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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.

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

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The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

[ MORE: Jones labels Howard’s comments “dangerous” ]

The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25

Report: El Tri’s Chicharito to LAFC in 2018

Bayer Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, left, and Atletico Mineiro's Mattheus Rolden fight for possession of the ball during the first half of a Florida Cup soccer match, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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It makes a lot of sense, you know?

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will turn 30 in 2018, not a spring chicken for a striker but still plenty productive if healthy.

His national team, Mexico, will likely be revving its engines for the World Cup, and won’t be upset to have the forward playing a bit less soccer and a lot closer to home.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines ]

And Los Angeles FC will want to make a massive mark as it seeks to butt its head into a market dominated by the LA Galaxy (and, perhaps still then, Mexico national teamer Giovani Dos Santos).

So, tell us more, Steve Brisendine of MLSSoccer.com:

“[LAFC] are going to do everything possible to sign the current Bayer Leverkusen player, whose contract ends in 2018 and could therefore leave for a reduced fee. That’s what AS.com has confirmed with sources close to the project. LAFC hope to announce their new manager this spring and dream, a little later, to do the same with Javier Hernandez, aka Chicharito.”

Make it happen. Make. It. Happen. We’re already reserving his spot on our MLS fantasy teams.

Transfer rumor roundup: Jagielka, Begovic, Berahino, Zarate

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13: Saido Berahino of West Brom challenges for the ball with Phil Jagielka of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on September 13, 2014 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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There’s action all over England, from those defending the goal mouth to others striving to conquer it.

[ MORE: More transfer gossip ]

— Bournemouth wants an upgrade on Artur Boruc, according to The Telegraph, and that could come in the form of Chelsea backstop Asmir Begovic.

The Cherries reportedly had a $12.5 million bid turned down by Antonio Conte, who has Thibaut Courtois in the No. 1 seat and Portugal national team backup Eduardo in the ranks (along with three keepers on loan and young goalie Mitchell Beanie).

— Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger shut the door on acquiring West Ham wantaway Dimitri Payet according to Sky Sports’ Transfer Centre:

“We have many players offensively who can play in this position. You are interested by the quality of the player but there needs to be a need as well, and we have no need in this domain.”

— Clubs in need of experienced Premier League backs need look no further than Everton, where manager Ronald Koeman has admitted that England international Phil Jagielka could leave Goodison Park. The 34-year-old center back has 40 caps for England and has made 337 appearances for Everton. He could be a massive upgrade for Sunderland if David Moyes is up for a reunion.

— Stoke City chairman Peter Coates says a purchase of Saido Berahino from West Brom is not contingent on a sale of Bojan Krkic. The latter has been linked to Middlesbrough.

— Mauro Zarate may be returning the Premier League. Watford boss Walter Mazzarri has been largely let down by his strike corps as Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have taken steps back this season. Could $4 be enough to bring the ex-West Ham and QPR man from Fiorentina to Vicarage Road? Zarate has four goals in nine matches for La Viola, and has nine goals in 40 Premier League matches.