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:

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.)

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.)

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.]


  • 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.

Bayern Munich CEO likens Premier League youth recruitment to “kidnapping”

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 12:  Karl Heinz Rummenigge attends   the Financial Fairplay Europe & Italy Workshop on January 12, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images)
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In the midst of building a new youth academy, Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has laid out his ideal setup for training youth players to be stars for the German giants.

Rummenigge told fans that his club would seek out youngsters to develop, but his strategy differs from the method of recruitment used in England. Heavily.

“We don’t want to bring some 10- or 11-year-old to Munich like the English do,” Rummenigge wrote in the club’s magazine. “You could almost consider it kidnapping and I would have moral reservations about that. I believe 14 is a good age for a youngster to come to Bayern.”

The Bavarians have produced some world-class talent in recent years, including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, and current captain Phillip Lahm. However, the club has also become known for poaching top talent across the Bundesliga as well, most recently having snatched Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund and rising young star Josh Kimmich from Stuttgart. This has led to a period of dominance, but at the expense of parity in the Bundesliga title race.

The new academy, located just down the road from Allianz Arena, is expected to be completed next summer.

Rummenigge continued to take shots at English clubs, next targeting the amount of players they train, saying, “Imagine this: Chelsea currently have 41 promising players out on loan, including Andreas Christensen at Borussia Monchengladbach. I know that Manchester City can train up to 250 players at their facility, together with their parents. It’s virtually like a real-life village. But we want to be more cautious. We don’t want a football factory.”

In recent months, a number of top La Liga clubs have been hit with transfer bans for breaking FIFA rules regarding youth transfers, but it seems something has found its way under Rummenigge’s skin with regards to the behavior of English clubs.

Southampton’s fans take over Milan

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MILAN — As Southampton’s players walked out at the San Siro to play Inter Milan on Thursday, many of their huge band of traveling fans had tears in their eyes.

They never thought they’d ever see this.

Saints lost 1-0 to Inter in a game they dominated but they were punished for missing five glorious chances by the three times European champions.

Still, what a journey it’s been.

From League One in 2009 to the Europa League in 2016 – some perspective: Inter won the Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia treble under Jose Mourinho in 2010, while Saints won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and finished 7th in League One — Southampton’s fans didn’t lose sight of the miraculous turnaround in their fortunes, even if one of the biggest nights in club history ended in defeat.

“There were tears in my eyes when I first arrived and saw it all,” Saints fan Adam Gray recalled as he stood in central Milan on Friday. “It was because it was a recollection of where we’d been and we are now is where we want to be. It was a realization that now we are here.”

For Saints fans “here” is Europe and they took over Milan for the past few days with thousands chanting along the Navigli Canals, the square in front of the Duomo Cathedral and all over the cosmopolitan, thriving hub of Italy’s economy.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule/tables ]

As they reveled in their dream away day in Group K – Saints had never made the group stage of the Europa League before and had brief and sporadic campaigns in Europe in the 1970s, 80s and in 2003 — there was always a lingering feeling to remember just how far they’ve come.

Six years ago to the week of the Inter game Saints lost at Huddersfield Town in the Championship, just a few months after gaining promotion from the third-tier.

Back then the San Siro and Milan seemed a million miles away. Reaching Europe was a pipe dream which was talked about in the halls of St Mary’s following Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr saving the club from extinction in 2009. Nobody truly believed it would happen. But it is. Saints fans couldn’t stop pinching themselves. This was happening.

Lifelong fans John McManus and Martin Wolfe stood in the San Siro and looked down at their team taking on Inter: “It’s just surreal,” they both said, with a wry smile.

Close to 7,000 Saints fans packed into the away end of the San Siro, with Internazionale happily giving an extended ticket allocation after the initial batch sold out quickly.

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: (L-R) Marcelo Brozovic of FC Internazionale competes for the ball with Oriol Romeu of Southampton FC during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

It Itwas said to be one of the largest ever allocations for a team who had gone to the San Siro. The Milanese people were stunned as retro Panini stickers of Saints legend Francis Benali were popping up all over town, plus a friendly atmosphere was present throughout the three-day Southampton takeover with no hint of any trouble with the locals.

This was a once in a generation, maybe once in a lifetime, experience for Southampton’s fans.


Southampton’s players and manager, Claude Puel, knew how much this game meant.

In the prematch press conference at the San Siro stadium on Wednesday, ProSoccerTalk asked manager Puel, who’d only took charge this summer, if he would playing his strongest team given the significance of the occasion.

“I don’t know my best team because all the time we can change five or six or nine players. For the moment we continue a good way with all the players,” Puel said. “It’s important to keep all the squad with a good concentration. If we want to stay with good results and a good physical level for all the games it’s important to respect all my players.”

“For example, of course this game is very important to us but after it is very important also the game away against Manchester City. All the games are important but for me my job is to have every time a good balance on the team with good players and good feeling between them, a good acquaintance. This is my job.”

The job of the fans was to get behind their team and that they did.

Walking around the streets of Milan, St. George’s banners were hung up with “Pride of the South” and “Southampton FC” emblazoned across them. There was dancing in the streets and late night chanting in bars. It was everything you could expect from a big European game. Except, Saints aren’t usually involved in matches like this.

This whole European campaign is seen as not only a reward for finishing sixth in the PL last season, but also their journey since the brink of extinction in 2009. It tastes ever sweeter given the fact they were knocked out of the Europa League in the playoff round the season before. That was only their second European campaign since 1981 and the thought of away days like this were snatched away from them at the final hurdle.

Then again, it could be a lot worse.

“I was talking to people and asking, what was our lowest point? Before the start of that 2009-10 season we had -10 points and no owners and were going to places like Rochdale and Hartlepool. Now we are in Milan and we are going to Prague. It’s incredible. It’s been a journey,” said Rich Caddick with a wide smile on his face.

Milan’s three airports — Linate, Malpensa and Bergamo — were packed with smiling Saints fans as they streamed in on journeys across from England. Some caught trains from Switzerland and neighboring Italian cities and some even traveled from New York City and other far flung destinations for this game. Many would stay for days after the game and some arrived early this week.

Everywhere you looked old friends were bumping into each other in bars and squares and for a few days Sotonians felt at home in Milan.

The contrast between the traveling band of supporters and the Milanese businessmen and women was stark. In amongst people dripping with Louis Vuitton and Prada were Saints fans tucking into a slice of Pizza with a pint in one hand and belting out a song.

On game day well over 7,000 Saints fans descended on Milan as tales of supporters buying corporate tickets and tickets in the home end filtered through. It felt like a lot more than 7,000. A lot more. From the square around the Duomo Cathedral in central Milan to the bars lining the Navigli Canals in the south of the city, red and white stripes were everywhere.

Before the match the plea from fans was simple: “Play the strongest team. This is it. This is the game we care about.”

A victory would give Southampton one foot in the Europa League knockout rounds in their first-ever appearance in the Europa League group stage. That didn’t happen with Charlie Austin, Steven Davis, Jose Fonte and Nathan Redmond not in the starting lineup.


The first time you walk up to the San Siro, it takes your breath away.

Especially on a foggy evening where the upper reaches of the iconic venue are shrouded in mist. It all added to the occasion.

Inside the stadium the crowd of just under 30,000 was made up almost one quarter Southampton fans.

They didn’t stop signing all night long.

To put this feat and occasion into American sporting terms, it is like a small college basketball team getting to the Sweet 16 and playing a powerhouse school at an iconic venue. It was a case of small town against big town. A small, yet proud, club against one of the biggest on the planet. We could keep going on with the comparisons but you get it. The stature of the two sides on the global stage is vastly different.

It’s not David vs. Goliath but Thursday’s game was a situation Saints’ fans never thought they’d be in.

“In 2008 we were thinking we were going to lose our club and all of a sudden we are now in the San Siro. It’s amazing,” lifelong Saints fan Karen Arkell said. “There are Saints fans who would have never experienced anything like this and there are younger a generation coming through who are getting used to it.”

The game itself saw Saints throw everything at Inter but somehow fail to score. From Jay Rodriguez’s early miss to James Ward-Prowse‘s shot which whistled wide, then both Charlie Austin and Virgil Van Dijk had two great chances to score but Samir Handanovic, Inter’s goalkeeper, was the clear man of the match as his manager Frank de Boer saluted him after the game.

At the final whistle Southampton’s fans were deflated. Down but not out was the message as their quest to reach the knockout rounds of the Europa League and continue this European adventure carries on.

The singing carried on, both at the final whistle (see below) and all over Milan as a mood of celebration was still around (along with a tinge of disappointment) as the cool Milanese air felt a little chillier than it would have had Saints secured a famous win.

“I am absolutely gutted. We could have had them. We should have won,” Gray reflected. “We just need to invest in putting those chances away. It put a little dampener on the mood after the game but at the end of the day, we are still here. There’s progress and we are enjoying that. The atmosphere was awesome. Better than any Saints game I’ve ever been to.”

The fact that pretty much every Saints fan was “gutted” at losing 1-0 to Inter Milan at the San Siro says it all. They’ve come a long way in a very short space of time.

“It’s just surreal,” said Wolfe and MacManus said again as they sat in a trendy bar near Navigli Grande as Saints fans mixed with locals.

Speaking after the game several players saluted the supporters with captain for the night Virgil van Dijk perfectly summing up the emotions from everyone connected with the club.

“I’m so proud to be a Southampton player with those supporters. They deserved more and so did we.”

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: (L-R) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale competes for the ball with Virgil Van Dijk of Southampton FC during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)


As strong coffee was sipped readily on Friday morning along Milan’s busting streets after a few days of celebrating Saints’ resurgence which culminated in this game, there was a realization that this may be as good as it gets.

Two mid-size teams in the Premier League, Southampton and Leicester City, are both in the group stages of Europe courtesy of their unexpected top six finishes last season. But with perennial powers strengthening this season, it will be a lot tougher to reach this tournament for the foreseeable future.

“This year with so much investment at Everton and teams like Chelsea and Liverpool improving, we won’t finish in the top six. I’m sure,” Gray said, reluctantly. “This is here for us to enjoy. This is it. Until the next time…”

Until the next time arrives (if it does at all), Saints’ fans will follow their team wherever they go. Do fans of the smaller clubs appreciate these occasions more?

“I think they appreciate it more than big clubs,” Saints fan Rob Peters said as the sun shone down on his red baseball cap. “We may not be in Europe for another few years. The big clubs take priority, so, as Saints fans, we have to just go for it.”

Ruddick agreed.

“Big clubs do it every season. They take it for granted,” Ruddick said. “They know they are going to come away again next year. We don’t. So we make the most of it while we can.”

Now they’ve had a taste, Saints feel like they belong at this level.

Flicking through Gazzetta Dello Sport on Friday, the player ratings showed that Saints’ team ranked higher than Inter, as did the manager, and the man of the match was Inter’s goalkeeper. Little Southampton went to the San Siro and roughed up the 18-time champs of Italy, who were scratching their heads as to how they won.

“For a game that wasn’t so crunch — last night’s game wasn’t so important in the grand scheme of things, really — for a game like that, the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Gray admitted. “Everyone was right behind them. We’ve had a great few days and we couldn’t have asked for anything else… Other than a win.”

With home games against Inter and Hapoel Be’er Sheeva and a trip to Prague in late November (Saints only have 1,700 tickets for that game, which they’ve already sold out, but speculation says that double that are amount are expected to make the trip), everything is to play for in Group K with just three points separating first from fourth. Can Saints make it through to the knockout rounds as one of the top two teams?

“I’m a little bit nervous about it now after last night,” Peters admitted. “If we lose the next game at home against Inter we are in a little bit of trouble. We are good enough to go through. That’s for sure. We totally dominated them last night.”

There was a lingering feeling of what could’ve been (the amount of Saints fans I heard say ‘I just wanted to see us score at the San Siro’ was outrageous) among supporters but tales of parties in night clubs, bars and elsewhere long into Thursday  night and Friday morning were rife.

“People were definitely deflated after the game but then we left the stadium, we got back into the city and then just kept singing in the pubs… Until five o clock this morning!” Caddick laughed. “The whole experience was the most important thing.”

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: Charlie Austinof Southampton FC disapponited during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
(Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

This experience will never leave Saints’ fans and players. It is something few clubs of their size get to taste and it was a moment to savor.

Can it happen again? Can Saints’ qualify for Europe by finishing in the PL’s top six this season?

“It is just beautiful,” Gray said as he looked along a busy side street ahead of his girlfriend flying out to meet him for a quick vacation until next Tuesday. “The atmosphere has been great. It is just great to be here and now we wait for the next one.

When that next one is, we will have to wait and see. Fans are already signing about making their way to Stockholm, Sweden, where the Europa League final is being held on May 24, 2017.

Although that may be a tad hasty, Southampton’s trip to Milan showed the team from the biggest city on the south coast of England is ready for the biggest of stages.

With fans landing back home, the home game St Mary’s against Inter Milan in two weeks sold out early on Friday morning.

Europa League fever continues to grip Southampton and their fans don’t want it to end.

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Injuries to key Premier League cogs could open door at top of table

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 15:  Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham Hotspur is stretched off injured  during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur at The Hawthorns on October 15, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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A pair of important yet relatively unsung players could make things interesting at the top of the table this weekend.

Tottenham, sitting third in the Premier League standings, travel to Bournemouth in an early Saturday game without critical defender Toby Alderweireld.

The 27-year-old Belgian is the Premier League’s newest Iron Man, having played every single league minute for the club since he joined in the summer of 2015, a massive string of 46 matches that ended this past weekend when he was forced off after an hour against West Brom with a knee problem.

[ WATCH: Stream all 10 games in Week 9 of Premier League action ]

Alderweireld’s injury was a let-off, with the club initially fearing worse but scans midweek showed no lasting damage. However, he has been ruled out for this weekend, and for the first time Mauricio Pochettino will have to craft a teamsheet without his most reliable player. Pochettino moved Eric Dier back to central defense for the midweek match against Bayer Leverkusen, but with Dele Alli and Victor Wanyama teaming up to replace Dier in front of the back line, Spurs struggled to create much of anything and were ultimately lucky to find themselves with a point from a 0-0 draw.

Should Pochettino wish to return Dier to the defensive midfield so as not to lock his more creative players down, he could use 22-year-old Kevin Wimmer to deputize at central defense. The Austrian defender has made just 10 Premier League appearances for Spurs, all coming in a row last season during a spell without Jan Vertonghen, a spell which saw the club register seven wins and a single loss conceding seven goals.

A kick to the heel of Santi Cazorla could leave him on the sidelines against Middlesbrough (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images).
A kick to the heels of Santi Cazorla midweek could leave him on the sidelines against Middlesbrough (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images).

Just a single place above Spurs in the Premier League table sits Arsenal who face a similar situation. Santi Cazorla, the often unsung midfield playmaker in a squad among more flashy stars, will potentially miss this weekend’s date with Middlesbrough thanks to an Achillies problem he suffered after being kicked by a Ludogorets player in the midweek Champions League match. With Granit Xhaka suspended and Aaron Ramsey also injured, the Arsenal midfield is looking relatively thin, but none of those other misses bear similar to that of Cazorla’s.

Cazorla has yet to return to his stunning form from two seasons ago, with injuries having derailed his consistency since, but he still remains a key part of the Arsenal machine. The Spaniard has started every Premier League match this season but one, mostly back in a deeper midfield role, pushed back alongside a defensive midfielder thanks to the form of wingers Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott. Without Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny will be forced into the side. Coquelin started the season in poor form and has seen less of the field since, while Elneny has been a squad player since joining in January.

The deeper role has seen Cazorla’s productive numbers decline, with Mesut Ozil’s creativity now front and center, but the 31-year-old’s importance as the link between back and front remains strong, with a 91% passing accuracy through the season’s first eight matches. Elneny and Coquelin will have to figure out a way to recreate Cazrola’s ability to push the team forward to break down Middlesbrough’s stout defensive shape.

[ MORE: JPW gives his picks for this weekend’s Premier League games ]

Lastly, Chelsea is looking resurgent this season under Antonio Conte, and while not injury related, they could be without a similarly productive piece for this weekend’s massive matchup with Manchester United. One of the only bright spots in Chelsea’s lost season last year, Willian has maintained his ability to produce from the edge this season , but could be sidelined on Sunday due to the loss of his mother.

Through eight matches this season, the Brazilian has concocted 23 chances for his teammates, a stunning rate that has him third in the Premier League despite having missed two of those eight games. Should he continue this pace, Willian would end up with 110 chances created this season, a number that would have sat him second last season behind just Mesut Ozil’s 125.

Last time out, Chelsea didn’t miss Willian against a shell-shocked Leicester City side that seemed to unravel after Diego Costa‘s seventh-minute goal, but against Manchester United it seems unlikely that Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses could again fill the shoes of the Brazilian. With Oscar also possibly out, Conte will need to rely even more on his outside backs in the attack, leaving the wings potentially exposed to the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard.

The top of the table is suffering from some important losses, and those could see chaos reign this weekend.

On-loan Manchester United striker James Wilson suffers ACL tear

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 06:  James Wilson of Manchester United celebrates scoring the second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Hull City at Old Trafford on May 6, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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James Wilson‘s loan spell at Derby County has likely been cut brutally short.

Having made just four league appearances for the Rams since being loaned to the Championship side from Manchester United this summer, the 21-year-old ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in training on Monday, and has since seen the damage confirmed by tests.

The club announced the injury on Friday, with manager Steve McClaren saying in a statement, “It’s incredibly disappointing news that James has suffered an injury like this. Only last week I was saying how much I was looking forward to working with him because he is an exciting young talent. I know that he will bounce back from this disappointment, especially as well as being a very good player he is also a strong and determined character.”

It’s possible that Wilson misses the entire rest of the season due to the injury, although a six-month layoff would see him able to possibly return by late April.

Of Wilson’s four league appearances for Derby, he started in three of them but failed to log more than 65 minutes in any game. He did not score across those four appearances, although he did net for the club’s academy side in an EFL trophy match with Doncaster in early October.

Wilson has made 20 appearances across all competitions for his parent club Manchester United, scoring a brace against Hull City in his Premier League debut in May of 2014. However, he has not appeared for the Red Devils in nearly two years, instead seeing time on loan at Brighton Hove & Albion for much of last season before moving to Derby before the season. Wilson’s loss is a big one for the Rams, who are struggling in 20th place in the Championship table after narrowly missing out on a chance at promotion each of the past three seasons.