Europa League group draw: Everton, Spurs face stiff tests

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There was a time when capturing the UEFA Cup was considered a better accomplishment than winning the European Cup, which only included league champions and thusly left out plenty of top opponents.

Winning the trophy now has a bit more luster with the added bonus of a Champions League berth to the victor, though certainly no one’s comparing the two trophies much anymore. The UEFA Europa League group stage draw was conducted this morning, as teams learned the next step on their desired paths to the UCL.

There are some groups where it’s relatively easy to predict the two clubs who will emerge but, unfortunately for fans of Everton and Tottenham, Groups C and H are not among them.

The latter group features Spurs, and will find the London club battling for a spot in the Round of 16 alongside Turkish powers Besiktas and respected Serbian club Partizan Belgrade. In the rankings of fourth teams to put in a group, Asteras may not be a household name but hail from a Greek Super League ranked No. 12 in the UEFA coefficient. Still, you’d have to figure Mauricio Pochettino’s boys will be favored to emerge.

Meanwhile, Everton has a beast of a challenge ahead of itself. They’ll take on Divock Origi and the dangerous Great Danes of Lille, a Wolfsburg team that boasts Kevin De Bruyne and Diego Benaglio, and Kubin Krasnodar of the eighth-ranked Russian Premier League.

Returning champions Sevilla get a tough draw in Group G.

Here are the groups. As an added bonus, I’ll italicize the two teams I predict will emerge from the group (provided their clubs like the prospect of advancing in the competition and treat it seriously).

Group A: Villarreal, Borussia Monchengladbach, Zurich, Apollon

Group B: Copenhagen, Club Brugge, Torino, HJK Helsinki

Group C: Spurs, Besiktas, Partizan Belgrade, Asteras

Group D: Red Bull Salzburg, Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb, Astra

Group E: PSV Eindhoven, Panathinaikos, Estoril, Dynamo Moscow

Group F: Inter Milan, Dnipro, St Etienne, Qarabag

Group G: Sevilla, Standard Liege, Feyenoord, Rijeka

Group H: Lille, Wolfsburg, Everton, Krasnodar

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

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The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

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The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

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The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

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On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.