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.

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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.

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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.

Claudio Reyna eviscerates US Soccer as “arrogant” and “obnoxious”

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Former USMNT captain Claudio Reyna has come out guns blazing after the Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, repeatedly condemning the mentality of the coaches and players in the wake of the debacle.

Speaking to Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep, the usually hushed NYCFC Sporting Director put the USMNT on blast during his lengthy chat. “You travel to Spain, Argentina, Germany,” Reyna said, “and you run into coaches and sporting directors and there’s a humility about their work that doesn’t exist here, and that’s, for me, seeing it, is to me a big concern.”

“When you have a disappointment like last week, and we’ve had past disappointments as well, and we’ll have disappointments in the future, but what we need to understand that it’s for me behavioral.”

Reyna, who garnered 112 caps during his time with the US National Team as a midfielder, questioned the advancement of the game in the United States, looking to differentiate an increase in popularity from headway on the field. “What I think has happened in the past 10 years is we’re confusing investment, expansion, growth, and all these other things with progress,” Reyna said. “All these things have sort of created a feeling that we’re progressing, but I call it expanding, growth and more fans. From the general growth side it’s happening, but are we really progressing? When I look around at certain levels I don’t see progress happening.”

The 44-year-old eventually let the heads of the federation have it, saying nothing will improve no matter who is in charge unless the mentality of those at the helm changes. “People are sitting together and thinking about strategies and how we’re going to get better,” Reyna said. “We need a little humility and modesty at the table. Unfortunately we have a little too much ‘Mr. I Know Everything’, ‘Mr. Arrogance’, ‘Mr. Obnoxious’, ‘Mr. Loud’, and when those get together nothing happens.”

Before finishing out his chat with Goal, Reyna made sure to point out that the country has quality players at its disposal, and that it’s on the federation to develop them and pull the best out of them, or else the disappointments will continue.

“There’s a lot of positives despite the disappointing result that we had last week,” Reyna said. “I think we’re all embarrassed. I’m embarrassed as a former player that I have to go around and have people make fun of us, and get texts from my friends in Europe who remind me we’ll be on [vacation] next summer. I can laugh, but it hurts. It definitely hurts.”

De Bruyne on Silva spat: “I also get into some arguments with my wife”

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With Manchester City in total control of their Champions League match against Napoli at halftime, leading 2-0 and outshooting the visitors 11-4, it seemed all was right at the Etihad.

But then, as the players went down the tunnel for the break, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva were arguing, with the Belgian furious for some undisclosed reason. A closer inspection shows that de Bruyne actually had gone after the fourth official first, and instead, the captain Silva had stepped in, which angered de Bruyne further. Eventually, the players headed down the tunnel, and City would end up edging out a 2-1 victory.

But what happened at halftime? Is there discontent in the Manchester City locker room?

Afraid not. “I think we had a little discussion,” de Bruyne told reporters in street clothes after the match. “There’s nothing wrong, after one minute that is over. At home I also get into some arguments with my wife, I think it’s normal. I think this is necessary. But now everything is ok, it’s just what happens sometimes.”

It’s most likely that de Bruyne was angry about the penalty called in the 38th minute which Dries Mertens saw saved. The foul was given on Kyle Walker for pulling down Raul Albiol down from behind. With de Bruyne incensed, it was on Silva to keep his stellar attacking midfielder from finding himself in hot water.

Allardyce not interested in Leicester City, Dyche the early favorite

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Amid plenty of calls for Leicester City to shoot for the moon as they search for a new manager, a more realistic name has emerged as an early frontrunner.

Craig Shakespeare, the man rumored to have engineered the downfall of Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City to take the reigns himself, was canned after just 26 games in charge. That has left a managerial opening at a club that to this point nobody can quite figure out how attractive a position it truly is.

There are calls for a run at top managerial names without a job, such as Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc, but instead the choice could come from within the current Premier League ranks.

Journeyman Sam Allardyce has ruled himself out of the running, saying on Talksport, “As big a club and as much as I would love to manage Leicester I don’t think it is time for me to manage yet. I’m not ready I don’t think. Having been in the game so long and done it so long, and looking at how I felt at the end of last season, I feel I am enjoying my life too much. Yes, it would have interested me and yes, I would take the Leicester job, but not at this time.”

Those quotes should also do much to quell rumors of a USMNT stint for Allardyce as well.

Next in line for the Leicester opening is Burnley boss Sean Dyche, who according to the Daily Mail is “interested” in the position, whatever that means. However, the catch is that due to his current post at Turf Moor, the Foxes would owe Burnley $3.4 million should he break his contract and move positions, a number which comes along with Dyche’s new Burnley contract signed this past summer.

Other names mentioned include the likes of former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, Huddersfield Town’s David Wagner, and Wales boss Chris Coleman. Tuchel would be a stretch with the German likely looking for a bigger name, while Wagner would be tough to pry from Huddersfield after their solid start to the Premier League season plus likely competition from the United States national team. Coleman seems the most likely of the bunch, with his time in charge of Wales proving rocky in the recent past, especially as they narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification.

Chelsea facing lineup nightmare as they limp into Champions League play

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With the 2017-18 campaign just two months old, Chelsea has been rocked by injuries, potentially ruining Antonio Conte‘s ability to piece together his famed 3-5-2 lineup that saw the Blues storm to the Premier League title last season.

N'Golo Kante‘s absence thanks to a hamstring injury has seen his midfield torn apart at times, including against lowly Crystal Palace as Chelsea slumped to defeat to the then-pointless Eagles. Fellow former Fox Danny Drinkwater also sits, having yet to make his Chelsea debut with a calf injury vexing the England international thus far.

Wing-back Victor Moses, who has become a star at a position nobody could have seen him excelling at, is also sidelined with a bum hamstring and must be replaced. The Italian boss could call in deadline day signing Davide Zappacosta to fill the role, but it’s not that simple.

[ WRAP: A complete rundown of Tuesday’s Champions League action ]

Complicating matters greatly, Conte has the opposite situation to navigate along his back line. A pair of poor performances in league play has his defense suddenly under fire, thanks to the good form of his replacements who are pushing for more time on the field. With both Antonio Rudiger and young Andreas Christensen putting in solid performances when called upon, there is suddenly increasing chatter that they should be given starts ahead of Gary Cahill, David Luiz, and Cesar Azpilicueta.

Thankfully for Conte, he can once again call upon the services of talisman striker Alvaro Morata, not worrying about the poor form of Michy Batshuayi who had such a bright start to the season.

[ PREVIEW: A full look at Wednesday’s Champions League slate ]

So, his options are thus: he could either call in Davide Zappacosta to fill Victor Moses’s role without changing the base 3-5-2 with Morata and Pedro up high, leaving Rudiger and Christensen on the bench while hoping that Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas can manage in midfield better than against Crystal Palace. Or, he could shuffle the deck completely and shift to another formation.

Another option presented is a 3-4-3, with Morata by himself in the middle flanked by Willian and Pedro, leaving the central midfield pairing even more exposed. However, that option allows the possibility of patching that midfield by pushing David Luiz or even Rudiger forward, allowing another defender to see the field likely in place of Fabregas. That puts more creative duties on Bakayoko’s plate, or sees the Frenchman fall to the bench, although swapping the defensive midfielder for a central defender seems to have little benefit.

These lineup choices are of the utmost importance as Chelsea meets AS Roma in Champions League play on Wednesday, because a victory would give them a perfect nine points out of nine, leaving them with tons of wiggle-room with three matches remaining. That five-point cushion would present the Blues with the ability to rotate the squad moving forward, a luxury so desperately needed with the injury problems and questions to sort out at the back. That could be invaluable not only to Chelsea’s Champions League standing but also their increasingly questionable Premier League health as the Manchester clubs continue to show stunning form at the top of the table.