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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.

Hull City promoted, but Steve Bruce still considering future

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28:  Steve Bruce, manager of Hull City lifts the trophy after victory in the Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final match between Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Steve Bruce saw Hull City go down to the Championship, and pulled the Tigers right back up the Premier League.

Hull won promotion at the first time of asking after defeating Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 on Saturday, but Bruce wants to see stability at the KC Stadium.

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things | Player ratings ]

The club remains up for sale after owner Assem Allam saw his request to change the team name to Hull Tigers denied by the English Football Association.

From the BBC:

“I’ll sit down with the owners. It’s not often you walk away from the Premier League – that’s where I want to manage,” Bruce told BBC Radio 5 live.

“But I have to be given certain assurances that we’re all moving in the right direction.

“I keep hearing too many stories that there’s a takeover imminent. We’ll see what develops,” added the 55-year-old.

The longtime Manchester United back has been around the managerial block a few times, and it’d be nice to see him stay at Hull for the long term. He’s led the Tigers into the Premier League on two occasions, and is — seriously — the seventh longest tenured manager in the Football League. He would enter the Premier League as the second-longest serving manager, to Arsene Wenger.

BREAKING: Olympiacos striker Pulido kidnapped in Mexico

DRENTHE, NETHERLANDS - JULY 29:  Alan Pulido of Olympiacos in action during the pre season friendly match between FC Twente and Olympiacos Piraeus held at Sportpark Veenoord on July 29, 2015 in New Amsterdam and Veenoord, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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Terrifying news out of Mexico, where 25-year-old Mexican national team striker Alan Pulido has reportedly been kidnapped in his hometown.

Pulido, 25, has four goals in six caps for El Tri and moved to Olympiacos in 2015, where he scored five goals in eight matches.

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things | Player ratings ]

Various reports claim that Pulido and his girlfriend were taken after masked gunmen cut off the vehicle in which they were riding, and only released the girlfriend.

From the Associated Press:

The official says the 25-year-old player was kidnapped near his hometown of Ciudad Victoria on Sunday after leaving a party.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case under investigation.

Klinsmann hails Zardes’ character; USMNT forward likes his first touch

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Gyasi Zardes #9 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Gyasi Zardes’ remarkable rise from Cal State Bakersfield to fixture on the United States men’s national team is one of the better stories in recent team history.

The USMNT attacker nabbed his fourth and fifth international goals in Saturday night’s blowout of Bolivia, and he’s up to 25 caps since making his debut in Jan. 2015.

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things | Player ratings ]

Jurgen Klinsmann deserves some credit for putting the L.A. Galaxy on the field almost religiously as Zardes works on so many facets of his game. He’s improved dramatically in positioning, runs and 1v1 battles and reportedly soaks up information like a sponge. Klinsmann loves the guy, and for good reason.

It’s also important to note that, despite his ever-present status, Zardes remains 24 and a work in progress.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“Sometimes it’s perfect, and maybe the next day it’s not so good, but it’s totally fine – because every player has his strengths and weaknesses. So as long as they keep on working on those weaknesses and getting them better and better, it’s totally fine. He’s very straight in his thought process in front of the goal. He knows exactly what he wants to do.

“You have to follow your first thought. That’s crucial. If you start to have two thoughts, then you’re going to get messed up. He was very calm, putting two goals in there, and the whole game he was involved. It’s coming along.”

Zardes’ club goal production dropped last year from roughly a goal every other game to one every three, but he’s been growing as a playmaer and this season has four goals and four assists through 11 matches.

I really like Zardes — see my post calling for his USMNT call-up in 2014 — but let me say one negative thing about his bristling at first touch questions and saying, “To be honest, me personally, I think I have a good first touch”: I’m glad he feels that way and his woes may be a bit overblown, but calling his Saturday goals first touch goals is accurate but kind of hilarious.

The criticism of his first touch, which his betrayed him on major scoring chances in each of the last two USMNT matches, has nothing to do when his first touch is directed at goal. On his brace last night, the first was a good finish where he had to work it past the keeper and the second was a plant foot shot. Both, in fact, were shots.

Those count as your first touch on the ball, but when we discuss first touch it’s about taking the ball off a pass or dribble and possessing it for a purpose. Of course he was right to shoot, but it’s cool if your eyes rolled pretty hard in reading his comments.

Koeman: Manchester United “don’t deserve a medal” for treatment of Louis van Gaal

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20:  Louis van Gaal, Manager of  Manchester United talks to Ronald Koeman, Manager of Southampton during the  Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester United at St Mary's Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Southampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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When it comes to the firing of Louis Van Gaal, his countryman has his back.

Southampton boss Ronald Koeman doesn’t like the way Manchester United handled LVG’s fate with the team, firing him within hours of the Red Devils winning the FA Cup.

Like many, Koeman doesn’t buy that the LVG to Jose Mourinho transition happened in a week.

[ MORE: Early and (purposefully) absurd 2016-17 PL predictions ]

Given the gossip mill since Chelsea fired Mourinho in January, that’s not a hard thing to buy, and Koeman is angry that LVG was kept out of the loop. Reports claim that Van Gaal had drawn-up plans for 2016-17 with him on the day he was let go.

From Sky Sports:

“If Louis was not told about getting the sack until after the FA Cup final, then Manchester United as a club don’t deserve a medal for the way they treated him.

“If you know a little bit about the business at the highest level in football, then you know that these kind of deals are not done overnight.”

Koeman hedges his words with conditionals, but there’s little doubt what he means. Managers generally stand together when it comes to dismissals, but it’s nice to see someone stand up for LVG’s treatment (whether he deserved to be canned or not).