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.

Griezmann backtracks over ‘insensitive’ blackface tweet

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MADRID (AP) Soccer star Antoine Griezmann has apologized for any offense caused after posting an image of himself on social media in blackface as part of an NBA party costume on Sunday.

Griezmann, who is white, was also wearing a wig and holding a basketball in the photo which had “NBA 69 ALLSTARS” on the jersey.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

The photo on his official Twitter account was accompanied by the message “80’s Party” followed by basketball and laughing emojis.

One response called the photo a “bad idea” with others urging the France forward to delete the tweet.

Griezmann at first reacted to the criticism by tweeting: “Calm down friends, I’m a fan of the Harlem Globetrotters and of this great era… It’s a tribute.”

He later tweeted an apology to those he had offended.

“I recognize that’s it’s insensitive on my part. If I offended some people I’m sorry,” he wrote.

The 26-year-old Griezmann plays for Spanish team Atletico Madrid but has been linked to a move to Barcelona.

Alex Morgan named CONCACAF Female POY, Navas wins Male POY

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CONCACAF awarded some of its finest players and coaches on Sunday night, and two familiar faces took home the evening’s most notable awards.

[ MORE: Making sense of table in Man City’s world ]

U.S. Women’s National Team forward Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride) and Keylor Navas of Costa Rica and Real Madrid each earned Female and Male Player of the Year honors, after boasting tremendous 2017 seasons.

Morgan who primarily plays for Orlando in the NWSL, was also a member of Lyon, who went on to win the Women’s Champions League this past season.

Navas, on the other hand, played a key role in Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League run, as well as Los Blancos’ La Liga title.

For Morgan, the award is her third since CONCACAF began handing out its annual awards in 2013. Meanwhile, Navas has now won Male Player of the Year on two occasions.

Leon Bailey stars but Bayer Leverkusen held 4-4 by Hannover

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BERLIN (AP) Jamaica striker Leon Bailey scored twice after coming on as a substitute but Bayer Leverkusen failed to hang on as Hannover grabbed a 4-4 draw in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

[ MORE: Liverpool smashes Bournemouth to move fourth ]

Bailey, who came on at the break, needed only two minutes to equalize after Hannover had gone 3-2 ahead, and he scored again 20 minutes later to put Leverkusen 4-3 in front.

But the 20-year-old missed another chance to complete a hat trick and Julian Korb scored late for Hannover to draw.

“I had a third chance, and I just know if I had taken that chance it would have been over for them. It’s just unlucky. But that’s football,” said Bailey. “A wise man learns from his mistakes. But a wiser man learns from others’ mistakes.”

Both teams traded goals on an afternoon to forget for the goalkeepers.

“It was worth the entrance price for the spectators,” Korb said.

Julian Brandt fired Leverkusen into an early lead with a brilliant volley but Ihlas Bebou replied straight away with a header for Hannover.

Niclas Fuellkrug put the home side ahead with a penalty, only for Admir Mehmedi to equalize four minutes later for Leverkusen.

Hannover went ahead again after Fuellkrug set up Felix Klaus with his heel before the break, when Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich reacted with two substitutions.

One of them was Bailey, who raced forward to reach Kai Havertz’s through ball and kept his cool to beat Hannover `keeper Philipp Tschauner.

Bailey claimed his sixth goal of the season after the game’s longest stretch without a goal when Mehmedi played him through on a counterattack after a Hannover corner.

But there was further drama to come as Bebou eluded three Leverkusen defenders to set up Korb for Hannover’s equalizer with seven minutes remaining.

Leipzig, level on points with Leverkusen, had the chance to go second again with a win at home against Hertha Berlin later Sunday.

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool dominates, selling Coutinho discussed

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start off today’s show by discussing Man United’s win at The Hawthorns as Lukaku scores for the second straight match with Juan Mata impressing with his link up play. The guys also look at Alan Pardew’s influence on the Baggies. Liverpool net four in a dominating victory over Bournemouth and with Mo Salah continuing to dominate, the Robbies ask: can Liverpool now afford to sell Coutinho? And finally, the guys discuss Bournemouth’s recent struggles.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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