Champions League Reaction: Celtic get glamor, Arsenal handed tough task

Leave a comment

After the extremely well-balanced UEFA Champions League draw in Monaco on Thursday, plenty of reaction has started to filter through.

Europe stood still to watch on as giants from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and elsewhere found out which sides they would face in the group stages of the 2013-14 Champions League.

Of all the British sides Arsenal were handed the toughest draw as they face Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli in group F.

(MORE: Champions League Draw; English clubs happy, as Spanish and Italian giants clash in group stages)

Chelsea’s boss José Mourinho will be happy that his side avoided any huge European rivals, as they were placed with Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest. And Manchester City’s fans will breathe a huge sigh of relief as they managed to skip the dreaded “Group of Death” for the third-straight year. However Manuel Pellegrini’s side do face reigning Champions Bayern Munich and tricky tests against Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow.

While Celtic only qualified for the group stages in dramatic circumstances on Wednesday evening by overturning a 2-0 first leg deficit against Kazakhstan side Shakhter Karagandy in the play-off round. James Forrest’s last minute strike sealed a 3-0 win to book the Glasgow clubs place in this seasons competition.

Here’s what Hoops manager Neil Lennon had to say after the draw.

NEIL LENNON

“I think it’s the best and the worst draw we could’ve got,” Lennon said. “In terms of glamor I don’t think it comes any better than Barcelona, Ajax and AC Milan. In terms of football it was probably the most difficult group we could have got. We can really go and enjoy this tournament now.”

Last season Celtic beat Barcelona 2-1 at home in the group stages and advanced to the last 16 where they were defeated by Italian champions Juventus. Lennon is looking forward to more great European nights this term.

“They are three great footballing arenas, three great clubs with fantastic pedigree in the competition,” Lennon said. “Locking horns again with Barcelona and we’re really looking forward to three more great nights at least at Celtic Park.”

However the difficulty of Celtic’s task isn’t lost on the Northern Irishman, as Lennon hopes to lead his side to the knockout stages for the second season in a row.

“There’s just so much to savor form the draw. But from a footballing point of view it’s going to be difficult to come through the first phases of the group.”

JOHAN CRUYFF

Three-time European Cup winner and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff spoke about his hometown side Ajax and their incredibly tough draw in group H alongside AC Milan, Celtic and Barcelona.

“They’re all old winners, it looks to me like a really exciting group,” Cruyff said. “I think it’s a fantastic thing for football that these people get to play against each other. “

Ajax finished third in the group stages last year to qualify for the UEFA Europa League and finished above Manchester City. Cruyff wants to go one better.

“That’s the aim, we have a very young group and they play nicely together,” Cruyff said. “Last season they showed that they are capable of knocking Manchester City out of European football so let’s hope we do that again.”

VINCENT KOMPANY

Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany seemed to be pretty content with his sides draw this season. The 27-year-old Belgian skipper took to Twitter as City aim to make it past the group stage for the first time since qualifying for Europe’s Premier club competition.

OLIVIER GIROUD

While Arsenal’s French striker Olivier Giroud acknowledged the tough group the Gunners have been handed as they face last years runners-up Dortmund as well as Rafael Benitez’ Napoli side and Marseille in group F.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza
Leave a comment

Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images
Leave a comment

“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”