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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.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).