UEFA Champions League preview: Arsenal, Chelsea look to close out groups

Leave a comment

The final day of UEFA Champions League’s group stage takes place on Wednesday, with Groups E through H completing the process of sending two teams into the tournament’s second round, a third into Europa League. Here are today’s matchups and scenarios, with each game kicking off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern:

Group E 

  • Chelsea (England, 9 pts., first place) vs. Steaua Bucharest (Romania, 3 pts, fourth), Stamford Bridge, London
  • Schalke (Germany, 7 pts., third) vs. Basel (Switzerland, 8 pts., second), Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen

First place goes to … Chelsea, if the Blues can get a win or draw against visiting Steaua. A loss, however, means Basel takes first with a result in Gelsenkirchen, having swept Chelsea in the teams’ two group stage games. Schalke, however, would take first with a win at home.

Second place goes to … If Chelsea wins, Basel takes second with any result in Germany. Else, Schalke’s through to the knockout round. The Blues still win the group with a draw as long as Basel doesn’t win in Germany. With a loss, Chelsea’s locked into second place, set to be passed by Basel (draw or win in Germany) or Schalke (win over Basel).

What to know: Even after two humbling defeats to Basel, Chelsea are in firm control of their group stage destiny. Win at home against the group’s weakest team and they go into the group winner’s pot, so although they’ve dragged this drama out one round longer than needed, there’s little reason to think Chelsea won’t take the spot we predicted before match day one: First place in Group E.

Consider the group’s other match, though: An increasingly enticing Basel side, who are looking for the second knockout stage berth in three years, facing an ever-enigmatic Schalke – a team that’s already beaten them in Switzerland. Though the Miners are coming off a 2-1 loss at Borussia Mönchengladbach this weekend, they’d won three of four before that, hinting Jens Keller’s team might be in one of the good phases of their lunar cycle. But if that phase has inexplicably passed (as they often do with Schalke), the likes of Mohamed Salah could seen Basel through Schalke and into the knockout rounds. It wouldn’t even be Basel’s biggest upset of the tournament.

Jermaine Jones is suspended for Schalke, who are also without Marco Höger, Dennis Aogo, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Marcelo Díaz and Behrang Safari are missing for Basel.

In the other game, Brazilians David Luiz and Oscar are misses for Chelsea, while Steaua is without the suspended Alexandru Bourseanu.

source: APGroup F 

  • Napoli (Italy, 9 pts., third place) vs. Arsenal (England, 12 pts., first), Stadio San Paolo, Naples
  • Marseille (France, 0 pts., fourth) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany, 9 pts., second), Stade Velodrome, Marseille

First place goes to … Arsenal if they get a draw or win in Naples. If they lose, they can still win the group if Dortmund stumble in France and Napoli don’t turn fully turn around the 2-0 loss they suffered Oct. 1 in North London.

If, however, Dortmund win at Marseille while Napoli down Arsenal, there’ll be a three-way tie atop the group, one Dortmund likely wins unless Napoli makes up the four-goal gap in goal difference in games among the three tied teams.

Second place goes to … In the three-way tie scenario, Napoli would need a three-goal win over Arsenal to pass the Gunners for second place. Dortmund can’t finish lower than second with a win, but if they stumble in France, Napoli passes them with any result at the San Paolo.

What to know: Napoli has spent the middle of this group stage campaign looking like the third of three, form that has the partenopei on the outside looking in at knockout round. Win at the San Paolo on Wednesday, however, and all could be forgotten, even if that win will have to be convincing. Assuming Borussia Dortmund take full points in France, Napoli will need to beat Arsenal by three to best the Gunners in a three-way tiebreaker.

But that assumption about Dortmund may not be so safe, with Jürgen Klopp’s injury-littered team taking a patchwork squad to Marseille. Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender were lost this weekend against Leverkusen. Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Ilkay Gundogan and Marcel Schmelzer are out, as is Lukasz Piszczek.

Though their attack remains in tact, Borussia Dotmund’s back seven is decimated, something that would likely cost them against a full strength Marseille. But with Mathieu Valbuena and André Ayew both injured, BVB may have be suffering an injury crisis at the right time. Better now than against Arsenal or Napoli.

In Naples, Marek Hamsik, Juan Camilo Zuniga, and Giandomenico Mesto are all out, with Pepe Reina’s thigh threading to add the Spanish keeper to Rafa Benítez’s list of absences. Arsenal have Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamerlain on the sidelinse, but the group of players that saw the Gunners to the top of Group F are all healthy.

source: Getty ImagesGroup G 

  • Atlético Madrid (Spain, 13 pts., first place) vs. Porto (Portugal, 5 pts., third), Vicente Calderon, Madrid
  • Austria Wien (Austria, 2 pts., fourth) vs. Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia, 6 pts., second), Ernst-Happel Stadium, Vienna

First place goes to … Atlético Madrid. They locked this one up a while ago.

Second place goes to … Zenit St. Petersburg with a win. With a draw or loss, they open the door for Porto, who would need to win at the Vicente Calderon to advance.

What to know: Diego Simeone’s team may not have anything to play for, but Atleti will play a key part in Group G’s fate. Stay unbeaten by getting a result against visiting Porto, and the current La Liga co-leaders will escort the Dragons out of the competition. If they stumble, Porto have a chance to return to the knockout round. Given Atlético had nothing to play for two weeks ago against Zenit (and still took a point against St. Petersburg), Porto look like long shots to be playing Champions League soccer in February.

Zenit, however, can make that match irrelevant. Win in Vienna, and Luciano Spalletti’s side are through no matter what, and although they were drawn in St. Petersburg by the Austrian champions, they’re unlikely to see a repeat of the 44th minute Axel Witsel red card that hamstrung them in October. Unbeaten in Champions League since their day one trip to the Vicente Calderon, Zenit will likely find their way past a team that’s failed to get a result at home.

To do so, Zenit will have to overcome the absences of Danny, Aleksandr Bukharov, Aleksandar Lukovic and Vyacheslav Malafeev, while Austria will be without defender Lukas Potpuller and midfielder Bernhard Luxbacher. Atlético will be without Thibaut Courtois, Juanfran, and Mario Suárez, while Porto’s only doubt is Lucho Gonzalez.

 source: APGroup H 

  • Barcelona (Spain, 10 pts., first place) vs. Celtic (Scotland, 3 pts., fourth)
  • Milan (Italy, 8 pts., second) vs. Ajax (Netherlands, 7 pts., third)

First place goes to … Barcelona, if they can get a result at home against Celtic. If they lose, Milan go through as winners with a win over Ajax. The Dutch champions, -3 in goal difference after their two games with Barça, can’t win the group.

Second place goes to … Milan with a result at the San Siro, provided a Celtic upset at the Nou Camp doesn’t give the Rossoneri a shock group win. Ajax take the runners up’s slot with a win in Italy.

What to know: Barcelona lost their last Champions League game. They lost their last game in La Liga, and on Wednesday, they’ll be without Lionel Messi, Víctor Valdés, Dani Alves, and Cesc Fábregas. Yet the tensions around Barça-Celtic will remain the same as ever. If the Spanish champions can prevent their guests from getting out on the counter or executing on set pieces, Wednesday could be an easy day for the Blaugrana.

And if it is, all of Group H’s drama will be in Milan, where a win by Ajax will send the Dutch champions into the knockout rounds at Milan’s expense. Given the quality Ajax showed against Barcelona, that kind of result doesn’t seem so far fetched, even if we’ve come to the point where a Dutch team in the knockout round would draw squinted eyes and a few shaking heads. Particularly given the loses this Ajax team suffered this summer, being this close to the knockout round is a mild surprise, and although Milan are starting to show new life in Italy (up to ninth), they’ve still only won once of their last four in Serie A. Lucky for them a draw gets them through.

Ignazio Abate, Robinho, and Valter Birsa are all out for Milan, while Ajax defender Nicolai Boilesen joins Siem de Jong and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson as likely absences. In Barcelona, Celtic will be without the suspended Emilio Izaguirre, while James Forrest’s hamstring will sideline the Scotland international.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

Leave a comment

Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands…

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that didn’t “want to influence the next manager.”

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still had one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season. The growing notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger.

Roma condemn violent scenes outside Anfield

Getty Images
Leave a comment

AS Roma have condemned an attack from some of its supporters on Liverpool’s fans before the game after a 53-year-old Liverpool supporter was injured outside Anfield before the UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Serie A side said that a “small minority of traveling fans brought shame on the club” as two men from Rome have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after the attack on the Liverpool fan who is in a critical condition after suffering head injuries.

Below is the statement in full from the Italian club.

AS Roma condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent behavior of a small minority of traveling fans who brought shame on the club and the vast majority of Roma’s well-behaved supporters at Anfield after getting involved in clashes with Liverpool supporters before last night’s fixture.

There is no place for this type of vile behavior in football and the club is now cooperating with Liverpool Football Club, UEFA and the authorities. The club’s thoughts and prayers are with the 53-year-old Liverpool fan in hospital and his family at this time.

Salah’s sensational season in context

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
1 Comment

Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4

How long is Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC?

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

While Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League success has largely been driven by Sebastian Giovinco — Wednesday’s final second leg not withstanding — perhaps the Reds’ brass isn’t convinced the diminutive 31-year-old can keep it up much longer (at least in terms of value).

[ MORE: Behind the scenes at NYCFC training ]

Toronto’s dynamic Designated Player says he wants to stay in Ontario, implying that he’d like to be there for the rest of his career, but TFC’s brass may not want to pony up DP dollars for the next stage of Giovinco’s career.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson:

“I already talk, but they said it’s not the moment (for contract talks),” Giovinco told the Sun. “For them, that’s not a problem, for me it is a little bit. I want to know my future. I have family. I’m 31 years old. For what I do for the city, I think I deserve it, no? … For them it’s not a problem, for me it’s starting to be a problem … I already said I want to stay here forever … If not, I have to think about other options.”

Let’s look into Seba’s success. The Italian has three goals and four assists in seven CCL matches (though scoreless through three MLS matches).

2017: 32 games, 20 goals, seven assists (6W-3L-2T w/o him)
2016: 37 games, 22 goals, 16 assists (1W-1L-4T w/o him)
2015: 35 games, 23 goals, 14 assists (0W-2L w/o him)

The assist numbers took a hit with the emergence of Victor Vazquez, but the ex-Barcelona man is also 31 years old. Michael Bradley turns 31 this summer, and Jozy Altidore is 29 in November.

Who will stay long-term? Who could general manager Tim Bezbatchenko have in mind as replacements, upgrades, or buttressing? Inquiring minds are