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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.

CONCACAF & CONMEBOL: Lionel Messi injured in final pre-Copa friendly

LANDOVER, MD - MARCH 27: Lionel Messi of the Argentinian national soccer team sits on the bench as his teammates practice on the field in preparation to take on El Salvador at FedExField on March 27, 2015 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 16 North, Central and South American and Caribbean nations prepare for the 2016 Copa America Centenario…

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Argentina 1-0 Honduras

Gonzalo Higuain, who recently set a brand new record for most goals scored in a single Serie A season (36 goals in 35 games played), continued his scintillating 2015-16 season by scoring the only goal in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday (WATCH HERE).

The result obviously takes a backseat to news that Lionel Messi left the game injured midway through the second half. Following a corner kick that was cleared from the Honduras penalty area, Messi took a blow to the lower back and/or hip on his left side. The Barcelona superstar tumbled to the ground in a heap. He walked off the field under his own power, but was clearly in a great deal of pain before deciding he couldn’t continue.

That says Messi suffered an injury to his left side and that tests (MRI) are being done to determine the severity of the knock. La Albiceleste will kick off their Group D campaign against the reigning Copa holders, Chile, on June 6 in Santa Clara, Calif.

[ MORE: Preview — USMNT faces Bolivia in final Copa America tune-up ]

Uruguay 3-1 Trinidad and Tobago

With Luis Suarez currently on the shelf injured, it’s Edinson Cavani’s time to shine for Uruguay. The Paris Saint-Germain frontman — who’ll coincidentally also be “the man” for his club side with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading for the exit door — bagged a first-half brace in La Celeste‘s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Trinidad and Tobago. His first came from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, followed not long after by another from open play in the 40th minute. Matias Vecino added the third for Uruguay in the 52nd minute. T&T took an early lead through Jomal Williams’ opener on 7 minutes.

Cavani scored 19 goals in 32 Ligue 1 appearances this season, making him the league’s third-highest scorer, behind Zlatan (38) and Alexandre Lacazette (21). Suarez, on the other hand, won this year’s La Liga Golden Boot after scoring 40 goals in 35 league games. Uruguay will begin their Group C campaign against Mexico on June 5 in Glendale, Ariz.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Chile 1-2 Jamaica

No longer content as CONCACAF’s best-kept secret, Jamaica are took their upsetting ways to a different level on Friday, knocking off South America’s reigning champions, 1-2 in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Clayton Donaldson and Simon Dawkins scored for the Reggae Boyz either side of halftime before Nicolas Castillo pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute. Winfried Schäfer’s side will join Uruguay and Mexico in Group C, along with Venezuela, their tournament-opening opponents on June 5 in Chicago, Ill.

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Costa Rica vs. Venezuela (underway)

Reunited in Manchester: The best (so far) of Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 25: Head coach Josep Guardiola (R) of FC Barcelona greets head coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid during the Copa del Rey quarter final second leg match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou stadium on January 25, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) The rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola is about to be renewed.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

After years of spats and high-profile games between the two rival coaches in Spain, they are set to face off again — this time in England.

Guardiola, who used to thrive with Barcelona, will begin his stint at Manchester City next season. Jose Mourinho, who succeeded with Real Madrid, is on his way to Manchester United after his appointment on a three-year contract was announced Friday.

There was plenty of controversy when the two met while coaching the Spanish powerhouses in the early 2010s, with incidents on and off the field.

Barcelona was doing well under Guardiola when Mourinho arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, and in the first game between the two, Barcelona thrashed Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

In the Copa del Rey final later that year, Real Madrid won the title and Mourinho took his first stab at Guardiola.

After the Barcelona coach lamented a close offside call that ruled out a goal by forward Pedro, Mourinho said that a “new era in football was beginning, one in which coaches criticize the correct decisions made by referees, not the wrong ones.”

Guardiola said he knew Mourinho well and the Portuguese coach was only trying to provoke him. He said such antics would not work, and he would answer them at an appropriate time.

The response came before Barcelona and Real Madrid played in the semifinals of the Champion League in 2011.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal ]

“The teams will meet tomorrow on the pitch, but off the field he has already won, he has won his own Champions off the field,” Guardiola said of Mourinho, using an expletive. “In this press conference room, he is the (big) boss, he is the one who knows it all. I don’t want to even start competing against him here.”

Guardiola said he was surprised by Mourinho’s animosity toward him considering they worked together for four years at Barcelona, when Guardiola was a player and Mourinho an assistant coach.

“He knows me and I know him,” Guardiola said. “If he prefers to pay more attention to the point of view of the (Madrid-friendly) media and not to the relationship that we had, then he can do it. It’s his decision and it’s his right.”

Later in 2011, during a brawl in a Spanish Super Cup game between the rival teams, Mourinho was caught by television cameras poking the eye of Tito Vilanova, then an assistant to Guardiola at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Klopp to pick between signing Gotze or Mane this summer ]

Guardiola’s Barcelona won most of the “clasicos” against Mourinho’s Madrid during the three seasons the Portuguese coach was in Spain.

In addition to winning the league in 2011-12, Mourinho also won the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup titles before ending his stint with Madrid. He and the club parted ways after what Mourinho called his worst season ever in 2012-13.

He was without a job since December after leaving Chelsea following a poor start to the season.

Guardiola won nearly every title possible with Barcelona before leaving the club to join Bayern Munich in 2013.

Gotze’s Bayern future remains uncertain; Sadio Mane still Liverpool’s Plan B?

MUNICH, GERMANY - MAY 14: Mario Goetze of Muenchen celebrates after the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Hannover 96 at Allianz Arena on May 14, 2016 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images For MAN)
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Sadio Mane has been an extremely in-demand commodity since last summer, when Manchester United and a handful of other Premier League and foreign clubs failed to pry the Southampton winger away from the South Coast in either one of the summer or January transfer windows.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Great players will always be in demand, though, which means another summer full of transfer rumors linking the ever-dangerous 24-year-old to clubs across England and Europe.

Enter stage left: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who’s eager to undertake his first summer transfer window since taking the Anfield job last October.

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Mario Gotze is said to remain Klopp’s no. 1 target this summer — the 23-year-old has said he intends to remain at Bayern Munich and fight for his place under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, but the Bayern hierarchy (Ancelotti included) perhaps see it differently — with Mane a not-so-terrible Plan B should Gotze remain at the Allianz Arena or land elsewhere. Gotze has scored just 22 Bundesliga goals in three seasons at Bayern (36 in all competitions) since making a big-money move from Borussia Dortmund three years ago.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal

After a promising debut in England saw Mane score 10 goals in 30 PL games two seasons ago, the Senegalese dynamo followed up with an 11-goal haul in the PL season just completed (15 goals in all competitions), much of which was shrouded in transfer rumors and clear discontent at St. Mary’s Stadium. Mane will cost anyone a great deal more — think 10 to $15 million more — than the $30 million Bayern hope to recoup in their sale of Gotze (they paid roughly $40 million for him in the summer of 2013).

Pre-EURO int’l friendly roundup: Rooney, Rashford score as England win again

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Wayne Rooney of England scores his team's second goal of the game during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 24 European nations prepare for EURO 2016…

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

England 2-1 Australia

Roy Hodgson seems to have one of those good dilemmas on his hands: with Danny Welbeck already out for EURO 2016, and Daniel Sturridge injured yet again, does he take 18-year-old Marcus Rashford to France next month? The Manchester United striker is certainly making his case after a breakout finish to the 2015-16 Premier League campaign, which he followed up on Friday with a goal all of three minutes into his England debut (WATCH HERE).

Wayne Rooney doubled England’s lead 10 minutes after he entered the game as a halftime substitute (WATCH HERE), extending the England and Man United captain’s record goal haul to 52 in his international career. Eric Dier scored an embarrassing header to pull one back for the Australians in the 75th minute (WATCH HERE).

England will host Portugal at Wembley Stadium next Thursday in either side’s final pre-EURO friendly.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores another debut goal

Ireland 1-1 Netherlands

The Dutch aren’t headed to EURO 2016 themselves, but the Irish certainly are, and Martin O’Neill’s side picked up a bit of positive momentum in the form of a 1-1 draw with the 2014 World Cup semifinalists.

Southampton’s Shane Long put the Irish ahead when he cleaned up a goal-line scramble on the half-hour mark, but former Newcastle United striker Luuk De Jong turned home a free kick to equalize for the visitors with five minutes remaining in regular time.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Northern Ireland 3-0 Belarus
Croatia 1-0 Moldova
Czech Republic 6-0 Malta
Slovakia 3-1 Georgia