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

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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.

Lampard urges Chelsea to sign Terry; If not, would buy his plane ticket to MLS

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on January 31, 2015 in London, England.
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John Terry is the last of the old guard at Chelsea, and club legend Frank Lampard thinks he deserves to stay at Stamford Bridge.

Speaking with the web site ShortList.com, Lampard also said he’d welcome the defender to Major League Soccer with open arms, and checkbook.

[ MORE: Premier League’s Top Five story lines for Week 26 ]

Saying he’d “I’ll get his plane ticket and get him over here,” the New York City FC midfielder called Terry “quite comfortably” the best defender he’d ever played with during his career.

From Shortlist.com:

“What John offers is a link with the fans and an appreciation of the young players who he would want to help come through. He’s Mr Chelsea. Those are the sorts of players you need at the club. Without telling the club what to do, I think Chelsea are looking to change the old nucleus we had, what with myself, Ashley [Cole], Didier [Drogba] and Petr [Cech] gone, John’s almost the last one standing. But I don’t think he’s going to be an issue with that – he’ll even help the transition with helping the younger players.”

Even given Terry’s dicey at times off-field reputation, there’s merit to that story (After all, you can’t be okay with Ryan Giggs guiding the youth of Manchester and opposed to Terry leading at the Bridge).

As for MLS, plenty of England’s old guard is here already. From the 2010 World Cup roster alone, Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard are in L.A., Lampard’s in New York City, and Shaun Wright-Phillips is with RBNY. That’s already half the number of U.S. players in MLS who played in the 2010 tournament.

Former FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke hit with 12-year ban

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 24:  FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke listens to questions during the Post-meeting of Organising Committee for the FIFA World Cup press conference ahead of the preliminary draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at Konstantin Palace on July 24, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Another member of FIFA’s embattled corps has learned his punishment for egregious ethics violations.

Jerome Valcke, the longtime secretary general of football’s governing body, is going to be away from the game for 12 years, banned from the sport by FIFA’s independent ethics committee.

[ MORE: Hiddink comments on USMNT’s Miazga, center back crisis ]

The 12 years are less than a lifetime but more than the recommended nine years. Valcke was dismissed from his post in January.

From the BBC:

The decision has been made by Fifa’s independent ethics committee following allegations of potential misconduct related to sales of World Cup tickets.

During the investigations, several other acts of potential misconduct arose, including travel expenses policies and regulations.

Valcke’s ban is four years longer than the ones issued to Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini.

Allardyce on using USMNT’s inexperienced Yedlin at RB: “It’s a massive ask”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Sunderland at Anfield on February 6, 2016 in Liverpool, England.
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Sam Allardyce knows a relegation battle when he sees one, and even an injury crisis has him nervous about using inexperienced USMNT right back DeAndre Yedlin.

The speedy American wingback is on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, and Sunderland’s table position has its manager wondering if he can afford to use the 22-year-old.

[ MORE: Hiddink comments on USMNT’s Miazga, center back crisis ]

Billy Jones is injured, and the Black Cats did not firm up their right back depth in the transfer window. Ex-Celtic back Adam Matthews is among the other options, and played 150 times for the Bhoys.

And Yedlin had just 56 professional appearances and was less than three years removed from two years at Akron when he moved to London.

From the Sunderland Echo:

“We’ve got Billy who has a lot of experience, and obviously we’ve got DeAndre, who has very little experience at this level.

“DeAndre has a lot of qualities, but without that experience, it’s a massive ask to perform at the consistent level that you need to at this stage of the season, particularly with the pressure we’re all under.”

You have to love that following his train of thought would continue with, “but we don’t have any better options, so let’s see what happens!” It’s not quite Guus Hiddink saying of Chelsea youth like Matt Miazga, “We have no fear of bringing youngsters in“, but Allardyce is right in saying the relegation plight is a different pressure than Chelsea’s much safer spot.

This is a big chance — and a big ask — for Yedlin, who replaced Jones in last week’s comeback draw with Liverpool and has only seen Spurs improve since he went on loan. How has Yedlin fared this season? In terms of overall stats, he hasn’t been very good at all, though advanced stats site Squawka says he is slightly better than Jones.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 9.28.33 AM

But in terms of straight-up defending, the USMNT man has done the job a lot better.

Sunderland Yedlin

It would be classic Big Sam to improve his lot in the Premier League safety race because injury forced him to remove Jones.

Go get ’em, kid.

Hiddink on Zouma absence: “We have no fear of bringing youngsters in”

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Chelsea hosts Newcastle United this weekend, its first game since the season-ending injury to young defender Kurt Zouma.

The 21-year-old Frenchman has arguably been Chelsea’s best center back when it comes to marking and defending this season, and manager Guus Hiddink has to find an alternative for the big man.

[ MORE: Klopp updates Sturridge, Coutinho fitness; Backs owners ]

While Gary Cahill and John Terry have the familiar names of the bunch, Hiddink won’t limit himself to veteran replacements. Certainly he could slide Cesar Azpilicueta inside, though that would sacrifice about a half-foot, and Newcastle likes to use big striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.

He also has 20-year-old USMNT back Matt Miazga — who’s been given squad No. 20 — and said the following in Friday’s pre-match press conference:

“We have no fear of bringing youngsters in.”

Could we see Miazga in the fold on Saturday? Hiddink’s comments sure sound like he’d rather not, but all it takes is an injury or an inkling.

Miazga gave an interview to Chelsea’s web site last weekend where he described his play.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“I really like it, it is a higher level, the ball moves much faster but yeah, it is good. All the guys are very welcoming and I am really enjoying it.

“My game is definitely built on winning aerial challenges and tackles. As a centre-back you have to have an aerial presence and win a lot of headers, and my job is to win duels and not let opponents score, so every time I try to get a good tackle in and make my opponent know that I am there and it is not going to be an easy time trying to go by me.”

The ball moves much faster, and we’re hoping to see Miazga move with it sooner rather than later. Will it be this weekend.