Champions League Preview: Málaga’s one advantage over Borussia Dortmund

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Manuel Pellegrini has been here before: Seven years ago, when the current Málaga boss was leading another tournament debutant to a surprise Champions League run. Back in 2006 the debutant was Villarreal, with the Yellow Submarine tasked with derailing a characteristically talented Internazionale in the quarterfinal round. Turning around a 2-1 first leg loss at the San Siro, Villarreal used Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s looping 56th minute free kick and a clean sheet upset the Nerazzurri, launching the upstart Valencians into an improbable Champions League semifinal.

Squint until you can’t see the details, and Pellegrini’s current team looks awfully similar. This is Málaga’s club first appearance in Champions League, and like that Villarreal team, a star playmaker is at the center of its success: Juan Roman Riquelme back then; 20-year-old Isco now. With the likes of Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal and Solamon Rondón having departed over the last year, Málaga’s resembles the solid but superstar-light club team that eventually lost to Arsenal. And just as this Málaga team has Isco heading the underrated contributions of Willy Caballero, Jeremy Toulálán, and Weligton, Villarreal had only Riquelme and Diego Forlán to claim as star attractions.

But whether he’s had them or not, Pellegrini’s never needed those star attractions to have success. At Villarreal, Real Madrid, Málaga or his various stops in South America before jumping to Europe, Pellegrini’s teams have always been built on the same principles. Strong in possession but conservative with their chances, the Chilean’s teams have typically waited for opportunities present themselves. When they do, his sides act directly and with confidence. In that way, most of Pellegrini’s tactics are worked out on the training ground, his methods eschewing constant tweaks and adjustments in favor of a consistency that’s regularly produced competitive sides.

(MORE, from Tuesday: PSG-Barça inconclusive | Bayern illustrates the gap to Juventus.)

It’s why Pellegrini has won titles in three different leagues with four different clubs. It’s why his teams have always competed near the top of La Liga, even when his Villarreal and Málaga teams have been outgunned by their competition. It’s why former Chile international produced a then-club record 96-point season during his only campaign with Real Madrid.

It’s also why people may be taking his current team for granted in their quarterfinal with Borussia Dortmund, a tie that kicks of Wednesday in Spain. And given the three-year buildup that’s gone into this Dortmund team, it’s understandable. BVB has one of the most talented teams in Europe, and after two straight titles in Germany, there is a sense that the team’s Champions League time is now. Unless their opponent has the name value of Real, Barcelona, or Bayern, Dortmund is going to be favored to go through.

But that’s where Pellegrini’s experience matters, the Málaga coach having previous defied the odds. In 2006, his Yellow Submarine went up against a team with Adriano, Luis Figo, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Zanetti, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, and Julio Cruz. And he managed to move past them.

source: Getty ImagesSo Dortmund have Robert Lewandowski (right), who has scored 12 goals in his last 12 appearances. They have Mario Gotze and Marco Reus behind him, Ilkay Gundogan in midfield, with Neven Subotic and Lukasz Piszczek in defense. At almost every position, they have players who would best their Málaga counterparts.

But none of that guarantees Dortmund will go through. Between two teams with little Champions League experience in their squads, Málaga has one thing that BVB lacks: Someone who has been here before.

(MORE, Highlights: PSG-Barcelona | Bayern-Juventus.)

Notes

  • Borussia Dortmund will be without Mats Hummels, the central defender having yet to recover from his ankle injury. Felipe Santana will start along side Subotic.
  • Jakub Blaszczykowski could already return, the winger having been held out of Saturday’s game at Stuttgart after picking up an injury while with Poland.
  • Marcel Schmelzer and Sebastian Kehl should also be available despite knocks. Each with in the team on Saturday.
  • After Juventus lost on Tuesday, Dortmund are the only team without a loss in the year’s Champions League. Málaga have only lost once: Last round at Porto.
  • On Saturday, Pellegrini started Julio Baptista alone up top at Rayo Vallecano, hinting Roque Santa Cruz could get the call on Wednesday.
  • With only 28 goals allowed, Málaga have the second-best defensive record in Spain. In five matches at home in this year’s Champions League, Pellegrini’s side has kept four clean sheets.

(MORE: Gala looks for breakthrough at Real Madrid.)

Possible lineups

Málaga (4-4-2): Willy Caballero; Antunes, Weligton, Martín Demichelis, Jesús Gamez; Isco, Iturra, Jeremey Toulálán; Javier Saviola, Roque Santa Cruz.

Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weidenfeller; Marcel Schmelzer, Felipe Santan, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Piszczek; Ilkay Gudongan, Sebastian Kehl; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakub Blaszczykowski; Robert Lewandowski.

River Plate to sponsor car in Indy 500

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There will be a soccer presence at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500.

On Thursday, Club Atletico River Plate announced, along with car owner Juncos Racing that Kyle Kaiser’s No. 32 car will feature a River Plate logo on the front of the vehicle. Juncos Racing is named after founder Ricardo Juncos, an Argentine native and clearly a big River fan.

Per a press release from River Plate, it’s the first time a soccer team is sponsoring a car in the Indy 500, which takes place this Sunday, May 26.

[READ: Pochettino hopeful Kane will be ready to make an impact in UCL final]

“As a River fan, I always wanted to have the logo of the Club in the car,” Juncos said in a press release.
“This race is very important for me. I am very happy and I believe that in the goal of River to expand into the Indy 500. From here to there will come positive things for both.”

Kaiser, just 23, is one of the new guys on the main IndyCar scene, especially after winning the IndyCar Lights title in 2017. It’s the racing equivalent of winning the Europa League. Unlike River’s reputation as one of the biggest clubs in South America, Kaiser just barely made it into the field all together, bumping former Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso out of the field by about one hundredth of a second.

While it’s cool to see a soccer team get involved in the Indy 500, a worldwide viewing event that’s also akin to a religious holiday throughout the state of Indiana, it’s another Buenos Aires club that really should have been the first to sponsor a car.

Racing Club, defending Argentine league champs, would have been terrific, Racing in Uruguay, or Racing de Santander in Spain. Perhaps one day in the future the three clubs can combine forces to sponsor an IndyCar event or a car competing in a race.

USSF, Relevant Sports clash in court over international matches

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NEW YORK (AP) A lawyer for a promoter asked a judge to order the U.S. Soccer Federation to sanction international league matches in the United States.

The USSF last month denied an application by Relevent Sports, a company partly owned by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, to have Ecuador’s Barcelona and Guayaquil clubs play on May 5 at Miami Gardens, Florida. The USSF cited an Oct. 26 announcement by FIFA that its ruling council “emphasized the sporting principle that official league matches must be played within the territory of the respective member association.”

During a half-hour hearing Thursday before New York Supreme Court Justice W. Franc Perry, a lawyer for the USSF argued the court should not hear the dispute and it should be sent to arbitration.

Blair G. Connelly, the lawyer representing the USSF, said because Relevent’s application included its executive chairman, Charlie Stillitano, as the FIFA-licensed match agent requesting approval to stage the game, Relevent was bound by a provision in FIFA’s match agent regulations requiring any dispute with a national association be submitted to arbitration. FIFA’s rules specify such a case be heard by its player status committee, whose decision could be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.

“What they’re trying to do is outsource the court’s authority … to two bodies in Switzerland that don’t follow New York law and have nothing to do with it,” said Marc Litt, a lawyer for Relevent.

Connelly said the USSF’s decision could be overruled only if the court found it to be irrational. He also cited a 2007 decision by U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber in Illinois, who ordered a suit against the USSF by ChampionsWorld, a previous Stillitano-affiliated company, be stayed pending FIFA’s arbitration procedure.

“They are bound by the contracts their agent enters into on their behalf,” Connelly said.

Litt said FIFA never issued a formal regulation against international club matches in different countries and the USSF cited only a news release.

“Was U.S. Soccer irrational when it concluded that something that FIFA itself called a decision by its decision-making body was in fact a decision? We’re we crazy to think that? Was U.S. Soccer just in outer space?” Connelly said.

Litt claimed the USSF made its decision to protect Soccer United Marketing, an affiliate of the USSF and Major League Soccer.

“We believe that the only reason that they don’t want professional league matches that count in the United States is because that would damage Major League Soccer,” Litt said.

Relevent also attempted to stage the first Spanish La Liga match in the U.S., between Barcelona and Girona, at Miami Gardens on Jan. 26. That effort fell through following opposition from the governing body of Spanish soccer, the Real Federacion Espanola de Futbol, and the players’ union, the Asociacion de Futbolistas Espanoles.

Perry did not announce any decision.

Wenger hints he may be retired from management

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It’s been a year since Arsene Wenger‘s Arsenal departure was announced, and the legendary manager remains on the sidelines.

Whether by his choice or not, Wenger has spent the year away from soccer, instead vacationing and being a studio TV pundit in France. In his latest public comments, Wenger hinted that while he still plans to return to a role in soccer, he likely won’t be a club manager anymore.

“I thought I will come back into management very quickly, but I enjoyed taking a little distance,” Wenger told the BBC. Now I’m at a crossroads.”

Per the BBC, Wenger later added: “You will see me again in football. As a manager… I don’t know.”

In the weeks and months after Wenger was effectively forced out of Arsenal after 22 seasons, Wenger repeatedly said that he had many offers to return to management, and it was only a matter of time before he’d accept one of these offers. And yet, it’s been a year and Wenger remains on the outside, perhaps a clear sign that today’s soccer has passed him by, and unless he wants to move to the Middle East or another soccer outpost, he won’t be able to get a top job in Western Europe.

Despite his acrimonious exit, Wenger still supports the Gunners and had some thoughts on the team’s season, as well as the club’s run to the Europa League final.

“I miss competition and I miss Arsenal because I left my heart in there,” Wenger said. “I gave my life to this club for 22 years. Every minute of my life was dedicated to this club and I miss the values we developed inside the club.

“I support Arsenal. It will be forever my club.”

Pochettino hopeful Kane can “give us a hand” in UCL final

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Harry Kane returned to training this week as Tottenham continues preparations for the UEFA Champions League final.

The England and Tottenham captain has been out with yet another ankle injury since April 9. Initially feared he would be out for the rest of the season, Kane now looks set to play in the final match of the season, and his manager Mauricio Pochettino is hopeful he can make an impact.

“He’s training and has entered the final stage of his recovery, Pochettino told a conference in Bilbao, via video link, per AS. “We’re hoping he’ll be able to give us a hand – either from the start, from the bench or if not, then by giving us moral support in the dressing room. But we are optimistic that he’ll be able to help us on the pitch.”

Pochettino completed a magnificent feat guiding Tottenham to the Champions League final, but he may have one of the most difficult decisions he has to make in his managerial career ahead.

Should Kane be available to start, Pochettino has to decide whether he should break from the lineup that came back from a 3-0 deficit to Ajax, and potentially put Lucas Moura on the bench. If Tottenham loses, Pochettino is probably darned if he does, darned if he doesn’t with Kane.

Either Kane wasn’t fit enough to play and make a big impact, or he clearly was and he didn’t have enough time in the match.

Regardless, Pochettino will hope to have a full squad available, with Kane able to make a difference should be needed.