Arsenal advance in Champions League, but Napoli out despite win

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One good club from Group F, a real heavyweight of a foursome, was bound to be odd team out on Wednesday as Champions League group play finished with a high-wire tension.

As it turned out, it was the victorious side from inside Napoli’s aged Stadio San Paolo that turned into the unlucky bunch.

A 2-0 win for Napoli over Arsenal was a result the English club could live with, although just barely, but it wasn’t enough to push Rafa Benitez’s club from Italy into next year’s knockout rounds.

Gonzalo Higuain’s second half goal was enough for the time being – it was a strike that would have sent both teams through with the other group match temporarily deadlocked. But when Dortmund scored near the end in the South of France, prevailing over Marseille, that was that for the Napoli, having been so desperate to remain in the competition after such a long absence.

Not even Jose Callejon’s late, late goal was enough, producing the final two-goal margin, but still not sufficient for Napoli.

The night had a certain edge, with Arsenal needing something better than a 2-0 loss to do what Arsenal does under Arsene Wenger: progress into the Champions League knockout round. Meanwhile, Napoli needed to win by more 2-0 or hope for something good from the Marseille-Dortmund contest, and where the pileup of a group table would be finally be revealed.

Benitez’s Napoli had lots of bite, and Belgian international Dries Mertens was on top of his game, with lots of creativity and hustle-bustle along the right for the Italian team. Napoli kept the ball in Arsenal’s end but couldn’t quite unlock a defense where center backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were big cops on the beat.

In fact, the most nervy Gunners moment before intermission was their own poor doings. Koscielny rolled a ball to goalkeeper Szczesny, who tried to get clever. Rather than crushing the ball forward, he attempted a little pass out to the wing. It bounced off Higuain, who was nearly able to direct it into goal.

The home team frustration grew as the opportunity for opportunities diminished, and by the 35th minute Mertens and Blerim Dzemaili had yellow cards, mostly a response to the persistent midfield fouling meant to slow Arsenal’s lethal counter.

Napoli pressed on, closer and closer to the breakthrough after the break. Pablo Armero broke through on the left and Callejon on the right, just a few minutes apart, but neither could do well enough with their shooting efforts.

In the 70th minute, Higuain was set free inside the 18, but he shot high, too.

Finallly, in the 73rd, Higuain had a moment of brilliance. The entry pass was good enough, but the Argentine forward’s piece of technical craft, the spin and shot to the far post at such high speed, was something to behold.

Arsenal’s job got harder in the 76th when Mikel Arteta, having already been booked, collected his second foul for a tough midfield foul. The Gunners did concede a second, but it was deep enough into injury time that it really was academic.

Lineups:

Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Flamini, Arteta, Rosicky, Cazorla, Ozil, Giroud.

On the bench: Fabianski, Vermaelen, Monreal, Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Bendtner

Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Fernandez, Albiol, Armero; Dzemaili, Behrami; Callejón, Pandev, Mertens; Higuain.

On the bench: Colombo, Uvini, Britos, Isigne, Cannovaro, Inler, Zapata

Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images
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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE