Ramires on life at Chelsea, trophy hunt and returning to form

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Brazilian midfielder Ramires is one of Chelsea’s most experienced players and he has taken some time out to look back on a trophy-laden first five years at the club, while also addressing their recent poor form and how the Blues can move forward to bring back success.

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Below is the feature article on Ramires, who has just signed a new four-year deal with the reigning Premier League champs, from Chelsea’s magazine.

Home is where the heart is  – By Chelsea Football Club

Having signed a new contract which will keep him at the Bridge until 2019, Ramires is hoping the Blues can replicate some of the trophy triumphs of his first five years with the club

Midway through our interview to mark his new contract, Ramires’ face lights up and, for a few minutes, he can’t wipe the smile from his face. We have come armed with a set of photographs portraying the stand-out moments from the Brazilian’s first five years at Chelsea and, sitting down in his spot in the Stamford Bridge home dressing room, he takes his time going through them, getting lost in the memories.

“The feeling of a dream come true,” he says after a few moments of quiet reflection, pointing to a picture of himself holding up the Chelsea shirt during his first day at the club in August 2010, before adding: “I look very young there!”

In truth, Ramires doesn’t look much different to the 23-year-old who arrived from Benfica with hopes of lifting silverware in England. He has become an experienced member of the squad, with almost 250 appearances to his name, but more significantly he has added every domestic trophy, plus both major European competitions, to his list of honours.

Now he has signed a new four-year contract and, having just put pen to paper on the deal, he tells us what Chelsea means to him.

“What is there to say about this club?” he asks, rhetorically. “This is my home now. The memories since I arrived here are the very best. At the beginning, when I came to a huge club, my first thought was just to play here and remain here.

“A few years have gone by now. I have had all the support I ever wanted and needed from everyone at Chelsea, from the players that have left, from the players who are still here and, hopefully, from the players that will come in the years ahead as well.”

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Since Emerson Thome became the first Brazilian to play for Chelsea at the turn of the millennium, 13 players born in the South American footballing hotbed have pulled on the blue shirt at Stamford Bridge, including current first-team squad members Oscar, Diego Costa, Willian and Kenedy. None, however, have played as many times for the club as Ramires, who nods appreciatively when that fact is pointed out to him.

“When I first came here, there was only one Brazilian, and that was Alex, but many others have come along since then and we have got five Brazilian-born players in the first-team squad now,” he says.

“It’s very important for us to have one another here, especially when a new Brazilian player arrives, because we all speak the same language. While we have a very good relationship with all our team-mates, it helps to have these guys because, being so far away from home, they represent a kind of family here.

“As for the record of being the longest-serving Brazilian player at Chelsea, I’m not here to break any records but I am very happy about that and it is a good sign that the club is renewing my contract because it means I must be doing a good job. Hopefully, I will be able to stay here for a very long time.”

Having noticed Ramires shivering in the autumn mist as we made our way around the stadium to the shelter of the dressing room for the interview, it seems a good time to ask him whether he feels he has fully adapted to English life, having resided here for half a decade. Pulling his tracksuit jacket closed around his neck, he bursts out laughing.

“Yes and no! We have a saying in Brazil, which is a bit of a joke, that if you’re out on the street, it’s always cold. If you are inside, it’s fine.”

It’s probably fair to say that anyone arriving in London from Rio de Janeiro State is going to feel the cold, but he shrugs off his joke about the weather and answers earnestly about his life in England.

“Of course, I am adapted to everything now. I enjoy London, it’s a brilliant lifestyle here and my English is getting much better. I am starting to talk more and more English now and feeling more confident with it. I really enjoy the lifestyle here in London, I think it’s perfect.

“As far as my life off the pitch goes, I like it to remain quite private. I don’t do much apart from going to dinner, spending time with family and having friends over to my house. I really like living in England and when the weather is nice I enjoy going to different parks and relaxing.”

Family is at the forefront of Ramires’ mind at the moment. He and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their third child, Bruno, and the following day he toasted the newborn with a spectacular goal in our 2-2 draw at Newcastle.

On the pitch, it hasn’t been an easy season so far for the Blues, but Ramires has put in some strong performances. His energetic midfield displays allow him to get up and down the field, contributing both on and off the ball. His well-timed runs into attacking areas have also yielded some goals, too.

“As far as the mood is concerned, it is fine. We are training and working hard. We are doing the best we can to get out of this situation we have put ourselves in.

“I think the team has a good mentality, but when you don’t have victories you lose some confidence and we need to come back and start winning games again. When we have a good victory, where the team plays well and all of us return to our best, then the confidence will come back and our situation will change.”

The experience of players like Ramires, who have tasted success in the past, will be essential this season. In the 2011/12 campaign, when the team struggled to find their feet in the league, we still won two trophies thanks to hard work, persistence and the dogged belief in the quality of the players.

Reflecting on a magical moment from the following campaign, Ramires holds a photograph of himself celebrating a goal against Manchester United with the fans at Stamford Bridge and taps it repeatedly with his index finger, nodding vociferously as if to say: “This is what it’s all about.”

“This is very cool,” he says. “Not only when I score a goal, but also when a team-mate scores as well. You are so close to the fans and you can see the expression on their faces.”

He breaks off to point at one particularly ecstatic supporter in the photo and makes a high-pitch laugh of appreciation at the delight his art can produce in people. The man in the photo is looking at Ramires with pure joy in his eyes and the goalscorer is roaring back at him in delight.

Most of us will never know what that feels like, but he tells us it is the best motivation any footballer can ever want.

“You can see them smiling and cheering – it’s fantastic. If I could, I would score goals every day just to see those faces.”

At the time of writing, Ramires has 34 goals for Chelsea, including two which won the club’s official Goal of the Season award. While we’re reflecting on his time in SW6 it seems appropriate to revisit those famous strikes, the first a stunning individual goal featuring a weaving run through the Manchester City defence and a cool finish past Joe Hart in front of the Matthew Harding Stand in March 2011; the second a sensationally cool chip over Victor Valdes in Camp Nou to set Chelsea on the way to the Champions League final in 2012.He starts with the goal against City.

“Ah! My first individual trophy here was Goal of the Season for this one,” he says. “It was an incredible game. It’s very difficult to forget a goal like that and a day like that.

“But the goal at Camp Nou was a very important one, impossible to forget, because it was in the Champions League semi-final against a Barcelona side that, until that time, was unbeatable – and the quality of the goal as well. But I would choose them both as my favourite. I can’t decide between them.”

Almost as memorable as the goal at Barcelona was the celebration that followed. The stadium was a cauldron of noise that day – almost all of it in favour of the hosts. Camp Nou holds just short of 100,000 people when it is full and the vast majority of them were feeling very confident when they took an aggregate lead against a 10-man Chelsea side early in the second leg that night.

Despite the raucous atmosphere, Ramires’ chip was ice cool. His celebration, in front of more than 90,000 locals who were either stunned into silence or whistling their opposition, was a flamboyant dance, accompanied by an uncontrollably broad smile. The away supporters up in the gods were delirious, but what was going through his mind at that time? He chuckles at the memory.

“It was a dance we do back home with my friends and family when everyone is together,” he reveals, holding up a photo of himself in full snake-hipped motion. “I had been promising them for a very long time I was going to do the dance and it just came up on that goal, that moment. I did the dance for them.”

Ramires has many happy memories from his first five years as a Chelsea player and his ambition hasn’t dimmed one bit. He is now fully engrossed in the next challenge: restoring the optimism to Stamford Bridge and transforming a season that has started disappointingly.

“I have some great memories here, but I still feel as though I haven’t won any of those trophies, I still have the hunger, will and desire I had before.

“The competition is very demanding and being at a club like this you are expected to win something every year. I would love to win all of those trophies again. They are great memories and, even though they are in the past, they didn’t happen a really long time ago.

“However, when you win something, you have to move on. You are always competing, always challenging and always wanting to do more.

“Our objective now is to retain our confidence, to start winning games again as soon as possible and get involved at the top end of the table.”

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

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MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.