UEFA Champions League Preview: Arsenal seek to recover points at Borussia Dortmund; politics in focus at Milan

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage continues on Wednesday, with Groups E through H completing the phase’s fourth round. With special focus on the day’s big match in Germany, here’s a preview of the week’s final eight games:

WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF
Borussia Dortmund (Germany) vs. Arsenal (England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Westfalenstadion, Dortmund

Arsenal need to get those points back. After losing at home two weeks ago, they’re in a three-way tie for first. They still have to play at Dortmund. They still have to play at Napoli. If they don’t get a result in one of those matches, they’re probably headed to the Europa League.

“I don’t know if this will be a decisive match – it also depends what happens between Marseille and Napoli – but it is a very important match for us,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger explained on Tuesday. “[B]ecause we lost at home … now have to win the away games.”

Europa League seems like a cruel possibility for a team we’ve seen perform so well in England, but there are two factors in play here – one discussed at length, the other glossed over. This is an incredibly though group, with all of Arsenal, Dortmund, and Napoli possessing the quality to advance in this round and the Round of 16. But also, England just isn’t as good as it was five years ago. Success in the Premier League doesn’t necessarily mean a team will have proportional success in Europe.

That change was evident at the Emirates two weeks ago, when Borussia Dortmund won at the Emirates. Though Arsenal didn’t necessarily play poorly, they were clearly on a different, lower level than one of the continent’s elites. Though the Gunners battled, taking the match to the 82nd minute tied 11, Robert Lewandowski eventually separated the sides late.

“[T]he match in London there were also moments where [Arsenal] did manage to find that tiny gap,” Dortmund  boss Jurgen Klopp explained. “[S]mall things could have made a difference.”

If Arsenal’s to prove contenders in Europe as well as England, they have to find a way to bridge that gap.  They need to raise their game to a different level. They need the small things to go their way rather than Dortmund’s, because without a result in Germany, the Gunners are likely to be starting at third place with two games to go.

“We maybe lost the first game because we wanted to absolutely win it at all costs and we exposed ourselves,” hindsight tells Wenger. “It was a midfield battle and we got caught on the counterattack because we were all up front and were not happy with the draw.

“It will strengthen the resolve of my team to come out and show a different level.”

source:  SAME SHHH, DIFFERENT YEAR
Barcelona (Spain) vs. Milan (Italy)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Camp Nou, Barcelona

With Milan having fallen to 11th in Italy, news around the Rossoneri’s Wednesday match has focused on internal politics, not the challenge presented by the Spanish champions. A second successive slow start to the season has Barbara Berlusconi, one of embattled owner Silvio Berlusconi’s daughters, seeking to gain full control of the club and oust CEO Adriano Galliani, who some see responsible of the downsizing of Milan’s squads. If Barbara is unable to jettison Galliani, head coach Max Allegri could leave, with reports in Italy claiming the fourth year boss has two games to save his job.

Barcelona may seem a suboptimal opponent to face when you need results, but Milan’s recent record against last year’s semifinalists is a decent one. Thanks to their meeting in last year’s Round of 16, the teams have played three times this calendar year, and while many would expect the Blaugrana to have gotten the best of those encounters, the teams have split the games. Each team has won once, with the 1-1 draw in Milan two weeks ago doing little to dissuade the notion the Rossoneri are capable of matching up with Barcelona.

Despite that matchup, focus will be on the turmoil with Milan, who went through a similar situation last year after saying goodbye to much of their veteran core. Then, Milan were even lower than 11th (lingering closer to the drop) when, just as this week, management issued a statement in support of Allegri. The team would eventually eek through their Champions League group before bowing out in the knockout round, but along the way they soared up the Serie A table and eventually reclaimed a Champions League spot.

Even though Serie A is more competitive this year, Milan have the talent to do that same. And just as last year, the team’s matches with Barcelona provide their embattled coach a chance to temporarily silence his detractors.

source: Getty ImagesREBOUND OR REGRESS
Chelsea (England) vs. Schalke (Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Stamford Bridge, London

The difference between a blip and a streak is the second result. Reverse the trend before it starts, and disappointment looks like an aberration. But fail to respond to adversity, and you’ve got a pattern. And once you have a pattern, you have to worried about what’s fueling it, how long it will last, and the potential for the pattern to become a characteristic.

After Saturday’s loss a Newcastle, Chelsea are at the left end of that process, but after losing 2-0 (and getting out-shot, in terms of shots on target, 8-2 by the Magpies), José Mourinho is wary of his team’s mindset.

“Sometimes when you win a lot of times, players forget why they win,” Mourinho explained on Tuesday. “Probably they forgot why they won against Schalke, Arsenal and Man City. When you win and win and win – three, four, five matches – sometimes they forget. Maybe they think they win because they are good, but there are many other ingredients that make you a consistent winner.”

The fact that Chelsea won 3-0 in Germany won’t placate Mourinho, nor should it. Are Newcastle a greater obstacle than the Miners? Or, at least, so different that the same result that befell his team this weekend couldn’t be replicated on Wednesday? Of course not. Play like they did at St. James Park, and Chelsea could fall.

It makes the analysis ahead of the match quiet easy. Thanks to the team’s meeting two weeks ago, we have a good idea of which side is better. Now it’s just  a matter of whether Chelsea plays that game or the one that was on display on Saturday. Do the former, and Chelsea will move clear of Schalke in Group E.

Others
All matches start at 2:45 p.m. Eastern with the exception on Zenit-Porto. Playing in Russia, the Zenit match starts at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.

  • Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) vs. Porto (Portugal), Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg – A disappointing Champions League campaign for Porto could reach now lows in Russia, where Zenit will be favored to extend their one-point lead on the Dragons in Group G, thus strengthening their claim to the group’s second knockout round spot. Juan Quintero and the suspended Hector Herrera are absent for Porto in what has to be seen a must-win game, considering the team still has to go to the Vicente Calderon.
  • Basel (Switzerland) vs. Steaua Bucharest (Romania), St. Jakob Park, Basel – The Swiss champions were drawn in Romania two weeks ago and need a win on Wednesday. Murat Yakin’s team faces group-closing matches against Chelsea and at Schalke, and while they’re capable of getting results in each, their best chance to improve on their four points is Wednesday at St. Jakob Park.
  • Napoli (Italy) vs. Olympique Marseille (France), San Paolo Stadium, Naples – Nothing short of three points is acceptable for Napoli, who close group stage with matches against Dortmund and Arsenal. With Marseille having failed to claim a point yet this tournament, Rafa Benítez’s side is heavily favorited to move to nine points, even if they’ll have to do so with a depleted defense. Miguel Britos, Camilo Zuñiga, and Giandomenico Mesto are all out.
  • Atlético Madrid (Spain) vs. Austria Wein (Austria), Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid – Perfect through three rounds, Atlético face their easiest match of group stage, with a win clinching their spot in the knockout round. A draw in St. Petersburg would allow the Colchoneros to take Group G.
  • Ajax (Netherlands) vs. Celtic (Scotland), Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam – Celtic’s win in Glasgow two weeks ago dropped Ajax to fourth and positioned the Scottish champions to challenge Milan in Group H. A win in Amsterdam could vault Neil Lennon’s club above Milan ahead of the Rossoneri‘s visit to Scotland, but coming off a draw in league on Saturday, Lennon’s aware his team will be underdogs.

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

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Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

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Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

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Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

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With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.