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Dembele faces impossible task at Barcelona: Being Neymar

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MADRID (AP) Only two years ago, Ousmane Dembele was playing in France’s lower divisions with modest club Rennes.

On Friday, he became the second-most expensive player in soccer history when Barcelona picked him to replace Neymar in a deal that could reach $173 million.

The talented 20-year-old French forward suddenly turned into a star by joining the Spanish powerhouse in a transfer surpassed only by the Brazilian star’s recent move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Now the pressure is on Dembele to prove his worth and show that Barcelona did the right thing by choosing him to play alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

Barcelona is hoping to re-establish its successful attacking trio, so it’s probably no coincidence that there is a lot of Neymar in the young Dembele — from the quickness to the nifty skills to the audacity to the ability to dazzle.

Barcelona is already calling him the “prince of the dribble,” someone who can amaze fans with his “sublime skill and gutsy flair.” The club boasted Dembele as one of the “most promising young stars in European football,” a player who has a “golden future.” And it praised him as being “versatile, spectacular and efficient,” someone “almost impossible” to be stopped by the rival defenses.

“He is a player who generates a lot of excitement and a lot of expectations,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “We expect a lot from him.”

Dembele has already shown signs that he has the potential to shine and one day reach the same heights of someone like Neymar.

He scored the winner when France defeated England 3-2 in a friendly back in June, in what was his seventh appearance with the French national team. One dazzling moment in that game gave fans a glimpse of Dembele’s talent. Early in the second half, he picked up a loose ball on defense and flicked it past England defender Kyle Walker – one of the quickest in the Premier League – and left him trailing on a pulsating 60-meter run toward the goal.

Although slight in build, Dembele has huge upper-body strength, enabling him to ride heavy challenges and use his body to hold off opponents running alongside him. He is a constant threat with his assists, and can play well on both flanks of the field and through the middle.

“You can’t tell if he’s right-footed or left-footed, he can strike with both feet,” Julien Stephan, Dembele’s coach in Rennes’ reserve team, said in an interview on the club’s website. “He’s a great competitor and he is not bothered by the pressure. He plays naturally whether it’s in front of 3,000, 30,000 or 100,000 people.”

It’s been a rapid rise for the lean forward since he was first spotted by a Rennes scout as an 8-year-old in the northern city of Evreux. The club monitored him closely and brought him to its youth academy by the time he was 13.

Coaches were quickly impressed, and he was promoted to Rennes’ reserve team in the beginning of the 2014-15 season.

“Everyone was talking to me about another player his age, but I only saw him,” said Armand Djire, the Rennes recruiter who got a first look at Dembele. “We brought the family to Rennes and took care of their professional and personal needs. We did everything possible so Ousmane could arrive at (main team) in the best possible conditions.”

By the time he was 17, Dembele had already made his first-team debut in the French league, scoring his first goal as a professional in a match against Girondins only two weeks after his debut.

In his two seasons as a professional in with the club from northern France, Dembele played 78 matches, scoring 22 goals and setting up 25 others.

He became a top prospect for European clubs, and Borussia Dortmund signed him last year in a transfer worth $16.7 million. He scored six goals and set up 13 others in 32 Bundesliga games, turning into Barcelona’s top target the moment Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain in a deal worth more than $260 million.

Neymar had arrived as a possible successor to Messi, and when he left, the club had to find someone else to take on that difficult desk.

Dembele, who will wear Neymar’s former No. 11 jersey, became Barcelona’s most expensive transfer ever, costing $124 million plus possible add-ons that could increase the value up to 40 percent of the original fee. Rennes will be entitled to about $47.2 million of the amount paid to Dortmund, meaning he’s also the club’s biggest transfer all-time.

“The market has been shooting up in the last few days. It seems that every club will be signing their most expensive player from now on. The prices have gone up a lot since Neymar’s buyout clause was paid,” Valverde said, adding that he hopes Dembele “will be prepared” to handle the pressure that comes with a move of this magnitude.

Dembele, whose mother is from Mauritania and his father is from Mali, was making his professional debut only 21 months ago, and now all eyes will be on him every time he steps on the field.

“He didn’t choose to be in one of the biggest transfers in the history of football, but I think that he is strong enough mentally to bear this burden,” Stephan said. “We will continue to follow his evolution with great attention and pleasure.”

$280m? Who cares? Salah is the rare “unsellable” player

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The gossip reports are out there, with lofty claims that Real Madrid and Barcelona are willing to pay as much as $280 million dollars for Mohamed Salah.

Normally that figure triggers something in my brain that screams, “Sell! Sell! Sell before they realize what they’ve offered!”

[ MORE: Best PL summer buys ]

That’s not happening with Mohamed Salah.

This isn’t an inflated fee for a young English player like Ross Barkley or John Stones, nor is it a club throwing a lofty and desperate figure at a very good but supremely overvalued player like Philippe Coutinho. Even Raheem Sterling, who I advocated selling, has proven replaceable.

In the case of Salah, his Golden Boot figure is likely to dwarf any in the Premier League era. He’s at 28, three behind Luis Suarez’s 31. Cristiano Ronaldo has bagged 31 once Alan Shearer and Andy Cole hold the modern record with 34.

Salah needs six to tie Shearer. Here’s Liverpool’s run-in: Crystal Palace (A), Everton (A), Bournemouth (H), West Brom (A), Stoke City (H), Chelsea (A), Brighton and Hove Albion (H).

Five of those teams absolutely hemorrhage goals. Would you bet against Salah?

By the way, Salah has 10 assists, too. Sure Jurgen Klopp deserves credit for buying and deploying the Egyptian wizard, but

When Klopp argued that Liverpool was not a selling club, this is the exact example to follow. Selling Coutinho — again, not trying to poke the bear that is ornery overvaluing fan — is fine in a world where your club has Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah

But selling one of Europe’s leading scorers is almost never okay for a club challenging for a Champions League crown and with the clear caliber of a Premier League title hunter.

I’d argue that for this club, one who has sold Coutinho and Suarez, there is not a fee that meets Salah straight-on.  He’s 25 and living in the air just below Lionel Messi and Neymar.

The Messi comparisons I keep reading are fun but still unbelievably premature by every stretch of the imagination. By the time Messi was Salah’s age he had league seasons of 34, 31, 50, and was en route to a 46-goal mark. He posted 68 combined assists over those four seasons.

If this is somehow an aberration, and Salah cannot find this form ever again, well, that’s bad luck and a risk worth its weight in standard setting.

There is not a replacement player.

There is no fee.

Say it again now.

Dangerous playmaker Silva joins Montreal Impact (video)

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Alejandro Silva’s got a creative mind, and that’s something Montreal will welcome with open arms.

The Uruguayan signed with the Impact this week, joining Ignacio Piatti and Saphir Taider as playmakers in Quebec.

[ MORE: Top PL summer buys ]

Silva, 28, is a right-sided and forward-playing Argentine who can also play right back if necessary.

The Impact lost two of three to start the season, winning this weekend’s 401 Derby versus Toronto FC to put a number in the win column.

Lanus has been a fertile ground for Major League Soccer clubs in recent years, with Lucas Melano (Portland Timbers) and Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United) making the move to North America.

The South American club has also sent Gustavo Gomez to AC Milan and Oscar Benitez to Benfica.

Kante squashes PSG rumors: “I am at home” with Chelsea

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At least one and erhaps two big Premier League clubs are going to finish outside of the UEFA Champions League this year.

As it stands now, those clubs are Arsenal and Chelsea. The former could still seal a spot in the UCL via winning the Europa League but Chelsea needs wins and help from the field to find a way into the fray.

[ MORE: Best PL summer buys ]

An absence for either side will send UCL-bound vultures over the rosters of the failed clubs, hoping to woo the best players with Champions League dreams.

N'Golo Kante has been a name bandied about as a potential departure should Chelsea miss its mark, with the French star mentioned as high atop Paris Saint-Germain’s wish list.

The midfielder, who turns 27 at the end of the month, has moved to squash those rumors (from The London Evening Standard):

“I am at home. It is my club, I am a Chelsea player.

“We will fight until the end to finish in the top four and to get in a Champions League position. We also have the FA Cup to play for – it is a good competition. Last season we failed in the final. It is the only trophy we can win this season, so we have to give everything to get to the final and win it.”

That’s good, because we’re looking forward to seeing what a midfield with Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko could do with an offseason together.

Yet is there anyone out there doubting Kante’s intentions?

Who’ve been the most impactful Premier League summer buys?

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It’s been a heck of a season for Premier League transfer buys, and that includes a bevy of intra-league purchases.

So who’ve been the best imports? Probably a safe bet to set some parameters.

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

We won’t count players like Aaron Mooy, who’s Huddersfield Town purchase was formalized after a loan, or those who returned from loan like Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen or Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.

We’ll also opt against a couple Chelsea loanees signings, if just to whittle our list. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was magnificent before a long-term injury at Palace, and Kurt Zouma probably just sits beyond the Top Ten.

Mainz loanee Jonas Lossl of Huddersfield Town fits the bill, too. And for injuries: Who knows how high  Benjamin Mendy would’ve surged up this list?

Stats culled from WhoScored and Squawka.

Honorable mention – Antonio Rudiger, Mario Lemina, Richarlison, Alexandre Lacazette, Mat Ryan, Bernardo Silva, Steve MounieKyle Walker, Alvaro Morata, Florian Lejeune.

10. Jordan Pickford, Everton — Under siege at Sunderland for most of last season, Pickford probably expected smoother sailing than this: the Everton backstop has been forced into making the most saves in the Premier League (95). Fifty-four of those required him to dive. Only four teams have allowed more goals than Everton, which explains why some of you might be scratching your head at his inclusion.

9. James Tomkins, Crystal Palace — I thought the signing was silly, but Tomkins is nearly unrivaled in terms of interceptions per game in league play. Palace hasn’t been a defensive powerhouse, but his former club West Ham looks terrible since he moved across London.

8. Davinson Sanchez, Tottenham Hotspur – There have been bumps along the way — Sanchez is 21 — but he’s blessed with the speed to make up for his and others mistakes. A fine passer, Mauricio Pochettino should only further benefit from his career progression.

7. Ahmed Hegazi, West Bromwich Albion — Hegazi’s 2757 minutes played are the most amongst field players in the Premier League (though Alfie Mawson, Harry Maguire, Jack Cork, and Lewis Dunk could pass him by playing more than an hour in their match-in-hand).

6. Harry Maguire, Leicester City — The Foxes badly needed to lower the age of their center back corps, and can count their purchase of Maguire from Hull City as a coup. Perhaps no player other than Wilfred Ndidi has been as influential for Claude Puel‘s bunch.

5. Romelu Lukaku, Manchester United — Lukaku started dispelling myths about his production versus big teams when he was one of the lone stars in United’s Super Cup loss to Real Madrid. While he’s been up-and-down in terms of goals in said contests, his hold-up play and work ethic have been better than expected. His 21 key moments (14 goals, seven assists) are even with Roberto Firmino and trail only Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, and Leroy Sane. Anthony Martial is the closest United comparison, and he has 14. Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard have 12.

4. Pascal Gross, Brighton and Hove Albion — The Ingolstadt transfer’s promise was quickly realized, and he’s posted five goals and eight assists. On a team with the fourth-lowest goal total in the league, that’s impressive. The only players with more PL assists: De Bruyne, Sane, Dele, David Silva, Salah, Pogba. Gross also ranks third in the league in crosses per game.

3. Nemanja Matic, Manchester United — It’s hard to fin the numbers to meet the eye test, but Matic flat out makes his team better. Maybe it’s organization, maybe it’s toughness, but there’s little doubt United is better in the middle of the park while former club Chelsea has struggled to find the same form since he skipped town. Advantage: Mou.

2. Ederson, Manchester City — Look only to last season’s status of City net minders to know how important the sweeper-style passing keeper is to Pep Guardiola‘s side. The Brazilian has pushed himself into competition for the starting gig at one of the World Cup favorites.

1. Mohamed Salah, Liverpool —  There is no other answer here, and Harry Kane’s injury essentially gift wraps the Golden Boot to the Egyptian. There was a question as to whether he’d bring his Serie A flourish over to England, and that seems absurd now.