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Europa League Preview: Everton, Milan look to make group stage

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Everton look to make it back into the Europa League group stage for the first time since the 2014-2015 season and it has a two-goal advantage heading into the second leg of its tie.

Ronald Koeman and co. travel to Croatia to face Hadjuk Split Thursday having won the first leg at Goodison Park, 2-0. Everton is coming off a hard-fought draw on Monday with Manchester City and will be on short rest heading into the match.

Elsewhere in Europa League action, AC Milan take its 6-0 aggregate lead to Skopje, Macedonia as the legendary club looks to return to the group stage of a European competition for the first time since 2013-2014.

Here’s a look at all of Thursday’s Europa League matches, with the current aggregate scores:

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Premier League on tour, Saturday roundup: Liverpool, Manchester United into ICC final

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For Manchester City, the International Champions Cup is over, with penalty kicks again haunting Manuel Pellegrini’s squad. After losing to Liverpool via spot kicks on Wednesday, Manuel Pellegrini’s team met the same fate on Saturday, with Greek champions Olympiacos claiming second in Group B after their shootout win in Minneapolis, Minn.

The result set paved the way for Liverpool, first in the group, to join rival Manchester United in Monday’s final, with both halves of England’s greatest northwest derby using Saturday wins to clinch their place in Miami. backed by an early goal in Charlotte, N.C., the Reds claimed victory over Milan, while a record crowd in Ann Arbor, Mich. saw Manchester United down European champions Real Madrid.

Here more on the three Premier League titans’ days on American soil:

Olympiacos 2-2 Manchester City

Stevan Jovetic’s goal 10 minutes before halftime gave the Citizens a brief lead, but when Dimitrios Diamantakos equalized from the middle of the box in the 37th minute, the sides went into intermission tied, 1-1.

Aleksandr Kolarov restored City’s lead in the 53rd minute after David Silva was brought down in the box, but Diamantakos’s second of the game saw the teams play out the final 25 minutes at 2-2. In the shootout, Micah Richards’ miss in the seventh round allowed Anastasios Papazoglou to lift Olympiacos to second in Group B, his conversion into the lower left corner giving the Greeks the shootout, 5-4.

Manchester United 3-1 Real Madrid

The largest crowd in U.S. soccer history (109,318) saw Ashley Young stake the Red Devils to a 21st minute lead, an advantage Gareth Bale pulled back from the spot after being taken down in the box. Eight minutes before halftime, a cross from Young was misplayed by Iker Casillas, giving the United winger what would turn out to be the game’s winning goal.

In the 80th, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández converted from close range off a Shinji Kagawa cross to give United a 3-1 lead, allowing the Red Devils to claim a spot in Monday’s final.

Milan 0-2 Liverpool

A disappointing tournament for Milan ends with the Rossoneri giving up their ninth and 10th goals of the competition: An earlier opener to Joe Allen, and late consolation for Suso. While Pippo Inzaghi’s side confirmed its place at the bottom of the eight-team tournament, Liverpool moved on to Monday’s final, where a preseason derby will mark the end of each club’s U.S. tour.

Brendan Rodgers full of praise for Mario Balotelli

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Liverpool may have already hit the transfer market hard this summer, bringing in the likes of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and a few others that weren’t actually owned by Southampton. But Brendan Rodgers is still on the lookout for another striker, one that can produce double digits and give the Reds more oomph up top as they head into Champions League play.

Could the next shopping trip bring Rodgers to Italy? He’s been eyeing up Mario Balotelli while Liverpool are in the U.S., competing with AC Milan for the International Champions Cup. The 23-year-old scored 14 goals for the rossoneri last season and picked up two more in the Champions League. Rodgers praised Balotelli:

Balotelli is a big talent. I saw that in this time at Inter Milan as a young player and obviously going to Manchester City when we had a real close eye on him there. He’s got all the qualities. He’s 6ft 3ins, he’s quick, his touch is terrific and he can score goals. He went back to Italy to play and he’s still so young.

If his focus is right, his concentration is right and he leads the lifestyle of a top player then he can play for any team in the world.

That’s the problem though, isn’t it, Brendan? Often Balotelli’s version of leading the lifestyle of a top player means camouflage-painted cars and setting off fireworks inside the house. When he plays a poor game, he’s unable to shake his irritation, and if he’s substituted early, he makes his displeasure known.

Liverpool are obviously struggling to replace Luis Suárez and the 33 goals he scored last season, especially after the deal to bring in Loïc Rémy fell through.  But is taking a risk on the volatile Balotelli really the answer?

Looking to watch Liverpool vs. Milan in the International Champions League Cup? CLICK HERE for the livestream — the game begins at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Mikel Arteta criticizes wisdom of tying Arsenal contracts to players’ age

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Arsenal have a general policy of offering one-year deals to players aged 30 and over. Some might think it prudent: after a certain age, players’ form tends to decline. They often become more susceptible to injuries. It may even be argued that their ability to adapt to changing tactics decreases.

Mikel Arteta takes exception to his team’s policy.

The 32-year-old, whose contract expires in 2015, is set to sit down to negotiations this summer. But the most he can expect is a one-year extension on his deal, keeping him at Arsenal until he’s 34.

Arteta, perhaps understandably, doesn’t like this blanket rule. The midfielder said, “Age can be an asset for the club. For me, a much bigger asset is someone who has played 125 games in three years compared to someone who has played 25, if he is 20 years old. That’s my opinion.”

The Spaniard, who arrived at Arsenal in 2011, has played 123 times for the club. He insists that his age shouldn’t matter, because he’ll be the first one to tell Arsène Wenger that it’s time for him to step down:  “The day I feel like I can’t perform, I will be the first one to say: ‘Listen, you have kids here, 20, 25, who are much better than me. It’s my time to move on.’ ”

Fans of Italian club AC Milan may be willing to back Arteta’s words. The club had a similar policy in place when it won the scudetto in 2011. That summer, Andrea Pirlo left for Juventus, where the 34-year-old continues to light up the pitch. The next summer, the core of the title-winning squad was out: Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi, Mark van Bommel, Antonio Cassano, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Clarence Seedorf – all at or above 30 years old.

Milan finished third that season, but it was a difficult fight. This year, they’re in danger of finishing seventh, out of the European places completely. That’s not a path Arsenal want to walk…

Mario Balotelli continues to grab headlines

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After Milan lost 2-0 to title-chasing Roma on Friday, Mario Balotelli found himself in the spotlight once more. The former Manchester City forward, who once made the news for setting his own house on fire while playing with fireworks, demonstrated that his own fuse is still rather short. When pressed for comment on his performance during the match, Balotelli sniped back at reporters, eventually tossing down the microphone and walking away.

During the match in Rome, Balotelli had no shots on goal, a statistic unique for the forward. His biggest involvement came around the half-hour mark, when he swiped the ball from Leandro Castan, outran two Roma defenders and found himself in prime position to shoot. Instead Balotelli tried to be too tricky, and when he couldn’t get his shot off, collapsed under a slight touch. The referee waved away his antics, and Roma took the lead ten minutes later.

With Balotelli putting out such an uninspired performance, it was no surprise that Clarence Seedorf chose to replace him with Giampaolo Pazzini with twenty minutes left to go. There was no tantrum, no tears this time, but cameras did capture the Italian directing what appeared to be a few extremely annoyed words in the direction of his coach.

It was after the match that Balotelli’s temper emerged. When questioned as to why he didn’t move about the field more, he responded, “”You don’t understand anything about football. Trust me, you really don’t.” The forward, speaking to Sky Italia, continued, “You always talk and talk, but there’s no point to saying any of these things. No point at all.”

As if his words were not enough to indicate his frustration, to signal the conclusion of the interview, Balotelli threw down the microphone and walked away.