Arsenal advance in Champions League, but Napoli out despite win

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One good club from Group F, a real heavyweight of a foursome, was bound to be odd team out on Wednesday as Champions League group play finished with a high-wire tension.

As it turned out, it was the victorious side from inside Napoli’s aged Stadio San Paolo that turned into the unlucky bunch.

A 2-0 win for Napoli over Arsenal was a result the English club could live with, although just barely, but it wasn’t enough to push Rafa Benitez’s club from Italy into next year’s knockout rounds.

Gonzalo Higuain’s second half goal was enough for the time being – it was a strike that would have sent both teams through with the other group match temporarily deadlocked. But when Dortmund scored near the end in the South of France, prevailing over Marseille, that was that for the Napoli, having been so desperate to remain in the competition after such a long absence.

Not even Jose Callejon’s late, late goal was enough, producing the final two-goal margin, but still not sufficient for Napoli.

The night had a certain edge, with Arsenal needing something better than a 2-0 loss to do what Arsenal does under Arsene Wenger: progress into the Champions League knockout round. Meanwhile, Napoli needed to win by more 2-0 or hope for something good from the Marseille-Dortmund contest, and where the pileup of a group table would be finally be revealed.

Benitez’s Napoli had lots of bite, and Belgian international Dries Mertens was on top of his game, with lots of creativity and hustle-bustle along the right for the Italian team. Napoli kept the ball in Arsenal’s end but couldn’t quite unlock a defense where center backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were big cops on the beat.

In fact, the most nervy Gunners moment before intermission was their own poor doings. Koscielny rolled a ball to goalkeeper Szczesny, who tried to get clever. Rather than crushing the ball forward, he attempted a little pass out to the wing. It bounced off Higuain, who was nearly able to direct it into goal.

The home team frustration grew as the opportunity for opportunities diminished, and by the 35th minute Mertens and Blerim Dzemaili had yellow cards, mostly a response to the persistent midfield fouling meant to slow Arsenal’s lethal counter.

Napoli pressed on, closer and closer to the breakthrough after the break. Pablo Armero broke through on the left and Callejon on the right, just a few minutes apart, but neither could do well enough with their shooting efforts.

In the 70th minute, Higuain was set free inside the 18, but he shot high, too.

Finallly, in the 73rd, Higuain had a moment of brilliance. The entry pass was good enough, but the Argentine forward’s piece of technical craft, the spin and shot to the far post at such high speed, was something to behold.

Arsenal’s job got harder in the 76th when Mikel Arteta, having already been booked, collected his second foul for a tough midfield foul. The Gunners did concede a second, but it was deep enough into injury time that it really was academic.

Lineups:

Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Flamini, Arteta, Rosicky, Cazorla, Ozil, Giroud.

On the bench: Fabianski, Vermaelen, Monreal, Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Bendtner

Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Fernandez, Albiol, Armero; Dzemaili, Behrami; Callejón, Pandev, Mertens; Higuain.

On the bench: Colombo, Uvini, Britos, Isigne, Cannovaro, Inler, Zapata

Managerial change a slippery slope for West Brom

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Tony Pulis brought much needed stability to West Bromwich Albion before his tenure soured in a hurry.

When Pulis took over at the Hawthorns, West Brom had seen both Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine do little winning in abbreviated managerial stints. Mel won three of 17 matches in charge, while Irvine could only nab five in 22.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked ]

So there is little debating, even for those who West Brom fans who revel in the club’s former free-flowing ways, that Pulis had a productive time in charge from January 2015 right on through most of last season.

But Pulis was seemingly limited to setting a points total and then kicking his heels up once Premier League safety was reached.

While that sounds a bit laughable, the facts are that the Baggies finished 10th last season despite an impressive start that saw the club comfortably eighth for much of the season. However, West Brom won five points from its final 12 matches to finish 16 points behind a European place (including five shutout losses at home).

The Baggies finished 14th the previous season, Pulis’ first full year in charge, but collapsed again after hitting the rarefied air of 11th. That final stretch? Five losses and four draws including shutout losses at home to Norwich City, Watford, and West Ham.

In doing so, Pulis belied his own budgetary critiques by proving the Baggies had the talent to compete for something relatively special.

Pulis was good at getting his side to play with the fury of a relegation contender from Day One, but it was so clear the side was sated once safety was secure. It wouldn’t be callous to opine that the manager would’ve viewed the Europa League as a nuisance to his “never been relegated” reputation (an idea buttressed by West Brom’s performances in Cup competitions, where Pulis never advanced to a quarterfinal while losing to Reading, Norwich City, Derby County, Northampton Town, and, this season, Man City).

What West Brom does next will say a lot. If it’s as simple as a rehashing of the “never been relegated” deck with Sam Allardyce, well, that’s something. But the Baggies are in the tricky predicament of having to replace a relatively stable hand who was their first good hire in three tries, while also running with the knowledge that their players clearly are capable of so much better than 17th.

The names on the bettor’s lists show what’s expected of West Brom: gritty style from an island manager. Derek McInnes is the favorite, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill just ahead of Sam Allardyce. Alan Pardew is next, followed by Ronald Koeman (For what it’s worth, bookies are still milking money from gamblers by including Jurgen Klinsmann’s name at 20:1 or so).

West Brom is in its eighth-straight Premier League campaign. The firing will jostle an already rocking ship, but the Baggies have steady leadership in Jonny Evans, Ben Foster, Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson. They have the wherewithal to achieve safety again, and can even look good in the process should a manager find the right way to use Salomon Rondon, Matty Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Nacer Chadli, and others.

Who’s the right man for the job?

West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis

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Tony Pulis‘ reign over the Hawthorns is over, as West Bromwich Albion has fired the 59-year-old after just under three years in charge of the Premier League outfit.

Assistant coach Gary Megson takes over on an interim basis.

[ MLS: Steve Bruce to Miami? ]

The Baggies have not won a game since August, and were belted 4-0 at home by Chelsea on Saturday to leave the club one point above the drop zone.

Overall, Pulis oversaw wins in just 36 of his 121 matches, losing 49, in what will go down as one of the least successful stints in his well-traveled career. Only three PL clubs have scored less than the Baggies’ nine goals.

Here’s the club statement:

“These decisions are never taken lightly but always in the interests of the Club.

“We are in a results business and over the back end of last season and this season to date, ours have been very disappointing.

“We would like to place on record our appreciation of Tony’s contribution and hard work during a period of transition for the Club which included a change of ownership. We wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Pulis will almost certainly be back on the touch line soon, as he hasn’t spent more than a few months out of work since 2002.

Pressure builds on Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Bosz

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Borussia Dortmund has fallen to fifth in the Bundesliga table thanks to a trio of consecutive losses in league play, and suddenly there is loads of pressure on manager Peter Bosz.

The Dutchman came to Westfalenstadion after upper management pushed Thomas Tuchel out over the summer, and while he won seven of his first eight league matches in charge by a total goal differential of 21-2, things have come crashing down. The black & yellow have lost three in a row Bundesliga matches and four of their last five across all competitions, with their only win in that span coming over third-tier Magdenburg.

With fans feeling helpless over the departure of the wildly successful Tuchel that came as a result of a falling out between the German and his superiors, Bosz would always be on a short leash. He inherited a flawed squad, yet one that had achieved much under his predecessor, and immediate failures would naturally be lumped on the new man.

The most recent defeat, a 2-1 falter at Stuttgart, was a microcosm of Dortmund’s recent failures. The team conceded a comically poor goal five minutes into the match, worked hard to equalize just before the halftime break, and conceded again just after returning to the pitch. They controlled much of the match, but largely failed to capitalize.

The head man summed it up pretty well. “The defeat really hurts,” Bosz proclaimed after the final whistle. “We came here to win, so we’re very disappointed. When you see the goals we conceded, it borders on the ridiculous. It hurts because we actually put in a relatively good performance in the first half. The team performed well after conceding the early goal, only the final ball was lacking. The second half wasn’t as good. We need to keep going, we won’t give up.”

So what do the Dortmund executives do? Does Bosz get the benefit of the doubt based on performances? Or does he get blamed for the sudden dropoff in results? There is plenty of pressure given the team sits not only nine points back of Borussia Dortmund in league play, but is also third in a brutal Champions League group with almost no hope of recovery, and even threatens to miss out on a drop to Europa League play if they slip behind Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia, whom they find themselves level on points with.

Even if the club sticks with the Dutchman for now, his room for error has almost completely evaporated and it’s only mid-November. The next two matches will likely tell the tale, and it’s an uphill battle. Tottenham comes to Westfalenstadion on the backs of a disappointing defeat to North London foes Arsenal, followed by the home end of the Rivierderby against a Schalke side that sits second in the Bundesliga table, three points above Bosz and Dortmund.

Antonio Conte calls Tony Pulis a “really good manager”

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West Brom, after four straight defeats, sits 17th in the Premier League table, most recently suffering a 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Chelsea.

Yet Blues boss Antonio Conte has offered his counterpart an olive branch, supporting his fellow Premier League manager at a time of panic.

With reports that Pulis could be fired this coming week – some say as early as Monday – the Baggies boss is under heaps of pressure, but Conte doesn’t believe he should be. “I must be honest, I think Tony Pulis is a really good manager,” Conte said, hoping those in charge don’t make decisions based on Sunday’s result.

“He has great experience and it’s always very difficult to play against his team. This game became easy because we started very strong, with great concentration and desire to win. We showed from the start our will to win this game. But I repeat: Last season we struggled a lot against them.”

West Brom has lost four in a row in league play, and they haven’t picked up a win since August, and as The Guardian points out, they have the lowest average possession in the Premier League and have the second-lowest shots on target thus far. They registered just two shots on target against Chelsea, and held 39% possession, which is actually slightly above their average for the season.