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Europa League preview: Arsenal joined by Champions League outcasts

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Arsenal’s path to the UEFA Champions League is looking more and more like it will require a Europa League triumph, and that trek continues in Sweden on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Ronaldo, Real top PSG 3-1 ]

There are plenty of other big names left in the Europa League, with Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, and Atletico Madrid also beginning Round of 32 ties on Thursday.

Ostersund vs. Arsenal

Arsene Wenger‘s men will tangle with an Ostersund side which has some impressive European wins under its belt.

Drawing Galatasaray in the second qualifying round, Ostersund won 3-1 on aggregate before beating Luxembourg’s Fola Esch by the same score in the third qualifying round and getting by PAOK on away goals in the playoff.

Ostersund was also a surprise second place team in a group with Hertha Berlin, Zorya Luhansk, and group-winning Athletic Bilbao, and did not lose at home. This won’t be easy for the Gunners, who will hope to pile up away goals.

Midfielder Ken Sema is the player to watch for the Allsvenskan side. Arsenal will not have ineligible Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as injured Jack Wilshere, Laurent Koscielny, and Petr Cech.

Borussia Dortmund vs. Atalanta

Christian Pulisic and Michy Batshuayi‘s fast friendship gets a Europa League test from Serie A visitors Atalanta, which has dropped to eighth in Serie A this season after selling Franck Kessie in the offseason. 22-year-old Italian striker Bryan Cristante is the club’s leading scorer, and longtime Fiorentina man Josip Ilic isn’t far behind the youngster.

Full schedule
Red Star Belgrade 0-0 CSKA Moscow — Tuesday

11 a.m. ET
Astana vs. Sporting Lisbon

1 p.m. ET
Ostersund vs. Arsenal
Borussia Dortmund vs. Atalanta
Real Sociedad vs. Red Bull Salzburg
Spartak Moscow vs. Athletic Bilbao
Marseille vs. Braga
Nice vs. Lokomotiv Moscow
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. AC Milan

3:05 p.m. ET
Napoli vs. RB Leipzig
Lyon vs. Villarreal
Celtic vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Partizan Belgrade vs. Viktoria Plzen
Copenhagen vs. Atletico Madrid
AEK Athens vs. Dynamo Kyiv
Steaua Bucuresti vs. Lazio

Transfer rumor roundup: Man United on verge of signing Shakhtar’s Fred

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Jose Mourinho is nearing a boost to his attacking midfield, with Brazilian international Fred reportedly on the verge of joining Manchester United.

The 25-year-old midfielder has starred for Shakhtar Donetsk the past five seasons, cementing his place as a starter for the Ukrainian side and impressing in UEFA Champions League matches. Fred follows the likes of Manchester City’s Fernandinho and Chelsea’s Willian as using Shakhtar as a mid-way point between Brazil and the Premier League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

According to multiple reports in England, Manchester United is in advanced negotiations to sign Fred for a reported transfer fee of nearly $59 million. The singularly-named Fred would be the third-famous Fred to play for Man United, following Freddie Goodwin, who played for the Red Devils from 1954-60 and Fred Erentz, who played from 1892-1902.

Although he is not physically big, Fred could be an Eden Hazard-type player, a tricky midfielder who puts defenders on their heels as he skates past them with the ball.

Here are more transfer rumors and notes from around the Premier League:

(more…)

FIFA Council member Nyantakyi arrested on return to Ghana

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) FIFA Council member and Ghana Football Association head Kwesi Nyantakyi has been arrested on his return to his home country following a complaint made against him by the Ghanaian president.

Police spokesman David Eklu confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday that Nyantakyi, also a vice president of the Confederation of African Football, is in custody and being interrogated.

[READ: Yaya Toure talks future, playing with Paul Pogba]

Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo asked police to investigate Nyantakyi after the soccer boss allegedly was caught in an undercover documentary promising businessmen access to the president and other senior government officials in return for money.

Nyantakyi was out of the country at the time President Akufo-Addo made the complaint.

Ghana media reported that Nyantakyi, a member of the powerful FIFA Council since 2016 and an influential figure in African football, was picked up by plain-clothes police at the airport in Accra and taken straight to police headquarters.

NFL’s 49ers purchase minority stake in Leeds United

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One of England’s most famous clubs is receiving investment and strategic business connections from one of the NFL’s most famous brands.

Leeds United and the San Francisco 49ers announced Thursday that 49ers Enterprises, an investment arm of the 49ers ownership, has purchased a minority stake in the Championship club. Multiple reports state that the 49ers now own 10-15 percent of the club, but current Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani remains the majority owner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

As part of the deal, 49ers President Paraag Marathe gets a seat on the Leeds United board of directors. Per Leeds, the money invested will stay with the club and be used for the first team, as Leeds looks again to make its way back to the Premier League in next season’s campaign.

An American ownership group investing in England is nothing new, but to identify and purchase a stake in a club with history and a decent chance at making it to the Premier League is impressive. In addition, the York Family, who owns the 49ers, has a net worth in the billions, which could help fund Leeds’ push back into the Premier League.

For the 49ers, this is also a savvy business decision. By investing low in a club in the Championship, they hope that they can experience the financial windfall of playing in the Premier League. This season, clubs made a combined $3.2 billion (with a capital B) thanks to revenue sharing, international and domestic TV rights, and other sponsorship deals.

With even the relegated sides taking home nine figures in revenues from the league, who wouldn’t want to invest and take a cut of that?

Now, only time will tell how long it is before the 49ers influence helps – or hinders, based on the 49ers current state of affairs in the U.S. – Leeds reach the pinnacle of English football.

Iniesta joins Japanese club Vissel Kobe

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TOKYO (AP) Former Barcelona playmaker Andres Iniesta was introduced as the newest member of Japanese club Vissel Kobe on Thursday, a poorly kept secret that’s been rumored for weeks.

Iniesta appeared before a packed news conference at a central Tokyo hotel on Thursday along with Kobe’s billionaire owner, Hiroshi Mikitani.

[READ: Earnie Stewart being considered for U.S. Soccer post]

“I’m pleased to announce,” Mikitani said, “that Andres Iniesta will be signing up play with Vissel Kobe after his historic career at Barcelona.”

Iniesta signed his contract as Mikitani watched, and then spoke through an interpreter.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Japanese media are reporting he will earn $30 million annually on a three-year deal.

“For me this is a very special day,” the Spaniard said. “This is an important challenge for me. My family is excited to come to Japan and we are very pleased. There were many offers. Other clubs showed interest. But I decided to sign with Vissel Kobe because the project presented to me was impressive.”

Mikitani is also the CEO of Barcelona sponsor Rakuten, a Japanese online retailer.

Iniesta held up the team’s red shirt with his famous No. 8 on the back, and his name written across the bottom.

Iniesta previously had said he would probably retire from international soccer after Spain plays at this year’s World Cup in Russia.

The 34-year-old Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. He also was a key part of Spain’s two European Championships in 2008 and 2012.

He announced last month he would leave Barcelona after 16 seasons. His last match for the Spanish club was on Sunday against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou.

Vissel Kobe is in sixth place after 15 games in the J-League. It signed Lukas Podolski last year, but the German striker is out until the end of June with an injured calf.