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.

Report: Toronto to send Giovinco to Tigres for Valencia, cash

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An Mexican site reports that Tigres UANL is ready to send Enner Valencia and cash to Toronto FC to land Sebastian Giovinco.

Normally that’s seem a bit wild for TFC to send their perennial MLS MVP candidate packing, but the club has been hesitant to meet Giovinco’s terms on a new contract.

[ MORE: PL Manager Power Rankings ]

And Valencia is nearly three years younger and a bit bigger than Giovinco.

Valencia scored in bunches for Tigres after arriving from West Ham, scoring nine goals with an assist in 16 Apertura matches including three multi-goal games. He then saw his numbers dip to two goals and three assists in 11 Clausura appearances.

Giovinco, meanwhile, has six goals and six assists in 15 matches between MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League.

It would be a significant risk for TFC, though the idea of pairing up Enner Valencia and Jozy Altidore is a physical nightmare for MLS defenses.

Whoops! Unai Emery puts up Arsenal message on web site

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Arsenal’s next manager is very close to being officially Unai Emery.

That is unless, the Gunners’ brass has its mind changed by his sloppy web savvy.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Emery — or his people, or hackers — mistakenly put up a graphic featuring the Spanish coach, the Arsenal logo, and the phrase “Proud to be a part of the Arsenal family” before taking it down in short order.

Emery is expected to take over for Arsene Wenger at the Emirates Stadium this summer. Something tells us we’ll have an announcement on Wednesday or even later tonight…

State TV: Ghana president orders arrest of FIFA executive

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo on Monday ordered police to arrest football federation head Kwesi Nyantakyi, a member of the powerful FIFA Council, over allegations of fraud.

Akufo-Addo’s order was announced by the state-run Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Abu Jinapor, deputy chief of staff at the president’s office, said the order for Nyantakyi to be arrested and investigated related to an undercover documentary that purports to show the football official asking businessmen for money in return for access to the president and other senior government officials.

“It was a clear case of defrauding by false pretense,” Jinapor said, adding that Akufo-Addo’s order came after he watched excerpts from the documentary, which has not yet been broadcast.

Nyantakyi is president of the Ghana Football Association, a vice president of the Confederation of African Football, and has been a member of the ruling FIFA Council since 2016. He was the FIFA official chosen to oversee the football competition at the 2012 London Olympics.

Ghanaian media reported that Nyantakyi was not in Ghana at the time of the president’s order but was returning home.

Nyantakyi has been accused of improper behavior before when a British media investigation just before the 2014 World Cup claimed he had been willing to allow the Ghana national team to play in games that could be fixed by others. He denied the allegation.

Premier League managerial power rankings

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There’s a new sheriff at West Ham United, and it’s no small-time boss.

Former Premier League champion manager Manuel Pellegrini is taking over the London side, which had us wondering how high he’d move up the acclaim ladder upon hiring (as of post time).

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

With the 20th spot still open — will it be Fulham or Aston Villa — the Arsenal and Everton jobs vacant for now, and both Neil Warnock and Nuno Espirito Santo yet to manage their clubs in the top flight, we rank the power status of the 15 other active Premier League bosses.

15. Javi Gracia, Watford — Manager don’t usually last long at Vicarage Road, and Gracia doesn’t have a record for sticking around clubs for too long himself.

14. Mark Hughes, Southampton — Saints stayed in the Premier League, and Hughes deserves credit for pushing the buttons on a talented squad.

13. Claude Puel, Leicester City — A disappointing finish to his season keeps Leicester outside the Europa League, and so he has a bit more to prove after an impressive reclamation job at the King Power Stadium.

12. David Wagner, Huddersfield Town — Keeping Town in the Premier League was impressive, but we’re not sure how much we learned about the long-term prognosis of Jurgen Klopp‘s best pal.

11. Chris Hughton, Brighton and Hove Albion — He’d led several clubs to Premier League promotion, and coaxed fine seasons out of what appeared to be a subpar defense at season’s open.

10. Eddie Howe, Bournemouth — One of the brightest young managerial minds, can he take the next step on the South Coast?

9. Roy Hodgson, Crystal Palace — What he did upon inheriting and then overseeing one of the worst starts in Premier League history was nothing short of brilliant. Clearly he hasn’t stopped learning unlike many other PL “retreads.”

8. Manuel Pellegrini, West Ham — What will a few years outside the Premier League, if anything, have done to the one-time Man City leader. Don’t forget: The season City won the PL season, he coaxed 20-plus goal campaigns in all competitions from Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo, and Yaya Toure.

7. Antonio Conte, Chelsea — Tactically and experience-wise, he’s so much higher on the list. Regardless of the mess at Chelsea, better was needed this season.

6. Sean Dyche, Burnley — Guiding tiny Burnley to the Europa League is as impressive a feat as any outside of what Guardiola did this year and Claudio Ranieri did at Leicester City.

— BONUS — 6b. Unai Emery, if hired at Arsenal —

5. Rafa Benitez, Newcastle United — Considering his resume, it shouldn’t be as surprising that he kept United up despite his owner refusing to green-light a real answer at center forward. Worked career years out of Mo Diame and Jonjo Shelvey.

4. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool — The Champions League final says something, especially in a year he sold Philippe Coutinho, but his team still lacks the consistency of the three men in front of him.

3. Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur — Spurs have smartly spent and kept their stars around, but their financial outlay arguably should not have them consistently finishing ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal.

2. Jose Mourinho, Manchester United — Still a defensive marvel, still a genius, still somewhat hilarious… but we all know who No. 1 is…

  1. Pep Guardiola, Manchester City