Two games, six points make for an unexpectedly perfect start for Montréal

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Marco Schällibaum may be new to Major League Soccer, but you couldn’t tell by the way he’s set up his team. Two games and six points into his Montréal Impact career, Schällibaum may as well have taken a page out of the books of Bruce Arena, Dominic Kinnear, and the other veteran coaches who’ve had consistent success in MLS. He’s kept it simple.

Using the same compact, conservative setup that earned a 1-0 win last week in Seattle, Montréal defeated Portland 2-1 on Saturday night, a match that was never in any real doubt. To look at the numbers alone you’d never know, with Portland holding large advantages in possession (64 percent) and shots (19-9). Aside from two chances for Ryan Johnson, the second of which was converted off a Ben Zemanski cross in the 81st minute, Portland failed to seriously stress Troy Perkins.

The Impact, on the other hand, proved dangerous early and often. In the eighth minute, Felipe pulled an open shot from inside the penalty area just wide of Donovan Ricketts’ goal. Three minutes later, Marco Di Vaio’s header was kept out by a spectacular save from Ricketts. The resulting corner kick saw an unmarked Hassoun Camara’s flick from the near post go just wide, while an open chance for Davy Arnaud in the 21st minute went for naught after the Montréal midfielder failed to control a cross from Jed Brovsky.

Montreal finally broke through in the 30th minute and spectacularly so, with Camara’s overhead kick from 16 yards going into the left side netting.  With Portland pushing for a second half equalizer, Felipe doubled the Impact’s lead in the 60th minute. A pristine pass from Patrice Bernier was converted to into the backbreaker by a sharp cutback pass from Andrea Pisanu.

It was the second straight week Schällibaum’s team had put on a clinic, his veteran squad content to sit back and wait for a mistake before pouncing. In Seattle, it was Arnaud and Di Vaio taking advantage of some momentary Sounder disorganization. Against Portland, a first half foul from Darlington Nagbe led to the first, while a spectacular pass and run that exploited Michael Harrington delivered the second.

It’s a plan that could blow up on other teams. But Schällibaum has the experience of Alessandro Nesta, Matteo Ferrari, and Patrice Bernier as the foundation of the defense. He has Di Vaio to control the attack, with Felipe and Davy Arnaud to run off him.

“It means a lot, when you have a group of guys who have played in big games and big moments,” Arnaud, the team’s captain said of his team’s experience. “We’ve had a lot of guys who’ve experienced that. When the times were kind of hectic on the field at different times of the game, there’s never a real sense of panic amongst the group, and that’s good.”

To his credit, Schällibaum has left it to his players. He has out a 4-1-4-1, instilled some basic tactical precepts, and let his talent do their thing. If he had his team executing a complicated scheme that relied on more than veteran guile and an opportunism, his team could have struggled starting the season so far from home.

Instead, Montréal has six points. Perhaps unexpectedly so.

Mark Hughes signs new long-term contract at Southampton

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Mark Hughes has gone from Stoke City outcast to Southampton savior in little under six months time.

The Welsh boss was let go from Stoke City with the Potters 18th in the table and headed towards eventual relegation, but he was picked up by fellow relegation candidates Southampton after the departure of Mauricio Pellegrino. He steered the club to safety, finishing three points above the drop in 17th.

With the Saints in the top flight for another season, the club has announced the signing of Hughes to a new three-year contract.

“Mark, Eddie and I are thrilled to have signed long-term contracts with the club. It was the only option we considered, having spent the last eight weeks with the club,” Hughes said of himself and his assistant coaches Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki. “Now it is vital that we take the unbelievable support we received from the fans during the last few games into next season. The staff and the players will work hard every day to deliver the success this club deserves, and with everyone pulling together we will achieve our goals.”

Hughes guided Stoke City to three consecutive ninth-placed finishes, the highest the club had ever finished in the English top flight, but they finished 13th last year and regressed even further this campaign. The sale of playmaker Marko Arnautovic was particularly damaging, and the club scored just 35 goals in 38 games as a result.

At Southampton, Hughes took over a club that sat in 17th with just seven matches to go. He lost three Premier League games in a row to start his tenure and only won one league match with Saints the rest of the way, but managed to keep the club barely afloat.

Reports: Arsenal nearing deal for Lichtsteiner on free transfer

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According to multiple reports in England, including the BBC, Arsenal is looking to sign Juventus right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner on a free transfer this summer, potentially becoming the first signing under new manager Unai Emery.

Lichtsteiner is out of contract at Juventus this summer, having been with the club since 2011. Lichtsteiner has played in Italy since joining Lazio in 2008.

The Swiss international will captain his country at the World Cup this summer in Russia and will earn his 100th cap in his second match at the event.

[ MORE: Tottenham target trio ]

Lichtsteiner has been a mainstay in a Juventus squad that has won seven consecutive Serie A titles, but at 34 years old has been slowly phased out. He has made less than 30 Serie A appearances each of the last seasons, despite a nearly spotless bill of health since undergoing heart surgery in October of 2015. Last season, Lichtsteiner completed just nine full 90 minute performances, including just three after November. Lichtsteiner may have had an even smaller role this most recent campaign had Mattia de Sciglio not struggled with injuries for much of the season.

The Gunners have Hector Bellerin as the club’s main right-back, with the Spaniard leading the squad in total minutes played this past season. However, Bellerin’s level of performance has regressed considerably since proving one of the best young Premier League players in his first full season in 2015/16.

Lichtsteiner has also been linked with a move to Borussia Dortmund, where Lukasz Piszczek mans the right-back spot, but talks between the clubs reportedly broke down.

Report: Lampard leading candidate to succeed Rowett as Derby County boss

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According to John Cross of the Daily Mirror, former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard is in the pole position to win the Derby County managerial position left vacant after Gary Rowett left to take charge of Stoke City.

Lampard has been linked to a host of lower-league managerial jobs over the past six months, but has either resisted those offers or been passed over for other candidates. In January, Lampard confirmed he had interest from League One side Oxford United, but said he did not feel ready to begin his managerial career.

“I don’t know what the route will be – there are plenty of different routes to become a top manager and I am working there [at Chelsea with the U18s] now to get towards that,” Lampard said in January. “You can’t just step out of something and think you can become a manager, you have to practice a lot. Thankfully Chelsea and the academy are helping me get my hours in and I am watching training at certain Premier League clubs and studying as much as I can so down the line, I hope so [to become a manager one day].”

Just four days ago, Lampard was also mentioned in connection with the open Ipswich Town position, interviewing with the club twice according to Sky Sports.

Now, The Mirror says that Derby County is in the mix for Lampard, and that he is at the top of the club’s shortlist. Lampard, who sits as Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer, has been working as a TV analyst since retiring in 2016 following a short move to Manchester City and a stint with MLS club NYCFC.

Derby has been competitive in the Championship for a number of seasons now, but the Rams have just missed out on Premier League promotion on numerous occasions. They finished sixth this past season but blew a 1-0 semifinal lead to Fulham after the first leg. They also lost in the playoff semifinals to Hull City back in 2016, and lost in the playoff final to QPR back in 2014 after a third-place finish in the table.

Championship Playoff Final preview: Fulham vs. Aston Villa

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Imagine playing in a single game where your performance over 90 minutes means the difference between over $300 million for your club or at least another year in the lower leagues.

That’s what is estimated to be on the line as Fulham and Aston Villa meet at Wembley on Saturday in the Championship playoff final at 12 p.m. ET hoping to earn the final spot in next year’s Premier League campaign.

Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce will be searching for an unprecedented fifth Championship promotion after previously guiding Birmingham City and Hull City to the top flight on multiple occasions. He is 2-0 in the playoff final, having won it previously once with each former club, taking Birmingham City to the Premier League in 2002 after defeating Norwich City in a penalty shootout, and earning the victory with Hull City in 2016 via a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. Players Sam Johnstone and Robert Snodgrass have both won playoff finals before as well.

Fulham, meanwhile, has experience of its own on the touchline, as boss Slavisa Jokanovic has taken Watford to the top flight previously, finishing second in the Championship in 2015, but he has never experienced a playoff final before.

The Whites appear to be in the better form, having nearly ended the season in historic form with 24 straight unbeaten, but lost on the final day of the campaign, missing out on automatic promotion by just two points. They play a possession-based style under Jokanovic, and while it’s taken a while for the team to grasp the tactics, they look as deadly as ever. However, the last few games have exposed the team yet again, with the loss to lowly Birmingham on the final day before a 1-0 loss to Derby County in the first leg of their playoff semifinal, a scoreline which they turned around in the second leg at home.

The Fulham midfield duo of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen has a claim to be the best pairing in the Championship over the past two seasons, and they anchor Jokanovic’s setup behind playmaker Tom Cairney. The club brought embattled Newcastle striker Aleksandr Mitrovic to London in January, and he’s brought a cutting edge to an attack that was just missing a target man up front. Young winger Ryan Sessegnon, who just turned 18 years old on Friday, has been the club’s most heralded player, and could move to a top Premier League side this summer, especially if the Whites fall at Wembley this weekend. Finally, USMNT defender Tim Ream has led the defensive improvement of a club that conceded 83 goals three seasons ago to halve that this campaign.

They’ll take that attacking prowess up against one of the league’s most pragmatic opponents, as Villa finished the regular season with the third-fewest goals allowed and shut out Middlesbrough across both legs in the semifinals. They feature former Chelsea defender John Terry anchoring the back line, and he partners with experienced 29-year-old James Chester who has played under Bruce before at Hull. Terry himself has won five separate trophies at Wembley Stadium, experience he will surely share with the squad.

Villa’s most dangerous player this season has been Albert Adomah whose blistering pace down the right has been something for opponents to deal with. However, he’s hit a cold streak, without a goal since scoring in a 4-1 win over champions Wolves back on March 10th.

Villa is looking to go back to the Premier League after relegation two years ago, while Fulham has spent four years in the second tier after being sent down back in 2014.