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Premier League Preview: Stoke City

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Each day from now until the beginning of the Premier League season, we will preview two teams from England’s top flight. You can view them all here at PST Preview central. Don’t forget, the 2013-14 PL season begins on August 17th, and for the first-time ever you can watch every game live on NBC Sports.

Stoke City have been in the top flight five consecutive seasons now, and with their reputation for the long ball, they’ve produced some of the less exciting matches during their Premier League stay.  During those five seasons, they have failed to push into the top 10 in the table, but have also not been too involved in any serious relegation battles.  Their table finishes since being promoted last have been a consistent 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 13th.  However, new management will look to some United States internationals to help crack the top half of the table for the first time since their automatic promotion.

Transfers in: D Marc Muniesa (Barcelona B, Spain), D Erik Pieters (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands), F Juan Agudelo – January 2014 (New England Revolution)

Transfers Out: GK Carlo Nash (Norwich City, England), D Matthew Upson (Brighton Hove & Albion, England), M Rory Delap (Burton Albion, England), M Dean Whitehead (Middlesbrough, England), F Michael Owen (retired)

source: Getty ImagesKey Player: One of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League last season was Asmir Begovic (pictured), who practically kept Stoke out of the relegation battle single-handedly. Tony Pulis’s defense last season was a disaster, and Begovic was the biggest reason they gave up just 45 goals – fewer than any club finishing 8th or lower.

Stoke go as Begovic goes. The 26-year-old Bosnian was one of just four goalkeepers in the Premier League to have played every minute for the club, along with Joe Hart, Jussi Jaaskelainen, and Simon Mignolet.  By December 31 of last season, the keeper had the most clean sheets in the league with 9, which saw Stoke up to 8th position in the table.

To fix the leaks at the back, Stoke have shrewdly brought in highly-rated 21-year-old central defender Marc Muniesa from Barcelona on a free transfer, much to the surprise of many in the league.  The team also acquired young goalkeeping star Jack Butland in January after rumors flew that Begovic was on his way out to a Champions League club.  However, after Stoke warded off Arsenal and other suitors, Begovic will still be the key man for Stoke’s survival this season.

Manager: Tony Pulis stepped down after seven years in charge, an eternity in the European game these days.  Pulis was unable to get Stoke out of its stagnant bottom-half state, so by “mutual consent” the two sides went their separate ways.

Fellow Welshman, the “ambitious” Mark Hughes has taken his place, and after a tumultuous past three years, it’s probably Hughes’ last chance to prove to those in the game he can manage at a high level.  Hughes was sacked at Manchester City, but found himself amidst a successful year at Fulham.  The following summer, Hughes inexplicably left the job, proclaiming Fulham wasn’t “ambitious” enough for his liking, burning all his bridges there and creating quite a number of enemies.

He didn’t have a job in place when he left, and was passed over for jobs at Chelsea and Aston Villa.  He remained jobless for a year until being picked up by Queens Park Rangers, only to find himself sacked 6 months later with QPR bottom of the table.

Understandably, Hughes is in a position where only some serious success at Stoke could put him back on the radar of top clubs around the continent.

Outlook: Mark Hughes and the bunch have much to prove, although their findings in the transfer market (or lack thereof) don’t exactly reflect that. Hughes now has four Americans at his disposal, with Juan Agudelo joining Brek Shea, Geoff Cameron, and Maurice Edu. He needs to get moving to fill many more holes, including their difficulties last season scoring goals – they registered 34 scores, second-worst in the entire league. USMNT youngster Agudelo could help out here but that’s not until January. If they can’t find a player who wants to put the ball in the back of the net at the Britannia, it could be another long season for the Potters, and relegation could even be peeking over their shoulder come next spring.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.