Preview: Liverpool vs. Stoke City

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  • Stoke City haven’t won at Anfield since 1959.
  • Of the 10 PL meetings between the two clubs, Liverpool have only managed two wins.
  • Liverpool’s last Opening Day win at home was 2001

As the Premier League season kicks off, Liverpool will host Stoke City, as both clubs eye improvement on last year.

Both clubs experienced disappointing campaigns last season relative to what the clubs are looking to achieve, and the new campaign is an opportunity to erase those failures.

Liverpool, while not a severe disappointment with their seventh place finish last year, still missed out on European competition, and ended up below bitter rivals Everton in the table, which always stings.

Stoke City finished 13th in the league, and while it isn’t a tragic result for a club like Stoke, pretty much everyone 12th and lower were involved in the bitter relegation battle that sucked in almost the entire bottom half of the table.  Stoke have never finished in the top half of the table, and the aim is the same as always this year – change that factoid.

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Everyone except the Daily Mail knows by now that world-class striker Luis Suarez won’t feature in the match due to his 10-game suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic last season.  He does, however, remain on the books for Liverpool and hasn’t left despite a very public campaign to force his sale.

Thanks to Suarez’s ban, new signing Iago Aspas (pictured, left) will be unveiled, and it will be a chance for Liverpool fans to see what the possibility of being without Suarez for the long-term would be like. It’s a scary thought for fans to swallow, but there’s a real possibility that the man who scored 23 league goals for the Reds last year has played his last match at Anfield.

Aspas, coming over from La Liga side Celta de Vigo, is a proven goalscorer to replace Suarez up front, although he is perfectly capable of moving out to the wings when necessary.  His numbers reflect this versatility.  Two seasons ago with Celta, he scored 23 goals in 34 matches as the club earned promotion from the Spanish second division. Last year in La Liga, he scored 12 goals but also grabbed six assists.  Daniel Sturridge will also be availble to compliment the strike force.

Stoke have a new figurehead to be unveiled Saturday as well – new manager Mark Hughes.  The Welshman has had a bumpy ride in the Premier League, most recently his miserable failure at Queens Park Rangers that built the foundation for their relegation campaign last year. Hughes has what is presumably his last shot at proving his managerial abilities here at Stoke, and thus he has to make it count.

Hughes has made very few changes to the squad of last year, with one major addition being the swoop for young defender Mark Muniesa on a free transfer from Barcelona.  Two Americans could all appear for Hughes’ side against Liverpool, with Geoff Cameron and Maruice Edu available for selection, while Brek Shea works on returning from knee ligament damage.

Can Liverpool break their 12-year Opening Day duck? Will Mark Hughes get his first win with the Potters? You can find out by tuning in live on Saturday at 7:45am ET on NBC to watch Liverpool host Stoke City. And you can watch that game all the Premier League games live via NBC Sports Live Extra.

What they’re saying

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers on Suarez saga: “Nothing can sabotage what we are trying to do here,” Rodgers said. “There’s too much good work gone on here for it to be overtaken by anything else.”

Mark Hughes on his public image: “Maybe I’m getting it wrong but I just think there’s a real sense that people want me to do well. I’d like to think people would see the bigger picture but I can understand why they don’t, because probably after QPR I think a lot of people had made their mind up that I was the root of all evil and I was the reason why the club went down last season.”

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel: “It doesn’t matter who we play against because the beginning of the season is always tough. Every team is full of energy and desire and they want to fight. We know that with Stoke it’s going to be a hard and difficult game for us. But we need a good start to the season and we will do all our best to make sure that happens and we get the three points.”

Prediction

Lots of people are saying this one could end in a horrifically boring 0-0 draw.  According to BBC Sport, Stoke were involved in seven of the 10 matches last season with the lowest ball-in-play time.  Liverpool are heavily distracted by Luis Suarez, and their back line is banged up as well.  Skrtel is only fit enough to make the bench, and Daniel Agger is expected to play despite his own injury troubles.  This could allow Stoke’s massive striker Peter Crouch to exploit their back line and shoot his visiting side to victory in a 1-0 upset.

NFL’s 49ers purchase minority stake in Leeds United

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One of England’s most famous clubs is receiving investment and strategic business connections from one of the NFL’s most famous brands.

Leeds United and the San Francisco 49ers announced Thursday that 49ers Enterprises, an investment arm of the 49ers ownership, has purchased a minority stake in the Championship club. Multiple reports state that the 49ers now own 10-15 percent of the club, but current Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani remains the majority owner.

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As part of the deal, 49ers President Paraag Marathe gets a seat on the Leeds United board of directors. Per Leeds, the money invested will stay with the club and be used for the first team, as Leeds looks again to make its way back to the Premier League in next season’s campaign.

An American ownership group investing in England is nothing new, but to identify and purchase a stake in a club with history and a decent chance at making it to the Premier League is impressive. In addition, the York Family, who owns the 49ers, has a net worth in the billions, which could help fund Leeds’ push back into the Premier League.

For the 49ers, this is also a savvy business decision. By investing low in a club in the Championship, they hope that they can experience the financial windfall of playing in the Premier League. This season, clubs made a combined $3.2 billion (with a capital B) thanks to revenue sharing, international and domestic TV rights, and other sponsorship deals.

With even the relegated sides taking home nine figures in revenues from the league, who wouldn’t want to invest and take a cut of that?

Now, only time will tell how long it is before the 49ers influence helps – or hinders, based on the 49ers current state of affairs in the U.S. – Leeds reach the pinnacle of English football.

Iniesta joins Japanese club Vissel Kobe

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TOKYO (AP) Former Barcelona playmaker Andres Iniesta was introduced as the newest member of Japanese club Vissel Kobe on Thursday, a poorly kept secret that’s been rumored for weeks.

Iniesta appeared before a packed news conference at a central Tokyo hotel on Thursday along with Kobe’s billionaire owner, Hiroshi Mikitani.

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“I’m pleased to announce,” Mikitani said, “that Andres Iniesta will be signing up play with Vissel Kobe after his historic career at Barcelona.”

Iniesta signed his contract as Mikitani watched, and then spoke through an interpreter.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Japanese media are reporting he will earn $30 million annually on a three-year deal.

“For me this is a very special day,” the Spaniard said. “This is an important challenge for me. My family is excited to come to Japan and we are very pleased. There were many offers. Other clubs showed interest. But I decided to sign with Vissel Kobe because the project presented to me was impressive.”

Mikitani is also the CEO of Barcelona sponsor Rakuten, a Japanese online retailer.

Iniesta held up the team’s red shirt with his famous No. 8 on the back, and his name written across the bottom.

Iniesta previously had said he would probably retire from international soccer after Spain plays at this year’s World Cup in Russia.

The 34-year-old Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. He also was a key part of Spain’s two European Championships in 2008 and 2012.

He announced last month he would leave Barcelona after 16 seasons. His last match for the Spanish club was on Sunday against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou.

Vissel Kobe is in sixth place after 15 games in the J-League. It signed Lukas Podolski last year, but the German striker is out until the end of June with an injured calf.

Yaya Toure talks future, wants to play with Paul Pogba

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There is very little debate: Yaya Toure is his own special case.

The longtime Manchester City midfielder does what he wants, flies his own flag, has the worst agent in the game, and is pleased or dismayed in unusual ways.

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Toure, 35, has been linked with a move to NYCFC now that he’s leaving Man City, but the Ivorian still wants to play two more seasons for a Champions League or Europa League club.

And he wants to get together with Paul Pogba. You can see where this is going… (from The Manchester Evening News):

“Pogba is the same size, power – but different in the way he wants to go. Technically as well, the ability to score goals as well. It is a player I want to play with, to be honest, just to teach him some things.”

That must mean both are going to Paris Saint-Germain because… Yaya at Manchester United? No way, right? Right? Even with last year’s reports from his — again — terrible agent that it was an option, that still seems too villainous.

“I don’t rule big teams out. The big teams are very important for me. What they want to achieve, the way they want to go, for me is very important. … I want to go somewhere I can win and achieve. It’s going to be hard one day to play against City, but I have to do that. It is part of my job.”

Toure later said he was “no good in an office,” which had us thinking, well, what if they properly celebrated your birthday, Yaya?

WATCH: Miami United midfielder unleashes Open Cup laser

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Tomas Granitto, have yourself an extra plate at the postgame buffet.

The Miami United midfielder scored a gorgeous goal in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over fellow NPSL side Jacksonville Armada in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s third round.

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Complete with aesthetically-pleasing post-ping, the former El Salvador U-20 player laid into a 25-yard shot to open the scoring in Florida.

Granitto, 24, has played for Timbers 2, Swope Park Rangers, FC Edmonton, since leaving NCAA side Florida Gulf Coast.