Sterling to play or be rested vs. QPR?

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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Mourinho: Leicester home should be Claudio Ranieri Stadium

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City shows his frustration as Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho cannot quite get his head around Leicester City’s firing of Claudio Ranieri.

The story is on the tips of the tongues of many in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s boss is no exception.

[ MORE: UEL draw | Who is Rostov? ]

Speaking Friday ahead of United’s EFL Cup Final against Southampton, here’s what Mourinho had to say.

From the BBC:

“He deserves the Leicester stadium to be named ‘Claudio Ranieri Stadium’. The most beautiful thing in the Premier League and one of most beautiful in football history.

“Now Leicester are in the highlights again with a decision that has everyone in football united. It’s very difficult to accept. It’s important to realize how football is and we need to react. I was sacked as a champion [by Chelsea], a giant negative as I thought – peanuts compared to Claudio.

“I don’t think he needs more. Nobody can do what he did. If some of the stories have just a little bit of truth, it is difficult to find words to justify but we have to be able to cope.”

Mourinho is giving voice to what many feel, this writer included. Ranieri is in a relegation fight, yes, but to fire him days after the Foxes stole a road goal against Sevilla that gives them reasonable odds to advance in the UEFA Champions League? It’s an odd one, and smacks a bit of, “Well, we can’t fire him if he beats Liverpool or Sevilla”.

Liverpool visits the King Power Stadium this weekend, and the Foxes will need an incredible response at home to topple the rested Reds. Sure the Premier League is win now, but add me to the chorus who thinks the new manager will have the same odds to fix Leicester as Ranieri.

Roma’s American president losing patience over stadium delay

James Pallotta, AS Roma
AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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ROME (AP) Roma’s American president is starting to lose patience with city officials over long-delayed plans for a new stadium.

Ahead of a meeting between municipal authorities and club officials Friday, James Pallotta issued a statement saying the team expects “a massively positive result” from the encounter.

Pallotta adds “the alternative would be catastrophic for the future of AS Roma, Italian football, the city of Rome, and quite frankly for future business in Italy.”

[ MORE: PST feature on Pallotta ]

The mostly privately financed 1.6 billion euro ($1.7 billion) project received another setback this week when cultural authorities announced plans to declare the proposed stadium site – an abandoned hippodrome – as a site of “particularly important interest.”

The project in Tor di Valle, halfway between downtown and Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, also includes three office towers.

Who is Manchester United’s UEL opponent Rostov?

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 15: Jano Ananidze (L) of FC Spartak Moscow is challenged by Alexandru Gatcan of FC Rostov during the Russian Premier League match between FC Spartak Moscow v FC Rostov at Otkrytie Arena Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho and Manchester United have learned their fate for the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 16.

The Red Devils face Russian side FC Rostov in the next round of the tournament, four victorious ties from claiming an automatic spot in the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Spurs sent packing | Full UEL draw ]

So who is Rostov? Seventh in the Russian Premier League standings, Selmashi finished second last season and won the league in 1994 and 2008.

Rostov entered the Europa League after a run through the Champions League which saw the club knock out Anderlecht and Ajax, both still alive in the UEL, before finishing third behind Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich in the group stage. Rostov beat Sparta Prague in the Round of 32 of the UEL.

The club is led by former Moldova boss Ivan Daniliants. Its leading scorer is left wing Dmitri Poloz with 11 goals, and Ecuadorian national teamer Christian Noboa and Moldova veteran Alexandru Gațcan among its mainstays.

While some will make the case that a rough pitch, long trip, and stingy team makes this draw a bad one for United, Mourinho’s crew should triumph. How worse could it have been? This one won’t be easy, but consider Roma, Schalke, Borussia Monchengladbach… even a reunion with Memphis Depay and Lyon would bring more of a challenge than Rostov.

Europa League draw: Man Utd learns fate

Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan, center back to camera, celebrates scoring the opening goal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 2nd right, and other teammates during a Europa League round of 32 second leg soccer match between Saint Etienne and Manchester United at Geoffroy Guichard stadium in Saint Etienne, France, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
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The travel is tricky, but Manchester United’s draw for the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 could’ve been much worse.

The Red Devils are off to Russia to face FC Rostov in the next round of the UEL competition.

[ MORE: Spurs out | Who is Rostov? ]

In another draw that leads you to question whether there’s anything random about it all, United and lone La Liga representative Celta Vigo drew winnable matches against Russian clubs, Roma has a tantalizing match against Lyon, and an all-Bundesliga match hits the docket.

Heck, we’ll even see an all-Belgian tie between Gent vs. Genk.

And in a draw which will have many glued to their sets, USMNT left-sided man Fabian Johnson will help Borussia Monchengladbach against German rivals Schalke. The first leg comes five days after the pair face off in Bundesliga play.

The Round of 16 legs will be played March 9 and 16.

UEFA Europa League Round of 16

Rostov vs. Manchester United
Celta Vigo vs. Krasnodar
Copenhagen vs. Ajax
Olympiacos vs. Besiktas
Lyon vs. Roma
Schalke vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
APOEL Nicosia vs. Anderlecht
Gent vs. Genk