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UEFA Champions League Tuesday Preview: Napoli to test Arsenal; Atlético’s siege on the Dragão

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage is back Tuesday, Groups E through H kicking off the tournament’s second round of action. With special focus on games at the Emirates Stadium and the Dragão in Portugal, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight matches:

FOR NAPOLI, OVERLOOKED SIGNING COULD PROVE VITAL
Arsenal (3 pts., England) vs. Napoli (3 pts., Italy)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, London (Emirates Stadium), England

Raúl Albiol was overlooked, perhaps because his move to Real Madrid had been so disappointing. By the time he left the Bernabéu, the center back was practically a forgotten man. Former Blancos Gonzalo Higuáin and José Callejon made more publicized moves to Naples, as did Pepe Reina from Liverpool. But the former Valencia man whose ability to replace Hugo Campagnaro would be so crucial? His move to Napoli was overlooked.

Though five Serie A appearances, Albiol’s contributions have been mostly quiet ones; but then again, most central defenders’ contributions are. But in that quiet — that murmur that’s come of the restrained, preseason fear Napoli hadn’t replaced their best defender — you can feel a building confidence. Maybe this 28-year-old who hadn’t been a regular starter since 2010 could replace their Argentine linchpin? In Albiol’s six games (one in Champions League), Napoli’s only allowed four goals.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to get too excited about Albiol is his skillset, where no single facet of his game stands out. He’s tall, but he’s no giant (6’3″). While he can handle himself physically, he’s not spectacularly strong or aggressive. He’s above average in the air and surprisingly good with the ball at his feet, albeit in a benign kind of way (he’s never scored more than three goals in a season). He reads the game well and has a knack for being in the right place when his team needs a crucial clearance, but against elite strikers, he’s capable of being beaten by speed or brute force. He is, almost across the board, and above-average but not elite talent.

source: Getty Images
Raúl Albiol, pictured here with Milan’s Mario Balotelli, spent four years at Real Madrid after transferring from Valencia in the summer of 2009. After making 33 Liga appearances in 2009-10, Albiol appearred 48 times over his final three years at the Santiago Bernabéu. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Tuesday may underscore his importance. The Spanish international is a game-time decision for Napoli’s visit to Arsenal, a thigh injury that cost him the second half of Saturday’s game at Genoa leaving his status in doubt. (“We will see,” is all Napoli manager Rafa Benítez would say on Monday about his defender’s status). If he can’t go, Napoli will be left in the same position Marseille was in two weeks ago, when the absence of Souleymane Diawara from l’OM’s central defense was exploited in the Gunners’ 2-1 win at Stade Velodrome.

[MORE: Another step forward as Arsenal pass through Marseille.]

[MORE: Napoli hold serve, knock of visiting Borussia Dortmund.]

Beyond Albiol’s situation, there’s another reason that Arsenal’s Marseille win should be particularly alarming to Benítez. As they also showed this weekend against Swansea, Arsenal has become adept at winning matches multiple ways. Whereas before victories while being deprived the ball were exceptions, now they’re on the verge of becoming rules. There’s a patience, resourcefulness, and resiliency to this team which, if it persists, will make them more dangerous in this tournament’s knockout rounds than they’ve been over the last three years.

So what does Rafa Benítez do, tactically? Does he set up his team to be content with a point, as he’s done so often in Champions League? Does he try to control play, as his talent’s capable of doing, in hopes he can do what Marseille and Swansea did not? Or does try to bulldoze through an Arsenal team that may yet prove a fluke?

If Benítez’s choice works, or if Napoli otherwise stumble into a result, it will be a severe blow to the Gunners’ hopes of advancing. In one of the toughest groups in recent memory, dropping home points could be debilitating. Particularly given Marseille’s relative weakness, double-digit points may not be enough (Arsène Wenger pointed out 10.2 is the average that gets you through). With away games in Dortmund and Naples still on their schedule, Arsenal can’t afford to drop points at home.

If they do, they’ll be counting on their rivals to make similar mistakes when between now and December. That, or they be left hoping Marseille’s more challenging to the rest of the group than they were in round one.

Bumps and bruises: Álbiol isn’t Napoli’s only doubt. Higuaín is also dealing with a thigh problem. If he can’t go, expect Duván Zapata, who started in his place Saturday, to get the call. Right back Christian Maggio, having undergone surgery on his right knee last week, is out for a month. For Arsenal, the team should look very similar to the one that started this weekend. Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Lukas Podolski are all out.

source: Getty Images
Diego Costa, joint-top of Spain’s goal-scoring list, returns for Atlético after serving a suspension during his team’s opening round win against Zenit. The Brazilian-born potential Spaniard has eight goals in nine all-competition games this season. (Photo: Getty Images.)

LAYING SEIGE AT THE DRAGON’S LAIR
FC Porto (3 pts., Portugal) vs. Atlético Madrid (3 pts., Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Porto (Estadio do Dragão), Portugal

It’s been 19 months since Porto lost at home. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time they lost at home in Champions League. Unbeaten in 75 league games at the Dragão, the 2003-04 champions have made their home into a fortress.

Contrast that with Atlético’s form – the irresistible force to the Dragão’s immovable object. Diego Simeone’s team is unbeaten in nine games: six in league (6-0-0); a convincing Champions League opener against Zenit (1-0-0); and two persuasive draws with Barcelona in the Spanish Supercopa. To use our now-reoccurring ploy, if we did European Power Rankings, Atlético would be in the top five.

How, exactly, they’ve managed this beguiling ascent remains a mystery, though we addressed it briefly when discussing the implications of this weekend’s Derbi – once of the most meaningful victories in recent Colchonero history. If Atlético is capable of going into the Santiago Bernabéu, overturning 14 years of gloom and defeatism, and winning a 1-0 result despite their large talent deficit, they may be the perfect team to ignore history at the Dragão.

[MORE: Spain: Derbi loss was so much more for Real Madrid.]

Under Simeone, Atlético has become used to defying expectations. It’s what’s gotten them to the top of La Liga. They’ve claimed a Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, and Copa del Rey since Simeone’s Dec. 2011 arrival, using discipline, intelligence, and ingenuity to augment financial restraints that have cost them Sergio Agüero and Radamel Falcao.

While all teams want to be disciplined and intelligent, Simeone’s convinced his team belief in those principles allows them to compete with anybody. It’s why Atlético are often described as more Italian than Spanish. It’s also why they’re the new favorites in Group G.

Porto is in the unfortunate situation where a draw isn’t enough, with points dropped at home leaving them susceptible to losing out on a knockout round spot to Atlético and Zenit. In an ideal situation, they’d get an early goal from Jackson Martínez, Josue, or Juan Quintero – a score that would allow Paulo Fonseca to pull back midfielders Lucho Gonzalez and Licá to help Fernando protect defenders Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala from Atlético strikers Diego Costa and David Villa.

But against an Atleti team that’s given up seven goals in 10 competitive matches — a team that’s held Barcelona and Real Madrid to a single score over a combined 270 minutes — Porto shouldn’t count on it. The Portuguese champions may need the magic of the Dragão if they’re going to defend their fortress.

source: Getty Images
With six goals, Robert Lewandowski (right) leads a Borussia Dortmund attack that’s scored 21 times in seven Bundesliga matches. The Poland international has 82 all-competition goals since moving to BVB from Lech Poznan in the summer of 2010. (Photo: Getty Images.)

FAVORITES LOOK TO BOUNCE BACK

Steaua Bucharest (0 pts., Romania) vs. Chelsea (0 pts., England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Bucharest (National Arena), Romania

Borussia Dortmund (0 pts., Germany) vs. Marseille (0 pts., France)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Dortmund (Westfalenstadion), Germany

It’s two early for must-win-talk, but for Borussia Dortmund and (especially) Chelsea, points dropped on Tuesday would inspire some panic. Chelsea, coming off a home loss to Basel two weeks ago, need to reclaim lost points against their group’s weakest team, while Dortmund, though they’re coming off an acceptable (if not expected) loss at Napoli, can’t afford to drop home points in a historically strong group.

[MORE: Basel pull off Champions League’s first big upset, beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.]

Steaua aren’t exactly pushovers, their 6-0-1 record in Romania a testament to their quality, but as was evident two weeks ago in Gelsenkirchen, they’re slightly out of their depth at this level. A Schalke team that’s more inconsistent than dangerous were able to wear them down over the match’s first hour, eventually posting a seemingly obligatory 3-0 win.

Even with a change of venue, moving to Romania’s National Arena, they will be susceptible to the same result against Chelsea. If the Blues take them seriously and avoid the ease with which they tried to close out Basel, they should claim their first win of the tournament, even if they failed to do so when visiting Steaua in last season’s Europa League.

Borussia Dortmund’s task is slightly more difficult, even if they’ll have the benefit of playing at home. Marseille, having moved Jordan Ayew into the starting lineup at striker André Pierre-Gignac’s expense (toe injury), are starting to produce more goals, scoring twice in each of their last two games. The team that couldn’t convert their quality into goal against Arsenal may have worked out a way to convert. Despite playing on the road (where they won in 2011-12’s group stage), Élie Baup’s team may be ready for the challenge.

That challenge will come against a team that’s missing their head coach, Jürgen Klopp suspended for Tuesday’s game. Dortmund will also be without their starting goalkeeper (Roman Weidenfeller, suspended), left back (Marcel Schmelzer, thigh), right back (Lukasz Piszczek, hip), best midfielder (Ilkay Gudongen, back), and captain (Sebastian Kehl, ankle). While BVB aren’t quite depleted, they are vulnerable.

Unfortunately for Marseille, Dortmund’s prodigious attacking four will be ready to go. Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Marco Reus and Henrik Mkhitaryan have already accounted for 18 goals in Bundesliga play, and while Marseille’s defensive record in France has been impressive since Baup took over last year, no attack in France (not even Paris Saint-Germain’s) matches the fury that can unleashed by Dortmund.

Others
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern with the exception of Zenit-Austria, which starts at noon.

  • Zenit St. Petersburg (0 pts., Russia) vs. Austria Wien (0 pts., Austria), Petrovski Stadium, St. Petersburg – Zenit will be confident and motivated, having won five-in-a-row in Russia ahead of a game they need to win. This is the easiest fixture on their Champions League schedule. If they drop points after losing at the Vicente Calderon, their get-out-of-group scenarios all of a sudden involve winning at Porto or relying on full points at home against Atlético. Beating Austria Wien at home means they wouldn’t be dependent on either. Struggling in league and potentially missing four starters with injury, Austria will be hard-pressed to slow a team that’s scored 12 goals in their last three games.
  • Ajax (0 pts., Netherlands) vs. AC Milan (3 pts., Italy), Amsterdam ArenA – Milan makes their second trip to the Netherlands this year for a meeting of two of the most accomplished teams in European soccer. The Rossoneri saw Ajax rivals PSV out of the competition in the playoff stage and will welcome Mario Balotelli back to the field, the Italian international currently suspended in Serie A. Max Allegri will also have Riccardo Montolivo available but will be without Stephan El Shaarawy, Kaká, Giampaolo Pazzini, Mattia De Siglio, and Daniele Bonera, among others. Though Ajax is coming off a 6-0 win in league, Milan will expect to overcome their injuries and knock off the Dutch champions, who haven’t qualified for a knockout round since 2005-06.
  • Celtic (0 pts., Scotland) vs. Barcelona (3 pts., Spain), Celtic Park, GlasgowLionel Messi’s thigh injury will prevent him from taking part in a game that should test Gerardo Martino’s attempt to instill a more direct option at Barcelona. Celtic had success against Barça in last year’s Champions League, countering their way to a 2-1, group stage win in Glasgow, but if Martino’s want to play more direct has a benefit, it will be in preventing Celtic from setting up their bunker after losing the ball. With three key defenders out (Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano), Barcelona will still be tested at the other end, particularly if Giorgios Samaras, coming off a weekend hat trick, can create set piece opportunities to tax Martino’s second choice defenders.
  • Basel (3 pts., Switzerland) vs. Schalke (3 pts., Germany), St. Jakob Park, Basel – Schalke boss Jens Keller concedes that his team are probably underdogs, a rarity when a German team faces a Swiss one. But as Basel showed in round one, they’re not a typical Swiss team, their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge holding up as the round’s big upset. Schalke were also impressive in round one but will be without midfield linchpin Jermaine Jones, who joins an injury list that includes Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Christian Fuchs, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, and Chinedu Obasi. German starlet Julian Draxler, however, is expected to return, though it will be the Schalke defense that will be stressed against the likes of Valentin Stocker, Mohamed Salah, and Marco Streller.

Worker dies after falling ill at Qatar World Cup stadium site

In this photo taken during a government organized media tour, workers use heavy machinery at the Al-Wakra Stadium being built for the 2022 World Cup, in Doha, Qatar, Monday, May 4, 2015. Qatar’s inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was “a mistake” the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the country’s top labor official said Monday, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) World Cup organizers say a worker has died after falling ill on the site of one of the stadiums being constructed for the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

[ MORE: The latest FIFA news ]

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said Saturday that 48-year-old Indian national Jaleshwar Prasad died after he “fell ill on-site around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.”

The statement says that Prasad, who was a steel worker employed on the Al Bayt Stadium project, “received first aid treatment until paramedics arrived. He was transferred to Al Khor Hospital but sadly passed away around 11:30 a.m. Al Khor Hospital reported the cause of death as cardiac arrest.”

It adds that “a full investigation is underway.”

[ MORE: FIFA panel to monitor labor conditions in Qatar ]

Qatar is often criticized by rights groups and trade unions for alleged abuses and deaths on a range of construction projects linked to the 2022 World Cup since it won hosting rights in 2010.

Qatar is relying heavily on construction workers from south Asia.

A FIFA-appointed human rights expert from Harvard University recently advised that tournaments should be moved from countries where abuses persisted.

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 2-2 Colorado Rapids (video)

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba celebrates his goal against the Colorado Rapids during first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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The game in 100 words (or less): Dropped points from a winning position are the ones that frustrate and come back to haunt managers more than anything. Twice on Saturday, the Montreal Impact conceded goals from a winning position and were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw with the suddenly rampant Colorado Rapids at Stade Saputo. Didieo Drogba scored another magnificent free kick (video below), but a bit of calamitous set-piece defending on the Rapids’ second goal ultimately meant two points dropped by Mauro Biello’s side, though their hold on the Eastern Conference’s top spot remains intact for one more day (third-place Toronto FC will go top of the East with a win on Sunday). The Rapids, meanwhile, are four games without a defeat and top of the Western Conference for the time being (fourth- and fifth-place LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake could claim the spot as their own with wins on Sunday and Saturday, respectively).

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four moments that mattered

9′ — Drogba’s latest FK beauty makes it 1-0 — If you haven’t loved watching Drogba destroy MLS since his arrival last August, you must be a Toronto FC fan. Or you hate fun, beautiful things, like this free kick.

47′ — Gashi finishes Williams’ cross for 1-1 — Mekeil Williams served the ball across the face of goal, and Gashi made no mistake on the finish, hammering it past Evan Bush to bring the visitors level.

50′ — Tissot hammers home from distance to restore the lead — As they say, this ball stayed hit. Also, it had eyes.

73′ — Burling smashes home from close range — Gashi’s free kick caused all kinds of problems for the Impact defense, leaving Bush unsure of whether to come out and attack the ball or stay on his line. Axel Sjoberg kept the play alive, playing the ball across the face of goal, and Bobby Burling found himself on the right side of his marker.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Shklezen Gashi

Goalscorers: Drogba (9′), Gashi (47′), Tissot (50′), Burling (73′)

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 3-2 Vancouver Whitecaps (video)

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
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The game in 100 words (or less): New York City FC are still Frank Lampard-less (he’s yet to even appear on the bench this season), but at least they’re not seven games without a victory anymore. Having last won a game back on March 6, opening day, Patrick Vieira’s side stole one of the wackier games we’re likely to see all season at — yes, you guessed it — Yankee Stadium on Saturday. From down a goal after 37 seconds, to up 2-1 after a pair of brilliant strikes by David Villa, to staring into the face of another disappointing draw, to late jubilation, being an NYCFC supporter must be super fun awful exhausting. Let’s talk about Villa for a moment: 32 goals and assists combined in 39 MLS appearances. That’s not quite Robbie Keane territory, but alongside Sebastian Giovinco, he’s the only one anywhere close to achieving Keane’s obscene numbers.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

1′ — Saunders gifts Rivero an early opener — It took NYCFC all of 37 seconds to go a goal behind, and Josh Saunders has no one but himself to blame for this one. Octavio Rivero hadn’t scored a goal in over eight months. This is one way to get going.

35′ — Villa clinical with his chance for 1-1 — Khiry Shelton played the through ball into acres of space, and Villa doesn’t miss chances like this one.

41′ — Villa side-volleys from a corner kick for 2-0 — Having Andrea Pirlo serve up delicate set-piece delivery to the back post for David Villa seems a fairly smart “gameplan” by Patrick Vieira. Villa is simply brilliant.

63′ — Bolaños puts home his own saved-PK rebound — Kekuta Manneh was taken down inside the penalty area, and Christian Bolaños nearly blew the penalty chance, but the Costa Rican followed up on the rebound and pulled the visitors level again.

73′ — Mendoza beats Ousted at his near post for the winner — David Ousted will be seeing this one in his sleep tonight. Beaten at his near post by a worm-burner without too terribly much behind it … not great from the big Dane.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Rivero (1′), Villa (35′, 41′), Bolaños (63′), Mendoza (73′)

MLS Snapshot: Seattle Sounders 1-0 Columbus Crew SC (video)

Seattle Sounders' Jordan Morris, left, celebrates with teammate Nelson Valdez, right, after Morris scored a goal against the Philadelphia Union during the second half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Seattle. The goal was Morris' first career MLS goal, and the Sounders defeated the Union 2-1. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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The game in 100 words (or less): Slowly but surely, it’s all starting to come together for the Seattle Sounders. Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC is the latest proof we have that Sigi Schmid’s side is finding its way and realizing its new, post-Obafemi Martins identity. After struggling mightily the first month and a half of the 2016 season, Saturday’s win saw a side full of attacking intent and, most importantly, ever-dangerous on counter-attacks.  As a newly-committed 4-3-3 side, this season’s edition of the Sounders will have to be much sturdier at the back, adept at attacking down the wings, and ruthless with their inevitably fewer chances. It was the last bit of that that eluded them for much of Saturday afternoon, but Jordan Morris provided the late breakthrough to score his third goal in three games, and suddenly the most heralded homegrown player in MLS history is flying.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three moments that mattered

42′ — Finlay is in one-on-one, blows the finish — The build-up was brilliant, and all Ethan Finlay had to do was beat Stefan Frei with a shot inside of either post. Instead…

50′ — Dempsey heads just over the bar at the far post — Joevin Jones got all the way up the left wing and whipped in a delightful cross to the back post, but Clint Dempsey couldn’t keep his header down and it sailed just over the bar (WATCH HERE).

88′ — Morris bundles home after Clark makes a save — More like Jordan on the Spot, am I right?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Osvaldo Alonso

Goalscorers: Morris (88′)