Finalists Toluca, Tijuana hope surprise Liga MX campaigns end with title

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Club Tijuana made life difficult on themselves, bringing a 2-0 deficit to León back to Estadio Caliente ahead of Sunday’s final leg of their Liga MX semifinal. Thankfully for the league’s Cinderella story — a fairy tale that’s evolved over the last two years — it only took 68 minutes for Fidel Martínez and Dubier Riascos to put them back on course. When substitute Ricard Ruiz put the tie out of reach with a late goal, Tijuana was in their first Primera Division final.

The weight of the occasion wasn’t lost on Xolos.

“It’s really a great feeling for the group,” striker Alfredo Moreno said after the game. “We wanted it. We wanted to be in the final, and it showed in the game. We’re very happy.”

“[T]hey played a superior match from beginning to end,” head coach Antonio Mohamed said of his players. “[It] was 3-0, but it would have been five or six.”

The only misgiving for fans of the league was seeing the league’s northern-most club, in only their third tournament since being promoted last summer, had to go through another recently elevated squad to make the final. León, the five-time league champions who had spent 10 years in the second division moving up this summer, saw their Cinderella story end within sight of the border.

That they, along with Tijuana, spent the season at the top of the table made the Apertura as an indictment of Mexico’s promotion-relegation policies. Each summer, only one team is promoted into the 18-team first division, and since the Ascenso uses a spring playoff to decide the new Liga MX club, there’s no guaranteed that the best team will move up. Club León had to go through five failed playoffs before winning their return to the Primera, and the team that won this season’s second division Apertura (Necaxa, by seven points), was eliminated Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s Dorado in that Liguilla’s semifinals.

Had Tijuana met León in the Primera’s final, it would have been vindication for all the second division clubs struggling to make it through Mexico’s bottleneck. Instead Toluca, the qualification stage champions, made it though, holding off a ferocious América comeback on Sunday to win 3-2, reaffirmed the surprise nature of this season’s opening tournament.

In recent seasons, the Apertura has been the more difficult to Mexico’s two tournaments, and in that sense, it’s also been more predictable. Teams at full strength coming off of a summer’s rebuilding came concentrate on the domestic competition. Come the Clausura, teams will devote attentions to CONCACAF’s Champions League and Copa Libertadores, often merely trying to survive the qualification stage with the hopes of being able to concentrate on the Liguilla. Monterrey, two-time defending confederation champions, have won two of the last three Aperturas but, as they’ve driven toward their CONCACAF titles, have been unable to win a Clausura.

That Toluca, who had not been a factor since Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre was in charge, finished first was a surprise, albeit one fans had 17 rounds to get used to. Under Chepo, Toluca won two titles from 2008-2010 before losing their coach to Mexican national team. De la Torre’s successors — Sergio Lugo, Héctor Eugui, and Wilson Graniolatti — had failed to return Toluca to the postseason, let alone significance. Though the Diablos Rojos have won 10 league titles, few thought they’d get their chance at a record-tying 11th this soon.

It took another of Liga MX’s most renown coaches, Enrique Meza, to get the Red Devils back on track. In two previous spells with Toluca, Meza won three of his four career titles. More recently, Meza spent six tournaments at Cruz Azul but failed to make a final, something he achieved in his first tournament back in Toluca.

“I do not play, I just run the team,” Meza said, asked if his experience will be an advantage against Tijuana after his team eliminated América.

His team, however, retains 10 players who won at least one title under de la Torre. Sinha, the team’s captain, has been with the club since Meza’s first tenure in Toluca. And let’s not forget those 10 titles. While both finalists qualify as surprises, one team has certainly been here before. Tijuana still carries the aura of upstarts.

Come Sunday, that upstarts’ aura could be gone. Then, Xolos will be at Toluca, having hosted the Red Devils in Thursday’s first leg at Estadio Caliente. If they show the same focus that brought them back from two down to León, Mexico will have a new, first-time Champion. If not, Toluca will tie Chivas for the most titles in Mexican history.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 35

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The Premier League games continue to come thick and fast with 10 matches on the slate this weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

West Brom 2-0 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Man United 2-0 Swansea City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-3 Man City – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM

Crystal Palace 3-1 Burnley – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Stoke City 2-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal – (Sunday, 11:30 am. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Sunderland 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM

Southampton 2-1 Hull City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Watford 2-1 Liverpool – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Everton 2-1 Chelsea – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Zidane says people should stop Le Pen in French election

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PARIS (AP) Former France great Zinedine Zidane says people should do anything they can to avoid having Marine Le Pen win the presidency.

Referring to Le Pen’s far-right party, the Real Madrid coach says he is “far from all these ideas, from this National Front. So we need to do everything to avoid this.”

[ MORE: JPW’s PL picks ]

Zidane, who was born in Marseille and comes from Algerian descent, took a similar stance when Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine’s father – made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

A former World Cup and European Championship winner, Zidane remains highly popular in France. He says the message “is the same, the one from 2002.”

Le Pen faces centrist Emmanuel Macron in the presidential runoff on May 7.

Conte aims to formalize UCL spot, find long-awaited clean sheet

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Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea is a point away from clinching a place in the UEFA Champions League, an academic number but one which will mark a return to Europe for the Blues.

Chelsea’s manager is pleased to stand on the precipice of this preseason goal (Watch Everton-Chelsea at 9:05 a.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com), though he’s certainly more interested in nailing down a Premier League title in his first crack at English football.

[ MORE: Verratti to Barcelona? ]

Conte, 47, notes the achievement will feel especially good given the strength and depth of the Premier League’s top-end clubs, though the short-term is also on his mind. From the BBC:

“Obviously, with six teams between Chelsea, Tottenham, City, Arsenal, United, Liverpool, two strong teams won’t play next season in the Champions League.”

“It’s 11 games that we are not able to keep a clean sheet and, for this reason, it’s important to improve, to work on the situations we’re conceding the goals. I’m not concerned about this, but at the same time, we are working on it.”

Everton is one of six clubs to score 60 or more goals this season, led by former Chelsea player Romelu Lukaku. If Conte adds another a clean sheet to his resume, it will be a second-successive blanking of Everton in the PL. Quite an achievement.

Full Premier League schedule – Week 35

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We are entering the climax of the 2016-17 Premier League season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Kicking things off on Saturday Southampton host Hull City (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at St Mary’s with the visitors desperate for another big win to stay out of the relegation zone.

At the some time Sunderland host Bournemouth (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) and a defeat for the Black Cats could well confirm their relegation. Saturday ends with Crystal Palace hosting Burnley (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) at Selhurst Park with Sam Allardyce‘s side aiming to recover from a late defeat to Tottenham, while Burnley is still in search of its first away win of the season.

Sunday is another busy day as Manchester United host Swansea (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to kick things off with Jose Mourinho’s men aiming to go 25 games unbeaten and the Swans battling for their lives as they occupy the final relegation spot. Then comes a huge game at Goodison Park: in-form Everton hosting Chelsea (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Antonio Conte‘s men can stretch their lead atop the PL table to seven points once again but Everton have lost just once at home all season.

Then comes a huge game at White Hart Lane as Tottenham host Arsenal in the North London Derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with a win for Spurs guaranteeing that they’ll finish above Arsenal for the first time in 21 years. With Spurs’ title hopes still alive and the Gunners battling for the top four, this should be a classic NLD.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

On Monday the week finishes with Watford welcoming Liverpool (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to Vicarage Road. Jurgen Klopp‘s men are feeling the pressure in third place in the table as Manchester United and Manchester City hunt them down.

The full TV schedule for this weekend is below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
10 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. West Ham – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Leicester City – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Burnley — NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. Manchester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Tottenham vs. Arsenal – NBCSN [STREAM]

Monday
3 p.m. ET: Watford vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]