UEFA Champions League Preview: Arsenal’s Dortmund test; Chelsea look to regain control; Barcelona returns to Milan

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage resumes on Tuesday, with Groups E through H starting the phase’s third round of action. With special focus on the matches in London, Gelsenkirchen, and Milan, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight games:

CATCH THEM AT THE RIGHT TIME
Arsenal (England) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, London (Emirates Stadium)

There’s never a right time to face Borussia Dortmund, but Tuesday will be as good as any. That’s because last year’s runners-up are going through a lull, if you can call coming off a weekend win as a lull. But their 1-0 over visiting Hannover was unconvincing, and it came on the back of their first league loss of the season (Oct. 5, at Borussia Mönchengladbach). With midfielder Ilkay Gündogan and right back Lukasz Piszczek out, BVB are still shorthanded, the returns of attacker Marco Reus, midfielder Nuri Sahin, and left back Marcel Schmelzer papering the cracks in a still hampered team.

But that hamstrung side is still one of Europe’s best, particularly going forward. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, one of the world’s best forwards, sees his threat augmented by Reus, midfielder Henrikh Mkyhitaryan, and winger Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – the attacking three in Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Creative and intelligent in their decisions, ambitious and unrelenting with their movements, the quartet has combined for 19 league goals and sparked the Bundesliga’s best attack (the team with 22 goals in nine games). If they can get at Arsenal’s back line, they’ll provide the sternest test of the season for a decent if vulnerable unit.

Being able to get at that defense is not a given. Borussia Dortmund loves to play on the counter, particularly under these circumstances (on the road, against quality opposition, when the stakes are raised). As we saw against Napoli, having a team cede possession almost took Dortmund out of their game. While Arsenal won’t do the same, the Gunners’ attack won’t depend on sending players forward (exposing themselves to counters) to execute. The likes of Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, and Aaron Ramsey don’t need the help. Secure at the back, Arsenal may force Dortmund onto its front foot.

“Their efficiency is their quality, [Dortmund’s] ability to take their chances,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger explained. “We go into the game focused on our quality and performance.”

Without defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini (recovering from a concussion), Arsenal may be more vulnerable, but against a Dortmund side that isn’t clicking at last year’s levels, his loss can be overcome. If the Gunners are careful in their approaches and mindful to balance their defense when their fullbacks push forward, they should be able to continue their early season success.

source: Getty ImagesA CHANCE TO REGAIN CONTROL
Schalke (Germany) vs. Chelsea (England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Gelsenkirchen (Veltins-Arena)

Their opening round loss at home to Basel was shocking, but Tuesday’s game in Germany is why it was a bigger deal for the Swiss champions than Chelsea’s Champions League hopes. With a win over Schalke — a win the former champions would always be favored to get — José Mourinho’s side reclaims control of Group E.

Chelsea enter the day on three points, trailing group-leading Schalke by the same amount. Win in Gelsenchirken, and they move into a tie for first, but with two games remaining at home (one against group strugglers Steaua Bucharest), they’ll be back in the driver’s seat. Follow up by holding serve at home, and the 2011-12 champions will have 12 points, and that’s before considering a possible result at Basel. Like today’s game in Germany, they’ll be favored to win that one, too.

That’s the reality of a Group E, a decent but not exceptionally tough quartet, but Chelsea’s largely overlooked form helps the perception they’re in control. The team’s undefeated since losing to Basel, claiming five wins in six games, and although there’s an element to their recent performances that’s more opportunism than prolonged dominance, those quality would have come in handy last month against Basel. This team is making progress.

“The profile of the team is different to when I was here before,” Mourinho said, speaking to that progress. “We used to be physically very strong but things are different now. We have to play a different kind of football with a different philosophy. I am building a new side and it’s very enjoyable.”

That process should be far along against a Schalke team who, despite their weekend victory, struggled against Germany’s last place team, Braunschweig. Some of that may have been the absences Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Kevin Prince Boateng, Jefferson Farfan, and Jermaine Jones (Boateng and Jones are expected to return on Tuesday), but the team’s poor defending also played a part. In nine Bundesliga matches, Jens Keller’s side has given up 19 goals.

That form hasn’t been replicated in Champions League, where Schalke have gone 180 minutes without allowing a goal, though that’s likely to change on Tuesday. Chelsea have already scored five times in Champions League, have put in seven goals in their last two league matches, and could bring Oscar and the hobbled Andre Schurrle back into a team that scored four times on Saturday.

And consider the talents that have gone unmentioned — Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres — and it’s easy to see why an early stumble hasn’t taken away Chelsea’s favored status. The question is whether they can preserve that place today at Schalke.

source: ReutersREAPPLYING WHAT WORKED BEFORE
Milan (Italy) vs. Barcelona (Spain)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Milan (San Siro)

At the time, it was one of the tournament’s biggest surprises, Milan opening last season’s knockout round with a 2-0 upset of visiting Barcelona. After struggling to get through a group where they’d been the seeded team, 90 perfectly executed minutes left Rossoneri were on the verge of eliminating the tournament favorites. After a half-season being maligned by the Italian press, Max Allegri delivered a masterpiece.

The second leg brought Milan back to earth. Their 4-0 loss at the Nou Camp undoubtedly left a lasting impression, one that reinforced how they took their unlikely lead.

“We need to play with courage and sacrifice against the best team in the world,” Allegri said on Monday. “We must try to make as few mistakes as possible. Barcelona will have the ball more than us, so we have to play a game similar to last year’s home tie.”

He’s not giving away any secrets. Every team tries to hit Barcelona on the counter, and with the exception of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, they bunker while doing so. Last year, Milan’s success saw play funneled to the middle, the ball won and given to Ricardo Montolivo, with Stephan El Shaarawy targeted by long passes. Though some of the other names have changed (Milan now having Mario Balotelli available, have acquired Kaká), the method will largely be the same.

Two key additions on Barcelona’s side give them more options. Brazilian star Neymar was brought in  for situations like these, giving Barça a wide option that may prevent Milan from overloading the middle. If the Rossoneri don’t adjust — if they decide it’s not worth giving Lionel Messi more room — they’ll dare Neymar to beat them.

Gerardo Martino may also be a factor. The new Barcelona boss has encouraged his team to play more direct when necessary. That would mean Barça passing over Milan’s midfield block before they set up. It could suggest a willingness to make earlier adjustments than we saw from Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura.

Those idiosyncratic differences don’t change the larger picture, one that’s similar for almost all of Barcelona’s matches. The Blaugrana will be given control and asked to move through a packed defense, one that will be looking to create their opportunities in transition. If Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol hold up and the Milan defense breaks down, this will seem like a very Barcelona affair. If, however, Milan can replicate this February’s effort (or if Barcelona are caught looking ahead to this weekend’s Clasico), the result may come down to how well the underdogs take the few chances they’ll create.

Others
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern

  • Marseille (France) vs. Napoli (Italy), Stade Velodrome, Marseille – This will be l’OM’s easiest match of the tournament, and they’re still underdogs. With Arsenal having already claimed three points at the Velodrome, Napoli will be pressed to do the same. They’ll be without left back Juan Camilo Zuñiga, while Marseille will be missing center back Lucas Mendes.
  • Porto (Portugal) vs. Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia), Estadio Dragão, Porto – If Porto has designs on winning Group G, this is a must win. A second loss at the Dragão (having already fallen to Atlético Madrid), could leave Porto could be six back of first after Tuesday’s action. Zenit will also be hoping for a result, having registered one point through two rounds, but will have to do so without Axel Whitsel. The Belgian international is suspended after his red card against Austria Wien.
  • Austria Wien (Austria) vs. Atlético Madrid (Spain), Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna – Austria, winless in five all-competition matches, sees Diego Costa return for Atleti, Diego Simeone’s leading scorer having finished his two-match suspension. Despite coming off a weekend loss, their first of the season, Atlético will be big favorites to maintain their perfect Champions League start.
  • Celtic (Scotland) vs. Ajax (Netherlands), Celtic Park, Glasgow – With these teams combining for one point through two rounds, the pairing looks set to compete for Group H’s Europa League’s spot. If, however, one team can sweep these next two games (the teams meeting in Amsterdam in round four), Milan could have a challenger for their second round spot. If that challenger’s Ajax, they will have to overcome the losses of Niklas Moisander and Ricardo van Rhijn, both late decisions. Celtic will be without Scott Brown (suspended), Adam Mathews, and Derk Boerrigter.
  • Steaua Bucharest (Romania) vs. Basel (Switzerland), Arena Najtionala, Bucharest – Like Marseille in Group F, Steaua has become the team from which opponents must take points. Schalke and Chelsea have already done their part, putting the pressure on Basel to deliver on Tuesday. While a draw is a very respectable result, it will also see Basel give back some of the points they gained with their win at Stamford Bridge. Dropping points to Steaua could become a deciding factor in Group F.

Bayern, Dortmund ready for monumental Klassiker

Der Klassiker preview
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Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc is a living legend for the black and yellow side, a one-club man who’s distaste for Bayern runs deep.

Zorc knows Der Klassiker as well as anyone, and Tuesday’s 12:30 p.m. ET derby in Dortmund could be a veritable title decider.

While his league derby successes as a player weren’t many, Zorc was part of some of Dortmund’s most memorable Klassiker wins, including the 1998 Champions League quarterfinal, a German Cup, and a German Super Cup.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news ]

And with so much of the world still in isolation, there’s a spotlight on this derby more than any other since Bayern beat Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League Final.

“Every football fan in Germany is looking forward to this match,” Zorc said of the occasion, later adding that “We must believe in ourselves and not make any cheap mistakes in possession. … We need to ride out the spells in which Bayern are dominant. We’ll need to defend very well together as a team and be aware of our own qualities going forward. We can always score goals against them. And we can beat them”

Bayern star Thomas Muller feels the import of the occasion and momentum for both clubs.

Experiencing a resurgent season with a league-best 17 league assists, Muller is aware that growing Bayern’s table advantage to seven with a win in Dortmund would put the Bavarians on the precipice of an eighth-straight Bundesliga crown.

“We are marching, Dortmund is marching, we can look forward to Tuesday,” Muller said, via Bild. “I hope that we can show what makes us strong and that in the end we will leave the Dortmund stadium with a smile. But it will be hard work.”

The last away win in this derby came seven matches ago, a 3-1 Bayern win at the Westfalenstadion on Nov. 4, 2017. Will Bayern do it again, taking a seven-point lead on all chasers regardless of what happens on Tuesday and Wednesday around the league?

Lyon asks French prime minister to reconsider early end of Ligue 1 season

Lyon Ligue 1
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Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas is asking French authorities to backpedal on their decision to end the football season prematurely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The men’s league was canceled four weeks ago with 10 rounds remaining, Paris Saint-Germain declared champion, and Lyon finished outside the European places in seventh.

In a letter on Monday to French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu, Aulas argued the premature conclusion of the season will have catastrophic consequences for French clubs, which could face losses of “700 to 900” million euros ($760 million to $980 million).

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Alongside Amiens and Toulouse – the two clubs demoted to the second division – Lyon took action against the league decision but their case was thrown out last week by a Paris administrative court. Lyon now wants France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, to issue a ruling on the matter.

In the letter, Aulas said the fact that the French league was the only one among the seven biggest European leagues to opt for an early end should convince authorities to reconsider their move.

In Europe, the Dutch and Belgian leagues have also ended their 2019-20 seasons early.

Aulas has argued for the French league to be given a chance to be completed by late August with a temporary playoff system, but with PSG staying the champion given its large lead before play was stopped.

“The Bundesliga resumed matches on May 16, Spain will resume matches on June 8. Italy, Russia and Portugal have resumed collective training and England is working on a resumption after June 19,” Aulas wrote. “How can France not be downgraded very quickly and see its professional football devalued?”

On June 2, the French government is expected to make further announcements related to France’s lockdown exit strategy.

“Many developments and hopes are expected on this date, so that France can gradually regain a good dynamic,” Aulas said. “Could we imagine that June 2 is also a great opportunity to rectify the mistake concerning French football and to allow, with a health protocol used everywhere, to give the starting point for a gradual resumption of training (in June) and, why not, a resumption of the 2019-2020 season over the months of July or August?”

Lyon, meanwhile, still hopes to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League after beating Italian champion Juventus 1-0 in the first leg of their round of 16 match on Feb. 26. The return leg in Turin was suspended.

Transfer news: Jimenez, Coutinho to Arsenal; Higuain to Wolves

Jimenez
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The latest transfer news has linked both Raul Jimenez and Phillipe Coutinho with moves to Arsenal, while Gonzalo Higuain has been linked with Wolves and Newcastle.

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First up, Arsenal are once again front and center as Raul Jimenez has been linked with a move to the Gunners, as both Man United and Real Madrid are said to be chasing the Mexico star.

Per a report from Tuttosport in Italy, Jimenez is said to be valued at $70 million, which seems a little low even though he’s 29 years old. Juventus and Barcelona are also said to be interested in the Mexican striker but how could Arsenal afford him?

If they offload Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (who has one year left on his current contract) this summer then it’s possible. Add in that Alexandre Lacazette could also be leaving Arsenal and Mikel Arteta will have two big earners off the wage bill and will need some attacking reinfrocements.

Jimenez has said he’s happy at Wolves for now and even though he is a hero at Molineux with 39 goals in 88 games in all competitions over the last season, this summer would be the perfect time to cash in.

Talking about that, a report from the Daily Express claims that Wolves are interested in signing Gonzalo Higuain from Juventus.

Okay, Wolves fans probably aren’t going to be overjoyed with this given the fact that Higuain struggled badly during a loan spell at Chelsea. However, in the right system he can still deliver goals and the 32-year-old has scored 303 goals in 630 appearances throughout his career.

Higuain holding the ball up and getting on the end of crosses from Diogo Jota and Adama Traore makes sense. He’s similar to Jimenez, but less mobile, and even though Newcastle are said to be interested in Higuain, it appears Wolves would be the frontrunners for the Argentine striker and he would be a good back-up option to Jimenez if he does stay at Wolves. River Plate and a potential move to MLS are also options for Higuain.

Coutinho
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Rounding off the transfer news, Arsenal are said to be in talks with the agent of Philippe Coutinho, Kai Joorabchian.

Coutinho, 27, is currently on loan at Bayern Munich from Barcelona but the Bavarian giants will not be spending big to sign him permanently. That is where Arsenal come in as a report from Le 10 Sport says that Mikel Arteta wants to add Coutinho on loan.

Per the report, Arteta is keen on Coutinho being central to his rebuild of the Gunners and if he’s available on loan, it may be his best option of regular minutes in the Premier League. A return to Liverpool seems very unlikely, while Chelsea are reportedly interested but they have a host of attacking options and Frank Lampard seems to prefer his younger stars.

If the finances align, Coutinho to Arsenal is a very good deal for everyone. He can rip it up in the Premier League and if it is a loan deal, what do Arsenal have to lose here?

USMNT: Youngsters ready for busy Bundesliga week

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Week 28 of the 2019-20 Bundesliga season has some huge clashes and USMNT fans will know there are plenty of young American players to keep an eye on during the midweek action.

[ LIVE: Bundesliga scores ] 

Bundesliga games will of course be played in empty stadiums, which is the plan for the rest of the season and beyond, and USMNT stars will feature in plenty of them.

From Giovanni Reyna to Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie to John Brooks, plenty of USMNT stars are going to play pivotal roles as their teams battle for the Bundesliga title, European qualification and against relegation.

[ MORE: Bundesliga latest news ] 

BTW, if you’re new to Germany’s top-flight, here’s a guide to help you pick a club to support.

Below is a look at what lies ahead in midweek for the USMNT stars, as you can check out the full schedulestandings and find out how to watch the action, while we will have you covered right here on ProSoccerTalk.


Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig – Came off the bench in the second half of Leipzig’s 5-0 win away at Mainz and played in his preferred role of central midfield. Some really good defensive work, interceptions and calm passing. Will play a key role in the coming weeks as Julian Nagelsmann rotates his team as they’re well in the title race. Hosting in-form Hertha will be tough, as they are very dangerous on the counter. With Dortmund and Bayern playing one another, great chance for Leipzig to gain ground in the title battle.

Matchweek 28: v. Hertha Berlin, Wednesday, 12:30 p.m. ET

Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund – Came off the bench in Dortmund’s win at Wolfsburg, with some nice touches and high-pressing out wide. Reyna, 17, could start against Bayern Munich in the biggest game of the Bundesliga season. That would be a massive moment for the young playmaker who was supposed to start against Schalke before he picked up an injury in the warm up.

Matchweek 28: v. Bayern Munich, Tuesday, 12:30 p.m. ET

Weston McKennie, Schalke – Has worked hard in the humbling defeats at the hands of Dortmund and Augsburg but subbed off in the latter and Schalke are a bit of a mess. Their Europa League push has been hit without a win in nine games and David Wagner’s teams usually fade at the end of a season. McKennie needs a bit more direction and a lot more help in midfield. He does the simple things well but he’s lost his spark and cutting edge.

Matchweek 28: @ Fortuna Dusseldorf, Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. ET

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John Brooks, Wolfsburg – Had a very solid outing against Dortmund as for the most part he kept Erling Haaland quiet. He was caught a little out of position for Dortmund’s first goal but overall a 7/10 display. Wolfsburg are in the hunt for Europa League qualification and coming up against local rivals Bayer Leverkusen will be a big test as Kai Havertz and Co. are ripping teams apart. Brooks v. Havertz will be a fine battle to watch for USMNT fans.

Matchweek 28: @ Bayer Leverkusen, Tuesday, 2:30 p.m. ET

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen – Started in Bremen’s big win away at Freiburg which keeps them in touch with a bunch of clubs above the relegation zone. Sargent needs plenty of service and Bremen do create a ton of chances, so he will be hoping Monchengladbach’s open style gives him plenty of chances on the break.

Matchweek 28: v. Borussia Monchengladbach, Tuesday, 2:30 p.m. ET

Timothy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt – Defeats against Monchengladbach and Bayern Munich have been tough for Frankfurt to swallow in the first two weeks of the restart. Chandler has come off the bench in both games and could start on Tuesday given Frankfurt conceding eight goals in their last two games, sucking them back into the relegation battle.

Matchweek 28: v. SC Freiburg, Tuesday, 2:30 p.m. ET

Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf – Started and played the full 90 minutes as Fortuna coughed up a 2-0 lead in the 88th minute to draw 2-2 at Cologne. That was a massive disappointment as Uwe Rolser’s side need wins to get out of the relegation playoff spot, especially with Bremen now breathing down their necks.

Matchweek 28: v. Schalke, Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. ET

Fabian Johnson, Zack Steffen: Did not feature in Week 27. Fortuna’s Steffen is recovering for a knee injury. Johnson has not been in Monchengladbach’s squad.