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.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”