UEFA Champions League Preview: Borussia Dortmund’s ledge; Barcelona, Chelsea look to clinch groups

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UEFA Champions League’s group stage is back on Tuesday, with Groups E through H kicking off the tournament’s fifth match day. With special focus on the day’s big match in Dortmund, here’s a preview of the week’s first eight games:

Borussia Dortmund (6 pts., Germany) vs. Napoli (9 pts., Italy)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Westfalenstadion, Dortmund

In 24 hours, it could all be over. Borussia Dortmund, runners up in last year’s tournament, might be out. If Arsenal wins at home to Marseille and BVB fails to beat visiting Napoli, they’re done. They’re headed toward Europa league.

It all seems so fickle. Dortmund is supposed to be one of the best teams on the globe, yet their in danger of missing Champions League’s Round of 16? If Champions League is about identifying the best of the best, separating the wheat from the chaff, then how is BVB, a team that blew through Arsenal in London, so close to being on the outside looking in?

This isn’t Manchester United two years ago, when the Red Devils couldn’t get out of their group. Even though that team would compete for a title in England, they just weren’t that good (relative to Europe, of course). And this isn’t last year, when Chelsea dropped into Europa League as defending champions. That was far from one of the best teams in Europe.

Borussia Dortmund’s plight is different. They’re just at the confluence of bad luck and bad timing. The luck part involves their group, where the presence of Arsenal and Napoli means one titan is going to go. The timing is in their recent downturn, one that involved a loss at home to Arsenal. It’s the only bad game they’ve played in Europe, but thanks to that failure and a red card in Naples (that led to a 2-1 defeat), Dortmund’s in a win-or-else situation. Europa League is within sight.

The good news: Napoli’s not exactly hitting on all cylinders. They struggled last match day at home to Marseille before losing back-to-back games in league: at Juventus (3-0) and at home to Parma (1-0). November’s brought the partenopei’s first swoon under Rafa Benítez, with last year’s Serie A runners up now forced to visit Dortmund without star attacker Marek Hamsik (foot injury).

Now the bad news: Dortmund haven’t won a game since Nov. 1, outscored 6-1 over the span of three losses. Napoli has already beaten BVB once this tournament, and Dortmund could also play an entirely second choice defense. Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels, and Marcel Schmelzer are out, while Lukasz Piszczek is just returning from multiple hip operations.

With this in mind, how does Napoli approach this match? Knowing Dortmund need a win, they can be reversed and play on the counter, with their willingness to play without the ball helping them in the teams’ initial meeting. But if BVB are patient against that approach, they can limit the exposure of their suspect defense while betting on the quality of Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to produce the goal they need.

“Everyone has to be there tomorrow, every position,” Rafa Benítez said at Monday’s press conference. It wasn’t the most inspiring of observations, but it did betray the Napoli boss’s stay of mind. “I expect the midfielders to help out the defense and when we are in possession our defense has to support our attacks. I expect a cohesive team effort.”

Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp’s views were less technical.

“We are highly focused and cannot be knocked off course so easily,” the BVB boss said, addressing questions about his team’s form.

“Maybe two ‘crisis-stricken’ clubs will meet now. In the end hopefully nobody will notice that on the pitch.”

Elsewhere in Group F, Arsenal (even with Napoli on top of the group with nine points) have their easiest match of the phase, hosting a Olympique Marseille side they beat in France to open the competition. Needing to out-point Dortmund on Tuesday to clinch a spot in the knockout round, the Gunners kick off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern at the Emirates Stadium in London.


source: Reuters
José Mourinho can steer Chelsea back into UEFA Champions League’s knockout rounds with a victory Tuesday at Basel (Photo: Reuters.)

Basel (5 pts., Switzerland) vs. Chelsea (9 pts. England)
Kickoff: 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Camp Nou, Barcelona

Chelsea’s opening loss at home to Basel had the potential to shake up Group E’s dynamics, but two matches from the end of the phase, we could see the group’s top two spots locked down. If Chelsea win in Switzerland, they’ll claim first in their group. If second place Schalke do the same at Steaua Bucharest (2:45 p.m. Eastern, National Arena, Romania), the Germans will be locked into their spot, too. With six points, the German club holds a slight edge on Basel, who they host to close group stage.

Basel’s post-Stamford Bridge swoon for the potential lack of drama. Whereas points won in London could have helped vault them send Schalke to Europa League, the Swiss champions followed their upset with a loss and two draws, only taking two points from their home-and-home with Steaua. Their inability to do more against the group’s bottom dwellers will likely cost them a chance to make the knockout round.

“The pressure is on Basel, not us,” José Mourinho said, his Monday press conference giving the Chelsea manager a chance to give his assessment of Group E’s landscape. “[W]e can qualify tomorrow and Basel, even if they win, still have to play a final match in Gelsenkirchen. So for them the situation is difficult, which shows clearly that after the first match we did our job and they didn’t.”

All of which leads to a likely anti-climax. Whereas it once seemed Basel’s win in London could increase the heat on Schalke, now the Swiss champions carry the strange distinction of having taken more points from Chelsea than Steaua. And as a result, their hopes for knockout round soccer could end on Tuesday.

Other games
All matches kickoff at 2:45 p.m. Eastern with the exception of Zenit vs. Atlético. Played in St. Petersburg, that match will start at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.

source: AP
Andrés Iniesta (right) and Barcelona need only one point in Amsterdam to clinch Group H. (Photo: AP Photo.)
  • Group G
    • Zenit St. Petersburg (5 pts., Russia) vs. Atlético Madrid (12 pts., Spain), Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg – One of two perfect teams in the competition, Atlético have already sewn up first in this group. Whether Diego Simeone sees that as a reason to let up remains to be seen. In Monday’s press conference, the Argentine emphasized “the hunger to win and the desire to play classy football” are the most important aspects of this game. If that means some of his second string will get the calls, a Zenit club trying to beat Porto to second place will be thankful.
    • Porto (4 pts., Portugal) vs. Austria Wien (1 pt., Denmark), Estadio do Dragão, Porto – An almost fully healthy Porto should be able to improve on the 1-0 win they earned in Austria, though they go into Tuesday’s game after a rare instance of dropping points at home in league  (1-1, Nacional). Austria Wien, conversely, posted their biggest league road win in nine years with a 5-0 victory at Admira, though their form will likely be less important than Porto’s readiness. The Dragons struggled in the first half in Vienna before eventually claiming full points. If they can build on that experience, they’ll stay alive ahead of their pivotal final day match in Madrid.
  • Group H
    • Ajax (4 pts., Netherlands) vs. Barcelona (10 pts. Spain), Amsterdam ArenA – Lionel Messi recorded a hat trick in the teams’ first meeting, though the Argentine international will miss the trip to Amsterdam, out until 2014 with a hamstring injury. Still, Gerard Martino’s team is heavily favored to get the point they need to clinch the group. If Ajax can hold them to a draw, they’ll stay alive into their final group stage match at the San Siro. Without that point, the Dutch champions league their fate in Milan’s hands.
    • Celtic (3 pts., Scotland) vs. Milan (5 pts., Italy) – Closing group play against Barcelona, this is practically a must-win for Celtic, who are only two points from out of second despite sitting last in Group G. Win and they’ll likely sit second ahead of a stage-closing visit to Barcelona. Milan, winless in seven and floundering in Serie A (13th place) can actually clinch a knockout round spot with a win and a loss from Ajax, but given their slump and the hostile environment, the Rossoneri may be happy with a point and a chance to clinch second place two weeks from now in Italy.

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


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