MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Montreal ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Houston

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Ahead of Thursday’s single elimination playoff between Houston and Montreal, here are the most-knows about the visiting Impact ahead of the 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff (NBCSN):

  • Marco Di Vaio’s special season

The Impact’s last time on the field turned into the hated double bummer; Les Bleus fell to Toronto while watching striker Marco Di Vaio fail to claim the Golden Boot, never mind his sparkling 20-goal season. The 37-year-old striker wandered into final weekend soccer level with Mike Magee for league leadership. Magee scored, Vancouver’s Camilo scored even more and, well … Di Vaio did not.

Still,, what a season. Remember, 20-goal campaigns remain rare in MLS, still a significant benchmark. There were just 10 previous instances through 17 MLS seasons.

  • Alessandro Nesta is out

You could probably make some case that Marco Schallibaum’s team is better without the veteran Italian – although it would be something of a stretch.

Nesta’s foot speed just isn’t what it was previously during all those years at Lazio, Milan and with the Italian national team. (Truly, the man was one of the defensive giants of a land that appreciates defenders like it appreciates carefully crafted pasta.) So, he tends to get exposed when caught one-on-one against younger, faster types.

But again, it’s a case that looks like small noodles to me. Because Nesta’s positioning and anticipation is so good that he’s an expert at avoiding those situations. Plus, neither Houston striker, Will Bruin nor Giles Barnes, is particularly fast.

Besides, a guy with 78 caps for Italy and a World Cup winner’s medal (2006) … yeah, you want him on the field. Nesta is out with a calf injury. Young backup Wandrille Lefevre or possibly outside back Hassoun Camara will be the likely replacement at center back.

  • Backing into the playoffs

Clearly, everyone around camp Les Bleus would feel better about things if the Impact had won last weekend at Toronto, claiming their spot with a winning authority rather than backing in because Chicago got clobbered at Red Bull Arena.

The Impact concluded their second MLS campaign with a 1-0 loss at Canadian rival Toronto.

“We were disappointed,” Hassoun Camara told MLSSoccer.com. “Everyone knows it was an important game for us and we wanted to show that we are a playoff team. It’s hard to deal with that.”

  • Last time in Houston? Not that bad

Yes, the Impact’s recent skid included a 1-0 loss earlier this month at Houston. But this was far from a run-away, and the Impact improved considerably and even pressed Houston at times once Andrew Wenger came in for the final half hour.

Where Montreal lost the game was in midfield, where orange-clad Boniek Garcia, Warren Creavalle and Ricardo Clark were simply better than the visitors’ men in the middle third. Then again, Montreal was missing its main man in the center, Patrice Bernier.

So while the Impact’s 4-9-4 record away from Stade Saputo isn’t anything to shout about, they don’t have the very worst of memories of walking down that ramp at BBVA.

  • Choices in the Impact midfield

There are lots of edges that point to Houston, so it seems important for Les Bleus manager Marco Schallibaum to get his lineup absolutely right. Health and fitness will probably dictate the back line choices, but the Swiss manager does have options in midfield.

Veterans Justin Mapp (who was having a great season prior to the club’s fall dip) and Davy Arnaud look set on the outside. Arnaud is from Texas (not far from Houston, in Nederland), so this contest is extra special to him.

The real choice will be at attacking midfielder, where the decision is pretty much down to Wenger or Felipe Martins. Martins is the more creative and skillful, but he hasn’t been great lately – one of the reasons Montreal was shut out in four of its last five matches. (Then again, no one in Impact blue has done well lately except perhaps for Di Vaio.)

Wenger is more physical, and while the current Dynamo version doesn’t pack the physical punch of past teams in orange, playoff games against Houston will always have a certain bump and grind about them.

(More on MLS playoffs: Previewing Montreal Impact at Houston Dynamo)

French league terminates goal-line technology contract

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PARIS (AP) The French football league has terminated the contract with its goal-line technology provider after a series of glitches.

The LFP had already suspended the use of GoalControl, the German system that was deployed at the 2014 World Cup.

According to L’Equipe newspaper, the league will launch a tender in February to find a new provider of the technology that determines whether the ball crossed the line.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

In recent months, the French league had repeatedly expressed its discontent with GoalControl.

Goal-line technology entered soccer after a goal was wrongly disallowed at the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA is already focused on fast-tracking the next phase of technology – video assistant referees – for the World Cup in June.

Goal-line technology and VAR were provided by Hawk-Eye at the Confederations Cup last year.

Bristol City’s Johnson: “They certainly have heard of us now”

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The Premier League world may see Bristol City next season, but it seems its manager has the personality to arrive on the top flight whether or not his Robins earn promotion this season.

Johnson, 36, earned plenty of plaudits after leading his Championship club to the League Cup semifinals, famously defeated Manchester United in the quarters.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Before that, Bristol beat Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Stoke City, and Watford. The Robins beat third tier Plymouth Argyle 5-0 in the first round.

Johnson was beaming after the Robins took Man City to the edge, closing to within a goal of extra time before Kevin De Bruyne‘s stoppage time number ended the tie 5-3 on aggregate.

“Absolutely I’m proud. It’s not just tonight but over the course of the season, particularly the cup run. It was a fantastic occasion, I’m sorry we couldn’t get the win but we played against the best side that I have ever seen live. They have so many good individuals.

“We kept going and it’s taken two injury-time goals to beat us. They certainly have [heard of us] now…everybody knows what we’re about. It’s been great.”

Bristol City is in the Championship’s fifth place, bidding for its first top flight campaign since 1980. Johnson should be a hot prospect to earn a shot in the Premier League should the Robins not make the jump.

League Cup semifinal preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 4-of-7 League Cup matches vs. Arsenal
  • Arsenal leads all-time series 74W-58D-62L
  • Clubs have drawn four times this season

Hardware hopes are on the line when Chelsea hits the Emirates Stadium for a League Cup semifinal second leg with Arsenal on Wednesday.

The sides drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the advantage of knowing a scoring draw would do the trick and set up a date with Manchester City at Wembley on Feb. 25, though Arsenal has home field advantage in pursuit of a win.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Henrikh Mkhitaryan may debut for Arsenal, though the club released an interesting note on Tuesday: He’ll wear No. 7 in most competitions, but will have to use a different number in the Europa League because Alexis Sanchez wore it to start the tournament.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte won’t have Alvaro Morata (back) and Cesc Fabregas for the match, though Andreas Christensen will be available for selection.

The clubs are no strangers to each other in big non-PL spots, squaring off in this season’s Community Shield (Arsenal won in penalty kicks) and last season’s FA Cup Final (Arsenal won).

Nothing has separated the sides on the field aside from those penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, as Arsenal and Chelsea have drawn 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, and 0-0 since August.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on Henrikh Mkhitaryan“He can play in different positions, but personally I see him first in a wide position, but I’m thinking about him a possibility to play through the middle. You are certain in our job of nothing, that’s absolutely sure. But you believe and I believe he has the qualities to do well, is a team player and our game is based on team attitude and movement and I think he can absorb the quantity of movement in our team.”

Chelsea’s Conte on the lineup: “Every game is different, you change the quality of your opponent and you must be intelligent enough to understand if you should continue with the same players or make some changes.”

Javier Mascherano leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano is leaving the club after eight seasons.

Barcelona says there will be a farewell ceremony on Wednesday with Mascherano, club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the squad.

[ MORE: Man City to buy $86m CB ]

The 33-year-old Argentina international will say goodbye to the fans before Thursday’s game against Espanyol at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. He is reportedly going to play in China.

Mascherano, who also played as a defensive midfielder, arrived in Barcelona in 2010 from Liverpool and helped the Catalan club win 18 titles. He has made 334 appearances with Barcelona, but recently hadn’t been playing much.

The club earlier this month signed Colombia international Yerry Mina to boost its defense.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga