Zlatan Ibrahimovic

New kids on Champions League block: Paris Saint-Germain

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You may tell me that the “new boss” is same as the “old boss,” and I get it.

But I will tell you, “At least it’s something new and different.”

I like a little novelty and diversity, a.k.a. “something different,” when it comes to the luminaries of the global game. Nothing against the old gaurd, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, etc. … but I enjoy when a Manchester City busts up the established hierarchy of European soccer.

That’s why I’m excited to see how Paris Saint-Germain can manage its newly acquired wealth. Ligue 1 play is under way and PSG is holding its own. (Not spectacularly at 2-0-3, but doing OK for now.)

But this is the big show, Champions League. It starts today as Dynamo Kiev travels west to Parc des Princes for a Group A clash.  Pricey striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the building blocks on the high-finance reconstruction effort around the regal ground in southwest Paris. (The facility is regal, that is, although certainly not the surrounding neighborhood.)

Ibrahimovic says PSG has the stuff to make a dent in the world’s top club tourney:

This will be a great experience for the club, for the players and of course the supporters. …It is a great tournament, the greatest. I have played it every year but I have never won it. We have the quality, the potential. Every competition I play in, I want to win it.”  

PST and the ultimate Leicester City roundtable: How did we get here?

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 24:  during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at the King Power Stadium on April 24, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
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No one’s catching the Foxes, and their story hasn’t ruined anything about this special Premier League campaign (aside from the dreams of Spurs and Arsenal fans).

Leicester City’s run often gets the label of “fairytale” thanks to its marvelous manager and a trio of afterthought superstars in N'Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

[ EUROPA: Villarreal 1-0 Liverpool | Shakhtar 2-2 Sevilla ]

Barring the most ridiculous finish in ages, one more absurd than the Foxes’ run to get here, Leicester will be the Premier League champions. From Ted Lasso quip to the UEFA Champions League… what is going on here?

PST’s staff discusses.


Nick Mendola: Obviously this Leicester City run is very difficult to describe and even harder to put in perspective. So let’s start here: What is your favorite thing about this remarkable Foxes season?

Joe Prince-Wright: My favorite thing about this season has to be seeing the looks on the faces of Leicester’s fans. Having been at the KP and in and around the city on a match day, it is electric. Everyone is smiling, the team has given them so much joy and to me, that’s what sport and football is about. The fans. The atmosphere they generate leaves the stadium shaking, mini earthquakes have been recorded nearby and the players have all responded to the incredible support.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: A beer called 'Vardy's Volley' on sale in a city center pub. General views in and around Leicester on April 26, 2016 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

[ PL DOWNLOAD: The Leicester City story ]

Although it’s been wonderful to see the gentleman that is Claudio Ranieri work his magic with a squad many had pegged for relegation at the start of the season, seeing the overjoyed reaction of Leicester fans young and old has been my favorite thing. You can tell they are in dreamland.

Kyle Bonn: I can’t get enough of Claudio. Let’s not kid ourselves, Leicester has been the beneficiary of a cannibalistic league season and a spotless bill of health (which can’t be understated). But the way Ranieri has brought a band of professional athletes together to fight for one another is unparalleled in this profession. Jose Mourinho was often hailed as an expert in manipulating the media to his benefit. Ranieri instead has proven a mastermind in player psychology. His tactics have also been world-class this season, but seeing him bring this squad together through plenty of adversity is marvelous.

[ EUROPA FALLOUT: Klopp reacts | No Sturridge? ]

NM: I’ve stopped worrying about the American sports equivalent of Leicester, because salary caps sure stop the comparison from being interesting at all. But I do wonder who is the U.S. sports version of Claudio Ranieri, N’Golo Kante, and Jamie Vardy? Which coach over here could say some of the things Ranieri did — think “Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong” — and not be laughed out of the room as “not serious enough”? Culture clash, sure, but this guy is a special breed.

Leicester City's Claudio Ranieri takes to the touchline before his team's English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Saturday Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
(AP Photo/Jon Super)

Matt Reed: I think it’s interesting how people have tried to compare Leicester’s improbable run to other sports, but realistically I love their story because we’ve never seen a Leicester before. You’re talking about a team that has only two multi-goal losses all season. Even in what some may consider a down season in the PL, that is still something to tip your hat to. Then, there’s obviously the players. You have guys like Christian Fuchs, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who all wear their heart on their sleeve and you can truly see their raw emotions when they play. What’s not to like about this team?

NM: The thing about a new ‘power’ is that there isn’t a lot of real emotional tumult when they win, especially when you consider that rivals in Nottingham Forest and Derby County aren’t even in the Premier League. And the marvelous thing for other teams’ supporters, aside from Arsenal and Spurs, is that they can take this sort of pride in Leicester’s story like, “My club didn’t win this year, but a mostly inoffensive side has done it! Take that, other teams I hate.”
And aside from some referee’s decisions and Jamie Vardy’s unfortunate casino incident, there’s such little controversy.
KB: Well, Claudio Ranieri reminds me a lot of Lon Kruger. Maybe not with some of the funny stuff he says, because Kruger isn’t known for that, but think about it. Lon is a player’s coach who is loved by every fan base he’s touched. He’s come close to championships (2 Final Fours, 1 Elite 8) but has never won one. And he’s always wearing a smile. They’re very similar to me. I hope Lon wins a title someday because he deserves it, and Ranieri deserves this one this year.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri congratulates Daniel Drinkwater, right, and Ngolo Kante, left, after the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Newcastle United at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Monday, March 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

As far as the players, it’s hard to say. Kurt Warner comes to mind when thinking of Vardy’s improbable rise, but their personalities don’t really line up. Kante can be likened to a guy like Howard Griffith. A 9th round draft pick, Griffith ended up as a bruiser out of the backfield, a guy who wasn’t a big name given that he was lining up behind future Hall of Famer John Elway and lead blocking for Broncos superstar Terrell Davis, but he was a crucial part of that offense in the trenches and ended up scoring 2 touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXII, one of 2 Super Bowls he’d win.

KB: I have a question for everyone that I also think makes for a fascinating topic:
Will Leicester have staying power at the top of the league, or will they suffer a quick demise?
I hate that I’m saying this, but I think their time at the top is short-lived. Countless teams new to the top have found the fixture congestion with European play impossible to navigate, and Leicester’s bill of health this season was practically unparalleled. Nobody got hurt. There’s no way their fortune remains that high through next year. Depth is nearly impossible for many smaller clubs to attain, so I think they may be doomed. I hope I’m wrong.
MR: I think you bring up a great point, Kyle. I’ve been asking myself this all season long, and I think this also plays into how special their season is. They could very well be a one hit wonder considering the coaching additions of Conte and Guardiola at Chelsea and City. You’d imagine there will be retooling jobs with Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool as well.
WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Jamie Vardy of Leicester City (R) with Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City (L) celebrates scoring the third goal with team mates during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City at The Hawthorns on April 11, 2015 in West Bromwich, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
In most cases, outside of Messi and Ronaldo, one or two players don’t make a team but in Leicester’s case I think Vardy and Mahrez do. You can throw Kante in there as well. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to keep all these guys, but if they don’t this has been one heck of a ride.

JPW: I was with you on this theory for quite some time, Kyle. And although I don’t think Leicester will repeat this season or even finish in the top four again… I think they have the financial muscle of their Thai-based owners to really go out and spend big and potentially make it out of the UCL group stage next season. After all, with the way the tournament seeds are now picked, Leicester will be a top seed. In theory, they should make it to the last 16. Should be some memorable European nights at the KP.

The biggest concern is adding too many players this summer. They have to get the balance right. Throwing this out there to the group: what if they sold Mahrez, Kante and Vardy this summer? How disappointing would that be? Or is that the harsh reality of the big boys having more cash? For me, I can’t understand why they’d pass up the opportunity to see this through and stay one more season to play in the Champions League with Leicester. I know money talks… But come on!

NM: There are similarities to a sophomore slump in other sports here. On top of Leicester’s issues dealing with the European schedule, the Foxes also have to negotiate the opposition spending all summer learning what worked best against them.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02: Ngolo Kante of Leicester City and Roberto Firmino of Liverpool compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 2, 2016 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Kante is their MVP, and he’s going to fetch Leicester a load of dough. I have concerns whether he can go at his breakneck pace and physical play without facing injury woes (long-term). They should cash in on a 29-year-old Vardy to be honest and do whatever they can to hold onto Mahrez. Then find someone to slot in next to Drinkwater — maybe Idrissa Gueye, who’s been massively overlooked because Aston Villa has been a trash tornado — and find a pair of hard-working strikers to help adapt and stay in the top half.

It will be very difficult, but it won’t be hard for the club to stay in the mix for European qualification. In a way, though, that makes the story even better. This is a perfect storm, a force of nature, not a manufactured storm like Blackburn in the mid-1990s.

Kyle Lynch: I think you also have to remember how poor the rest of the league was this season. Teams dropped a lot of points you wouldn’t expect, and it’s hard to imagine things don’t shift a little bit back to “normal” next year.

With the money coming in this summer, you know the top teams are going to spend big, and Leicester shouldn’t be afraid to either. But what makes Leicester so great is their spirit and togetherness as a team, so the ownership has to be careful not to disrupt that. With Champions League matches and the uncertainty of injuries, I don’t know if they’ll be playing in Europe for more than one season.

NM: The rub on Kyle’s point here has two big points.

1) Leicester will need to start well and pile up points before the Champions League group stage begins, and they’ll likely have to do it while integrating new players. It’s easy to forget that the Foxes didn’t find their true title form until Ranieri found Kante’s spot on the pitch (He started on the left, and also played a bit more advance before settling alongside Drinkwater).

during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Southampton at Goodison Park on April 16, 2016 in Liverpool, England.

2) It’s not just the big boys seeing that influx of money. Clubs like Swansea, Stoke, Southampton and Everton all have zero reason not to spend more than their usual. That’s also why being one of the 20 clubs in the league next season is so critical for all the Championship promotion chasers, and the three teams hoping to avoid one of the final two relegation spot.

But now we’re talking way too much about the future. The title’s not even clinched yet! What a year… and what could still remain in the Leicester City tale?

Pochettino verbally agrees new Tottenham contract

Tottenham's manager Mauricio Pochettino celebrates at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur's at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Tottenham won 2-1. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Mauricio Pochettino will be sticking around at Tottenham Hotspur for a while longer.

Spurs fans, rejoice.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ]

Pochettino, 44, confirmed in his press conference on Friday that this week he has verbally agreed a two-year extension to his current deal with Spurs after holding talks with chairman Daniel Levy over the past few months.

The Argentine boss has been linked with a move to Manchester United, Chelsea and most recently Paris Saint-Germain — the former PSG defender admitted he dreams of managing them one day — but has said he will sit down in the coming days to sign the deal with Levy.

“I can say now that we reached a verbal agreement with the club to extend my contract here for two years more,” Pochettino said. “From now until 2021, I extend my contract with the club. We don’t sign yet but we have reached the verbal agreement to stay here for the next five years.

“It’s an easy decision,” Pochettino added. “When you are happy and when you feel the love of the people and the potential of the club is massive. Why change? We create a good atmosphere on the training ground and I think we can achieve big things in the future. I believe in this project and this club. I want to stay here.”

Those comments will put Spurs fans at ease and will see Pochettino locked in at White Hart Lane until 2021.

[ MORE: Wenger hits back at critics ]

In just his second season in charge the former Espanyol and Southampton manager has led Spurs from a fifth-place finish last season to second in 2015-16 and they are still battling for the title as they head into the final three games of the campaign. The head to Chelsea on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) as they hope to take full advantage of any slip up by Leicester City on Sunday. 

Tottenham’s progression under Pochettino has been clear with the north London side fielding the fifth youngest team, on average, in Europe and the youngest in the PL.

Players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier have risen to prominence under Pochettino and news of this agreement over a new deal will be music to the ears of Tottenham’s fans.

There’s the sense that even of Spurs don’t manage to launch an incredible comeback (and Leicester falter) to win the title this season, they’ll be set up for success in the foreseeable future as long as Pochettino is around.

How will USMNT line up for Copa America opener?

PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD & TOBAGO - NOVEMBER 17: USA's national soccer team poses for a team photo during a World Cup Qualifier between Trinidad and Tobago and USA as part of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers for Russia 2018 at Hasely Crawford Stadium on November 17, 2015 in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. From Left to Right #13 Jermaine Jones; #5 Matt Beasler; #9 Gyasi Zardes; #12 Tim Howard; # 4 Michael Bradley; #20 Geoff Cameron; #3 Tim Ream; #2 DeAndre Yedlin; #16 Michael Orozco; # 23 Fabian Johnson; #17 Jozy Altidore (Photo by Ashley Allen Getty Images)
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It is a huge summer for the U.S. national team and Jurgen Klinsmann.

[ MORE: Cameron talks to JPW ]

The host nation of the massive Copa America Centenario tournament, the USMNT will be expected to get out of a very tough group and make a splash among CONCACAF and CONMEBOL’s elite.

That’s not easy.

[ MORE: Howard on MLS return

With that in mind, though, there’s exactly five weeks to go until the U.S. plays Colombia in Santa Clara in their Group A opener which also opens the tournament.

How will the USMNT line up?

Below is my best starting XI. Let me know yours in the comments section below.


JPW’s best XI for USA vs. Colombia, June 3 2016

—– Howard —–

— Yedlin — Cameron — Birnbaum — Johnson —

— Bradley — Jones —

— Bedoya — Dempsey — Pulisic —

—– Altidore —–

Observations

In goal, it’s a pretty straightforward battle between Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. Sure, Howard hasn’t been playing regularly for Everton but he should start ahead of Guzan with the U.S. certain to be under plenty of pressure from Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay in Group A.

In defense, now that Klinsmann seems to want to play people in their strongest positions then it should be DeAndre Yedlin at right back, Geoff Cameron at center back and Steve Birnbaum alongside Cameron. Yes, the D.C. United defender is a relative rookie at national team level but he and Cameron struck up a good partnership in central defense against Guatemala and at this point I think you have to play whoever Cameron is most comfortable with in that partnership. John Brooks, Matt Miazga and Matt Besler will likely be around too. The problem area seems to be left back.

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29: Geoff Cameron #20 of the United States Men's National Team celebrates his first half goal against Guatemala with Graham Zusi #19 of the United States Men's National Team and Clint Dempsey #8 of the United States Men's National Team during the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

I’ve chucked Fabian Johnson in at left back because the U.S. now has a wealth of options in midfield ahead of him. Tim Ream or Edgar Castillo are better defensively but Johnson adds more going forward and I think the U.S. is stronger with him at left back. Also, Brek Shea should get in the squad as he’s impressed since returning for Orlando City. He can operate down the left flank or in any of the attacking positions. It pays to be versatile in the U.S. setup.

In midfield, Jermaine Jones has been flying since he joined Colorado Rapids and although long-term he won’t be around, for this summer he will be in the Copa America squad. He is one of Klinsmann’s mainstays and during the 2014 World Cup he showed he can do it on the big stage when it really matters. Alongside Jones will be Bradley in a defensive two, while the three above them are Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey and the wildcard, Christian Pulisic.

In a 4-2-3-1 formation, Bradley and Jones will sit to cover the spaces when the three ahead of the bomb forward in support of the lone front man, Jozy Altidore. With Yedlin and Johnson both eager to get forward, they’ll have to be a little more disciplined and choose when they foray into the opponents half. That said, both Pulisic and Bedoya know their defensive duties and will help out. As for Pulisic, he is 17 and on top of the world after becoming a regular for Borussia Dortmund and making his U.S. debut in the past few months. Let him express himself this summer and see what he’s made of.

Dortmund's Christian Pulisic, left, celebrates with Felix Passlack, right, after scoring the opening goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and Hamburger SV in Dortmund, Germany, Sunday, April 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Up top I’ve gone with Jozy Altidore but Bobby Wood can count himself unlucky and even Gyasi Zardes who I still believe is much better through the middle than out wide. It is a big summer for Altidore to prove he can still lead the line for the USMNT. I believe Klinsmann’s best XI is among the best the U.S. has ever had. It is right up there, quality wise with players playing in the Bundesliga, Premier League and Ligue 1 week in, week out plus MLS stars. However, it’s all about getting that balance right and sticking with the same team to build continuity. Can they do that this summer and make a deep run in the Copa America Centenario?

What do you guys think of the formation and players selected above?

Wenger slams criticism of Arsenal’s players ahead of fan protests

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Arsene Wenger is not a happy man.

I know, I know, tell us something we don’t know.

[ MORE: Alli suspended 3 games ]

However, the 66-year-old Gunners boss has taken exception to widespread criticism of his players ahead of fan protests against him which are planned for this Saturday’s game against Norwich (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra) at the Emirates Stadium.

Speaking to the media on Friday, Wenger stood up for his players who are having their commitment questioned.

“I tell you, this team has character and attitude. Some people who question them, I know them well – they have less character than this team has. I saw them play, and even know them very closely, and they should not question the character of these players,” Wenger said. “There are some groups of people that try to manipulate our fans, but I believe apart from a personal agenda and a big ego there’s not a lot behind [the criticism].”

Okay then…

[ MORE: Wenger has a message for Arsenal’s fans ]

With empty seats galore at the Emirates last Thursday during the 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, Wenger had been dealing with growing fan unrest throughout this season.

Although Wenger urged fans of Arsenal to support the players on Saturday against Norwich he did admit he shares their frustration about limping out of the title race this season, of all seasons.

“I can understand the frustration,” Wenger said. “No one is more frustrated than me, but our disappointment has not to go too far. When a club cannot enjoy anything any more, it is in trouble, and we have to not forget that in football you go down very quickly and you come up very slowly.”

Arsenal looked certain to be making a title charge in February after they beat Leicester City late on but since that huge victory they’ve won just three of their last nine Premier League games, plus lost in the FA Cup to Watford and were knocked out of the UEFA Champions League by Barcelona at the Round of 16.

After two decades of Wenger in charge and no PL title in 12 years, Arsenal’s fans want more. They want trophies and success.

They also want answers from Wenger and as the protests on Saturday will show, the vast majority also want a new manager.