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.

Europa League final: Man United too tough for Ajax, qualify for UCL

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Though it may have required a minor detour in the journey to the intended destination, Jose Mourinho’s first season as Manchester United manager ultimately reached the promised land: qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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Once it became clear that Man United’s season was unlikely to result in a top-four finish in the Premier League (they eventually wound up sixth), Mourinho put every Mancunian egg into the Europa League basket, and it paid off on Wednesday, as United topped Ajax, 2-0, in the Europa League final inside the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paul Pogba put United 1-0 ahead after just 18 minutes (WATCH HERE), benefitting from a wicked deflection off a defender’s shin, and Mourinho’s famously rigid, organized midfield and defensive structure frustrated a young Ajax side (a starting lineup with an average age of just under 23 years old) that reached the final on the back of a free-flowing, attacking tidal wave.

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

Down just a goal, Ajax needed little more than a moment of brilliance from any number of rising stars sure to fetch massive transfer fees and land big-money contracts elsewhere in Europe, in the not-so-distant future.

That hope lasted less than 180 seconds into the second half, though, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled the lead, thanks to some unbelievably quick reflexes and a tidy overhead kick from three yards out. Ajax would manage just two shots on goal all night (four for United).

Not only did Mourinho deliver Champions League qualification, alongside a European trophy, United also claimed the EFL Cup back in February. With the allure of UCL football next season, expect another busy (and expensive) summer of spending at Old Trafford.

AT THE HALF: Man Utd lead Ajax in UEL final, thanks to Pogba (video)

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After 45 minutes of Wednesday’s Europa League final, between Manchester United and Ajax, in Stockholm, Sweden, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have one foot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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After a cagey opening 15 minutes that saw neither side create anything of consequence, Man United pulled ahead on a fair bit of luck in the 18th minute. Paul Pogba received the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch toward goal and fired a low shot toward goal. Davinson Sanchez did everything he could to get his body in front of the strike, but the ball glanced off his shin, sending it one direction and goalkeeper Andre Onana the other.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Europa League final ] 

Having conceded just eight goals in 14.5 Europa League games thus far this season, would you bet on United conceding an equalizer in the final 45 minutes? Hit the link above to follow along, live.

Valverde dismisses deal to coach Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Departing Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde has been avoiding talk about a possible move to Barcelona, saying he has not entered into negotiations with any club.

Valverde did not confirm reports that he has already reached a deal to coach Barcelona next season, and did not dismiss taking a year off after four seasons at Athletic.

“I haven’t committed to any club, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Valverde said. “I have an agent and there are teams that have shown interest in me. Now I have to decide whether I will take on a new adventure, and it would have to be a challenging one.”

The 53-year-old Valverde has been widely touted to replace Luis Enrique, who announced earlier this year that he was tired and would not continue as Barcelona’s coach.

The Catalan club ends its season after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday.

The Mundo Deportivo newspaper reported this week that Valverde has already reached a two-year deal with Barcelona, with an option for a third season. The newspaper said the announcement would be made next week.

“I don’t know what’s been published,” Valverde said. “I never talk about negotiations with clubs and that won’t change. This wouldn’t be the first time that I have offers from important clubs.”

He said there was still the possibility of taking some time off and not immediately taking over another club.

“Why not?” he said. “In the end I can do whatever I want, no?”

A former forward, Valverde played two seasons with Barcelona in the late 1980s. He spent six years with Athletic from 1990-96.

Valverde didn’t hide that he will be hoping Barcelona wins the Copa del Rey title this weekend, which would guarantee Athletic a spot in the Europa League next season. Athletic finished seventh in the Spanish league, but will play in the second-tier European competition with a Barcelona victory because the Catalan club will play in the Champions League. Only the teams in fifth and sixth places automatically qualify for the Europa League.

Valverde led Athletic to victory over Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, which marked the team’s first title in more than three decades. He also coached the club from 2003-05.

Valverde has also coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

LIVE: Man United face Ajax in Europa League final

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Manchester United and Ajax square off in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday for the UEFA Europa League trophy and a place in the Champions League next season.

[ LIVE: Europa League final ] 

This a huge game for Jose Mourinho and United bad coming less than 48 hours after a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Manchester, this game has taken an entirely different complexion.

The mood around the Friends Arena is a somber one as Manchester United’s fans mourn those lost in the terror attack and people around the world send their love and prayers to Manchester.

Black armbands will be worn by both teams and there will be a minute’s silence before the game to honor the victims.

United have never won this trophy and they will have their work cut out against a young, talented Ajax side.

Click no the link above to follow the action live from Stockholm, while here at ProSoccerTalk we will have all the analysis, reaction and more from the final.