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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.

Report: AC Milan negotiating new deal for keeper Donnaumma

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Gianluigi Donnarumma has quickly become one of the most coveted goalkeepers in the world, and he’s only 17 years old.

[ MORE: Gameiro nets hat-trick in five minutes for Atletico ]

And that’s why AC Milan plans on doing everything in its power to hold on to the Italy international.

[ MORE: U.S. U-20s fall to Panama to begin CONCACAF Championship ]

According to CalcioMercato, the Rossoneri are preparing to lock up Donnarumma to a big deal once he turns 18 next week in order to fend off the likes of Premier League duo Chelsea and Manchester United, as well as Real Madrid.

However, agent Mino Raiola could stand in the way of Milan as they attempt to negotiate with the promising shot stopper out of fear that the club won’t be able to compete with Europe’s best teams.

Also, it has been suggested that Raiola is seeking at least $4.25 million per season for Donnarumma plus add ons, while Milan is said to be willing to go as high as $2.1 million annually.

Donnarumma is currently in his second professional season with Milan and has risen to the Italian national team level over the past year as well. The young keeper is seen as the logical successor to Gianluigi Buffon once his international career concludes.

Baggio marks 50th birthday by visiting quake victims

ROME, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 01: Roberto Baggio (L) is challenged by Diego Lugano during the Interreligious Match For Peace at Olimpico Stadium on September 1, 2014 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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AMATRICE, Italy (AP) Italian great Roberto Baggio marked his 50th birthday on Saturday by visiting towns devastated by earthquakes last year.

[ MORE: FA Cup Saturday wrap — Man City held against Huddersfield ]

Baggio opted not to celebrate his milestone surrounded by celebrities, and instead spent the day in Amatrice, which was almost wiped out by the Aug. 24 earthquake.

The former world footballer of the year, who met children and others from the central Italy region, said “it was very emotional,” and he went there with his family “to fully understand what so many people are going through.”

Baggio also met the mayor of Amatrice, Sergio Pirozzi, and said they will remain in contact, “and we will try to do something concrete.”

Baggio was moving on to nearby Norcia, which was also damaged, and there was a party organized with a birthday cake.

The Aug. 24 quake killed nearly 300 people and left a further 4,000 homeless. There were aftershocks for several days as well as more quakes in October and January.

Baggio, who was nicknamed “Il Divin Codino” (The Divine Ponytail) for the hairstyle he wore for most of his career, scored 27 goals in 57 appearances for Italy and helped the Azzurri to third place in the 1990 World Cup and runner-up four years later, when he famously missed the last penalty kick of the shootout in the final with Brazil.

He won the Serie A title with Juventus in 1995 and with AC Milan the following year.

FA Cup preview: Spurs, Man United face Championship opposition

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United leaves the pitch with the match ball after scoring a hat-trick during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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As the Premier League sides have dwindled down in this season’s FA Cup, two of England’s big boys will hope to avoid upsets on Sunday.

At the moment, six PL clubs remain in the competition after Chelsea and Middlesbrough advanced on Saturday and Manchester City was held to a draw against Huddersfield. Arsenal will meet non-league affiliated side Sutton United on Monday.

[ MORE: FA Cup Saturday wrap — Man City held against Huddersfield ]

Fulham vs. Tottenham — 9 a.m. ET

While Spurs have come away victorious in five of their six FA Cup encounters against Fulham in the past, Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will face a tough test on Sunday. Fulham is currently battling to stay in the race for promotion next season to re-join England’s top flight but the Craven Cottage side will have a legitimate chance to make some noise after knocking off Hull City and Cardiff in the past two rounds.

Meanwhile, Spurs will likely be without striker Harry Kane, who picked up an injury in Thursday’s defeat against Gent in the Europa League. Tottenham has struggled away from home as of late, having won just two of their last 14 fixtures away from White Hart Lane.

Blackburn Rovers vs. Manchester United — 11:15 a.m. ET

The two sides haven’t met in the FA Cup since back in the 1980s, a win for Manchester United, and Sunday’s encounter likely won’t be much a walk in the park for Rovers. Blackburn is fighting for survival in the Championship, making their performance in the FA Cup all the more critical for morale over the second half of the season. However, key suspensions to both Hope Akpan and Elliott Bennett will leave Blackburn shorthanded.

Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils will be missing several key players as well, including Wayne Rooney and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both of whom are injured. United has done well away from home recently, only falling once in its previous nine encounters away from Old Trafford.

Nice holds on to beat Lorient despite Balotelli’s red card

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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PARIS (AP) Nice striker Mario Balotelli has more red cards away from home than goals this season.

[ MORE: Marseille beats Rennes to stay in hunt for top four ]

The Italian has scored nine in the French league so far, but all have been at home. On Saturday he was sent off for the second time on his travels, and for the third time overall during his first campaign in France. However, despite his red card, Nice won at Lorient 1-0 to move up to second place behind Monaco.

[ MORE: Gameiro nets hat-trick in five minutes for Atletico ]

Balotelli returned to the side after missing last weekend’s action with a fever, but was shown a straight red following an altercation with Lorient defender Zargo Toure. From initial video replays, it seemed difficult to ascertain what Balotelli did wrong other than backing into Toure with his arms up as they challenged for a ball.

Nice coach Lucien Favre was no closer to an explanation after the game, although he suggested Balotelli may have spoken out of turn to referee Tony Chapron.

“I didn’t see what happened. All of a sudden he was coming off and I said to myself, `What’s happened?”‘ Favre said. “I didn’t see when he (the referee) gave the red card and I don’t know why. It seems that he talked back to the referee.”

Favre refuted any notion that Balotelli might be getting singled out unfairly by referees.

“He’s not on referees’ radars. They are totally neutral,” Favre said. “If there is reason to send a player off, then they will.”

Midfielder Wylan Cyprien scored his seventh in the league after being set up by right back Arnaud Souquet early on.

Nice is three points behind Monaco, and one point ahead of defending champion Paris Saint-Germain, which is at home to Toulouse on Sunday. Lorient is in last place.

MARSEILLE 2, RENNES 0

Marseille showed it can cope without top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis, as it maintained its push for a top-four finish and place in the Europa League next season.

Gomis has been Marseille’s best player, scoring 16 league goals, but injured a knee last weekend and is expected to be out for up to six weeks.

In his absence, wingers Clinton N'Jie and Florian Thauvin grabbed second-half goals as Marseille moved level on points with fifth-place Saint-Etienne and one point behind fourth-place Lyon. They are both playing on Sunday.

France playmaker Dimitri Payet went close three times – hitting the crossbar with a rasping shot – before starting the move that led to N’Jie’s goal in the second half.

Five minutes later, Thauvin scored a powerful swerving shot into the top corner from 20 meters after running onto a neat back heel from midfielder Morgan Sanson.

Inconsistent Marseille has won its last three home games but lost its last three away.

Next Sunday comes bitter rival Paris Saint-Germain, a must-win game in the eyes of the passionate Marseille fans at Stade Velodrome.

“We’re confident when we play at the Velodrome, but I’d like to us to do the same away from home,” Marseille left back Patrice Evra said.

OTHER ACTION

Mid-table Angers won 1-0 at home against Nancy, which is one place above the relegation zone.

Lille, down to 10 men, beat Caen 1-0 in Lille coach Franck Passi’s first match in charge. Attacking midfielder Anwar El Ghazi, who came from Ajax last month, struck shortly after Lille center half Adama Soumaoro was sent off.

Also, Metz drew with Nantes 1-1.

In Sunday’s other games, it is: Lyon vs Dijon, Montpellier vs. Saint-Etienne, and Bordeaux vs. Guingamp.