Why N’Golo Kante is the Premier League’s Best Player

Since moving to England in the summer of 2015, N’Golo Kante’s 276 tackles lead the league by a comfortable margin. The little French wizard played a key role in Leicester’s shock title run a year ago. This season Kante has been a catalyst of Chelsea’s great form which sees Antonio Conte’s side ten points ahead of their nearest competitor.

It is no coincidence that Kante has been a regular starter on both teams. In addition to his tackling, he excels at reading the game and understanding when to tackle and when to kick-start the counter attack.

Kante is widely considered to be the best tackler in the Premier League

This was extremely vital to Leicester’s style of play last season. As a side that never had much possession and struck quickly and decisively on the counter attack, Kante’s ability to win the ball anywhere on the pitch helped set up Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in their respective breakout seasons. Perhaps under-appreciated last season, the Foxes’ struggles this season show how big of a piece Kante was to their title winning side.

This season, Kante has taken his talents to Stamford Bridge and has been a part of Chelsea’s season of redemption following a tenth place showing last season. Kante’s presence in the midfield has allowed Antonio Conte to run his three back formation, which has taken the Premier League by storm this season. Kante is such a great tackler and defensive mind that Chelsea’s wing backs can go forward and threaten.

Kante has also improved his attacking this season. He has scored important goals for Chelsea against Manchester United and West Ham this season.

Kante is one of the few players capable of making significant contributions anywhere on the pitch.

The impact that Kante has had on the teams he joins is without question. His one title-winning year in Leicester has been sandwiched by two relegation battles for the Foxes. And although he can’t take all of the credit for Chelsea’s resurgence, he has been a major contributor. In a game that is all about winning, the best in England at the moment is the one who brings success with him.

 

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Unclear Futures for Some of the Prem’s Biggest Stars

Since the beginning of the decade, several players have made a name for themselves in the Premier League and have basked in the major dividends that stardom has paid. Players such as Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, Philippe Coutinho and Alexis Sanchez are all world-class, but their time at their respective clubs, and in England, may be coming to a close.

Sergio Aguero

The Manchester City talisman and scorer of the most famous goal in Premier League history has seen his role at the club come under threat this season. The Argentine was absent for large portions of December and January in favor of Brazilian starlet Gabriel Jesus. However, Jesus’s injury has seemingly given a new spark to Aguero.

With 22 goals across all competitions, it is easy to see why Aguero is still considered a top striker. While there is no doubt he can still contribute to City, there are still several issues that could force an Aguero exit in the summer.

The first is whether or not Pep Guardiola wants to move on from the 28 year old in favor of youth. Jesus’ potential is so great that he could easily be equally if not more productive than Aguero one day. This is certainly a gamble as Aguero is one of the few experienced players in a youthful attack that includes Jesus, Kelechi Iheanacho, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling among others.

Secondly, it is unknown how Aguero feels about his spot in the starting XI being up for grabs. As he approaches the end of his prime years, a move to another European powerhouse seems likely for Aguero with an eye towards one day returning to play in this native Argentina.

Diego Costa

Diego Costa’s alleged frosty relationship with Antonio Conte could force the striker out this summer.

The Brazilian-born, Spanish-international striker is seemingly constantly at odds with someone. Like Aguero, Costa is one of the premier strikers in England. His 17 goals in the league this season have helped propel Chelsea to a ten point lead at the top of the table. Unlike Aguero, Costa’s problems stem more off the field than on it.

Costa has publicly feuded with teammates before and allegedly has had multiple conflicts with manager Antonio Conte. If these “conflicts” were to get to a point of no return, it would likely be the striker who would move on as Conte has completely turned around Chelsea after last season’s embarrassing performance.

However difficult he may be, Costa is a supreme talent and it is difficult to foresee a scenario where the club let tensions rise to a point where Costa would leave. Now that they have found their footing again, Chelsea would be foolish to let their top scorer leave.

Philippe Coutinho

Philippe Coutinho’s immense skill set has caught the eye of Barcelona.

Since Liverpool signed him from Inter in 2013, Philippe Coutinho’s immense promise and potential have been on display at Anfield. The Brazilian is already a top player in England and possesses the skill, pace, and mentality to become a superstar.

What has been frustrating for Reds’ fans is the inconsistency shown by Coutinho and the team as a whole in recent seasons. Coutinho has shown improvements under Jurgen Klopp and it really only seems to be a matter of when and not if he breaks into the top echelon of players in Europe.

Liverpool are not the only side that are aware of Coutinho’s talent. Barcelona have been heavily rumored to be weighing a move for him in the summer. With an aging Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi’s contract negotiations ongoing, Barca see Coutinho as a future catalyst in their side.

While Coutinho has all the tools to become a Barcelona player, he is not there yet. Barcelona will likely realize this and wait until Klopp has worked further with the dynamic play-maker before the seriously pursue him. It wasn’t until a 33 goal season in 2013-14 that Luis Suarez sealed his move from Anfield to the Camp Nou. Coutinho will need to mimic Suarez if he hopes to join his former teammate at the Catalan club.

Alexis Sanchez

As speculation on Arsene Wenger’s future in North London has stolen the headlines, Sanchez has taken a back seat. The Chilean winger is widely rumored to be unsettled at Arsenal and is frustrated by poor results in the league and Europe this season. Regardless of whether Wenger or Mesut Ozil stay at the Emirates past this summer, it seems a foregone conclusion that Sanchez will not be back next season.

23 goals and 12 assists across all competitions show how tremendous Sanchez has been this season. At the turn of the calendar year, there was a strong case to be made that Sanchez had been the best player in Europe to that point in the season. His departure would cripple Arsenal in a manner in which there is very little they could do to make up for it.

Now, as he is expected to miss an extended amount of time with an ankle problem, we will get a good look at Arsenal without Sanchez and how they cope.

If Sanchez does leave, Juventus and PSG have been rumored to be keeping an eye on him. A move to Juventus would make sense as they still have money to spend from the Paul Pogba sale. With a rock solid defense and legendary goalkeeper in Gianluigi Buffon, the addition of Sanchez on the wing would certainly put Juve among the favorites to win the Champions League next season.

 

 

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Shakespeare Proving he’s the Man for the Job

Less than a month ago, Leicester City were spiraling out of control. They sat just a single point above the relegation zone and had just suffered a first leg defeat in the Champions League against Sevilla.

On February 23, the Foxes shocked the sporting world by sacking manager Claudio Ranieri, who had guided them to their unexpected Premier League triumph. The move was highly criticized at the time by many, including myself. Ranieri was replaced by his assistant Craig Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, who has been at the club since 2011, is a very popular guy and had already won over the dressing room before even stepping in as caretaker manager. In his first game, Leicester shocked Liverpool 3-1 behind a brace from Jamie Vardy, who had been out of form all season. “Shakes [Shakespeare], before the game, just told me to play a lot higher especially in areas where we could hurt them,” Vardy said after the match.

Wes Morgan scored one of Leicester’s two goals in their Champions League triumph over Sevilla.

Another 3-1 win in the league vs Hull City saw Shakespeare be named full time manager. However, his biggest achievement occurred Tuesday as he saved the Foxes’ Champions League season. Leicester’s unexpected 2-0 win and subsequent advance to the quarterfinals has the Shakespeare train running full steam ahead.

Shakespeare has watched this team rise from third tier of English football to the pinnacle, Premier League Champions. He knows how to get the best out of his players. Whether its Vardy, who looks rejuvenated and dangerous, or any of the other players, he has brought the best out of them.

Leicester are playing the best they have all season under their new man, but surely they don’t have enough magic leftover from last season to do the unthinkable in Europe. With these Foxes, you never know, and they are thriving under the guidance of Craig Shakespeare.

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Preview and Predictions: Matchweek 28

Due to midweek Champions League ties and FA Cup fixtures, many of this week’s fixtures were rescheduled. However, the four matches on the slate are all very important. With top four contenders and relegation candidates in action, this weekend will still have plenty of fire power in the Prem.

Everton vs West Brom

Everton have been very formidable at home (Photo courtesy of Sky Sports).

A showdown between the two best sides this season outside of the big six clubs. Both teams feel that they can challenge for European spots and have shown why in their recent form.

Last weekends’ hard fought defeat to Tottenham was their first loss in the league in 2017. Striker Romelu Lukaku is in stunning goal-scoring form. His 18 league goals are only one shy of tops in the league.

The Toffees will certainly use the home field to their advantage, having lost just once at Goodison Park. Ross Barkley and Idrissa Gueye will look to control the tempo in the midfield and feed Lukaku. Everton averages over two goals per game at home, so look for them to find the net on Saturday.

West Brom have somewhat been the “surprise” of the league this season. Often boring and unexciting, Tony Pulis’ men have combined their usually gritty defense with a surprisingly good attack that has seen unlikely goalscoring heroes.

37-year-old center back Gareth McAuley is the oldest outfield player in the league and has six goals. Tottenham outcast Nacer Chadli and Venezuelan striker Salomon Rondon have also contributed to the attack. West Brom will meet their match against Everton and Pulis would surely take a draw.

Everton 2 West Brom 1

 

Liverpool vs Burnley

Coming off a 3-1 triumph against Arsenal, Jurgen Klopp and Co. will be looking to further secure their top-four spot against Burnley. The Reds were stunned 2-0 on the second weekend of the season in August against the newly promoted Clarets.

Fortunately for Klopp, Burnley is a very different team when not playing in the confines of their own stadium. All but two of the Clarets’ 31 points have been earned at home. With such a dismal away record, it would be a surprise if Burnley can get anything from this game. Liverpool’s attacking trident of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane will be a handful for the Burnley back four and goalkeeper Tom Heaton.

Liverpool needs to be wary of its history of underperforming against lesser sides. The defense is suspect as always. Outside of striker Andre Gray, Burnley lacks the attacking talent to exploit the Reds’ defensive deficiencies. Expect Liverpool’s attack and the Anfield atmosphere to guide them to three points.

Liverpool 3 Burnley 1

Other Predictions (Home Team in Bold):

Swansea 2 Hull 0

Bournemouth 1 West Ham 1

 

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Is Wenger’s Arsenal Exit Imminent?

Turbulent 2017

At the beginning of the season, it seemed very difficult to believe that Arsenal fans would be calling for manager Arsene Wenger’s head this season. Following a lackluster start start to 2017, the Frenchman’s future at the club is very much in question.

Following a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool on the weekend, the Gunners were thrashed again by Bayern Munich 5-1 knocking them out of the Champions League. Before Tuesday’s match vs Bayern, fans brought signs to the Emirates stadium which read “Wenger out”. After all of the success he has had at the club, could Arsene Wenger really be sacked?

Bayern Munich embarrassed Arsenal 10-2 on aggregate in their Champions League tie.

Well yes, but its very unlikely. Wenger’s contract expires at the end of the season and there are already rumors of him leaving in the summer. It wouldn’t make sense for Arsenal to sack him mid-season as it would shake the club up even more. Arsenal are out of the title race and European competition. With not much to play for, a sacking of a club legend surely wouldn’t be worth the media backlash.

Wait Until Summer?

Another factor at play is Wenger’s influence on Arsenal’s top players. A respected manager, Wenger helped draw Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to Arsenal despite both players enjoying massive success at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.

Wenger leaving would almost certainly mean the end of Sanchez’s time with the Gunners. The Chilean winger has been rumored to be unsettled and linked with clubs such as Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. Ozil could also be tempted by a move as he has been somewhat of a scapegoat at Arsenal this season.

Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez could potentially follow their manager out of Arsenal this summer.

While the current results are not acceptable for a club like Arsenal, would a change necessarily improve thing? Wenger is arguably the greatest figure in club history and his departure would be comparable to Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United in 2013.

Four years later and United are still not the same side they were. It definitely heeds a warning to Arsenal who would almost certainly lose Sanchez and/or Ozil if Wenger leaves in the summer.

It is a difficult decision that may become clearer at the end of the season. However, at the moment, Arsenal are not performing up to standard. But a managerial change would start a rebuilding process they may not want to endure.

 

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Everton are Well on Their Way to the Next Level

Since Tottenham broke into the Champions League in 2010, there have been a consensus top six teams of the Premier League. Liverpool’s Merseyside neighbor, Everton has long been seen as seventh best or “best of the rest” in England.

However, the Toffees have shown a recent commitment to reaching the same level of the top six. The hiring of promising Southampton manager Ronald Koeman in the summer helped Everton sign key players and promising prospects. As is custom, it took time for Koeman to make his mark at Goodison Park. Everton have not lost in the league since Dec. 19 on a last minute goal by Sadio Mane. Currently seventh, if they continue this form they could challenge for top four as there are only six points separating them from fourth place Arsenal.

The Manager

Koeman starred as a player in the 1980’s for Ajax, PSV, and Barcelona as well as for the Dutch National Team. After retiring he had many managerial jobs in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. He was hired by Southampton in 2014, bringing in and mentoring several youth players such as Sadio Mane, Nathaniel Clyne, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Virgil Van Dijk.

Ronald Koeman took Southampton from Premier League newcomers to European football and he is working his magic at Everton as well.

Koeman’s reputation for working well with young players gained Everton’s attention and he has already featured several promising young players. If Koeman continues to produce solid young talent, more and more highly sought after players may take their talents to Goodison Park to play for the 53 year old Dutchman.

The Squad

Everton’s squad under Koeman is young and full of potential. The attack is headlined by 23 year old star striker Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku’s seventeen league goals is tied for tops in the Prem. Often assisting Lukaku on his goals is fellow 23 year old Ross Barkley. Barkley broke onto the scene last season with eight goals and eight assists. He also was selected for England’s Euro 2016 squad this last summer.

Romelu Lukaku is joint top goalscorer in the Premier League this season.

Defensively, two summer signings have been the backbone for Everton. Midfielder Idrissa Gueye was signed from relegated Aston Villa and leads the league in tackles. Ashley Williams was also bought this summer from Swansea. The wily veteran has been a rock at the back and played a key role as captain of Wales in their semifinal Euro run. Goalkeeper Joel Robles has also stepped up this season, posting the third best match rating on the team per WhoScored.com.

The youth talent is also abundant at Everton. 20 year old defender Mason Holgate and 18 year old midfielder are academy products who have shined when played by Koeman this season. 19 year old striker Ademola Lookman, bought in January, scored on his Premier League debut against Manchester City.

With all of this youth potential in the side and a good eye for talent on the transfer market , Koeman’s successes in the past imply that he is the man to lift Everton to the next level and start competing for a Champions League spot.

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Leicester’s Sacking of Claudio Ranieri is Ludicrous and Shameful

Thursday night, Leicester City shocked the world by announcing they were parting ways with manager Claudio Ranieri just nine months after winning the Premier League title. A man who just led the club to arguably the greatest underdog triumph in all of sports is being shown the door.

The club is making a huge mistake by not trusting the man who steered them to greatness before. In the middle of one of the craziest times of the club’s history, an ill-advised managerial change is not what the club needed.

Leicester City are undergoing a managerial change just nine months after winning the Premier League.

Leicester currently sit seventeenth in the Premier League table, just one spot ahead of the relegation as the final quarter of the season approaches. It has been frustrating for the Foxes as the attack has failed to score (they have not scored in the Premier League in 2017), and the defense has looked old and tired at times.

Last seasons superstars Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy have been poor and the team miss midfielder N’Golo Kante, who moved to Chelsea in the summer. All of these factors have contributed to Leicester’s struggles, so it is unreasonable to blame all the bad on Ranieri.

Ranieri’s last game in charge was Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie. Sevilla is a very difficult place to play and Leicester were able to grab a critical away goal.

All things considered, to make it to this stage of the tournament is a feat in its own right. To fire Ranieri in between the two fixtures against Sevilla gives the Foxes little time to prepare for the next leg under their new manager.

Ranieri gained a lot of knowledge about Sevilla during Wednesday’s game and would have been able to implement it in the second leg. Leicester looked significantly better after some half time adjustments in Sevilla on Wednesday. The new manager will not have this knowledge and Leicester will suffer because of it.

Then there is the moral aspect of it, firing the man who brought successes to the club that Leicester ownership and fans could have never dreamed of. Where is the loyalty? This man has brought the club to greatness before and they don’t trust him in their darkest hour. The firing is shameful for the entire LCFC organization for betraying a loyal servant of the club.

Leicester are wrong here both from a business standpoint and a moral one. This massive mistake may prove to cost them a spot in the Premier League.

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Can Guardiola Make the Difference for Manchester City?

Building on Last Year

Manchester City’s run in the Champions League last year was halted by Cristiano Ronaldo & Real Madrid.

 As Manchester City prepare for another run in the knockout stages of the Champions League, the burning question is whether or not the addition of decorated manager Pep Guardiola can push City over the top and into the winner’s circle. Last season, Manuel Pellegrini led City to the semifinals, the furthest they have ever gone in the competition. Guardiola, who won the tournament twice while managing Barcelona in addition to several deep runs in the tournament, knows how to organize his players on the main stage.

While very talented, Manchester City do not have the quality of European giants such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Striker Sergio Aguero and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne are world class and City have very talented youth. However, if the Champions League trophy makes it’s way to Manchester this season, it will be a result of Guardiola’s tactical genius and his ability to outsmart opposing managers.

No Easy Path

 

Monaco has scored more goals than any other club in Europe’s top five leagues this season.

City’s first test starts this week against French Ligue 1 leaders Monaco. Monaco boast an amazing 76 goals in 26 league games this season and have reignited the career of former Chelsea and Man Utd striker Radamel Falcao. The club from the south coast of France also fields several young talents, many of whom have been linked to major European clubs. Midfielders Thomas Lemar and Fabinho both feature on WhoScored.com’s Ligue XI of the year.

The key for Guardiola and Co. against Monaco is to control the tempo and not get bitten on the counter attack. Monaco don’t play possession, instead the strike quickly and decisively once they gain possession. Manchester City’s questionable defense will be tested and young John Stones will need to step up against the quick strike ability of Monaco. Yaya Toure is another player to watch as he needs to be careful not to get caught creeping to far forward in the midfield.

If Manchester City are precise with the ball and avoid mistakes, they should have enough control of the tempo to get by Monaco, but it isn’t easy to stay mistake free for ninety minutes, and Monaco will certainly put them to the test.

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First to Worst? Who is Leicester’s Competition in Relegation Battle?

As Chelsea has maintained its stronghold atop the Premier League table, the excitement has been at the bottom. A fascinating and close relegation battle features six teams within four points of the bottom three. Among those teams are the defending champions Leicester City who have endured a miserable campaign thus far. The Foxes sit in seventeenth place just one spot above the relegation zone. The Foxes face a variety of different sides in their battle to stay up.

15. Swansea City (24 pts)

After two managers and a miserable start to the season that saw them sitting in last for the majority of the first half of the season, Frenchman Paul Clement has turned the side around. With three wins in six league games, the Swans’ current form could see them to safety sooner than later.

Midseason hire Paul Clement has ignited Swansea and taken them out of the relegation zone.

Icelandic international Gylfi Sigurdsson is a class above everyone else on the team. Eight goals and eight assists show how much of a spark he gives to the attack. The aerial prowess of summer signing Fernando Llorente has also given Swansea a threat in the box. If Clement continues to coach inspired football, then Swansea could very well make their great escape.

16. Middlesborough (22 pts)

‘Borough’s four wins in the league this season is bottom in the Premier League. That pretty much sums of the season for the side as Middlesborough have consistently played defensive ‘park the bus” football in hopes of salvaging draws.

Their biggest problem is an inconsistent and uninspiring attack. 31 year old striker Alvaro Negredo is a poacher and has bagged six goals this season but the side lack creativity apart from inconsistent winger Adama Traore. Defensively, Middlesborough got a bargain when they signed goalkeeper Victor Valdes on the cheap. Valdes and a stout backline have kept Middlesborough in a lot of games this year and will need to continue to do so if they want to avoid relegation.

17. Leicester City (21 pts)

18. Hull City (20 pts)

The newly promoted Tigers started off the season well by stunning the reigning champs on opening day. Unfortunately for Hull, its been a bumpy ride then. As is the case with other newly promoted sides, Hull have endured major attacking struggles. Perhaps their best goalscorer Robert Snodgrass departed for West Ham in January. The second lowest scoring in the side needs to change that if they want to stay up.

The one positive for Hull is that two January signings have looked solid in defender Andrea Ranocchia and winger Lazar Markovic, formerly of Liverpool. It remains to be seen if the new signings can save the Tigers from relegation.

19. Crystal Palace (19 pts)

Apart from Leicester, Palace are probably the most surprising name on this list. With talented attacking players such as striker Christian Benteke and winger Wilfried Zaha and new goalkeeper Steve Mandanada, many fancied them to challenge for a Europa League spot.

Like Leicester, Wilfried Zaha (above) and Crystal Palace have underwhelmed this season.

However after several dull performances under former manager Alan Pardew, Palace are still struggling to put it all together under new manager Sam Allardyce. Big Sam has performed miracles to avoid relegation before but he will need to better utilize his players strengths. Still only a few months into his tenure at Selhurst Park, Allardyce is learning. But if Palace fans hope to stay up, adjustments must be made and they better hope Allardyce is a fast learner.

20. Sunderland (19 pts)

The only team below Crystal Palace is Big Sam’s former club, Sunderland. The Black Cats have been a one man show starring striker Jermain Defoe this season. The 34 year old Englishman is having a phenomenal season single-handedly carrying Sunderland’s attack. Having scored 14 of his sides’ 24 league goals, it isn’t hard to see why Sunderland did everything they could to keep him in January.

David Moyes has quite the job on his hand if he hopes to save Sunderland due to lack of funds. The inability to make purchases in January hindered Moyes’ plans for the club. He will need to improvise and get help from key players such as Defoe and center back Lamine Kone if Sunderland have any chance of saving themselves.

 

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Can Arsenal Break Round of 16 Curse?

As the match-ups for the Round of 16 were announced in December, Arsenal fans saw a picture that is all too familiar for them. Six consecutive seasons and six consecutive exits in the Round of 16 have shown Arsenal’s consistency, but also their underwhelming tendencies on the big stage.

The opponent this season is Bayern Munich. The Bavarian giants have twice been responsible for the Gunners’ early exits in recent years. This season, it will once again be a tall task to get by. Arsene Wenger will return to the touchline for Wednesday’s first leg and Munich and that is some rare good news for the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger will hope to end a run of six consecutive Round of 16 exits for the Gunners.

Midfielder Mesut Ozil will need to be in top form if Arsenal are going to keep up with Bayern’s scoring prowess. Ozil is one of the few players on Wenger’s squad who’s talent is equal to his Bayern opponents. It will be paramount for Ozil and Prem top scorer Alexis Sanchez to show up. Defensively, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi are a quality centre back pairing, but they don’t face strikers the quality of Robert Lewandowski week in and week out in England. For Wenger and Co. it will be important to keep themselves in the tie on Wednesday so they have a shot when these two sides meet again at the Emirates in March.

Bayern are yet to recapture the magic they had in 2013, winning the tournament over arch rivals Borussia Dortmund. Carlo Ancelotti’s first season with the club has seen the look underwhelming at times in the Bundesliga. Nevertheless, the former Madrid manager has Bayern seven points atop the table and his European successes make him a dangerous opponent in this tournament.

Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski will be a handful for the Arsenal defense.

Lewandowski has as strong a case as any for world’s best striker. With him and an attack that also includes Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller and Douglas Costa among others, Bayern are always a threat to put up goals. And defensively, Sanchez and Co. will have their hands full on the attack against arguably the best back four in the tournament, and the world’s best goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. Many would say Bayern have the most complete side in the world and that is why they are among the favorites to lift the trophy in Cardiff this spring.

If Bayern avoid mistakes and play to the level we have accustomed them to playing, it will take something pretty special from Arsenal to advance. A good result on Wednesday could shift momentum in the Gunners’ favor, but they are clearly over-matched here. Arsenal do not have the talent at fullback and on the wing to compete with Bayern’s outside talent and that will turn out to be the Gunners downfall in a seventh consecutive Round of 16 exit.

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