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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.

Chelsea 5-1 Newcastle United: Blues cruise past hapless Magpies

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on February 13, 2016 in London, England.
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  • Costa opens scoring in fifth minute
  • His 8th goal in 10 appearances
  • Magpies back into drop zone on goal diff.
  • Townsend strikes late to break shutout

Diego Costa and Pedro scored before the match was nine minutes old, and Willian put an exclamation point on a wild first half in the 17th minute as Chelsea battered Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Pedro added another in the second half before Baba Rahman tallied to make it 5-0, and that’s how it finished at the Bridge. Chelsea now has 33 points, and is within two points of 10th and nine back of fifth place Manchester United.

Newcastle is back in 18th, lower than Norwich City on goal differential. Andros Townsend scored late for the Magpies.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It took barely more than four minutes for Chelsea to take the lead, as Costa burst past Steven Taylor to slide Willian’s pass past Rob Elliot. 1-0.

Pedro doubled the advantage when he took advantage of 20-year-old Rolando Aarons, who was forced to play right back despite starting as a right wing under Alan Pardew. It was an awful pass regardless of his normal position, and Pedro picked it off and went the distance.

Andros Townsend cut in from the left to provide a counter threat, but his low shot was gobbled up by Thibaut Courtois.

Still, 3-0 came first. Costa worked a long ball and then watched Fabricio Coloccini back off. Willian tore through an unmarking back line to push home an easy goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Magpies found some life in the second half, as Chelsea had to cope with an injury to John Terry that moved Branislav Ivanovic inside and put Baba Rahman into the game.

Aleksandar Mitrovic absorbed a tricky cleat to his achilles, staying in the game to hit a low shot wide of goal.

But Pedro added another goal moments later on a counterattack (of sorts) and it was 4-0 in the 59th minute.

Townsend broke the shutout when he belted a left footed shot home late for his first ever Newcastle goal.

Suarez: I’d only play for Liverpool in the Premier League

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Luis Suarez has upset fans of every Premier League team by saying he’d never join their club.

[ MORE: Van Gaal downbeat after defeat ]

On Valentine’s Day weekend his heart belongs to one PL club: Liverpool.

Speaking to former Liverpool teammate Jamie Carragher on behalf of the Daily Mail, Suarez insisted he is loving life at reigning Spanish and European champions Barcelona.

But if the 29-year-old striker ever left the Nou Camp and came back to the PL he wouldn’t play for Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea. Oh no.

“I’d prefer to stay here [Barcelona] for many more years. I know it doesn’t always turn out that way. But if I had to return to the Premier League, I would only go to Liverpool,: Suarez said. “I wouldn’t go to another team. It wouldn’t be a move for money. I’d also love to play again for Ajax, as they allowed me to develop as a player in Europe.”

So, in 2019 once Suarez has won the Ballon d’Or at Barcelona and won four-straight UEFA Champions League titles, could he be back at Anfield to help attend to some unfinished business with Jurgen Klopp still in charge?

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Just a thought, but Suarez is obviously keen to repay the loyalty both Liverpool’s fans and the club have shown him over the years during many difficult moments on and off the pitch. At away stadiums across England he was lambasted by fans of the opposition and he obviously remembers that. Suarez was the subject of a cheeky bid from Arsenal and Arsene Wenger obviously admires him but the fact of the matter is, it would be shocking to see him leave Barcelona anytime soon.

Suarez still has plenty to give for Barca in the meantime as he has 36 goals in 34 appearances for the Catalan club this season so far.

Pardew, Palace lamenting “tricky run”; Without Premier League win in 2016

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Watford at Selhurst Park on February 13, 2016 in London, England.
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“We are on a tricky run and need to fight out way out of this form.”

That’s how Alan Pardew is describing his club’s brutal form of early 2016. Crystal Palace has one point in its last seven matches, their streakiness matching what we expected from Pardew when he led Newcastle United through a topsy-turvy few seasons at St. James Park.

[ MATCH RECAP: Crystal Palace 1-2 Watford ]

Pardew says injuries and bad luck have hurt his side, and Yannick Bolasie‘s absence looms large in a midfield-vital Premier League. But Palace has managed just three points since Dec. 26 despite playing a manageable schedule of opponents.

Since beating Stoke at the Britannia on Dec. 19, this is Palace’s Premier League form:

Dec. 26 — 0-0 at Bournemouth
Dec. 28 — 0-0 vs. Swans
Jan. 3 — 0-3 vs. Chelsea
Jan. 12 — 0-1 at Villa
Jan. 16 — 0-4 at Man City
Jan. 23 — 1-3 vs. Spurs
Feb. 2 — 1-2 vs Bournemouth
Feb. 6 — 1-1 at Swans
Feb. 13 — 1-2 vs. Watford

Fortunately for Pardew, he has his old charges in Newcastle, Aston Villa and Norwich City not doing much to threaten a climb out of the drop zone. But Palace has gone from Top Four contender to bottom-half side in a month and a half.

WATCH: Chelsea’s three goals in 11 minutes have Newcastle defense in tatters

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on February 13, 2016 in London, England.
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Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian are terrorizing Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, battering the Magpies by three goals.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

And the game’s not even a half-hour old as of posting time, so we’re just going to leave these videos right here, Toon Army.