UEFA Champions League Preview: Arsenal’s Dortmund test; Chelsea look to regain control; Barcelona returns to Milan

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage resumes on Tuesday, with Groups E through H starting the phase’s third round of action. With special focus on the matches in London, Gelsenkirchen, and Milan, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight games:

CATCH THEM AT THE RIGHT TIME
Arsenal (England) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, London (Emirates Stadium)

There’s never a right time to face Borussia Dortmund, but Tuesday will be as good as any. That’s because last year’s runners-up are going through a lull, if you can call coming off a weekend win as a lull. But their 1-0 over visiting Hannover was unconvincing, and it came on the back of their first league loss of the season (Oct. 5, at Borussia Mönchengladbach). With midfielder Ilkay Gündogan and right back Lukasz Piszczek out, BVB are still shorthanded, the returns of attacker Marco Reus, midfielder Nuri Sahin, and left back Marcel Schmelzer papering the cracks in a still hampered team.

But that hamstrung side is still one of Europe’s best, particularly going forward. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, one of the world’s best forwards, sees his threat augmented by Reus, midfielder Henrikh Mkyhitaryan, and winger Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – the attacking three in Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Creative and intelligent in their decisions, ambitious and unrelenting with their movements, the quartet has combined for 19 league goals and sparked the Bundesliga’s best attack (the team with 22 goals in nine games). If they can get at Arsenal’s back line, they’ll provide the sternest test of the season for a decent if vulnerable unit.

Being able to get at that defense is not a given. Borussia Dortmund loves to play on the counter, particularly under these circumstances (on the road, against quality opposition, when the stakes are raised). As we saw against Napoli, having a team cede possession almost took Dortmund out of their game. While Arsenal won’t do the same, the Gunners’ attack won’t depend on sending players forward (exposing themselves to counters) to execute. The likes of Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, and Aaron Ramsey don’t need the help. Secure at the back, Arsenal may force Dortmund onto its front foot.

“Their efficiency is their quality, [Dortmund’s] ability to take their chances,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger explained. “We go into the game focused on our quality and performance.”

Without defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini (recovering from a concussion), Arsenal may be more vulnerable, but against a Dortmund side that isn’t clicking at last year’s levels, his loss can be overcome. If the Gunners are careful in their approaches and mindful to balance their defense when their fullbacks push forward, they should be able to continue their early season success.

source: Getty ImagesA CHANCE TO REGAIN CONTROL
Schalke (Germany) vs. Chelsea (England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Gelsenkirchen (Veltins-Arena)

Their opening round loss at home to Basel was shocking, but Tuesday’s game in Germany is why it was a bigger deal for the Swiss champions than Chelsea’s Champions League hopes. With a win over Schalke — a win the former champions would always be favored to get — José Mourinho’s side reclaims control of Group E.

Chelsea enter the day on three points, trailing group-leading Schalke by the same amount. Win in Gelsenchirken, and they move into a tie for first, but with two games remaining at home (one against group strugglers Steaua Bucharest), they’ll be back in the driver’s seat. Follow up by holding serve at home, and the 2011-12 champions will have 12 points, and that’s before considering a possible result at Basel. Like today’s game in Germany, they’ll be favored to win that one, too.

That’s the reality of a Group E, a decent but not exceptionally tough quartet, but Chelsea’s largely overlooked form helps the perception they’re in control. The team’s undefeated since losing to Basel, claiming five wins in six games, and although there’s an element to their recent performances that’s more opportunism than prolonged dominance, those quality would have come in handy last month against Basel. This team is making progress.

“The profile of the team is different to when I was here before,” Mourinho said, speaking to that progress. “We used to be physically very strong but things are different now. We have to play a different kind of football with a different philosophy. I am building a new side and it’s very enjoyable.”

That process should be far along against a Schalke team who, despite their weekend victory, struggled against Germany’s last place team, Braunschweig. Some of that may have been the absences Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Kevin Prince Boateng, Jefferson Farfan, and Jermaine Jones (Boateng and Jones are expected to return on Tuesday), but the team’s poor defending also played a part. In nine Bundesliga matches, Jens Keller’s side has given up 19 goals.

That form hasn’t been replicated in Champions League, where Schalke have gone 180 minutes without allowing a goal, though that’s likely to change on Tuesday. Chelsea have already scored five times in Champions League, have put in seven goals in their last two league matches, and could bring Oscar and the hobbled Andre Schurrle back into a team that scored four times on Saturday.

And consider the talents that have gone unmentioned — Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres — and it’s easy to see why an early stumble hasn’t taken away Chelsea’s favored status. The question is whether they can preserve that place today at Schalke.

source: ReutersREAPPLYING WHAT WORKED BEFORE
Milan (Italy) vs. Barcelona (Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Milan (San Siro)

At the time, it was one of the tournament’s biggest surprises, Milan opening last season’s knockout round with a 2-0 upset of visiting Barcelona. After struggling to get through a group where they’d been the seeded team, 90 perfectly executed minutes left Rossoneri were on the verge of eliminating the tournament favorites. After a half-season being maligned by the Italian press, Max Allegri delivered a masterpiece.

The second leg brought Milan back to earth. Their 4-0 loss at the Nou Camp undoubtedly left a lasting impression, one that reinforced how they took their unlikely lead.

“We need to play with courage and sacrifice against the best team in the world,” Allegri said on Monday. “We must try to make as few mistakes as possible. Barcelona will have the ball more than us, so we have to play a game similar to last year’s home tie.”

He’s not giving away any secrets. Every team tries to hit Barcelona on the counter, and with the exception of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, they bunker while doing so. Last year, Milan’s success saw play funneled to the middle, the ball won and given to Ricardo Montolivo, with Stephan El Shaarawy targeted by long passes. Though some of the other names have changed (Milan now having Mario Balotelli available, have acquired Kaká), the method will largely be the same.

Two key additions on Barcelona’s side give them more options. Brazilian star Neymar was brought in  for situations like these, giving Barça a wide option that may prevent Milan from overloading the middle. If the Rossoneri don’t adjust — if they decide it’s not worth giving Lionel Messi more room — they’ll dare Neymar to beat them.

Gerardo Martino may also be a factor. The new Barcelona boss has encouraged his team to play more direct when necessary. That would mean Barça passing over Milan’s midfield block before they set up. It could suggest a willingness to make earlier adjustments than we saw from Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura.

Those idiosyncratic differences don’t change the larger picture, one that’s similar for almost all of Barcelona’s matches. The Blaugrana will be given control and asked to move through a packed defense, one that will be looking to create their opportunities in transition. If Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol hold up and the Milan defense breaks down, this will seem like a very Barcelona affair. If, however, Milan can replicate this February’s effort (or if Barcelona are caught looking ahead to this weekend’s Clasico), the result may come down to how well the underdogs take the few chances they’ll create.

Others
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern

  • Marseille (France) vs. Napoli (Italy), Stade Velodrome, Marseille – This will be l’OM’s easiest match of the tournament, and they’re still underdogs. With Arsenal having already claimed three points at the Velodrome, Napoli will be pressed to do the same. They’ll be without left back Juan Camilo Zuñiga, while Marseille will be missing center back Lucas Mendes.
  • Porto (Portugal) vs. Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia), Estadio Dragão, Porto – If Porto has designs on winning Group G, this is a must win. A second loss at the Dragão (having already fallen to Atlético Madrid), could leave Porto could be six back of first after Tuesday’s action. Zenit will also be hoping for a result, having registered one point through two rounds, but will have to do so without Axel Whitsel. The Belgian international is suspended after his red card against Austria Wien.
  • Austria Wien (Austria) vs. Atlético Madrid (Spain), Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna – Austria, winless in five all-competition matches, sees Diego Costa return for Atleti, Diego Simeone’s leading scorer having finished his two-match suspension. Despite coming off a weekend loss, their first of the season, Atlético will be big favorites to maintain their perfect Champions League start.
  • Celtic (Scotland) vs. Ajax (Netherlands), Celtic Park, Glasgow – With these teams combining for one point through two rounds, the pairing looks set to compete for Group H’s Europa League’s spot. If, however, one team can sweep these next two games (the teams meeting in Amsterdam in round four), Milan could have a challenger for their second round spot. If that challenger’s Ajax, they will have to overcome the losses of Niklas Moisander and Ricardo van Rhijn, both late decisions. Celtic will be without Scott Brown (suspended), Adam Mathews, and Derk Boerrigter.
  • Steaua Bucharest (Romania) vs. Basel (Switzerland), Arena Najtionala, Bucharest – Like Marseille in Group F, Steaua has become the team from which opponents must take points. Schalke and Chelsea have already done their part, putting the pressure on Basel to deliver on Tuesday. While a draw is a very respectable result, it will also see Basel give back some of the points they gained with their win at Stamford Bridge. Dropping points to Steaua could become a deciding factor in Group F.

How will Man United line-up vs. Ajax in Europa League final?

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How will Jose Mourinho set up Manchester United for their crucial Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday?

[ MORE: Europa League final preview ]

With an automatic UEFA Champions League spot on the line, United must win to get back to Europe’s top club competition next season. If they don’t it is back to the Europa League for Mourinho’s men.

This won’t be easy, though, as United’s defense has been ravaged by injuries in recent weeks and they’re without Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Local lad Marcus Rashford has to come up with the goods.

[ MORE: Manchester clubs react to bombing

Ajax’s young, attack-minded side will be led by Kasper Dolberg and Bertrand Traore, while Davy Klaassen will pull the strings in midfield.

Back to United, and with Mourinho confirming Sergio Romero would start in goal ahead of David De Gea, just like he has done for most of the Europa League campaign, we know one starter. In defense it is likely to be Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in the center with Eric Bailly suspended, Marcos Rojo out injured and the duo of Ashley Young and Luke Shaw also missing. Valencia and Blind should get the nod out wide with Darmian in reserve.

Midfield is where things get tricky. Michael Carrick‘s experience may be invaluable but Mourinho is likely to go with Fellaini’s grit (if he’s fit) in the engine room alongside Ander Herrera.

Ahead of them in the three attacking positions, Mkhitaryan and Pogba seem certainties to start and then it’s a straight battle between Lingard, Mata and Martial for the other spot. Lingard may just win that battle due to his superior defensive abilities, but it will be close.

Up top it will be Rashford to start with Wayne Rooney waiting in the wings in what could be his final game for United.

Take a look at our suggested lineup below. Do you agree?


Manchester United starting lineup vs. Ajax, Europa League final

—– Romero —–

— Valencia — Jones — Smalling — Blind —

—- Herrera —- Fellaini —-

— Mkhitaryan — Pogba — Lingard —

—– Rashford —–

Premier League awards: Player, Coach, Best XI & more

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It is time for ProSoccerTalk’s end of season awards for the 2016-17 Premier League campaign.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Our writers were asked to select their Player of the Year, Young player of the Year (has to be under the age of 21), Coach of the Year and also select their Best XI, plus a little bonus segment at the bottom of this page…

Take a look at our answers below and we are intrigued to your selections in the comments section below.


Coach of the Year

Joe Prince-Wright selects… Antonio Conte – The way he galvanized this Chelsea team was remarkable. The tactical switch after the Arsenal defeat was the defining moment of the season and won him the PL in his first-ever campaign in England. Plus, his passion on the sidelines excites fans and he’s a gentleman in press conferences. Chelsea’s players seem to know where they stand with Conte and this seems like the start of an era of dominance. Mauricio Pochettino from Tottenham was a close second.

Nick Mendola selects… Antonio Conte – Really don’t think it needs an explanation. Back on top.

Kyle Bonn selects… Antonio Conte – Easy choice here. In his first season, he righted the ship and steered Chelsea to a Premier League title. He guided the players through a new system and still managed to get the best out of them. Stellar.

Matt Reed selects… Antonio Conte – The Italian didn’t go big in the transfer market but the additions of David Luiz, N'Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso were everything Chelsea could have hoped for and then some.

Dan Karell selects… Antonio Conte – It’s the easy choice, but his ability to get the team to believe in him and change the system following the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal lead to a dominant season for the Blues. Also, he made David Luiz great again!


Player of the Year

Joe Prince-Wright selects… Dele Alli – I have to buck the trend and not go with a Chelsea player. Yes, they won the title and Kante, Hazard and Azpilicueta were immense, but Alli was out of this world. This is a youngster who is in just his second season in the PL and he scored 17 goals from midfield. His class on the ball and driving runs remind me of Frank Lampard and he can finish like him too. The sky is the limit for Dele.

Nick Mendola selects… N’Golo Kante – Maybe it’s a little boring to go with the guy that the league named, but Kante was the best player in the league for the second successive season, on two different title winning teams. No biggie.

Kyle Bonn selects… Eden Hazard – I know N’Golo Kante was incredible, and I don’t want to take away from the midfielder who was an absolute rock, but Hazard was outstanding. He won the most take-ons of anyone in the league at a higher percentage than anyone, and was among the most creative players as well. A true superstar.

Matt Reed selects… N’Golo Kante – You could pick a handful of players from Chelsea’s squad to be in this discussion but for the bargain price in which the Blues acquired him, Kante was worth every penny.

Dan Karell selects… N’Golo Kante – Even with Conte, Chelsea may not have been miles ahead of everyone without the tireless effort of Kante. Kante finished 2nd in the PL with 127 tackles and had 82 interceptions. He also finished 2nd on Chelsea with 2,122 passes. Kante’s work defensively allowed Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic the space to operate forward, leading to 85 goals and a record 30 wins.


Young Player of the Year

Joe Prince-Wright selects… Leroy Sane – This is a player who got better and better as the season went on. Sane’s pace was always there but Guardiola has made him more patient on the ball and he appears to be timing his runs better. He will be a star for the next decade.

Nick Mendola selects… Dele Alli – 21 and under? Does it have to be 21? You know Dele Alli is 21, right? Haha… Dele Alli, guys. Dele. Alli.

Kyle Bonn selects… Dele Alli – Tottenham’s midfielder scored an insane amount of goals this year, but he displayed an all-around game that is the envy of the league.

Matt Reed selects… Leroy Sane – The German has all the makings of becoming one of the PL’s best wingers over the next several seasons as he refines his game. He’ll surely be pleased with nine goals (all comps) in his first season at the Etihad Stadium.

Dan Karell selects… Dele Alli – The midfielder still has to prove he can be consistent at the highest level but he showed this year why he’s constantly linked with the likes of Real Madrid.


Best XI

Joe Prince-Wright selects… Lloris; Azpilicueta, Alderweireld, Vertonghen; Hazard, Kante, Alli, Alonso; Mane, Kane, Sanchez – Somehow I had to get Eden Hazard in this team, but don’t expect him to do much defending on the right flan of this 3-4-3 setup. Spurs’ goalkeeper Lloris and their two Belgian center backs were superb, while it is tough to look past Alli and Kante in midfield. Kante is a given up top and Sadio Mane gets the nod alongside Alexis Sanchez to support him. All-out attack.

Nick Mendola selects… Lloris; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Alderweireld; Coutinho, Kante, Pogba, Hazard, Sanchez, Ibrahimovic, Kane

Kyle Bonn selects… De Gea; Walker, Luiz, Alderweireld, Azpilicueta; Kante, Eriksen, De Bruyne, Hazard; Sanchez, Kane – Zlatan had a shot had he not been injured. Costa was a great team player and was hugely important to Chelsea, but didn’t have the individual seasons that Sanchez and Kane had. Eriksen, De Bruyne, and Hazard were the 3 most creative players in the league this season. De Gea is still, in my opinion, the best sheer goalkeeper in the league, and the flashiest; that choice is tough on Hugo Lloris, who had a great season for sure.

Matt Reed selects… Courtois; Walker, Alderweireld, Luiz, Danny Rose; Kante, Alli, Hazard, Mane; Lukaku, Kane

Dan Karell selects… Heaton; Azpilicueta, Alderweireld, Cahill; Coutinho, Alli, Kante, Silva; Lukaku, Kane, Sanchez


BONUS! We also asked the guys for their underrated XI of the season. You know, those guys who ball every week but always seem to fall under the radar…

Underrated XI

Joe Prince-Wright selects… Foster; Maguire, Kompany, Bailly; Silva, Wanyama, Romeu, Herrera; Pedro, King, Sigurdsson – I went for a few big names in here who have had been so important to their teams but seem to never get huge amounts of love. Pedro, Kompany and Silva fall into that category. Elsewhere the midfield destroyers of Wanyama, Romeu and Herrera all had fine seasons, while the only reason Swansea stayed up was Sigurdsson and Josh King was superb at Bournemouth. Foster and Maguire had a great seasons for teams often not talked about.

Nick Mendola selects… Heaton; Valencia, Gibson, Reid, Martins Indi; Antonio, Gueye, Herrera, Son; Silva, King

Kyle Bonn selects… Lloris; Vertonghen, Bailly, Milner, Valencia; Herrera, Pogba, Sigurdsson, Silva, Coutinho; Pedro – None of these guys I feel got looks for PL Best XI, but they maybe should have. Pogba was far better than he got credit for given his price tag, while Herrera got publicity late in the year but was a rock all season long. With all due respect to Steve Cook, who had a very good year statistically at CB, I couldn’t include him here given Bournemouth’s abysmal defensive record, so I went with Squawka’s #1 ranked defender this season, Jan Vertonghen. Eric Bailly was a machine for Manchester United. Pedro was maybe Chelsea’s most underrated player this season in their title run.

Matt Reed selects… Pickford; Azpilicueta, Gibson, McAuley, Bertrand; Herrera, Romeu, Tadic, Sigurdsson; Albrighton, Defoe

Dan Karell selects… Foster; Bailly, Keane, Mee; Romeu, Arter, Gueye, Drinkwater, Lanzini; Zaha, King


 

Premier League player Power Rankings – Top 20

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For the final time in the 2016-17 Premier League season it’s time to rank the players in form.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Stars from Chelsea and Tottenham dominate, just like they did all season, and we have plenty of players from Manchester City who also turned things on in the final weeks of the season.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Up 1
  2. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Down 1
  3. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool) – Up 1
  4. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Up 3
  5. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  6. Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea) – Down 3
  7. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – Down 1
  8. Heung min-Son (Tottenham) – Up 2
  9. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal) – Up 2
  10. Vincent Kompany (Man City) – Up 3
  11. David Silva (Man City) – Down 2
  12. Diego Costa (Chelsea) –Even
  13. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – New entry
  14. Gabriel Jesus (Man City) – Even
  15. Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea) – Even
  16. Victor Wanyama (Tottenham) – Up 2
  17. Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool) – Up 3
  18. Josh King (Bournemouth) – Down 10
  19. Fernando Llorente (Swansea) – Down 2
  20. Petr Cech (Arsenal) – New entry

Wenger update on Sanchez after Chile’s Bayern mix-up

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Arsene Wenger has (shock) remained tight-lipped about his own Arsenal future but has been talking about Alexis Sanchez remaining with the Gunners.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Sanchez, 28, has just over 12 months left on his current Arsenal deal and the Chilean attacker is attracting interest from across the Premier League and Europe.

With 24 goals and 10 assists in the Premier League this season, Sanchez would obviously be a huge loss to the Gunners if he did move on.

[ MORE: Full U-20 World Cup coverage

Speaking to the media ahead of the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday at Wembley Stadium, Wenger seemed to think his star forward wouldn’t be going anywhere this summer.

“We have nobody at the end of their contract so that will be completely our decision. Therefore, I just believe that we, the club, have a big job to do during the summer because you want to keep players like Alexis and end all the speculation that could happen…” Wenger said. “Alexis is not at the end of his contract. I would just like to remind you that the end of his contract is 2018. So that’s a completely different situation.”

Wenger appears to be stating that even if contract negotiations don’t go well with Sanchez and his representatives after the FA Cup final this weekend, the Gunners won’t be trying to offload him right away even though the fact they won’t be in the UEFA Champions League next season.

Sanchez could remain until next January and run his contract down to six months and then he’d be free to arrange a summer 2018 move to any non-English team. Of course, Arsenal wouldn’t get any cash for Sanchez if that happened but it appears that they intend to keep him around as long as possible as contract negotiations continue.

Wenger’s current mindset: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance…”


In other Sanchez-related news, did the Chilean national team release news about his future club?

When Chile sent out a graphic via their official Twitter account to announce their 23-man squad for the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia next month, they had a club logo next to the name of each player.

A Bayern Munich badge was next to Sanchez’s name before being removed rather quickly.

Add that to Sanchez’s countryman, and Bayern midfielder, Arturo Vidal, saying that the German giants having been asking him about his countryman and maybe the Bundesliga champs are all of a sudden the frontrunners to sign him?

Surely Arsenal’s board would much rather sell Sanchez overseas than see him join a direct Premier League rival if he was to leave this summer?