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Luis Enrique’s departure brings uncertainty to Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Luis Enrique’s surprise announcement has left Barcelona surrounded by uncertainty.

Although the coach had been under pressure and many expected him to be replaced next season, few anticipated he would reveal his intention to leave with three months left and with the team still contending for titles.

The announcement – on the night Barcelona regained the lead in the Spanish league – quickly turned the focus away from team’s recent successes on the field and brought attention to its uncertain future.

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Seconds after Luis Enrique said he needed to rest and would not return next season after three years in charge, speculation began about who will be the next coach for one of the most dominant clubs in the last decade.

Here are a few things to know about Barcelona’s future:

NEXT COACH

Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli is among the top candidates to replace Luis Enrique next season.

The 56-year-old Argentine coach was sought-after by several clubs and national teams after leading Chile to its first Copa America title in 2015. He eventually joined with Sevilla, and has helped the club become a contender for a league title for the first time in years.

Another rumored candidate is Ernesto Valverde, currently with Athletic Bilbao. He led the Basque club to some of its greatest successes recently, including victory over Barcelona in the 2015 Spanish Super Cup, which gave the club its first trophy in more than 30 years.

STILL TO PLAY

Barcelona still has the chance to win three titles before Luis Enrique leaves – the Spanish league, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, although the latter is unlikely because it must reverse a 4-0 first-leg loss to Paris Saint-Germain.

The 6-1 rout of Sporting Gijon on Wednesday – the team’s fifth win in a row – left Barcelona one point ahead of Real Madrid in the Spanish league, a competition it won the last two seasons with Luis Enrique. The Catalan club will play Alaves in the final of the Copa del Rey, which it also won the last two years.

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“We have three exciting months left,” Luis Enrique said. “Three months in all competitions. In one of them, of course, we are in a difficult situation, but, with everyone’s help, I am sure we will have an opportunity to turn it around.”

MOTIVATED PLAYERS

Luis Enrique’s announcement caught players by surprise, but club president Josep Bartomeu was quick to say that they will be motivated to help the club win again before the coach leaves.

The squad learned of the decision moments after the win over Sporting Gijon at the Camp Nou.

“He told us about his decision before going out for the press conference,” Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. “The decision is clear and we have to accept it in the dressing room. We want to end the season successfully, enjoy it as best we can.”

SUCCESSFUL STINT

Luis Enrique had been under pressure since the humiliating loss to PSG in the Champions League, which was likely the team’s worst defeat since he took over from Gerardo Martino ahead of the 2014-15 season.

But the former midfielder won eight of 10 possible titles with the club during his current coaching stint, including the treble of the Spanish league, Copa del Rey and Champions League in his first season in charge.

His other titles with Barcelona include the 2015 UEFA Super Cup and the 2016 Spanish Super Cup, as well as the 2015 Club World Cup.

“We had a super coach during three seasons,” Bartomeu said.

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FIFA extends men’s age limit for Tokyo Olympics due to virus

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GENEVA (AP) FIFA has extended the age limit for the men’s soccer tournament at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The amended Olympic rule on Friday retains the “players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997” standard for the Tokyo Games following a one-year postponement agreed last week by the International Olympic Committee and Japanese authorities.

It means players eligible for the intended under-23 tournament in 2020 can still play in Japan at age 24 next year. Men’s soccer kicks off ahead of the July 23, 2021 opening ceremony in Tokyo.

FIFA also postponed two women’s age-group World Cups due this year in Central America and India, and confirmed no international games for men and women will be played in the early June dates protected for national team call-ups.

Soccer’s world body said “health must always be the first priority and the main criteria in any decision-making process, especially in these challenging times.”

The Olympic decision was made by a FIFA panel of soccer officials worldwide, created to address the soccer shutdown during the health crisis.

The 16 men’s teams at the Tokyo Olympics next year can also select three over-age players in their rosters. A stellar lineup includes Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain.

Two women’s World Cup tournaments — the Under-20s hosted by Panama and Costa Rica in August and September, and the Under-17s in India in November — are postponed. No new dates were announced.

[ MORE: Report: Serie A could resume training May 2, games late in month ]

Until the COVID-19 outbreak, national team games scheduled in June included the 2020 European Championship, World Cup qualifying games in South America and Asia, and qualifiers for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

After Euro 2020 was postponed for one year, UEFA hoped to schedule playoff games in June to confirm the last four places in a 24-nation lineup. Those playoffs were postponed indefinitely this week.

World Cup qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar now face uncertain scheduling in a congested calendar in Europe, South America and Asia.

FIFA said on Friday it would “organize bilateral discussions” with continental governing bodies “to finalize a revised match schedule pending health and safety developments.”

FIFA plans to direct hundreds of millions of dollars from its cash reserves to support a global emergency fund, and has agreed to appoint one official from each of the six soccer continents to coordinate the work.

Arsenal want season completed ‘to maintain integrity’ of PL

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Arsenal remain in support of finishing the 2019-20 season in order to “to maintain the integrity” of the competition, despite Friday’s unanimous vote that the Premier League cannot resume at the start of May as previously hoped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Gunners, who currently sit ninth in the PL table with 10 games left to play (one more than the majority of clubs around them), were five points back of fifth-place Manchester United for qualification to next season’s UEFA Champions League thanks to Manchester City’s two-year European ban.

In a statement released on Friday, Arsenal reiterated their stance that the current season should be played to completion rather than called to completion at things stand or abandoned altogether.

We are in full support of the objective for all remaining domestic league and cup matches from the 2019-20 season to be played, in order to maintain the integrity of each competition.

We also fully agree with the principle that any return to action will only be with the full backing of government and when medical guidance allows.

The restart date is under constant review as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic develops and we continue to work together with all stakeholders through this very challenging time

Premier League rivalries: The Merseyside derby

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While the Merseyside derby has been dominated by one side of late, that has not detracted from the spectacle of the most historic matchup in English top flight history.

Uninterrupted in top flight play since 1962/63, the two sides are situated less than a mile apart, with the proximity feeding an already intense matchup.

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Despite the incredibly close geographic proximity, the derby is sometimes known as the “Friendly Derby” as there are often families with split allegiances. Still, the matchup has the most red cards in Premier League history with 21, including 17 of those in the especially heated timeframe between 1997 and 2008.

Unfortunately for Everton, the rivalry has become one-sided over the past decade, with the Toffees failing to win since October of 2010. Liverpool has won 11 of the 21 games, with the other 10 ending in a draw. That has somewhat deescalated the vicious nature of the matchup, especially since Liverpool has gone on to become one of the most formidable sides in Europe over the past few years while Everton continues to challenge for a top-half place in the league.

Still, the 228 all-time matches between the clubs continues to fuel one of the great matchups in the English domestic landscape, and sooner or later this rivalry will regain its venom to bring the bite back to this matchup.

Bayern Munich signs coach Flick as permanent boss

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Bayern Munich has locked down interim head coach Hansi Flick as permanent boss, signing the 55-year-old on through the summer of 2023, the club announced on Friday.

Flick took over on an interim basis for Niko Kovac when the Croatian was let go in early November with the club fourth in the Bundesliga table. He impressed during his time as interim manager, leading the club back to the top of the table thanks in large part to a current 11-match league unbeaten run that features 10 wins and a draw.

That streak includes a 0-0 draw with then-second placed RB Leipzig that kept Bayern atop the table, plus a dominant 5-0 win over then-fifth placed Schalke. Successive 2-1 defeats to Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen are the only real blemishes on his record in charge so far, coming way back in late November and early December.

“I’m looking forward to taking on the upcoming tasks along with my staff and the team,” Flick said in the official team release. “The talks with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić were very good and in a spirit of good faith. We’ve determined the direction for the upcoming years. I’m sure we can achieve a lot together.”

Flick has also kept the club’s pristine Champions League record alive this season, with wins over Red Star Belgrade, Tottenham, and Chelsea by a combined 12-1 scoreline. The 3-0 first-leg win over Chelsea in the Round of 16 has the club primed to reach the quarterfinal round should the competition eventually resume.

Speaking to Flick’s adaptability, he also kept the club rolling in the recent absence of in-form striker Robert Lewandowski, working 6-0 and 2-0 wins over Hoffenheim and Augsburg without his lead frontman who began a long absence with a broken tibia.

“Bayern are very satisfied with Hansi Flick’s work,” said Bayern’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the release. “The team has had a very good development under him, plays attractive football which is reflected in results. We are the only club still competing in all three competitions.”

Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic added, “Hansi and I know in which direction we want to develop the team. We believe that Hansi is also the right head coach for the current time.”