MLS Preview: Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids

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• The Colorado Rapids (12-8-9, 45 points, third place in Western Conference) and Portland Timbers (10-5-14, 43 points, fifth place) are separated by the thinnest of margins in the Major League Soccer standings.

• Both teams explode in the second halves of games, with the Timbers scoring 30 out of 44 (including 14 in the last 15 minutes) and the Rapids putting away 24 out of 37 of their goals in the second period.

• Will Johnson has scored in both meetings between the clubs this year: a 2-2 tie in Denver on March 30 and a 3-0 Timbers win in Portland on June 23.

If the Portland Timbers defeat the Colorado Rapids on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN), they will vault back into third place in the MLS Western Conference, with a game in hand on the Rapids. With only two wins in its last 10 games, Portland has an opportunity to begin solidifying a playoff spot with less than 10 matches left.

As the Timbers get more players back from injury, they can begin to regain some early-season form that saw them rattle off 15 games without a loss. Will Johnson and Diego Chará are back to marshal the midfield, and Diego Valeri and Jack Jewsbury should be able to play some part on Friday, although head coach Caleb Porter would not say how much after training on Thursday.

Johnson and Chará have been able to rekindle their partnership in the last two games, completing a combined 226 of 255 passes against Chivas USA and Toronto FC.

On the flip side, Colorado has only lost once in its last 12 games, surging up the table after three previous losses in a row left it on the wrong side of the red playoff line in the standings. U.S. 2010 World Cup forward Edson Buddle (pictured) has scored in three of the last four games, taking over some of rookie Deshorn Brown’s burden.

Another rookie, Clint Irwin, has anchored the team in goal, tying the club’s single-season shutout record with 10 after an early injury to Matt Pickens caused a panic in the Mile High City. The Rapids have put together some impressive results during their hot streak, defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy at home and on the road and the Montreal Impact away.

What they’re saying

Timbers midfielder Will Johnson on regaining the team’s form: “We have to be a little more clinical in and around the box — attacking, set pieces. We just don’t seem to have that hunger in front of goal right now, and if you’re going to make mistakes at the back and give up goals, you’re going to lose points.”

Rapids defender Drew Moor on the playoff push: “It’s coming down to the point of the season where we need to show our best because you don’t just want to scrape into the playoffs and not be playing well because the playoffs is a whole different picture. Even in our unbeaten run … I’ve walked off the field thinking we can do more.”

Portland head coach Caleb Porter on climbing the table: “You can be worried so much about what’s beneath you that it starts pulling you down, versus … looking at the teams above you and hunting them. I actually like the position we’re in. I wish we were in a better position, but the fact that we’re in position to make the playoffs — above the red line — and a couple points off the teams that are ahead of us, I think means we’ll be aggressive and hungry.”

Prediction

The MLS season is coming down to the wire, to the point where being in good form actually matters, and Portland and Colorado are heating up — especially the Rapids. Portland is a hostile environment, but if any team in the league right now has a chance to take points at JELD-WEN Field, it’s Oscar Pareja’s men. At the same time, the Timbers are starting to get players back and trying to rebuild its rhythm. However, it’s too soon for Portland to be firing on all cylinders, which Colorado has been doing for the past month.

Gomes return gives Everton boost despite defeat

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Everton lost the first game of a gauntlet four-game swing, losing 3-2 at Arsenal despite leading inside two minutes of the match. But while Everton left the Emirates without any points, it gained a massive boost with the return of Andre Gomes.

The Portuguese central midfielder, signed from Barcelona, made his return to the field on Sunday off the bench in the 59th minute for his first game since suffering a gruesome injury on November 3 against Tottenham. Gomes appeared to break his leg after a sliding tackle from behind from Heung-Min Son, but in less than four months, Gomes is now back in action.

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“I need to thank everybody. The team, they were great, my supporters, Evertonions, and also in general football supporters, everyone has been wonderful with me,” Gomes said after the Arsenal match. “(It) gives (me) confidence when you feel like you have the support of the people. I just pushed myself to the my limit, I wanted to be back as soon as possible, and I’m glad I have the help of everybody around me.”

This is huge for Everton and head coach Carlo Ancelotti. Without Gomes, and the oft-injured Fabian Delph (though Delph started against Arsenal), Everton really lacked pace and power in the center of midfield. Morgan Schneiderlin is a decent passer but doesn’t have the pace required for the Premier League, and then Ancelotti was dropping Gylfi Sigurdsson further back in midfield to play alongside Schneiderlin or Delph.

With Gomes back in contention for a starting spot, Ancelotti can play Sigurdsson closer to the opposing goal and partner him with either Delph or the still-young Tom Davies, who can do even more running to win the ball back and get it to Gomes.

“He did really well without problem,” Ancelotti said post game. “(He was) very strong in the tackle. The player is really important for us and he will play next game.”

Looking forward, it’s also huge for Everton to get Gomes back because they’re in the middle of one of the season’s toughest stretches. After facing Arsenal today, Everton hosts Manchester United, visits Chelsea, and then hosts Liverpool on Monday, March 16 in the Merseyside Derby.

Galatasaray wins bonkers derby over Fenerbahce

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Goals. Fights. Red cards. Yellow cards. Horror tackles. Passion in the stands.

The Intercontinental Derby in Istanbul today had just about everything.

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For the first time this century, Galatasaray defeated Fenerbahce in the Turkish Superlig, winning 3-1 on the road. With the victory, Galatasaray moves into a three-way tie for first place in the league. As mentioned above, the game featured 12 yellow cards, VAR reviews, two red cards, and countless other dangerous plays that the officials let go with just a warning.

Max Kruse put the Asia-based Fenerbahce in front off a penalty kick that was confirmed by VAR, but Dutch defender Ryan Donk equalized for the European-based Galatasaray in the 39th minute off a bullit header in the box from a corner.

With both teams trading chances, the tempers exploded in the 77th minute after Henry Onyekuru was taken down on the left side of the box. VAR confirmed that decision as well and former Atletico Madrid star Radamel Falcao powered the penalty in to give Galatasaray a huge lead.

Five minutes later, as Younes Belhanda was coming off the field as a substitution, a scuffle that he started with Deniz Turuc ended with both players getting sent off. Awkwardly, Ahmet Calik had come onto the pitch for Belhanda, but Belhanda’s actions just before he left the pitch meant that Calik wasn’t officially in the game yet and the substitution was cancelled. Calik eventually entered as a sub for Radamel Falcao, while both teams were reduced to ten players on the pitch.

In the 89th minute, Fernando Muslera dived to make an outstanding save on a powerful free kick from Mehmet Ekici, and eight minutes later deep into second half stoppage time, Muslera played provider. His long pass from inside the box found Onyekuru in space and the Nigerian dribbled forward, rounded Fenerbahce goalkeeper Altay Bayindir and scored before going into a slide celebration in the corner.

The game had a couple of Premier League connections. Former Fulham midfielder Jean-Michael Seri and Falcao, formerly of Manchester United, both started for Galatasaray. Goal-scorer Ryan Donk played a decade ago one season for West Bromwich Albion and Sofiane Feghouli played recently for West Ham. For Fenerbahce, Mauricio Isla also played one season for Queens Park Rangers.

Watch the highlights from this wild and crazy – and totally on-point – derby below.

Ziyech’s Chelsea contract details confirmed

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Chelsea has confirmed the contract details of talented midfielder Hakim Ziyech who will join this summer.

The London giants announced on Sunday that Ziyech has signed a five-year contract with Chelsea, beginning on July 1 this summer when his transfer from Ajax is completed.

On February 13, Chelsea and Ajax came to an agreement on a transfer fee for Ziyech, reported to be in the region of $43 million.

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“I am delighted and proud to have signed for such a huge club as Chelsea,” Ziyech said in a statement. “I am looking forward to next season and hope we can achieve great things together.”

Chelsea was intent on signing Ziyech ahead of the competition and made Ajax a deal they couldn’t refuse.

The left-footed playmaker has been a star for Ajax and in the UEFA Champions League for the last few seasons, helping lead Ajax to the Champions League semifinals last season. So far this season, he’s scored eight goals and recorded four assists between the Dutch Eredivisie and the Champions League.

Ziyech’s arrival this summer surely spells the end of time for Pedro and William as attacking midfielders at Chelsea. The Dutchman, who usually plays as a right winger, cutting inside with the left foot, could create a great combination with Christian Pulisic, Tammy Abraham, and Mason Mount moving forward. Chelsea could also certainly sign another one in that position, to keep a deep squad in case of injuries and/or fatigue.

Arteta vows to keep Aubameyang: “Our most important player”

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Arsenal completed a hectic week with a hectic win prodded by its two top performers of the season.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored twice and Bernd Leno made key late saves as the exhausted Gunners outlasted Everton 3-2 at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

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Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta was effusive in his praise, relatively speaking, for both players. He said that Leno “saved” Arsenal, and went long on Aubameyang when asked how important the player is to the club’s future.

“Incredible,” Arteta said. “The amount of work he’s doing. Before I had my questions, (but he’s) shown the commitment that he’s shown to his teammates and the club. I wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it, or do it physically. So it’s either you want to do it or don’t.

“He’s our most important player. Stats wise, there’s no question. As much as I can and the club can, we will try to convince him to stay with us.”

Arteta also appreciates the effort his men put in against an energetic Everton side three days after outlasting Olympiacos in Greece.

“Coming back from Europe, three games in seven days, conceding a goal in the first minute, the way we reacted, the way we played for 60-65 minutes was exactly what I wasn’t from my team,” Arteta preened. “The resilience some of the players showed when they were absolutely knackered and kept going and going. This was exactly what I wanted. … Everybody was looking at me, saying ‘I’m cramping. I’m doing this, doing that.’ We could only change two players. I tried to condense the midfield and have a little bit more energy.”

Leno was very happy with Arsenal’s effort.

The Gunners have been much better since Arteta implemented his system, even if their 270-minute shutout streak died in the first minute on Sunday.

“You could see that our power was at the end,” Leno said. “We were fighting. You can see how happy everyone was after this game because we deserve this and we have to keep going.”

Aubameyang praised his keeper.

“We are always happy to have him. He saved us a couple of times at the right moment. We’re proud of him and we know that we can count on him. He gives us more energy to push.”

The ninth-place Gunners are four points off fifth place and, of course, still alive for a Champions League berth through the Europa League.

Staying in the Champions League is probably their only path to keeping Aubameyang, and Arteta’s description of the Gabonese star doesn’t try to disguise the need to keep him in North London.