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.

Porter’s Timbers just wanted in the playoffs, now they’re 90 mins away from a title

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers looks on from the bench before the match against the FC Dallas at Providence Park on November 22, 2015 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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Midway through the season, it was reasonable to question whether Caleb Porter could hang onto his job as Portland Timbers coach. With two games to play in the regular season, the Timbers were on the verge of missing the playoffs entirely, that job status still hung in the balance.

[ MORE: Timbers hold off Dallas | Crew advances past RBNY ]

Yet, this is Major League Soccer, where anything is possible. “Hot at the right time” is a mantra, and Portland hasn’t tasted defeat since early October. The Timbers are 6W-2T since losing to Sporting KC on Oct. 3.

Whether that’s “more exciting” than another league’s system is a conversation for another day, because today’s conversation is about what Porter and the Timbers have done in rising to within 90 minutes of an MLS title.

From Timbers.com:

“When we started the year, we wanted to get into the playoffs and win a trophy,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said in his post game comments outside a champagne and beer-drenched locker room. “That was the goal, and here we are. We’ve won one, and now we want to win the big one. So it’s very satisfying.”

And that’s the thing: You just have to get in. I imagine most Portland fans aren’t thinking, “Does this feel good in relation to how it would feel if we went wire-to-wire as champions?” They are thinking, “This feels good.”

The Timbers just needed to get in. Columbus, too. And now they are playing for a title with some of the better all-around players in the league, running the gamut from veteran savvy (Nat Borchers) to youthful flair (Lucas Melano).

MLS Best XI comes from a wide variety of backgrounds

Toronto FC 's Sebastian Giovinco, center,  tries to take the ball between Columbus Crew's Harrison Afful, left, and Ethan Finlay during the second half of an MLS soccer game in Toronto, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Major League Soccer rolled out its Best XI on Sunday, with few surprises.

Though the lack of fullbacks perhaps rightly cause Taylor Twellman and others to roll their eyes, the MLS’ 3-4-3 formation looks daunting.

[ MORE: Timbers hold off Dallas | Crew advances past RBNY ]

With expected MVP attacker Sebastian Giovinco of Toronto pacing the field, the XI is strong and filled with players from different backgrounds.

From American College Soccer, to Costa Rica, Serie A and the Premier League, there’s no one unifying thread. Heck, Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara mark careers reborn with the win, perhaps shining as bright as ever.

Best XI
Goalkeeper: Luis Robles (RBNY)
Defenders: Laurent Ciman (Montreal); Matt Hedges (Dallas); Kendall Waston (Vancouver)
Midfielders: Ethan Finlay (Columbus); Dax McCarty (RBNY); Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC); Fabian Castillo (Dallas)
Forwards: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto); Kei Kamara (Columbus); Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy)

It’s hard to call out snubs on a team this loaded, but David Ousted from Vancouver certainly deserves a shout, and Darlington Nagbe is probably the most aggrieved omission. But who comes out for the recently-made USMNT star?

Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi are Ballon d’Or finalists; USWNT’s Lloyd up for women’s honor

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 17:  Soccer player Carli Lloyd poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 17, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Carli Lloyd and Neymar are among the new names on the shortlists for FIFA’s top individual honors.

Of course, Barcelona’s Brazilian joins a pair of familiar faces in Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. One will win the Ballon d’Or on Jan. 11.

On the ladies side, USWNT star Carli Lloyd has to be considered a front-runner to become just the third American to win the FIFA World Player of the Year on the women’s side.

[ MORE: La Liga & Serie A roundup | Bundesliga wrap ]

Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm have also won the award, though Germany has won two-straight behind the heroics of Nadine Angerer and Nadine Kessler.

This time, it’s German striker Celia Sasic who will try to bring home the honors, and Japan’s Aya Miyama is also on the shortlist.

The coaches for Lloyd and Miyama, Jill Ellis and Norio Sasaki, are up for Women’s Coach of the Year, along with England’s Mark Sampson.

On the men’s coach side, the honor is between Luis Enrique (Barcelona), Pep Guardiola (Bayern Munich) and Jorge Sampaoli (Chile).

Premier League Playback: Costa’s time up at Chelsea?

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Diego Costa took his time as he strode out to warm up on the sidelines late in the second half of Chelsea’s draw at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. Costa, 27, looked unhappy, to say the least, and then as he returned to the bench as a petulant act occurred which may be seen as the beginning of the end of his Chelsea career.

[ MORE: Costa “privileged” at Chelsea ]

Costa took off his his warm-up bib and tossed it towards Jose Mourinho and his coaching staff flippantly as youngsters Kenedy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were instead selected to come off the bench with Chelsea’s main striker left to stew and sit in the cold at White Hart Lane. No less than 10 minutes after the full time whistle Costa waltzed past the mixed zone and walked straight onto the Chelsea team bus where he sat for over an hour waiting for the rest of his teammates to arrive.

[ MORE: Poch trolling Mourinho? | 3 things we learned

I wonder what the Spanish international was thinking… Anyway, here’s what Mourinho (who said he has no issue with Costa) had to say post-game when asked about benching Costa following their public disagreement in Chelsea’s win away at Maccabi Tel-Aviv last week.

“Diego is very privileged because he was the last one to be on the bench,” Mourinho said. “Everyone else has been: the captain; Ivanovic, Cahill, the vice-captain of England, Fabregas, Pedro, Hazard, player of the season, Oscar, everyone was on the bench. Diego was privileged because I kept him in the team for all these matches. Today we thought the best strategy was this one. We are happy with the decision and the players. If we had won 1-0, our performance would have been considered tremendous. You will still say it was good.”

With just four goals in 17 appearances for the Blues this season, Costa’s slump is clear for all to see compared to his start to the season last year where he scored 11 goals in his first 17 games. It’s not just recently he’s struggled either, and without scoring goals regularly and being more interested in fighting, pushing, shoving and diving, Costa doesn’t seem to be adding much to Chelsea’s attack after initially taking to the PL like a duck to water.

Rumors suggest Mourinho is looking to buy a new striker in January to replace Costa, with the Brazilian born forward going through a tough time and Chelsea sticking by him despite two bans from the FA in 2015 for misconduct on the pitch.

Premier League Schedule – Week 14

Result Recap & Highlights
A. Villa 2-3 Watford Recap, watch here
B’mouth 3-3 Everton Recap, watch here
C. Palace 5-1 N’castle Recap, watch here
Leicester 1-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Liverpool 1-0 Swansea Recap, watch here
Man City 3-1 Saints Recap, watch here
Norwich 1-1 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Sunderland 2-0 Stoke Recap, watch here
Tottenham 0-0 Chelsea Recap, watch here
West Ham 1-1 WBA Recap, watch here

Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao are both set to return to action this week, so Chelsea will have options up top and given the way Eden Hazard led the line in a false nine formation at Spurs on Sunday, Costa could soon be well down the pecking order. If he continues to react anything like he did on Sunday then Mourinho will have a big decision to make with regards to his main man up top.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Hazard, who replaced Costa in the lineup, was superb. The diminutive Belgian battled against Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen on his own and won balls in the air, made intelligent runs in-behind which Mourinho applauded and the only thing he didn’t do was score as he headed over in the first half and forced Hugo Lloris into a terrific save in the second half from a wonderfully controlled volley.

ProSoccerTalk asked Mourinho about Hazard’s display and if the reigning PFA Player of the Year is getting back to his best.

“I think that was his best game of the season,” Mourinho said. “His game was more complete, in both directions: with and without the ball and he was attacking people with the ball and attacking the space without it. He was jumping and trying in the air against the two Belgian boys who are two meters tall. He did fantastically well. Even without scoring, his appetite to be important in the game and make an impact was there.”

Is Hazard, supported by Oscar, Willian and Pedro, the answer for Chelsea? Will Costa return to the starting lineup? Will Mourinho use Falcao or Remy instead?

Plenty of questions remain around the reigning champs but Mourinho has sent a clear message out to Costa which he must absorb quickly: nobody is bigger than the team. Shape up or get out.


He did it. Jamie Vardy, 28, became the first player in Premier League history to score in 11-straight games as his opener put Leicester City 1-0 up against Manchester United in a game they eventually drew 1-1.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Leicester 1-1 Man United ]

Vardy’s remarkable rise from non-league to the Premier League and the English national team has been much documented and he deserves all the praise he is getting for beating Ruud van Nistelrooy’s long-standing record and doing something the greats of the PL didn’t manage.

Soak in the atmosphere from the King Power Stadium in the video above as the Vardy party went on long into the night. Next up: Jimmy Dunne’s record of scoring in 12-straight games for Sheffield United in the 1931-32 English top-flight season.


Arsenal’s fans had their hearts in their mouths as Alexis Sanchez went down clutching his hamstring in the second half of the Gunners’ draw at Norwich City on Sunday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Despair then turned to anger, most of which was directed at Arsene Wenger, as the Chilean forward was forced off with what looked like a serious hamstring pull which could keep him out of a pivotal stretch of games. In his pregame presser on Friday Wenger admitted that Sanchez was struggling with a hamstring knock. He selected him anyway and now Arsenal’s main man is out, with others dropping like flies around him.

Wenger was less than impressed when the press hounded him after the game asking: why on earth risk Sanchez when your talisman was already struggling?

“Nobody is scientifically developed enough, not even the press, to predict exactly when a guy will be injured,” Wenger said. “I would have rested him but he felt perfectly alright before the game. We declared that he had no problem. Despite all the tests he looked alright. The players are there to play football not to be rested when the press decides that they need to be rested. He [Alexis] says it is a kick on his hamstring but I believe that is not really the reality.”

The reality is that Wenger got this wrong. His vast experience should have told him that Sanchez resting against Norwich was the right decision.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Now, the Chilean superstar joins Francis Coquelin, Laurent Koscielny and Santi Cazorla (both injured in the game at Norwich), Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott on the treatment table. No matter how influential all of those players are, Sanchez is the key ingredient and Wenger simply had to manage the situation better. Not just on Sunday but in recent weeks he’s had the chance to bring Sanchez off for the final 30 minutes of games in blowout wins but has failed to do so. In truth, this is nothing new. November is always the month when Arsenal’s squad seems to suffer with injuries as their early-season promise evaporates before the festive season arrives and then reemerges around Easter when the squad is back to full health.

In the past Wenger has said that resting Sanchez has actually had an adverse impact on his play, so maybe that swayed his mind. Regardless, Wenger is a manager and has to manage the situation. Sanchez was always going to declare himself fit because, well, he’s a player. It’s up to Wenger to be a manager and make the tough decisions in the short-term which will benefit Arsenal in the long-term. Now, Sanchez could be out for a long-time and Arsenal will suffer greatly because of that.

Highlights from Arsenal’s clash with Norwich, and every game during Week 14, can be found in the video below.


The latest episode of Premier League Download is out as Roger Bennett goes behind-the-scenes to find out what Crystal Palace’s fanatical supporters are all about.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Below you can watch “South London and Proud” in full as the Eagles continue to soar up the table and American investors are ready to take over during the festive period.

Fun times ahead at Selhurst Park.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an in-depth look at the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.