‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

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Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

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On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

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Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

West Brom – Chelsea: How to watch, start time, team news, prediction, odds

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West Brom – Chelsea: The Blues are in desperate need of a strong rebound when they visit The Hawthorns on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 pm ET, on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

WEST BROM – CHELSEA STREAM LIVE

The Baggies, on the other hand, are simply hoping to collect their first point of the season after suffering a 3-0 defeat to Leicester City on the opening day of the 2020-21 season and following that up with a 5-2 beatdown at the hands of Everton last weekend.

As far as favorable matchups go, facing the 20th-place side a week after losing to defending champions Liverpool is quite timely for Chelsea.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]  

Here is everything you need to know ahead of West Brom – Chelsea this Sunday with team news, odds, stream link and more.


Team news: West Brom – Chelsea (INJURY REPORT)

West Brom – QUESTIONABLE: Ahmed Hegazi (thigh), Kamil Grosicki (back), Hal Robson-Kanu (leg) | OUT: Kieran Gibbs (suspension), Conor Gallagher (loan rules), Kenneth Zohore (calf)

Chelsea – QUESTIONABLE: Christian Pulisic (hamstring), Cesar Azpilicueta (thigh) | OUT: Hakim Ziyech (knee), Andrea Christensen (suspension)


What they’re saying: West Brom – Chelsea

West Brom manager Slaven Bilic, on struggling to sign players: “We don’t have a huge budget, that is why we are trying to be creative and lucky. That’s not easy but we are trying. … We have to do it to maintain a good chance.”

Chelsea manager Frank Lampard, on Thiago Silva: “It is exciting for us because he has had just over a week training with us. It was a perfect 60 minutes for him tonight. He will show the qualities he has. Of course, he will get fitter and better. He also gave us something for me on the night in the dressing room and on the pitch of a leader with authority in terms of his demands on others. He can’t speak the language but at the minute that’s not even a problem because his presence and the way he commands people around him is already showing that to me in training and in our game tonight.”


Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

West Brom (+750) represent one of the biggest underdogs — or, opportunities, depending on how you look at it — of the still-young PL season. There’s not much to be won by betting on Chelsea (-280). Even the draw (+400) is pretty far out there.

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links


Prediction: West Brom – Chelsea

Barring some unforeseen circumstances — for example, a 12th-minute red card — it’s virtually impossible to see West Brom getting anything from this game. They’ve been incredibly poor defensively through two games, and they’re yet to face a side with anything close to the firepower which the Blues possess. West Brom 1-3 Chelsea.


How to watch West Brom – Chelsea stream and start time

Kickoff: 12:30 pm ET Saturday
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Premier League injuries, 2020-21

Premier League injuries
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Premier League injuries: With the 2020-21 Premier League season set to kick off this weekend, it’s time to take a look at the players who might be unavailable for the opening weekend.

[ MORE: How to watch PLTV on Peacock ]

Prior to every matchweek of the 2020-21 season, we’ll update this Premier League injuries page with the latest news and update, so make sure to check back regularly to see how your favorite — or least-favorite — club is getting on.

Note: Any player listed for COVID-19 reasons — whether a positive test or additional precautions — will always be deemed “questionable” until they make their return to action.

Arsenal injuries

QUESTIONABLE: David Luiz (neck), Kieran Tierney (groin) | OUT: Gabriel Martinelli (knee), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh), Pablo Mari (ankle), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (calf), Calum Chambers (knee)

Aston Villa injuries

OUT: Bjorn Engels (thigh), Tom Heaton (knee), Wesley (knee), Ahmed Elmohamady (thigh)

Brighton & Hove Albion injuries

OUT: Yves Bissouma (suspension), Jose Izquierdo (knee), Florian Andone (knee), Christian Walton (ankle)

Burnley injuries

QUESTIONABLE: James Tarkowski (ankle), Ashley Barnes (undisclosed), Robbie Brady (ribs), Jay Rodriguez (foot) | OUT: Ben Mee (thigh), Johann Berg Gudmundsson (knee), Jack Cork (ankle)

Chelsea injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Christian Pulisic (hamstring), Cesar Azpilicueta (thigh) | OUT: Hakim Ziyech (knee), Andrea Christensen (suspension)

Crystal Palace injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Jairo Riedewald (undisclosed), Christian Benteke (ankle) | OUT: James Tomkins (thigh), Nathan Ferguson (knee), Patrick van Aanholt (shoulder), Gary Cahill (thigh), Connor Wickham (undisclosed), Scott Dann (undisclosed)

Everton injuries

OUT: Mason Holgate (ankle), Cenk Tosun (knee), Jean-Philippe Gbamin (calf), Jarrad Branthwaite (ankle), Jonas Lossi (back)

Fulham injuries

None

Leeds United injuries

OUT: Gaetano Berardi (knee), Adam Forshaw (groin), Pablo Hernandez (groin)

Leicester City injuries

OUT: Ricardo Pereira (knee), Jonny Evans (thigh), Filip Benkovic (groin), Wilfred Ndidi (groin)

Liverpool injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Jordan Henderson (thigh), Joe Gomez (knee) | OUT: Joel Matip (undisclosed), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee),

Manchester City injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Ilkay Gundogan (COVID-19) | OUT: Bernardo Silva (thigh), Sergio Aguero (knee), Joao Cancelo (foot), Oleksandr Zinchenko (undisclosed)

Manchester United injuries

OUT: Axel Tuanzebe (ankle), Phil Jones (knee), Sergio Romero (undisclosed)

Newcastle United injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Allan Saint-Maximin (ankle), Jamal Lewis (eye) | OUT: Matty Longstaff (thigh), Martin Dubravka (ankle), Fabian Schar (shoulder), Paul Dummett (thigh), Dwight Gayle (knee)

Sheffield United injuries

OUT: John Egan (suspension), Lys Mousset (ankle), Simon Moore (finger)

Southampton injuries

OUT: Nathan Redmond (foot)

Tottenham Hotspur injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Sergio Reguilon (ankle) | OUT: Gareth Bale (knee), Japhet Tanganga (thigh)

West Bromwich Albion injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Ahmed Hegazi (thigh), Kamil Grosicki (back), Hal Robson-Kanu (leg) | OUT: Kieran Gibbs (suspension), Conor Gallagher (loan rules), Kenneth Zohore (calf)

West Ham United injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Issa Diop (COVID-19), Josh Cullen (COVID-19), Mark Noble (toe), Sebastien Haller (thigh)

Wolverhampton Wanderers injuries

QUESTIONABLE: Fernando Marcal (undisclosed) | OUT: Jonny (knee)

UEL roundup: AC Milan, Celtic, Rangers reach last round of qualifying

Europa League results
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Europa League results: AC Milan, Celtic and Rangers were all victorious in the third round of UEFA Europa League qualifying on Thursday, advancing to the playoff round — the final round — on Oct. 1.

[ MORE: Son to the rescue as Spurs advance in UEL qualifying (video) ]

AC Milan 3-2 Bodo/Glimt

Hakan Calhanoglu scored twice — once in each half, including the game-winning goal in the 50th minute — as Milan did just enough to knock out Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt.

Lorenzo Colombo got the other goal for Stefano Pioli’s side, with Bodo/Glimt tallies bookending the Italians’ three.

Riga 0-1 Celtic

Celtic’s progression into the playoff round was far more dramatic, and uncertain. Neil Lennon’s side found itself level at 0-0 as they entered the 90th minute. Exra-time, and maybe even penalties, seemed likely.

Mohamed Elyounoussi had other ideas. It wasn’t the most visually pleasing goal scored on Thursday, but Elyounoussi’s bouncing, first-time finish had just enough on it to evade the goalkeeper and hit the back of the net.

Willem II 0-4 Rangers

As for the other side of Glasgow, Rangers cruised past Dutch side Willem II and were just about through to the next round before halftime. James Tavernier converted from the penalty spot in the 22nd minute, followed three minutes later by a goal from Ryan Kent.

Filip Helander made it 3-0 in the 55th, and Connor Goldson finished the rout in the 71st. Steven Gerrard’s team was one of the most impressive sides on the day, and looked ready for a season-long battle for the Scottish Premiership title. Having played one more game than their local rivals, Rangers currently lead Celtic by a single point.

Notable Europa League results

Shkendija 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur (FULL RECAP)
Mura 1-5 PSV Eindhoven
Wolfsburg 2-0 Desna Chernihiv
Sporting CP 1-0 Aberdeen

Notable Europa League playoff matchups

Tottenham Hotspur v Maccabi Haifa
Rio Ave v AC Milan
Sarajevo v Celtic
Rangers v Galatasaray
Rosenborg v PSV Eindhoven
AEK Athens v Wolfsburg
Sporting CP v LASK

League Cup: Liverpool win 7-2; Man City survive and advance

League Cup - Liverpool
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A roundup of League Cup third round results on Thursday, as Liverpool and Man City booked their places among the final 16 teams…

[ MORE: Edouard Mendy to Chelsea: What does it mean for Kepa, Blues’ defense? ]

Lincoln City 2-7 Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp fielded a team of most of his seldom used players, and had virtually no issues getting past League One side Lincoln. Xherdan Shaqiri opened the scoring in the ninth minute, and he did so in truly fantastic free-kick fashion.

Takumi Minamino scored twice — once either side of halftime — beginning with his first-time, curled beauty in the 18th minute to make it 2-0. The Japanese international appears to have stockpiled plenty of confidence to force his way into the Reds’ star-studded first team with greater regularity.

From there, Liverpool were off to the races. Curtis Jones bagged a brace in the 32nd and 36th minutes, followed the second from Minamino to make it 5-0 after 46 minutes. Lincoln hit back right on the hour mark, but Marko Grujic restored the five-goal lead just five minutes later.

The Imps clawed back another goal just a minute later, but an 89th-minute tally from Divock Origi ensured the Reds would triumph by the five-goal margin.

Up next for Liverpool is a heavyweight fourth-round showdown, at home against Arsenal.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Reyna to Liverpool; Jorginho to Arsenal ]

Man City 2-1 Bournemouth

Pep Guardiola’s men were far from full stretch, and far from their best, en route to a 2-1 victory over recently relegated Bournemouth. With as many as six first-team regulars given the rare night off, City found themselves level at 1-1 with the final 15 minutes approaching. U.S. men’s national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen was one of the backups to feature.

Fortunately for City, Phil Foden has stepped forward in recent outings and asserted himself a star of the present — no longer of the future — and reaffirmed his ascent with a well-place winner in the 75th minute.

It was one of the youngsters, 17-year-old Liam Delap, who opened the scoring in the 18th minute, when he hammered a left-footed strike into the upper-90 of the far post. Foden provided the diagonal through ball for Delap and picked up the assist on the play. The lead lasted barely four minutes, though, before Sam Surridge had drawn the Cherries back to level terms.

Up next in the League Cup, City will visit Burnley in the fourth round.

Bristol City 0-3 Aston Villa

A pair of new signings — Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traore — bagged goals, alongside the opener from Anwar El Ghazi, for Dean Smith’s Villa, to make it a comfortable 3-0 victory over Championship side Bristol City.

Villa will host Championship side Stoke City in the next round.