Borussia Dortmund's Lewandowski celebrates a goal against Stuttgart during the German first division Bundesliga soccer match in Dortmund

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.

How can Chelsea qualify for last 16 of Champions League?

HAIFA, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 24: Willian of Chelsea celebrates scoring his teams second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC and Chelsea FC at Sammy Ofer Stadium on November 24, 2015 in Haifa, Israel.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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With one match left in UEFA Champions League group play, Chelsea control their own destiny.

After beating Maccabi Tel-Aviv 4-0, the Blues sit tied with FC Porto on ten points at the top of Group G.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

However, with Dynamo Kyiv earning a big win over Porto on Tuesday, Chelsea must wait until the final matchday to qualify for the knockout round, as there is a possibility of a three-way tie for the top spot in Group G.

With Chelsea hosting Porto on December 9, here are the scenarios for Jose Mourinho’s men to assure advancement.

  • A win over Porto will clinch Chelsea the top spot and a place in the last 16.
  • A draw against Porto will see Chelsea advance.
    • Chelsea draw/Dynamo win: Chelsea win group, Dynamo finish second
    • Chelsea draw/Dynamo draw or loss: Porto win group, Chelsea finish second
  • A loss to Porto and a Dynamo Kyiv draw/loss to Maccabi Tel-Aviv will see Chelsea finish second in the group and advance to the last 16.
  • The Blues have secured at least a berth in the Europa League, regardless of the result in their final match.

Simply put, get a point at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea advance.

Mourinho says bad pitch in Tel-Aviv injured Ramires, John Terry

during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC and Chelsea FC at Sammy Ofer Stadium on November 24, 2015 in Haifa, Israel.
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Chelsea left Israel with a 4-0 win over Maccabi Tel-Aviv, but also left with some injuries.

Ramires was hurt in training the day before the match, and John Terry was forced off in the second half.

[ RECAP: Tel-Aviv 0-4 Chelsea ]

Jose Mourinho talked about the condition of the pitch before the match, and was even more upset after it as two of his players are now hurt, although the extent of those injuries is not yet known.

Terry was stretchered off and looked to be in quite a bit of pain after going up for a challenge, as his ankle twisted awkwardly when he landed.

The pitch in Tel-Aviv was in poor condition, as large chunks of turf could be seen flying up when players planted or went in for tackles. Mourinho himself was seen on the field trying to fill in divots before the match.

While Mourinho said he didn’t want to jump to conclusions before getting test results, he believes John Terry will be unable to play this weekend, a huge Premier League match away at Tottenham.

[ MORE: Arsenal ready to “play for our lives” in match vs. Olympiacos ]

Other than his issues with the conditions, Mourinho was relatively happy with the team’s play and believes they are getting some confidence back, now with consecutive wins after beating Norwich City over the weekend.

UCL roundup: Barcelona, Bayern clinch spots in the knockout round

BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 24:  Gerard Pique (C) of Barcelona celebrates scoring his teams fourth goal with Luis Suarez (L) and Lionel Messi during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between FC Barcelona and AS Roma at Camp Nou on November 24, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Two more teams booked spots in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, as perennial powerhouses Barcelona and Bayern Munich earned big wins to advance out of their groups.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Barcelona 6-1 Roma

Barcelona fared well without Lionel Messi, and now with him back in the lineup, they look unbeatable. The Catalans advance to the last 16 with an absolutely dominating performance, thrashing Roma 6-1. Messi and Luis Suarez scored two goals each, with Gerard Pique and Adriano adding the others. Edin Dzeko would ruin the clean sheet with a goal for Roma in stoppage time, but it was another Barcelona masterclass at Camp Nou.

Bayern Munich 4-0 Olympiacos

Continuing with the trend of dominating performances, Bayern Munich eased past Olympiacos 4-0 to clinch a spot in the knockout round. Bayern scored early and often, going three goals ahead in the opening 20 minutes through Douglas Costa, Robert Lewanowski and Thomas Muller. Despite going down to ten-men in the second half after Holger Badstuber was sent off, Bayern continued to dominate as the young Kingsley Coman scored the fourth and final goal.

Arsenal 3-0 Dinamo Zagreb

Arsenal is clinging on to hope of advancing out of Group F with a 3-0 win at home over Dinamo Zagreb. Mesut Ozil opened the scoring and Alexis Sanchez added two more as the Gunners now head into the final matchday in need of a win over Olympiacos.

Maccabi Tel-Aviv 0-4 Chelsea

Chelsea got a big win away from home in Group G, beating a ten-man Maccabi side 4-0. Willian scored another free kick for the Blues, as the Brazilian has now scored from a set piece in four of Chelsea’s five Champions League matches. Tied with Porto atop the group, Chelsea needs just one point from their final match to advance.

Elsewhere in the Champions League

Group E

BATE Borisov 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Group G

Porto 0-2 Dynamo Kyiv

Group H

Zenit St. Petersburg 2-0 Valencia (Zenit clinch top spot)
Lyon 1-2 Gent (Lyon eliminated)

Arsenal ready to “play for our lives” vs. Olympiakos to remain in UCL

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Following their 3-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday, Arsenal know what they must do in two weeks time at Olympiakos.

Win by two goals or more — or by a margin of one if they score three goals — and they’re in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League for the 16th straight.

[ MORE: How can Arsenal make last 16? ]

Anything less means Arsene Wenger‘s side will crash out of the UCL at the group stage and will be competing in the last 32 of the Europa League when European play restarts in 2016.

Hope remains. Just.

It’s a simple equation but don’t underestimate how hard the Gunners have battled to put themselves in this situation. After losing both of their opening Group F games at Zagreb and then at home against Olympiakos, they looked dead and buried.

Now, they have a chance to advance.

“The team knew it was a very important day today – everyone had to turn up and they did. Now we’re going to play for our lives [against Olympiakos],” Arsenal right back Hector Bellerin said. “This was an important test for us, to be alive in the Champions League. The team responded very well. The team is showing we have got a lot of quality, a lot of creativity. When we have all our players back, we’re going to be up there.”

Wenger’s men have been in these kind of situations in the UCL before, but usually in the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: Chelsea hammer Tel Aviv, face tricky final day ]

In each of the past five seasons they’ve fallen at the last 16 hurdle but often that exit has come after after putting themselves in perilous situations from dreadful displays in the first legs and then nearly clawing things back in the second legs. Last season they lost to AS Monaco 3-1 at home in the first leg and won 2-0 away, going out on away goals. The season before that they lost 2-0 at home to Bayern Munich in the first leg but drew 1-1 away from home in the second leg and battled hard in Bavaria.

Simply put, Wenger’s men have been in this kind of “do or die” situation many times in the UCL over the past few seasons. It’s all about one game in Greece in two weeks. Wenger knows it as he spoke following their win over Zagreb which set up the tantalizing encounter in Athens on Dec. 9.

“It promises to be a very interesting game [against Olympiakos], but at least we have a chance,” Wenger said. “I think Mesut Ozil had an outstanding first half, he has got the taste for scoring now. I have never seen Ozil in the box so many times as in the last five or six games. The Europa League is not the target – let us give everything to remain in the Champions League.”