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Three key battles for Champions League Final

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Saturday brings Real Madrid’s journey toward a third-straight UEFA Champions League title to a close, with just Liverpool standing in the way.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The Reds attack promises danger and entertainment, while Zinedine Zidane’s personnel choice may be just as important as his tactical decisions in Kiev.

Van Dijk, Lovren against… Ronaldo and whoever Zidane decides

It’s difficult to highlight the match-up problems for Liverpool’s center backs because Zinedine Zidane has used three different set-ups atop his line-up.

At times, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sometimes, Gareth Bale takes Benzema’s spot, and occasionally Ronaldo has been played up top as a center forward.

Believe it or not, that may be the best case scenario for Liverpool, though Ronaldo will undoubtedly roam across the top of the formation. While many think of Ronaldo and visualize his laser shots from distance, he’s quite dangerous in 1v1 aerial battles as well as tight spaces inside the box.

Quite frankly, matches like this highlight why the Reds signed Virgil Van Dijk. And, opinion alert, human bowling ball Benzema and his Juggernaut-esque approach to attacking may be a unique challenge Liverpool has not seen outside of Romelu Lukaku.

Marcelo vs. Mohamed Salah

Marcelo is an unbelievably silky, savvy left back who uses an elite attacking skill set to keep the opposition’s entire right side off kilter.

In some ways he can be partially neutralized by the danger presented by Reds right wing Mo Salah, but Zidane isn’t going to tell Marcelo to camp out in his own end when left center back Sergio Ramos is the next man up to defend, one of the finest players of his generation.

So it’s on Salah to assert himself on the game, something that shouldn’t be a problem after a couple weeks away from match action.

Can Real defend Liverpool on the counter?

We’ve seen Liverpool expose a number of teams on the counter attack, and Real certainly has a handle on how to do the same.

But building on our second key, there’s danger for both sides when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal get up the pitch. When Liverpool regains the ball and attacks at pace, there are big choices to be made.

Say Marcelo is up the pitch. Now Ramos may have to take Salah and leave Roberto Firmino to Raphael Varane. Now Carvajal may be alone with Sadio Mane. It’s not that Carvajal or Marcelo cannot defend, but these are not situations anyone wants in a one-off.

And that’s the key for Liverpool, really. This is a one-off. Over two legs, it’s hard to imagine the Reds as constructed pulling off another heavily-outchanced two-leg win like it did against Manchester City. The answer to this counter question may be what tells the story in Kiev.

LAFC’s Adama Diomande voluntarily enters MLS’s health program

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Los Angeles FC forward Adama Diomande has entered Major League Soccer’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.

[ Premier League Previews: Leicester City v. Tottenham | Man City v. Watford ]

MLS announced Diomande’s voluntary decision Friday.

Diomande won’t play for LAFC at least until the program’s doctors complete their evaluation and he is cleared by program officials.

The 29-year-old Norwegian scorer has eight goals and seven assists in 25 appearances this season, including 15 starts. He has played a valuable complementary offensive role alongside MLS scoring leader Carlos Vela.

[ MORE: Report: Netherlands FA to meet with Sergiño Dest ]

Diomande is in his second MLS season after joining LAFC from Hull City. He also previously played under LAFC coach Bob Bradley in Norway.

LAFC (19-4-7) has clinched the Western Conference title, and it leads the overall MLS table by seven points despite a four-game winless streak.

Premier League Preview: Newcastle v. Brighton

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  • Early-season relegation battlers meet on Saturday
  • 18th-place Newcastle to host 16th-place Brighton
  • Brighton won at Newcastle, drew at home last season

Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion, a pair of Premier League sides with just two wins from the first five weeks of the season between them, will meet at St. James’ Park on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) for what could prove to be a retrospective relegation six-pointer when May rolls around.

Each side replaced its manager — Steve Bruce for Rafa Benitez at Newcastle; Graham Potter for Chris Hughton at Bright — in the summer and neither of the new bosses has had a particularly enjoyable start to the 2019-20 campaign. Brighton won on the opening day of the season, but have taken just two points from the following four games. Newcastle lost their first two games, won their third, and have drawn and lost again since. It’s the kind of form that’ll see both sides stuck in the high-teens of the PL table if they don’t find their footing in the coming weeks.

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Things are particularly worrying for Newcastle, who didn’t they’d be without Benitez until the end of June and didn’t appoint Bruce until mid-July. Key players had already left the club and reinforcements for few and far between. Forward Joelinton joined for $50 million and is one of four players with a single goal scored thus far.

Last week was nearly fruitful for the Seagulls, until the conceded a stoppage-time equalizer and settle for a point at home against Burnley. Summer signing Neal Maupay bagged his second goal for Brighton earlier in the game, giving Potter a potential trump card over a handful of other relegation-threatened sides without a consistent goalscorer.

Injuries/suspensions

Newcastle: OUT – Matt Ritchie (ankle), Florian Lejeune (knee), Dwight Gayle (calf); QUESTIONABLE – DeAndre Yedlin (groin)

Brighton: OUT – Leandro Trossard (groin), Jose Izquierdo (knee), Ezequiel Schelotto (knee)


Projected lineups

Newcastle: Dubravka – Krafth, Schar, Lascelles, Dummett, Willems – Almiron, Hayden, Shelvey, Atsu – Joelinton

Brighton: Ryan – Duffy, Dunk, Webster – March, Stephens, Propper, Burn – Gross, Maupay, Murray


What they’re saying

Joelinton, on Andy Carroll: “It’s always great to have experienced players in the group, and he’s one of them. He can help the club, he can help the young players. Andy Carroll has scored a lot of goals in the Premier League, and it’s great to be playing alongside him. He’s a calm guy. I still haven’t spoken to him a lot because my English isn’t great! But every day he’s trying to help. He’ll help me before the games, he’ll give me positional advice and suggest what I’ve done both good and bad.”

Graham Potter, on the trip to Newcastle: “Newcastle away is a tough game just like all the others. We don’t target particular matches — it’s about what we need to do to get a positive result. They have an experienced manager who I came across last year and he’s someone I have a lot of respect for. They have good quality players and we know it can be a hostile environment, it’s a big club and we know we have to play well to get something.  Steve has a lot of games under his belt – he’s had a lot of success and he’ll understand the challenge that lies ahead.


Prediction

Newcastle haven’t scored multiple goals in a game yet this season, and they’ve conceded twice as many as they’ve scored (four). It’s hard to trust them to be anything resembling consistent from game to game. It wouldn’t be surprising if they battled to a boring 0-0 draw, or conceding three times before halftime. It’ll probably be closer to the former, a 1-1 stalemate.

AC Milan announces internal anti-racism task force

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MILAN (AP) AC Milan has announced it will establish an internal task force to address racism in Italian football.

[ Premier League Previews: Leicester City v. Tottenham | Man City v. Watford ]

The club says the task force will be supported by “an external consultancy” and “develop a program of activities to increase awareness, monitor and address racist behavior on social media and in the stadium, and drive the adoption of global best practices on diversity and inclusion.”

The move comes after reports of racist chants directed at Milan midfielder Franck Kessie, who is black, during a match at Hellas Verona last weekend.

Milan says the anti-racism initiative will be launched during Saturday’s derby against Inter Milan.

[ MORE: Premier League TV, streaming schedule ]

Inter striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to racist chants in a match at Cagliari this month.

Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis, who is South African, says: “Italian football needs to wake up and take a strong stance against racist behaviors. AC Milan will take a leadership position on this issue. . We believe that we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to address this issue.”

Slow start dooms Southampton again: ‘We lost the game in first half’

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Slow starts are, ironically, quickly becoming the story of Southampton’s Premier League season. It happened again on Friday, resulting in a 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry

[ Premier League Previews: Leicester City v. Tottenham | Man City v. Watford ]

Through six games, Saints have conceded the first goal four times. In those four games, they have taken just one point. When scoring the game’s first goal, they have two wins and two clean sheets.

It would appear that Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side is set up to play one way, and one way only. Speaking after Friday’s defeat, Hasenhuttl lamented his side’s slow start, conceding that the game was all but lost when they fell 2-0 behind in the 35 minutes — quotes from the BBC:

“The finish was not important anymore. If you lose 2-1 or 3-1 it does not make too much difference. We lost the game in the first half.

“In the second half, we were sharp. Had about 26 shots to six from Bournemouth but the most important stat is the goals. They scored three, we scored once.

“We weren’t aggressive enough and too easy in the first half. It is not easy to be 1-0 down after 10 minutes. We had a lot of blocked shots and misses near the post. It was a good performance in the second half but without a result.

“For the second goal was had a lot of players in our attacking box so it was not easy to defend.

“We showed a good reaction because we knew we needed to be brave. We changed our shape and were aggressive for the second ball. It gave us 64% possession and we had a lot of shots. Maybe we didn’t deserve to take something because of our first half.”

Southampton’s next chance to start a game quickly will come in an away bout with Tottenham Hotspur next Saturday.