Brighton eager to write new chapter in the big time

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BRIGHTON — They’re here and they believe it’s where they belong.

For nearly two centuries Brighton has been known as a popular seaside town for vacations. But for at least the next nine months it will be known as the newest destination for the Premier League.

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On Saturday Brighton & Hove Albion celebrated their first PL game in club history and for locals of the city on England’s south coast it was tough to sum up how far they’ve come after being on the brink of extinction in 1997.

“The actual day and the atmosphere has been absolutely fantastic. It is absolutely huge for Brighton. I’ve lived here a long, long time and to be here, in the stadium, it is hard to put it into words,” said Brighton fan Ross Perrett with a smile on his face. “It is where we should be. Let’s just hope we can stay up. I’m sure we can.”

Brighton held their own in their first game in England’s top-flight since 1983. They were dominated by Manchester City, the favorites for the PL title this season, and succumbed to a Sergio Aguero strike after a small defensive mistake and an own goal. Life is tough at the top.

The Seagulls’ dream to become an established PL side is still a long way away from bring realized but with a savvy manager in Chris Hughton, plus being backed by owner Tony Bloom who made their impressive American Express Community Stadium dream real, they have everything necessary to emulate the likes of Southampton, Swansea City and Bournemouth before them.

On a sun-soaked day down by the English Channel, most of the 30,000 fans in the stadium thought back to the last time Brighton were promoted to the top-flight of English soccer in 1979 where they remained for just four years.

“It has been amazing, I go back to when we last got promoted,” lifelong Brighton fan Derrick George said. “It is different now with social media and everything else. It is massive compared to what is was then, but the one thing that isn’t different is the culture shock when you see the quality of the opposition.”

Man City provided Brighton with a rude awakening to life in the top-flight but there are plenty of signs they can beat the drop in their debut season. Hughton’s men were organized and resolute in the first half and went close twice in the second half through goalmouth scrambles after set pieces.

Despite the defeat, the day was one to cherish as manager Hughton pointed to afterwards.

“I thought they [the fans] were exceptional but they have been in my time here, but I think today was very much a club day,” Hughton said. “This club has a history and a very difficult history in recent years. There are an awful lot of supporters here who weren’t able to come a good few years ago because of where this club was playing. It was very much a club day but that’s then, now it’s about making sure we dust ourselves down and get some results that we will need.”

Pubs around the city center were packed by lunchtime on Saturday with banners stating their Premier League arrival prevalent. This city on England’s south coast was ready for the big time.

Around the city the usual tourists had arrived with London Victoria and London Bridge train stations just an hour away, but Manchester City fans were plentiful and everywhere you looked there was a reminder of how big of a day this was.

In a cosmopolitan city which welcomes anyone — think Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but an hour away from New York City and on the coast — Brighton will have the eyes of the world watching their team.

20 years ago Brighton were on the brink of extinction and facing relegation from England’s fourth-tier on the final day of the season. Late heroics meant they were saved, for at least a few months, but today will have seemed like a dream for their long-suffering fans.

Forced to relocate to Gillingham, over 70 miles away, to play home games after their Goldstone Ground home was sold off to property developers, they eventually returned to Brighton to play in a converted athletics stadium, the Whitdean Stadium, which had temporary bleachers, a running track around the outside and a long-jump pit behind one of the goals. For years they struggled in the lower leagues sponsored by the record label of  one of Brighton’s favorite sons, Norman Cook, AKA Fatboy Slim, as they battled and scrapped to no return to the abyss.

Eventually Bloom took over and helped bankroll the deal for their incredible Amex home and Brighton will now be at the top of the list for every away PL fan to visit this season.

When Bruno Saltor led the Seagulls out on Saturday with “Sussex by the Sea” blaring out over the loudspeakers, it will have made every Brighton fan pinch themselves.

They’ve come close to promotion in recent seasons, missing out in the agony of the playoffs, plus also had deep cup runs, but Saturday proved that this is a city ready for the big time and they are no strangers to visitors from around the world each and every day.

From its quaint cobbled streets housing vegan eateries and old pubs, to its seafront delights and comfortable climate (for England, anyway) Brighton is already up there with the coolest cities to have a Premier League team and the city is regularly voted the “hippest” and “happiest” place in the UK.

Despite the result fans of the Seagulls were still a happy bunch.

Lifelong Brighton supporters marveled at the extra hustle and bustle about the seaside town as the TV cameras rolled into town from across the globe (including our full crew on their UK tour) with journalists in the press room at the Amex wowed by the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard on location as pundits.

They won’t be the last.

“According to local reports tourism is on the rise and it will get a massive boost from this,” George explained. “This is a summer town so throughout the winter we are going to get thousands of away supporters and many others here, so that will only help.”

On the pitch Brighton will need help to try and stay in the PL with Bloom set to dig even deeper into his considerable pockets to fund a few more transfers (they broke their transfer record twice last week, mind you) before the end of the summer transfer window in just over two weeks. But given where Brighton have come from in the past two decades, the challenge of staying int he Premier League doesn’t seem insurmountable and isn’t as daunting as having to survive as a club.

“It is a smaller challenge than when we’ve been on the brink in the past but it is still a huge challenge” Perret said. “But one we can do.”

When Brighton walked out at the Amex on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. local time, whatever happened on the pitch over the next 90 minutes it was a “I was there” moment for their fans.

It was also a “look at how far we’ve come” moment.

“I thought of days at the Goldstone when I was young,” Perrett said as he watched his beloved Seagulls walk out to make their PL debut. “I was there with my mom and my sister and I could go and touch the grass, climb over the little fences there. Those were the good days but the whole game is different now. Those were the good times. And the good times are coming back now, for sure.”

Hughton hopes to bring the good times back but is also eager to write new history when asked if he’s now glad to get Brighton’s grand day out of the way.

“I must admit there is a little element of that. It is understandable for the history of this club and our first game in the Premier League that it was going to be a big occasion,” Hughton said. “It was going to be a big occasion whoever it was, but I think the fact that Man City were coming made it even bigger. My responsibility is to make sure we are a Premier League team next season. We have a realistic group of supporters that were excellent today.”

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Barca releases statement on terror attacks ]

And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.

Bundesliga preview: Schalke, BVB chase Bayern Munich

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The last time Schalke spent a season outside of European football, the celebrated German club finished second in the league en route to a Champions League semifinal the following campaign.

That’s one of the only silver linings from last season’s disappointing 10th place finish, 19 points behind fourth place Hoffenheim.

[ MORE: Schalke’s teen American impact ]

“Naturally, nobody is happy about not playing international this year,” center back Benedikt Howedes told ProSoccerTalk. “During the week we currently have more time to focus on the next opponent. We will battle the European positions with many teams this season. I think, the race is up in the air. The Bundesliga is very balanced.”

World Cup winner Howedes has 334 appearances for Schalke (Getty Images).

Schalke’s tumulutous 2016-17 season started poorly and never really found its footing. The club lost its first five league matches under Markus Weinzierl, who was fired in June, and saw marquee transfers Naldo, Breel Embolo, and Coke miss a lot of time through injuries.

Enter 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco. Don’t let the age fool you, he’s the boss not a player, and youth will be part of the team as well. Schalke still has Embolo, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, American teen Weston McKennie has been promoted to the first team, and Amine Harit has arrived from Nantes.

From the outside, that puts an emphasis on veteran leadership. Fortunately for Schalke, it has living club legend Howedes and ex-Man City defender Matija Nastasic amongst others in the fold.

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie told PST. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

[ MORE: Guide to two promoted Bundesliga teams ]

In the case of Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, his 24 years carry a lot of experience. He’s thrived at Fiorentina, become a staple of the Serbian national team, and rebounding from his injury-hit time at City and is a leader at Schalke.

And those young guys can learn from Nastasic, who’s seen it all at 24.

“When I just arrived in Italy I was only 18 and it was the first year out of my country,” Nastasic told PST. “I didn’t expect at the beginning that I would play that much. Then I changed to England, and it was totally different. Italy is more tactical. Football in England is physical with a lot of tempo and running. I was young also without so much experience but when I was fit I think I played good.”

Schalke will need its young attack to find more goals. Its defense was Top Five in goals conceded last season, but its 45 goals was mid-table.

“Everyone knows that last season was not as good as we had expected,” Howedes said. “With our new coach, we want to improve our game and make our fans happy again. We are training hard and I am sure, that we will be more constant and improve our performances this season.”

[ MORE: First female ref to make Bundesliga debut ]

“From the team I expect a much better season than last year,” Nastasic adds. “We are not playing international games so maybe that’s an advantage for us. We can concentrate on the Bundesliga.”

Both Nastasic and Howedes heaped praise on McKennie, as well as American teammate Haji Wright, who will spend the season on loan to Sandhausen, and the game overseas in general.

“Haji Wright started spectacular,” Howedes said. “For young players the most important thing is to play. On loan in Sandhausen the chance is greater than here. I rejoice for him he get this opportunity. The step in the 2.Bundesliga can be a good beginning of his career.

“The American soccer is really developing the last years. It is no coincidence that a lot of great players like Kaka and Gerrard joined Major League Soccer. And who knows, I also can imagine to play there some day in the future.”

Different champs (but probably not different champs): Bayern Munich will neither have Xabi Alonso nor Philipp Lahm this season, but that doesn’t mean they are runaway favorites to claim its 27th title and sixth-straight since Borussia Dortmund’s two-year reign ended with the 2011-12 crown. Carlo Ancelotti has reloaded with James Rodriguez and Corentin Tolisso, and will be favored to hold off BVB for the crown.

Here’s to the new Bosz: USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic is already making an impact in the mind of his new coach, Peter Bosz, and the manager will be pleased to note that reports say Pulisic has no interest in looking into his future until after the 2018 World Cup.

Sleepers? Eintracht Frankfurt dropped into 11th last season, and may benefit from not finishing in a European place. The club has added Mexican national teamer Carlos Saucedo, Dutch star Jetro Willems, and well-traveled Jonathan De Guzman for its new season.

Americans Abroad:
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Julian Green (Stuttgart)
Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
McKennie (Schalke)
Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen *expected to be sold)
Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)

Old faces, new places:
Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim, on loan from Bayern Munich)
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Dortmund, from ‘Gladbach)
Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC, from Ingolstadt)
Sven Bender (Bayer Leverkusen, from BVB)
Marcel Heller (Augsburg, from Darmstadt)
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Hamburg, from Bayer)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg, from Hertha)
Paul Verhaegh (Wolfsburg, from Augsburg)
Holger Badstuber (Stuttgart, from Bayern)

New faces, new places:
James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
Reece Oxford (Gladbach, on loan from West Ham)
Harit (Schalke)
Jonathan de Guzman (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Viktor Fischer (Mainz)

Opening weekend
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Hamburg vs. Augsburg — Saturday
Hertha Berlin vs. Stuttgart — Saturday
Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Mainz vs. Hannover 96 — Saturday
Schalke vs. RB Leipzig — Saturday
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — Sunday

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA