Clasico: Late Varane goal keeps Real Madrid even with Barcelona

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Over the past two seasons it may have seemed like the myriad of Clasicos transcended the soccer world, today’s predictably cagey first 90 minutes of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s two-legged Copa del Rey semifinal destroyed truly detached itself from the context of the season. A Real Madrid team that trails Barcelona by 15 points in league and was without their goalkeeping captain and their two best center backs managed to go toe-to-toe with a Blaugrana side that’s only tasted defeat twice this season. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear today’s 1-1 result was from last year, when Real Madrid was taking Spain from their rivals.

But since these clubs are never out of the news, you already knew how much Real Madrid has struggled. And you probably know that their locker room is in turmoil (which Iker Casillas’s journalist girlfriend confirmed to Mexican television yesterday). And you probably know there’s almost no way José Mourinho will be back at the Bernabeu and Crisitiano Ronaldo’s holding off on signing a contract extension with the club.

Yet there we were near 3:50 p.m. Eastern time, tied 0-0 at halftime of a match that we’ve repeatedly seen some version of over the last two years. Real Madrid was frantically and physically pressing through the midfield, disrupting Xavi Hernández whenever the Barcelona quarterback would drop for the ball. Play goes wide, comes back in as it approaches the final third, and Barcelona can rarely craft a ball to beat the Real back line. Barça ends up dominating possession, but with swift counterattacks that eschew prudence for speed, Real’s able to create as many chances.

Come full-time at the Bernabeu, the story had finished playing out. Barcelona held 61 percent of the game’s possession, but they’d only put one more shot toward goal (9-8). Their early second half goal from Cesc Fábregas (made possible when a defender was dragged uncommonly deep behind the line, keeping Fábrages onside in the right of the box) was equalized late by 19-year-old Raphael Varane, the French prospect playing because of the absences of Pepé and Sergio Ramos.

Though Real was at home and may have wanted to build a first leg lead, they know a result on the road is within their powers. They got a result in Barcelona last October. Barça may convince themselves they have a leg up on their rivals, but given the familiarity these sides have with each other and their respective grounds, it’s more likely nothing’s changed but the clock. Instead of 180 minutes to decide one Cup finalist, the rivals are down to 90.

And just was today’s game predictably transcended the teams’ extra-Clasico form, you can expect Feb. 26th’s meeting to be the same game we’ve come to expect, fear, and revere. Can Barcelona handle Real Madrid’s pressure? Will El Real convert the breaks they receive? Will either side make the debilitating mistake that might define this two-legged Clasico? Who’s going to get red carded?

Real Madrid has stumbled all year, but for one day, they were back to being one of the two best clubs in the world. Expect the same next month.

Aubameyang: Arsenal coaching change can help “stagnation”

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Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is politely echoing what many Gunners supporters have been saying for some time when it comes to Arsene Wenger leaving the Emirates Stadium set.

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Unai Emery has been tabbed to replace the departing legend, who oversaw a relatively poor sixth place finish in the Premier League this season.

From RMC, translated by Goal.com:

“I think it’s a little bit of a mixed feeling in fact,” Aubameyang said. “On one hand, it’s strange for all the fans that the coach has left. But it’s definitely a fresh start.”

“Since over the last few seasons – you have to tell the truth – the club has stagnated a little bit, I think everyone is actually a little bit excited to see what happens next season.”

The 28-year-old striker scored 10 times for Arsenal since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in January, scoring or assisting in 10 of 13 Premier League matches and bagging braces in two appearances.

“Hopeful” Commisso extends deadline for $500m NASL restoration

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New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso tells ProSoccerTalk that he has extended his deadline in regards to his $500 million investment offer to fund a resurgent North American Soccer League.

Why? Well, for one, Commisso feels that progress is being made, so much so that he’s willing to characterize his outlook as “hopeful.”

“There’s been a lot of back-and-forth, they basically said they can’t get everything done by the 31st and they need more time and that’s the reason why we changed the deadline,” Commisso said.

U.S. Soccer told the NASL it could not meet prior to the June 13 vote regarding 2026 World Cup hosting. In extending his deadline to May 31, Commisso is asking for a few commitments from U.S. Soccer.

Commisso wants U.S. Soccer to commit to a board meeting with a “yes or no” vote no later than June 29, and wants U.S. Soccer to provide a list of prerequisite actions needed to have such a decision on his proposal at said meeting. And he wants a commitment from U.S. Soccer to stick to the timeline.

So what’s the impetus for Commisso’s hopeful nature?

“They’ve showed some good faith and I’m willing to move if they’re willing to do X, Y, and Z. It’s a moving thing and I’m being flexible to their asks and to see at what point and time they’re going to come up with something else.”

Commisso said his deadlines have not been about putting pressure on USSF, rather the many things he’d have to do to get the NASL back on the field by March 2019 for a season with a minimum of 10 teams, which would be sanctioned as D-2.

Additionally, the 10-year runway would include D-1 sanctioning in 2020 with a minimum of 14 teams, a minimum of 10,000-seat stadia, a minimum of three time zones represented, as well as a plan to introduce promotion and relegation in said top flight.

He’d also need multi-team ownership to start, but said that would be solved by independent ownership at the end of the 10-year runway, if not sooner, with all teams meeting the current Professional League Standards for D-1.

“I’m asking for the 10 years, let’s be clear,” Commisso said. “If you read our original letters, we’ve always asked for the ability of multi-ownership. We put out a chart that goes back all the way to 1996 that shows the transition from 1996 to 2011, that during those periods there were certain owners with multi-teams. In 2003, three guys owned the entire league, so that’s what I’m asking for.”

Commisso said that, like the MLS build-up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there would be safeguards in place to maintain sporting integrity, and that his full 2019 roster of clubs would be finalized by Sept. 20, with the NASL’s league ops fully restored by New Year’s Eve. There’s also an ask of commitment from USSF to address governance issues by February 2019.

The $250 million he’s investing is joined by $50 million each from Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva and Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer, plus help from “leading Wall Street banks.”

The NASL has already identified 12 potential clubs, 11 of which are in metropolitan areas with populations above one million. The investment would go to building modular soccer-specific stadia in some markets, and his league would put an emphasis on youth development and domestic players.

“I’m hopeful that the leadership of U.S. Soccer sees in the largest investment ever proposed by a single individual for the benefit of American soccer getting this through as quickly as possible.”

Italy coach Mancini leaves door open for Gianluigi Buffon

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) Italy coach Roberto Mancini says former captain Gianluigi Buffon will still be considered if he wants to return to the national team.

Buffon retired from international soccer in November after Italy lost a World Cup playoff to Sweden, but he recently returned for friendlies.

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Mancini says “(Buffon) wants to continue playing football … Everyone who will play and will be among the best can be considered for the national team.”

Buffon is expected to bid the national team goodbye for good in another friendly on June 4 against the Netherlands at Allianz Stadium. However, at a news conference last week to announce his departure from Juventus, Buffon insisted he had made the last of his 176 appearances for his country.

Champions League Final to return to Istanbul

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Here’s a bit of news which will put smiles on Liverpool supporters’ faces ahead of the weekend’s big UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid.

The UEFA Champions League Final is headed back to Istanbul, the city known for boasting perhaps the most celebrated moment in Liverpool history.

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Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium will host the 2020 UCL Final, 15 years after the Reds rallied from a 3-0 halftime deficit to defeat AC Milan in penalty kicks.

The 2019 final will be held in Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, home of Atletico Madrid.