Shakhtar players reveal “deadly risk” and fear of returning to Ukraine

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On Monday it was revealed that six Shakhtar Donetsk players had refused to return to war-torn Eastern Ukraine ahead of the new soccer season.

Alex Teixeira, Fred, Dentinho, Douglas Costa, Facundo Ferreyra and Ismaily all refused to board a plane from Lyon, France back to Donestsk after the Ukrainian champions played a preseason friendly last weekend.

[RELATED: Shakhtar players refuse to return]

The city of Donetsk is now controlled by pro-Russian rebels and has been at the heart of intense battles in recent months as the Ukrainian government try to claim the city back.

By refusing to return the six players in question have enraged the club’s billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov, who warned them they would lose millions in payments by breaching their contract. Shakhtar’s Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu lashed out at the players’ agent, Kia Joorabchian, as he believed they were trying to engineer a move away from Donetsk due to the volatile situation in the region.

However, ulterior motives aside, the players are just scared of going back.  Who can blame them?

Douglas Costa, a reported target for Manchester United earlier this year, posted the following message on his Instagram page to try and explain to people why they did not want to return to Donetsk ahead of the 2014-15 Ukrainian Premier League season which begins this weekend.

“We all run a deadly risk if we are in the region,” Costa said. “I like the club, the people, the city, but I’m afraid. We want to stay at the club, but we must have risk-free working conditions.”

I think must people would echo Costa’s sentiments.

Donetsk is located less than 38 miles away from where Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was believed to have been shot down by pro-Russian rebels on Friday. Ahead of the new Ukrainian season the club still doesn’t know where it will be playing its home games, as a neutral venue must be organized, with Kharkhiv the most likely option. Shakhtar, who have won five-straight Ukrainian titles, will also compete in the UEFA Champions League this season.

However even the alternative city of Kharkiv isn’t safe. Four Metalist Kharkiv players have also refused to return. Jose Sosa, Jonatan Cristaldo, Alejandro Gomez and Sebastian Blanco are all from Argentina and in a similar move to Shakhtar’s players they have refused to head back to the Ukraine.

In total four Ukrainian teams – Metalurh Donetsk, Olimpik Donetsk, Zorya Luhansk and Shakhtar – are based in cities controlled by rebels and all will have to play at neutral venues this season. The league itself was reduced to 14 teams as two Crimean sides withdrew after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula earlier this year.

It seems crazy that while all the unrest continues in Ukraine, soccer teams continue to prepare for a new season and the players are asked to carry on as normal.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

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Swansea City’s bid to slow down steamrolling Liverpool begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The rampaging Reds are coming off a 4-3 win that ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League season, and will hope to avoid a let down against desperate Swans.

The Welsh hosts are six points adrift in the race for Premier League safety, and look set for a 5-4-1 with Jordan Ayew the only forward. Wilfried Bony and Oliver McBurnie are on the bench along with attack-minded Luciano Narsingh.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Van der Hoorn, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Ki, Fer, Clucas, Dyer, Ayew. Subs: Nordfeldt, Bartley, Roque Mesa, Carroll, Narsingh, McBurnie, Bony.

Liverpool: Karius, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Milner, Klavan, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

Kevin De Bruyne commits to Man City through 2022-23

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Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and he’s committing his prime to the club which has taken him to the next level.

[ MORE: How will Arsenal, Man Utd line up? ]

Manchester City announced a new deal for the Belgian wizard, keeping him at the Etihad Stadium through 2023.

De Bruyne, 26, has posted 31 goals and 38 assists for Pep Guardiola‘s men since returning to England from the Bundesliga, and appreciates being given a lot more money. From ManCity.com:

“As I’ve said previously, my intention has always been to stay here at City, where I’ve felt at home from day one. Not only are we winning – we are playing great football. It’s a pleasure to be a part of and I’m really excited about what we can achieve in the coming years.”

De Bruyne is in the discussion for a Ballon d’Or finalist spot this year, along with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and others (Hot take: This does seem to be year Ronaldo possibly knocked off, barring a remarkable run in the Champions League or World Cup).

After the swap: Alexis, Mkhi-infused XIs for Man Utd, Arsenal

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The deal is done: Henrikh Mkhitaryan has moved to Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez going the other way in a monumental January move.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

How will it look for each side once the shape’s settled?

Arsenal

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was at his very best — for Borussia Dortmund in 2014-15 — he was deployed as a left or right wing. He contributed 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 matches during his final season at the Westfalenstadion, and predictably saw those numbers drop as Jose Mourinho consistently moved him toward an attacking center midfield role.

He’ll get the chance to go out wide again at the Emirates Stadium, though perhaps not always to the extreme flanks. Expect Alexandre Lacazette‘s numbers to explode with this move.

Arsene Wenger used a 4-3-3 to batter Crystal Palace 4-1 at the weekend, with Ozil on the right wing and Alex Iwobi on the left. The club still needs better at center defensive mid while Aaron Ramsey is out, so that will likely keep the lineup similar until he returns (at a minimum):

Cech

Bellerin — Mustafi — Koscielny — Montreal

Elneny (Ramsey, eventually)

Xhaka — Wilshere

Ozil — Lacazette — Mkhitaryan

By the way, a lot of Arsenal supporters aren’t feeling great about this (understatement alert):

Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez prefers left wing, too, and Mourinho has a trio of in-form players who like that side of the field. Anthony Martial is red hot but plays wider than Jesse Lingard, and it seems one of them will take the slot of Juan Mata to the right of Paul Pogba in a 4-1-4-1. Marcus Rashford could also see the far right positioning.

But against top competition — continued apologies to Burnley — it’s usually a 4-2-3-1 for Mourinho with Pogba dropping next to Nemanja Matic a little deeper in the formation. Lingard has been getting the run as CAM here, usually to the detriment of Juan Mata. With Alexis as the clear-cut left wing in this formation, it causes real combat for the two other slots between Mata, Lingard, Rashford, and Martial.

So while it’s likely we’d see something like this in a big game for Manchester United…

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Pogba

Martial — Lingard —  Sanchez

Lukaku

… We’d love to see something more like this:

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Herrera

Pogba

Martial — Lukaku — Sanchez

How do you think Wenger and Mou will run ’em out?

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

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Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…