UEFA Champions League Tuesday Preview: Napoli to test Arsenal; Atlético’s siege on the Dragão

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage is back Tuesday, Groups E through H kicking off the tournament’s second round of action. With special focus on games at the Emirates Stadium and the Dragão in Portugal, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight matches:

FOR NAPOLI, OVERLOOKED SIGNING COULD PROVE VITAL
Arsenal (3 pts., England) vs. Napoli (3 pts., Italy)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, London (Emirates Stadium), England

Raúl Albiol was overlooked, perhaps because his move to Real Madrid had been so disappointing. By the time he left the Bernabéu, the center back was practically a forgotten man. Former Blancos Gonzalo Higuáin and José Callejon made more publicized moves to Naples, as did Pepe Reina from Liverpool. But the former Valencia man whose ability to replace Hugo Campagnaro would be so crucial? His move to Napoli was overlooked.

Though five Serie A appearances, Albiol’s contributions have been mostly quiet ones; but then again, most central defenders’ contributions are. But in that quiet — that murmur that’s come of the restrained, preseason fear Napoli hadn’t replaced their best defender — you can feel a building confidence. Maybe this 28-year-old who hadn’t been a regular starter since 2010 could replace their Argentine linchpin? In Albiol’s six games (one in Champions League), Napoli’s only allowed four goals.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to get too excited about Albiol is his skillset, where no single facet of his game stands out. He’s tall, but he’s no giant (6’3″). While he can handle himself physically, he’s not spectacularly strong or aggressive. He’s above average in the air and surprisingly good with the ball at his feet, albeit in a benign kind of way (he’s never scored more than three goals in a season). He reads the game well and has a knack for being in the right place when his team needs a crucial clearance, but against elite strikers, he’s capable of being beaten by speed or brute force. He is, almost across the board, and above-average but not elite talent.

source: Getty Images
Raúl Albiol, pictured here with Milan’s Mario Balotelli, spent four years at Real Madrid after transferring from Valencia in the summer of 2009. After making 33 Liga appearances in 2009-10, Albiol appearred 48 times over his final three years at the Santiago Bernabéu. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Tuesday may underscore his importance. The Spanish international is a game-time decision for Napoli’s visit to Arsenal, a thigh injury that cost him the second half of Saturday’s game at Genoa leaving his status in doubt. (“We will see,” is all Napoli manager Rafa Benítez would say on Monday about his defender’s status). If he can’t go, Napoli will be left in the same position Marseille was in two weeks ago, when the absence of Souleymane Diawara from l’OM’s central defense was exploited in the Gunners’ 2-1 win at Stade Velodrome.

[MORE: Another step forward as Arsenal pass through Marseille.]

[MORE: Napoli hold serve, knock of visiting Borussia Dortmund.]

Beyond Albiol’s situation, there’s another reason that Arsenal’s Marseille win should be particularly alarming to Benítez. As they also showed this weekend against Swansea, Arsenal has become adept at winning matches multiple ways. Whereas before victories while being deprived the ball were exceptions, now they’re on the verge of becoming rules. There’s a patience, resourcefulness, and resiliency to this team which, if it persists, will make them more dangerous in this tournament’s knockout rounds than they’ve been over the last three years.

So what does Rafa Benítez do, tactically? Does he set up his team to be content with a point, as he’s done so often in Champions League? Does he try to control play, as his talent’s capable of doing, in hopes he can do what Marseille and Swansea did not? Or does try to bulldoze through an Arsenal team that may yet prove a fluke?

If Benítez’s choice works, or if Napoli otherwise stumble into a result, it will be a severe blow to the Gunners’ hopes of advancing. In one of the toughest groups in recent memory, dropping home points could be debilitating. Particularly given Marseille’s relative weakness, double-digit points may not be enough (Arsène Wenger pointed out 10.2 is the average that gets you through). With away games in Dortmund and Naples still on their schedule, Arsenal can’t afford to drop points at home.

If they do, they’ll be counting on their rivals to make similar mistakes when between now and December. That, or they be left hoping Marseille’s more challenging to the rest of the group than they were in round one.

Bumps and bruises: Álbiol isn’t Napoli’s only doubt. Higuaín is also dealing with a thigh problem. If he can’t go, expect Duván Zapata, who started in his place Saturday, to get the call. Right back Christian Maggio, having undergone surgery on his right knee last week, is out for a month. For Arsenal, the team should look very similar to the one that started this weekend. Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Lukas Podolski are all out.

source: Getty Images
Diego Costa, joint-top of Spain’s goal-scoring list, returns for Atlético after serving a suspension during his team’s opening round win against Zenit. The Brazilian-born potential Spaniard has eight goals in nine all-competition games this season. (Photo: Getty Images.)

LAYING SEIGE AT THE DRAGON’S LAIR
FC Porto (3 pts., Portugal) vs. Atlético Madrid (3 pts., Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Porto (Estadio do Dragão), Portugal

It’s been 19 months since Porto lost at home. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time they lost at home in Champions League. Unbeaten in 75 league games at the Dragão, the 2003-04 champions have made their home into a fortress.

Contrast that with Atlético’s form – the irresistible force to the Dragão’s immovable object. Diego Simeone’s team is unbeaten in nine games: six in league (6-0-0); a convincing Champions League opener against Zenit (1-0-0); and two persuasive draws with Barcelona in the Spanish Supercopa. To use our now-reoccurring ploy, if we did European Power Rankings, Atlético would be in the top five.

How, exactly, they’ve managed this beguiling ascent remains a mystery, though we addressed it briefly when discussing the implications of this weekend’s Derbi – once of the most meaningful victories in recent Colchonero history. If Atlético is capable of going into the Santiago Bernabéu, overturning 14 years of gloom and defeatism, and winning a 1-0 result despite their large talent deficit, they may be the perfect team to ignore history at the Dragão.

[MORE: Spain: Derbi loss was so much more for Real Madrid.]

Under Simeone, Atlético has become used to defying expectations. It’s what’s gotten them to the top of La Liga. They’ve claimed a Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, and Copa del Rey since Simeone’s Dec. 2011 arrival, using discipline, intelligence, and ingenuity to augment financial restraints that have cost them Sergio Agüero and Radamel Falcao.

While all teams want to be disciplined and intelligent, Simeone’s convinced his team belief in those principles allows them to compete with anybody. It’s why Atlético are often described as more Italian than Spanish. It’s also why they’re the new favorites in Group G.

Porto is in the unfortunate situation where a draw isn’t enough, with points dropped at home leaving them susceptible to losing out on a knockout round spot to Atlético and Zenit. In an ideal situation, they’d get an early goal from Jackson Martínez, Josue, or Juan Quintero – a score that would allow Paulo Fonseca to pull back midfielders Lucho Gonzalez and Licá to help Fernando protect defenders Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala from Atlético strikers Diego Costa and David Villa.

But against an Atleti team that’s given up seven goals in 10 competitive matches — a team that’s held Barcelona and Real Madrid to a single score over a combined 270 minutes — Porto shouldn’t count on it. The Portuguese champions may need the magic of the Dragão if they’re going to defend their fortress.

source: Getty Images
With six goals, Robert Lewandowski (right) leads a Borussia Dortmund attack that’s scored 21 times in seven Bundesliga matches. The Poland international has 82 all-competition goals since moving to BVB from Lech Poznan in the summer of 2010. (Photo: Getty Images.)

FAVORITES LOOK TO BOUNCE BACK

Steaua Bucharest (0 pts., Romania) vs. Chelsea (0 pts., England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Bucharest (National Arena), Romania

Borussia Dortmund (0 pts., Germany) vs. Marseille (0 pts., France)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Dortmund (Westfalenstadion), Germany

It’s two early for must-win-talk, but for Borussia Dortmund and (especially) Chelsea, points dropped on Tuesday would inspire some panic. Chelsea, coming off a home loss to Basel two weeks ago, need to reclaim lost points against their group’s weakest team, while Dortmund, though they’re coming off an acceptable (if not expected) loss at Napoli, can’t afford to drop home points in a historically strong group.

[MORE: Basel pull off Champions League’s first big upset, beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.]

Steaua aren’t exactly pushovers, their 6-0-1 record in Romania a testament to their quality, but as was evident two weeks ago in Gelsenkirchen, they’re slightly out of their depth at this level. A Schalke team that’s more inconsistent than dangerous were able to wear them down over the match’s first hour, eventually posting a seemingly obligatory 3-0 win.

Even with a change of venue, moving to Romania’s National Arena, they will be susceptible to the same result against Chelsea. If the Blues take them seriously and avoid the ease with which they tried to close out Basel, they should claim their first win of the tournament, even if they failed to do so when visiting Steaua in last season’s Europa League.

Borussia Dortmund’s task is slightly more difficult, even if they’ll have the benefit of playing at home. Marseille, having moved Jordan Ayew into the starting lineup at striker André Pierre-Gignac’s expense (toe injury), are starting to produce more goals, scoring twice in each of their last two games. The team that couldn’t convert their quality into goal against Arsenal may have worked out a way to convert. Despite playing on the road (where they won in 2011-12’s group stage), Élie Baup’s team may be ready for the challenge.

That challenge will come against a team that’s missing their head coach, Jürgen Klopp suspended for Tuesday’s game. Dortmund will also be without their starting goalkeeper (Roman Weidenfeller, suspended), left back (Marcel Schmelzer, thigh), right back (Lukasz Piszczek, hip), best midfielder (Ilkay Gudongen, back), and captain (Sebastian Kehl, ankle). While BVB aren’t quite depleted, they are vulnerable.

Unfortunately for Marseille, Dortmund’s prodigious attacking four will be ready to go. Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Marco Reus and Henrik Mkhitaryan have already accounted for 18 goals in Bundesliga play, and while Marseille’s defensive record in France has been impressive since Baup took over last year, no attack in France (not even Paris Saint-Germain’s) matches the fury that can unleashed by Dortmund.

Others
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern with the exception of Zenit-Austria, which starts at noon.

  • Zenit St. Petersburg (0 pts., Russia) vs. Austria Wien (0 pts., Austria), Petrovski Stadium, St. Petersburg – Zenit will be confident and motivated, having won five-in-a-row in Russia ahead of a game they need to win. This is the easiest fixture on their Champions League schedule. If they drop points after losing at the Vicente Calderon, their get-out-of-group scenarios all of a sudden involve winning at Porto or relying on full points at home against Atlético. Beating Austria Wien at home means they wouldn’t be dependent on either. Struggling in league and potentially missing four starters with injury, Austria will be hard-pressed to slow a team that’s scored 12 goals in their last three games.
  • Ajax (0 pts., Netherlands) vs. AC Milan (3 pts., Italy), Amsterdam ArenA – Milan makes their second trip to the Netherlands this year for a meeting of two of the most accomplished teams in European soccer. The Rossoneri saw Ajax rivals PSV out of the competition in the playoff stage and will welcome Mario Balotelli back to the field, the Italian international currently suspended in Serie A. Max Allegri will also have Riccardo Montolivo available but will be without Stephan El Shaarawy, Kaká, Giampaolo Pazzini, Mattia De Siglio, and Daniele Bonera, among others. Though Ajax is coming off a 6-0 win in league, Milan will expect to overcome their injuries and knock off the Dutch champions, who haven’t qualified for a knockout round since 2005-06.
  • Celtic (0 pts., Scotland) vs. Barcelona (3 pts., Spain), Celtic Park, GlasgowLionel Messi’s thigh injury will prevent him from taking part in a game that should test Gerardo Martino’s attempt to instill a more direct option at Barcelona. Celtic had success against Barça in last year’s Champions League, countering their way to a 2-1, group stage win in Glasgow, but if Martino’s want to play more direct has a benefit, it will be in preventing Celtic from setting up their bunker after losing the ball. With three key defenders out (Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano), Barcelona will still be tested at the other end, particularly if Giorgios Samaras, coming off a weekend hat trick, can create set piece opportunities to tax Martino’s second choice defenders.
  • Basel (3 pts., Switzerland) vs. Schalke (3 pts., Germany), St. Jakob Park, Basel – Schalke boss Jens Keller concedes that his team are probably underdogs, a rarity when a German team faces a Swiss one. But as Basel showed in round one, they’re not a typical Swiss team, their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge holding up as the round’s big upset. Schalke were also impressive in round one but will be without midfield linchpin Jermaine Jones, who joins an injury list that includes Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Christian Fuchs, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, and Chinedu Obasi. German starlet Julian Draxler, however, is expected to return, though it will be the Schalke defense that will be stressed against the likes of Valentin Stocker, Mohamed Salah, and Marco Streller.

USMNT striker Sargent out for rest of 2019

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American forward Josh Sargent will be shut down for the rest of 2019 thanks to a groin injury.

Werder Bremen said the injury first arose during USMNT duty and has bothered the 19-year-old in recent weeks.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Sargent has two goals and three assists in 13 matches this season, playing mostly a center forward or primary striker role.

Here’s Bremen head coach Florian Kohfeldt:

“Since this is a small, deep-set muscle, the problems only occur at certain, very specific loads, which is why he was able to play and train for so long with problems. We will now give Josh’s injury time to properly heal, then he will get back to training in January.”

There are four more match days in the Bundesliga before the league goes on holiday break until mid-January.

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 15

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The congested schedule means we’ve had two match days since we last took stock of the Premier League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

We’ve got a brand new Top Five (well, in terms of the four behind eventual champions Liverpool) and two teams dipping to season lows on our ol’ litmus test.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Watford — As many losses as goals (9), and that figure is one more than the Hornets’ total points. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to see them on the verge of full-time manager No. 3, as full-time manager of Watford is a bit more like seasonal help.
Last week: 18
Season high: 17
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Southampton

19. Everton — A top half team in terms of talent seeks the manager who can organize its way out of the drop zone. Might it be this guy? Better than the alternatives.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Norwich City
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday at Leicester City

18. Norwich City — The first team to 10 losses is four points shy of 17th.
Last week: 16
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-0 at Everton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Arsenal

17. West Ham United — A gigantic ball of “blah.” Should thank Everton for existing so people aren’t more focused on this particular collection of currently squandered talent.
Last week: 20
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-2 v. Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

16. Bournemouth — It’s just not good enough, is it? To have held onto Callum Wilson and get another step up in class from Philip Billing and still be so wildly inconsistent.
Last week: 11
Season high: 6
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Wolves
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Spurs

15. Southampton — It really feels like the Danny Ings revival show could rival any story for the best individual one in the league this season. Happy to see Ralph Hasenhuttl get some good performances, as he was being scapegoated in a hurry.
Last week: 19
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Arsenal
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. Watford

14. Aston Villa — Allowing a league-worst 18.8 shots per game, but staying in the mix thanks to Tom Heaton and Tyrone Mings.
Last week: 13
Season high: 8
Season low: 15
Last match: Won 2-0 v. Newcastle United
Up next: 11 a.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

13. Arsenal — The Gunners back line gets a lot of heat, and rightly so, but maybe a little help from the midfield would be nice considering Sokratis Papastathopoulos and David Luiz have combined for 39 blocks. Sokratis is third in the PL and Luiz fourth.
Last week: 12
Season high: 4
Season low: 12
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Southampton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Norwich City


12. Brighton and Hove Albion — First win ever away to Arsenal is another feather in the cap of Graham Potter, especially nice considering they had lost four on the bounce.
Last week: 14
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Leicester City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Liverpool

11. Newcastle United — No one is punching above its weight more than Steve Bruce‘s Magpies, and they’ve been aided in a big way by Martin Dubravka. The Slovakian goalkeeper has a league-best 44 saves from shots inside the 18.

Also, according to Understat’s xG numbers, they should’ve lost to the Blades. In fat, the xG table says they should be dead last. Life’s funny like that. It’s Steve Bruce’s world and we’re living in it.
Last week: 15
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-0 at Aston Villa
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Man City

https://understat.com/match/11786

10. Sheffield United — Just lost for the first time since September. That’s amazing.
Last week: 6
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 3-3 v. Manchester United
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

9. Burnley — Striker Chris Wood has been credited with 12 “big chances missed” by Sofascore, more than any player in the league.
Last week: 7
Season high: 5
Season low: 15
Last match: Won 3-0 at Watford
Up next: 10 a.m. Saturday v. Crystal Palace

8. Spurs — Jose Mourinho learned Wednesday that Moussa Sissoko is nice for the squad, but not to be leaned on.
Last week: 9
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 3-2 at West Ham United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Bournemouth

7. Crystal Palace — Wilfried Zaha‘s 68 dribbles are 13 more than anyone else in the league.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Burnley

6. Manchester United — Ole had himself a moment in outfoxing Mourinho without Pogba or Martial.
Last week: 8
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Drew 3-3 at Sheffield United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. Sunday v. Aston Villa

5. Chelsea — We told you, Frank. WE TOLD YOU.
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Man City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. West Ham United

4. Manchester City — Aymeric Laporte is still two months away and that’s two months too long.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Chelsea
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Newcastle United

3. Wolves — This is going to sound nuts, but there are days I’d rather see Liverpool on my schedule than Wolves. The Reds are obviously better weaponized, but Wolves come at you in waves, man, and Nuno Espirito Santo is doing it without his best center back.
Last week: 5
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 at Bournemouth
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Sheffield United

2. Leicester City — How’s this for an unsustainable stat? Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira rank first and second in the league in tackles, with 67 and 62.
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 2-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Everton
1. Liverpool — Big Virgil Van Dijk is on track to become the first Premier League player to complete 1000 passes this season, currently at 953.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Crystal Palace
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Brighton and Hove Albion

Report: Everton targeting former Porto, Fener boss Pereira

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Everton might be looking to the Chinese Super League for its next manager.

Vitor Pereira is the top target for the Merseyside set, report our partners at Sky Sports, as the Toffees begin life after Thursday’s firing of Marco Silva.

Pereira, 51, has been in management since 2002, leading Porto, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce, and current club Shanghai SIPG amongst others.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

He’s won titles in Greece, China, Saudi Arabia, and his native Portugal, but there are suitors beyond the Toffees’ reported interest.

The 51-year-old is currently one of the highest paid coaches in the world and was recently offered the job of managing the Chinese national team.

It is understood he is currently considering a new contract offer from Shanghai, which will guarantee he earns £30m a year.

Duncan Ferguson is the interim boss as Everton hosts Chelsea this weekend.

MLS teams no longer will play every opponent each season

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer is breaking away from soccer’s tradition of having each team play every opponent in its league.

MLS is expanding to 26 teams in 2020 with the additions of Miami and Nashville but will keep a 34-game regular-season schedule. A team will play each of its 12 conference opponents home and away, and will face only 10 of the 13 teams in the other conference.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Nashville opens Feb. 29 at home against Atlanta and David Beckham’s Inter Miami starts March 1 at Los Angeles, the league said Thursday in announcing all home openers. Defending champion Seattle opens March 1 against Chicago.

Other Feb. 29 openers are Colorado at D.C., New England at Montreal, LA Galaxy at Houston, Toronto at San Jose, Philadelphia at Dallas, Salt Lake at Orlando and Kansas City at Vancouver. Games the following day include New York City at Columbus, Cincinnati at New York Red Bulls and Minnesota at Portland.

Home openers on March 7 are Chicago at New England, Red Bulls at Salt Lake, NYC at Toronto, Cincinnati at Atlanta, Houston at Kansas City, Orlando at Colorado and Vancouver at LA Galaxy. Four more home openers are set for March 14: Dallas at NYC, LA Galaxy at Miami, D.C. at Cincinnati and San Jose at Philadelphia.

The final home openers are Red Bulls at Minnesota on March 15 and Atlanta at Chicago on March 21 as the Fire return downtown to Soldier Field, their home from 1997-2005. The played in suburban Bridgeview from 2006 through last season.

More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports