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Championship playoff preview: First legs see underdogs at home

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Who’s going to join Cardiff City and Wolves in the Premier League next season, and who will be left behind to meet Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, and (probably) Swansea City?

[ MORE: Playoff primer ]

The next steps in that particularly journey are Friday.

Derby County (6) vs. Fulham (3) — 2:45 p.m. ET Friday

Fulham took four of six points from the Rams during the season, including a 2-1 win at Pride Park Stadium in March.

And the Cottagers had been in fine form until a season finale loss that cost them a chance at instant promotion to the Premier League. Third place teams have claimed just five of 15 playoff finals.

Derby defender Richard Keogh: “Our aim was minimum was a top-six finish, that’s cemented now and the play-offs is something we are all looking forward to. We know what the play-offs are like. It’s a pressure environment, but if you look though our squad the majority of us have been through a play-off campaign, so hopefully that will help us in the lead up to this.”

Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic: “It’s like in tennis; we lost one set, and we must be ready to keep going and cross the line. 180 minutes are ahead of us, and everything is probably going to be open after the game we’re going to play against Derby tomorrow. We must be ready for tomorrow’s challenge, and we must be ready for the game we’re going to play at Craven Cottage, too.”

Middlesbrough (5) vs. Aston Villa (4) — 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Thrice these teams have met since August, and the home side has been blanked each time. Boro knocked Villa out of the EFL Cup, but Villa took four of six points in the Championship. The last win came four days into the tenure of current Boro manager Tony Pulis.

Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce has a lot of people in his corner following the death of both his parents inside of a 90-day window. He says it has “rocked me to the bones” and is grateful for the distraction of the playoffs.

Bruce: “I think about the possibility of going to Wembley with Aston Villa and I know my mum will be there in spirit. She used to love a day out at Wembley, she really did. My dad wasn’t a huge fan of those trips, but she loved it. I just hope we have something to celebrate at the end of the month, because that is what they would have wanted.”

Middlesbrough’s Jonny Howson: “Looking at it, the playoffs have been different for me every single time. Form and recent match-ups in the league, it all goes out of the window. No-one can predict them. Yes, we’ve played Villa three times this season, and we know their players well – but it will be a completely different game now. We’ve got to get our focus right and start gearing up towards Saturday. It’s going to be a great atmosphere, we want to get off to the best start we can and get a good foothold in the tie.”

Mesut Ozil discusses critique of Turkish background

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Germany’s dismissal from the World Cup came as a shock to many, but one of its players received heavier scrutiny for off-the-field actions.

[ MORE: Whitecaps teen Alphonso Davies nearing move to Bayern ]

Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil appeared in two of the three group stage matches for the Germans in Russia, however, his play was overshadowed by his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prior to the start of the tournament.

The meeting between the two caused several German media outlets to criticize Ozil due to the heated relations between the two European nations.

Additionally, Ozil says his brand was affected as well, with various sponsors pulling their support due to the meeting with Erdogan.

The 29-year-old is of Turkish and German descent, which would have made him eligible to represent either country.

Ozil took to Twitter on Sunday to discuss how the ordeal has affected how the media and sponsorship has affected him over the last month.

Barcelona, Sevilla to play Spanish Super Cup in Morocco

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La Liga champions Barcelona will meet Sevilla in the 2018 Spanish Super Cup in Tangier, Morocco on August 12.

[ MORE: Klopp talks Pulisic, Liverpool spending ]

The Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) announced the decision on Sunday, as Barca looks to kick off the 2018 season against last year’s Copa Del Rey runners’ up.

Lionel Messi and Co. defeated Sevilla, 5-0, in the 2017/18 Copa Del Rey final, giving the Blaugrana a domestic double for the first time since the 2015/16 campaign.

La Liga play opens up in Spain on August 19, however, the full fixture list will be revealed on Tuesday.

Ibrahimovic: MLS is “lucky I didn’t come 10 years ago”

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a major bright spot, as expected, in his debut season in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Whitecaps teen Alphonso Davies nearing Bayern Munich transfer ]

The LA Galaxy striker recorded a goal and an assist in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, raising his goal tally to 12 on the year — which ranks fourth-best in the league.

At the age of 36, Ibrahimovic has shown he’s more than capable of producing as a veteran, but it raises the question: how amazing would he have been in MLS had he joined sooner?

Following the Galaxy’s win over the Union, Ibrahimovic joked with media, suggesting he could have had the entire country in his hand if he had arrived in the United States sooner.

“They’re lucky I didn’t come 10 years ago,” Ibrahimovic said, “because I would be the president today.”

Puel insists Chelsea hasn’t inquired about goalkeeper Schmeichel

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Chelsea could very be in the market for a goalkeeper over the summer, but Leicester City’s manager insists that their number one isn’t being targeted by the Blues; or at least not yet.

[ MORE: Klopp discusses Christian Pulisic, Liverpool’s spending ]

With the Blues likely set to lose Belgium international Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid, new manager Maurizio Sarri would have to look elsewhere to solidify the team’s goalkeeping situation.

One player that has drawn significant interest after a strong World Cup performance for Denmark is Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel, who played a big role in the Foxes’ 2015/16 Premier League title.

Although Schmeichel would be a viable replacement for Courtois at Stamford Bridge, Leicester boss Claude Puel says Chelsea hasn’t expressed its interest to this point.

“No, there is no problem with this,” the Frenchman told Sky Sports. “There is a lot of speculation at this moment, it is normal.

“I think he [Ward] can bring more competition to the squad and more possibilities. It is a good thing to have competition between players in the squad to develop desire.

“It gives good focus and concentration.”

The Foxes recently brought in young Liverpool keeper Danny Ward, which raised further questions about the future of Schmeichel at Leicester.