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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.”

Source: MLS rejected deal that would’ve brought Ousted to LA Galaxy

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TAM has become a great discussion in Major League Soccer, allowing teams to acquire more top-caliber players, but it appears in one instance the mechanism could actually hurt a player’s chances of being re-signed.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP, Portuguese midfielder Geraldes ]

Pro Soccer Talk has learned through an MLS league source familiar with the situation that the LA Galaxy had a deal in place to acquire Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), however, the league rejected that offer.

The 32-year-old took to Twitter on Friday, stating that a total of three teams offered him a contract using TAM, however, none of them were able to be executed.

It was announced back on Nov. 7 that Ousted would not return to the Whitecaps for the 2018 season, after spending nearly four-and-a-half years with the Canadian side.

Additionally, Ousted was scheduled to be one of the players eligible to be selected in Friday’s MLS Stage 1 Re-Entry Draft, but he has since been “forced to opt out.”

There are several ways a player can qualify to participate in the first stage of the Re-Entry Draft, and with Ousted having played over three MLS seasons and being over the age of 23, that previously ruled him eligible.

Under MLS’ current TAM rules and regulations, Ousted would have had to have been making at least $480,625 in 2017 in order for the veteran goalkeeper to qualify for a TAM offer.

That number is scheduled to increase for the next season, with the maximum budget charge set at $504,375 in 2018.

Ousted was only making roughly $378,933 in 2017, with a base salary of $360,000, per the MLS Players’ Union website.

In order for an MLS club to sign Ousted at this stage would require them to go above and beyond his option for next season, which as the goalkeeper states in his second tweet would be a “gamble.”

Below are the ways MLS has declared it possible for clubs to use TAM in order to sign or re-sign players.

Prince William’s dilemma: Royal Wedding clashes with FA Cup final

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The date for the Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle has been set and there’s a bit of a dilemma for Prince William: it’s on the same day as the 2017-18 FA Cup final on May 19, 2018.

Why does that matter?

William has been the president of the English Football Association for the last 10 years and he, along with other members of the Royal Family, usually attend the showpiece final at Wembley and hand out the trophy to the winning team.

Not this time.

With the date confirmed on Friday for the Royal Wedding takes place at Windsor Castle on May 19, specific times have yet been announced for the ceremony. Could that mean a late dash from the wedding to hand out the trophy at Wembley for Prince William? If his beloved Aston Villa make the final, maybe it’s not out of the question…

In a statement to the BBC, the FA had the following to say about the “fixture clash” in May:

“Everyone at The FA is delighted for HRH Prince Harry and Megan Markle with the announcement of their wedding at Windsor Castle next year. Saturday May 19 promises to be a wonderful day with a special royal occasion followed by English football’s showpiece event, the Emirates FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium. With millions coming together to watch both events at home and around the world, it will be a day to celebrate.”

The life of a royal isn’t all fun and games…

Guardiola eyes January deals after winning Manager of Month

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Scary news: Manchester City are looking to improve in the January transfer window.

Pep Guardiola confirmed on Friday that Premier League leaders Man City will look to buy a new central defender in January.

City, currently on a record-breaking 15-game winning run and sitting 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, have Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala and John Stones as their center backs, but both Stones and Kompany have been out injured recently.

Speaking to the media ahead of City’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), Guardiola revealed he is keen to add defensive reinforcements.

“We speak about (January signings) with the club and Txiki Begiristain (the club’s director of football),” Guardiola said. “We have just three guys in central defense. We don’t want to sign someone for a few months. We want to sign them for years and we have to make sure it’s the right guy.”

Who could come in?

Virgil Van Dijk and Jonny Evans were both linked with moves to Man City in the summer and it is an area of the pitch City clearly want to add in. Southampton have said that van Dijk will not be leaving this season but if a massive offer arrives in January then it may be tough for the struggling Saints to turn it down this time after VVD wanted to push through a move to Liverpool in the summer.

As for Evans, he is playing week in, week out at West Brom but his future remains far from clear with Arsenal and Man City both looking to add the former Manchester United center back in the summer.

Aside from transfer talk, Guardiola was also named the Premier League Manager of the Month for November earlier on Friday, with the Spaniard winning the award for the third-straight month.

Only Antonio Conte had achieved that feat in PL history before but City’s boss isn’t getting ahead of himself as many have already handed his team the 2017-18 Premier League title.

“Tomorrow is an important game. Spurs are so tough. Last season and this season. Nothing is going to change – we are not going to win the Premier League tomorrow, we are not going to lose it either,” Guardiola said. “It’s important to play better, that is the most important thing. The record will always stay there until one day it is broken. I am happy not with the results but the way we play. Statistics are good but I have the feeling we can be much, much better.”

Gulp. City being better than they already are? That is a scary thought…

Mourinho: Eric Bailly out; United may look to buy in January

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Jose Mourinho has revealed that Eric Bailly requires ankle surgery and will be out for up to three months for Manchester United.

The Ivorian center back has been missing since early November after suffering the injury on international duty.

Bailly, 23, hasn’t recovered as quickly as United would have liked and his injury is more serious than originally thought.

“He [Bailly] goes to surgery, the decision is made,” Mourinho told MUTV. “I don’t say (he’s out) for the rest of the season but it’s for the next two or three months.”

United have plenty of options at center back with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo all around, but all three have been out with injuries during this season. That said, Bailly is by far United’s most consistent and reliable defender and having him out until February or March is a big blow for Mourinho.

As for the January transfer market, Mourinho may not go and buy a replacement for Bailly but he did hint at perhaps doing some business in the January even though he isn’t the biggest fan of the mid-season window.

“Not a big defender of the January market,” Mourinho said. “There are players and situations you have the chance to do and you shouldn’t lose them. I don’t like January market just to buy.”

United have been linked with a January move for Antoine Griezmann but Mourinho refused to comment on speculation linking the French international with a move to Old Trafford.

Griezmann looked set to move in the summer with United, Barcelona and PSG all interested in signing the striker, but with his manager at Atleti, Diego Simeone, saying that he will now be able to leave Atletico if the right offer comes in, surely United will be looking at bolstering their attack if the right deal can be done.

Buying in January, especially for a player of Griezmann’s caliber, usually comes at a premium but what if he has a great summer with France at the 2018 World Cup? His transfer value would surely rocket then.

With the Red Devils 11 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, they will need something special to claw back points in the second half off the campaign. Griezmann’s arrival would make everyone sit up and take notice, even if United don’t exactly need to boost their attacking talent.

Simply put: if a player of Griezmann’s caliber becomes available, as it appears is the case, you need to pull out all of the stops to try and sign him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan‘s future at United appears to be over, so maybe if they can move the Armenian playmaker on and free up some cash to bring in Griezmann (a good friend of Paul Pogba) then a deal can be done. With Atleti not qualifying for the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, it appears the Spanish club are willing to let Griezmann leave after he handled the summer of transfer speculation admirably and remained with the La Liga outfit during their transfer embargo and move to a new stadium.