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.

Alexis Sanchez discusses Man United struggles

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Alexis Sanchez appears to be struggling with his disappointing start to life at Manchester United.

The Chilean star, 29, became the highest-paid player in the Premier League when he arrived from Arsenal in January in a swap deal for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but Sanchez has scored just one PL goal.

Sanchez has failed to make his mark on a consistent basis as United have also crashed out of the UEFA Champions League.

What does Sanchez put his lack of form down to?

In an Instagram post he left a caption saying that he was mentally exhausted: “I know you are tired. I know you are psychologically and emotionally exhausted. But you have to smile and continue”.

Speaking to the Chilean media ahead of their friendly against Sweden in Stockholm on Saturday, Sanchez revealed he has been struggling with the lack of impact he has had at United.

“The change of club was something that was very abrupt – it was the first time I’ve changed clubs in January – but many things have happened in my life that are difficult… As I am self-demanding, I expected something better. After my arrival at United, it was hard to change everything very quickly. I even hesitated to come here [to Sweden].”

Sanchez has looked better in a central role behind Romelu Lukaku but he hasn’t been used there often enough by Jose Mourinho.

At Arsenal he had the license to roam free in the attacking third but in Mourinho’s more defensive, rigid system he appears to be struggling to get on the ball in the right areas in and around the box. Sanchez has cut a frustrated figure out on the left wing and has given the ball away on multiple occasions as he tries to make the difficult passes and open up opposition defenses.

It appears that Sanchez is perhaps trying to hard to impress United and given his all-action displays, that is not easy to do.

United need more of him in the final third than out wide or tracking back to help out his own defense if they’re going to seal their top four spot and win the FA Cup to see out the final months of the season.

There’s no doubting Sanchez’s quality as we all know just how good he can be from his four seasons at Arsenal.

Yet, as he acknowledged himself, something at United isn’t quite right.

Premier League player Power Rankings

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With the Premier League players on international duty this week before the league resumes on March 31, now seems like a good time to take stock of which stars are shinning brightest.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham were all in action over the past week, with four Premier League games and four FA Cup games taking center stage. The likes of Manchester City and Arsenal weren’t in action, so none of their players can be involved.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.

  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Up 8
  2. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  3. Willian (Chelsea) – Up 1
  4. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester) – Down 2
  5. Romelu Lukaku (Man United) – Down 2
  6. David De Gea (Man United) – Up 4
  7. Heung-Min Son (Tottenham) – Down 1
  8. Nemanja Matic (Man United) – New entry
  9. Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) – New entry
  10. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Up 1
  11. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) – New entry
  12. Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – Down 3
  13. Erik Lamela (Tottenham) – New entry
  14. Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth) – New entry
  15. Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) New entry
  16. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  17. Cenk Tosun (Everton) – New entry
  18. Theo Walcott (Everton) – Up 1
  19. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton) – New entry
  20. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) – New entry

Dutch police detain 25 England supporters for violence

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AMSTERDAM (AP) Dutch police say they detained 25 English soccer supporters overnight after drunken fans threw beer bottles at officers ahead of a friendly match between the Netherlands and England.

Police say riot police were deployed to downtown Amsterdam to deal with the rowdy supporters. Police detained the England fans for offenses including public disorder.

England will play the Netherlands at the Amsterdam Arena on the southern edge of the Dutch capital. Police say they plan to beef up security before and after Friday’s match.

About 1,500 England fans traveled to the Dutch capital for the match.

LA Galaxy announces Zlatan Ibrahimovic signing

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LA Galaxy have confirmed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has signed for them.

The Swedish veteran, 36, is the new No.9 for the Galaxy and in the video below he is shown alongside a lion and simply says: “Los Angeles, welcome to Zlatan!”

Classic Zlatan. The fact he announced his arrival in Los Angeles by taking out a full page ad in the LA Times on Friday also says it all.

[ MORE: Where will Zlatan rank in big-name players?

Major League Soccer now has a new icon as Ibrahimovic continues his glittering career in the USA after he terminated his contract with Manchester United earlier this week.

“I decided to sign with the Galaxy because I decided it was the best place for me. I have a lot to give. I can help them a lot. They are the best team in the U.S. There were no doubts,” Ibrahimovic said. “Hopefully it goes like I want and we can all share the happiness by winning. I feel good. I am training very hard. I need to play games to go in the rhythm. The more I play, the better I will be.”

With that positive update on his own fitness following some recent setbacks, Ibrahimovic was asked what he wants to achieve in MLS.

“I want to accomplish as much as possible,” Ibrahimovic said. “Wherever I went, I won. I played in the best clubs in the world, different countries, and I won. I am coming with this objective. I come to win. I want to win. I think it’s in my DNA that I am winning my trophies. It is no luck, no special moment. It is just me. Different place but same Zlatan.”

LA confirmed that Ibrahimovic has arrived via Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) as they currently have filled all three of their Designated Player spots.

It is believed Zlatan has joined on a two-year deal reportedly worth around $3 million per year. He could make his debut against new crosstown rivals LAFC on Mar. 31.

No doubt he will probably score the winner late on after jumping off the bench, then declare himself the Mayor of LA…