CONCACAF Champions League Final preview: Should big underdogs Montreal play with fire at Azteca?

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The eyes of Major League Soccer fans are on the Montreal Impact. And with nearly 60,000 tickets sold for the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Club America next week, many are hoping the underdog Impact can just return from Wednesday’s 9 p.m. ET first leg in a spot to keep possible an MLS coronation.

A CONCACAF Champions League title has eluded the league since the tournament was renamed in 2008, and an MLS side hasn’t won the dang thing since 2000. In fact, Montreal is just the fifth CCL finalist in league history (MLS is 2-2).

[ MORE: UEFA Champions League preview ]

So here come the Impact, holder of a pair of the tournament’s Top Five attendance records and the right to square off with mighty Club America in a two-legged affair beginning Wednesday at Estadio Azteca.

Yes it’s that Club America, the Mexican squadron which has never lost a CCL final and boasts the second-most titles in history (Their five one shy of Cruz Azul’s six). A club led by stars Oribe Peralta and Pablo Aguilar, and a bevy of players to wear the national team colors of Mexico and Paraguay amongst others (including recent USMNT call-up Ventura Alvarado).

They’ll take on the Impact, an international collection of MLS talent itself which includes just a quartet of Canadians, all of them young Homegrown Players, but holds the nation’s club soccer history in its hands. A 50-person traveling party hit Mexico last week, with eight security guards following the Impact around the country. Road fans do have the luxury of $3 tickets, but also the fierce atmosphere of Azteca.

source: APAnd, oh yeah, clear underdog status. Here’s what Montreal head coach Frank Klopas said to impactmontreal.com.

“We know we are the underdog, but we’ve been the underdog since the beginning of the tournament and we are still here. In your career, whether as a coach or a player, you may not get another chance like this, so it’s important that we enjoy the experience as much as possible.”

And how about Canada? The Northern neighbors only have one shot at the CCL every year, as bogus competition rules state that the MLS Cup or Supporters Shield berths do not apply to clubs from Canada. Of course, the three MLS sides from the Great White North also have automatic semifinal berths in their qualifying tournament, the Canadian Championships, so complaints shouldn’t be too loud.

Make no mistake about it, this Impact team is the underdog here. Club America is a two-goal favorite tonight in Mexico, and the odds are nearly the same for a 1-0 Impact win (28:1) as a 5-0 America win (22:1). At least for tonight, this is Rocky and Ivan Drago if the Italian Stallion’s trophy case included a pair of Canadian Championships instead of 10-straight heavyweight title defenses and a won rematch against Clubber Lang.

So how can Montreal do it? That’s the million dollar question for Frank Klopas, but it obviously starts with defending an America attack that was paced by Dario Benedetto (below right) in the semifinal, with the 24-year-old Argentine scoring four goals. Watch America’s display here, as they erased a first-leg deficit to Club Herediano in style.

source: Getty ImagesThe Impact’s best bet may be to somewhat follow the blueprint that led them past Pachuca, a pair of scoring draws including two in the road first leg; Playing with fire could be part of the philosophy.

The problem is America can defend quite well itself, and their back liners do well in possession. After Pablo Aguilar — not to be confused with teammate Paul Aguilar, who also starts in the back — watch out for midfielder Rubens Sambueza.

The 31-year-old Argentine is a complete threat, and will keep Piatti on his toes and, often enough, on the turf. Here’s where having Cup-tied Eric Alexander would be a boon for the Impact, not to mention injured Justin Mapp, but Jack McInerney, Marco Donadel and Piatti will have to do the trick.

With the beloved Canadiens aiming to sweep the Ottawa Senators after a 7 p.m. ET puckdrop in Ontario, how amped up will Quebec be if the Habs complete the task and the Impact can pick up a win or a scoring draw in Mexico? Let’s hope we find out.

Cristiano Ronaldo reveals he’s playing with an injury

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Cristiano Ronaldo has revealed he’s been playing with a knee injury in recent weeks.

The Juventus and Portugal star was criticized for leaving Juventus’ win against AC Milan on Nov. 10 early, as he was substituted in the second half and then left the stadium before the end of the game.

Speaking to reporters after he scored his 99th international goal for Portugal in a 2-0 win against Luxembourg which sealed their qualification for EURO 2020, Ronaldo explained that there was no drama between himself and Juve boss Maurizio Sarri.

“There was no controversy. You [the media] want controversies. You obviously know that I don’t like to be substitute, but I have been playing with some limitations. I tried to help Juventus even playing injured. Nobody likes to be substituted, but I understand the substitutions because I wasn’t fit,” Ronaldo said.

“As well as in the last two games for Portugal, I wasn’t 100 per cent. When it’s needed to sacrifice myself for my club and the national team, I do full of pride. As you know, Inter are putting some pressure on Juventus. We are two points ahead and we can’t slip up. If we draw or lose, they will go ahead of us. So I sacrificed myself for the team. Here in the national team, you know that in case we had lost one of these last two matches, we could be out [of automatic qualification]. As you know,

Ronaldo added that he has never had big injuries throughout his career and that his current problem is “a minor injury, a minor pain” which stops him from playing at 100 percent.

This is likely to be a reoccurring theme for Ronaldo, aged 34, in the coming years.

His style of play is so physically demanding and dependent on him being 100 percent fit that the stress he has put his body under over the past 15-20 years was certain to catch up with him.

Ronaldo’s less than delighted reaction at being subbed for the second game running for Juve sparked talk of unrest, but instead it was a knee issue.

His reaction didn’t help matters, but now we know the full story and that Sarri’s comments about Ronaldo carrying an injury was correct.

Man United reveal plans for the future; financial results announced

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Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has a plan.

He shared it in a statement on Monday, as the Red Devils have picked up some momentum over the past few weeks with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side back in the hunt for a top four finish in the Premier League.

The leading man at the PL giants confirmed that producing their own young group of players in the first team is now their main aim.

“We have a clear vision in terms of football philosophy and recruitment,” Woodward said. “The significant investments that we have made in recent years in areas such as transfers, recruitment infrastructure, analytics and our Academy are already beginning to bear fruit.

“We are very proud to be shortly approaching a milestone 4,000th game featuring an Academy player, and we are particularly optimistic regarding the considerable young talent currently coming through. Our ultimate goal is to win trophies by playing exciting football with a team that fuses graduates from our Academy with world-class acquisitions.”

Academy products Marcus Rashford, Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay are key players in United’s first team this season while the likes of Brandon Williams, Axel Tuanzebe and Mason Greenwood have all gained valuable experience.

That said, Woodward will no doubt realize that United have to spend on key additions in the upcoming windows alongside promoting their talented youngsters.

Solskjaer has already mentioned that the January transfer window is something United will look at closely, as they are currently in seventh place in the Premier League table and nine points off the top four. An attacking midfielder is likely to be their key target as they failed to bring in Sporting Lisbon’s Bruno Fernandes this summer.

With regards to the finances, United’s net debt rose by $177.9 million which was in essence due to bringing in Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Daniel James this summer. However, their first quarter revenue for this year was slightly up to $175.5 million year-on-year.

They are expected to bring in $86.8 million less in the next 12 months from TV revenue and prize money as they failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, but players wages did fall 8.8 percent with the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez off the wage bill, as that now stands at $90 million.

As always, a lack of success on the pitch doesn’t really seem to hurt United off it.

Senegal, Nigeria stay perfect in African Cup qualifying

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Famara Diedhiou scored a hat trick in a game interrupted by heavy rain as Senegal beat Eswatini 4-1 on Sunday for two wins out of two in qualifying for the 2021 African Cup of Nations.

Diedhiou missed an early penalty and it was 0-0 at halftime when Senegal coach Aliou Cisse substituted Sadio Mane.

Diedhiou netted all three of his goals in a nine-minute period from the 59th to keep this year’s African Cup runner-up on course in the final stage of qualifying for the 2021 tournament. Badou Ndiaye scored Senegal’s fourth in Manzini against the kingdom formerly known as Swaziland.

Senegal lost to Algeria in the final of this year’s African Cup of Nations in Egypt and is embarking on another attempt to win the continental title for the first time.

Like Senegal, Nigeria has also won its first two of six games in the qualifiers’ decisive group stage after the Super Eagles benefited from an outstanding performance by forward Victor Osimhen in a 4-2 win over Lesotho. Osimhen scored twice and set up the other two as Nigeria again came from behind to win, like it did in its opening qualifier.

South Africa beat Sudan 1-0 with a goal by Lebogang Phiri for its first win of the qualifiers after losing to Ghana first up. Cameroon, which will host the 2021 African Cup, also registered a first win by beating Rwanda 1-0. Midfielder Ngoumo Ngamaleu scored in Cameroon’s first competitive win under new coach Toni Conceicao and first in six games.

Cameroon has already qualified as host but is still taking part in qualifying. The top two teams in each of the 12 groups will qualify with the exception of Cameroon’s group. There, the highest-placed of the other three teams – currently Mozambique – goes through to the 24-team finals which will be played in mid-2021.

Guinea and Mali sit in the qualifying positions in Group A – Mali won 2-0 in Chad and Guinea 2-0 at home to Namibia. There were also wins on Sunday for Uganda, Benin, Republic of Congo and Gabon.

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Griezmann: Playing for Barcelona is ‘not the easiest’

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Over the summer, Barcelona shelled a whopping $135 million to land Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid.

It was a match made in heaven; the rest was supposed to be history.

Only that hasn’t been the case for the Frenchman in Barcelona.

Despite scoring a brace in his debut at the Camp Nou, Griezmann’s impact and influence on the field has quickly dwindled. In 11 league appearances with the Catalan giants, the 28-year-old has scored four goals and added three assists, signs that the World Cup winner is, in fact, struggling with his new team.

Speaking to Telefoot, Griezmann revealed that playing for Barcelona is not an easy thing to do, but that with hard work, his fortunes will turn around for the best:

“It is hard, I knew it would be, it is not the easiest place. This is a new team, a new club, new tactics, a new position. I have to work, try to understand my team-mates, after they will understand me too and it will work just like that… Critics will always be there. But I am good, I am proud of where I am. Only work pays off. I have to take confidence and it will all come just like that.”

This season, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has frequently deployed the Frenchman as a left winger, with the hope that he will link up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The positives form such an ideology have yet to be reaped, however. Griezmann is scoring a goal every 224 minutes, a career worst.

The 28-year-old, too, has played in a central role on a couple of occasions, specifically during the absences of Messi and Suarez, but it hasn’t worked out for a player that has made a career from roaming that part of the field.

The building clamor at the Camp Nou is borderline justifiable – mainly because it’s now evident that Griezmann is wrestling with adapting to the expectations and systems in place in Barcelona.

But the high-flying attacker has proven he’s worth the price time and time again, and now he’s on the record saying that he’ll do everything in his power to do so with his new club.