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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.

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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.

Klinsmann wants “urgency” as USMNT for crucial World Cup qualifiers

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 21:  United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann (R) walks across the pitch with a group of players after losing their game against Argentina 4-0 during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Semifinal match at NRG Stadium on June 21, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t a man who messes around.

He wants his U.S. national team players to follow his lead.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

After naming a 26-man squad for the USMNT’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines this Friday and Trinidad & Tobago next Tuesday, Klinsmann didn’t spring any real surprises with the injured duo of Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes not available for selection.

Speaking to U.S. Soccer he revealed that although he’s stayed loyal to the players who led the U.S. to a fourth-place finish in the Copa America Centenario this summer, he wants to see added urgency from his team with a qualification to the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup very much in the balance.

“We definitely think that the group that got fourth in the Copa America deserves a certain priority going on to the next World Cup qualifiers because they did tremendously well in the Copa America,” Klinsmann said. “It was an exciting tournament with great games. The whole group learned a lot, playing teams like Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina. This is a big stage, and they deserve to come back and confirm what they did in the tournament in these upcoming, very important World Cup qualifiers. We are preparing for these two games very seriously, with a lot of urgency because we want to finish off our group in first place if possible, and this group of players gets the chance to do that.”

Heading into these final two Group C games in the third-round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the U.S. sits in second place behind T&T and everything is set up for a showdown in Jacksonville, Florida against the Soca Warriors.

[ MORE: USMNT squad in full for WC qualifiers ]

The U.S. should comfortably take care of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines later this week but with Guatemala and T&T squaring off in the other Group C game, there is a scenario where a defeat to T&T next Tuesday would eliminate the U.S. national team from World Cup qualifying before the Hexagonal round. If Guatemala wins its final two games and the U.S. beat Saint Vincent and the Grenadines but either lose or draw to T&T, they will be out of World Cup qualifying.

Right now that’s unthinkable but the fact that Klinsmann has decided to call up 19 of the 23 players who represented him at the Copa America this summer proves that he has finally found his core group of guys and will continue with a settled back four, however in midfield he will be missing the suspended Michael Bradley for the opening game and Jermaine Jones isn’t 100 percent fit.

The big issue for the U.S. over the next 10 days is up top.

Bobby Wood will play a leading role after netting on his debut for Hamburg this past weekend but without Zardes and Dempsey the U.S. needs Jozy Altidore to step up and prove he has once and for all recovered fully from a spate of nagging injuries. After Altidore, youngsters Rubio Rubin, Jordan Morris and Christian Pulisic will provide options, plus veteran Chris Wondolowski will also be around if needed.

You do wonder if the U.S. has enough firepower to break through a stubborn T&T defense next week who will likely come to U.S. soil knowing a draw or a smash-and-gran win will seal them top spot in Group C. Scoring goals will be the main concern nagging Klinsmann for the next 10 days as his squad  are under pressure after a defeat at Guatemala and a draw at T&T earlier in qualifying.

Allardyce explains Barkley omission, yet to name captain

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25:  Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce attends a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Sam Allardyce raised plenty of eyebrows with the omission of Everton’s Ross Barkley from his first squad as England manager.

[ MORE: Fabregas wants Chelsea stay ]

Allardyce, 61, named a 23-man squad for England’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Slovakia as he prepares his squad for his first game in charge.

The former Sunderland, West Ham, Newcastle, Blackburn and Bolton manager surprised many with the inclusion of West Ham’s winger Michail Antonio, and in a press conference on Monday he also confirmed he would name his England captain on Tuesday.

He also spoke about his decision to leave Barkley out.

“We’ve had to make some very, very difficult decisions. None more so than Ross Barkley. It’s disappointing for him,” Allardyce said. “The door will always be open for Ross but at this moment I think the squad I’ve named is right.”

Of course this is the right approach to take from Allardyce when it comes to dropping Barkley from the squad. He is still only 22-years-old and has considerable experience in the PL and with England at two major tournaments, even though he didn’t lay a single second at EURO 2016, he will get another chance. Allardyce would be foolish to complete cast the Everton playmaker aside and he knows it.

[ MORE: Allardyce’s first England squad in full ]

Barkley’s confidence may have been impacted by not being used by Roy Hodgson this summer but there is Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana and Dele Alli to compete with in that central attacking area.

Ronald Koeman has given Barkley a central role for the Toffees since taking charge and it is now down to the Liverpool born playmaker to become more productive in the final third and turn his undoubted potential into goals, assists and become the main man at Goodison Park. He has all the tools to succeed but maybe this snub will help Barkley refocus and go back to basics as he tries to impress Big Sam.

Fabregas denies rift with Conte, says he’s not leaving Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15:  Cesc Fabregas of Chelsea looks on from the sidelines during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge on August 15, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Cesc Fabregas has not started a single Premier League game for Chelsea so far this season under new manager Antonio Conte.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

The Spanish midfielder, 29, is seen by many as far too good to be sitting on the bench somewhere and coupled with reports that Fabregas had a falling out with Conte, many thought he could move on elsewhere in the final days of the window.

Apparently that is far from the truth.

After seeing widespread media speculation regarding a “bust up” with Conte, the former Arsenal and Barcelona playmaker has moved to quell the notion of him leaving Stamford Bridge.

Fabregas led the PL in assists in 2014-15, getting off to a flying start in Chelsea’s title-winning season. However his form dipped as that season closed out and last season he was a shadow of his former self as Jose Mourinho was fired and Chelsea ended up finishing in 10th place in the Premier League table.

With N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic the first-choice central midfield pairing for Conte, he has seen great balance in his side as they’ve won all three of their opening PL games.

Fabregas did provide a sumptuous assist on Diego Costa‘s late game-winner at Watford last weekend with a beautifully weighted 50-yard through ball but his lack of power and speed seem to mean he’s on the outside looking in when it comes to Conte’s starting lineup.

If he has aspirations of playing for Spain and playing regularly, surely Fabregas should move on. His qualities are undoubted in the right team but Conte’s Chelsea clearly won’t suit his strengths and vice versa.

Below is the message which Fabregas posted on Instagram.


Southampton sign rising star Sofiane Boufal for club-record fee

Sofiane Boufal signs for Southampton FC, pictured at The Staplewood Campus, Southampton, 29th August 2016, pictured with Executive Director of Football Les Reed
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Southampton have made a huge statement by signing Sofiane Boufal from Ligue 1 side Lille.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights 

After the deal was all but secured last week Saints announced the acquisition on Monday and it is believed Boufal initially cost over $21 million, a club-record transfer fee.

The Moroccan international attacking midfielder, 22, has signed a five-year deal with the club as Claude Puel has added an exciting, dynamic player to his ranks.

In the past Boufal had been linked with many of Europe’s top clubs but speaking to Southampton’s website after signing, Boufal revealed why he chose to move to St Mary’s.

“I’m very, very happy to sign for Southampton and I am really excited to play in St Mary’s Stadium in front of the fans,” Boufal said. “Southampton showed big interest in signing me, and I can see that this club is the best place for me to continue my progression as a footballer. I hope I can achieve many great things with Southampton. It is a very good club, with excellent facilities, and I feel it is the perfect environment to continue my development.”

This is a huge signing for Saints and one that should breath new life into their attacking unit, although Boufal may not be ready until a few weeks from now as he continues his recovery from a knee injury suffered at the end of last season.

Puel’s men have scored just two goals in their opening three games of the season and although they’ve looked confident in possession, they’ve run out of ideas in the final third. Boufal’s trickery, pace and direct running will help out with that.

After selling Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle this summer, Saints lost their top two goalscorers from last season. With Shane Long energetic but hardly prolific and both Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin injury prone in recent years, Puel’s options up top needed boosting. Boufal can operate centrally or on either flank and alongside Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond he will provide plenty of competition in the attacking areas.

At Lille he showed plenty of productivity last season with 12 goals in all competitions after making the step up from second-tier Angers in January 2015. Many in France have compared him to Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez.

It may have taken Saints a while to get this deal over the line but just like in previous windows they’ve sealed a gem close to the transfer deadline day. In the past two seasons they’ve picked up Mane and Virgil Van Dijk in the latter stages of the summer window and both of those buys turned out to be great players, and business, for the south coast club.

Boufal is expected to make a major impact in the PL and Europa League for Saints. Turns out that they aren’t just a selling club after all…