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Contract signed, Barcelona’s new coach takes aim at Madrid

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Ernesto Valverde wants to start his tenure as Barcelona coach in the best way possible, by beating Real Madrid.

Shortly after becoming Barcelona’s 57th coach on Thursday, Valverde said his first goal was to get ready for a trio of “clasico” matches coming over the next few months.

“It makes the challenge we have ahead of us even bigger,” Valverde said about Barcelona’s friendly against Madrid in Miami on July 29 before the curtain-raising Spanish Super Cup in August.

[ MORE: USWNT star wins Champions League ]

“I just arrived, and I still have to think about everything, but it is important that the players find their form in the warm-up matches before the Super Cup,” Valverde said at his first news conference near Camp Nou. “We have a summer tour with games against tough teams, and the idea is to get ready for the Super Cup.”

The 53-year-old Valverde will be charged with reinvigorating a side that boasts one of the world’s most talented attacks in Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, but finished last season behind Madrid in the Spanish league and the Champions League. Barcelona lost in the quarterfinals of Europe’s top-tier competition to Juventus, which Madrid will take on in Saturday’s final.

Barcelona announced on Monday that Valverde had agreed to a two-year contract with an option for a third season.

Valverde seems the perfect fit for Barcelona, given his knowledge of the club as a former player under coach Johan Cruyff in the 1980s and his experience as a well-traveled manager.

[ REPORT: Massive Arsenal bid for Mbappe ]

He arrives after four noteworthy seasons at Athletic Bilbao. Having also coached successfully at Valencia, Villarreal, Espanyol and Greek club Olympiakos, Valverde has long been considered one of Spain’s sharpest soccer minds.

His serious, even-keeled demeanor should help him handle the high-pressure atmosphere surrounding Barcelona that left Luis Enrique in need of a long break.

“I know that the bar has been set very high,” Valverde said. “Barcelona has had great coaches. I think about Luis Enrique, (Pep) Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Cruyff. I know the demands of this club and the challenge I face.”

While Valverde said he would “adapt” to Barcelona’s ball-possession style forged under Cruyff and perfected by Guardiola, his Bilbao sides displayed the intensity in pressuring up the field that Barcelona lacked last season.

Valverde has also proven to get the most out of his players, something which bodes well for a Barcelona youth program which has lost its weight on the first team. He said he plans to “have a fluid relationship” with the reserve team.

Despite being limited by Bilbao’s policy of only having players from the small Basque Country region or neighboring areas, Valverde made the club into one of the better sides in Spain. The club finished fourth, qualifying for the Champions League, in his first season and never finished below seventh through all four campaigns.

Valverde will now be making the jump from Bilbao’s homegrown squad to Barcelona’s collection of stars.

“How can I put it? Bilbao’s market for players is not the same as Barca’s,” Valverde said. But “I have never met players who were born millionaires. I believe I will find a young group of players who want to win.”

Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE