Javier Hernandez, Carlos Pena, Rafael Marquez

World Cup qualifier preview: Mexico must beware of New Zealand position – and their own

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With Mexico teetering on the brink of World Cup elimination but also heavily favored to squeeze in past New Zealand, their position is not an envious one.

Coming into their playoff matchup with the Oceanic winners this afternoon at at 3:15pm ET, the entire nation is on edge.

If they pull it off, there’s no fanfare, there’s no partying, only a giant sigh of relief.

The end result – a trip to the 2014 World Cup – would be the same as if they had dominated the Hexagonal round, the same as if they defeated rivals United States, the same as if they had scored loads of goals and mastered North America like they have so many times in the past.

Except this time around, they didn’t.

It all now rides on their two-legged playoff with a much lesser opponent, and that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes playing against a team with nothing to lose can be a death sentence.

In addition, Mexico’s fourth manager this year Miguel Herrera has chosen to only call in domestic players, leaving those with European clubs such as Javier Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos, Hector Moreno, and Andres Guardado to remain in Europe.

It’s hard to blame Herrera for making drastic changes.  With those players, El Tri scored just seven times in its 10 hexagonal matches, held to a clean sheet in half of them.

On the other side of the coin, albeit against the likes of New Caldonia, Tahiti, and the Solomon Islands, the All Whites scored 17 times in just six matches via 10 different goalscorers in their final regional qualifying rounds.

However they will miss captain Winston Reid of West Ham this afternoon due to ankle injury, a massive blow to a team with little to no big-stage experience.

There’s a business aspect to this struggle as well.  According to a report by ESPN’s Darren Rovell, clothing giants Adidas say their highest selling national team jersey sales in North America are the Mexican team, and a shocking loss by El Tri could cripple those numbers.  In addition, Rovell estimates that the domestic economic difference between Mexico in or out of the World Cup could be as much as $1 billion.

So from the Azteca tonight, Mexico begins its chance to show the world not who they really are, but who they want to be again.  They aren’t the high-flying, goal-smashing, attack-stifling powerhouse of CONCACAF any longer. Not at the moment, anyways.

But with a win over New Zealand, they can set themselves up for a trip to Brazil 2014 nonetheless, and begin the road to recovery.  El Tri are in shambles, but if they can get the job done there’s a light at the end of this particular tunnel.

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.