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Arsenal v. Borussia Dortmund: Three match-ups to watch

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If there was ever a day to take an extended lunch break or come down with a bit of the afternoon flu, today is it.

The reason?

Arsenal v. Borussia Dortmund, which has to be the most irresistible Champions League fixture so far this season.

Both sides play incredible football – Arsenal with their intelligent, calculated build-up play and Dortmund with their high octane counter-attacking flair – meaning individual player match-ups will be crucial to determining the outcome.

Here are three key battles to keep a close eye on.

Robert Lewandowski v. Laurent Koscielny

Dortmund are a side that take their chances and no player personifies this better than Robert Lewandowski. Give him an inch and he’ll punish you.

Although marking the Polish international will be a joint effort between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, it’s the latter who more often than not will be marking Lewandowski. Koscielny’s speed and competitiveness will serve him well in this matchup but if the Frenchman is to prevail he’ll need to focus on keeping Lewandowski within an arms length and with his back to goal.

There’s no denying Kosicielny’s improvement since arriving at Arsenal – many now consider him to be one of the better centerbacks in the Premier League – but his downfall continues to be the over-marking of his man. This results in Koscielny getting spun and being forced into a desperate sliding tackle, which too often means a penalty for the opposition.

Lewandowski, in turn, will look to post and spin Koscielny and to engage the Frenchman in battles of skill that will serve to frustrate. For the Dortmund striker, success in this matchup will be about holding his patience and baiting Koscielny at every possible opportunity.

Mikel Arteta v. Henrikh Mkhitaryan

With Mathieu Flamini ruled out of the match through concussion, Mikel Arteta will be the defensive grit in Arsenal’s holding midfield pair.

Arteta’s main task will be to contain Dortmund’s new weapon,  Armenian international Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who loves to run. Snuffing out counter-attacks before they have the chance to develop will be crucial for Arsenal and this means Arteta never getting caught in front of Mkhitaryan.

In addition to his work rate, the Dortmund playmaker is creative and technical but can be frustrated through tough marking. Arteta will do well to breathe down his neck at all opportunities and force him to forgo the killer pass into Lewadowski, Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

For Mkhitaryan to prevail, he must use his pace and imagination to his advantage. Interchanging with Reus and Aubameyang will give Arteta headaches and Mkhitaryan must test the Spaniard’s resolve by running at him off the dribble.

Mesut Ozil v. Nuri Sahin

The onus of containing the fabulous Mesut Ozil falls on Sven Bender, Dortmund’s defensive stallwart who holds BVB’s midfield together allowing the front five to attack.

Bender is a defensive midfielder of technique and intelligence, one who focuses more on intercepting the ball than destroying his adversaries with crunching tackles. He loves to sit in a deep, central position and mark players out of the game. This will be Bender’s plan for Ozil – dominate the space in front of the back four.

Not having to worry about broken ankles will please Ozil but Bender’s constant shadow in the center of the park could serve to annoy. Ozil will counter this approach by flairing out wide to create space for players like Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey – and even Olivier Giroud – to operate centrally. Ozil’s objective thereafter will be to slip deeper into the Dortmund defense, behind Bender, and to operate on the shoulders of Nevan Subotic and Mats Hummels.

Like Mkhitaryan, Ozil must also test Bender’s pace and resolve by running at him off the dribble and linking up with Giroud to slip through the Dortmund defense. With the Bender returning from injury, this is a battle Ozil should be chomping at the bit to dominate.

For more on Arsenal v. Dortmund and all of today’s games make sure to checkout Richard Farley’s impressive Champions League preview.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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