Ajax Amsterdam v SC Heerenveen - Eredivisie

Christian Eriksen’s potential for Borussia Dortmund a particularly cloudy picture

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Christian Eriksen has been an “it” player for so long, it’s difficult to know where his skill set ends and his reputation begins. That’s what happens to players who break into Ajax’s first team at 18. They have their skills exaggerated, the influence of Dutch mystique leading those who ascribe the 1970’s antiquated notions to cast Eriksens as new models off an exaggerated assembly line. And as a player like Erikson contributes (24 goals in three season), wins awards (Dutch Player of the Year, 2011), and garners links to bigger clubs, he becomes the latest variable in an overused equation.

Perhaps it was that equation ID’d Eriksen as a breakout candidate at last year’s European Championships. Too bad that breakout never happened. With Denmark only playing three games at Euro 2012, we shouldn’t read too much into Eriksen’s output. Still, a player who was expected to be Morten Olsen’s best failed to have an impact. Now with only three goals in 34 international appearances, Eriksen has yet to show he can produce outside Holland’s attacker-friendly environment.

It all makes Eriksen’s path look a little like Eden Hazard’s, part of the reason why he’s been linked with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur. Both players had great success at club level around 20 years old, though Hazard’s production was greater than Eriksen’s while playing in a more difficult league. As young attacking midfield, both have struggled for country while dominating for club, and while Hazard’s exploits in Ligue 1 paved a move to one of the world’s big spenders, Eriksen’s play at a lower level built links to other impressive (if more financially constrained) teams.

But comparisons like that only compound the distortion around players like Eriksen. Too often we have difficulty developing a constructive conversation around players whose hype transcends their skills. After a player like Eriksen sits on the rumor mill for three years, a momentum develops, creating résumés built on Wikipedia links to Daily Mail conjecture. There’s little disincentive to overhype talent or links when there’s so much demand for gossip.

At some point, as voices become more authoritative amid the growing chatter, we’re left talking about an abstractions – breakout players who were never been capable of breaking out. In the case of Eriksen, the conversation now hinges on pure speculation. What would he do if he wasn’t playing on his league’s most talented team? What would he do if he wasn’t playing in such an attack-centric league? These sorts of questions are asked about every player, but when that player comes from a league (Eredivsie) and club (Ajax) who many fans view in light of old, romantic statures, it becomes more difficult to engage the counterpoint. It becomes more difficult to see past the abstractions.

What’s particularly interesting regarding Eriksen are the small, meaningful steps he’s taken in the last 12 months to make those abstractions real. Already a valuable contributor for Ajax, the Danish international went from eight all-competition goals in 2011-12 to 13 last season. Although his assist totals took a small step back, Eriksen proved a more decisive force around goal. On a team that scored 10 fewer goals in league, it’s little surprise a 21-year-old’s more team dependent numbers (assists) regressed while his goal rate improved.

It’s tempting to wonder if, with that improved ability to dictate his own destiny,  Eriksen would have had more to say at last summer’s championships.

Now, with that added layer to his game, Eriksen is ready to leave the Netherlands, with Borussia Dortmund reportedly tabbing the Danish attacker as Mario Götze’s replacement. Atletico Mineiro’s Bernard has also been linked with the spot (and it’s not beyond Dortmund to buy both), but in the scenario reported today by France Football, Eriksen would go to Dortmund, highly-touted 19-year-old Adam Maher would move to Ajax from AZ, and Earnie Stewart would get a huge chunk of change for his club’s troubles.

It’s difficult to image a better scenario for Eriksen. What Marco Reus was to BVB last year — a highly talented attacker adapting to a new team while playing new to a world class talent — Eriksen could be to this year’s. And while few would choose Eriksen over Götze, if Reus rises to the increased challenge, Dortmund may see little drop off. In time, as Eriksen adjusts to higher expectations and a more difficult league, Dortmund could do as they’ve always done over the last three years: move forward.

Yet all that falls into the same trap. We’re placing Eriksen in the context of Hazard and Reus, forgetting his Euro 2012 disappointments, the regression of the Dutch league, and his inability to make an impact at the international level. We forget the picture surrounding the 21-year-old is more clouded than his transfer hype would have us believe.

Like all transfers, Eriksen’s will carry significant risk. And it’s only after he moves to a place like Dortmund that we’ll be able see through these clouds and distinguish the skills from the hype.

Europa League: Mourinho says targeted Man Utd must win; Saints shorthanded

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United makes his way to the tunnel after the final whistle  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Europa League goes into its second day of group play with the onus on the biggest club in the tournament to pick up a win.

Don’t believe us? Ask Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.

“To be honest, I think we have to win,” Mourinho said at his pre-match press conference. “If we don’t win, I would say we’d have to win all the last four matches, which is difficult, so I think it is very important that we win this game.”

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

United fell 1-0 at Feyenoord to open the group stage, and now hosts Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk at 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday. He knows its the equivalent of a massive Cup match for the visitors.

“The Europa League is a competition Man United isn’t normally in, so when these teams have a giant like Man United in front of them, it’s a huge moment for them and they come to the game with incredible motivation.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start for United, as there’s a chance that Anthony Martial will rejoin the side. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is out, and Wayne Rooney (back) and Luke Shaw (illness) may not play.

The other Premier League side in play is Southampton, as the Saints take a long flight to Israel for a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff against Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Saints handled Sparta Prague at home, and now face the Camels, who went to Inter Milan and won. Southampton is without Charlie Austin, Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand, and Steven Davis.

Should be a very decent match from Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva.

Elsewhere

all times ET

Mainz at Gabala — 11 a.m.
Young Boys at Astana — 11 a.m.
Osmanlispor at Zurich — 1 p.m.
Red Bull Salzburg at Schalke — 1 p.m.
PAOK at Liberec — 1 p.m.
Qarabag at Fiorentina — 1 p.m.
Villarreal at Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m.
Nice at Krasnodar — 1 p.m.
Standard Liege at Ajax — 1 p.m.
Braga at Shakhtar Donetsk — 1 p.m.
Panathinaikos at Celta Vigo — 1 p.m.
Inter Milan at Sparta Prague — 1 p.m.
Konyaspor at Gent — 1 p.m.
Sassuolo at Genk — 3:05 p.m.
Zorya at Manchester United — 3:05 p.m.
Anderlecht at Saint-Etienne — 3:05 p.m.
Apoel Nicosia at Olympiacos — 3:05 p.m.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Dundalk — 3:05 p.m.
Feyenoord at Fenerbahce — 3:05 p.m.
Rapid Wien at Athletic Bilbao — 3:05 p.m.
Viktoria Plzen at Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m.
AZ Alkmaar at Zenit Saint-Petersburg — 3:05 p.m.
Astra Giurgiu at AS Roma — 3:05 p.m.

Wenger after UCL win: This year’s Arsenal has “interesting potential”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal looks on during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Arsenal FC and FC Basel 1893 at the Emirates Stadium on September 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is growing in confidence when it comes to his Gunners’ chances in England and Europe, and it’s not hard to see why.

Four days after Arsenal battered Chelsea 3-0 in Premier League action, the Gunners went out and handled FC Basel in the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Theo Walcott scored both goals in the 2-0 win, and there could’ve been so many more. Arsenal was fast, deliberate, creative, and dangerous. The finishing was not ideal, but the promise was massive.

Perhaps more important, the Gunners posted a third-straight clean sheet and have allowed just four goals in eight matches since the 4-3 loss to Liverpool that opened the PL season.

And Wenger acknowledges that his side can do big things, provided it doesn’t get too full of itself after solid performances. From Arsenal.com:

“It looks like the team has interesting potential. We have to be ambitious and, as you know, keep our feet on the ground to continue to develop. We know exactly how we want to play football and we have to continue to stick to that and get better at it. That demands big focus and some leadership inside the squad. It also requires humility.”

Arsenal has a very winnable run in the Premier League, and could be right there with Manchester City by the end of October. And with a winnable UCL group, who knows what the Gunners could do with a decent knockout round draw?

Bayern can’t break down Simeone’s Atleti: “We played too slowly”

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28:  Carlo Ancelotti, Manager of Bayern Muenchen looks on before the UEFA Champions League group D match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on September 28, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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Bayern Munich sits second in Group D of this season’s UEFA Champions League after losing its toughest match of the bunch: a trip to the Vicente Calderon.

Atletico Madrid won 1-0 when Antoine Griezmann linked up with Yannick Carrasco for a first half goal and Diego Simeone’s stubborn defense lived up to its reputation in blanking the Bavarians.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Manager Carlo Ancelotti has been frustrated by Simeone in the past, perhaps most notably in his brief stint at Real Madrid. But the Bayern boss says the loss was down to speed.

“We tried to get back into the game but we played too slowly, which is why we did not have many chances to equalize,” Ancelotti said. “It’s never nice to lose.”

Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer also acknowledged a lack of speed in a way, pointing at urgency when he said, “Atlético showed a killer instinct tonight and we didn’t.”

Bayern hosts PSV Eindhoven in its next UCL match on Oct. 19.

Guardiola, Rodgers left to unpack thrilling Celtic-Man City draw

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Brendan Rodgers, Manager of Celtic issues instructions to his players next to Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between Celtic FC and Manchester City FC at Celtic Park on September 28, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
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What a match in Glasgow.

The UEFA Champions League group stage returned to Celtic Park on Wednesday, where the hosts thrilled their crowd by taking a trio of leads before settling for a 3-3 draw with mighty Manchester City.

[ MORE: JPW on Walcott’s Arsenal heroics ]

The draw is the first competitive game City hasn’t won under Pep Guardiola, but the manager didn’t feel much like complaining after his team rallied.

From the BBC:

Guardiola: “It was difficult for us. I’m happy with the reaction from the players, it’s not easy to score three goals away.

“I don’t know how many the chances they had after the third goal. We should have won it.”

As for Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers, he was tickled. After all, Celtic had fallen 7-0 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou during their first outing.

From the BBC:

Rodgers: “We were brilliant, the pressing and the energy. Every time we went forward we looked like we could score.

“Apart from the Barcelona game these players have been operating at a high level this season. Now, to do it against that team, it was a magnificent performance.”

Celtic Park was loud on Wednesday, and both sides gave the crowd plenty of oohs and aahs. It’s hard to imagine Celtic could do the same again, and City did give away a pair of goals (one own goal from Raheem Sterling, one gaffe from Aleksandar Kolarov).

But for one afternoon, who cares about anything other than an entertaining 90 minutes?