Christian Eriksen’s potential for Borussia Dortmund a particularly cloudy picture

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Christian Eriksen has been an “it” player for so long, it’s difficult to know where his skill set ends and his reputation begins. That’s what happens to players who break into Ajax’s first team at 18. They have their skills exaggerated, the influence of Dutch mystique leading those who ascribe the 1970’s antiquated notions to cast Eriksens as new models off an exaggerated assembly line. And as a player like Erikson contributes (24 goals in three season), wins awards (Dutch Player of the Year, 2011), and garners links to bigger clubs, he becomes the latest variable in an overused equation.

Perhaps it was that equation ID’d Eriksen as a breakout candidate at last year’s European Championships. Too bad that breakout never happened. With Denmark only playing three games at Euro 2012, we shouldn’t read too much into Eriksen’s output. Still, a player who was expected to be Morten Olsen’s best failed to have an impact. Now with only three goals in 34 international appearances, Eriksen has yet to show he can produce outside Holland’s attacker-friendly environment.

It all makes Eriksen’s path look a little like Eden Hazard’s, part of the reason why he’s been linked with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur. Both players had great success at club level around 20 years old, though Hazard’s production was greater than Eriksen’s while playing in a more difficult league. As young attacking midfield, both have struggled for country while dominating for club, and while Hazard’s exploits in Ligue 1 paved a move to one of the world’s big spenders, Eriksen’s play at a lower level built links to other impressive (if more financially constrained) teams.

But comparisons like that only compound the distortion around players like Eriksen. Too often we have difficulty developing a constructive conversation around players whose hype transcends their skills. After a player like Eriksen sits on the rumor mill for three years, a momentum develops, creating résumés built on Wikipedia links to Daily Mail conjecture. There’s little disincentive to overhype talent or links when there’s so much demand for gossip.

At some point, as voices become more authoritative amid the growing chatter, we’re left talking about an abstractions – breakout players who were never been capable of breaking out. In the case of Eriksen, the conversation now hinges on pure speculation. What would he do if he wasn’t playing on his league’s most talented team? What would he do if he wasn’t playing in such an attack-centric league? These sorts of questions are asked about every player, but when that player comes from a league (Eredivsie) and club (Ajax) who many fans view in light of old, romantic statures, it becomes more difficult to engage the counterpoint. It becomes more difficult to see past the abstractions.

What’s particularly interesting regarding Eriksen are the small, meaningful steps he’s taken in the last 12 months to make those abstractions real. Already a valuable contributor for Ajax, the Danish international went from eight all-competition goals in 2011-12 to 13 last season. Although his assist totals took a small step back, Eriksen proved a more decisive force around goal. On a team that scored 10 fewer goals in league, it’s little surprise a 21-year-old’s more team dependent numbers (assists) regressed while his goal rate improved.

It’s tempting to wonder if, with that improved ability to dictate his own destiny,  Eriksen would have had more to say at last summer’s championships.

Now, with that added layer to his game, Eriksen is ready to leave the Netherlands, with Borussia Dortmund reportedly tabbing the Danish attacker as Mario Götze’s replacement. Atletico Mineiro’s Bernard has also been linked with the spot (and it’s not beyond Dortmund to buy both), but in the scenario reported today by France Football, Eriksen would go to Dortmund, highly-touted 19-year-old Adam Maher would move to Ajax from AZ, and Earnie Stewart would get a huge chunk of change for his club’s troubles.

It’s difficult to image a better scenario for Eriksen. What Marco Reus was to BVB last year — a highly talented attacker adapting to a new team while playing new to a world class talent — Eriksen could be to this year’s. And while few would choose Eriksen over Götze, if Reus rises to the increased challenge, Dortmund may see little drop off. In time, as Eriksen adjusts to higher expectations and a more difficult league, Dortmund could do as they’ve always done over the last three years: move forward.

Yet all that falls into the same trap. We’re placing Eriksen in the context of Hazard and Reus, forgetting his Euro 2012 disappointments, the regression of the Dutch league, and his inability to make an impact at the international level. We forget the picture surrounding the 21-year-old is more clouded than his transfer hype would have us believe.

Like all transfers, Eriksen’s will carry significant risk. And it’s only after he moves to a place like Dortmund that we’ll be able see through these clouds and distinguish the skills from the hype.

Manchester derby “the game of the season”

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Whatever way you slice it up, Thursday’s Manchester derby is huge.

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Manchester City host Manchester United (Watch, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola‘s side just one point ahead of United in the Premier League table.

City currently occupy fourth spot and the final UEFA Champions League qualification berth but are coming off the back of a damaging FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal after extra time.

United and Jose Mourinho haven’t lost in 23 Premier League games, the longest current unbeaten streak across Europe’s top five leagues, and are in the UEFA Europa League semifinals as their banged up squad have stood tall in the final months of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the derby, one of United’s stars this season believes everything comes down to this one game.

“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win we have the chance to finish in the top four, if they win it is going to be very difficult. It is the game of the season.

“Make or break? Probably. Both teams are in a good moment so if one of us wins the game we are not going to lose a lot of games, or make mistakes after that. Us or them. It is going to be key. I don’t know the ‘winner takes all’ expression but it is going to be a massive game. We are in a very good moment, a very good run and we respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”

Herrera’s comments say it all.

It is fair to say that both Manchester clubs have flattered to deceive for much of this season with Guardiola’s tactics yet to flourish in England and Mourinho’s rebuild hampered by injuries and a lack of goals at crucial moments.

On Thursday there will be a raucous atmosphere at the Etihad as both teams are aware of what is at stake.

More of the pressure may well be on City who now have just a place in the top four to focus on and with many previously giving United no chance of finishing in the top four, a win at City would take them above their “noisy neighbors” and into the UCL spots.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.