UEFA Champions League Preview: Post-hipsterism in Naples, Arsenal’s next challenge highlight Wednesday action

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage continues on Wednesday, Groups E through H completing the competition’s first match day. With special focus on the day’s marque match in Naples, here’s a preview of the week’s final eight games:

WHAT THE HIPSTERS LEFT BEHIND
Napoli (Italy) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Naples (Stadio San Paolo), Italy

Imagine Brooklyn before it became its proto-hipster utopia/refugee camp for disaffected suburban youth. In other words, pretend it’s Portland, just like everybody in Brooklyn wishes it was. Don’t do this as a social experiment or an exercise in pop culture irony. Soccer is our business here, so in the spirit of the UEFA Champions League, do it as a way to understand the dynamic between Napoli and Borussia Dortmund. Borussia Dortmund is Brooklyn – newly, almost paradoxically popular – while Napoli’s the cool protos are trying to emulate.

At least, Napoli used to be that cool. When it was Walter Mazzarri playing wing backs with Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavazzi, and Marek Hamsik tearing teams apart on the counter, Napoli was the thing – a combination of retro (three center backs) and rebellion (counter attacking’s inherently subversive). People’d forgotten how to defend quality wingbacks. They weren’t used to the zealotry Napoli brought to their transitions. Soccer hipsters denying possession for possession’s sake loved the partenopei.

By the time soccer hipsterism had a label (by definition making it less hip) people had moved on to Borussia Dortmund. They were from the next big league, the German Bundesliga, which has this cool ownership model so … word. They drew the biggest crowds in Europe, providing authenticity through community. They cultivated most of their own talent, had a black-rimmed glasses-wearing coach spouting ethereal philosophies. And oh yeah: They just happened to be really young, really exciting, and really good at soccer.

Funny then, now that the  teams are meeting, the matchup isn’t so much a battle of cultures as merely a meeting between two of Europe’s best. Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, finalists in last year’s Champions League, spent heavily in the summer transfer market (Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), putting a minor dent in the “from our own organic garden” philosophies that’d been trust upon them. Napoli have also spent heavily, bringing in Gonzalo Higuaín, Jose Callejon, Raul Albiol, and Pepe Reina to complement a new head coach, Rafa Benítez ditching Mazzarri’s scheme for the 4-2-3-1. Together, despite Dortmund and Napoli losing their best players this summer (Mario Götze to Bayern, Edinson Cavani to PSG), the teams are a combined 8-0-0 in league play, sitting on top of their circuits.

Trite analogies aside, Borussia Dortmund may be the best team in Europe. Opening Champions League at a team of Napoli’s caliber, we couldn’t hope for a better group stage match. Whether that’s hip or not, I don’t know., but it should be an amazing soccer game. Wrap it in bacon, if you need to.

Major miss: Benítez’s big guns will all be ready come kickoff on Wednesday, which means Hamsik and Callejon, despite starting this weekend’s game on the bench, will be in Napoli’s starting lineup. Klopp, however, will be without two of his best XI, with midfielder Ilkay Gündogen and right back Lukasz Piszczek injured.

[MORE: Champions League Roundup, Tuesday: Upsets make way for goals.]

[MORE: Bayern dominant as they begin title defense.]

source: Reuters
Mesut Özil (right) made his Arsenal debut Saturday at Sunderland. On Wednesday, the level of competition increases dramatically as the Gunners visit Olympique Marseille. (Photo: Reuters Pictures.)

NEW GUNS, NEW TARGETS
Olympique Marseille (France) vs. Arsenal (England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Marseille (Stade Velodrome), France

Mesüt Ozil was ill, Olivier Giroud picked up a knee injury, while Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Mikel Arteta, and Per Mertesacker weren’t available. Regardless, Arsenal posted a 3-1 victory on Özil’s debut, boosting Gooner hopes their new star can hit the ground running.

There is one caveat, however. Their opponent, Sunderland, has been terrible. Last in the Premier League, conceding two goals per game and taking only one point from 12, the Black Cats are off to an unexpectedly poor start. Given Crystal Palace and Fulham have also taken full points from Sunderland, Saturday’s win may not say much about Arsenal.

Marseille will be a major step up, and although Élie Baup is trying to portray his side as a young, improving group, they’ represent a new challenge for the Gunners. Runners up in France last season and playing at the newly roofed Velodrome, l’OM have enough firepower and support to break through any team. If Mertesacker isn’t fully healthy or the returning Thomas Vermaelen hasn’t left his rust on the training ground, André Pierre Gignac, Mathieu Valbuena, Andre Ayew and the recently purchased Florian Thauvin can snatch three points.

If, however, Özil is closer to full strength, Arsenal may have enough. If Giroud’s knee has recovered, Arsenal’s threats will surely outweigh Marseille’s. And if Aaron Ramsey continues playing like one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, Arsenal can take a valuable road win from Stade Velodrome.

[MORE: Where they stand: Implications of Tuesday’s results.]

[MORE: European titans find form in Champions League.]

source: Reuters
Barcelona’s Gerardo Martino says anything short than a Champions League title will be considered a failure in his first year on the job. (Photo: Reuters Pictures.)

A DEBUT AND A RETURN
Barcelona (Spain) vs. Ajax (Netherlands)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Barcelona (Camp Nou), Spain

Chelsea (England) vs. Basel (Switzerland)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, London (Stamford Bridge), England

“When I took the job, I knew that if we didn’t win a title this season it would be a failure,” Gerardo Martino says of his new post, head coach of FC Barcelona. It’s a ridiculously high and probably unfair standard, though in fairness to Martino (and Barcelona), that may not actually be the case. If Barcelona went deep in Champions League while retaining Spain’s title, few would judge Martino harshly.

Meanwhile at Stamford Bridge, another coach will be making a debut of sorts, but for José Mourinho, Wednesday’s match against Basel is more of a return that debut. But for a man who’s won Champions League twice, returning with Chelsea carries a special significance. In three seasons at Stamford Bridge from 2004 to 2007, Mourinho never took the Blues beyond the semifinals:

“If you win [the UEFA Champions League] once you dream to win it twice. It’s the same with me: I won it twice – I dream to win it for a third time. But I have to focus not in the past but in the future. I want to win for the third time – I want Chelsea to win for the second time.

[MORE: Rooney’s double gives Moyes first Champions League win.]

[MORE: Ronaldo hat trick finish Real route in Istanbul.]

Others

  • Atlético Madrid (Spain) vs. Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia), Vicente Calderon, Madrid – Atlético will be without their leading scorer, the suspended Diego Costa, but will be emboldened by a perfect start to their La Liga campaign. Their counterattack will stress a Zenit team that doesn’t always play with a typically midfield destroyer. Luciano Spalletti may start Ukrainian veteran Anatoily Tymoshchuk to try to disrupt Atlético’s attack.
  • Milan (Italy) vs. Celtic (Scotland), San Siro, Milan – Milan’s slow start to last year’s competition nearly cost them a spot in the knockout round. This year, injury issues that limit Max Allegri to 13 healthy players present a new challenge, with a Celtic side that qualified for last year’s Round of 16 hoping to become the first Scottish team to beat Milan at the San Siro.
  • Schalke 04 (Germany) vs. Steaua Bucharest (Romania), Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen – After four loses to start their season (following an early win in the German Cup), Schalke have rebounded from potential disaster to win three in a row, a streak that includes sealing Champions League (at PAOK), handing Bayer Leverkusen their first loss, and earning a valuable three points at Mainz. Like Schalke, Steaua recovered from disappointment in their opening playoff leg to qualify for group stage. They’re also unbeaten in their last 13 competitive matches.
  • Austria Wien (Austria) vs. Porto (Portugal), Ernst-Happel-Stadium, Vienna – Austria Wien will be outgunned by the two-time champions on their Champions League debut, a talent gap coach Nenad Bjelica has downplayed leading up to the match. Paulo Fonseca’s team, however, comes into the match unblemished, the Dragons’ new coach hoping to maintain that perfection through his own Champions League bow.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.