UEFA Champions League Preview: Arsenal first in line to try and derail Bayern Munich

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Jonathan Wilson took a crack at trying to figure out Bayern Munich from Arsenal’s point of view, but while acknowledging the defending European champions’ tactically flexibility, The Guardian’s tactics specialist described the Gunners’ choices as a series of middling tradeoffs. Perhaps Arsène Wenger could switch to a 4-3-3 formation (from a 4-2-3-1) or make a concerted effort to limit the influence of Philipp Lahm, regardless of the position the Bayern captain plays. Ultimately, however, the intensity and efficiency with which Bayern plays gives Pep Guardiola’s team its greatest advantage. A change in formation won’t offset that edge.

So the question ahead of Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League match in London — the first of two in the teams’ Round of 16 matchup — may be less how Arsenal can match up with Bayern than why this year’s meeting will be different from last’s. In the same round of last year’s competition, Bayern took a 3-1, first leg lead out of the Emirates. Three months later, the Bavarians claimed their fifth European title.

[MORE: Wenger, Arsenal intent on avoiding Champions League repeat against Bayern Munich]

Unfortunately for Arsenal, Bayern Munich are even stronger this year. Pep Guardiola has replaced Jupp Heynckes as head coach, bringing in a slightly different tactical approach as well as a new way to use players like Lahm (a fullback that’s been converted to defensive midfield). Mario Götze has joined from Borussia Dortmund, as has Thiago Alcantara from Barcelona. Attempting to improve on a team that dominated last year’s Bundesliga, Guardiola has crafted a crew that averages 70.4 percent possession and nearly 20 shots per match (19.2). They’ve become prohibitive favorites to be the first team since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan to claim consecutive European titles.

As hinted in Wilson’s piece, Arsenal do not match up well against Bayern, a deficiency that describes a Champions League failure that’s been present throughout most of the Arsène Wenger era. With a subtle layer of dogma to their approach, Arsenal’s spells of domestic success have been coupled with the feeling they play as an aesthetically superior game to their opponents. Tellingly, the one time they reached the Champions League final under Wenger, Arsenal lost to Barcelona, a rare club that’s more dogmatic in their aestheticists’ ethic than the Gunners.

[MORE: Respectful Bayern saying all the right things ahead of Champions League visit to Arsenal]

Wenger’s pursuit of such stylist values has waned in recent years, but this is still a team that doesn’t feature an elite presence in defensive midfield (even if Mathieu Flamini’s return has been a boost). The defense features a series of value buys, and their goalkeeper couples promising performances with ones that hint he’ll never be an elite keeper. The overall philosophy describes an approach that sees relatively little difference between elite defenders and ones which represent better value. While that may be an empirically justifiable view, it’s also one that highlights scrutiny when Arsenal fails.

One of those failures occurred 11 days ago at Anfield, when Arsenals’ decent-not-stellar defense was exposed by Liverpool. In the process, the lack of a strong defensive midfielder was evident (Mathieu Flamini was suspended) while the remainder of the midfield failed to match up against the upstart Reds. While Arsenal has since rebounded from that disappointment, a vulnerable defense led by Laurent Koscielny and Per Merstsacker will still be stressed to contain the reigning European Champions.

The task will be easier in the absence of Franck Ribery, with Bayern’s best attacker sidelined as he recovers from surgery. Unfortunately, Bayern’s depth means the team will still likely start Mario Mandzukic, Thomas Müller, Mario Götze and Arjen Robben – a quartet capable of replicating last year’s three-goal performance in North London. With Lahm in midfield and Bastian Schweinsteiger returning to health, Bayern have more than enough talent to compensate of the absence of their Ballon d’Or finalist.

The one saving grace Arsenal has is their performance in their last meeting against Bayern. Last March, Arsenal produced a 2-0 result at the Allianz Arena, pulling them even with the Germans in the teams’ Round of 16 match ups. Away goals eventually sent Bayern through, but for Arsenal, the result could help create some momentum to carry into Wednesday’s game.

But it’s going to take more than momentum to derail the consensus best team in Europe. With the addition of players like Mesut Özil, Arsenal is certainly better than last year. But that’s unlikely to be enough to overcome Bayern Munich’s quest for a second straight title.

MLS Snapshot: Philadelphia Union 3-0 Columbus Crew

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The game in 100 words (or less)Goals from Ilsinho, CJ Sapong, and Marcus Epps led the Philadelphia Union to a 3-0 win over the Crew, who had not one but two players sent off in the loss. Jonathan Mensah saw red in the 35th minute for denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity, and Lalas Abubakar was sent off for violent conduct with about a quarter hour to play. Sapong had two assists and Ilsinho added a helper too. Philly pulls to within five points of sixth-place Columbus, and have played one less game.

Three moments that mattered

20′  — Overhead pass gets deserved finish — Ilsinho made Zack Steffen’s diving attempt look feeble with a blast after Sapong’s bike-like ball across the box.

38′ — Alberg PK denied — Did we mention it could’ve been worse for Philly? Roland Alberg was stopped by the left hand of the law, er, Steffen. The left hand of the Steffen.

81′ — Epps puts it to bed — The man was credited with eight shots on the night, as 22-year-old Marcus Epps has his first MLS goal (He has scored in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup).

Man of the Match: Sapong.

Conte questions Spurs ambitions: “You must buy expensive players”

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Like most Spurs fans, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has noticed that Tottenham isn’t spending during this summer transfer window.

He’s also heard the remarks of Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, who said the spending from many other Premier League clubs is “unsustainable.”

Conte’s reply? Maybe not winning’s okay to you, Dan.

[ WATCH: Neymar scores vs. Man Utd ]

The Chelsea boss defends the massive money being doled out on players by, essentially, saying ambitious clubs have to keep up with other ambitious clubs. And without digging into the profit margins of Spurs and other PL clubs, perhaps he has a point.

Also, you can’t help but appreciate the subtle dig at Liverpool, as if to say, “Yeah, maybe they care.”

From the BBC:

“If [Spurs] don’t win the title, it’s not a tragedy. If they don’t arrive in the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy. If they go out in the first round of the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy. If they go out after the first game that they play in the Europa League and go down against Gent, it’s not a tragedy.

“Maybe for Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and – I don’t know – Liverpool, it is a tragedy. You must understand this. You must understand the status of the team.

“Every team has to understand what their ambitions are. If their ambitions are to fight for the title or try to win the Champions League, you must buy expensive players. Otherwise you continue to stay in your level. It’s simple. My question is this: What are Tottenham’s expectations?”

Again, we’re not poring over the financials of these clubs, but it is saying something that Spurs have not bought any new players and sold Kyle Walker to Man City for $59 million. If the market says players are worth that, than the logic goes that Spurs cannot improve without investing that sum into players.

And look, Mr. Levy, you spent $40 million on Moussa Sissoko and close to $30m on Vincent Janssen. It’s not like we’re talking about a totally new world here.

It wasn’t all negative, or passive aggressive negative, from Conte, who said Harry Kane is the top striker worth buying in the world, and valued him at more than $131 million.

FOLLOW LIVE: Lineups as the USMNT goes trophy hunting

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Levi’s Stadium is the scene as the United States men’s national team looks to wrestle the Gold Cup back after Mexico claimed the 2015 championship.

Jamaica is the opponent, and an incredible story all things considered, as the Reggae Boyz hope their second-straight tournament final is the occasion for their first Gold Cup crown.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Stats, scores from Gold Cup Final ]

Kickoff is slated for about 9:45 p.m. ET, with the pageantry from California getting started at 9:30.

There are no real surprises in the XI, aside from Bruce Arena’s continued use of Graham Zusi at right back. Omar Gonzalez pairs with Matt Besler in the heart of the defense, with Michael Bradley, Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe, and Paul Arriola combining for an industrious midfield.

Jozy Altidore and Jordan Morris are up top, while Jorge Villafana fills out the lineup at left back with Tim Howard in goal.

Clint Dempsey is on the bench, perhaps awaiting another super sub performance.

WATCH: Neymar dizzies Valencia, gets Suarez pick to score vs. Man Utd

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All three parts of the MSN trident helped Barcelona produce an International Champions Cup goal against Manchester United on Wednesday, though not in the most traditional of fashions.

Lionel Messi’s through ball was off target, and Neymar rushed onto it before spinning toward goal. Luis Suarez literally shoved Chris Smalling out of contention to stop the Brazilian, and Neymar did the rest with a finish past David De Gea.

[ REPORT: Barca confident of Coutinho deal ]

Say it with me, “It’s preseason for the officials, too, you guys.”

Neymar’s goal has given Barcelona a 1-0 lead over United, and the match is at halftime. Obviously, he hasn’t been sent to Paris Saint-Germain.