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Champions League final in Cardiff delivers on every level

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CARDIFF —  Wales’ capital city deserved a great final.

It got one.

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This game is always the most-watched annual TV event around the globe and with two heavyweights colliding under the roof at the Principality Stadium the anticipation for Saturday’s final was intense. It did not disappoint.

Real Madrid beat Juventus 4-1 with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice, plus a wonder-goal from Mario Mandzukic pulling Juventus level at half time. Then Real pulled away to seal back-to-back UCL trophies, their third in the last four seasons and Zinedine Zidane’s side became the first team in 27 years to defend the European Cup. There was plenty to celebrate for Real and their fans at the final whistle.

The Champions League final festivities have been going on all week in Cardiff and started early all around the UK on Saturday.

Packed onto trains from London’s Paddington Station early in the morning, fans of Juventus and Real Madrid were filled with nervous excitement as the belted out chants and sipped on beer with flags of their respective nations wrapped around their waists.

Fans flew from Madrid and Turin that morning and got straight to Paddington, still with their Gazzetta dello Sport and Marca newspapers under their aim, and jumped on the train.

Huge crowds were traveling from London to Cardiff, but many more awaited in Wales’ capital city after three days of events in and around the host city.

Before the game Real Madrid’s coach Zinedine Zidane spoke about wanting to see a “great final” between two attacking teams.

The former Juve star spoke for everyone and this game, and the occasion, lived up to the expectations.

“It’s the same for Juventus. We’re going to try to play our game; we know we’re going to play against a great team. What everyone who likes football wants to see is to see a great final,” Zidane explained.

His captain, Sergio Ramos, spoke about an “appointment with history” and Real delivered, extending their own record as 12-time champions of Europe.

Before the game, though, the subplots swirled.

Would Real become the first team in over 26 years to win back-to-back European Cups? Would Gareth Bale, the hometown hero, play for Real after his injury? Could legendary goalkeeper Gianliugi Buffon, 39, win his first-ever Champions League trophy? Would Cristiano Ronaldo equal Lionel Messi’s record of four Champions League titles? Could Juve become just the second Italian team to complete a famous treble?

All of that excitement, plus the fact that both teams were stacked with bonafide studs, meant that expectancy was in the air. Real had scored 32 goals throughout the competition this season, while Juve hadn’t lost any of their 12 games heading into the final.

With the sun beating down on the Welsh capital, the streets in and around the Millennium Stadium were packed hours before kick off.

Cardiff Castle was draped in Champions League banners with a dragon guarding the trophy, and the locals were dancing in the streets with fans of both clubs singing “Wales! Wales! Wales!”

There was a proper party atmosphere and the perfect way to bring down the curtain on the 2017-18 domestic season in Europe.

Locals drank beer and wore purple and white Real Madrid shirts, with Juve fans taking over one end of town and Real’s at the other.

Cardiff is the perfect place for an “away day” final with bars all long the cobbled streets leading down to the stadium as you get off the train. Just like it did during Wembley’s refurbishment as it hosted the FA Cup final, Cardiff did it right. Everyone wanted to be there as hotels were booked months in advanced and fans stayed in Bristol, Swansea and Newport nearby, plus many traveled from London on the day.

On the pitch before the game the Black Eyed Peas performed with Pyrotechnics in the background under the closed roof due to security concerns.

Even if the pregame show was a little too much for some purists, the game itself lived up to the hype.

Ronaldo got the ball rolling and Manduzkic’s fine goal, which made it 1-1, will go down in history.

But just when it ebbed and flowed in the second half, Real put its foot on the accelerator and kicked on.

Casemiro made it 2-1. Ronaldo made it 3-1 and Marco Asensio finished things off late on to make it 4-1. That was it. The game was done and dusted.

Cardiff’s ability to host and stage fine finals will never be over.

It is a city made for occasions like this and both sets of fans, the locals and, most importantly, the players, delivered.

Forget the cagey occasions of the past. This was what a UEFA Champions League final is meant to be like.

As Real’s players hoisted the UCL trophy into the air fireworks again filled the stadium to end what had truly been a memorable day for everyone involved.

Key newcomers for USMNT friendly

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While the excitement potential is high amongst big club USMNT call-ups like PSG’s Tim Weah and Everton’s Antonee Robinson, there are several other relative newcomers who are facing a more acute focus.

So yes, of course, we’re most excited to see the young guns fire away, but a few others will be under the microscope for different reasons.

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Paraguay is leaving some big names behind — Dario Lezcano, Jesus Medina, Edgar Benítez — but won’t be using as “B” or “C” of a squad as the USMNT. Key defenders Junior Alonso (Lille) and Gustavo Gomez (AC Milan) will be staring down the U.S. attack, while Atlanta United star Miguel Almiron will try his luck against the Yanks’ backs.

  1. The goalkeepers — With full respect to Bill Hamid and his five caps, the trio of backstops who could play against Paraguay are unknown entities on the senior international level. There are reasons to be excited about Alex Bono (Toronto FC) and Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew) going against Los Guaraníes — and Hamid, too — and standing behind a young and untested group of center backs should give plenty of chances to make a name for whoever is chosen (If Sarachan is more “woke” this go-round, it’ll be multiple keepers).
  2. Andriya Novakovich — The Telstar striker is checking all the boxes: 6-foot-4, productive on the youth level, and now succeeding overseas. The 21-year-old has 17 goals on loan from Reading in the Dutch second tier. While that’s far from a “Woah” figure considering the top-tier in the Netherlands isn’t exactly a defensive hot bed, it’s intriguing for Tuesday in North Carolina.
  3. Rubio Rubin — We’re hopeful Sarachan goes with a 4-4-2, which would allow both Rubin and Novakovich to get runs next to Bobby Wood. Rubin is seeing some time at Liga MX side Club Tijuana after his European adventure stalled following a hot start for Utrecht. He had an assist in CONCACAF Champions League play against Red Bulls this month.
  4. Tyler Adams — Speaking of that match, the Red Bulls got a goal from Adams. It’s fair to say he’s got the chance to be as special a player as Schalke youngster Weston McKennie (and would apparently like to join his USMNT teammate overseas). Adams and McKennie together could legit be an engine room for years. Will that begin on Tuesday?
  5. Cameron Carter-Vickers — The 20-year-old center back has shown resilience in England. His hot start to life at Sheffield United, on loan from Tottenham, cooled enough to have him sent back to North London, but Carter-Vickers has rebounded to become a key part of Ipswich Town’s back line. With 22-year-old Matt Miazga the only clear center back on the roster and older than him, CCV can quiet a lot of doubters.
  6. Kenny Saief — This guy has excited at nearly every turn since bursting onto the scene with Gent via the Israeli national team, and an injury cost him some momentum with the USMNT. Now healthy and on loan with Anderlecht, the same side which refined the fire of Sacha Kljestan, the once-capped Florida-born man is as intriguing as ever.

Season strugglers: Some ignominious PL performances

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Tuesday found us breaking ties on our “Most Impactful Premier League Summer Buys” rankings by digging through some advanced statistics sites.

In doing so, something struck us: We rarely if ever check out which players are faring the worst when it comes to those next level numbers.

Ah, the international break: Good for off-the-wall posts.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro have Morata’s back]

At the risk of kicking a player while he’s down, here are some negative numbers that stand out from the pack.

Of the 358 players who’ve played at least 10 Premier League matches, Joe Hart is having the worst season of the bunch according to Squawka. That’s a bit misleading due to how the site’s metrics operate, considering eight of the bottom 20 players are goalkeepers (and several, like Jonas Lossl and Jordan Pickford, are having outstanding campaigns).

So the unfortunate honor goes to Swansea defender Martin Olsson, who edges James McClean of West Brom for the infamy. Since the site does heap numbers on players by action accumulated, perhaps it’s better to single out the per-game and per-90 strugglers. Olsson and McClean are still very much near the bottom, but surprisingly Yannick Bolasie is the worst per game, and Swansea’s Wayne Routledge is having the least effective season per 90 minutes.

As for WhoScored, its metrics are hammering forwards, with Lys Mousset, Andre Gray, and Benik Afobe at the back of the back (ahead of McClean, again, who is a multi-site struggler).

These stats aren’t perfect, of course, and I like the idea of having McClean on my squad. But there are some other odds stats in the pack.

 These players might want to pass their next opportunity to the keeper. Of players with 10 or more shot attempts this season, Adam Lallana (11), Renato Sanches (12), Lewis Cook (14), and Dale Stephens (15) have failed to put a single shot on target.

— Of the 81 players who’ve tried their luck 30 times or more, these are the worst accuracy rates

— For perspective, Harry Kane has put 56 percent of his league-leading 162 shots on target, while second place man Mohamed Salah is 61 percent of 118.

— Defensive errors also can be increased significantly by the times a player is put under pressure by his team, which is why goalkeepers are high on Squawka’s list. Take them out, and you get a list with Spurs’ Eric Dier up top. Two of his six errors have led to goals against Tottenham, with Zanka (Huddersfield Town), Alfie Mawson (Swans), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), and Shane Duffy (Brighton) next with four errors.

Xabi Alonso denies Spanish accusations of tax fraud

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The list of players pursued by Spanish authorities crying tax fraud is starting to resemble a pretty good team,

Call it The Longest Yard: La Liga.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro support Morata ]

Xabi Alonso is being accused of not paying taxes on his image rights while a player at Real Madrid, joining Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Lionel Messi, Luka Modric, and Cristiano Ronaldo as World XI-caliber players who’ve faced legal troubles in Spain.

Jose Mourinho even had to travel to Spain earlier this season to face accusations from a Spanish court. Those found guilty have found punishment other than jail time.

Alonso denies any wrongdoing, according to Sky Sports:

Prosecutors say he defrauded the Spanish state of £1.75m between 2010 and 2012 and called for the same sentence to be applied to Alonso’s financial advisor Ivan Zaldua Azcuenaga and the administrator of consultancy shell company, Ignasi Maestre Casanova.

Iraq hosts friendly tournament after 3-decade FIFA ban

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BAGHDAD (AP) Iraq is hosting a friendly soccer tournament this week, with Syria and Qatar.

It comes just days after FIFA lifted a three-decade-long ban on Iraq hosting international competitions.

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An Iraq-Qatar match is to start Wednesday evening in the southern city of Basra.

FIFA lifted the ban on Monday for Iraqi cities of Basra, Karbala and Irbil, considered to be the safest in Iraq – but not the capital, Baghdad, which still sees frequent militant attacks.

Iraq’s minister of youth and sports, Abdul-Hussein Abtan, congratulated the Iraqi people following FIFA’s move and said it would change how Iraq is viewed in the region and beyond.

While the ban was in place, Iraq was still able to host friendly games and tournaments.