UEFA Champions League Preview: Zenit sees opportunity against Borussia Dortmund

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Perhaps Zenit head coach Luciano Spalletti sees blood in the water – the flotsam from a Borussia Dortmund season that’s failed to live up to expectations. Maybe the former Roma boss, entering his fourth year in St. Petersburg, is pressing for the breakthrough many believe he would have brought by now, or perhaps he sees the power of Brazilian attacker Hulk, the midfield craft of Belgian Axel Witsel, and the technical persuasion of Portugal’s Danny as a core that can make history. Regardless, the man who took the Rossoneri to the bring to Serie A greatness in Italy is talking a big game ahead of tomorrow’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match against last year’s runners-up.

“The Zenit management are very ambitious people,” Spalletti conceded in the lead up to Tuesday’s game, the opener of the clubs’ two-game, knockout round series. The club spent $119 million in fees to buy Hulk and Witsel from Portuguese clubs in Sept. 2012. “[Management sets] high goals and we strive to meet them. I’ve told my players we have a rare opportunity to not just write a chapter in our history, but to put the title on the cover story of Zenit.”

And for a club that has spent prodigiously to transcend the Russian league — to join Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, and Dortmund  emerging European powers — history is the goal. With Tuesday’s early game, Zenit see an opportunity to take advantage of an injured and struggling opponent to make their second trip to the competition’s knockout rounds a successful one.

Against a team that went to last year’s final, Spalletti’s language would normally ring of a delusional naiveté  but with Borussia Dortmund still embattled by some of the injuries that have derailed its season, Zenit have a chance. The absences of captain Jakub Blasczcykowski, starting central defender Neven Subotic, midfield focal point Ilkay Güdongen, and versatile pivotman Sven Bender have contributed to Dortmund’s fall to third in the Bundesliga, the team coming off a 3-0 loss this weekend at relegation-embattled Hamburg.

“There’s an old saying that a good horse only jumps as high as he has to,” Klopp said after the Hamburg loss. “I think a horse should jump as high as it can. We looked at how high we had to jump today and, when we realized that it wasn’t so high, we had already fallen behind.”

Zenit presents a similar danger. While they’re far more talented than Hamburg, the Russians also represent a reprieve from some of the other knockout round matchups BVB could have been drawn. Whereas fellow group winner Barcelona got drawn against Manchester City and another Bundesliga power, Bayern Munich, is paired with Arsenal (a team Dortmund couldn’t meet in this round), Klopp’s club will face a side that’s failed to translate their buying power into European success. Even without at least four starters, Dortmund is favored in this matchup.

[MORE: UEFA Champions League Preview: Talent not the issue for Manchester United against Olympiacos]

Mats Hummels may be back, the German international defender recovering from a heel problem that’s kept him for the last three weeks. Marco Reus has recovered from his injury, with Pierre Emerick-Abumenyang and his 13 league goals set to start in Blasczcykowski’s place. With Nuri Sahin, one of Dortmund’s most influential players, regaining the presence he had during his first spell with the club, BVB’s talent base is close to what they took into last May’s final. Sitting 20 points behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, perhaps the results have not been as good, but in terms of actual potential, this team is as capable as the one that challenge München at Wembley.

Particularly with Danny missing from leg one, Zenit will be pressed to keep up, but between Hulk, Witsel, the newly purchased Salomon Rondon, and a slew of talents that played a significant part in Russia’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Spelletti’s team has enough to do some damage in Tuesday’s first leg. Ultimately, however, between two attack heavy teams who’ll need to out-shoot their adversaries if they’re to claim a spot in the quarterfinals, two legs give the likes of Reus, Abumenyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Robert Lewandowski time to over power Zenit …

Even if that may not happen in leg one.

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
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A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

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When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

[ MORE: Go behind the scenes at NYCFC’s new training facility ]

Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.

Report: USMNT likely to face Brazil, Mexico in September friendlies

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The U.S. Men’s National Team won’t have a busy schedule throughout the summer, but Dave Sarachan and his side will get a tiny taste of the World Cup in September.

[ MORE: Chivas’ Almeyda exhales after CCL title win ]

ESPN FC is reporting that the USMNT will likely face Brazil and Mexico — both of whom will travel to Russia in June — later this year, as the U.S. Soccer Federation is in the process of finalizing both friendlies.

The matches are set to be played during the September international window, which runs from Sept. 3 through Sept. 11.

Both fixtures will reportedly be played in the United States, although venues haven’t been determined yet.

The U.S. has already begun booking a slate of difficult matches to round out 2018, with England and Italy already confirmed opponents for the Yanks in November.

The Yanks are 1-17-0 all-time against Brazil in all competitions, while the U.S. hasn’t faced Mexico since its 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca in June 2017 during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Men in Blazers: Jurgen Klopp talks loss of Coutinho and more

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Roger Bennett talks with manager Jurgen Klopp about revolutionizing Liverpool, his Greatest Show on Turf-esque offense, the loss of Philippe Coutinho and how he keeps football in perspective.

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