Can Liverpool recreate last season’s Premier League magic?

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What do you get when you take the Player of the Season, add an unclogged fixture schedule, a pinch of tactical genius, a cup of top goalkeeping, sprinkle in a dash of youthful talent, and garnish with a seasoned on-the-field leader?

Why, you come a slip away from a Premier League championship, of course.

Unfortunately, with last year fallen through the grasp and gone forever, some of those ingredients are missing now, and Liverpool can’t exactly go to the grocery store and pick up another Luis Suarez out of the bread aisle.

Liverpool’s magical season last year should have earned them the Premier League title, except for the part where it didn’t. Now, with it all to do again, it will be hard for the Reds to repeat everything that helped move them to the top.

Now don’t get me wrong, they earned every bit of their second-place finish, and probably should have won it all.

But there were plenty of contributing factors that are no longer around in the brand new season.

First, every team around them got better. Arsenal got better. Manchester United got better. Chelsea got better. Manchester City got marginally better with an already loaded squad. Tottenham will be better. Last season, it seemed nobody wanted to win the league, but somebody had to. This year, that won’t be the case.

Another ingredient to last season’s success was their lack of other fixtures to keep the squad tied down, draw their attention away, and tire the players. They weren’t playing in Europe, were knocked out in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and eliminated in the third round of the League Cup. Across those two domestic competitions, they played just five matches.

This season, all that appears to be different. They’ll have the Champions League to contend with (not that that’s a bad thing by any means, but in a vacuum, it can only distract from their domestic season), and surely will look to progress further in the cup competitions.

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With Luis Suarez gone, the Liverpool attack is Daniel Sturridge’s to command, but his teammates will be needed to relieve some pressure.

But through it all, when asked about what his goals were next season, the only one manager Brendan Rodgers mentioned was the same one he targeted last year. “The first aim is to qualify for the Champions League, and then try to build your way up through. That’s what we did last year, going into every game just focusing on the next game.”

Despite all this, Rodgers doesn’t believe there will be much of a change. “There’s no great difference [from last season],” he told me after Liverpool’s win over AC Milan in Charlotte. “We’ve brought players in that understand the way of working, and obviously there are a lot of players that were retained from last season.”

But then, he recanted just a touch and admitted one difference. One key difference that may just be what the club needs to make up for what they no longer have on their side. “I think what we have this year, we have a greater belief. We were probably surprised for most of last season.”

He then talked about their preseason game against the Italian side. “I think you see tonight with the level of our football…what pleased me tonight was their maturity.”

It will be just that, the club’s experience of having challenged for the title last season, that will carry them through any sort of similar situation this season, should one arise.

Younger players such as Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen, and Jon Flanagan will have to help take some of the pressure off Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders, and having been through last year’s title fight gave them a priceless wealth of knowledge.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario this year where other clubs haven’t surpassed Liverpool with big-money purchases from abroad and a level playing field in the fixture congestion department. Hard, but not impossible. And even if Liverpool finish as low as fourth, and do maintain their Champions League status, the atmosphere surrounding supporters should be positive.

Brendan Rodgers has, since his arrival, instilled a belief of the long-term project. And even if this club takes a step or two backwards this season, that gold nugget at the end of the tunnel is still very much intact.

And who knows. After laying out next season’s goals, Rodgers said with a smile, “It’s very difficult to forecast in football.” True that. Maybe this season, Gerrard will stay on his feet, and the slipper will fit.

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.