After raw deal at Chelsea, Ancelotti’s 5th Champions League is redemption years in the making

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By the fifth time, even winning the European Cup can get to be a little routine.

That’s what Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti did yesterday by defeating Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final yesterday, cementing himself at the very top of not just managerial history, but soccer history altogether.

However, it seemed that in the waning hours of Madrid’s victory night, as the dust settled on his third Champions League title as a manager, this could be Ancelotti’s most important of them all.

The 54-year-old Italian won two European Cup titles as a player, captaining a legendary AC Milan team in the late 1980’s that destroyed the competition.  He’s used to domination.

So once he left his comfort zone after managing AC Milan to two more titles, it was clear he was headed for greatness. But even Ancelotti isn’t immune to bumps in the road.

Roman Abramovich hired Ancelotti in 2009 still trying to replace the gaping hole he had created after his falling out with Jose Mourinho, a void that Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari, and Guus Hiddink all failed trying to plug.

But Ancelotti was the man for the job, leading Chelsea to the Premier League title in 2010 in his first season on the job, becoming the first Italian manager to win the Premier League and proving he wasn’t just a one-team band.

Winning outside a comfort zone is a difficult thing to do, and after a total of 13 years at AC Milan, he proved his worth at not just another club but another league altogether, the mark of a man at the top of his profession.

He won the FA Cup as well, making him only the second-ever non-British manager alongside Arsene Wenger to lead an English team to the domestic double.

The next year Chelsea struggled somewhat, falling to fifth place after a poor run of form. He engineered a remarkable turnaround, as Chelsea finished second in the Premier League, but once again Abramovich couldn’t help himself.

source: AP
Ancelotti’s ability to adjust to Atletico’s neutralization of Cristiano Ronaldo is a token of his genius.

The Russian hammer came down again, and Ancelotti was left out in the cold, brutally sacked for the second time in his managerial career.

It harkened back to his short time at the helm of Juventus, when word of his firing came down at halftime of their final Serie A game of the year while he still had an outside shot at winning the title.

But the Italian, just like his club last night, didn’t wallow in his misery, but immediately began laying the groundwork for building himself back up.

“Sometimes I make mistakes,” Ancelotti admitted following last night’s game. “The team bounced back and we have been able to do what we set out to do at the start of the season.  This feels like something even bigger than winning the World Cup.”

After last night’s managerial masterpiece, one must sit and wonder if Chelsea, who haven’t exactly done poorly since he left, would be sitting atop the European landscape had he remained.

Instead, Real Madrid are instead the ones benefiting from his genius, as he struck oil thrice with his substitutions.  The true stroke of brilliance came on his first two, bringing on Isco and Marcelo for the ineffective pair of Fabio Coentrao and Sami Khedira.  The double change came with a half-hour yet to play, and against a team that had neutralized so many of Real’s threats all season long, they had time to settle in.

Marcelo was brilliant down the left, key because Cristiano Ronaldo had been silenced. Isco brought instant life to the midfield in an area where Khedira had become a black hole. The German holding midfielder looked uncomfortable going forward, completing a horrid 68% of his passes, giving away nearly half of the 28 he attempted. His replacement, in half the time, connected on 43 of his 48 pass attempts and created two chances.

His third substitution of Alviro Morata for Karim Benzema was less hailed, as Morata didn’t exactly have an obvious impact on the game, but the physicality he brought was an unheralded addition.  At a time in the game when Atletico’s legs looked ready to fall off, Morata committed five fouls in his short time on the pitch, creating space for his brethren on the ball.

But Ancelotti’s most genius move of all came in the form of a player he didn’t substitute. Having been chopped down by analysts for his atrocious finishing, Gareth Bale had actually been one of Real’s best players aside from in front of goal. He was slicing up defenders both on the ball and off it, and it was only a matter of time before the world’s most expensive player found the back of the net.

Ancelotti’s refusal to remove Bale in a match where Atletico focused much of their energy on their hack-a-Ronaldo strategy paid off tenfold.  While he flubbed three brilliant chances in regulation, it took extra time before a bit of luck plopped him in the perfect position to finish Di Maria’s deflected shot.

Real Madrid have themselves a gem at the helm.  His calm demeanor and ability to adjust to any given situation was evident during his time quarterbacking AC Milan’s midfield, and now again proves vital on the Champions League stage.

Ancelotti still has plenty of work to do, still without a La Liga title in his two years at the Bernabeu, an especially painful void after essentially throwing away the table’s top spot down the stretch this year.  But it was obvious the Champions League – not the domestic titles – was the club’s top priority this season.

And while Chelsea aren’t dead in the water without the Italian leading the way – they themselves won Champions League glory in 2012 after his departure – let me finish by handing you this little nugget to chew on. Real Madrid brought in seven new players last summer, and it showed early.  The club took a bit of time to settle in.

However, it’s those that left Madrid that tell the story.  Each of the four players that left won a trophy with their new club – Mesut Ozil at Arsenal, and Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, and Raul Albiol at Napoli.  The only one who failed to win a trophy after leaving Real Madrid last summer: Jose Mourinho.

And that, my friends, is revenge served up cold, the only way Carlo Ancelotti likes it.

MLS takes big step with All-Star Game update

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For the first time since 2004, the Major League Soccer All-Star team has a new opponent.

In a press conference in Los Angeles, MLS commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX executive president Enrique Bonilla jointly made the announcement that the 2020 MLS All-Star Game would test the best players from MLS against the top stars in Liga MX, with the match set to take place on July 29 at Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium.

The news of MLS taking on the Liga MX all-stars is the realization of an idea that has been floated by fans and media members for the last few years. The annual MLS All-Stars vs. club giant had grown stale in recent years, especially since those clubs weren’t ever incentivized to take the game seriously. Big stars might have only played one half, if at all, as they built match fitness for the start of their seasons in Europe, and it ultimately is a bad marker for MLS.

If MLS really wants to compare itself with other top leagues in the world, then there’s no better an opponent than Liga MX. The Mexican first division has continued to basically wipe the floor with MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League, though this season Atlanta United did triumph over Club America in the Campeones Cup.

In addition, MLS may have a decent chance to beat Liga MX in an all-star game. The talent at the very top of MLS is arguably higher than in Mexico, though the Liga MX clubs are stacked with talent in the middle of the rosters, which is where MLS clubs are exploited year after year. However, if it’s Josef Martinez, Carlos Vela, and Nicolas Lodeiro up front for the MLS All-Star squad, they could have a very good shot to succeed.

“We are so pleased to bring the 2020 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target to Los Angeles, one of the great soccer markets in North America,” Garber said in the press conference. “As we celebrate our 25th season, we wanted to deliver an unique and unprecedented format for our annual All-Star Game. Our first ever game between the best of MLS and LIGA MX’s top players is the perfect way to build on the growing relationship between the two top soccer leagues in the region.”

It’s unclear whether this will be a recurring match in the future. However, moving away from the prior all-star game model will help MLS grow as a league and catch up to Liga MX in the long wrong.

How the USMNT found and kept Dest

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With the stroke of a pen on Gregg Berhalter’s lineup card and the referee’s whistle to finish the game, a 4-1 U.S. Men’s National Team victory over Canada, Sergino Dest officially tied his future to the USMNT. It was arguably the final step in a recruitment that began more than three years ago thanks to a message from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Dave van der Bergh.

Since retiring as a player, the former New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas winger has spent his time coaching youth teams within U.S. Soccer, and in this instance, he was working with then U.S. Under-17 head coach John Hackworth. Hackworth was unavailable for comment on this story.

Dest first came on van der Bergh’s radar from a contact at Ajax, where van der Bergh came through the youth academy, and it led to Dest’s first call-ups to the U.S. U-17s in 2016.

“I was tipped off by people at Ajax that there was a player with a dual nationality, and considering that we had been looking at dual nationalities, that I should take a look at him,” van der Bergh said in an e-mail. “I found out about him through the club itself, actually.

“The first time I saw him, I asked for video footage from Ajax, which they gave to me and that was great. Then I asked a really good friend of mine to take a look at him for us. He is somebody I really trust as far as scouting goes, and he said the same things that I thought I had seen. That’s when I decided to tell John Hackworth about him.”

Hackworth and co. brought Dest along slowly, getting him incorporated in the group. He was a reserve in the 2016 Nike International Friendlies as a 15-year-old, with Sporting KC defender Jaylin Lindsey starting ahead of him at the time.

But while the U.S. Soccer Federation was at turmoil at the top – this was just months after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena after his season with the LA Galaxy wrapped up – Dest was making a very good first impression to the coaches.

“I thought that it was unusual,” former U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team coach Tab Ramos recalled in a phone interview. “Normally, our defenders on youth national teams, 1-on-1 they usually have a lot to learn. I felt that Sergino was one of those defenders that never got beat 1-on-1, and that caught my attention.”

Dest wasn’t part of the U.S. U-17s run to the CONCACAF Under-17 final in 2017, but he earned a spot on the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup roster, and it’s where he became a breakout star for American soccer fans. His impact  play from left back or right back added a new element to the U.S. attack and he held his own defensively.

Since then, Dest has continued to progress for club and country at a rapid rate. He helped lead the U.S. U-20s to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and a run to the quarterfinals at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and for Ajax he went from the U-19s in 2017 to Jong Ajax a year later and now a sure-fire starter at right back for the first team in 2019.

“He just became more and more mature,” Ramos said of Dest’s progression as a player in a short span. “He became more of an impact player on the attacking side of the field, and in general I give the players the freedom to express themselves within the context of the way we want to play. I think he was happy with the way we played and it allowed him to express himself, so it worked really well.”

His success in the Ajax first team of course got the attention of the Dutch National Team, who suddenly had an interest in Dest. In the youth stages, it made more sense for Dest to play with the U.S. because he’d have a better opportunity to play at a youth World Cup. The Netherlands hasn’t made the World Cup at U-20 or U-17 level since they hosted the U-20 World Cup in 2005, a shocking statistic considering all the stars they’ve produced over the years.

Suddenly, Dest was being faced with the prospect of competing for playing time on a team that made the final four less than a decade ago and looks to be surging back to prominence, or staying with the only national team program he’d known. The U.S. stepped up its recruitment in September when Gregg Berhalter called Dest in for a pair of matches, first against Mexico and then against Uruguay, where the teenager started both matches. At the same time, his former coach Ramos was keeping in touch with Dest once he decided in October to take more time to make his decision between the U.S. and the Netherlands.

“I continue to be in contact with Serg like I do with many of the players,” Ramos said. “Basically, my recommendation to him was to go with his heart. I feel like, of course you can listen to your agent and you can listen to people in the press, and you can always choose what’s more convenient to you, for your career. But I think the most important thing when playing for a country is to choose where your heart is. That’s basically what I told him.”

Dest made his decision to stay with the U.S. on October 28, and it was a big win for a USMNT program that had lost promising midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez in a similar situation to Mexico. Even bigger, Ramos noted, was that Dest wasn’t born and raised in the U.S., and his main connection with his nation was through the national team itself.

“I’m very proud of that, because it means he has a trust in our program and he’s confident that he’s going to get the most out of his opportunities that he gets here with our program,” Ramos said. “I think it goes to show the great job Hackworth did with him and how happy he was to be with us in the U-20s that he feels like this is his home.

“You have to remember this a kid who never lived in the U.S., he grew up in Holland, and that the closest thing for being home for him has been our youth national teams. I think he felt comfortable. He’s been comfortable and he felt like we took care of him, and he’s been happy. That’s just my feeling.”

Report: Salah, Robertson out for Liverpool trip to Crystal Palace

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Liverpool has some significant injury concerns ahead of this weekend’s trip to Crystal Palace, with the international break not serving to give its top players the required rest.

Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson both sat out key international games hoping to be healthy enough for Liverpool’s return to Premier League play, but that has not come to pass. Sky Sports has confirmed that both will miss the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Salah re-aggrivated his persistent ankle injury near the end of Liverpool’s big win over Manchester City just before the break, and while he reported for international duty with the Egypt squad, he did not appear in either of the country’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Kenya or Comoros, both of which ended in draws. He has dealt with this ankle problem for over a month now, since it was injured against Leicester City in early October.

Robertson, meanwhile, has played every minute of the Premier League season to date, but withdrew from international duty with Scotland thanks to an ankle problem of his own. That leaves a gaping hole at left-back for Jurgen Klopp to fill, with backup full-back Nathaniel Clyne also out long-term thanks to an ACL tear. Candidates could include James Milner or even Xherdan Shaqiri, while he could also potentially move one of the center-backs in Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren out wide. Joel Matip is not expected back until the end of the month.

Liverpool kicks off against Crystal Palace at 10:00 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jose Mourinho speaks: ‘I couldn’t be happier’ at Spurs

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Jose Mourinho, speaking to Tottenham Hotspur’s official club channel Spurs TV, gave his first interview as Tottenham manager and speaking for the first time on camera after taking the job earlier Wednesday morning.

The Portuguese boss, who shockingly took over for Mauricio Pochettino, said he “couldn’t be happier” to take charge of the club currently floundering in 14th place in the Premier League table.

“I couldn’t be happier, and if I was not as happy as I am, I wouldn’t be here,” Mourinho said, referring to Spurs emphatically as “my club.”

“In relation to the Premier League, I think we know where we are, and we know that we don’t belong there,” Mourinho said, promising improvement. “We should just play match after match, the next match we want to win, and that’s the same about the next and the next and the next until the last. [At the] end of [the] season, we will see where we are, but I know that we are going to be in a different position than we are now.”

“These are not words of the moment, these are not words of me being the Tottenham head coach,” Mourinho said. “These are words I’ve told and I’ve repeated in the last four or five years, even as an opponent: to play Tottenham at White Hart Lane was always hard but beautiful. It is a place I used to go with passion but also it was also with respect.”

“I really like this squad, and looking to the young players, there is not one manager in the world that doesn’t like to play young players and to help young players develop. There is not one. The problem is sometimes you get into clubs where the work that is below you is not good enough to produce these players, so I look to our history and you see that the academy’s always giving talents that the first team needs.”

Referring to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new ground which Spurs have played in since April, Mourinho did not mince words. “When you say ‘beautiful stadium’ you are too humble. You have to say ‘the best stadium in the world.’ I think that is the reality.”

Mourinho continued to gush, talking about the amenities he has available to work with between matches. “The training ground is second to none. It probably can only be compared with some American football training grounds, you cannot compare with European football at any level, and I’ve been at the majority of the best places.”

He finished by saying, “I look forward for the challenge, for the responsibility to bring happiness to everyone that loves the club.”