thanks to Europa League play, aren’t exactly inspiring this season, and playing stars twice in four days isn’t the end of the world with an international break following the Arsenal tilt.

City’s status on the precipice of the UCL knockout rounds means it can focus on the Premier League, as well as a kind draw that should put them within three rounds of a League Cup title. While Burnley has been quite good this season, no one’s debating that City could pile up points for their table lead as 2017 nears its conclusion with an away Manchester Derby on Dec. 9:

Sunday – vs. Burnley (PL)
Oct. 24 – vs. Wolves (League Cup)
Oct. 28 – at West Brom (PL)
Nov. 1 – at Napoli (UCL)
Nov. 5 – vs. Arsenal (PL)
Nov. 18 – at Leicester City (PL)
Nov. 21 – vs. Feyenoord (UCL)
Nov. 26 – at Huddersfield Town (PL)
Nov. 29 – vs. Southampton (PL)
Dec. 2 – vs. West Ham (PL)
Dec. 6 – at Shakhtar Donetsk (UCL)
Dec. 9 – at Manchester United (PL)

Consider that United will be finishing an 8-day stretch which includes Dec. 2 at Arsenal, Dec. 5 vs. CSKA Moscow, and the derby. That makes Wednesday’s United trip to Benfica an even bigger affair. If both sides have already sewn up the knockout rounds, the derby will be especially better.

That’s neither to say City’s two-point lead atop the table and win at Chelsea weren’t impressive enough, nor that it couldn’t have overcome a slower start to both the PL and UCL campaigns. And City did start last season red-hot, too.

But it’s already foolhardy to bet against Pep’s men given the path ahead. Given Real Madrid’s relative struggles, and Barcelona’s uncertain status, it feels like City has as good a claim to UCL favorite status as anyone outside of Paris Saint-Germain.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below.

Spurs’ Kane: Draw at Real “shows how far we’ve come”

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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After pressuring Raphael Varane into an own goal, Spurs striker Harry Kane saw Keylor Navas make an outstanding late stop to ensure a 1-1 draw between Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.

“I thought I did everything right, I opened my body, I put the ball where I wanted to and he made a very good save,” Kane said.

[ RECAP: Real 1-1 Spurs ]

While the red-hot Kane sure would’ve liked to find the match-winner, he knows what Spurs just achieved in Spain against the back-to-back UEFA Champions League winners.

And that, he says, is pleasing. From the BBC:

“We are happy. Of course they are going to have chances but we played well and made it tough for them. A point at Bernabeu, you would take that every day of the week. It shows how far we have come as a team.”

Kane is right, this Spurs side looks far more self-assured than its predecessor. It shows the process of learning to compete in the UCL.

The return date at Wembley Stadium is Nov. 1, where a point would all but seal Spurs’ spot in the knockout rounds thanks to Borussia Dortmund’s stunning 1-1 draw at APOEL Nicosia.

Real Madrid 1-1 Spurs: Lovely Lloris!

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An error from each time in its own box and outstanding goalkeeping gave Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid a 1-1 draw in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday at the Bernabeu. (video)

Raphael Varane recorded a 28th minute own goal, but Serge Aurier gave away a penalty as Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for Real Madrid at home in the 43rd minute.

Hugo Lloris and Keylor Navas were the stars of the show, with Lloris making the lion’s share of saves.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Both teams are well-positioned to advance, with seven points. Spurs have the tiebreaker advantage, but both Tottenham and Real are six points clear of Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia after a surprising draw in Cyprus.

Early nerves were apparent for Mauricio Pochettino‘s men, but Tottenham grew into the game and took an early lead.

Concerned with the presence of Harry Kane, Real defender Raphael Varane saw a cross move off his pegs and behind Keylor Navas to put Spurs ahead.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The lead was short-lived, however, as Spurs back Serge Aurier cut short Toni Kroos’ rare foray into the 18, and Ronaldo buried the ensuing penalty kick.

Lloris made an outstanding save on a point-blank Karim Benzema header in the 54th minute.

A moment later, offside Ronaldo flashed a sitter over the goal before the whistle alerted viewers to his offense.

Ronaldo had another chance stymied by Lloris as Real really began to pile on pressure past the hour mark.

Kane had a 71st minute chance against the run of play off a gorgeous pass from Fernando Llorente, but Navas got low quickly to redirect Kane’s point-blank shot wide of the far post.

Navas made another save when Llorente cued up Christian Eriksen for a chance, and the Dane then sent in a corner that led to a Davinson Sanchez’s header wide of goal.

Llorente was quite good in the second half in this surprise two-striker move from Mauricio Pochettino, and the Spurs boss also deployed Danny Rose for a season debut off the bench.

Man City 2-1 Napoli: Early goals stand up

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored early, and Ederson stopped one of two penalty kicks as Manchester City held off Napoli 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

Amadou Diawara converted Napoli’s second PK after Dries Mertens saw his effort saved.

Napoli is six points back of Group F leading City, and three behind Shakhtar Donetsk.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Raheem Sterling was near the spot to blast an open rebound past Pepe Reina in the ninth minute.

Then Kevin De Bruyne swept an incisive pass into the six for Gabriel Jesus to slot home, giving Man City a 2-0 lead in the 13th minute.

Kyle Walker saw yellow after giving a penalty kick in the 37th minute, and Napoli star Dries Mertens had his chance to pull one back denied by Ederson.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

John Stones‘ impressive growth at City continued when he slid to stop Marek Hamsik from testing Ederson in the second half.

Fernando took down Faouzi Ghoulam to give Napoli a second penalty kick, and this time it was converted thanks not to Mertens, but Diawara.