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Dembele faces impossible task at Barcelona: Being Neymar

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MADRID (AP) Only two years ago, Ousmane Dembele was playing in France’s lower divisions with modest club Rennes.

On Friday, he became the second-most expensive player in soccer history when Barcelona picked him to replace Neymar in a deal that could reach $173 million.

The talented 20-year-old French forward suddenly turned into a star by joining the Spanish powerhouse in a transfer surpassed only by the Brazilian star’s recent move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Now the pressure is on Dembele to prove his worth and show that Barcelona did the right thing by choosing him to play alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

Barcelona is hoping to re-establish its successful attacking trio, so it’s probably no coincidence that there is a lot of Neymar in the young Dembele — from the quickness to the nifty skills to the audacity to the ability to dazzle.

Barcelona is already calling him the “prince of the dribble,” someone who can amaze fans with his “sublime skill and gutsy flair.” The club boasted Dembele as one of the “most promising young stars in European football,” a player who has a “golden future.” And it praised him as being “versatile, spectacular and efficient,” someone “almost impossible” to be stopped by the rival defenses.

“He is a player who generates a lot of excitement and a lot of expectations,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “We expect a lot from him.”

Dembele has already shown signs that he has the potential to shine and one day reach the same heights of someone like Neymar.

He scored the winner when France defeated England 3-2 in a friendly back in June, in what was his seventh appearance with the French national team. One dazzling moment in that game gave fans a glimpse of Dembele’s talent. Early in the second half, he picked up a loose ball on defense and flicked it past England defender Kyle Walker – one of the quickest in the Premier League – and left him trailing on a pulsating 60-meter run toward the goal.

Although slight in build, Dembele has huge upper-body strength, enabling him to ride heavy challenges and use his body to hold off opponents running alongside him. He is a constant threat with his assists, and can play well on both flanks of the field and through the middle.

“You can’t tell if he’s right-footed or left-footed, he can strike with both feet,” Julien Stephan, Dembele’s coach in Rennes’ reserve team, said in an interview on the club’s website. “He’s a great competitor and he is not bothered by the pressure. He plays naturally whether it’s in front of 3,000, 30,000 or 100,000 people.”

It’s been a rapid rise for the lean forward since he was first spotted by a Rennes scout as an 8-year-old in the northern city of Evreux. The club monitored him closely and brought him to its youth academy by the time he was 13.

Coaches were quickly impressed, and he was promoted to Rennes’ reserve team in the beginning of the 2014-15 season.

“Everyone was talking to me about another player his age, but I only saw him,” said Armand Djire, the Rennes recruiter who got a first look at Dembele. “We brought the family to Rennes and took care of their professional and personal needs. We did everything possible so Ousmane could arrive at (main team) in the best possible conditions.”

By the time he was 17, Dembele had already made his first-team debut in the French league, scoring his first goal as a professional in a match against Girondins only two weeks after his debut.

In his two seasons as a professional in with the club from northern France, Dembele played 78 matches, scoring 22 goals and setting up 25 others.

He became a top prospect for European clubs, and Borussia Dortmund signed him last year in a transfer worth $16.7 million. He scored six goals and set up 13 others in 32 Bundesliga games, turning into Barcelona’s top target the moment Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain in a deal worth more than $260 million.

Neymar had arrived as a possible successor to Messi, and when he left, the club had to find someone else to take on that difficult desk.

Dembele, who will wear Neymar’s former No. 11 jersey, became Barcelona’s most expensive transfer ever, costing $124 million plus possible add-ons that could increase the value up to 40 percent of the original fee. Rennes will be entitled to about $47.2 million of the amount paid to Dortmund, meaning he’s also the club’s biggest transfer all-time.

“The market has been shooting up in the last few days. It seems that every club will be signing their most expensive player from now on. The prices have gone up a lot since Neymar’s buyout clause was paid,” Valverde said, adding that he hopes Dembele “will be prepared” to handle the pressure that comes with a move of this magnitude.

Dembele, whose mother is from Mauritania and his father is from Mali, was making his professional debut only 21 months ago, and now all eyes will be on him every time he steps on the field.

“He didn’t choose to be in one of the biggest transfers in the history of football, but I think that he is strong enough mentally to bear this burden,” Stephan said. “We will continue to follow his evolution with great attention and pleasure.”

Pep: Hart’s future uncertain, will play in preseason

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Joe Hart has returned to Manchester City after spending last season on loan at West Ham, and his future is very much up in the air as it stands.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was asked about Hart’s situation at the pre-match press conference prior to City’s International Champions Cup match against Borussia Dortmund. He confirmed they are shopping the English veteran. “We’re going to try and make a solution for Joe,” Guardiola told reporters, “but if not then he is with us. He’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever seen but at this moment he is with us.”

Guardiola also confirmed that Hart would play in the preseason game against Dortmund. Starting goalkeeper Ederson is not on the roster for the US preseason tour, having returned from participation in the 2018 World Cup with Brazil, although he didn’t play as he served as Alisson’s backup.

The former #1 England goalkeeper, Hart has struggled mightily in recent seasons. He last played a full Premier League season back in 2015/16, starting 35 games for Manchester City. However, he lost his place the following year and was loaned to Italian top flight club Torino. He had mixed success during his one year in Italy and was loaned out to West Ham last campaign with Ederson and Claudio Bravo entrenched at his parent club. Hart only made it half the season before losing his starting spot for the Hammers, replaced by Adrian. That saw him lose not just starting job with the England national team but his place in the squad, forcing Gareth Southgate to take a trio of inexperienced goalkeepers to the World Cup, leading to the emergence of Jordan Pickford.

West Ham returned Hart to Manchester City at the end of the season, and here he sits in limbo again. Hart has just one more year left on his contract, but according to the Manchester Evening News, wants to leave this season on a permanent deal anyway.

Tomorrow, Hart will get the opportunity – albeit a small one – to showcase himself to potential suitors. If he gets another chance to play in the ICC (Manchester City plays Liverpool and Bayern Munich before heading home to England), he will have another opportunity to plead his case.

Report: Leicester to pluck Danny Ward from Liverpool

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With the announcement of Alisson’s signing on Thursday, Liverpool has spent over $200 million this summer, but it seems they’ve already begun to trim the squad and even out the net spend by a bit.

According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds have agreed to sell 25-year-old goalkeeper Danny Ward to Leicester City, with the clubs agreeing to a $16.2 million fee. The report also states the deal includes a 20% sell-on fee, meaning Liverpool will receive 20% of any transfer fee Leicester City receives for Ward during the life of his next contract.

[ MORE: Alisson signs for Liverpool ]

Ward has spent the last six seasons with Liverpool after signing from small non-league club Wrexham in 2012 as a 19-year-old. However, he has played more games for the Welsh international team (4) than he has for Liverpool (3). Previously stuck behind Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, the arrival of Alisson meant the club needed to make room.

Leicester City already has Kasper Schmeichel firmly entrenched between the sticks. However, especially after a stellar 2018 World Cup with Denmark where he was considered among the top choices for the Golden Glove award, Schmeichel is a wanted man and 31 years old and a contract with three more years remaining, Schmeichel’s time at King Power Stadium could be limited.

The addition of Ward at the very least would allow Schmeichel some time off. The Dane was stretched thin last season as not just the Premier League starter but also used in a few cup games with only Eldin Jakupovic behind him. Now, it’s realistic that Ward could receive time in Cup competitions, leaving Schmeichel to rest up for league games.

Reports: Conte to sue Chelsea over how firing was handled

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According to reports in Italy, and backed up by those in England, Antonio Conte is planning to sue Chelsea over the way the club handled his exit this summer.

Chelsea is reportedly planning to pay Conte the rest of his salary in full, but the reports state that the Italian is unhappy how long it took the club to confirm his exit, leaving him unable to secure a job commiserate with his experience level for this coming season.

The 48-year-old is set to receive nearly $12 million as compensation for the final year of his now-terminated contract, but is looking for additional damages given the timing of his departure. Despite the writing clearly on the wall, Conte had weeks of silence from the club, before being pulled back to London to begin pre-season training with the squad for just four days before he was then let go.

Upon his release, Conte released a relatively benign statement thanking the club, the fans, the staff, and the players, but notably did not thank the board or owner Roman Abramovich.

Things between Chelsea and Conte have been testy for some time now. It was reported earlier last month – before Conte was officially let go – that Chelsea was planning to withhold payment of Conte’s remaining salary and sue the Italian for costing the club money for former striker Diego Costa. Costa told the media he received a text message from Conte while on international duty last summer that he was no longer wanted at the club. If true, the club could have argued that Conte botched the situation and cost the club a significant amount of money. However, it seems the club has – for now – decided not to pursue the lawsuit, with reports stating that Conte is set to receive his salary in full.

WATCH: Jurgen Klopp crashes Alisson’s first Liverpool interview

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Jurgen Klopp has had quite the summer, and it’s just become even better.

Liverpool officially acquired Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson for a world-record transfer fee, and with the former Roma netminder filling his first obligations in Red, things didn’t go exactly as the club’s media staff had planned. While sitting down for his first interview with the club staff to be used in the official release, Jurgen Klopp couldn’t resist crashing the party to say hello.

[ MORE: Alisson to Liverpool official ]

The language barrier made things a bit awkward, as did the rolling cameras, but it’s pretty clear both sides are quite happy with the recent developments, with smiles all around. Take a look:

Klopp asked if Alisson was in the middle of his post-World Cup vacation, which he confirmed as true, but smartly followed up with “But now I am working.”

We’re sure they’ll catch up on a more complete basis privately later, but it was pretty cool to see their first interaction caught on camera.