Europa League Preview: FC Basel v. Chelsea

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When Chelsea head to St. Jakob’s Park to take on FC Basel in the first-leg of the UEFA Europa League semi-finals on Thursday, it will mark the first competitive encounter between the two clubs.

How They Got There

Basel made it to the semi-final stage after eliminating Tottenham 4-1 on penalties after a second leg 2-2 draw left the teams locked 4-4 on aggregate. The feat took the Swiss side’s record against English clubs to three wins, seven draws and eight loses, with all three victories coming on home soil. And it’s no secret that home fixtures are where the RotBlau thrive. Since the start of the group stage Basel have gone unbeaten in their last six Europa League contests at St. Jakob’s Park.

Chelsea qualified for the last four with a 5-4 aggregate win over Rubin Kazan. The Blues only previous encounter with Swiss opponents was a loss at the hands of FC St. Gallen in the first round of the 2000-01 UEFA Cup. After Chelsea managed a 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge, the Blues couldn’t handle the rigors of Zurich’s Hardturm Stadium and lost 2-0. This season, the road has been equally unkind to Rafa Benitez’ men who have lost four of their past five European away games.

What’s On The Line

Having entered the competition in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League, Basel has played more European matches this season (18) than any other remaining club. With a win on Thursday, Murat Yakin’s side, who have won three straight domestic titles, will become the first Swiss club to reach a European final.

Along with Benfica, Chelsea are the only side left in the Europa League that entered the competition after crashing out of the Champions League group stage. A win on Thursday will be a key step in Chelsea’s bid to become the first side to win the Champions League and Europa League in reverse order in consecutive seasons.

Key Matchups

The first matchup likely to have an affect on the outcome is between Chelsea striker Fernando Torres and Basel center-back Alexander Dragovic.

Torres, along with Basel’s Marco Streller and Benfica’s Óscar Cardozo, leads the competition in goals scored with four apiece. The Chelsea hitman has scored three goals in his last two Europa League competitions, the second being a dominant brace emblematic of the Spaniard’s new found confidence. Since donning the black face protector – which Torres claims is very uncomfortable – the striker has looked lighter on his feet, been more decisive in his decision making and shown an aerial dominance for which he is not typically known.

It’s a combination that Dragovic will be tasked to contain. The 6′ 1″ center-back is well known for his powerful style, which should make for a good physical battle with Torres. The Spaniard is never afraid to get his socks dirty but will likely be more inclined to use his pace to get around Dragovic, rather than blasting through him. While physically imposing, Dragovic is hardly a brute as he possesses a slick range of passes that has attracted the likes of various Premier League clubs including Arsenal. The Austrian previously displayed his talents to Manchester United in last season’s Champions League where his Basel side defeated the Red Devils, preventing them from advancing out of the group stage.

The second matchup set to decide matters will feature Basel’s Mohamed Salah (pictured) and Chelsea’s Ashley Cole.

Salah is a right winger with blazing speed, cat-like balance and a slick touch. So far this term the Egyptian international has run Zenit and Tottenham ragged and also managed to score the crucial 27th minute leveler in the 2-2 draw with Spurs that sent Basel through to the semi-finals. The goal was an important feat for Salah who has been criticized for not being clinical enough in front of goal. But with more assists than any player in the competition (four), Salah possesses a wide array of weapons with which to terrorize opponents.

Cole will be the target of Salah’s trickery. The Chelsea full-back is expected to start after recovering from injury and he’ll be hoping for a clean bill of health if he is to put the clamps on the Basel winger. Whereas William Gallas and Benoît Assou-Ekotto were unable to cope with Salah, Cole is faster and smarter than both Spurs defenders. Further, Cole is a creator who is capable of getting forward and providing opportunities for his teammates. Salah, not known for his desire to get back on defense, could be in for a stamina battle if Cole decides to push hard up the flank.

Toronto FC beats Crew 5-0 to extend unbeaten streak to 8

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TORONTO (AP) Victor Vazquez scored twice and Toronto FC routed the Columbus Crew 5-0 on Friday night to extend its unbeaten streak to a franchise record-matching eight games.

[ MORE: Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape ]

Toronto (8-1-5) is 7-0-1 since its lone league loss of the season, a 2-1 decision in Columbus on April 15. Columbus (6-7-1) has lost five of seven since topping Toronto.

Justin Morrow and substitutes Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton also scored for MLS-leading Toronto. The Canadian team also was unbeaten in eight games (4-0-4) from May 8 to July 10, 2010.

Toronto was reduced to 10 men in the 81st minute when midfielder Marky Delgado was red-carded for a studs-up tackle on Columbus captain Wil Trapp. Osorio and Hamilton then scored to pad the lead for Toronto in its sixth shutout of the season.

Toronto played without the starting forward tandem of Sebastian Giovinco (injured) and Jozy Altidore (suspended for yellow card accumulation). Defender Nick Hagglund also is injured.

Agent: Barcelona offered more than Real for Vinicius Junior

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If Vinicius Junior can become half the player at Real Madrid that Neymar has lived up to be at Barcelona, Los Blancos will be pretty pleased.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Real closed the deal for the 16-year-old Brazilian this week, but there were several other lucrative offers on the table, according to the player’s agent, Frederico Pena.

[ MORE: Totti leaves future uncertain heading into final Roma match ]

That includes bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

The agent stated that the Blaugrana did in fact offer a higher deal to acquire the Brazilian, however, he felt it would have complicated matters further to seek a greater offer from Real.

“There is practically unanimous view of the deal as a success,” Pena said. “If anybody gets criticised it is Real Madrid, for the risk they have taken, but they are sure that it will work. There were other clubs interested, and one offered to pay more money … Barca’s remuneration package offer for the player was higher than Real Madrid.

“But as we had reached an agreement with Real, we did not want to make this last push for them to match it. That could have embittered the relationship. Many people think it is crazy what Madrid are doing, but they were not alone in this craziness. They were not the only ones willing to pay this much for Vinicius.”

Pena also clarified as to why Vinicius chose Real over Barcelona, citing the player’s excitement about the development of Los Blancos during recent seasons under manager Zinedine Zidane and prior.

“Because Vinicius liked Madrid’s project better. There is always the feeling that players choose based on financial reasons, but that is not true. I assure you of that. Real Madrid’s negotiating posture was better.”

Real is on the verge of winning its third UEFA Champions League trophy in the last four seasons as the club prepares to face Juventus in the upcoming final.

Zidane’s men also won La Liga during the 2016/17 campaign.

Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape

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U.S. Soccer has come a long way over the years, and one of the nation’s most promising young players recognizes the progress the United States has made.

[ MORE: Man City acquire Monaco’s Silva after passing medical ]

Christian Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is one of several young talents that U.S. hopes to finally bring the American men a moment of glory on the biggest of stages — the World Cup.

The 18-year-old has done just about everything a player of his age could do. He’s played in one of the top leagues in the world, appeared in various UEFA Champions League matches and now he’s likely on pace to appear in the 2018 World Cup, assuming the USMNT advances out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The U.S., who have reached the World Cup during seven straight cycles, have come a long way in a short period of time, and Pulisic is happy with the improving U.S. Soccer landscape.

“It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” Pulisic told The Guardian. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues — and MLS is improving so much too.

“There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore.

“We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

During this past Bundesliga season, Pulisic recorded three goals and added six assists for a club that has become well known for its high-powered offensive attack.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.