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.

At 0-2, Americans understand stakes in World Cup qualifying

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Michael Bradley sees no reason to keep harping on that 4-0 loss at Costa Rica four months ago.

Yes, it’s still fresh in the Americans’ minds, a night every mistake snowballed into another.

“There is zero point in continuing to look back on that at the moment,” Bradley said. “We are where we are. Now it’s about on Friday night beginning this process of moving ourselves back up the table and stepping on the field from the first minute and playing a really aggressive way that ultimately leaves no doubt as to who’s stepping off the field, win or lose.”

Bruce Arena’s U.S. squad gets a fresh start in World Cup qualifying Friday against Honduras, and the pressure is on following the home country’s first 0-2 start in the North and Central American and Caribbean region’s final round.

“We understand the position we’re in,” Bradley said. “There’s no need for anybody on the outside to put any more pressure on us than we’ve already put on ourselves, because we didn’t start the hex in the right way. We put ourselves behind the eight ball. We’re honest and real enough with ourselves to understand that. Friday night is the beginning of our chance to put things right and get ourselves back in a good position. … We need guys to step on the field and understand the moment, not be fazed by it, go for it in a fearless way and have a big group of guys play really well.”

Forward Jordan Morris’ status for Friday appears in question after he missed a third straight day of practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury sustained Sunday with the Seattle Sounders. Morris rehabbed in the gym, the U.S. Soccer Federation said.

“Have you followed our team at all the last month? You think that’s going to be something that’s going to bother me?” Arena said at the start of the week when asked about health concerns. “We’re fine. We’re going to have 11 good players on the field on Friday.”

For those who do play, Bradley said it is paramount everybody brings his best game. Same goes for the Americans’ next match in Panama on Tuesday.

While the man in charge has changed – Arena replaced the fired Jurgen Klinsmann in November for a second stint as U.S. coach – and more Major League Soccer players were called upon this time than in November, Bradley insists the approach remains simple: Find a way to win.

“We stepped on the field in Costa Rica wanting to win. That desire to win is obviously still there, so in terms of the basic idea of stepping on the field and trying to play well and go for it in the right way and come away with a positive result, that part’s still the same obviously,” the longtime captain said. “There’s no two ways about it, we let ourselves down in Costa Rica. We didn’t play well enough. Mistakes turned into bigger mistakes, which turned into bigger mistakes, and so it all comes together in a way that you can lose a game in a bad way.”

And, there are many faces who have been on the big stage – Bradley, included.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard started the past two World Cups. Howard, four-time World Cup participant defender DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey played for Arena leading into the coach’s last World Cup qualifying, in 2005. Jozy Altidore brings experience up front.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Howard said. “It’s helpful that we have guys who have been through the hex before, who understand what that takes and the pressures that are on us. Yeah, it’s a big game.”

Bradley isn’t getting fancy when it comes to what the U.S. group must do.

“Winning. Three points,” Bradley said. “That’s it.”

“For us the reality is simple: We let ourselves down in the first two games,” he said. “It means that our margin for error is very, very small, but nothing’s changed in that we still feel good about the team that we have, the group that we are. I think that Bruce has come in and done an excellent job in terms of re-establishing certain things, getting at a few things. The mentality, the spirit in training and around the group both in January and now this week has been excellent, so we’re getting a little excited about the chance to step on the field in a big-time qualifier.”

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”