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Premier League 2014-15 preview: Liverpool

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This time last year, thoughts Liverpool could reclaim a spot in the Premier League’s top four seemed wishful, with a slew of buys from Tottenham putting Spurs in position to compete with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchesters City and United. Instead, Liverpool’s resurgence became one of the best stories of the season, with an 11-game winning streak (16, unbeaten) that ran through the end of April putting Brendan Rodgers’ team on the brink of the title.

Late slips against Chelsea and Crystal Palace threatened to put a damper on the 2013-14 campaign, but three months later, the season’s remembered less for its missed opportunities than the team’s huge leap up the table. After missing the tournament for four straight seasons, the five-time European champions are back in UEFA Champions League, and although they lost (read: cashed in, handsomely on) their best player this offseason, a new set of attacking talent, as well as an improved defense, could offset the absence of Luis Suárez.

This year, expectations are much higher, but they should be. As 2013-14 showed, Liverpool is finally back.

[RELATED: Full PL season preview]

Transfers In: Emre Can (Bayer Leverkusen, $16m), Adam Lallana (Southampton, $41.4m), Ricky Lambert (Southampton, $5.5m), Dejan Lovren (Southampton, $40m), Javi Manquillo (Atlético Madrid, loan), Lazar Markovic (Benfica, $33.4m), Divock Origi (Lille, $16m), Kevin Stewart (Tottenham, free)

Transfers Out: Luis Alberto (Málaga, loan), Iago Aspas (Sevilla, loan), Origi (Lille, loan), Jakub Sokolik (Yeovil, free), Luis Suárez (Barcelona, $108m), Andre Wisdom (West Brom, loan)

Full PL schedule | Watch Liverpool live via Live Extra | BPL on NBC schedule |

Last season: After four seasons of finishing no higher than sixth, Liverpool matched its best finish of the Premier League era, finishing second behind Manchester City. In the process, the team put up 101 goals and a +51 goal difference, losing only once after Dec. 29.

Star player: Daniel Sturridge

Worries about the loss of Suárez can be assuaged by the acquisitions of Lambert and Lallana, but Sturridge’s performance last year is fans’ biggest cause for hope. Just shy of 25, there’s reason to believe the English international can improve, having only two seasons with more than 20 starts under his belt. Coming off  21-goal, seven-assist campaign, Sturridge has already proven himself an elite attacker, but if he can continue to progress, he’ll draw the type of attention that will allow his new teammates to put up their own gaudy numbers.

Coach’s corner: Brendan Rodgers

The 41-year-old has delivered on the promise he brought from Swansea, not only producing an attractive, flexible brand of soccer but also returning Liverpool to its former prominence. In 2014-15, he’ll get his first taste of Champions League soccer, along with the balancing act that comes with it. If his recent past is any indication, expect Rodgers to be bold, and learn from the lessons that are likely to come.

PST predicts: Particularly with Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham) and Louis van Gaal (Manchester United) improving two talented squads, the league’s top six or seven will be more competitive than ever. Even if the team regresses, it feels Suárez’s loss, and captain Steven Gerrard shows his age (and miles), there’s no reason Liverpool can’t keep up. The Reds are among the favorites to claim a top four spot and a have a dark horse’s place in any title discussion.

Report: Chelsea set to overhaul defense with clear out

WATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: Odion Ighalo of Watford, Gary Cahill of Chelsea and Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea battle for possession during the Premier League match between Watford and Chelsea at Vicarage Road on August 20, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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At times during Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday, Antonio Conte looked like he was going to cry.

The defending was that bad.

[ MORE: Conte bemoans defending ]

Chelsea gave up three first half goals, the first in calamitous fashion as Gary Cahill was inexplicably caught on the ball to let Alexis Sanchez in to score, and Conte was seething in his post-match press conference about the level of defending and the fact that Chelsea has now conceded at least twice in each of their last four games.

The Daily Mail reports that the Italian manager has seen enough from both Cahill and struggling right back Branislav Ivanovic and he will “phase them out” in the coming weeks at Stamford Bridge.

With captain John Terry set to come back from injury, plus Kurt Zouma close to a return too, Conte has other options and it seems likely he will now use those.

Per the report, Conte is also looking elsewhere to bolster his defensive options with Burnley’s Michael Keane and Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson both linked with a January move to the Blues with the west London said to be scouting both players closely.

It will be intriguing to see how Conte changes things up in the games to come, especially as the Blues face tough tests against Hull City, Leicester City and Manchester United in their next three Premier League games.

Chelsea played the final 35 minutes at the Emirates in a 3-5-2 formation which is one Conte mastered at Juventus and with the Italian national team in the past. That formation may well get the best out of Terry, the erratic David Luiz and perhaps Zouma alongside them. Truth be told, Ivanovic and Cahill have both struggled for the last 12 months and it is about time they were held accountable for some of the defensive mistakes they’ve made.

Whatever Conte does, it has to be something drastic because the way he sets his team’s up they won’t win games 5-0. As long as Chelsea keep things tight, they’ll do well under the Italian manager. But right now that’s a big ‘if’ for the Blues.

As I wrote from the Emirates this weekend, Conte knows he has a huge job on his hands to transform their defense.

FIFA disbands racism task force ahead of World Cup in Russia

PRATO, ITALY - APRIL 13: General view during the FIFA Futsal playoff match between Italy and Hungary on April 13, 2016 in Prato, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) FIFA has disbanded its anti-racism task force, declaring the work complete despite ongoing concerns about discriminatory behavior in 2018 World Cup host Russia.

FIFA wrote to members of the task force to say that it has “completely fulfilled its temporary mission” and “is hereby dissolved and no longer in operation.”

“I wish I could say that I am shocked by the decision, but unfortunately I am not,” task force member Osasu Obayiuwana told The Associated Press on Sunday. “The problem of racism in football remains a burning, very serious and topical one, which need continuous attention.

“I personally think there remained a lot of very serious work for the task force to have done – the 2018 World Cup in Russia being one such matter. But it is evident the FIFA administration takes a different position.”

The task force was established in 2013 by then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter and headed by Jeffrey Webb, a vice president of world soccer’s governing body until he was arrested in 2015 as part of the American investigation into soccer corruption.

Webb, who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, was replaced exactly a year ago as task force chairman by Congolese federation president Constant Omari, who also sits on FIFA’s ruling council.

“We never had a single meeting under his chairmanship,” Obayiuwana said. “I wrote him, more than once, asking for when a meeting would be held. But I never received a reply from him.”

Obayiuwana, a journalist, broadcaster and qualified lawyer, received the letter from FIFA on Friday announcing the end of the task force.

“The FIFA Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination was set up with your help on a temporary basis to develop recommendations for FIFA,” wrote Gerd Dembowski, FIFA’s diversity and anti-discrimination manager.

“We are therefore delighted to inform you that all of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented and all resulting projects are ongoing.”

FIFA pointed to the introduction of an anti-discrimination monitoring system at matches, the launch of a “Good Practice Guide ,” starting a team of footballing legends and a new diversity award. Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s first female and non-European secretary general, will present the award on Monday at the SoccerEx convention in Manchester.

FIFA also told task force members that its own initiatives “actually exceed the working group’s recommendations” – trumpeting its “Say No to Racism” campaign, women’s leadership conferences and programs in Russia. There are less than nine months until Russia stages the Confederations Cup, the warm-up event for the 2018 World Cup.

The most recent research from the Moscow-based SOVA Center and the UEFA-affiliated FARE Network reported a surge in the number of racist displays by Russian soccer fans, with most cases going unpunished. Researchers logged 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in and around stadiums in the 2014-15 season, against a total of 83 for the previous two seasons put together.

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

MLS Snapshot: Columbus Crew 2-0 New England Revolution (video)

Joseph Maiorana/USA Today Sports
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The game in 100 words (or less): It was mostly the Crew from start to finish, and Ola Kamara’s brace helped ensure Greg Berhalter’s side that the team will remain in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. While the other Kamara — Kei — and his Revolution teammates were largely limited for chances on the evening, the Crew backline did an admirable job to prevent their opposition from testing them. For the Crew, it was the team’s first shutout since the two sides last met on August 20, ironically also a 2-0 victory for Berhalter’s group.

[ MORE: David Villa discusses MLS playoffs, Guardiola and more ]

Three moments that mattered

42′ – Ola smashes one past the Revs on the stroke of halftime — The Crew attack has sputtered a lot in 2016, but Ola Kamara continues to keep the team’s bleak playoff hopes intact.

67′ — Afful’s effort smacks against the post, stays out — The Crew attacked and attacked and attacked some more. Harrison Afful was definitely a bit unlucky that this chance didn’t end up in Brad Knighton’s goal.

84′ — Questionable penalty seals the points — It looked a bit soft to be given, but Kamara makes no mistake with the finish.

 

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Ola Kamara

Goalscorers: Ola Kamara (42′, 84)

Watch: Dario Benedetto scores audacious blast for Boca Juniors

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When there’s little support up the field, what should you do?

Just ask, Dario Benedetto.

The Boca Juniors man broke Sunday’s 4-1 win over Quilmes wide open after a quarter hour when Benedetto smashed a 40-yard attempt into the back of the net, leaving the opposing keeper speechless.

The 26-year-old did just about everything right on the day, as Benedetto finished off the match with a hat-trick before halftime.