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

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.