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.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.