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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.

Ahead of huge top four showdowns, who are the title favorites?

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This weekend is massive. Huge. Monumental.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview ]

In terms of the Premier League title race having two games between all of the current top four means one thing: bedlam.

Following the Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) and Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) encounter, we should be provided with a much better idea of where the title is heading.

[ VIDEO: Man City-Tottenham preview

Then again, if Arsenal beat Leicester and Man City draw with Spurs, there will be just five points between all four teams. With 13 games to go this is tight and tense and the most open title race we’ve had in decades. It is also awesome.

[ MORE: Arsenal to play in 2016 MLS All-Star Game ] 

Let’s take a look at all four title contenders and try to see who has the best chance of winning this thing on May 15.


Leicester City
Current position: 1st (53 points)
Biggest plus: No pressure, they were meant to be relegated
Biggest negative: None of their current squad have ever been in this situation. How will they cope?
Key man: Jamie Vardy – A few off days in front of goal recently for the PL’s main man. If he regains his touch, the Foxes will win it.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Arsenal, Apr. 30 at Man United, May 15 at Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule (1 is weak, 10 is tough): 2/10 – The best of any of the title contenders, on paper, and no cup games.


Tottenham Hotspur
Current position: 2nd (48 points)
Biggest plus: Mauricio Pochettino. He’s met every major challenge head on.
Biggest negative: Having the FA Cup and Europa League to contend with. Relatively small squad compared to the rest.
Key man: Harry Kane – If he can hit yet another purple patch, combined with Spurs’ solid defense, then that will be huge.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Man City, Mar. 5 vs. Arsenal, Apr. 9 vs. Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule: 3/10 – A very soft run-in for Spurs between now and the end of the season.


Arsenal
Current position: 3rd (48 points)
Biggest plus: They have the biggest squad and with Cech in goal their defense looks very settled.
Biggest negative: How many times have we been here before? Have to get over mental barrier, plus UCL and FA Cup to focus on too.
Key man: Alexis Sanchez – Hasn’t quite hit top form since returning from his hamstring injury. Can he hit top gear during crunch time?
3 key games: Feb. 14 vs. Leicester City, Mar. 5 vs. Tottenham, May 7 at Man City
Strength of remaining schedule: 6/10 – Probably the toughest out of all the contenders. Really need Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to pull through.


Manchester City
Current position: 4th (47 points)
Biggest plus: Strongest squad and Vincent Kompany should be returning soon. That, and wanting to send Pellegrini out on a high.
Biggest negative: Guardiola arriving means plenty of uncertainty. If Aguero or Kompany go down injured, title run could be over.
Key man: Vincent Kompany – City will always score goals with Aguero, Sterling, Silva and De Bruyne but they need Vinny back. Big time.
3 key games: Mar. 2 at Liverpool, Mar. 20 vs. Man United, May 7 vs. Arsenal
Strength of remaining schedule: 5/10 – Marginally easier than Arsenal’s because they play United and the Gunners at home. Still. Very tough.


 

Arsenal named as 2016 MLS All-Star Game opponent in San Jose

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Mesut Ozil (C) of Arsenal celebrates scoring his team's second goal with his team mates Hector Bellerin (L) and Aaron Ramsey (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is coming to San Jose, California.

On Thursday it was announced that the Premier League giants will take part in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

The decision to play against another PL opponent makes it the ninth time that’s happened and MLS’ best will have faced seven different PL clubs in Fulham, Chelsea, West Ham United, Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham and now Arsenal.

The venue for the 2016 ASG will be San Jose’s splendid, yet slightly compact, Avaya Stadium and the game will take place on July 28 at 9 p.m. ET.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Gunners fans in North America hoping to get tickets for the clash will have to act fast as the ‘Quakes home only holds 18,000 people, but there will be another chance to watch Arsenal play as they will face Chivas Guadalajara at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. on July 31.

Safe to say Arsene Wenger won’t need to don his famous long padded jacket for matches in California this July…

As well as seeing Arsenal stars Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Petr Cech, Olivier Giroud and more, the chance to watch young U.S. international Gedion Zelalem in action will excite many. That said, with the game coming late in July, plenty of Arsenal’s top stars may be on extended breaks due to their exertions for their national teams at the 2016 European Championships and the 2016 Copa America Centenario also being staged in North America.

VIDEO: Previewing the massive Man City vs. Tottenham encounter

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On the same day Arsenal host Leicester City in a clash between two title contenders (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the two other teams in the top two also meet on Sunday.

Your Valentine’s Day is officially sorted.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

On Sunday Manchester City welcome Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) to the Etihad Stadium as second-place Spurs sit just one point above fourth-place City. It could not be tighter at the top.

Earlier this season Spurs hammered an injury-hit City 4-1 at White Hart Lane and revenge will be sweet for Sergio Aguero and Co. as both teams are in serious contention to win the Premier League this season.

[ MORE: Preview – Arsenal vs. Leicester ]

In terms of their clashes at the Etihad, Spurs have not found it a happy hunting ground in recent years as they’ve lost four of their last five games away at City. Their last two defeats have been 6-0 and 4-1. Expect a tighter clash this time around as Harry Kane looks to keep his hot-streak going and City will aim to bounce back from their demoralizing, and potentially crucial, home defeat to Leicester last weekend.

So much on the line this Sunday. Click play on the video above to hear all the major headlines heading into this clash.

Mourinho to Man United: Key players to be sold? Locker room unrest, transfer gossip

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The papers are having a field day with the Jose Mourinho to Manchester United whispers.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

Several different outlets are reporting numerous pieces of gossip about Mourinho, 53, taking over at United this summer and now seems like a good time to round it all up and have a look at what is out there.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Here it goes…

[ REPORT: Mourinho tells friends he’s going to United


First up, the wages.

Okay, Louis Van Gaal, 64, still has a contract with the Red Devils through the 2016-17 season but many believe that barring a miraculous finish to the current campaign the Dutchman will be let go this summer. If that’s the case — and with United six points off the top four it certainly seems like another season of disappointment will play out — then El Confidencial is reporting that Mourinho will be handed a contract worth $20 million a year. That may seem like a lot, but actually it would be $9 million less a year than Manchester City is paying Pep Guardiola to be their boss. Interesting.

Juicy nugget number two: The Daily Mail states that Mourinho has already instructed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to sell Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini. The midfield duo aren’t in Mourinho’s plans with the Portuguese coach selling Mata to United during his time in charge of Chelsea, while he doesn’t appear to be a fan of Belgian midfielder Fellaini either.

No. 3: The Daily Star reports that Mourinho will be handed $420 million to spend on new players and totally rebuild the under-performing squad. The same report claims Mourinho has his eye on Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Thomas Muller, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane to help restore United to past glories and add to his tally of three Premier League titles during five full seasons with Chelsea.

And finally, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Sun reports that United’s locker room is split over whether Mourinho arriving would be a good thing. Well, yeah, with a massive cull on the horizon if he does arrive, it’s not too difficult to understand that the general feeling among the players will be one of trepidation. However, the main issue seems to be where No. 2 Ryan Giggs will fit into Mourinho’s plans if he does get the job.

Again, take these reports with a pinch of salt but it’s certainly interesting to keep your ear to the ground and listen to all of the tidbits circling about Mourinho’s potential arrival at Old Trafford.