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.

Lille suspends coach Marcelo Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) French club Lille has provisionally suspended coach Marcelo Bielsa following a string of poor results in the top tier.

[ MORE: Basel stuns Man United late to keep UCL hopes alive ]

The northern side said in a statement that Bielsa has been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club.” Lille did not elaborate.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but has failed to make the club competitive again, with the team second to last after 13 matches.

The 2 Robbies podcast: PL sides in the UCL, Pulis sacking and more

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In today’s Euro Pod Edition, the Robbies breakdown the latest Champions League action. Man United lose at Basel, Chelsea cruise at Qarabag, Spurs impress against Dortmund, Man City continue to win, Liverpool surrender a 3-goal lead against Sevilla. Plus, the guys weigh in on the Oumar Niasse ban for diving and the Tony Pulis sacking.

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.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Europa League preview: Arsenal looks to wrap up Group H and more

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While several teams have already booked their place in the knockout phase, the Europa League reaches its penultimate round on Thursday with many big matches in hand.

[ MORE: Yannick Bolasie finally returns to Everton training ]

Of the two Premier League sides in the competition, only one will advance to the Round of 32, as Arsenal have all but assured themselves of the top spot in Group H. The Gunners can do so tomorrow with a win over Koln or a Red Star Belgrade defeat.

The other end of the spectrum features Everton, who has already been eliminated from reaching the next round after acquiring just one point in its first four matches.

European giants AC Milan can lock up a spot in the knockout phase on Thursday despite the club’s ongoing struggles in Serie A, while fellow Italian side Atalanta can move a step closer to the Round of 32 in Group E along with Lyon.

Here’s the full rundown of Thursday’s UEL matches.

Astana vs. Villareal — 11 a.m. ET
Konyaspor vs. Marseille — 1 p.m. ET
Rosenborg vs. Real Sociedad — 1 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Vitesse — 1 p.m. ET
Viktoria Plzen vs. Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m. ET
Lokomotiv vs. Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET
Zenit vs. Vardar — 1 p.m. ET
Red Bull Salzburg vs. Vitoria — 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Hertha Berlin — 1 p.m. ET
BATE vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET
Ostersund vs. Zorya — 1 p.m. ET
Koln vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET
Nice vs. Zulte Waregem — 1 p.m. ET
Lugano vs. Beer-Sheva — 1 p.m. ET
Ludogorets vs. Istanbul — 3:05 p.m. ET
Braga vs. Hoffenheim — 3:05 p.m. ET
AEK vs. Rijeka — 3:05 p.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m. ET
Lyon vs. Apollon — 3:05 p.m. ET
Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Slavia Praha — 3:05 p.m. ET
Sheriff vs. Zlin — 3:05 p.m. ET
Partizan vs. Young Boys — 3:05 p.m. ET
Skenderbeu vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:05 p.m. ET
Everton vs. Atalanta — 3:05 p.m. ET

UCL roundup: Roma flounders against Atleti, PSG nets seven

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PSG-Celtic hogged most of the goals on Wednesday, but the action was wild across the day’s UEFA Champions League slate.

[ MORE: Celtic shocks PSG early, but Neymar and Co. take over ]

Group B now knows both of its sides that will advance into the Round of 16, but there will be plenty of drama on Matchday 6 as several other groups sort themselves out.

With PSG already knowing it would advance, Bayern Munich joined the French giants today after picking up a 2-1 win against Anderlecht. That didn’t stop the Parisians from putting on a show though, as Neymar and Co. put up a 7-1 drubbing of Celtic at the Parc des Princes.

That brings PSG’s goal total up to 24 in the group stage, which has well-surpassed Dortmund’s mark in the 2016/17 campaign (21).

Meanwhile, tight races in Groups A, C and D will see squads fighting in early December for the right to continue in this season’s competition.

Antoine Griezmann scored a massive goal for Atletico on the day to give Madrid side a 1-0 win over Roma, keeping the club’s UCL hopes alive. Atleti now sits just two points behind the Giallorossi with one match remaining.

Elsewhere, Juventus and Sporting CP will have an intriguing final matchday as the two sides currently sit one point between the other for the second position in Group D.


Group A

Basel 1-0 Manchester United
CSKA Moscow 2-0 Benfica

Table

1. Man United — 11 points  (ADVANCED)
2. Basel — 9 pts +4 GD
3. CSKA — 9 pts -1 GD
4. Benfica — 0 pts (ELIMINATED)

Whichever team finishes higher (CSKA or Basel) will reach UCL Round of 16, while other team goes to Europa League.


Group B

Anderlecht 1-2 Bayern Munich
PSG 7-1 Celtic

Table

1. PSG — 15 pts (ADVANCED)
2. Bayern Munich — 12 pts (ADVANCED)
3. Celtic — 3 pts
4. Anderlecht — 0 pts (ELIMINATED)

Celtic and Anderlecht are both in contention for the third position, which would send either of them to the UEL knockout round.


Group C

Qarabag 0-4 Chelsea — RECAP
Atletico Madrid 2-0 Roma

Table

1. Chelsea — 10 pts (ADVANCED)
2. Roma — 8 pts
3. Atletico Madrid — 6 pts
4. Qarabag — 2 pts (ELIMINATED)

Either Roma or Atleti will advance on Matchday 6, with the former taking on Qarabag and the Spanish side facing Chelsea.


Group D

Juventus 0-0 Barcelona
Sporting CP 3-0 Olympiakos

Table

1. Barcelona — 11 pts (ADVANCED)
2. Juventus — 8 pts
3. Sporting CP — 7 pts
4. Olympiakos — 1 pt (ELIMINATED)

Juventus will take on Olympiakos on Matchday 6, while Sporting faces Barcelona for the right to move into the Round of 16.