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Seedorf lauds Milan’s improvement, remains optimistic about second leg at Atlético

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Within the context of a disappointing 2013-14 season, Milan’s performance on Wednesday against Atlético Madrid was a small ray of sunshine, even if the Rossoneri left the San Siro down 1-0 in the teams’ UEFA Champions LeagueRound of 16 matchup. Particularly in the middle of the first half, Milan played as well as they have all season, generating two near-goals for Kaká and another for Andrea Poli. While a 83rd minute winner from Diego Costa meant the day was ultimately an unsuccessful one, the performance highlighted the slow progress the team has been able to make under Clarence Seedorf.

“I think everybody saw what my players did tonight, and I am proud of what they did, really,” Seedorf said after his first Champions League match as a head coach (as relayed by UEFA.com). “In the last 20 minutes we were tired and we were also a bit unlucky with their goal, I have to say … It will be tough in the return leg, I know, but I also remember I have had some fun in that stadium.”

A four-time Champions League winner as a player, Seedorf was hired to replace former Milan boss Max Allegri on Jan. 16, lifting some fans’ hopes that a disappointing season could still see Milan do some damage in Champions League. Although Wednesday’s result means that’s now less likely, the performance showed the Rossoneri have become a more capable side than the one Seedorf inherited last month.

“My players are trying to improve, they are working hard, and I see the team spirit growing,” Seedorf said after his first Champions League game as a head coach. “My past experience tells me that team spirit can make you go far in the competition.”

As Wednesday showed, it will take more than team spirit to oust the favored Atlético, but given three more weeks to help his players adjust to a new system (as well as each other), Milan may be even stronger when the teams take the field at the Vicente Calderón.

“Balotelli is improving match by match but it takes time for strikers to adapt to each other,” Seedorf explained. “They have not played many games together.”

Between Wednesday and Milan’s visit to Madrid, Seedorf’s team will get three chances to improve that familiarity: league matches against Sampdoria, Juventus, and Udinese. On Mar. 11, they try to turn around their one-goal deficit at the Calderón.

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.

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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.