After raw deal at Chelsea, Ancelotti’s 5th Champions League is redemption years in the making

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By the fifth time, even winning the European Cup can get to be a little routine.

That’s what Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti did yesterday by defeating Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final yesterday, cementing himself at the very top of not just managerial history, but soccer history altogether.

However, it seemed that in the waning hours of Madrid’s victory night, as the dust settled on his third Champions League title as a manager, this could be Ancelotti’s most important of them all.

The 54-year-old Italian won two European Cup titles as a player, captaining a legendary AC Milan team in the late 1980’s that destroyed the competition.  He’s used to domination.

So once he left his comfort zone after managing AC Milan to two more titles, it was clear he was headed for greatness. But even Ancelotti isn’t immune to bumps in the road.

Roman Abramovich hired Ancelotti in 2009 still trying to replace the gaping hole he had created after his falling out with Jose Mourinho, a void that Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari, and Guus Hiddink all failed trying to plug.

But Ancelotti was the man for the job, leading Chelsea to the Premier League title in 2010 in his first season on the job, becoming the first Italian manager to win the Premier League and proving he wasn’t just a one-team band.

Winning outside a comfort zone is a difficult thing to do, and after a total of 13 years at AC Milan, he proved his worth at not just another club but another league altogether, the mark of a man at the top of his profession.

He won the FA Cup as well, making him only the second-ever non-British manager alongside Arsene Wenger to lead an English team to the domestic double.

The next year Chelsea struggled somewhat, falling to fifth place after a poor run of form. He engineered a remarkable turnaround, as Chelsea finished second in the Premier League, but once again Abramovich couldn’t help himself.

source: AP
Ancelotti’s ability to adjust to Atletico’s neutralization of Cristiano Ronaldo is a token of his genius.

The Russian hammer came down again, and Ancelotti was left out in the cold, brutally sacked for the second time in his managerial career.

It harkened back to his short time at the helm of Juventus, when word of his firing came down at halftime of their final Serie A game of the year while he still had an outside shot at winning the title.

But the Italian, just like his club last night, didn’t wallow in his misery, but immediately began laying the groundwork for building himself back up.

“Sometimes I make mistakes,” Ancelotti admitted following last night’s game. “The team bounced back and we have been able to do what we set out to do at the start of the season.  This feels like something even bigger than winning the World Cup.”

After last night’s managerial masterpiece, one must sit and wonder if Chelsea, who haven’t exactly done poorly since he left, would be sitting atop the European landscape had he remained.

Instead, Real Madrid are instead the ones benefiting from his genius, as he struck oil thrice with his substitutions.  The true stroke of brilliance came on his first two, bringing on Isco and Marcelo for the ineffective pair of Fabio Coentrao and Sami Khedira.  The double change came with a half-hour yet to play, and against a team that had neutralized so many of Real’s threats all season long, they had time to settle in.

Marcelo was brilliant down the left, key because Cristiano Ronaldo had been silenced. Isco brought instant life to the midfield in an area where Khedira had become a black hole. The German holding midfielder looked uncomfortable going forward, completing a horrid 68% of his passes, giving away nearly half of the 28 he attempted. His replacement, in half the time, connected on 43 of his 48 pass attempts and created two chances.

His third substitution of Alviro Morata for Karim Benzema was less hailed, as Morata didn’t exactly have an obvious impact on the game, but the physicality he brought was an unheralded addition.  At a time in the game when Atletico’s legs looked ready to fall off, Morata committed five fouls in his short time on the pitch, creating space for his brethren on the ball.

But Ancelotti’s most genius move of all came in the form of a player he didn’t substitute. Having been chopped down by analysts for his atrocious finishing, Gareth Bale had actually been one of Real’s best players aside from in front of goal. He was slicing up defenders both on the ball and off it, and it was only a matter of time before the world’s most expensive player found the back of the net.

Ancelotti’s refusal to remove Bale in a match where Atletico focused much of their energy on their hack-a-Ronaldo strategy paid off tenfold.  While he flubbed three brilliant chances in regulation, it took extra time before a bit of luck plopped him in the perfect position to finish Di Maria’s deflected shot.

Real Madrid have themselves a gem at the helm.  His calm demeanor and ability to adjust to any given situation was evident during his time quarterbacking AC Milan’s midfield, and now again proves vital on the Champions League stage.

Ancelotti still has plenty of work to do, still without a La Liga title in his two years at the Bernabeu, an especially painful void after essentially throwing away the table’s top spot down the stretch this year.  But it was obvious the Champions League – not the domestic titles – was the club’s top priority this season.

And while Chelsea aren’t dead in the water without the Italian leading the way – they themselves won Champions League glory in 2012 after his departure – let me finish by handing you this little nugget to chew on. Real Madrid brought in seven new players last summer, and it showed early.  The club took a bit of time to settle in.

However, it’s those that left Madrid that tell the story.  Each of the four players that left won a trophy with their new club – Mesut Ozil at Arsenal, and Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, and Raul Albiol at Napoli.  The only one who failed to win a trophy after leaving Real Madrid last summer: Jose Mourinho.

And that, my friends, is revenge served up cold, the only way Carlo Ancelotti likes it.

Report: Liverpool to escape punishment over Van Dijk pursuit

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The Times states that Liverpool will not be punished further for pursuing Southampton defender Virgil Van Dijk.

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Earlier this month the Reds issued a public apology to Southampton and stated they had ended their interest in the 25-year-old Dutch defender following allegations that Van Dijk was flown to Blackpool (just north of Liverpool) to meet with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and their manager messaged VVD “regularly” as they chased the Dutch international.

Southampton, as you would expect, were far from happy about this so-called “tapping up” from Liverpool and reported the Reds to the Premier League by making an official complaint.

Liverpool’s apology was then followed by a preliminary investigation, but reports state that there will be no further action taken against Liverpool by the PL with “insufficient evidence” to support the claims surrounding the alleged “tapping up” of Van Dijk and unless new evidence arrives then the case will be closed.

Regardless, this whole episode has been incredibly embarrassing for Liverpool, especially when you take into account their current ban from signing academy players when a similar case cropped up over chasing a youngster in Stoke City’s academy.

Klopp has not only lost the chance to sign Van Dijk (at least, that’s the way it seems for now) but Liverpool have also lost some respect for the way they supposedly went about this business. American owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) went to great lengths to apologize for this situation and are keen to stress they always conduct their business in a respect manner.

Now, we would all be a little naive to believe that this type of thing doesn’t happen a lot in soccer. A player (usually through his agent) will perhaps gently let another team know he’s interested in a move to them, and the ball gets rolling from there. Of course, the two clubs are supposed to agree a fee for the player first and then said player can meet with his potential new club to square away the details.

Southampton are said to still be furious about the approach from Liverpool to Van Dijk, so much so that if they were to sell their star player and captain this summer (they maintain he’s not for sale) they’d rather take less money from another club (Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal are all said to be interested) than let him leave for Anfield for over $70 million.

After Liverpool plucked Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and Sadio Mane from Saints in the past few years, it’s easy to understand why the South Coast club are now standing firm and saying enough is enough.

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

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That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup