The other side to the Thibaut Courtois mess

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Today, UEFA released a statement saying in its eyes, there should be no debate on whether Thibaut Courtois can play for Atletico Madrid against Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals.

That’s all well and good, and the “spirit of the competition” is a nice thought, but one problem remains.

When you boil it down, Thibaut Courtois is a Chelsea player.

Sure he’s played for Atletico Madrid for the last three years, but that doesn’t erase the fact that he remains owned by Chelsea, and there’s a serious possibility in the future that we see him in a Blue uniform for a very, very long time.

With so much money involved in the Champions League these days, it would be a terrible precedent for UEFA to allow the 21-year-old to potentially have a major hand in ending Chelsea’s run in Europe’s top competition.

What if the game goes to penalties and Courtois saves one or two to send Atletico through? There are plenty of ways for him to be at the forefront of the storyline.

Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay insists that Courtois “can play” against his parent club, but his quotes don’t do much to suggest the Blues are going to give Atletico a release from the pay clause.

The FA rule that prevents on-loan players from playing against their parent clubs is a sound one, and it’s silly for UEFA not to consider instituting a similar law. The possibility should never exist for a player to have a hand in defeating the club that actually owns them.

Competition-wise, sure, it would be a massive blow for Atletico to lose the ability to field one of the world’s best goalkeepers – but this was a risk they assumed when taking him on loan. Without ponying up the money for a purchase, they know the risks.

On the surface it appears to be a case of the “big guy bullying the little guy” but Chelsea are right to want to prevent their own player from hurting them in a competition, or even knocking them out.

Remember – Atletico agreed to the contract clause in the first place.  For Chelsea to institute a fee is simply taking advantage of the loophole in UEFA’s rules, and the governing body is ultimately at fault for even allowing this situation to be up for debate.

For Courtois to play against Chelsea would be, in my opinion, bad for everyone involved and would set a horrible precedent. It’s highly possible that the Belgian youngster may play, and he could have little to no effect on the match and things would blow over. But if down the road this were to happen again and the rule didn’t change, ultimately bad things could come of it.

It would be better in the short term for fans to be able to watch both teams at full strength, but over the long term and even in this competition, the possibility for something negative to come from this scenario looms.

Report: Newcastle’s Clark knocked out on Spanish dance floor

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A wild story out of Spain says an Englishman knocked Newcastle United defender Ciaran Clark unconscious at a night club.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

Clark was on vacation in Spain, where he was spending time at Crystal’s Bar in Punta Ballena, Magaluf very early Sunday morning.

Clark and a man “in his 30s” got into an argument that saw the Irish defender knocked out, according to the BBC.

Clark was left unconscious and taken to hospital after an argument between him and the suspect broke out on the dance floor.

The 28-year-old suffered cuts and bruises to his face.

Clark, 28, scored twice in 20 Premier League appearances this season, his second at St. James’ Park.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 9 — Iceland’s next step, Brazilian bounce back?

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Brazil is one of the favorites of the 2018 World Cup, while Iceland is the smallest nation to qualify for the world’s biggest tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

On Friday, both enter their second match days feeling quite different after 1-1 draws.

They won’t face each other, of course, but the contrast is striking nevertheless.

Brazil opens the day’s action when it squares off with Costa Rica, who fell to Serbia in the opener. For Serbia, a dark horse of the tournament, it will be a meeting with Switzerland.

Then there’s Iceland’s bid to climb into the Group D driver’s seat by knocking off Nigeria. A win from Iceland would make Lionel Messi and Argentina’s task of qualifying for the knockout rounds extremely unlikely.

Below is Friday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group D
Nigeria vs. Iceland: Volgograd, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group E
Brazil vs. Costa Rica: Saint Petersburg, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Serbia vs. Switzerland: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”