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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.”

Juventus president Andrea Agnelli banned for 1 year

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Juventus president Andrea Agnelli was banned for one year by the Italian soccer federation on Monday for his role in selling tickets to hardcore “ultra” fans that encouraged scalping.

[ MORE: Mourinho escapes ban after sending off ]

The court also fined Juventus 300,000 euros ($350,000).

The ban comes less than three weeks after Agnelli was elected to chair the 220-member European Club Association.

“Having taken note of today’s decision by the FIGC’s National Tribunal, Juventus preannounces its appeal to the FIGC Court of Appeal in the full conviction of its own good arguments, which have still not found adequate recognition,” the Serie A club said in a statement.

“The club expresses its own satisfaction because today’s sentence, even though it inflicted heavy bans on the president and other people involved, has “after extensive evaluation of the evidentiary material” (page 11 of the sentence) excluded all alleged links with representatives of organized crime.”

Federation prosecutor Giuseppe Pecoraro also said he would appeal for a harsher sentence. Pecoraro requested a 2 1/2-year suspension, a fine and an order to force Juventus to play two home matches behind closed doors.

“I am partially satisfied because we managed to prove everyone’s guilt but the facts are so serious that I think they should be punished more,” Pecoraro told Italian news agency Ansa. “The judgment of another court would be useful, taking into account that the resources coming from the ticket scalping went to a criminal organization, and that is very serious.”

The ban means Agnelli remains Juventus president but cannot represent the club in any official matter governed by the FIGC. He cannot, for example, go into the dressing room during matches or have transfer dealings with players’ agents.

However, the ban has not been extended to UEFA and FIFA – and there is no chance of that happening until all the appeals have been heard. Agnelli’s position as head of the ECA is not at risk for now.

Agnelli allegedly authorized the sale of season passes and other tickets. He has acknowledged meeting with Rocco Dominello, an “ultra” fan linked to the Calabrian `ndrangheta crime mob who has since been sentenced to nearly eight years in prison for scalping.

But Agnelli said the meetings came only with large numbers of other fans at celebratory occasions and that the club never intended to engage in illegal activity.

Juventus security director Alessandro D’Angelo has been banned for 15 months while ticketing director Stefano Merulla and former marketing director Francesco Calvo have also been handed one-year suspensions.

Each of the four has also been fined 20,000 euros ($24,000) for violating sporting integrity and illicit relations with fans.

The 41-year-old Agnelli has led Juventus, the club his family has owned for nearly a century, since 2010. Agnelli has also been a non-voting member of the UEFA executive committee since 2015. He received full voting rights last week at a UEFA meeting in Geneva.

[ MORE: Villareal sacks manager Escriba after one year in charge ]

Dominello’s father, Saverio Dominello, was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a court in Turin in June for his role in the scalping case.

Anti-mafia prosecutors said the `ndrangheta was involved in scalping among Juventus ultra fans for at least 15 years, guaranteeing order in the stadium in exchange for open ticket access.

Juventus has denied any wrongdoing.

Report: NYCFC seeks stadium project near Belmont Park

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New York City FC has found its feet pretty well in MLS, and the club could finally be closing in on a location for its own stadium moving forward.

Newsday Sports is reporting that NYCFC is prepared to bid on land at Belmont Park as the club continues its search to find a permanent stadium for its future.

[ MORE: Which players should be up for MLS MVP honors? ]

The report also states that Belmont isn’t NYCFC’s preferred destination to play matches, with the stadium in Elmont — roughly an 18-mile distance from the club’s current venue, Yankee Stadium.

In the past, Flushing Meadows has been one of many sites discussed as a location for NYCFC to build its own venue, which would make sense given the fact that the land currently houses the New York Mets as well as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

NYCFC has shared Yankee Stadium with MLB franchise, New York Yankees, since the MLS side entered the league in 2015.

A move to Belmont could hinge on what the New York Islanders of the NHL do moving forward as well because the hockey team is reportedly looking at options outside of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where they currently play.

UCL Tuesday preview: Dortmund hosts Real; 3 PL sides in action

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Round two of the UEFA Champions League is back on Tuesday, and while clubs cannot book their place in the Round of 16 just yet it’s just as easy for them to put themselves out of contention.

Three Premier League sides will be action on the afternoon, including Tottenham — who has the chance to start Group H play with six points.

Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City will also take the pitch in Group E and F, respectively.

The day’s biggest clash of the day though comes in Germany as Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid meet in the other Group H fixture. Dortmund will be looking for a positive result after falling to Spurs in their opening day loss in the competition.

[ MORE: Who is the most complete striker in the Premier League? ]

Here’s the full rundown of matches on Tuesday’s UCL docket.

All games kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET

Group E

Spartak Moscow vs. Liverpool
Sevilla vs. Maribor

Group F

Manchester City vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Napoli vs. Feyenoord

Group G

Besiktas vs. Red Bull Leipzig
Monaco vs. Porto

Group H

Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid
APOEL vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints take in Arsenal match

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The New Orleans Saints will be playing a different sort of football on Sunday at historic Wembley Stadium, but the NFL franchise took in Arsenal’s match today during their trip to London.

[ MORE: PL playback — Who is the most complete striker in the PL? ]

Super Bowl-winning quarterback Drew Brees posted a picture on Instagram with several of his Saints teammates taking in the Arsenal-West Brom fixture at the Emirates Stadium six days before the NFL team plays the Miami Dolphins.

The Saints-Dolphins matchup is the second NFL game to take place in England thus far in 2017, after the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 44-7, on Sunday at Wembley.

Headed to the Arsenal game in London. Our first Premier League game! Pumped

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