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.

Totti leaves future uncertain before final match with Roma

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ROME (AP) Francesco Totti has finally announced that Sunday’s match against Genoa will be his last with Roma after an incredible 25-season career with his hometown club.

Whether the 40-year-old Totti will continue playing with another squad remains anyone’s guess.

The 2006 World Cup winner opened his future to questions by releasing a carefully worded statement on Thursday.

[ MORE: Jordan Morris talks to PST ]

“Roma-Genoa, Sunday 28th May 2017. The last time I can wear Roma’s jersey,” Totti said. “I can’t tell you in a few words how much these colors meant, mean and will always mean to me.

“I just feel that my love for football never fades; it’s a passion, my passion. It’s so deep I can’t imagine not fueling it any longer. Ever. From Monday I’m ready to go again. I’m ready for a new challenge,” Totti added.

The first part of Totti’s statement inferred that it wasn’t his decision to end his Roma career but that of the club, by not offering him a contract for next season.

Totti has not hidden his difficult relationship with Roma coach Luciano Spalletti, who has used Totti mainly as a last-option substitute.

However, Spalletti is widely expected to follow former Roma sporting director Walter Sabatini to Inter Milan; while Sassuolo coach Eusebio Di Francesco, a former teammate of Totti’s, could move to Roma.

The second part of Totti’s statement, when he mentioned a “new challenge,” inferred that Totti is considering ending his career with another club.

Miami FC, which plays in the second-tier NASL and is managed by Totti’s former teammate with the national team, Alessandro Nesta, and co-owned by Paolo Maldini – another former Italy teammate – appears to be the most attractive option.

James Pallotta, Roma’s American owner, has offered Totti an unspecified management position.

As for Sunday, Totti is not expected to start.

While the match at the Stadio Olimpico was sold out for Totti’s goodbye, Roma enters the final match of the season still looking to seal second place in Serie A and a direct berth into the Champions League.

Roma is one point ahead of third-place Napoli, which will play at Sampdoria.

Totti has appeared in 785 matches in all competitions with Roma, third all-time in Italy for most games with a single club behind only Maldini (902 with AC Milan) and Javier Zanetti (858 with Inter Milan).

Totti is also second all-time in goals scored in Serie A with 250, 24 short of the record that Silvio Piola established from 1929-54. No other active player has more than 200.

But statistics don’t tell the entire story for Totti, a cultural icon perhaps more linked with his club and city than any other player in Italian history.

Born in the working-class San Giovanni section of Rome, Totti made his debut for Roma at the age of 16 way back in 1993.

In 1998 at the age of 22, Totti became the youngest ever Serie A captain.

At the 2000 European Championship, Totti’s chipped “Panenka” penalty against the Netherlands highlighted his talent and audacity.

A year later, Totti led Roma to its third Serie A title and was the centerpiece of a celebration inside the Circus Maximus attended by a crowd estimated at 1 million.

After a spitting incident with Denmark’s Christian Poulsen at Euro 2004 slightly tarnished his image, Totti regained respect within the national team by returning from a broken leg to help Italy win the 2006 World Cup – playing with a metal rod and about 10 support screws inside his left ankle.

In 2007, Totti led Serie A with a personal-high 26 goals and earned the Golden Shoe award as the top scorer in Europe.

In 2015, Totti scored twice as Roma came back from two goals down to earn a draw with Lazio in the city derby, then took a selfie with Roma’s fans in the background.

A final highlight came in February, when Totti scored in added time to give Roma a 2-1 win over Cesena and a spot in the Italian Cup semifinals.

On Sunday, Totti’s career will be honored with an extensive post-match celebration at the Olimpico.

Whether or not there will be more highlights next season – somewhere – remains to be seen.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Transfer rumor roundup: Morata flying to Milan, Carvalho to Newcastle

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Alvaro Morata is one of the hottest properties on the planet. Like James Rodriguez, he doesn’t get the time at Real Madrid he’d receive at most other clubs in the world. And like James, he’s been linked with plenty of clubs including Premier League powers Chelsea and Manchester United.

[ MORE: Man City medical for Silva ]

But Italian site Gazzetta says Morata will skip over the Premier League for a return to Serie A, this time heading to AC Milan. The ex-Juventus star, 24, scored 20 goals in 42 appearances for Real this year.

Morata is said to be flying to Italy, hours after Marca claimed that Jose Mourinho would insist on his inclusion in any deal for David De Gea.

Newcastle United is the latest club linked to Portuguese center midfielder William Carvalho, and the Magpies are said to be looking into a $78 million bid. The 25-year-old Sporting CP dynamo is a regular in the transfer rumor mill, and has 31 caps for Portugal. The Angola-born Carvalho played nearly every minute of Portugal’s EURO 2016 winning run.

Sevilla: Agreement with Sampaoli to leave for Argentina job

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Argentine managerial wizard Jorge Sampaoli is coming home.

Sevilla announced that Sampaoli is leaving the club after one season to take charge of the Argentina national team, with La Albiceleste’s World Cup fate hanging in the balance.

Sampaoli won 50 percent of his matches at Sevilla, leading the side to the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 in addition to finishing fourth in La Liga.

[ MORE: U-20 World Cup latest

He previously led Chile to its first Copa America crown.

Sevilla said the agreement to let him go will be signed on Thursday, allowing him to oversee Argentina’s next World Cup qualifier in late August. Argentina sits fifth in the CONMEBOL table, just two points out of second.

It heads to Uruguay before hosting Venezuela, with the remaining qualifiers versus Peru and away to Ecuador.

FA Cup Final preview: Desperate Arsenal meets Double-seeking Blues

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  • Clubs split PL series
  • Chelsea’s Conte aims for double
  • Chelsea 8W-3D-2L vs. Arsenal since 2012

Arsenal and Chelsea face off with a trophy on the line for the fourth time this century when the London sides hit Wembley Stadium for Saturday’s FA Cup Final.

Arsenal beat Chelsea in the 2015 Community Shield, the first silverware match-up between the two sides since the 2007 League Cup Final in Wales. The Blues won that one, 2-1, while Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 in the 2002 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: Conte open to contract extension ]

A win would be Arsenal’s third FA Cup trophy in four seasons, and Arsenal would be thrilled to put something shiny in its trophy case following a season of tumult at the Emirates Stadium which ended without UEFA Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years.

Conte knows Arsenal is desperate for something good.

What they’re saying

Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on what a win could mean“We wanted to finish higher up in the league, there is no doubting that. We cannot hide from that and we need to own up to that. The FA Cup is a big trophy, one we want to win and which would definitely boost morale going into next season.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte on the match: “If you ask me who is the favorite now, I can tell you it is Arsenal because Arsenal now has the possibility to find a good season after a win in the FA Cup. For this reason, we must play with great patience. We must find in ourselves the right motivation, the right anger because the game can be very difficult for all of these reasons.”

Prediction

Could go either way, with many players not just glory-hunting but in the shop window. Will Alexis Sanchez be the difference maker? Mesut Ozil? Maybe, but we think Chelsea ratchets up the intensity one more time and claims a double with a 2-1 win.