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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.

Egypt high court upholds death sentences of 10 soccer rioters

CAIRO, EGYPT - JANUARY 26:  Egyptian 'Ahly Ultra' soccer fans gather at the Al Ahly home stadium during celebrations after the announcement that 21 fans of the Al Masry football club involved in a football stadium massacre last year were sentence to death on January 26, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. A verdict was announced Saturday in a case over the deaths of more than seventy fans of Egypt's Al-Ahly football club in a stadium massacre on February 1, 2012, in the northern city of Port Said, during a riot that began minutes after the final whistle of a match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry. 21 fans of the Al Masry football club were given the death penalty in the court case, a verdict that must now be approved by Egypt's Grand Mufti. The verdict was handed down during a period of high tension across Egypt, one day after the second anniversary of the beginning of Egypt's 2011 revolution that overthrew the regime of former President, Hosni Mubarak.  (Photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images)
Photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images
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CAIRO (AP) Egypt’s highest appeals court on Monday upheld the death sentences against 10 people convicted over a soccer riot that killed over 70 fans in 2012, becoming one of the world’s deadliest soccer disasters.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

The verdict by the Court of Cassation is final. The defendants were charged with murder, along with other charges. The court also upheld convictions of 22 suspects who received up to 10 years imprisonment over the rioting. A total of 11 defendants were sentenced to death but one remains at large and was tried in absentia.

The rioting erupted on February 2012, at the end of a league match in the Mediterranean city of Port Said between Cairo’s Al-Ahly, Egypt’s most successful club, and home side Al-Masry.

In a socking and unexpected turn, Al-Masry fans rushed to attack Al-Ahly supporters with knives, clubs and rocks. Witnesses and survivors described victims falling from the bleachers as they tried to escape. Hundreds of others fled into an exit passage, only to be crushed against a locked gate with their rivals attacking from behind.

[ MORE: Brazilian player in tears after 90 mins. of racist chants in Serbia ]

The riot led to the suspension of Egypt’s top soccer league for over a year. The league later resumed, but with matches played in empty stadiums.

The first Egyptian Premier League game in which fans were allowed back into the stadiums was played in February 2015, but that occasion was also marred by the death of 22 fans in a stampede outside the grounds. The stampede followed the use of tear gas by police to stop what authorities at the time said was an attempt by fans to storm the military-owned stadium in a suburb east of Cairo.

In the Port Said disaster, most of the victims belonged to Al-Ahly’s “Ultras Ahlawy,” an association of hard-core fans now banned by authorities. In 2015, an Egyptian court ruled that the “Ultras” were a terrorist organization.

[ MORE: Wenger “didn’t really enjoy” Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Sutton ]

Members of the “Ultras” have long been at odds with the nation’s highly militarized police, taunting them with offensive slogans during matches and fighting them in street battles. Hard-core fans of other clubs also identify themselves by going under variations of the Ultras’ name. During the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, the Ultras often provided muscle at street rallies, directing protesters, leading chants and standing first in the line of fire as riot police unleashed tear gas.

Earlier this month, Egyptian police detained more than 100 Al-Ahly fans over a period of two days on suspicion they had planned to stage a protest on the anniversary of the Port Said rioting. The Ultras subsequently cancelled a planned commemoration. Five of those detained were charged with inciting protests and belonging to an outlawed group.

Public gatherings without a permit are banned under Egypt’s draconian anti-terrorism laws.

Kane: Wembley needs to be “our home” long before next season

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur reacts during the UEFA Champions League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and AS Monaco FC at Wembley Stadium on September 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur have been — how should I say this? — less than stellar at Wembley Stadium this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

In their three UEFA Champions League group-stage games played inside England’s national stadium, Mauricio Pochettino‘s side was thrashed by a vibrant Monaco side; blunted into apathy by Bayer Leverkusen; and victorious against last-place CSKA Moscow, but only after having already been knocked out of the competition.

Ahead of Thursday’s Europa League round-of-32 second leg against Belgian side Gent — which will be played at Wembley, as they will do for every European fixture this season — Spurs’ captain of the future, Harry Kane, has called upon the north London side to make themselves at home inside the 90,000-seat arena on the following counts: 1) they’ll be playing the entirety of the 2017-18 season there; 2) they’re a victory over League One side Millwall away from an FA Cup semifinal, at Wembley, this season — quotes from the Independent:

“If we get through the next round of the FA Cup it’s to Wembley, and we play at Wembley on Thursday. Hopefully we get through. We’ve got to try to make Wembley our home. We could be there next season, so we want to make it as good for us as possible, try to win as many games there as we can and get that confidence going. We could be playing there a few times yet this season.”

[ FA CUP QF: Chelsea-Man United; Spurs-Millwall; Arsenal-Lincoln ]

As for Spurs’ recent form, perhaps best described as indifference, Kane says that’s an issue which was raised during a series of meetings in which Pochettino and a handful of the young side’s more senior figures called for more “hunger” and “sharpness” from the opening kickoff — quotes from the Independent:

“We’ve been starting quite slow in games and it was just about bringing the desire and hunger back to the team, chasing balls down, running in behind. We did that great on Sunday. Sometimes we need that — we need a reminder of who we are and what we’re about. We had a couple of meetings between us and we were glad to go out and put that right.”

Rejuvenated and reinvented, Toure integral to Man City again

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06: Yaya Toure of Manchester City speaks to Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City after being subtituted during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Manchester City at London Stadium on January 6, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) It has been one of the great sights of English soccer in recent years, Yaya Toure picking up possession in central midfield for Manchester City, rampaging upfield and scattering opponents in his path.

Those days appear to have gone.

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Toure is now found sitting in front of City’s defense, reading the game, dictating its tempo, picking off opposition passes, and starting attacks rather than finishing them.

His reinvention over the last three months as a holding midfielder — and one of Pep Guardiola‘s most integral players — is one of the stories of City’s season and has coincided with an upturn in the team’s fortunes. It’s as much a tale of the 33-year-old Toure’s enduring quality and hunger as circumstance and opportunism.

The former Ivory Coast captain started the season ostracized by Guardiola, who was unhappy at both Toure’s fitness levels and the criticism coming from the player’s outspoken agent, Dimitri Seluk.

Toure was even omitted from City’s squad for the Champions League group stage but he knuckled down, lost about 14 pounds, and waited for his chance. That came when one fellow midfielder (Fernandinho) was hit with a four-match ban and another (Ilkay Gundogan) sustained a season-ending knee injury.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

Toure, looking lean and fit, started a Premier League game against Watford on Dec. 14 and has played every match since, excelling as the team’s deep-lying midfielder and no longer the box-to-box player that City fans have been used to seeing.

Such is his change in status and importance that he was one of the few players rested by Guardiola for the FA Cup match at Huddersfield on Saturday ahead of City’s match against Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

“He has been unbelievable since the game he came back,” City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said on Monday. “Last year, he wasn’t that sharp. Give him credit for coming back and doing very well.”

Guardiola has settled on a central-midfield trio of Toure, as the protector of the defense, and De Bruyne and David Silva as the playmakers, and it is proving an ideal mix. City has conceded only one goal in its last five games, and its previously shaky defense kept five clean sheets in its last six away games.

Toure has said he feels like a kid again under Guardiola.

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

“He is so important for his personality,” Guardiola said on Monday of Toure. “He is part of the history of the club. He helped the club to be where it is. He is back with us and playing at a high level.”

Monaco will be a big test for Toure. The French league leader has scored more goals than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season, and is lethal on the counterattack thanks to ultra-fast transition play involving forwards Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, and Valere Germain.

Toure will be tasked with stopping them from getting at City’s backline, and that’s no easy job. The games in which he struggled since his return have been the losses to Liverpool and Everton, who played a high-energy and up-tempo style.

Monaco will be a level up from that.

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup — Premier League sides underwhelm in 5th round ]

“As a spectator, it is so nice to watch them. I am really impressed how good they are; physically strong, the full backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders … a complete team,” Guardiola said on Monday, describing their attackers as “killers in the box.”

Yet these are exactly the sort of games in which Guardiola will lean on the experienced Toure, a Champions League winner under the Spanish coach at Barcelona in 2009.

In those days, he also played as a holding midfielder and it is in that position that he’s set to end his career.

“I judge players on whether they are able to go to Anfield, Old Trafford, the Nou Camp, or Madrid or Turin and if they are able to react,” Guardiola has said. “There is no doubt about Yaya with that.”

Brazilian footballer in tears after racist chants in Serbia

Partizan Belgrade's Brazilian player Everton Luiz, centre left, leaves the field accompanying by goalkeeper Filip Kljajic, during a Serbian championship match between Rad and Partizan, in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Luiz was in tears after suffering persistent racist chants during his team's 1-0 victory against Rad in the Serbian premiership. The Brazilian, who joined Partizan from the Swiss league in 2016, received monkey chants and other abuse, including a racist banner on the stands where Rad fans were standing. (AP Photo/Miroslav Todorovic)
AP Photo/Miroslav Todorovic
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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Partizan Belgrade midfielder Everton Luiz was in tears after persistent racist chants during his team’s victory over Rad in the Serbian league.

The Brazilian, who joined Partizan last year, played through monkey chants and other abuse, including a racist banner in the stands where Rad fans were standing.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

The banner was removed after intervention from the referee.

There were scuffles between the players after the match on Sunday, when Partizan won 1-0, after Everton Luiz showed the middle finger to the Rad supporters.

Wiping away tears, Luiz said he “faced racist abuse during the entire match.”

[ MORE: Wenger “didn’t really enjoy” Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Sutton ]

Serbian fans are notorious for racist outbursts against black players. Rad supporters are known for their nationalist ultra-right behavior.

On Monday, the Serbian Football Association suspended Rad’s stadium in Belgrade until further notice because of the fans’ behavior.