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.

MLS Snapshots: Opara scores a bike, SKC win; SJ thump RSL

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): I’m going to start by quoting myself (re: Sporting Kansas City), via Twitter: “This team is better in June than it was in March, and will be better in October than it is in June. Just steadily progressing.” Saturday’s 2-1 victory away to LA Galaxy (just their second road win of the season, and the team’s fourth and fifth away goals in 10 games) is the latest sign of progress for Peter Vermes’ side, as they extend their lead on the rest of the Western Conference to five points. Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara scored the visitors’ goals — the latter coming in spectacular, most unexpected fashion — before the hosts pulled back to 2-1 through Dave Romney late in the second half. LA, meanwhile, sit sixth in the West, one point clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Diop’s howler puts SKC up 1-0 — Sometimes — and this is one of those moments for Clement Diop — you just want the ground to open up and swallow you into the middle of the Earth.

35′ — Opara rides his bike to 2-0 — Ike Opara, a center back, scored a bicycle kick from a long ball played to him by Matt Besler, Sporting KC’s other center back. It’s a sequence of events you won’t see again for a long, long time.

59′ — Smith goes through Feilhaber, who is subbed off — Baldomero Toledo allowed Nathan Smith to stay on the field after this “tackle” on Benny Feilhaber.

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Man of the match: Ike Opara

Goalscorers: Espinoza (22′), Opara (35′)


San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Three Two moments that mattered

13′ — Hoesen blasts a loose ball past Rimando for 1-0 — If you fail to clear the ball anywhere inside 12 yards, you’re probably going to get scored on. Danny Hoesen got all of this one.

68′ — Hoesen sets up Ureña for 2-0 — Hoesen’s speculative through ball found its way into space, and Marco Ureñat took it from there, putting the game away and handing RSL their eighth loss in 11 games.

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

Man of the match: Danny Hoesen

Goalscorers: Hoesen (13′), Ureña (68′), Hernandez (90+4′)

MLS Snapshots: Hat trick for Accam; MNUFC come back from 2-0

Photo credit: Chicago Fire / Twitter: @ChicagoFire
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The game in 100 words (or less): All hail King David Accam, the newest superstar of MLS — except, well, you know, he’s been doing this for a couple years now. It’s not his fault you hadn’t already taken notice. For too long, it was Accam and not much else for the Chicago Fire, who finished bottom of the league two straight seasons, in 2015 and 2016. Now, with the likes of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining him in Bridgeview, Accam has ascended to his rightful throne as an MVP candidate. The 26-year-old Ghanaian international strengthened his case on Saturday, bagging three goals and an assist, playing a key part in all four goals, in Chicago’s 4-0 drubbing of Orlando City SC. Accam’s season stats now sit at 10 goals and six assists, for the Eastern Conference’s second-place team. If these kind of performances persist, don’t be surprised when Accam follows in Fabian Castillo’s footsteps, right off to Europe.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

8′ — Accam rounds Bendik for 2-0 — The long-ball distribution from Bastian Schweinsteiger is perfect, but Accam still has a ton to do from there. He corrals the ball with his first touch, quickly goes around Joe Bendik, gets his wits about him and fires through an opening to make it David Accam 2-0 Orlando City SC. This one came just six minutes after his brilliant backheel finish for the opening goal.

52′ — Accam sets up Nikolic for 3-0 — The time and space afforded Accam is inexcusable from Orlando’s midfield remaining players in their defensive half of the field, but the through ball still required inch-perfect precision to find Nikolic.

63′ — Accam converts from the spot — No doubt about this one, as Accam slams home from the penalty spot to complete his much deserved hat trick.

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

Man of the match: David Accam

Goalscorers: Accam (3′, 8′, 63′ – PK), Nikolic (52′)


Minnesota United 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Three moments that mattered

45+2′ — Tchani heads a rocket past Shuttleworth — You’re not going to find many headers with more power behind them than this one from Tony Tchani, anywhere in the world, anytime.

50′ — Calvo heads down and past Ousted — Take, for example, Francisco Calvo’s goal five minutes into the second half… not quite as much behind it.

63′ — Thiesson hits it low, through traffic, for 2-0 — Jerome Thiesson’s equalizer needed eyes to make its way through a penalty area full of bodies.

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Man of the match: Kevin Molino

Goalscorers: Techera (17′ – PK), Tchani (45+2′), Calvo (50′), Thiesson (63′)

MLS Snapshots: Manneh inspires Crew SC; Philly, Atlanta win at home

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Montreal Impact

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Higuain’s free kick beats Bush — Aided by a slight deflection off the top of the wall, Higuain put a free kick past Evan Bush to give the home side an early lead.

70′ — Manneh makes an immediate impact — The initial ball from Higuain is what you came here for, but the elementary defending by three Montreal defenders is what’ll keep you glued until the very end.

72′ — Manneh sets up Kamara for 3-1 — Kekuta Manneh had been on the field for all of three minutes, and he put a goal and an assist to his name. Most importantly, three points to that of Crew SC.

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

Man of the match: Federico Higuain

Goalscorers: Higuain (17′, 88′), Jackson-Hamel (19′), Manneh (70′), Kamara (72′)


 

Philadelphia Union 1-0 D.C. United

Three moments that mattered

28′ — Blake gets down to deny Harkes from distance — Ian Harkes had picked out a spot just inside the far post, but Andre Blake was well up to the task of denying DCU’s homegrown rookie.

31′ — Picault slams Bedoya’s cross — Alejandro Bedoya’s cross has some serious loft on it, which it makes it so tough to keep the ensuing shot low and to hit it with such power. Fantastic finish from Picault.

70′ — Blake stone-walls Neagle from the spot — It’s a pretty poor penalty from Lamar Neagle, but it’s a massive moment so badly needed by Andre Blake who’s been well off his own standard this season. Don’t be surprised if it’s a season-turning save for the talented Jamaican.

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

Man of the match: Andre Blake

Goalscorers: Picault (31′)


 

Atlanta United 1-0 Colorado Rapids

Three One moment that mattered

67′ — Martinez turns and beats Howard for the game’s only goal — You can’t give Josef Martinez this kind of space, and this kind of time, around the six-yard box. He’s shown us seven times already this season (in just seven games) how deadly he is from there.

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Man of the match: Josef Martinez

Goalscorers: Martinez (67′)

VIDEO: Accam’s slick backheel puts Chicago ahead

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For the last two years, David Accam has been, in my estimation, the best player in MLS that no one talked about.

[ MORE: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win NY derby 2-0 ]

Understandably so, of course, given the 26-year-old Ghanaian international and the Chicago Fire been rooted to the bottom of the league table for two years running. All of that has changed in 2017, though, as Accam finally has a forward (Nemanja Nikolic) who can not only put chances away, but create space and chances for his teammates, and a solid midfield base which allows him to cherry-pick counter-attacks just that little bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Entering Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, Chicago sat second in the Eastern Conference, just four points back of Toronto FC, and Accam’s 7 goals and 5 assists (in 15 games) were a huge part of the why and the how. It didn’t take Accam long — two minutes, in fact, to put Chicago ahead of Orlando with a ridiculous backheel finish to Matt Polster’s cross.