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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.

Confederations Cup semifinal preview, picks

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The 2017 Confederations Cup will get back underway midweek with two semifinals taking place in Russia.

[ STREAM: 2017 Confed Cup live ]

Group A winners Portugal face Chile in Kazan, while Group B winners Germany clash with Mexico in Sochi for a spot in the Confed Cup final in St. Petersburg on Sunday. This will get very tasty indeed.

Below you will find a preview for each game, while you can click on the links above or below to stream the games live.


Portugal vs. Chile – Kazan – Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET live online via Telemundo Deportes

Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Alexis Sanchez. That is all… Seriously, though, this is the most-anticipated battle of the Confederations Cup so far as the European champs collide with the South American champs with both teams having very similar styles. Both like to defend and hit opponents on the counter and both have a genuine superstar in Ronaldo and Sanchez.

With the future of both those stars up in the air, both will want to put on a show to rubber-stamp their world class ability, especially Sanchez as clubs line up to try and pry him away from Arsenal with just one year left on his current contract with the Gunners. Sanchez’s goal against Australia meant he set a new record as Chile’s all-time leading scorer with 38 and along with Arturo Vidal he will lead Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team. Chile looked tired in their 1-1 draw with Australia on Sunday so having a day less of rest should not be overlooked for this veteran squad as the South Americans haven’t quite got going yet.

Ronaldo is the leader for Portugal as he scored against Mexico and New Zealand, while playing in all three games thus far for Fernando Santos’ squad. With 55 goals in 54 games in all competitions this season, Ronaldo will aim to finish the campaign on a high. With his future at Real Madrid reportedly up in the air, the 32-year-old surely won’t miss a chance to shine with the world watching.

Prediction: Portugal 2-1 Chile – This will probably go to extra time and if it doesn’t go to penalty kicks, Portugal will just edge it as Ronaldo takes center stage.


Germany vs. Mexico – Sochi – Thursday, 2 p.m. ET live online via Telemundo Deportes

This promises to be a classic encounter as a young German squad comes up against a battling El Tri. Mexico fell behind in all three of their Confed Cup group games but Juan Carlos Osorio’s team fought back to beat Russia and New Zealand as well as snatch a late draw with Portugal.

As for Germany, they’re building momentum throughout the tournament, despite goalkeeping issues, as Timo Werner has been among the goals, while Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka, Lars Stindl, Julian Brandt, Joshua Kimmich and Shkodran Mustafi have also impressed. Joachim Low has left the majority of his 2014 World Cup winning team at home, so if this young German side makes the final then everyone will sit up and take notice as Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Co. sit on the beach applauding, then possibly go for a jog as they worry about their starting spot next summer…

This won’t be a walk in the park for Germany. Mexico is a tough nut to crack and Osorio, despite his critics, has El Tri set up to defend first and then launch rapid counters with Hirving Lozano dangerous and Javier Hernandez and Oribe Perlata able to finish. Mexico’s added experience in high-pressure situations may be crucial, but losing captain Andres Guardado to suspension will hurt and injuries to Carlos Salcedo and Hector Moreno has left El Tri short in defense.

Prediction: Germany 2-2 Mexico (Germany to win on PKs) – This should be a thrilling encounter but Germany, of course, will likely win on PKs.

With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.

Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.

“The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.

But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.

Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.

Here is a look at some of the key issues:

STADIUMS

Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls “the Brazilian scenario” – the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.

That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.

But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.

Evidence that North Korean workers – who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery – worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.

LEGACY

Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely – if ever – full again after the World Cup.

Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 – among the lowest for major European leagues – and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.

Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 percent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.

Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.

In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.

Only the St. Petersburg stadium – home to games at the 2020 European Championship – and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.

TEAM BASES

It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy – and lavish state spending.

Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.

There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.

Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.

Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.

FAN EXPERIENCE

Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.

Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.

Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.

Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.

SECURITY

Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.

At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.

The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.

There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.

Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.

FIFA READINESS

Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.

FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.

During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signaled for half-time.

FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.

A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

Another delay for MLS stadium deal in Charlotte

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A decision on public funding for a potential Major League Soccer stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina was delayed once again Monday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Charlotte’s city government committee stated no decision would be made on helping to fund a new MLS stadium before Aug. 2 when a country vote is scheduled.

It is the latest delay for the proposed $175 million stadium.

Potential owner Marcus Smith — CEO of Speedway Motorsports — has offered to pay the full $150 million MLS expansion fee, plus $87.5 million towards the stadium. With $43.75 million committed to help pay for the stadium, a decision on another $43.75 million has yet to arrive, leaving the stadium bid, and Charlotte’s entire MLS bid, in limbo.

Charlotte is one of 12 U.S. cities who have submitted a bid back in February for two MLS expansion franchises which will be awarded later this year. It is also not the first of those 12 cities to suffer a blow when it comes to requests for public funding of stadiums, as St. Louis found out recently with their MLS bid in ruins.

Via the Charlotte Business Journal, here’s some more information on what lies ahead for the Charlotte bid.

County commissioners voted in January to commit $43.75 million of property tax money to help pay for the proposed stadium. They also endorsed a county-owned site on the edge of uptown now occupied by Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center. Smith would build a stadium there after demolishing the existing stadium and arena.

At the time of the county vote, City Council was expected to decide on a related $43.75 million request also to be used for stadium construction. Instead, council members opted against a vote, citing higher priorities such as the next annual budget and an emphasis on public safety, affordable housing and jobs. This month, city council and the county commission each passed annual budgets without any property tax increases.

Smith has consistently said he remains hopeful local government and others will rally around the chance to bring an MLS team to town.

In a prepared statement issued Monday evening, Smith and his MLS4CLT bid group said of the council referral, “We hope the city and county can continue to work toward realizing the dream of a stadium in Charlotte on a timeline that works for all parties. Our commitment to bring Major League Soccer to Charlotte has not wavered, nor has the support of thousands of people in this community who are looking to their elected officials to endorse this plan that will positively impact our region for generations to come.”

For now, those hopes look like a long shot.

 

FIFA release “Garcia Report” in full; issue statement

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FIFA has released the previously confidential Garcia report into alleged corruption surrounding the 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process.

Previously the report, compiled in 2104 by American lawyer Michael Garcia, was said to be private and would never be released by FIFA.

Garcia, hired as an independent ethics investigator, quit when FIFA instead released a 42-page version of his report which acted as a summary of his findings, as he clashed with FIFA’s now former chairmen of the ethics committee, Cornel Borbely and Hans-Joackim Eckert.

However, German publication Bild had got hold of a copy of the full report and leaked extracts on Tuesday.

Now, world soccer’s governing body has got ahead of the game and released the report in full as Garcia looked into potential corruption among FIFA officials and high-ranking officials during the World Cup bidding process which saw Russia awarded the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 World Cup heading to Qatar.

Both Russia and Qatar were cleared of any wrongdoing in the initial report released, but there are detailed examinations of each country who bid for the World Cups, including the U.S., England and Australia.

Below is a statement from FIFA in full, while you can download the full report here.

The new chairpersons of the independent Ethics Committee, Maria Claudia Rojas of the investigatory chamber and Vassilios Skouris of the adjudicatory chamber, have decided to publish the Report on the Inquiry into the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup Bidding Process (the so-called “Garcia Report”).

This had been called for on numerous occasions by FIFA President Gianni Infantino in the past and also supported by the FIFA Council since its meeting in Mexico City in May 2016. Despite these regular requests, it is worth noting that the former chairpersons of the Ethics Committee, Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert, had always refused to publish it.

The Ethics Committee will meet in its full composition under the new chairpersons for the first time next week, and it was already planned to use this opportunity to discuss the publication of the report. However, as the document has been illegally leaked to a German newspaper, the new chairpersons have requested the immediate publication of the full report (including the reports on the Russian and US bid teams, which were conducted by Mr Borbély alone) in order to avoid the dissemination of any misleading information.

For the sake of transparency, FIFA welcomes the news that this report has now been finally published.

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