UEFA Champions League Preview: Which Atlético Madrid will meet Milan at the San Siro?

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It’s not just that Milan has struggled all season, their 10th place standing in Serie A a testament to the club’s most disappointing seasons in 15 years. It’s the fact that they matchup particularly poorly against Atlético Madrid, a team as comfortable without the ball as with. For a Rossoneri side strong in possession but weak in defense — a team that’s had trouble keeping goals off the scoresheet against capable counter attackers Napoli and Juventus (allowing eight in three games) — it’s a potential recipe for a landslide. As a Milan team that’s had trouble converting possession into goals presses for a home result, Atlético forwards Diego Costa and David Villa will get their chances against central defenders Adil Rami and Cristian Zaccardo.

Given how Atlético’s performed for most of this season, that’s how this game should play out, but in light of the Rojiblancos’ recent slide, the extent to which ‘most of this season’ applies is open to debate. Through the beginning of February, Atlético had only lost once all season. Then, in the span of eight days, Atleti lost three times: twice to Real Madrid; once to Almería. Though they bounced back this weekend with a 3-0 win over Valladolid (scoring twice in the first four minutes), 90 minutes weren’t enough to answer all questions. Has the Atlético that blew through the first five months of this season returned, or has February brought them back to earth?

[MORE: Champions League matchup with Atlético Madrid a cursed blessing for Milan’s Seedorf]

If February’s Atlético is not the same team that tore through fall, Milan has reason to think they can advance. Though they have not been convincing since Clarence Seedorf took over for Max Allegri as head coach on Jan. 16, the team has improved, enough so that talents like Mario Balotelli and Kaká could craft a tie-turning goal if needed. If Atletico are closer to Milan’s level than they appeared this fall, the Rossoneri can play for that one crucial goal. They can play a possession game that waits (rather than pushes) for openings, trusting that a 180-minute game will produce at least one opportunity.

That’s Milan’s best hope, but consider the odds of that situation coming to fruition. In the six months since the 2013-14 season started, Atlético has had one back week. While that week has come relatively recently, it’s also been put into the near past by the team’s weekend result against Valladolid. What are the odds that, over this two-leg tie, Atlético will regress to that poor form? And what are the odds Diego Simeone’s team will play as they have throughout the other five-plus months of the season?

[MORE: Atlético Madrid make a statement before Champions League matchup against Milan]

The only argument that sees Milan as a realistic threat relies on the irrelevant: history. With seven European titles, Milan is European elite, a status the means nothing come kickoff on Wednesday. While those results may translate into faith among the fanbase and some belief within the team, they also say nothing about the capabilities of the current squad. Better measures of Milan’s potential to upset Atlético are this year’s results, few of which recommend the Rossoneri as potential quarterfinalists.

Even if with midfield linchpin Tiago and left back Felipe Luis unlikely to play, Atlético should be considered heavy favorites to advance. The principles that allowed them to join Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain’s title race will still be evident on the field. Consistently able to outwork opponents without unduly exposing themselves, Atlético has developed a way to match up with almost any team in the world, their faith in their own effort making them a dark house in both Spain and Europe.

Whether Milan can match their effort will depend on the Atlético that shows up at the San Siro. If it’s the team that struggled throughout the middle of February, the Rossoneri can claim a result. If it’s the team that’s defined Atlético’s 2013-14 surge, Milan will be out of their league.

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United

Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the Year award

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LONDON (AP) Mohamed Salah has been voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in English football in recognition of an incredible scoring return to the Premier League with Liverpool.

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

The Egypt forward collected the Professional Footballers’ Association award at a ceremony in London on Sunday, two days before Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

It is a reunion with the Italian club he left in the offseason for 42 million euros (then $47 million). The hefty fee appeared to be a gamble for Liverpool but now represents a real bargain.

The former Chelsea player has scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool – enabling him to beat Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in second place to the PFA award.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane was third.

[ MORE: Man City thrash Swansea in pursuit of points record ]

“It’s a big honor,” Salah said. “I’ve worked hard and I’m very happy to win it.”

Salah is preparing to lead Egypt into its first World Cup in 28 years and he is the first player from the North African nation to win English football’s top individual prize.

“Hopefully I’m not the last one,” he said. “I’m very proud to win and I’ve worked very hard.”

Salah’s impact has been more remarkable given his underwhelming 2014-15 season at Chelsea before being offloaded by then-manager Jose Mourinho. He went on loan to Fiorentina in early 2015 and Roma in 2016, and then on a permanent basis to Roma in August 2016.

Scoring 15 goals and setting up 11 more for Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to a second spell in England.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw West Brom in final tune-up before UCL semis ]

His goal at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was his 31st in the league this season, tying the scoring record in a 38-game campaign held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.

Suarez was the last Liverpool player to be crowned player of the year by the PFA in 2014 before moving to Barcelona.

It’s a sign of his remarkable impact that Salah secured the award with third-place Liverpool and that none of Manchester City’s newly crowned champions won the accolade.

But City winger Leroy Sane was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

The PFA women’s player award went to Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, while Lauren Hemp of Bristol City secured the young player prize.

CONCACAF cancels women’s U-17 tournament due to violence

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) CONCACAF has canceled the rest of its 2018 Women’s Under-17 Championship following violence in Managua, Nicaragua, where the tournament began Thursday.

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football made the announcement Sunday. The tournament was to have determined the region’s qualifiers for the Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay, which starts Nov. 13.

More than two dozen people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead. Dozens of shops in Managua were looted during protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms.

The U.S. opened Friday with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica and had been scheduled to play Bermuda on Sunday and Canada on Tuesday.