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Survivors gather as Chapecoense plays first game since fatal crash

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CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) Slowly and steadily, Rafael Henzel will climb into the cramped space to broadcast Saturday’s friendly match for Brazilian club Chapecoense, the first since nearly the entire team was killed in an air crash almost two months ago.

Only six of the 77 passengers survived – and Henzel was one of them.

“The stairway at the Arena Conda is very steep, but I have extra motivation to be in that stadium again and see players wearing our shirt, the fans. It won’t be that stairway that will stop me,” Henzel told The Associated Press after his morning show on radio Oeste Capital.

Henzel has worked at Chapecoense matches since 2012, and is the voice of the team from the remote, southern Brazilian city of Chapeco. After 20 days in a hospital, seven broken ribs, multiple scars – one over his right eye- and worrisome pneumonia, Henzel went back to work at the radio station just over a week ago.

Now he’s making his second return – what he calls “Rafael 2.0” – in the match against Brazilian league champion Palmeiras, preparing to once again get behind the microphone at the tiny stadium.

His left foot is in a cast, but that won’t stop him.

“When I woke up at the crash site, I became aware of what had happened,” he said, recalling the crash. “Initially, I thought I was dreaming but then, shortly after, you start to realize that the plane had crashed.”

Three Chapecoense players survived – 19 were killed – when the plane slammed into the Andes mountains as it headed to the city of Medellin to face Colombian team Atletico Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final – the No. 2 club tournament in South America.

All three hope to play again, in one fashion or another. And all three are expected for Chape’s debut on Saturday.

Defender Neto, who spent more than 10 hours in the plane wreckage before being rescued, recently took his first steps without support.

He’s already visited the club and will be an inspiration for Chape’s new players in a busy season. Their 2017 commitments include defending their title in the Santa Catarina state league, keeping the team up in Brazil’s first division, playing for the first time in the prestigious Copa Libertadores – the continent’s No. 1 tournament – and fundraising in a pile of friendlies, including one against Barcelona.

“If I didn’t believe I could recover, I will get depressed,” Neto told reporters. “Doctors said I might return this year, but I don’t know whether my knees are still up for it,” Neto said in a press conference. “I will be here to give support to the players that come. It’s not easy to represent all those who died, but I want to be fit to play so I can be more than a symbol. I want to make a real contribution.”

Winger Alan Ruschel is the player in best shape for a return. He expects to be back within six months, but no doctor says it will definitely happen.

“I will do all that I can to play again, and I will be patient to get there,” Ruschel said. In tears, he said he has no recollection of the accident.

“I was in the front seats, then I changed with a friend of ours that is now gone,” he said. “I am pretty sure that that made me survive, because our goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was next to me and he also escaped. It was Follmann who told me to sit next to him, so I guess he also saved my life. I will have to live with this feeling forever.”

Goalie Follmann will not play for Chape again. He had part of his right leg amputated and is still going through minor surgery. He is considering becoming a Paralympian and a member of Chape’s staff.

The goalie has avoided talking about the future, but is not as gloomy as many about his current state.

“I choose life over the leg,” he told doctors during his recovery. “We will manage this easily.”

Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MSavarese .His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/mauricio-savarese

FIFA bans Colombia midfielder Cardona 5 games for gesture

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has banned Colombia midfielder Edwin Cardona for five matches for making a discriminatory gesture with his eyes toward a South Korean opponent.

FIFA will allow Cardona to serve the ban in friendly games, so he should be available for Colombia’s World Cup opener against Japan on June 19.

[ MORE: Pep on post-derby celebrations ]

Cardona has also been fined 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,150) because of the incident last month in a friendly in Seoul.

Cardona apologized at the time, saying he “didn’t mean to disrespect anyone, a country or a race, but if anyone felt offended, or interpreted it in that way, I am sorry.”

Spurs’ Alderweireld won’t return until February

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Spurs finally got a bit of good news this weekend with a blowout of Stoke City.

That was a followed by a tough draw against Juventus in the UEFA Champions League, and bad news on an old injury.

[ MORE: Benitez on NUFC struggles ]

Center back Toby Alderweireld is going to be gone into February, extending his time on the sidelines with a hamstring injury suffered Nov. 1 against Real Madrid.

Spurs were 6-2-2 in league when Alderweireld went down, and are just 2-2-2 since the injury. The Belgian has missed losses at Arsenal and Leicester, draws against Watford and West Brom, and wins over Crystal Palace and Stoke.

Tottenham did win both of its UCL matches since the injury.

Benitez: If we can’t add in January, work gets harder

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Newcastle United has swung from the top half of the table to the fringes of the drop zone, something that hasn’t caught Rafa Benitez off guard.

The veteran manager has not lost sight of his August transfer window shortcomings. He hasn’t dwelled on it in the media, but Benitez is also very cognizant that his team has lacked depth at striker, out wide, and at left back.

[ MORE: Pep on post-derby celebrations ]

To boot, most of his additions — Mikel Merino, Christian Atsu, Javi Manquillo — haven’t been loaded with experience.

“Some games we are the youngest team in the Premier League. We have to learn quickly. This team is working very hard. Little things we have to improve and we will be stronger.”

“We know our job. Everyone has an opinion. It’s not rocket science – we need players in some positions. If we can, fine, if not, we will have to work harder.”

Newcastle isn’t far away, but it’s woefully short at left back (to the point where it’s best options have been displaced center back Chancel Mbemba and right back Manquillo), and Benitez doesn’t trust Aleksandar Mitrovic up top with Joselu not firing (though Championship star scorer Dwight Gayle may be coming around).

Additions are still needed, and perhaps Benitez is marginally better off that Newcastle didn’t continue overachieving as it did early days.

Premier League Preview: Swansea City vs. Manchester City

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  • Man City leads all-time 22W-4D-7L
  • Swans winless in 11 vs. Man City
  • Last Swans win: 2012 at home

Manchester City can set the Premier League record for consecutive wins in a single season when it visits Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Each side has scored in the last eight meetings between the two in all competitions, which is about the only bit of good news for Paul Clement‘s side outside of their weekend win over West Brom. Man City has dominated the series in recent memory, and really all time.

[ MORE: Pep on post-derby celebrations ]

And some good news for Man City, too: There won’t be any problem with what they do in their own changing room.

“Like any club, Manchester City are able to play music in their dressing room,” a Swansea City spokesman said following the fracas at the Manchester Derby.

Wilfried Bony will be fired up to face his former club, and he’s coming off a big goal to sink West Brom. He’s going to have a lot in the tank. From the Manchester Evening News:

“Every game I look forward to but it is special to play against your old team. Injuries had an impact on my time at City. When you come from a club where you play every game and then you are playing maybe once a month or two games a month it is completely different.”

Vincent Kompany is out for Man City.

What they’re saying

Swansea City back Alfie Mawson on slowing Man City“I’m very fortunate to test myself against the highest calibre of footballer there is. City are flying this season. They’ve got one of the best managers in the world. We’ve got to find a way to combat them. Every team is finding it hard and I’m sure it’s going to be a very tough game because of the quality and depth they have. We’ve got to be switched on for the entire game, as they’ll punish one lapse in concentration.”

Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne on the 11-point table lead“Lots of teams lost points this weekend so it is a big one for us [the win] just to put more pressure on the rest. We have to enjoy it and then focus again for Wednesday. It is a big gap. If we slip up we are still in the lead. We can’t be complacent. We need to do what we have all year. I prefer to be 11 points ahead than 11 points behind that’s for sure.”

Prediction

The run continues, as Paul Clement prioritizes Saturday’s trip to Everton and City cruises to a 3-0 win.