Raja Casablanca upset of Atlético Mineiro gives Moroccans surprise spot in World Club Cup final

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With a penalty converted in the 84th minute, Mouhssine Moutouali has completed Raja Casablanca’s improbable run into the World Club Cup finals, the host nation’s representative eliminating South American champions Atlético Mineiro 3-1 today in Marrakesh. Building on an early second half goal from Mouhssine Iajour, Moutouali broke a tie forged from a 66th minute Ronaldinho free kick, with Vianney Mabide’s 94th minute insurance finishing the Moroccans’ march into Saturday’s final.

There the competition’s hosts will face European champion Bayern Munich, who defeated Asian representatives Guangzhou Evergrande 3-0 on Tuesday in the tournament’s other semifinal. Atlético, meanwhile, is relegated into Saturday’s third place match to face Guangzhou , unable to claim a second straight title for CONMEBOL.

Raja’s success marks the first final appearance by a host since the competition resumed in 2005, with the berth likely to spark a small debate about the means by which the club qualified for the tournament. Whereas the competition’s six other participants won their confederation championships to make the World Club Cup, Raja qualified as a representative of the host nation, having won Morocco’s domestic league.  Since 2005, no host had moved past the semifinals.

Atlético Mineiro nearly drew first blood in the 22nd minute when a cross from the left of Raja’s penalty area looked set to connect with striker Jô at the edge of the six-yard box. The Atlético attacker never saw the ball, however, a sure goal denied when left back Adil Kerrouchy’s right heel clipped the ball out for a corner.

Just past the half-hour mark, Atlético winger Fernandinho pulled a shot just passed the left post, a miss the visitors were nearly made to rue three minutes later when a cross from Kerrouchy found  Moutouali in front of goal. The Raja attacker’s redirection found goalkeeper Victor, however, with an ensuring miss in the 40th minute adding to Moutouali’s close calls.

Just before half, another cross for Jô saw the Brazilian international go over the ball before goalkeeper Khalid Askri intervened, sending the match into halftime scoreless.

That scoreline would only last five minutes come the second half, with Raja taking a surprise lead on the South American champions with a 51st minute counterattack. With transition play building down the left flank, forward Mouhssine Iajour sprinted down the middle of the field to onto a ball put behind the defense, eventually finishing into the lower left hand corner from 19 yards out.

source: AP
Atlético Mineiro’s first match of the World Club Cup saw the South American champions into the third place game, Diego Tardelli (left) and Ronaldinho left on the wrong side of a 3-1 loss in Marrakesh.

The lead lasted 15 minutes before Ronaldinho, with a goal that felt like a foregone conclusion the moment the foul was called, finished into the upper right hand corner from a direct kick 19 yards out. From just outside the left post, the Mineiro star’s two-step run up sent the ball curving into the far side of goal, the inevitability of the score seen in Askri’s swiveling head as the ball arced into the goalkeeper’s net. After 15 minutes of dreaming of their unlikely final berth, the hosts had been pulled back to 1-1.

As the match’s final phase approached, Mineiro had resumed control of the game, though their persistence on the ball was always offset by the potential for the type of Raja counters that balanced the first half. When, in the 75th minute, a cross targeting Jô was redirected at Askri, Raja answered with a dash toward the Atlético area, a reminder that any momentum derived from Ronaldinho’s equalizer could still be used against Mineiro.

Six minutes before the end of regulation time, that threat paid off for Raja, who earned a penalty when  Mineiro center back Réver brought down Iajour in the Atlético area. Moutouali, making amends for his two first half misses, sent Victor diving left as he drilled the winning into the right of goal, giving the Moroccans their winning goal.

In the 94th minute, substitute Vianny Mabidé’s finish gave Raja unneeded insurance, with the final whistle moments later handing the Moroccans their 3-1 win.

With their third win of the competition, having eliminated Aukland City and Monterrey to reach the semifinals, Raja completes an improbable and what could be must-discussed run to the World Club Cup’s final. Whereas the tournament’s six other entrants had to win their confederation championships to qualify for the tournament, Raja participates by virtue of being the host country’s domestic champion.

If the improbable becomes the impossible, Raja could use that backdoor to become world champions, though to do so, they will have to defeat Bayen Munich on Saturday in Marrakesh.

Chris Wondolowski thankful for call-up to national team

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Chris Wondolowski didn’t have to travel far when he got the call to join the U.S. national team ahead of two key World Cup qualifiers.

The U.S. will be playing Honduras on the home field of Wondolowski’s San Jose Earthquakes on Friday night as the Americans look to bounce back from an 0-2 start in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

“To represent your country is the ultimate pinnacle, especially as a soccer player in a World Cup qualifier in your hometown,” Wondolowski said. “I couldn’t have drawn it up any better. I’m very excited. I’m very honored to be a part of such a big game. It’s not necessarily the place we want to be, but it is an exciting place for U.S. Soccer right now. We have meaningful games in meaningful places.”

And Wondolowski might need to play a meaningful role with the U.S. short-handed at forward headed into the games against Honduras and then at Panama next Tuesday. Bobby Wood is out with a back injury, Jordan Morris has not practiced this week because of an ankle injury and Clint Dempsey said he might not be able to play 90 minutes after missing the final four months of the 2016 MLS season due to an irregular heartbeat.

That leaves just Jozy Altidore and Wondolowski as the only healthy forwards. The 34-year-old Wondolowski didn’t know whether he would get another chance at World Cup qualifying.

He didn’t get his first call-up to the national team until six years ago despite a prolific MLS career. He has played 35 international games, including two at the 2014 World Cup.

Wondolowski has scored 11 goals for the national team, but is most remembered for one he missed in the round of 16 against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup. With the game scoreless late in regulation, he had a chance at a game-winner but shot over the crossbar from inside the 6-yard box.

The U.S. lost 2-1 in overtime and Wondolowski has not played in any 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

“If you play well at the club level, you figure you can get a chance,” he said. “You never know if that will keep happening. You always have to cherish the times that you have.”

Wondolowski has done that by scoring 28 goals the past two seasons for the Earthquakes and one so far this season in three games. He doesn’t know if he will get a chance to play but has already been a valuable resource for his familiarity with the home stadium.

“They’ve been asking me about the field, the atmosphere,” he said. “I don’t have enough adjectives to tell them how great it is. The atmosphere you feel, the presence that the crowd provides throughout the game will lift you. It’s an amazing pitch, amazing fans, and hopefully we can get three points.”

After the losses to Mexico and Costa Rica last November that led to coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing and the return of Bruce Arena as coach, the U.S. has little margin for error.

The Americans are in last place in the six-team group that will send the top three teams to Russia in 2018 and the fourth into a playoff with the fifth-place nation from Asia.

“Some games you go in and you’re trying to implement things and work on your style,” Wondolowski said. “We’re worried about three points. Pretty, ugly, it doesn’t matter. Just grind it out any way possible.”

Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson dreams of “big club”

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This will unnerve Swansea fans.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Gyfli Sigurdsson, 27, has scored eight goals and assisted 11 times in the Premier League as the Swans have dragged themselves out of the relegation zone.

Swansea boss Paul Clement recently stated that Sigurdsson has the same ability of players he’s coached at Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and with his quality from set pieces, finishing in and around the box and dictating play, it’s hard to argue with that.

Speaking to Goal.com, Sigurdsson revealed that Clement’s kind words were appreciated and he feels he can play for a bigger club.

“Of course that’s very flattering. Maybe he was just trying to give me confidence,” Sigurdsson said. “Of course, it would be a dream to play for one of these big clubs. Hopefully if I continue doing well for Swansea and Iceland then in the near future, I can play in a big club. I am enjoying being one of the senior players, though.

“We may be in a tough spot, but I am kind of enjoying the pressure of that. I am trying to make the most of that and help the team to get three points every week.”

Late in the January transfer window it was reported that some top teams in the PL came in with bids for Sigurdsson and the former Hoffenheim and Tottenham Hotspur attacking midfielder is definitely entering his prime.

He’s scored 33 goals in 115 appearances for the Swans over the past three seasons since joining from Tottenham and perhaps the main criticism some people have of Sigurdsson is that he prefers to be a big fish in a small pond. During his time at Spurs he scored just eight times in 58 appearances in the Premier League but now it seems like he is ready to go to the next level.

Swansea will ask for over $35 million for Sigurdsson but with clubs like Everton and Arsenal rumored to be interested in his services, a nervous summer could be ahead for the South Wales side. Swansea’s Icelandic playmaker will be a man in demand, irrelevant of whether or not the Swans survive relegation.

Everton agree deal to buy land for new stadium

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Everton have moved a step closer to a new home on Liverpool’s waterfront.

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The Guardian is reporting that the Premier League have “agreed a deal to purchase land at Bramley Moore dock” which is where a new $375 million stadium is proposed for the Toffees.

Per the report, a deal has been agreed in principle with the landowners Peel Holdings and now Everton, led by new billionaire majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, will try to kick their new stadium project on. It is widely expected that the club will announce more details later on Thursday, with Liverpool City Council set to be heavily involved in the huge regeneration project.

Moshiri now has to acquire funding for the stadium and also get planning permissions from the council but things appear to be moving in the right direction.

Back in November 2016, Moshiri said having a stadium which “rewards the fans” was his “key aim” at Everton.

Everton’s search to find a new home after 125 years at Goodison Park has been exhaustive and frustrating. They’ve had three separate sites turned down since 2000 but with Moshiri’s arrival last February there is renewed optimism that building a new luxurious home in Liverpool’s docks is possible.

With Manchester City expanding the Etihad Stadium in recent seasons, Liverpool drastically improving Anfield, West Ham moving into the London Stadium, Chelsea closing in on securing a deal for a $600 million revamp of Stamford Bridge, plus Tottenham Hotspur moving into a new 61,000 home for the 2018-19 season, the rest of the Premier League is kicking on in terms of stadium expansion.

Moshiri has lofty heights for Everton and with Ronald Koeman as manager and plenty of funds promised to improve their exciting squad, the final major hurdle to overcome is the construction of a new home.

VOTE: Select Premier League Goal of the Month – March

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The 2 Robbies have selected their contenders for the Premier League Goal of the Month for March.

[ VOTE: Select your GOTM here ]

Now it’s your job to select the winner by clicking on the link above.

Watch the contenders in the video above and then vote for your favorite.

Enjoy.