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.

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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.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Lemar to Arsenal; Aubameyang to China

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According to the Daily Mail, Arsenal are close to signing Monaco and France winger Thomas Lemar, 21, for $42 million.

Lemar shone for the French champions last season and will have already endeared himself to Gunners fans after scoring home and away against Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Champions League group stage last season, as Monaco reached the semifinals.

With Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva and Radamel Falcao getting plenty of the headlines, Lemar’s displays flew under the radar. It seems like Arsene Weneger was watching.

Lemar scored 14 goals and added 17 assists in 55 games for Monaco last season and his intelligent wing-play could help freshen up Arsenal’s attack. Per the report, swapping Champions League action for the Europa League with Arsenal is not a problem for Lemar who broke into the French national team back in November.

Able to play on either wing or centrally, Lemar’s ability to possess the ball as well as find pockets of space behind full backs suggest he’d be a good fit for the Gunners. Would his arrival mean the end for Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud or others?


Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City target Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is being linked with a move to Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian.

Reports in multiple outlets stated that the Borussia Dortmund striker, 28, could be heading to China in the next few days for a fee of $91.9 million with the Gabon international set to earn an incredible $33.6 million a year in wages.

Aubameyang posted a cryptic message on his Instagram account on Tuesday stating he was “ready for new adventures” and it appears he is the latest high-profile name to leave Europe for China.

Ready for new adventures #aubameyang #holidays #pea17

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The Bundesliga golden-boot winner for 2016-17 (he had 31 goals in 32 games) has scored 120 goals in 189 games for Dortmund since joining from Saint-Etienne in 2013. That form led to reports that Liverpool, Man City and Paris Saint-Germain were all prepared to offer big money to sign the lanky forward this summer, but none of those clubs can compete with the huge sums on offer from Tianjin.

Southampton’s days of selling over?

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Southampton are no longer a selling club. At least, not right now.

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Executive Director Les Reed told Sky Sports in the UK that Saints will not be selling Virgil Van Dijk or Cedric Soares this summer, despite constant reports linking the duo with a move away from St Mary’s.

Speaking about the “bold” decision to fire Claude Puel and hire Mauricio Pellegrino over the summer, the main decision maker at Southampton said he hoped hiring Argentine coach Pellegrino would bring “stability” to the club which has so often lost star names since returning to the PL in 2012.

Reed further reinforced Saints’ solid stance that no stars will depart this summer, starting with Van Dijk and Soares.

“None of those players are for sale. I can’t make it any plainer than that and that’s the way we mean to go forward,” Reed said. “We built this squad over some time and think we have a strong squad. We will fine-tune it but, other than that, we are looking forward to a very competitive season next year and we plan to go forward on that basis. There may be players that go on the basis it is the right thing for them and the club at that given time, but we don’t expect that to be wholesale and this is simply doing sound business in the transfer window.”

The main thing for teams like Southampton is that selling players will no longer significantly boost their financial power. After finishing in the top eight of the Premier League in each of the past four seasons, plus having long-term deals with Under Armour, Virgin Media and many other sponsors, they’re set up to try and compete with the PL’s elite, as are each team who have benefited from the huge financial deals the PL have enjoyed over the past few years.

Plus, they are still in negotiations with Chinese investors Lander Sports about majority ownership potentially switching from the Liebherr family to give them more funds to invest in their squad. Saints believe they are ready to kick on to the next stage and aren’t willing to give up any more of their gems.

ProSoccerTalk spoke with Saints chairman Ralph Krueger in May and he was pleased to see several of Saints’ current stars locked down to new contract — Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu, Ryan Bertrand, James Ward-Prowse and Fraser Forster all have new long-term deals — and insisted nobody needed to be sold. Saints have said this in the past but this time it feels a little different, and more serious.

After making princely sums for Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin in the past, plus moving on Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle who were entering the final year of their contracts for sizable fees, Saints have a reputation as being an easy target for the PL’s top six to buy from.

Yet, with Liverpool forced to apologize after their alleged illegal pursuit of Saints’ star man and captain Van Dijk earlier this month, it appears the South Coast club is getting serious about their best players not being unsettled and remaining at Southampton. Van Dijk’s transfer value is set to be north of $75 million, and it now appears that Southampton will turn down any offer for their classy Dutch center back. That’s a huge shift in club policy, with Saints labeled a selling club for much of their recent history as Alan Shearer, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are just a few of the star names who moved on from Saints in the past.

Whether or not this new policy can help them break through the glass-ceiling of sixth place (where they finished in 2015-16) and challenge regularly for a European spot remains to be seen, but after years of making big profits on their best players Southampton finally seem to be putting a halt to moving on stars consistently and replacing them with plenty of new gems each season.

That model has worked well for them financially, but last season’s regression — despite reaching the EFL Cup Final and having a Europa League campaign to negotiate they still finished eighth in the PL, but totaled 17 fewer points compared to their previous campaign — suggests they’re at a crucial point in their plans to become a regular contender to push into the top six.

Delivering Europa League action each season is the aim and Pellegrino will have a tough enough task to achieve that in his first season coaching in England.

That said, his task will be made much easier if Van Dijk, Soares and Co. do stick around as Southampton state they will.

Report: Wesley Sneijder close to LAFC move

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Dutch legend Wesley Sneijder is close to signing for Los Angeles FC.

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A report from ESPN states that Sneijder, 33, will sign a two-year deal with LAFC and become a Designated Player for the team who will enter Major League Soccer in 2018.

Per the report, Sneijder has been offered a deal worth $3.5 million a year to join LAFC and he would link up with the squad in January 2018 ahead of their debut season in MLS.

Having a star of Sneijder’s size will certainly attracted plenty more interest in LAFC, plus he’s still a mainstay for the Dutch national team as he has 131 caps with 31 goals for the Oranje and his quality as a deep-lying playmaker is undisputed.

The former UEFA Champions League winner has enjoyed an illustrious career in Europe, winning trophies at Ajax, Real Madrid, Inter and Galatasaray. He won the UCL with Inter in 2010 as he was a pivotal part of Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning team. Sneijder has spent the past five seasons playing in Turkey for giants Galatasaray.

Sneijder would become LAFC’s first DP signing and although the newly-formed club do not yet have a head coach, who wouldn’t want to work with Sneijder in MLS?

With the Banc of California Stadium set to be ready for the start of the 2018 MLS season, excitement is building in LA.

Sneijder’s arrival would help that grow further as one of the premier playmakers of the past decade will get to strut his stuff in MLS. Whether he turns out to be as influential a DP as the likes of David Villa or Kaka remains to be seen, but LAFC are clearly willing to back up their grand plans with grand signings.

Six charged over Hillsborough disaster

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Six individuals, including four former members of the South Yorkshire Police (SYP), have been charged over the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 which left 96 Liverpool fans dead.

Former SYP Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was the match commander of the FA Cup semifinal which saw 96 fans crushed to death, will face charges of manslaughter by gross negligence of 95 of the victims. For legal reasons Duckenfield has not been charged over the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland, who died four years after the tragedy.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must apply to the High Court to lift an order imposed on Duckenfield after he was prosecuted privately in 1999. That must be removed before he can be charged with 95 cases of manslaughter.

Families of the victims gathered in Warrington, England on Wednesday and were told about the charges by the CPS, who later released the following statement.

Other individuals who will be prosecuted include the former Chief Constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire police, Sir Norman Bettison, who is facing four charges misconduct in office following the disaster, while former SYP Chief Superintendent Donald Denton and SYP Detective Chief Inspector Alan Foster have both been charged with perverting the course of justice.

Former Sheffield Wednesday chief executive and designated safety officer Graham Mackrell has been charged with breaching the terms of the stadium’s safety certificate and failing to take reasonable care under the the Health and Safety at Work act, plus SYP solicitor, Peter Metcalf, has also been charged.

The families of those who perished at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough over 28 years ago have fought for justice ever since with Liverpool Football Club and the wider soccer community supporting the families in their battle.

From 1991 until 2014 they struggled to cope with the cost of a lengthy legal battle, but that all changed as the UK government have funded the legal costs for all the victims families with the total investigation now spanning four-and-a-half years and costing over $128.2 million.

Last April a verdict of “unlawful killing” was reached for the 96 victims after a new inquest was launched into the deaths following the original verdict from 1991 being quashed by the High Court in 2012 after a report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel.

The new inquest then prompted a new police criminal investigation as Operation Resolve was set up to determine what led up to the deadly crush, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) then investigated what happened after the tragedy and allegations that SYP had perverted the court of justice and tried to cover up their own responsibility.

The defendants, apart from Duckenfield, will appear in Warrington Magistrates Court on Aug. 9.