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With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.

Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.

“The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.

But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.

Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.

Here is a look at some of the key issues:

STADIUMS

Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls “the Brazilian scenario” – the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.

That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.

But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.

Evidence that North Korean workers – who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery – worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.

LEGACY

Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely – if ever – full again after the World Cup.

Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 – among the lowest for major European leagues – and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.

Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 percent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.

Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.

In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.

Only the St. Petersburg stadium – home to games at the 2020 European Championship – and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.

TEAM BASES

It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy – and lavish state spending.

Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.

There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.

Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.

Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.

FAN EXPERIENCE

Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.

Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.

Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.

Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.

SECURITY

Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.

At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.

The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.

There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.

Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.

FIFA READINESS

Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.

FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.

During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signaled for half-time.

FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.

A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

Chelsea needs to wait “48 hours” to assess Mount

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Mason Mount‘s move from the Championship to the Premier League has been nearly seamless.

His adjustment to the Champions League was cut down too quickly to get an understanding of whether it would be too big of a jump.

[ MORE: Match recap | Barkley drama ]

Mount, 20, was chopped down by Valencia’s Francis Coquelin, the former Arsenal man, and had to leave the game after just 16 minutes.

Here’s Frank Lampard, from ChelseaFC.com:

“He’s got an ankle injury but we don’t know how bad it is. We’ll have to assess it in the next 48 hours to see the scale of the injury. It was a shame because he started the game well and it meant we had to make the change early on.”

Mount scored nine times with four assists on loan under Lampard at Derby County last season, and has already chipped in three goals for Chelsea this season.

Lampard turned to Pedro off the bench on Tuesday, but any lengthy absence for Mount will spell more time for American youngster Christian Pulisic.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday preview: Man City, Spurs debut

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Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur begin their UEFA Champions League campaigns on very different results and with very different vibes.

City is coming off a stunning 3-2 loss to injury-hit Norwich City, and is set up in Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk for the third-straight season, a side which beat Pep Guardiola once in four tries between 2017/18 and 2018/19 in the UCL.

[ MORE: UCL Tues. wrap ]

But on Wednesday, Guardiola’s men are going to carry a similar feel to one of his old Barcelona teams, as Pep seemingly will have Fernandinho pull a Javier Mascherano and drop into the back line.

Yes, Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi are Manchester City’s hopes at center back, now that John Stones has joined Aymeric Laporte on the shelf.

“For me as a manager it’s an incredible challenge,” said Pep Guardiola. “But I believe a lot, people don’t know the spirit and resolve to solve this problem. The players going to come back with Dinho, Eric Garcia, Taylor Harwood-Bellis. … It’s happened, but what we are not going to do is complain. We have to have 11 players on the pitch and I like it, to find a solution. For the players as well to find an incredible step forward.”

Spurs, meanwhile, will simply be trying to build on any momentum gained by a 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace at the weekend, a win which came after manager Mauricio Pochettino begged his side to “re-focus” after a relatively poor start to the season.

Now a bit more relaxed, Spurs head to Greece as the clear favorites against stingy Olympiacos. These are, after all, the finalists of last season’s tournament.

Pochettino won’t be sleeping on the challenge, from The London Evening Standard:

“They have good players and if we are not focused and don’t take our best game we are going to suffer. But last season we played in the final of Champions League, so it’s normal people think before the game, Tottenham is one step above Olympiacos but in the end you need to show it on the pitch.”

Spurs are one of two early kickoffs on Tuesday.

Full UCL Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Galatasaray
Olympiacos v. Tottenham Hotspur

3 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Paris Saint-Germain v. Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid v. Juventus
Dinamo Zagreb v. Atalanta
Bayern Munich v. Red Star Belgrade
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Manchester City

American coach Marsch speaks after landmark Champions League day

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Jesse Marsch made his UEFA Champions League debut on Tuesday, a historic first for not just the Wisconsin native but also his country.

Marsch, 45, oversaw Red Bull Salzburg’s 6-2 demolition of Genk, becoming the first American to win a UCL match as manager.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

“We knew we were going into the match full of confidence,” he said, via the Salzburg site. “We knew too that we could put in a performance of this quality. I wasn’t pleased with a few situations, such as conceding for 3-1. That shows our incredible mentality though as it prompted us to give a few more percent and immediately score two goals.”

The ex-New York Red Bulls manager and RB Leipzig assistant manager got another three goals from incredible 19-year-old striker Erling Braut Haland, who nows has 17 goals in nine matches this season.

“It is an absolute joy to work with this team. We have a lot of players who just know how to battle, and that rubs off on the others. You can see that on the pitch on nights like tonight.”

There will be tougher nights ahead for Marsch, who is in a group with Liverpool and Napoli, but Tuesday was a fine start for the tactician. And it was a banner moment for American coaches abroad, who’ve been led by past and present USMNT coaches Bob Bradley and Gregg Berhalter.

Maybe one day that’ll be Marsch’s title… but it seems like he may have some loftier ground to cover on his path through world soccer.

Klopp: Liverpool made wrong decisions; Penalty also incorrect

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is going to bat for his left back after Andrew Robertson gave away what became the decisive penalty in a 2-0 loss to Napoli in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

“I don’t think it’s a penalty,” Klopp said. “What can I say, for me, it is clear and obvious no penalty. He jumps before any contact, we can’t change that.”

[ RECAP: Napoli 2-0 Liverpool ]

For what it’s worth: It sure seemed like both a foul on Robertson and a comical embellishment from Callejon, but we digress.

Liverpool just didn’t have it on the day, like when Sadio Mane played a terrible pass to Mohamed Salah on what could’ve been an easy 1-0 lead.

In the moments they did have it, there was Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret making a splendid save.

“We played a lot of good football but didn’t finish it off. We controlled moments but had not enough chances in the end. We made decisions that were not right and have to accept the result. It was very often the final ball that was not right.”

Also, forgive Klopp if he has stopped enjoying the beautiful country of Italy.