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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.

Report: Roma lead chase for Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere

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Early on Transfer Deadline Day it seemed like Premier League duo Crystal Palace and Bournemouth were the two options for Jack Wilshere.

Not so fast.

[ STREAM: Deadline Day show ]

According to multiple reports Arsenal’s 24-year-old central midfielder is reportedly being chased hard by AS Roma with regards to a season-long loan deal.

Wilshere has expressed his desire to leave Arsenal for regular action this season and over 22 clubs have reportedly expressed interest in taking him on loan.

[ LIVE: Every Deadline Day deal ] 

That list had been whittle down to three main contenders and it is believed the England international met with Palace boss Alan Pardew and Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe on Tuesday as he decided where he should go.

Now, though, it appears a Serie A giant is pushing hard to get Wilshere.

His good friend Wojciech Szczesny is already on loan from Arsenal to Roma and with the Italian side able to offer UEFA Europa League action, plus challenge for the top four in Italy’s top-flight, Wilshere may see it as more worthwhile than going on loan to Palace or Bournemouth who will both be challenging to finish in the upper reaches of midtable in the PL.

The transfer window in Italy shuts at 5 p.m. ET, an hour earlier than in England, so Wilshere will have to get a move on if he fancies spending the next year in the Italian capital.

Report: David Luiz to Chelsea edging closer; Fabregas staying

Luiz scored on his return to the Bridge and celebrated like a mad man.
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A deal between Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea for “the geezer” David Luiz appears to be back on.

[ LIVE: Every Deadline Day deal ] 

On Tuesday reports emerged that Antonio Conte‘s side had offered $39 million for 29-year-old Luiz. Bearing in mind he signed for PSG in 2014 from Chelsea for $65 million, that would be decent business for Chelsea.

PSG were said to want close to $50 million for Luiz and the deal seemed dead.

However, the Daily Mail is now reporting that the deal for Luiz is edging ever closer with the player said to be keen on a return to Stamford Bridge and the clubs are working towards and agreement.

A flashy central defender, Luiz has many question marks against his name when it comes to his defensive capabilities but he is a fans favorite at Chelsea after winning the UEFA Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League with the Blues. He can also take a wicked free kick and his impressive range of passing sees him take risks out of the back.

Chelsea do need cover in central defense with Gary Cahill and John Terry their only options, plus Branislav Ivanovic able to slot over from right back to center back. Conte does have Kurt Zouma at the club but the French international defender is likely to go out on loan to Bundesliga side Schalke to step up his recovery following a horrendous injury last February against Manchester United.

Is Luiz heading back to west London?


In other Chelsea-related news Sky Sports is reporting that Spanish international playmaker Cesc Fabregas is staying at the Bridge.

Fabregas, 29, has been linked with a move away from Chelsea this summer after starting the first three Premier League games of the season on the bench. Conte has preferred N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in central midfielder and it was reported that Fabregas had fallen out with Chelsea’s new Italian manager.

The former Arsenal and Barcelona rejected speculation that he and Conte had a bust up but on Deadline Day rumors have arrived that AC Milan want to sign Fabregas.

However it appears Fabregas will be staying at Chelsea at least until January to fight for his place in the team.

Stoke City sign Wilfried Bony on loan from Manchester City

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Wilfried Bony of Manchester City celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Capital One Cup Quarter Final match between Manchester City and Hull City at Etihad Stadium on December 1, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Wilfried Bony is a Potter.

The Ivorian striker, 27, has joined Stoke City on a season-long loan from Manchester City after he didn’t feature in Pep Guardiola‘s plans at the Etihad Stadium.

[ LIVE: Every Deadline Day deal ]

Bony moved to Man City in January 2015 for $37 million after a breakout 18 months with Swansea City which saw him score 35 goals in 70 appearances for the Swans.

Stoke have been searching for a central striker to finish chances for the past two seasons with Marko Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri creating plenty of chances for Mark Hughes‘ side.

Bony joins Peter Crouch, Mame Diouf and Jonathan Walters as the central strikers in Stoke’s squad and his arrival seems to all but end the Potters’ long-term interest in West Brom’s Saido Berahino.

Getting Bony through the door when the likes of West Ham United and Everton were also interested is great news for Stoke as they have also added Derby County goalkeeper Lee Grant on loan and are expected to add Dutch international defender Bruno Martins Indi on loan later on Deadline Day.

Joe Hart completes move to Torino in Serie A

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 26:  Goalkeeper Joe Hart of Manchester City applauds the home fans following the 0-0 draw during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Manchester City FC and Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium on April 26, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Torino have announced the signing of Joe Hart on a season-long loan from Manchester City,

Hart, 29, was seen in and around Turin on Tuesday as he arrived in Italy to seal his move to the Serie A side.

[ LIVE: Every Deadline Day deal ] 

The English national team goalkeeper has fallen behind both Claudio Bravo and Willy Caballero in the pecking order at the Etihad Stadium following Pep Guardiola‘s appointment as Man City’s new manager this summer.

Guardiola believes Hart is not good enough with the ball at his feet to play in his system, so Hart has gone elsewhere.

Speaking about his move to Torino, Hart revealed his emotions on arriving in Italy’s top-flight.

“Suddenly my career has undergone a change. I interpreted it as a sign of destiny and so I had to do something,” Hart said. “The decision to come to Turin has come at the right time and in the right manner. I am very happy to be able to compete in a beautiful and difficult league like Serie A.”

So, what do we make of this move for Hart?

After spending a decade at Man City, it was clear he would only be used sparingly this season so he simply had to leave. Sunderland seemed to be his only option in the Premier League and you can’t blame him for not wanting to be embroiled in a relegation battle at the Stadium of Light.

Torino finished 12th in Serie A last season and have ambitions to finish in the top 10 this season but they aren’t playing in the UEFA Champions League or Europa League and it is strange Hart didn’t have other options. However, it is a chance for Hart to learn a new culture and play regularly to keep himself in the England setup until he sorts out his long-term future away from City. As long as Guardiola is around Hart isn’t going to play for the team he has won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups with.

Hart is a hero at Man City and always will be but with this move he has taken himself out of the firing line in England and now has a chance to play regularly and rebuild his career in Italy after becoming the first-ever English goalkeeper in Serie A.