Premier League Preview: Liverpool FC

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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.

History counts for a lot, of course, but it’s getting harder to recall that Liverpool FC has won more European trophies than any other English club.

Liverpool as a city was an economic mess in the 70s and 80s, but the soccer at Anfield Road was king, with hardware tumbling in regularly from league play, the FA Cup and European appearances. There is also some grim history attached to the club, which has been front and center in two of the game’s big black marks of another, more troubled time. In 1985, Liverpool was banned from Europe temporarily for its part in the Heysel Stadium disaster, where 39 Juventus fans died in Belgium.

And in 1989, 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death in the terrible Hillsborough tragedy.

Liverpool enjoys famous rivalries with Manchester United and Everton, the latter of which is the twice-annual (and highly volatile) “Merseyside derby.”

Transfers In: Kolo Toure (Manchester City), Luis Alberto (Sevilla), Iago Aspas (Celta de Vigo), Simon Mignolet (Sunderland).

Transfers Out: Jamie Carragher (retired), Danny Wilson (Heart of Midlothian), Jonjo Shelvey (Swansea City), Suso (Almeria), Pepe Reina (Napoli), Jay Spearing (Bolton Wanderers).

source: Getty ImagesKey Player: Uruguayan starlet Luis Suarez is a striker with significant bite to his game, as we know. What we do not know is long he’ll remain at Anfield, as this sad summer of “will he or won’t he?” drags on. Meanwhile, the attack doesn’t look too bad without him, and a lot of that is about emerging striker Daniel Sturridge and playmaker Philippe Coutinho.

Sturridge (pictured left) looms even larger in the Liverpool equation, given Suarez’s insistence on locating the rear exit. And we could argue that the young striker will shine even brighter as the attacking focal point. That’s saying a lot since Sturridge hit 10 goals in just 14 appearances last year.

Already an England international, one blessed with size, technique and pace, Sturridge wears the stamp of “budding star.”

Manager: The word seen so frequently around Brendan Rodgers over the last few months at Anfield is “patience.”  This year, increasingly, the term we are likely to see alongside is “running out,” unless he keeps things steadily moving in the right direction.

We are now a year into Rodgers’ modernization project at Anfield as the manager attempts to mold Liverpool’s style into something resembling his previous fine work at Swansea, with dynamic tactics, dominant possession, balls on the ground and a high defensive line.

Things didn’t start well in Rodgers’ first go-round at The Kop, but a stronger second half last year inspired hope of better days, something that looked like the actual “better days” around Anfield. Either way, the rebuilding certainly goes on for Rodgers, who may begin his second Liverpool campaign with five new starters, depending on the resolution of this Suarez situation.

In Rodgers, who is from Northern Ireland, Liverpool has an innovator who is looking to build a long-term model for success while constructing a team that can win with style; we’ll see if the supporters and the club’s American ownership have the patience for it.

Outlook: Liverpool is a tough PL nut to crack at the moment due to the Suarez tumult. Long story short, the team’s top man and easily its best goal scorer wants out; management at Anfield wants him to stay rather than chase Champions League ambition at Arsenal, and the situation remains a distracting stalemate. With Suarez, volatile figure though he is, a top four PL finish is far more reachable. His 51 goals in 90 matches for the club speak for themselves, as that is truly a prodigious rate.

Spaniards Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, summer reinforcements for Rodgers, should help ease the sting of a Suarez departure while helping the manager establish that continental flourish.

Replacing Carragher’s presence on the back line is up to Kolo Toure, but it’s the longtime Liverpool man’s leadership that will be most sorely missed.

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UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

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It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.