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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.

Premier League preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester United

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Watford at The King Power Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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  • Leicester sits atop the Premier League table with 28 points
  •  Manchester United has conceded just once in their last 7 league games
  • Leicester’s Premier League games have produced 48 goals, the most in the league

Yes, this is #1 vs #2. No, your eyes are not deceiving you.

And yet somehow, that magnificent lede has been buried thanks to one Jamie Vardy.

The 28-year-old can break Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record of 10 straight games with a goal as Leicester City hosts Van Nistelrooy’s former team Manchester United at King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

The Foxes are firmly atop the Premier League table, but many question whether they can hang onto that, and even others remain skeptical whether they can truly challenge for a top four spot this season. Saturday’s game will be a true test of their ability to remain in the hunt for the long haul, as the Red Devils are just a point off the top and, while it hasn’t been pretty at times this year, van Gaal’s men have done enough to pick up results in key situations.

On the other end, Manchester United has conceded just one goal in its last five league matches, and has not allowed a goal from open play since the Arsenal drubbing in early October. Can Vardy find space in the tight Red Devils’ back line?

Both teams are relatively healthy coming into this matchup. Leicester is only missing long-term absentee Matty Jones, while Manchester United is a little more banged up with Ander Herrera, Phil Jones, and Michael Carrick likely out alongside Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia.

What they’re saying

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal on Leicester City’s chances at title“Normally these kind of clubs can compete for long time, then at the end it becomes more difficult. But in England because of the quality of the teams, because every team has the money to buy players – and they have bought players – the difference in the Premier League between the clubs is not so high.”

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri on the Foxes’ aim“The league is very strange and open but our goal is 40 points. Our goal at the moment is this but let me see the next two months and then maybe I change the goal. Like everybody else I am also curious in these days to watch my team, and to see how we respond in these big matches.”


Manchester United’s results have been there, and they’ve created a ton of chances. On the flip side, Leicester’s improved defensive organization is solid enough to hold off the Red Devils. This one ends 1-1, and there is no change at the top. Vardy gets the Foxes’ goal, because who doesn’t like fun things?

Jurgen Klopp says Daniel Sturridge must learn how to manage pain

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  The injured  Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool watches from the stands  during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and Rubin Kazan at Anfield on October 22, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Liverpool is rising up the table under Jurgen Klopp, and while the squad is getting healthier and healthier as opposed to when Klopp first took over, one man who remains on the sidelines is Daniel Sturridge.

An unused substitute in Liverpool’s last two games after missing a month due to injury, Daniel Sturridge has suffered yet another setback to his foot, Klopp confirmed from Melwood training ground today.

[ RELATED: Klopp confirms Sturridge to remain out with another injury setback ]

But while Klopp is being patient with his oft-injured striker, he believes Sturridge can do better to get himself back on the field.

“Everyone wants him back on the pitch but we all have to learn,” Klopp said. “The situation is Daniel was very often injured in the last few months, and maybe years, so it is normal when you get back in training usually it is not the quality, but you need training. Your body has to learn to adapt to new intensities of training and in this time you have to learn what is serious pain and what is only pain.”

[ MORE: Liverpool moving up Premier League power rankings ]

Due to the heavy amount of injuries, Sturridge has made just three appearances this season, and 15 total in the 2015 calendar year.

It’s clear the impact Sturridge can have for this Liverpool squad, as despite just his three appearances, he has two goals, both coming in the 3-2 win over Aston Villa. The 26-year-old is an electric player, but the club needs to get him back on the field to reap the benefits. Sturridge would complete the striker comeback for Klopp, who arrived to helm the Reds with Sturridge, Christian Benteke, and Danny Ings all sidelined with injuries. Ings is out for the season with an ACL injury and will not return, but Benteke is back alongside Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino who are in good form.

2015-16 Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. IV: Foxes on top of the world

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City gestures to the fans during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle and Leicester City at St James Park on November 21, 2015 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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The last time we visited the world of Power Rankings, the two North London rivals held the top two slots.

A month later, with the North London derby having ended in a 1-1 draw, it seems there are plenty of good teams in the Premier League, but are there any great ones? We have to give the #1 spot to someone, but it doesn’t feel like any of the regulars want it. The top five teams are all within four points. In the last month, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Southampton all lost, and Manchester United barely squeaked by Watford.

[ Archive: Premier League Power Rankings ]

So where does that leave us? You bet. Soak it in Foxes, the Premier League table isn’t all you’re on top of. Are they strong enough to remain there? Well, that’s not what we’re here to debate. With Spurs refusing to lose as well, the Premier League giants are looking up at two unusual clubs in front.

source: 1 UP 4 Leicester City: Jamie Vardy can do no wrong. He has a chance to insert himself into Premier League lore, and the Foxes are forcing people to consider them as shocking Champions League contenders. With 4 in a row and 5 wins in 6, their body of work, right now, is the best in the League.
source: 2 Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs look a much improved team at the back, which was their weakness last year. They haven’t lost in Premier League play since opening day, and with three wins in their last four, they look to be turning one point into three points, an important key to challenging for the title.
source: 3 DOWN 2 Arsenal: Every time it appears the Gunners have it figured out, they go and lose to someone like West Brom. It’s a small blow, but it seems that’s all – even with all the injuries – as they dominated that game and appeared slightly unlucky. They’re still a title contender, which is a testament to Arsene Wenger.
source: 4 UP 2 Manchester United: It hasn’t always been pretty for the Red Devils, such as their late win over Watford, but they’re just a point off the top and have a relatively healthy squad, which is a huge advantage given where some of the other teams stand.
source: 5 UP 3 Liverpool: They have work to do, but the Reds appear to be getting much healthier, and Jurgen Klopp has added a fire to this team not seen in a while. 8 points back from the top, but a soft schedule could set up a massive showdown with Leicester on Boxing Day.
source: 6 DOWN 3 Manchester City: As opposed to Arsenal, who is still producing results, Manuel Pellegrini seems to be struggling to cope with the injuries. One point in their last two, they can’t let the demolition by Liverpool become something larger.
source: 7 DOWN 2 Southampton: A loss at home to Stoke City last time out is a huge blow. With Liverpool and Everton charging, and stuck in a logjam in the table (2 points separate places 6-11), they need to reassert themselves to remain challengers for a Europa League place.
source: 8 UP 1 Everton: The Toffees have rebounded nicely since a pair of losses to top teams, putting up 11 goals in their last three. Can they take advantage of a soft schedule through into the New Year, and put themselves in a position to challenge at the top? Questions of their earlier struggles remain.
source: 9 UP 6 Stoke City: The Potters are sneakily returning to the top half of the table. A 2-0 loss to Watford the only blemish of the last 6 weeks, and a 1-0 win over Chelsea has positioned them well.
source: 10 UP 3 Crystal Palace: Still have no idea what this team is. Just look at their last two results: a win over Liverpool, followed by a loss to Sunderland. Huh?
source: 11 DOWN 4 West Ham: We knew the Dimitri Payet signing was huge, but it’s never more evident than now. They have to prove they can play without him, as he’ll be out for three months, but at the moment things look dire.
source: 12 UP 2 Chelsea: This still isn’t where the Blues want to be, and they probably won’t get there this season with the hole too big, but things appear to be steadying, albeit slowly. Still, there’s a long way to go to eliminate the embarrassing results, and they remain in the Champions League hunt.
source: 13 West Bromwich Albion: Another team that’s hard to figure out, and that’s probably going to be the case all year. Nevertheless, they’ve won a few games they shouldn’t, and have taken care of the teams they should. The Baggies look to be strong enough to avoid the relegation conversation.
source: 14 DOWN 4 Watford: This is the Watford we all expect. They put up a fight against both Manchester United and Leicester, but a tough November turns a bit nicer until a holiday season gauntlet. Can they pick up vital points the next few weeks?
source: 15 DOWN 4 Swansea City: The true relegation battle seems to be forming here. The Swans have just one win since Aug 30, over lowly Aston Villa. With Liverpool, Leicester, and Man City all up next, alarm bells are starting to go off in Wales.

16 Newcastle United: They needed a win over Bournemouth and they got it, but much more is required to keep them up.
17 UP 1 Norwich City: October hit the Canaries hard, but a win over Swansea got them some space above the relegation zone. The schedule looks tough in December. If they can steal one or two, they would do themselves a world of good.
source: 18 Bournemouth: You have to feel for the Cherries, who’ve been battered by injuries to key players like Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel and Callum WilsonThat’s what we wrote last time. Nothing much has change. Tough season is ahead.
source: 19 UP 1 Sunderland: They’re not out of the relegation zone yet, but a win over Crystal Palace was huge.
source: 20 DOWN 1 Aston Villa: Remi Garde knew this would be a tough job. Yea, it is.

MLS preview: MLS Cup places to be booked on Sunday

Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers FC
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The last team to overcome a two-goal deficit in the second leg of a two-leg MLS Cup Playoffs tie was the 2004 Kansas City Wizards. On Sunday, two conference finals favorites — higher seeds, at least — will take their shot at rewriting the above piece of history in their bids to qualify for MLS Cup 2015.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, each the top seed in their respective conference and one-two finishers, respectively, for the Supporters’ Shield, have 90 minutes to overcome two very difference two-goal deficits against the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC.

Note: A player who accumulates his second yellow card (of the MLS Cup Playoffs) in the second leg of the Conference Championship series IS ELIGIBLE to play in MLS Cup, as playoff yellow card accumulation resets following the Conference Championships. (A red card, whether a straight red or two yellows, in the second leg still equals a suspension for MLS Cup.)

FC Dallas 1-3 Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

While history isn’t on the side of teams attempting to come back from two goals down in the second leg, FCD have one thing going for them: an away from the first leg — of course, they would have been better served to have not given away a third goal in the game’s dying minutes and headed home slight favorites with an away goal and a one-goal deficit. As things stand, though, 2-0 puts FCD through to MLS Cup — which they would host against Columbus Crew SC and play away to New York Red Bulls.

A big problem for FCD in the first leg was how much time Portland’s full backs, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana, spent overlapping into FCD’s defensive half. Because of this, FCD’s rabid wingers, most notably Fabian Castillo, were limited in their effect on the counter after being forced to drop so deep to defend. With Portland defending a two-goal lead on Sunday, look for Powell and Villafana to sit back quite a bit more, thus putting the keys to FCD’s season into the hands of Castillo and Mauro Diaz. The great thing about Diaz, if you’re an FCD supporter, is that he’s brilliant enough to singlehandedly pick teams apart whether they’re stretched all over the field or bunkered deep.

Regular season: POR 3-1 FCD (4/4); FCD 4-1 POR (7/25)
Injuries: FCD — OUT: Rolando Escobar (facial fracture) | POR — OUT: Ben Zemanski (knee)

New York Red Bulls 0-2 Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

If FCD are standing on tenuous ground, the New York Red Bulls are running on quicksand. No away goal in the first leg, coupled with Kei Kamara‘s late goal to make it 2-0, means anything but a perfect performance on Sunday, and they’re out. 2-0 send the series to extra time, but here’s where it gets supremely tricky for the Red Bulls: a single Crew SC goal in the second leg means RBNY need four goals to advance. That would seem quite unlikely.

For the entirety of the 2015 season, RBNY’s greatest strength was their spine: Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle at center back, and Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan in midfield. In the first leg, the midfield trio had its worst game of the season — completely overwhelmed with pressure and unable to press high themselves — which put the center of defense — already down Perrinelle to a season-ending knee injury — under tons of pressure. From the moment Justin Meram hit the back of the net, eight seconds into the game, RBNY’s entire gameplan was out the window — they were forced to chase a goal they didn’t really want, and in turn gave up a second late on. They’ll need to start better in the second leg, set their high line of pressing much more quickly when turning the ball over, and attack the wings to limit the attacking impact of full backs Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, who absolutely destroyed them in the first leg.

Regular season: CLB 1-2 RBNY (3/28); CLB 2-1 RBNY (7/4); RBNY 2-1 CLB (10/3)
Injuries: RBNY — OUT: Damien Perrinelle (knee), Chris Duval (broken leg) | CLB — OUT: Kristinn Steindorsson (knee)