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Beñat Etxebarria: Coming to a Premier League club near you

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If you follow La Liga closely, then you already know – Beñat Etxebarria is a special player.

Currently pulling the strings for 7th place Real Betis Balompie, the 26 year old will likely bring his artistically-carved passes to the Premier League this summer. What club will be savvy enough to purchase his services has yet to be determined although the strongest interest has come from Manchester City and Chelsea.

The Basque-born player’s ascent has been a gradual one. An Athletic Bilbao youth product he spent three years playing with Los Leones‘ third team (CD Baskonia) and the reserve side before making his La Liga debut in a 1-1 draw with Osasuna in October 2006.

During the 2008–09 season Beñat played with third division side UB Conquense and was subsequently released by Bilbao. That summer he signed with Real Betis. After spending his first season with the reserves, he made his first team debut in the 4-1 home win against Granada in August 2010, chipping in with an assist.

Beñat’s breakout against Granda convinced Pepe Mel to start the midfielder three days later against UD Salamanca. The manager’s faith paid off as Beñat scored to help the Verdiblanco’s win the match 2-1. With his starting spot cemented, Beñat went on to feature in 36 matches, netting four times and guiding Betis to a birth in top flight football. Last season he scored five goals and notched 6 assists in 35 appearances.

For a deep-lying playmaker in the mold of Luka Modric, Beñat’s contributions on the offensive side of the ball shouldn’t be overlooked. He fancies his chances from anywhere in the park (his 25 yard strike against Real Madrid last December handed Betis a famous 1-0 victory) and relishes every free-kick opportunity (he scored from two re-starts to beat Sevilla 2-1 in last season’s derby at the Estadio Benito Villamarin).

Like Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla before him, Beñat is one of Spain’s diminutive playmakers who will arrive at the Premier League somewhat under the radar, yet another victim of La Furia Roja‘s infinite depth in the center of the park. He’s nevertheless managed to be receive four caps under Vincente del Bosque, a fan Beñat’s perfectly shaped passes that curl into teammates feet like a kitten begging for milk.

With his stubby body opponents don’t take him for much of a tackler but he is a menace defensively. His challenges have the teeth of Paul Scholes and his break-outs the composure of Xabi Alonso. In short, the unassuming midfielder should thrive in the hard-knocks lifestyle of the English Premier League.

Earlier this month the player’s agent suggested that despite his current contract ending in June 2014, Beñat will leave Betis this summer to further his international hopes. “We are not talking about a new contract with Betis,” Vicente Biurrun said. “Benat’s future is, probably, far away from Seville. We are not going to wait until his contract runs out, but we will look for a club at the very top level where Benat can play regularly and show what he can do before the World Cup. Making the World Cup squad is a dream. That is why we are looking for a big team.”

Whereas City and Chelsea have expressed the most interest in triggering Benat’s $26.1m (€20m) release clause, he could just as easily find himself at United, Liverpool or Arsenal. One way or another, keep your eyes on who lands the Betis puppet-master, the next Spanish midfielder destined for greatness in the Premier League.

Mourinho: Leicester home should be Claudio Ranieri Stadium

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City shows his frustration as Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho cannot quite get his head around Leicester City’s firing of Claudio Ranieri.

The story is on the tips of the tongues of many in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s boss is no exception.

[ MORE: UEL draw | Who is Rostov? ]

Speaking Friday ahead of United’s EFL Cup Final against Southampton, here’s what Mourinho had to say.

From the BBC:

“He deserves the Leicester stadium to be named ‘Claudio Ranieri Stadium’. The most beautiful thing in the Premier League and one of most beautiful in football history.

“Now Leicester are in the highlights again with a decision that has everyone in football united. It’s very difficult to accept. It’s important to realize how football is and we need to react. I was sacked as a champion [by Chelsea], a giant negative as I thought – peanuts compared to Claudio.

“I don’t think he needs more. Nobody can do what he did. If some of the stories have just a little bit of truth, it is difficult to find words to justify but we have to be able to cope.”

Mourinho is giving voice to what many feel, this writer included. Ranieri is in a relegation fight, yes, but to fire him days after the Foxes stole a road goal against Sevilla that gives them reasonable odds to advance in the UEFA Champions League? It’s an odd one, and smacks a bit of, “Well, we can’t fire him if he beats Liverpool or Sevilla”.

Liverpool visits the King Power Stadium this weekend, and the Foxes will need an incredible response at home to topple the rested Reds. Sure the Premier League is win now, but add me to the chorus who thinks the new manager will have the same odds to fix Leicester as Ranieri.

Roma’s American president losing patience over stadium delay

James Pallotta, AS Roma
AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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ROME (AP) Roma’s American president is starting to lose patience with city officials over long-delayed plans for a new stadium.

Ahead of a meeting between municipal authorities and club officials Friday, James Pallotta issued a statement saying the team expects “a massively positive result” from the encounter.

Pallotta adds “the alternative would be catastrophic for the future of AS Roma, Italian football, the city of Rome, and quite frankly for future business in Italy.”

[ MORE: PST feature on Pallotta ]

The mostly privately financed 1.6 billion euro ($1.7 billion) project received another setback this week when cultural authorities announced plans to declare the proposed stadium site – an abandoned hippodrome – as a site of “particularly important interest.”

The project in Tor di Valle, halfway between downtown and Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, also includes three office towers.

Who is Manchester United’s UEL opponent Rostov?

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 15: Jano Ananidze (L) of FC Spartak Moscow is challenged by Alexandru Gatcan of FC Rostov during the Russian Premier League match between FC Spartak Moscow v FC Rostov at Otkrytie Arena Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)
Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho and Manchester United have learned their fate for the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 16.

The Red Devils face Russian side FC Rostov in the next round of the tournament, four victorious ties from claiming an automatic spot in the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Spurs sent packing | Full UEL draw ]

So who is Rostov? Seventh in the Russian Premier League standings, Selmashi finished second last season and won the league in 1994 and 2008.

Rostov entered the Europa League after a run through the Champions League which saw the club knock out Anderlecht and Ajax, both still alive in the UEL, before finishing third behind Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich in the group stage. Rostov beat Sparta Prague in the Round of 32 of the UEL.

The club is led by former Moldova boss Ivan Daniliants. Its leading scorer is left wing Dmitri Poloz with 11 goals, and Ecuadorian national teamer Christian Noboa and Moldova veteran Alexandru Gațcan among its mainstays.

While some will make the case that a rough pitch, long trip, and stingy team makes this draw a bad one for United, Mourinho’s crew should triumph. How worse could it have been? This one won’t be easy, but consider Roma, Schalke, Borussia Monchengladbach… even a reunion with Memphis Depay and Lyon would bring more of a challenge than Rostov.

Europa League draw: Man Utd learns fate

Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan, center back to camera, celebrates scoring the opening goal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 2nd right, and other teammates during a Europa League round of 32 second leg soccer match between Saint Etienne and Manchester United at Geoffroy Guichard stadium in Saint Etienne, France, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani
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The travel is tricky, but Manchester United’s draw for the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 could’ve been much worse.

The Red Devils are off to Russia to face FC Rostov in the next round of the UEL competition.

[ MORE: Spurs out | Who is Rostov? ]

In another draw that leads you to question whether there’s anything random about it all, United and lone La Liga representative Celta Vigo drew winnable matches against Russian clubs, Roma has a tantalizing match against Lyon, and an all-Bundesliga match hits the docket.

Heck, we’ll even see an all-Belgian tie between Gent vs. Genk.

And in a draw which will have many glued to their sets, USMNT left-sided man Fabian Johnson will help Borussia Monchengladbach against German rivals Schalke. The first leg comes five days after the pair face off in Bundesliga play.

The Round of 16 legs will be played March 9 and 16.

UEFA Europa League Round of 16

Rostov vs. Manchester United
Celta Vigo vs. Krasnodar
Copenhagen vs. Ajax
Olympiacos vs. Besiktas
Lyon vs. Roma
Schalke vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
APOEL Nicosia vs. Anderlecht
Gent vs. Genk