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Ligue 1: Monaco’s title win the result of Jardim’s transformation

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PARIS (AP) Leonardo Jardim turned an inexperienced Monaco squad into one of Europe’s most entertaining teams, doing so while competing on four fronts.

The soft-spoken Portuguese coach with the unflinching stare was under pressure to keep his job. Now he’s one of the most sought-after coaches in Europe after wresting the French league trophy from Paris Saint-Germain and reaching the semifinals of the Champions League with a hedonistic brand of attacking football that produced 155 goals in all competitions.

“Winning the title with a team that is not the favorite is a great trophy,” Jardim said after securing the title late Wednesday. “Monaco as champion is worth four times PSG as champion. When PSG wins, it’s normal, but Monaco …”

PSG had won the previous four titles, clinching last season’s by 31 points.

Such is the huge popularity of this Monaco side that even opposing fans have applauded the team.

Monaco’s feel-good factor was reflected in the way Jardim escaped reproach when making the kind of decision only the most single-minded managers dare to make. It was up there with Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho for its unapologetic boldness.

At the end of April, with Monaco preparing to face mighty Juventus in the Champions League semifinals, Monaco travelled to play PSG in the French Cup semifinals. Victory would put Monaco within touching distance of a league and cup double, but Jardim calculated differently.

He wanted to rest his players before facing Toulouse and Juventus in quick succession, so fielded mainly reserves and lost 5-0.

Even though Jardim arguably devalued France’s national cup on its 100th anniversary, there was scant criticism because neutral fans wanted Monaco to do well in Europe. Even the league president understood.

The 42-year-old Jardim met his match only once this season; tactically outmaneuvered by Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri.

In the knockout rounds against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, there was no talk about it being 50-50 or other such soccer cliches. Instead, he specifically explained how Monaco was going to get through.

It is this firm confidence that defines an articulate man whose interests stretch far beyond football.

Last month, he met with French philosopher Edgar Morin, whose books have been translated into 28 languages. Jardim stumbled upon one when he was a physical education student in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira.

“My approach is very much influenced by Edgar Morin, who talks about seeing things through different perspectives that can interlock,” Jardim told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper. “I made the link between football and the complexity it entails.”

That’s not exactly your average coaching talk.

But Jardim has been different from the time he arrived from Sporting Lisbon in the summer of 2014, and caught the eye in his first match at home to Lorient.

He left out star striker Radamel Falcao, played midfielder Joao Moutinho out of position, and handed an unexpected start to young midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko – then hauled him off after 32 minutes.

The ruthless kind of behavior synonymous with his countryman Mourinho, perhaps. But Jardim’s decisions are rooted in an obsession with balance.

“A manager is permanently dealing with contradictions between the individual and the collective,” he said. “Sometimes, an approach that is too collective stops the quality of the individual from emerging.”

A year into his job, Jardim had to completely rebuild.

In the summer of 2015, because of former Financial Fair Play rules designed to control club finances, Monaco sold forward Anthony Martial to Manchester United. Midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia, winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, center half Aymen Abdenour and left back Layvin Kurzawa were all sold. Falcao was loaned out again, this time to Chelsea. The previous summer, forward James Rodriguez went to Real Madrid.

Still, in difficult circumstances, Jardim redesigned Monaco from a cautious team into a flair side packed with young talent and built around the verve of attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva.

He gambled correctly on Falcao this season, too, giving him another chance after two miserable years in England.

His other masterstroke was promoting teen forward Kylian Mbappe from the reserves in October.

Falcao scored 30 goals and the 18-year-old Mbappe netted 26, with one game remaining at Rennes on Saturday.

Jardim was named coach of the year with six of his players in the team of the season.

The ultimate compliment.

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32

Zidane anxiously awaiting goals from Ronaldo

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MADRID (AP) For Zinedine Zidane, the Madrid derby on Saturday is just what Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema need to break their scoring slump.

The Real Madrid forwards have been struggling in the Spanish league, with just two goals between them.

Ronaldo, while striking six times in the Champions League, has tallied only one in seven Liga appearances.

Benzema is having an even tougher time, with just two in 12 matches across all competitions.

“It’s true that this is not normal, but they just need to keep training and keep trying as they have been doing,” Zidane says.

“You don’t need to tell Karim and Cristiano that they should train more, it’s something they do. They will go out on the pitch and score, I am sure of it.”

Over his career, Ronaldo has thrived against Real’s crosstown rival, Atletico. He holds the record for the Spanish capital derby with 21 goals.

Benzema’s performances, however, have not been as impressive, with three goals in his last 14 league matches against Atletico.

Zidane says Ronaldo and Benzema focused on recovering their scoring form last week during the international break, when they stayed at the club instead of joining their national sides.

“We have been working on it,” he said. “What I want is that my players, my forwards, play well, and tomorrow is a good match for them to keep trying.”

Their scoring droughts have contributed to Real’s irregular season.

Real is in third place and level on points with Atletico, which is fourth after having trouble winning at its new Wanda Metropolitan Stadium.

Both sides need a victory to keep pace with leader Barcelona, which visits Leganes hours earlier.

If Barcelona wins, Madrid and Atletico will be staring at an 11-point gap by kickoff.