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Germany: Win over Bayer caps turnaround week for Schalke

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They finished one place apart in last year’s standings, but for Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, the beginning of the Bundesliga season saw two of Germany’s better teams on divergent paths. Bayer impressed out of the gate, an attack led by Stefan Kießling, Sidney Sam, and Son Heung-Min leading an offense that’d scored eight times in their perfect, three-game start. Schalke, on the other hand, had conceded nine times in three rounds and, combined with a home draw in the first leg for their Champions League play-in against Greece’s PAOK, hinted at a tailspin to start the campaign.

Yet mid-week, ahead of today’s visit from Bayer, Schalke got a huge result in Thessaloniki. Two Adám Szalai goals bookended a key, second road goal via Julian Draxler, giving the Miners a 3-2 win which secured their place in Champions League group stage. Add in the Friday acquisition of Kevin Prince Boateng, the attacking midfielder surprising with a move away from Milan, and the week’s been a boon for the Blues. Though Prince’s transfer has rekindled speculation about Draxler’s future (speculation immediately shot down by the club), Schalke looked to have moved beyond their troublesome Bundesliga start.

If, however, Bayer got a win today at the Veltins-Arena, those good vibes would be squelched, potentially by the realization that Bayer, while still decidedly south of Germany’s two current elites, may be pulling away. A Big Two Plus One scenario would leave a talented but enigmatic Schalke to position itself as the best of the rest, seeking a Wenger-inspired honor for merely finishing fourth in your league.

To the joy of 61,793 in Gelsenkirchen, that realization never happened on Saturday. Schalke proved the better, more energetic side throughout, holding the previously firing Bayer off the scoresheet. Marco Höger’s first half, set piece conversion combined with Jefferson Farfan’s second half penalty kick to have Schalke a convincing win, the 2-0 result ruining Bayer’s perfect start. With Boateng proving influential debuting as Jens Keller’s number ten (pushing Draxler left), Schalke limited Bayer to one shot on goal, overcoming the continued absence of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (knee) to record their first victory of the season.

Despite Boateng’s acquisition, the key to this team, will continue to be Farfan (pictured, above), his often dominant displays on the right giving Schalke a player that’s near-impossible to match up against. For Huntelaar and Szalai, life is easier being able to plan on that threat from the right, but whereas Schalke’s inability to come up with more tricks may have contributed to their erratic form last year, now they have Boateng in the middle. Now Draxler’s out left, balancing the team in a way that proved promising during Michel Bastos’s brief tenure last season. As much as Bayer may be improving, the acquisition of Boateng gives Schalke the potential to keep up.

But even after today’s win, Schalke’s potential still needs to be realized. We’ve seen these highs before, and within a couple of weeks, we may see another low. This is Schalke, after all. They had a good win today, one that could prove important come spring, but they’re still in Germany’s bottom half, four points through four games leaving them 13th after Saturday’s results.

More from Germany: Bayern Munich played on Tuesday, drawing at Freiburg, while Borussia Dortmund play tomorrow … Hamburg, who like Schalke were off to a terrible start, woke up against visiting Braunschweig, posting a 4-0 win. Rafael van der Vaart had the opener … Borussia Moenchengladbach routed visiting Werder Bremen, with Juan Arango and Max Kruse among those who got on the scoresheet in a 4-1 win … Wolfsburg got goals from Ivica Olic and Diego (pk) in the last three minutes of the first half to hand Hertha Berlin their first loss of the season, 2-0 … Kevin Vogt’s late goal, scoring three minutes after coming on, allowed visiting Augsburg to take advantage of 10-man Nurnberg, 1-0 … Hannover won their third in four games, overcoming an early goal by Nicolai Müller to blow past visiting Mainz, 4-1.

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.