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Phillip Lahm comes to the defense of Pep Guardiola

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After a five-goal loss in the UEFA Champions League semifinals, Bayern Munich deserve some mild scrutiny, considering the result represented a step back from what the club was able to achieve last year. Though this year’s team has won the Bundesliga and may yet claim the German Cup, it won’t replicate last year’s league-Cup-Europe triumph. Instead, they’re left asking why, for the first time since 2011, the team came up short of Champions League’s final.

To date, most of that scrutiny has been aimed at Pep Guardiola – the coach who took over for Jupp Heynckes last summer. With a stronger squad, Guardiola came up short, leaving some to speculate his style and tactics, not the natural uncertainties of Champions League, are to blame for Bayern’s early exit.

It’s a view FCB captain Philipp Lahm disputes. Speaking to Germany’s Bild newspaper, the defender-cum-midfielder noted that for most of the season Guardiola’s now-criticized tactics worked just fine.

Via our partners at Soccerly:

“With Pep Guardiola, we showed throughout two-thirds of the season that we could have our own style of play that is very effective, precise and dangerous in attack, and, yes, like Barcelona, have lots of possession of the ball,” Lahm told Wednesday’s edition of weekly newspaper Sport Bild.

“And that’s the style we’re going to continue working on.”

Soccerly has more, but while it’s easy to point to Guardiola as the difference between this year and last, critics should also acknowledge that each Champions League presents a new set of challenges. Real Madrid, after coming close to the final in the last three tournaments, was bolstered by the acquisitions of Gareth Bale and Daniel Carvajal, the further integration of Luka Modric, and the presence of Carlo Ancelotti.

Would last year’s Bayern team have defeated this Real Madrid? Who knows, but that’s partially the point. Comparing teams across seasons can be helpful, but it’s not the only answer. It’s also possible the array of factors that go into claiming a Champions League one year are unlikely to be as forgiving in another.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

FA Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.

The leading names to take over for Claudio Ranieri

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 07:  FC Internazionale Milano head coach Roberto Mancini looks on during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Empoli FC  at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 7, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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The wounds of Claudio Ranieri‘s firing are still healing, but it’s now up to Leicester City to move on without him. Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell will take over on an interim basis, but they need a permanent replacement.

So who are the early frontrunners?

The early favorite is former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini. The Italian won the league in 2011/12 with City, but was harshly sacked the following season with the club in second place in the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup final. He since has been in charge of Turkish side Galatasaray and also returned to Internazionale where he managed before moving to England. The 50-year-old has been out of a job since departing Inter in August.

After Mancini, the names start to seriously thin out. Alan Pardew is the second-favorite, having been fired in late December with Crystal Palace in a freefall. Frank de Boer is also high on the list, with the Dutchman finding himself on the unemployment list after just 85 days at Inter, sacked after a run of four defeats in five. Former Birmingham City manager Gary Rowett is also mentioned, after he was unexpectedly let go in December with the club 7th in the Championship table.

Even further down the list is Avram Grant, an Israeli who last spent three years in charge of the Ghanan national team and has prior Premier League experience during short stints with Chelsea and West Ham. Mark Warburton has been mentioned, without a job since his hotly contested departure from Rangers earlier this calendar year, with the club saying he resigned after falling well behind Celtic in the title race, but Warburton claiming that was not the case.

While the names mentioned aren’t exactly inspired given Leicester City’s recent history at the top of the Premier League table, the immediate goal is to avoid relegation. Whoever comes in will have the difficult job of following in Ranieri’s footsteps, given his aptitude for charisma and appreciation by fans and the media. If they can do the job, however, they’ll not only write their own names into the Leicester City history books, but also validate the decision by ownership to part ways with the beloved Italian who brought them a title. The board has to get this one right.

17-year-old Donnarumma in contract dispute at AC Milan

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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AC Milan has developed a teenage sensation, but they might not be able to keep him.

Young goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma could find himself on the open market this summer after reports that his agent Mino Raiola has balked at AC Milan’s contract offer.

Donnarumma is just 17 years old and has been hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne, earning the first-place job at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this season. However, according to Italian publication Calcio Mercato, Milan offered Donnarumma just $2.6 million a year, while Raiola is reportedly seeking twice that.

Milan’s caution is understandable given Donnarumma’s extreme youth at a position that usually sees players rise and fall at a later age, but the teenager has already become a sensation in Italy, and Raiola is looking to capitalize on his popularity.

However, it’s not just sensationalism that Raiola is hoping to pounce on. According to Squawka Statistics’ Performance Index, Donnarumma has performed as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season behind Wojciech Szczesny. If AC Milan doesn’t wish to pay its young star, it’s likely that someone out there will – rather handsomely.

Premier League money could be enticing for both the player and his agent who has already made a fortune negotiating big-money deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Mario Balotelli, and plenty others. Manchester City could be after a young goalkeeper to challenge the struggling Claudio Bravo, while the Manchester United sticks could be left vacant if David De Gea ever makes his way to Spain as is annually rumored.

Either way, Donnarumma deserves to be paid, based both on his fantastic performances this season at the San Siro and the subsequent popularity he has gained as the successor to one of the games great goalkeepers.