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Europa League preview: Arsenal, Chelsea debut; Red Bull Derby (of sorts)

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The Europa League group stage begins Thursday, with two London giants taking part in a relatively unfamiliar competition.

[ MORE: Full Europa League schedule ]

Both Arsenal and Chelsea have played in the tournament finals in recent years, but for the most part are Champions League mainstays.

This season, however, it’s the UEL leading one to Greece and the other to a visit from a Ukrainian side.

Both are involved in our five matches to monitor amongst the 48-team field on Day 1.

5 (tie). Villarreal vs. Rangers / Celtic vs. Rosenborg

The Old Firm rivals with plenty to prove kick off their group stages on Wednesday, in turn saying something for Scottish football.

For Steven Gerrard‘s Rangers, that means the chance to make good on their first full European tournament since the 2010-11 Europa League. They took the long way, winning four qualifying rounds to earn these nights. Now what? Perhaps their toughest test yet in Villarreal.

For Brendan Rodgers‘ Celtic, it’s an opportunity to show that while the Champions League has been a bit too rich for their blood, a Europa League group stage with Austrian, German, and Norwegian competition isn’t a problem for the best team in Scotland.

4. Arsenal vs. Vorskla Poltava

Forget the opposition: Unai Emery sees the Europa League as the opportunity to put more silverware in the halls of Arsenal HQ. From Arsenal.com:

“Every title for us is very important. In 2000, Arsenal played the final against Galatasaray but didn’t win. And also, Arsenal played the final in 2006 in the Champions League and also didn’t win. In my career, the ambition is very important for continuing to improve and continuing to achieve the objectives in my career personally and with the team. I want to play for every title going forward.”

There’s no reason to expect anything but a win for the Gunners against a team in just its second European group stage.

3. Marseille vs. Eintracht Frankfurt

Frank McCourt’s Olympique Marseille still doesn’t sound quite right, so let’s go with the manager. Rudi Garcia’s Olympique Marseille has a lot of weapons, including a trio of World Cup winners in Steve Mandanda, Florian Thauvin, and Adil Rami. Their Bundesliga visitors feature a Mexican national teamer (Carlos Salcedo) and an American (Timothy Chandler), but eyes will be trained on a Frenchman: Sebastian Heller has three goals and an assist in three league appearances this season.

2. PAOK vs. Chelsea

With all respect to Vieirinha and Amr Warda, this shouldn’t be a major challenge for Maurizio Sarri‘s men. Yes, even with Eden Hazard, Mateo Kovacic, and David Luiz being rested in London.

But it gets our circle because Sarri has called it the most difficult challenge of their group stage. BATE Borisov and MOL Vidi (formerly Videoton) are the other members of Group L. From ChelseaFC.com:

“I have seen the four matches played by PAOK in the Champions League play-offs. My staff have seen the matches of the Greek championship. I think I know everything.

“We want to play with our characteristics, to control the match with our ball possession, but I know tomorrow will be difficult. They are a good team. They have won against Basel, Spartak Moscow, they drew against Benfica in Portugal. We have to do a very good match if we want to gain points.”

1. RB Leipzig vs. Red Bull Salzburg

UEFA would prefer to avoid matches like this, even presumably one-sided ones, as two clubs owned by Red Bull square off in a meaningful competition. The pair being in the same group will be even trickier when there are chances to affect the next round fate of their brother club (The clubs aren’t technically deemed to have the same ownership, but it’s difficult to conclude the relationship isn’t a healthy one).

Dutch international Strootman joins Marseille

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MARSEILLE, France (AP) French club Marseille has signed Dutch international Kevin Strootman from Roma in a deal worth 25 million euros ($29 million).

[ MORE: What now for Mourinho & Man United? ]

The 28-year-old midfielder will be reunited with former Roma coach Rudi Garcia after signing a five-year deal on Tuesday.

Strootman joined Roma from PSV Eindhoven in 2013 when the Italian club was coached by Garcia. He made 130 appearances for the Serie A club, scoring 13 goals.

The left-footed Strootman has scored three goals in 41 matches with the Netherlands.

VAR paves way for Marseille’s 4-0 victory in season opener

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PARIS (AP) Marseille crushed Toulouse 4-0 on Friday as the French league season opened with a video assistant refereeing (VAR) decision leading to the first goal.

Attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet scored in each half, with his penalty on the stroke of halftime awarded after a video review. Striker Valere Germain added a third goal, while winger Florian Thauvin struck two minutes into injury time.

[ RECAP: Man Utd 2-1 Leicester City ]

Alerted by VAR officials that defender Kelvin Amian had blocked a cross with his hand, Ruddy Buquet checked the images. Having initially signaled a corner, the referee changed his mind and pointed to the spot.

Payet, who missed France’s World Cup title victory last month after being injured in the Europa League final, sent goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet the wrong way.

He netted again in the 62nd minute with a neat volley after Reynet had blocked Bouna Sarr’s angled shot.

“The ball came to me quickly, I just tried to guide it in,” Payet told Canal Plus television. “The end of last season was quite hard for me … so I just want to enjoy myself and start the season well.”

Payet completely controlled the game and sent Germain clean through with a defense-splitting pass in the 75th minute but Reynet saved well.

Payet got an ovation from the Stade Velodrome crowd when he was replaced by Thauvin – a member of France’s World Cup squad – in the 82nd minute.

Germain then expertly controlled midfielder Morgan Sanson’s pass and curled the ball past Reynet in the 89th minute before Thauvin skillfully flicked the ball up with his heel and slotted in from close range to complete the rout.

Marseille finished fourth last season and missed out on a Champions League playoff spot by one point.

Jerome Pugmire is at http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Marseille signs Caleta-Car, Fonte joins Lille

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MARSEILLE, France (AP) Croatia defender Duje Caleta-Car has joined Marseille from Red Bull Salzburg, becoming the first offseason signing for the nine-time French champion.

Caleta-Car played a group game at the World Cup with Croatia, which lost 4-2 against France in the final last week.

[ MORE: Spurs sign Son to contract extension ]

He won four Austrian league titles and three national cups with Salzburg.

Terms of the deals were not disclosed but L’Equipe newspaper reported that Marseille agreed to a fee of 19 million euros for the 21-year-old player, who was also targeted by Spanish club Sevilla.

“He is a very good central defender, for now and for the future,” Marseille sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said. “He is a clever player, who understands football. His very physical skills make him very good in the air and has good passing abilities.”

Marseille finished fourth in the French league last season and lost 3-0 against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final, missing out on a Champions League berth.

FONTE JOINS LILLE

Portugal defender Jose Fonte is set to continue his much-traveled career in the north of France after agreeing to a two-year deal with Lille.

The 34-year-old Fonte started all four games at the World Cup in Russia as Portugal was eliminated by Uruguay in the round of 16.

Two years ago, he was a member of the squad which won the European championship in France.

Lille said in a statement Fonte will sign “in the coming days” following medical tests.

The former Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham center back played only a few matches with Chinese club Dalian Yifang this year before terminating his contract.

He is the second international to join Lille this summer after former France forward Loic Remy.

“I’m very proud to join Lille, which is a great French club,” Fonte said. “It’s a new challenge for me, hopefully it will be successful.”

Atletico Madrid wins third Europa League title

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A Frenchman ended the silverware dreams of a French power.

Antoine Griezmann’s brace, both assisted by Koke, led Atletico Madrid past Marseille 3-0, claiming the UEFA Europa League title on Wednesday in Lyon.

It’s the third Europa League crown for Atleti, and for Diego Simeone (two as Atleti manager, and one as Inter Milan player).

Gabi also scored for Atleti.

[ MORE: The Premier League season in statistics ]

Valere Germain was played through on goal very early, but missed his chance to give Marseille the lead.

The miss stung soon after, when Steve Mandanda made a poor clearance. Koke hit it to Griezmann first time, and the Atleti striker scored in his home country.

Marseille lost Dimitri Payet to an injury soon after the half-hour mark.

And Griezmann made it 2-0 before the second half was four minutes old, taking another Koke through ball and flicking over a diving Mandanda.

Kostas Mitroglou subbed into the game for Marseille and headed off the frame in the Ligue 1 side’s best chance to get back into the hunt.