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Championship roundup: Race for PL promotion remains white hot

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The Championship title has all been wrapped up, but there are still two promotion spots up for grabs, and they are both being hotly contested.

Wolverhampton Wanderers sits 11 points clear at the top of the table, and its final four matches are all against teams 17th or worse in the table. They can clinch not just automatic promotion but also the title this weekend should they win and Cardiff City lose at Norwich City.

Second place in the table also earns a spot in the Premier League next year, and that’s where the true fun is. Fulham, on a club-record 20-match unbeaten streak without a loss since New Year’s Day, has steamrolled up the table. The Whites haven’t even trailed a single second since January signing Aleksandar Mitrovic stepped on the field in a Fulham kit, and the Newcastle loanee won Championship Player of the Month for March after scoring seven goals in eight league matches. Fulham finally overtook Cardiff City by a point midweek, but the Bluebirds still have a game in hand, meaning they still control their own destiny, although the margin for error is razor-thin.

The battle has brought about the media mind games, and while Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic has stayed the course insisting the Whites take it one game at a time, Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock hasn’t held back, claiming Fulham are favorites in an attempt to pile pressure on their foes.

“You look at the games and they’re expected to win every game, really,” the outspoken Warnock said ahead of Cardiff City’s match this weekend at Norwich, saying his squad has done well just to keep its head above water. “It’s got to be [up to] us and if we can’t then good luck to them, 20-odd games unbeaten in this league is fantastic. They’ve got great players and a great squad and we’re actually competing with them. They’ve gone 20-odd games unbeaten and it’s neck and neck. It shows how far we’ve come really.”

Aston Villa is in fourth, but has work to do trailing Fulham by five points and the two teams above them in such good form. Cardiff has each of its last two matches, but before that, Warnock and company rattled off a 13-match unbeaten streak of its own. Cardiff finishes the season with games against Norwich (13th), Nottingham Forest (18th), Derby County (5th), Hull City (16th), and Reading (19th) while Fulham has Brentford (10th) this weekend plus Millwall (6th), Sunderland (23rd), and Birmingham (20th) remaining.

The race for the playoff is also a good one. Cardiff City, Aston Villa, Derby County, and Millwall currently hold the playoff spots, but the latter two both sit on 68 points, with three clubs within three points, and another two within five. Once the playoffs are set, the margins are thin and all bets are off. Huddersfield Town finished 5th last season, earning the three-seed in the playoff format, but managed to make it through unscathed to earn a berth in the Premier League this season.

World Cup host Putin gives Trump a ball

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HELSINKI (AP) Riding high after hosting a successful World Cup, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought a special gift to his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump: a soccer ball.

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After a journalist asked a question at their joint press conference Monday in Helsinki using soccer metaphors, Putin pulled out a red-and-white ball and tossed it at Trump, at the neighboring podium.

Trump said he’d give it to his 12-year-old son Barron, a soccer fan. Then the U.S. president tossed the ball to his wife Melania, sitting in the front row.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Putin critic, tweeted: “if it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House.”

Russia’s organization of the monthlong World Cup, which ended Sunday, won wide praise.

Usain Bolt to trial with A-League’s Mariners

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SYDNEY (AP) Eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt will trial for six weeks with the Central Coast Mariners from next month in a deal which could see him play for a season in Australian football’s A-League.

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

Australian football agent Tony Rallis said Monday a “deal between the Mariners and Usain Bolt in principle has been agreed, subject to a couple of benchmarks.”

Rallis said it would be necessary for the 31-year-old Bolt to trial and for Football Federation Australia to support his salary.

“Once the FFA comes back and says that they’ll be part of the process, we’re going to the trial,” Rallis said.

Bolt has a long-held ambition to play professional football and, since his retirement from the track, has trialed with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and Stromsgodset in Norway.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

“If he’s competitive, he will lift our A-League profile,” Rallis said. “He will create dreams for young people and he will give the A-League a profile no amount of money can buy. This bloke’s an ambitious athlete. The A-League needed a hero and we got superman.”

Rallis said the owner of the Mariners would guarantee 70 percent of his salary and the FFA would be expected to fund the remainder.

Mariners chief executive Shaun Mielekamp said there was still a lot of work to do and a trial was imperative to determine Bolt’s skill level.

“It would only be big if he can play and if he can go really, really well,” he said. “Beause if he comes and he’s not up to the level then it actually has a detrimental effect.

“But if he comes and he’s as good as our reports are saying that he can be, then that would be very exciting and I’m sure that this stadium would be pretty full every time he put the boots on.”

Blind to leave Man United, return to Ajax

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Daley Blind will leave Manchester United this summer and return to Ajax, the club from which the Red Devils signed him in 2014, per a brief and open-ended announcement from the Premier League side on Monday.

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

The 28-year-old Dutch defender/midfielder was previously an every-game player at Man United, from 2014-2016, but he was limited to just seven PL appearances (four starts) and 361 minutes (plus another six starts and 540 minutes in the UEFA Champions League) last season.

While the final details of Blind’s move are yet to be announced, it has been reported that United will receive a fee in the neighborhood of $18.5 million after paying $18 million for his services following the last World Cup.

World Cup win gives France new set of heroes, a needed boost

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PARIS (AP) — The welcome was grand, the emotion visceral as France’s victorious World Cup team rolled down Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue in an open-top bus Monday while tens of thousands of people cheered with unrestrained pride and jets streamed the national colors — blue, white, red — overhead.

[ MORE: With flags, song, pride, French celebrate unifying victory ]

The crowd that waited for hours to greet the soccer team, under a hot sun and amid celebratory smoke bombs that choked the air, got its moment hours after the team returned from Russia to hoist the gold trophy on French soil for the second time in 20 years.

The national team’s 4-2 win over Croatia on Sunday gave France a new set of heroes, many of whom represent the changing face of a diverse, multicultural country with which not all French citizens have yet reckoned.

The red carpet welcome for the World Cup winners continued at the Elysee Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron threw an informal garden party that had 1,000 children and 300 athletes from local soccer clubs as guests.

Many of the invited clubs are based in the poor neighborhoods French that produced the players who made up France’s youthful, diverse World Cup team, including 19-year-old breakout star Kylian Mbappe. Members of the club he grew up with in suburban Bondy attended the party.

“Merci!” Macron, the youngest person to become France’s president, told the guests. “This team is beautiful because it was united.”

Addressing the team, Macron offered advice.

“Don’t change,” he said, adding, “Never forget where you come from.”

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

Team captain and goalie Hugo Lloris, brandishing the trophy from soccer’s eminent tournament, and coach Didier Deschamps led the team onto the red carpet at the Elysee courtyard. With Republican Guards standing motionless in full dress uniforms, the squad quickly broke into party mode for the official photos.

The fun continued in the garden with chants led by midfielder Paul Pogba and off-the-cuff songs.

The victory came at a time when many French were in need of good news, and the magic provided a sense that a grand coming together might at least paper over political, economic and social fissures for a while.

“Eternal Happiness” read Monday’s headline in French sports daily L’Equipe, summing up the mood of many who hoped the euphoria would last.

Before the reception, the Champs-Elysees became the epicenter of national pride for the third day in a row, following the post-World Cup celebrations that brought hundreds of thousands to the fame avenue Sunday and a Bastille Day parade of French military might Saturday.

The team appeared elated, too, during its victory lap on the bus Monday. Players threw scarves into the crowd and recorded the action.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

Several Paris Metro stations were temporarily adjusting their names to honor the team and its members, the transport authority tweeted. The Champs-Elysees Clemenceau has become the Deschamps-Elysees Clemenceau to honor coach Didier Deschamps.

The Etoile station is, for now, “On a 2 Etoiles” (We have 2 stars), to denote France’s second World Cup victory. The Victor Hugo station is now Victor Hugo Lloris, after France’s standout goalie and team captain.

“We are linked for life now with this Cup,” defender Raphael Varane told BFM-TV on Monday before departing from Moscow, evoking the theme of unity that French partiers have consistently evoked.

Macron exulted on the field in Moscow and in the locker room, hugging players as they received their medals even as the skies poured rain. The president clearly hoped the World Cup glow would rub off on him, raising him up in the eyes of a nation where his economic reforms have drawn fierce protests and labor strikes.

He meets Tuesday with business representatives and an eye on mobilizing them in needy neighborhoods of France.

It was the players, though, who captured the French imagination.

Sports Minister Laura Flessel, who met the team at the airport, told Europe-1 radio that the World Cup victory allows France’s youth — like those in the poor suburbs where many of the players grew up — “to dare to believe in their dreams.”

The patriotic fervor sparked by the World Cup did not prevent the vandalism and violence that sometimes accompany public celebrations in France. Broken shop windows and signs of looting lined a section of the Champs-Elysees. Authorities detained 90 people for questioning in the Paris region and some 290 around France.