UEFA Champions League Preview: Arsenal first in line to try and derail Bayern Munich

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Jonathan Wilson took a crack at trying to figure out Bayern Munich from Arsenal’s point of view, but while acknowledging the defending European champions’ tactically flexibility, The Guardian’s tactics specialist described the Gunners’ choices as a series of middling tradeoffs. Perhaps Arsène Wenger could switch to a 4-3-3 formation (from a 4-2-3-1) or make a concerted effort to limit the influence of Philipp Lahm, regardless of the position the Bayern captain plays. Ultimately, however, the intensity and efficiency with which Bayern plays gives Pep Guardiola’s team its greatest advantage. A change in formation won’t offset that edge.

So the question ahead of Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League match in London — the first of two in the teams’ Round of 16 matchup — may be less how Arsenal can match up with Bayern than why this year’s meeting will be different from last’s. In the same round of last year’s competition, Bayern took a 3-1, first leg lead out of the Emirates. Three months later, the Bavarians claimed their fifth European title.

[MORE: Wenger, Arsenal intent on avoiding Champions League repeat against Bayern Munich]

Unfortunately for Arsenal, Bayern Munich are even stronger this year. Pep Guardiola has replaced Jupp Heynckes as head coach, bringing in a slightly different tactical approach as well as a new way to use players like Lahm (a fullback that’s been converted to defensive midfield). Mario Götze has joined from Borussia Dortmund, as has Thiago Alcantara from Barcelona. Attempting to improve on a team that dominated last year’s Bundesliga, Guardiola has crafted a crew that averages 70.4 percent possession and nearly 20 shots per match (19.2). They’ve become prohibitive favorites to be the first team since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan to claim consecutive European titles.

As hinted in Wilson’s piece, Arsenal do not match up well against Bayern, a deficiency that describes a Champions League failure that’s been present throughout most of the Arsène Wenger era. With a subtle layer of dogma to their approach, Arsenal’s spells of domestic success have been coupled with the feeling they play as an aesthetically superior game to their opponents. Tellingly, the one time they reached the Champions League final under Wenger, Arsenal lost to Barcelona, a rare club that’s more dogmatic in their aestheticists’ ethic than the Gunners.

[MORE: Respectful Bayern saying all the right things ahead of Champions League visit to Arsenal]

Wenger’s pursuit of such stylist values has waned in recent years, but this is still a team that doesn’t feature an elite presence in defensive midfield (even if Mathieu Flamini’s return has been a boost). The defense features a series of value buys, and their goalkeeper couples promising performances with ones that hint he’ll never be an elite keeper. The overall philosophy describes an approach that sees relatively little difference between elite defenders and ones which represent better value. While that may be an empirically justifiable view, it’s also one that highlights scrutiny when Arsenal fails.

One of those failures occurred 11 days ago at Anfield, when Arsenals’ decent-not-stellar defense was exposed by Liverpool. In the process, the lack of a strong defensive midfielder was evident (Mathieu Flamini was suspended) while the remainder of the midfield failed to match up against the upstart Reds. While Arsenal has since rebounded from that disappointment, a vulnerable defense led by Laurent Koscielny and Per Merstsacker will still be stressed to contain the reigning European Champions.

The task will be easier in the absence of Franck Ribery, with Bayern’s best attacker sidelined as he recovers from surgery. Unfortunately, Bayern’s depth means the team will still likely start Mario Mandzukic, Thomas Müller, Mario Götze and Arjen Robben – a quartet capable of replicating last year’s three-goal performance in North London. With Lahm in midfield and Bastian Schweinsteiger returning to health, Bayern have more than enough talent to compensate of the absence of their Ballon d’Or finalist.

The one saving grace Arsenal has is their performance in their last meeting against Bayern. Last March, Arsenal produced a 2-0 result at the Allianz Arena, pulling them even with the Germans in the teams’ Round of 16 match ups. Away goals eventually sent Bayern through, but for Arsenal, the result could help create some momentum to carry into Wednesday’s game.

But it’s going to take more than momentum to derail the consensus best team in Europe. With the addition of players like Mesut Özil, Arsenal is certainly better than last year. But that’s unlikely to be enough to overcome Bayern Munich’s quest for a second straight title.

Sarri sorry after Chelsea assistant taunts Mourinho

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Maurizio Sarri hadn’t seen what set off the skirmish between Jose Mourinho and his staff, but he knew enough to say it was wrong.

[ VIDEO: Mourinho reacts to taunting, skirmish ]

Sarri assistant Marco Ianni took the opportunity of Ross Barkley‘s late equalizer to celebrate directly in Jose Mourinho’s face and then taunt him on the way back.

Fortunately for us all, Mourinho didn’t notice Ianni’s first swipe, or you can be sure it wouldn’t have gotten to the second (for better or worse for Mou).

Chelsea kept its unbeaten season alive with the 2-2 draw at home, but many questions for Sarri were about his assistant. From the BBC:

“Sincerely I have not seen {what happened] but I have spoken with Jose then I have spoken with a member of staff because I think we were on the wrong side so I have dealt with it immediately. … If I speak to a member of staff and am very hard [with him] I cannot come here and tell everything because then I am not credible with the staff.”

Fair enough. I wonder what punishments Sarri deals out: Does he ask offenders to take up his in-game habit of chewing on cigarettes? Do they have to run errands for him? Something tells me it’s amusing.

Also, I’m neither sorry nor Sarri for the headline. Take victories where you find them. Carpe headline.

Opportunistic Brighton nips sleepy Newcastle

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  • Moribund Magpies hit bottom
  • Brighton scores with only shot on target
  • Newcastle out attempts Seagulls 27-7

Newcastle United controlled the game but failed to manufacture much danger, as the woeful Magpies lost again, this time 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at St. James’ Park on Saturday.

Beram Kayal scored for Brighton, who moves 12th with 11 points. Newcastle has two points, and sits dead last.

Glenn Murray was injured early after a scary head-to-head clash with Federico Fernandez and was stretchered off the pitch.

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Shelvey darted in to take the ball from Gaetan Bong, and Ayoze Perez’s low effort could’ve been a bit better but still forced a fine save out of Mathew Ryan.

Ryan was hurt trying to get around Perez for a loose ball moments later, favoring his shoulder.

There was a much scarier incident moments later, which caused a 10-minute delay in the match. Glenn Murray won an aerial challenge with Federico Fernandez, but they clashed heads and both hit the turf.

Murray appeared to be knocked cold, and players rushed to steady his neck and clear his pathway as trainers rushed to treat him. He was stretchered off the pitch.

Brighton went ahead in the 29th minute off a corner kick which should not have been given, as Jose Izquierdo’s long shot through traffic took a turn off Kayal and into the goal.

Newcastle reclaimed the driver’s seat, and Matt Ritchie headed wide in the 39th minute.

Shane Duffy then blocked a dangerous low drive from Jonjo Shelvey, and moments later Yoshinori Muto nodded a bouncing, rising Shelvey rebound over the bar.

Kenedy then came close with a laser from 25 yards, skimming the top of the bar.

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Ryan made a fine save on Shelvey just after halftime as Newcastle went right back on the front foot.

He’d later push a deflected Shelvey free kick over the bar before saving from Kenedy off the ensuing corner.

But Newcastle had no ideas and not enough desperation, handing a result to the Seagulls.

Cardiff City thrashes sorry Fulham to move out of drop zone

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  • Cardiff out of the drop zone
  • Paterson nabs winner
  • Fulham slide into 18th

Four different players scored as Cardiff City finally collected a win, moving out of the drop zone at the expense of woeful Fulham after a 4-2 win at Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday.

Bobby Reid, Josh Murphy, Callum Paterson, and Kadeem Harris scored for the Bluebirds, who move 17th with five points.

Ryan Sessegnon and Andre Schurrle scored for Fulham, who dip into the drop zone on five points and an almost absurd 25 goals allowed through nine matches.

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If you had this one as the “four goals in about 20 minutes” match of the 10 a.m. ET kickoffs, well you’ve got a sick imagination (even with Fulham’s propensity for allowing goals).

But that’s how it went down in Wales, with Andre Schurrle’s remarkable 30 yards laser opening the scoring in the 11th minute.

Cardiff claimed the leader with goals in the 15th and 20th minutes. Josh Murphy equalized with a fine solo goal, and American defender Tim Ream‘s poor touch for Fulham then allowed Bobby Reid in on goal for 2-1.

Sessegnon then became the first player born in the 2000s to score a Premier League goal when he took a flick from Aleksandar Mitrovic and beat Neil Etheridge. 2-2.

But wait: Fulham had more poor defending on offer. A Bruno Ecuele Manga missed every clearing attempt in the fray, and Paterson made it 3-2 with 25 minutes to play.

Etheridge made a strong stop on Alfie Mawson in the 84th minute. And Real Betis loanee Victor Camarasa spotted Harris at the back post for 4-2 with minutes to play.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

South Coast stalemate: Bournemouth, Southampton draw

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  • King misses big chance
  • No goal in four games for Saints
  • Bournemouth unbeaten in three

Bournemouth and Southampton drew 0-0 at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday, with the South Coast derby a tight, tense affair.

Charlie Austin spurned a good chance in the first half, while Bournemouth did plenty of probing but failed to break through.

With the point Bournemouth now have 17 for the season, while Saints have six.

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Bournemouth showed some promising moments early on but both Adam Smith and David Brooks got their efforts wrong.

At the other end Charlie Austin was the danger man for Saints, but his heavy touch took the ball out of his reach despite beating Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic to it.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The first half ended with no goals in a tight encounter in a South Coast derby.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

In the second half King missed a glorious chance after being picked out by Wilson as the Norwegian striker scuffed his shot.

At the other end Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg‘s dipping volley was tipped over by Begovic in a rare chance for Saints.

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In the end, both teams settled for a point in the sun and Saints will be the happier team.