Finalists Toluca, Tijuana hope surprise Liga MX campaigns end with title

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Club Tijuana made life difficult on themselves, bringing a 2-0 deficit to León back to Estadio Caliente ahead of Sunday’s final leg of their Liga MX semifinal. Thankfully for the league’s Cinderella story — a fairy tale that’s evolved over the last two years — it only took 68 minutes for Fidel Martínez and Dubier Riascos to put them back on course. When substitute Ricard Ruiz put the tie out of reach with a late goal, Tijuana was in their first Primera Division final.

The weight of the occasion wasn’t lost on Xolos.

“It’s really a great feeling for the group,” striker Alfredo Moreno said after the game. “We wanted it. We wanted to be in the final, and it showed in the game. We’re very happy.”

“[T]hey played a superior match from beginning to end,” head coach Antonio Mohamed said of his players. “[It] was 3-0, but it would have been five or six.”

The only misgiving for fans of the league was seeing the league’s northern-most club, in only their third tournament since being promoted last summer, had to go through another recently elevated squad to make the final. León, the five-time league champions who had spent 10 years in the second division moving up this summer, saw their Cinderella story end within sight of the border.

That they, along with Tijuana, spent the season at the top of the table made the Apertura as an indictment of Mexico’s promotion-relegation policies. Each summer, only one team is promoted into the 18-team first division, and since the Ascenso uses a spring playoff to decide the new Liga MX club, there’s no guaranteed that the best team will move up. Club León had to go through five failed playoffs before winning their return to the Primera, and the team that won this season’s second division Apertura (Necaxa, by seven points), was eliminated Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s Dorado in that Liguilla’s semifinals.

Had Tijuana met León in the Primera’s final, it would have been vindication for all the second division clubs struggling to make it through Mexico’s bottleneck. Instead Toluca, the qualification stage champions, made it though, holding off a ferocious América comeback on Sunday to win 3-2, reaffirmed the surprise nature of this season’s opening tournament.

In recent seasons, the Apertura has been the more difficult to Mexico’s two tournaments, and in that sense, it’s also been more predictable. Teams at full strength coming off of a summer’s rebuilding came concentrate on the domestic competition. Come the Clausura, teams will devote attentions to CONCACAF’s Champions League and Copa Libertadores, often merely trying to survive the qualification stage with the hopes of being able to concentrate on the Liguilla. Monterrey, two-time defending confederation champions, have won two of the last three Aperturas but, as they’ve driven toward their CONCACAF titles, have been unable to win a Clausura.

That Toluca, who had not been a factor since Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre was in charge, finished first was a surprise, albeit one fans had 17 rounds to get used to. Under Chepo, Toluca won two titles from 2008-2010 before losing their coach to Mexican national team. De la Torre’s successors — Sergio Lugo, Héctor Eugui, and Wilson Graniolatti — had failed to return Toluca to the postseason, let alone significance. Though the Diablos Rojos have won 10 league titles, few thought they’d get their chance at a record-tying 11th this soon.

It took another of Liga MX’s most renown coaches, Enrique Meza, to get the Red Devils back on track. In two previous spells with Toluca, Meza won three of his four career titles. More recently, Meza spent six tournaments at Cruz Azul but failed to make a final, something he achieved in his first tournament back in Toluca.

“I do not play, I just run the team,” Meza said, asked if his experience will be an advantage against Tijuana after his team eliminated América.

His team, however, retains 10 players who won at least one title under de la Torre. Sinha, the team’s captain, has been with the club since Meza’s first tenure in Toluca. And let’s not forget those 10 titles. While both finalists qualify as surprises, one team has certainly been here before. Tijuana still carries the aura of upstarts.

Come Sunday, that upstarts’ aura could be gone. Then, Xolos will be at Toluca, having hosted the Red Devils in Thursday’s first leg at Estadio Caliente. If they show the same focus that brought them back from two down to León, Mexico will have a new, first-time Champion. If not, Toluca will tie Chivas for the most titles in Mexican history.

Report: Inter Milan, Man United to discuss Lukaku, Perisic deals

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Multiple reports state that Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is set to talk to Inter Milan this week about a swap deal involving Ivan Perisic and cash for Romelu Lukaku.

According to the Daily Mirror, Woodward will meet Inter’s hierarchy in Milan to discuss a swap deal which involves Lukaku and Perisic this summer.

Perisic, 30, has been a long-term target for United and per the report is said to be worth around $45 million. United value Lukaku at $90 million, so Inter would have to let Perisic leave and put about $40 million down to sign Lukaku.

A good deal?

Lukaku, 26, has previously stated he admires Serie A and wants to move to the Italian top-flight, and if he stays at United he will likely play second fiddle to Marcus Rashford. So moving him on and getting in a top quality winger they’ve wanted to sign for some time makes sense.

Perisic doesn’t fit into the young and hungry category that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is after this summer, but his quality speaks for itself. The Croatian international had a superb 2018 World Cup and has been consistently good for Inter, scoring 40 goals in 161 appearances in all competitions since he arrived in 2015.

United need to rebuild their team and Lukaku, aside from his poor 2018-19 campaign, is one of their most valuable assets. If he has another bad season coming up, you can expect his value to half what it currently is.

Pulisic is on an American mission at Chelsea

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Christian Pulisic looks good in Chelsea blue.

The 20-year-old U.S. men’s national team star has arrived at his new club following his $73 million transfer from Borussia Dortmund in January, which saw him remain at the Bundesliga club until the end of the 2018-19 campaign.

Pulisic admitted that he has spoken briefly with Maurizio Sarri and has met up with the Chelsea team, as the USMNT star posed for photos at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday to officially announce his move to the Premier League side.

Asked about what he hopes to achieve during his time at Chelsea, Pulisic revealed he wants the wider world to see American players can be stars at the highest level.

“I want to be a part of this team. I want to make it hit in Chelsea and I want to be as big of a part of this team as I can,” Pulisic said. “I want to come in here and I want to score goals and prove to people that American players can do it. For me, in the end, if people can say that about me then I will be very proud. I am already proud to be here but that is my biggest goal.”

The American soccer family will be cheering Pulisic on from across the pond, and no doubt Chelsea are about to get a lot more fans across the USA.

Pulisic is expected to be the main man for the USMNT this summer during their Gold Cup tournament, which will see him link up late with Chelsea’s preseason. That is far from ideal but Pulisic is determined to take his chance in the PL.

“Now I just felt that it was the right step [to join Chelsea]. It was a great time in Dortmund but it was a feeling and I still have that. This is the biggest stage, it is incredible to come in and be in England and part of this league. If you want to prove yourself it is the greatest stage to be on,” Pulisic added.

This feels like a make or break moment in Pulisic’s career. At every step on his journey so far he has passed each hurdle with flying colors. However, with injuries mounting up last season and uncertainty over his future at Dortmund, Pulisic will want to prove any doubters wrong.

Making the step up to the Premier League from the Bundesliga will be a challenge, and doing it at one of the most demanding and ruthless clubs in Europe will also be tough.

But with Eden Hazard likely leaving this summer and both Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek going down with serious injuries over the past month, a window of opportunity has opened for Pulisic at the start of next season.

He must hit the ground running at Chelsea both for his own good and to spread the word about what the world can expect from the new crop of American players.

Borussia Dortmund sign Hazard*

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Hazard has signed for Borussia Dortmund from Borussia Monchengladbach.

Thorgan Hazard, of course.

He is the second Hazard brother to make a move this summer after Kylian, 23, moved from Chelsea to Cercle Brugge, and with Eden Hazard linked with a move from Chelsea to Real Madrid in the coming weeks, it could be a hat trick of switches for the Hazard family.

As for Thorgan, 26, his fine form out wide for Monchengladbach in 2018-19 has seen Dortmund snap him up for a fee reported to be $38 million on a five-year contract, as he looks like being a direct replacement for Christian Pulisic who has officially arrived at Chelsea after the end of the 2018-19 Bundesliga season.

Here’s what Thorgan had to say about his arrival at the Westfalenstadion.

Hazard scored 12 goals in 29 appearances across all competitions and has become a regular in the Belgium national team setup alongside his brother, the captain. In his five seasons at Monchengladbach he’s scored 45 goals in 176 games in all competitions and the former Chelsea loanee has certainly carved out a very good career for himself since he made a permanent move from Chelsea to ‘Gladbach in 2015.

Entering the prime of his career, Dortmund will be a great spot for him to develop further and play a leading role in their push to win the Bundesliga next season and make a deep run in the UEFA Champions League.

Off the back of signing Hoffenheim defender Nico Schulz, Dortmund aren’t messing around this summer as they spent almost $30 million to bring in the German defender.

With most of that Pulisic money already spent, Lucien Favre will be able to kick his team on to the next level next season and push Bayern Munich all the way.

Just how wrong? Revisiting Premier League predictions

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Own it.

That’s how I look at Premier League predictions. When you’re right, be happy about your good fortune. When you’re wrong, raise your hand.

But there’s another level to it: Why was I right or wrong? Did a team let me down, or did I vastly overrate/underrate their potential?

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Twenty months ago I pegged Burnley to get relegated with an almost record-low amount of points. The Clarets qualified for the Europa League, and I ate my words (even if Sean Dyche‘s men seemingly out-performed every metric on Earth in spite of stats, like some old man claiming Man City wins because of “better chemistry, not talent”).

Cardiff City
Predicted finish: 20
Actual finish: 18

How wrong was I? Not. As much credit as the Bluebirds got for grinding every week, and as much of a difference as the late Emiliano Sala could’ve been to their fortunes, they completed passes at an almost absurdly-bad 63.9 percent rate while having just 39.1 percent of the ball. It was bad.

Huddersfield Town
Predicted finish: 19
Actual finish: 20

How wrong was I? Not. Huddersfield Town managed a league-worst .4 attempts per game from inside the six-yard box, and were one of only five teams to attempt less than six shots per game from inside the 18.

Watford
Predicted finish: 18
Actual finish: 11

How wrong was I? Pretty wrong. Javi Gracia‘s men were strong against bad teams — for the most part — but never sprung another real upset after beating Spurs to go 4-0 early in the season. Record against the Top Six? 1W-0D-11L.

Bournemouth
Predicted finish: 17
Actual finish: 14

How wrong was I? Eh. The Cherries were never really in trouble thanks to a 6-2-2 start, but man did they ride their luck.

Burnley
Predicted finish: 16
Actual finish: 15

How wrong was I? I’ve learned my lesson. Regardless of how much talent appears to be on a Sean Dyche roster, he’s a rich man’s Tony Pulis and should not be doubted.

The face Sean Dyche makes before he fist fights an entire village. Terrifying. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Southampton
Predicted finish: 15
Actual finish: 16

How wrong was I? With respect to Mark Hughes, I thought Saints’ season would come down to when he was sacked and who they identified to replace him. Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s in a good place.

Brighton and Hove Albion
Predicted finish: 14
Actual finish: 17

How wrong was I? A bit wrong, and I pretty much blame Pascal Gross, who back slid from 7 goals and 8 assists in his Premier League debut to just three and three in Year No. 2. The Seagulls didn’t score a single goal from outside the 18.

Wolves
Predicted finish: 13
Actual finish: 7

How wrong was I? It’s not simply about buying players — see: Fulham — but about acquiring hungry players. Raul Jimenez, Diogo Jota, and several others had points to prove, and Jimenez especially made it well.

Newcastle United
Predicted finish: 12
Actual finish: 13

How wrong was I? To be honest, this went about as I expected given the brutal fixture list to start the season. Had I known Miguel Almiron would’ve transitioned so nicely from MLS to the PL, I might’ve had them 10th.

 (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Fulham
Predicted finish: 11
Actual finish: 19

How wrong was I? Very, but to my defense so were most people. On paper, the Cottagers improved more than even Wolves.

Crystal Palace
Predicted finish: 10
Actual finish: 12

How wrong was I? The stats kinda back me up, and it may be worth noting for next season that the Palace’s results didn’t match its performances. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luka Milivojevic, and Wilfried Zaha gave them difference makers in all thirds of the field, and it’s surprising they didn’t push a bit higher on the table.

Leicester City
Predicted finish: 9
Actual finish: 9

How wrong was I? Not. The Foxes were pretty infuriating all year. Maybe Brendan Rodgers‘ ego and power will match the player power that’s run the club since they won the title. That said, the inconsistency and tumult shouldn’t be a surprise in a season the club had to deal with its owner dying on a match day.

West Ham United
Predicted finish: 8
Actual finish: 10

How wrong was I? Not really. I thought it would take Manuel Pellegrini some time to put his men together, but I didn’t predict the Irons would get a total of 37 appearances from Andriy Yarmolenko, Jack Wilshere, Manuel Lanzini, and Carlos Sanchez.

Everton
Predicted finish: 7
Actual finish: 8

How wrong was I? It took Marco Silva longer than expected to get his men humming, but think of this: If Jordan Pickford doesn’t give Divock Origi a derby winner, Everton is going to Europe. I know, I know… chaos theory. But still.

Richarlison (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Tottenham Hotspur
Predicted finish: 6
Actual finish: 4

How wrong was I? Like many, I was stunned that Spurs didn’t spend this summer and thought injuries would hurt them. They did, but only to the extent that Tottenham wasn’t able to sustain a title challenge. Spurs rarely gave the ball away, and the only teams that averaged fewer “times dispossessed” than Tottenham’s 9.2 per 90 were teams that never had the ball: Brighton, Cardiff, and Burnley.

Arsenal
Predicted finish: 5
Actual finish: 5

How wrong was I? Spot-on. It was going to take time for the Gunners to come together following a first managerial change in ages, but Arsenal had the offense to challenge for the Top Four. Surprisingly for Arsenal, they averaged just eight dribbles per game, 12th in the PL. Unai Emery had them more cautious than usual.

Chelsea
Predicted finish: 4
Actual finish: 3

How wrong was I? Not. Maurizio Sarri is not for everyone, but he knows how to get results. Granted Gonzalo Higuain was his guy, but he did it without a top striker.

Liverpool
Predicted finish: 3
Actual finish: 2

How wrong was I? Well, considering the Reds had one of the best runners-up finishes of all-time, quite wrong. Mostly, I didn’t expect Mohamed Salah to deliver again and he mostly did (save for a late winter slump).

Manchester United
Predicted finish: 2
Actual finish: 6

How wrong was I? Real wrong. Almost as wrong as United looks for canning Jose Mourinho. The manager needed to leave town, but there was a reason he was playing so packed-in. Ask yourself this: If Ed Woodward gave Mourinho the use of Toby Alderweireld, would Spurs and United be flipped?

Manchester City
Predicted finish: 1
Actual finish: 1

How wrong was I? On point. How good was City? For a club that ranked No. 1 in possession, they were only dispossessed 10.3 times per match. That was the 8th fewest total in the league.