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.

Hazard and Co. set up NASL club in San Diego

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Soccer in SoCal continues to boom.

[ MORE: Sanchez, Aguero swap deal?

The North American Soccer League (NASL) announced Monday that San Diego will have a second-tier team for the 2018 season as professional soccer returns to San Diego County.

In a statement from the NASL it was revealed that San Diego’s new expansion franchise is owned by star players Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Moussa Sow, as well as executives with experience of the San Diego market.

Hazard, a star for Chelsea and Belgium, revealed exactly why he believes San Diego deserves a soccer team.

“San Diego is a beautiful place and the love and passion that the people have for soccer made this an easy choice for us,” Hazard said. “My friends and I are honored to turn this dream into a reality and we can’t wait to get started and win some games.”

The quartet do not have a name, logo or colors for the team, but that is expected to be announced in the coming months. Bob Watkins will serve as the club president and Ricardo Campos, former technical director for thew New York Red Bulls, will serve in the front office alongside Katy Temple as the pieces are put in place for another new soccer team in California.

NASL will have 10 teams for the 2018 season with Orange County also joining the league that currently shares second-tier status with the much-larger USL which boasts 30 teams.

With Orange County and San Diego arriving in NASL in 2018, LAFC to join Major League Soccer in 2018 and a consortium led by former USMNT star Landon Donovan hoping for an MLS expansion team in San Diego in the years to come, soccer in SoCal is booming.

How involved Chelsea star Hazard, Crystal Palace midfielder Cabaye, Shanghai Shenhua striker Ba and Al-Ahli forward Sow get remains to be seen but they’ve obviously seen a gap in the market in San Diego.

Bakayoko to Chelsea, Matic to Man United close

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Two defensive midfielders will have new homes very soon.

[ MORE: Aguero, Alexis in swap deal? ]

Tiemoue Bakayoko, 22, is closing in on a move to Chelsea from AS Monaco as he is set to replace the outgoing Nemanja Matic who will link up with his former boss Jose Mourinho at Manchester United.

Multiple reports, including this one from the BBC, state the deal for Bakayoko is close to completion with Chelsea and Monaco agreeing the $41.8 million fee and the French midfielder is expected to be a Chelsea player in the next 48 hours.

As for Matic’s imminent arrival at Old Trafford, the Serbian destroyer, 28, will reportedly complete his move this week with the Guardian stating the clubs have agreed a price of around $50 million and wages of $197,000 per week have also been agreed between the player and United.

United badly needed a defensive reinforcement in central midfield and Matic (who has won two Premier League titles in three seasons since rejoining Chelsea in 2014) would fit the bill. Able to start attacks and possess the ball as well as a fine reader of the game who uses his lanky frame to intercept passes and sweep up in front of the defense, Matic would surely be the perfect foil for Ander Herrera in United’s engine room and they’d allow Paul Pogba to roam free.

As for Chelsea, there’s no doubt that losing Matic is a blow but Bakayoko is rated as one of the top defensive midfielders in Europe after excelling for French champions Monaco in Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League last season. He’s a more composed version of Victor Wanyama and alongside N'Golo Kante he’d provide Chelsea’s defense with a formidable shield. This is just the type of midfielder Antonio Conte loves.

Both United and Chelsea would considerably improve their central midfield areas with these additions.

Frank de Boer named new Crystal Palace manager

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The Eagles have gone Dutch.

Crystal Palace appointed Frank de Boer as its new manager Monday, announcing the Dutch legend has signed a three-year deal at Selhurst Park.

De Boer, 47, previously won four consecutive Dutch titles in charge of Ajax from 2010-16 before a less successful spell in charge of Inter Milan last season as he lasted just three months (and just 14 matches) in charge of the Italian giants.

“I am thrilled to be appointed as manager of Crystal Palace Football Club. It is a great honor to take charge of such an historic club, a club that is known around the world for its hugely proud and passionate fan base,” De Boer said. “This role is a hugely exciting opportunity for me, and I cannot wait to get started in the Premier League with the players and staff here in south London.”

There’s no doubt De Boer’s playing career means he will demand the utmost respect from Palace’s players — he won five Dutch titles, a UEFA Champions League and Europa League at Ajax, a Spanish title at Barcelona and was capped 112 times by the Netherlands — but adapting to a new league may be difficult for the Dutchman, although he did spend time with Glasgow Rangers and had stops in Turkey and Qatar during his illustrious playing career. He’s no stranger to change.

Palace chairman Steve Parish revealed that De Boer’s arrival aligns with the ambitious plans for the club who also aim to develop their young players.

“We have undertaken a thorough interview process to ensure we are in a position to appoint a manager of the caliber and experience that Frank brings with him,” Parish said. “I am pleased to welcome him to Crystal Palace and I know he cannot wait to get started and prepare for our record breaking fifth season in the top flight.”

After Sam Allardyce announced his retirement at the end of the 2016-17 season after keeping Crystal Palace up in the Premier League, the Eagles have been searching for a new boss diligently. Parish is said to have favored former Hull boss Marco Silva to take charge of the south London club, but Silva opted for Watford.

Palace stretched out their managerial search with Mauricio Pellegrino, appointed by Southampton on Friday, also on their shortlist, but De Boer has now arrived to take charge of the ambitious London club.

With big money spent on the likes of Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye in recent seasons, the Eagles were supposed to be challenging for a top 10 finish. The past two seasons they’ve flirted with relegation under Alan Pardew and then Allardyce, with new American majority owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer yet to see the success they’d hoped for.

De Boer stated he would give every player at Palace a chance before making signings, but judging by the inconsistent displays by a squad largely built by Pardew and then patched up by Allardyce the Dutch coach will have a big job on his hands to turn the squad around and create a new identity for the Eagles.

He is a big name in the soccer world and Palace’s passionate fans will no doubt be excited by the prospect of De Boer bringing a new possession-based playing philosophy to Selhurst Park.

Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero swap deal in place?

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A huge swap deal for two of the Premier League’s biggest stars is reportedly being discussed.

[ MORE: Mourinho’s father dies ]

The Daily Star reports that Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero could involved in a swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester City this summer.

Per the report, the deal would be a straight-swap and when you think about it for a moment, it would be the perfect solution for almost everyone involved and with Aguero aged 29 and Sanchez 28, it’s a close to a perfect swap as you’ll find for both clubs.

The South American superstars are both in tough situations with their current teams, but this would also be a tough deal to get done.

Arsenal do not want to sell Sanchez, especially to a Premier League rival, but with the Chilean superstar having just 12 months left on his contract his transfer value is rapidly diminishing each week he doesn’t sign a new deal. And with Aguero dropped by Pep Guardiola on multiple occasions last season despite scoring 33 times in all competitions, the Argentine would get the chance to be the main man at Arsenal.

Everything should be on board with this, right?

Well, Aguero would have to sacrifice UEFA Champions League action for at least one season with Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League in 2017-18 which could throw a considerable spanner in the works of this rather outrageous deal. However, Arsenal would be getting one of the greatest finishers of his generation, and in Premier League history, which would mean they’d finally have the prolific forward they need to finish off the multiple gilt-edged chances per game they create.

Wenger went after Jamie Vardy last summer but failed and with Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott around, all three are far from prolific. Aguero would be one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw for Arsenal but both clubs would argue they’d want to keep their stars and add the other. The only way City would be able to add Sanchez is if they offer up Aguero.

Sanchez was signed by Guardiola at Barcelona and the Chilean would perfectly slot into City’s fluid front three alongside Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. Aguero didn’t fit that system well last season and despite Pep stating the Argentine striker would be at the club in 2017-18, you have to think he’d pick Alexis over Aguero.

Although this swap deal seems to suit almost everyone, it still seems incredibly far-fetched. That said, both Premier League clubs would save face in losing a star name and financially there would be no huge losses.

Hmmm. The more you think about it, the more this makes sense.