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Emery makes PSG roar in Ligue 1, silent in Champions League

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PARIS (AP) A 6-1 humiliation from Barcelona plus the loss of the French title were not enough to end Unai Emery’s tenure as Paris Saint-Germain coach last year.

PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi decided to keep Emery, probably thinking that spending 400 million euros on new forwards would help solve the team’s defensive weaknesses. And bring the Champions League trophy he craves so much to the French capital.

[ MORE: PSG squabbling after first leg ]

The big investment has brought instant dividends in the French league. After 25 matches, PSG enjoys a 12-point lead over defending champion Monaco going into the home game against promoted Strasbourg on Saturday.

Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylian Mbappe have been formidable, and only a couple of teams threaten PSG’s hegemony. Emery does not have to scratch his head too much to find the appropriate tactics to dominate the local league.

The Champions League is a different story.

A year after the Barcelona fiasco, Emery – a respected tactician who guided Sevilla to three Europa League titles – had the chance to redeem himself at PSG against Champions League-holder Real Madrid in their last-16 first leg match this week.

He took bold risks, but his moves backfired as Neymar, Cavani, and Mbappe were silenced. They left Madrid 3-1 losers, on the verge of another early elimination from Europe’s top competition.

The fact that Madrid was not particularly impressive makes PSG’s loss even harder to take, and other tactical choices might have produced a different result. Emery’s decisions to leave captain Thiago Silva on the bench, to start Presnel Kimpembe at center half, and to omit Lassana Diarra or Thiago Motta in midfield to make room for Giovani Lo Celso turned into big question marks.

Kimpembe did well until the 83rd minute when his poor pass led to Cristiano Ronaldo’s second goal of the evening.

The biggest gamble was likely on Lo Celso as holding midfielder in a position that did not suit him, for a game that everybody expected to be played at a very high pace.

The talented Argentine was often caught out of position and gave away a penalty for a silly foul on Toni Kroos. Emery failed to deal with Lo Celso’s struggles properly and left him on the pitch for an 85-minute ordeal. Surprisingly, Emery praised Lo Celso for his “great match,” preferring to blame the referee for the loss.

“The team played well,” Emery said. “They showed character.”

Emery also left observers puzzled by his decision to replace Cavani with Thomas Meunier just after the hour mark. Cavani, the French league’s top striker, delivered a mediocre performance but, in his defense, had been set up just once by Neymar.

The Brazil star, who was bought by PSG for 222 million euros precisely to be a factor in the Champions League, played second fiddle to Ronaldo throughout the match. Neymar had a hand in Adrien Rabiot’s opening goal with a backheel assist, but his flashes of brilliance were not enough. Neymar’s striking partner Mbappe was disappointing too, failing to convert three good chances.

“We always say the same things, we always do the same things and, in the end, we are always floored in the same way,” Rabiot said. “The problem is that it’s easy to put eight goals against Dijon, or four, in the league. It’s in matches like this that you have to be decisive.”

Report: Newcastle activates $12m release clause of ex-Arsenal youth

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Reports out of Turkey say Newcastle United have finally struck the transfer market for a new No. 10.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Aksam reports that Rafa Benitez got the Magpies hierarchy to activate a near $12 million release clause for Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup.

The 25-year-old was part of Arsenal’s youth set-up until 2012, making two League Cup appearances in 2011-12 before moving to Besiktas.

Dutch-born Ozyakup is 35-times capped with a goal for Turkey, twice captaining the Crescent-Stars.

Ozyakup lost playing time to Talisca this season, and registered just four assists in 24 appearances. In 219 appearances for Besiktas, he’s posted 27 goals with 50 assists.

Like the move for Newcastle?

Lukaku pens inspiring post on hard-scrabble upbringing

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Manchester United and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has an inspiring and emotional post in The Players’ Tribune which tugs at the heart strings and explains his competitive fire.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Lukaku talks about how his family’s poverty caused him to become a fierce competitor in the hopes of meeting his dreams head-on and providing for his family.

The Belgian, 25, scored twice in his side’s 3-0 World Cup-opening win over Panama earlier this week, and is now far removed from his youth, but he tells his story as if it lives fresh in his mind.

From The Players’ Tribune:

There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.

Lukaku also talks about racism in football, his debut for Anderlecht, and that aforementioned competitive drive. It’s 100 percent worth the read.

West Ham signs club record center back from Toulouse

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West Ham has reportedly set a club record with its latest signing under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Issa Diop is the player, the 21-year-old Toulouse captain and center back costing the Irons around $29 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal signs Leno ]

Diop scored three goals with an assist and eight yellow cards in 31 Ligue 1 matches this season, giving the young defender 95 apps, six goals, three assists, and 23 yellows since debuting with the senior team at 18.

Capped by France at every level below the senior team, Diop’s 2.2 interceptions per game ranked sixth in Ligue 1.

Toulose finished 18th in Ligue 1, but won its promotion/relegation playoff to stay in the French top flight.

From WHUFC.com:

“I am very happy to sign for such a historic, English club, and I hope to show my best here. I am a very ambitious player and West Ham is a very ambitious club, as we’ve seen with the appointment of the new coach. I hope to help the team win lots of games and make the fans happy.”

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

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In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.