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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.

Pellegrini defends fielding “B” team in loss at Southampton

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MAY 01:  Kelechi Iheanacho (72), Samir Nasri (C) and Wilfred Bony of Manchester City (R) looks despondent as Sadio Mane of Southampton scores their fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini does not regret fielding a weakened side at Southampton over the weekend as he prepares for City’s Champions League semifinal at Real Madrid on Wednesday.

Pellegrini chose to rest many of his top players at St. Mary’s, including Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, and Vincent Kompany. City were smashed 4-2 in one of their worst performances of the season.

[ RECAP: Saints 4-2 Man City ]

Pellegrini defended his lineup decisions after the match, saying he is willing to risk results in the Premier League to reach the Champions League final.

We knew before the game it was a risk to put so many players without football against a difficult team but we have to take those risks. If we had played on Saturday we could put more players out. I was disappointed with the team. It’s my responsibility for the starting 11.

I would do exactly the same again because we have an important game.

We play for the final in the Champions League. We continue in the Premier League what we are going to do in the next two games to be in the top four so that was a risk but one we had to take.

While you would expect a drop-off when the likes of Aguero and de Bruyne are not on the pitch, City’s poor performance was much more than just a team selection issue. With Raheem Sterling ($75 million) and Wilfried Bony ($45 million) in the starting XI, it was 19-year-old academy product Kelechi Iheanacho who was one of the few players to show any type of effort against Saints.

Pellegrini may be overlooking the end of the Premier League season, but his side still needs points to secure a top-four spot and berth in the Champions League next year. City currently sit four points ahead of Manchester United, but United have a game in-hand.

[ MORE: Burnley become first Championship side to clinch PL promotion ]

City travel to Spain for the second leg of their Champions League semifinal matchup against Real Madrid on Wednesday. After settling for a 0-0 draw in the first leg, City must put the Southampton debacle behind them and turn things around before the one of the biggest matches in club history.

Kiev willing to sell Yarmolenko to PL, but not to Stoke or Everton

UKRAINE, LVIV - NOVEMBER 14: Andriy Yarmolenko from Ukraine celebrates after scoring the first goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Play-off for Final Tournament, First leg between Ukraine and Slovenia at Lviv Arena on November 14, 2015 in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo by Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)
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It looks like Andriy Yarmolenko may be on his way to the Premier League this summer, as Dynamo Kiev is willing to sell their star player after EURO 2016.

Kiev president Ihor Surkis has said he will accept an offer for Yarmolenko if the player agrees, but not if that offer is from Stoke City or Everton.

[ MORE: Vardy named FWA Footballer of the Year ]

According to Surkis, those sides are not “top clubs” worthy of signing a player of Yarmolenko’s quality.

If I get an offer that will suit Dynamo and Yarmolenko wants to go to this club, I’ll let him. All talk of a transfer will begin after the Euros.

He is already a top player, so he should go to a top club. My position is that we should not let Yarmolenko go to such clubs as Everton and Stoke City. Dynamo is Dynamo and Stoke City is Stoke. We’re playing in the Champions League, and Stoke City are fighting for survival.

I, as president of the club, had a winter offer from China completely arranged, but Yarmolenko did not even come to the meeting with the sports director of the Chinese squad.

Andriy said that dreams to play in the Bundesliga and the English Premier League.

While Stoke City is not in the Champions League, they are far from fighting for survival. The Potters have finished 9th in the Premier League each of the past two seasons, and are in line for a similar finish this year.

[ REPORT: Portland Timbers’ Fanendo Adi linked to Crystal Palace ]

Yarmolenko has been named Ukrainian Footballer of the Year each of the past three seasons, and his play for both Kiev and the national team have seen him linked to multiple Premier League clubs.

Surkis may not view Stoke or Everton as “top clubs,” but they certainly have top-club money to spend. Both have set record transfer fees on players over the past two seasons (Imbula to Stoke, Lukaku to Everton), and they could easily meet the reported $35 million it would cost to sign Yarmolenko.

Reports: Man City to trigger $60 million Laporte release clause

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: Luis Suarez (L) of FC Barcelona kicks the ball next to Aymeric Laporte (C) of Athletic Club during the Spanish Super Cup second leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at Camp Nou on August 17, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola isn’t in Manchester yet, but he’s already making plans for his side.

According to reports in Spain, Manchester City is ready to bring Aymeric Laporte to the Etihad, one of the most highly-rated defenders in Europe.

[ MORE: Burnley clinch PL promotion ]

The 21-year-old center-back has already made more than 100 appearances for Athletic Bilbao in La Liga, and City would need to pay nearly $60 million to trigger his release clause.

Guardiola has coached against Laporte while in charge of Barcelona, and it is believed he is Pep’s top defensive target to move in for the likes of Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis.

Named to the La Liga Team of the Year as a teenager in 2013-14, Laporte has been on the radar of all the major clubs around Europe. However, he saw his season cut short in March after suffering a terrible leg break on international duty with the France U21 side, ruling him out until August.

[ MORE: UEFA Champions League semifinal preview ]

Although he could miss the beginning of next season while still recovering from injury, bringing Laporte to Manchester would be a move that could set up the club defensively for years to come. Should City meet Bilbao’s massive release clause, Laporte would add to the magnificently expensive City back-line, joining Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi to form a trio of center-backs worth more than $150 million.

VIDEO: Post-match melee breaks out between Spurs and Chelsea

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Tensions boiled over on the touchline after Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham as players had to be separated while heading down the tunnel.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Leicester City coverage ]

A testy match that saw referee Mark Clattenburg issue 12 yellow cards, the battle continued after the final whistle as a melee erupted in front of the benches.

It is unclear as to what caused the disruption, but it was not the first skirmish of the night. Earlier in the match, Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino found himself on the pitch in the middle of a shoving match between players.

[ VIDEO: Leicester pubs erupt as Foxes clinch Premier League title ]

Seen in the video above, Spurs’ backup goalkeeper Michel Vorm seemed to be in the middle of things with who else but Diego Costa. Harry Kane and John Terry tried to quiet things down, but to little avail.

There are only two matches left in the Premier League season, but the FA will certainly be reviewing video of this incident and sanctions could come down on players or the clubs.