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Championship Playoff Final preview: Fulham vs. Aston Villa

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Imagine playing in a single game where your performance over 90 minutes means the difference between over $300 million for your club or at least another year in the lower leagues.

That’s what is estimated to be on the line as Fulham and Aston Villa meet at Wembley on Saturday in the Championship playoff final at 12 p.m. ET hoping to earn the final spot in next year’s Premier League campaign.

Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce will be searching for an unprecedented fifth Championship promotion after previously guiding Birmingham City and Hull City to the top flight on multiple occasions. He is 2-0 in the playoff final, having won it previously once with each former club, taking Birmingham City to the Premier League in 2002 after defeating Norwich City in a penalty shootout, and earning the victory with Hull City in 2016 via a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. Players Sam Johnstone and Robert Snodgrass have both won playoff finals before as well.

Fulham, meanwhile, has experience of its own on the touchline, as boss Slavisa Jokanovic has taken Watford to the top flight previously, finishing second in the Championship in 2015, but he has never experienced a playoff final before.

The Whites appear to be in the better form, having nearly ended the season in historic form with 24 straight unbeaten, but lost on the final day of the campaign, missing out on automatic promotion by just two points. They play a possession-based style under Jokanovic, and while it’s taken a while for the team to grasp the tactics, they look as deadly as ever. However, the last few games have exposed the team yet again, with the loss to lowly Birmingham on the final day before a 1-0 loss to Derby County in the first leg of their playoff semifinal, a scoreline which they turned around in the second leg at home.

The Fulham midfield duo of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen has a claim to be the best pairing in the Championship over the past two seasons, and they anchor Jokanovic’s setup behind playmaker Tom Cairney. The club brought embattled Newcastle striker Aleksandr Mitrovic to London in January, and he’s brought a cutting edge to an attack that was just missing a target man up front. Young winger Ryan Sessegnon, who just turned 18 years old on Friday, has been the club’s most heralded player, and could move to a top Premier League side this summer, especially if the Whites fall at Wembley this weekend. Finally, USMNT defender Tim Ream has led the defensive improvement of a club that conceded 83 goals three seasons ago to halve that this campaign.

They’ll take that attacking prowess up against one of the league’s most pragmatic opponents, as Villa finished the regular season with the third-fewest goals allowed and shut out Middlesbrough across both legs in the semifinals. They feature former Chelsea defender John Terry anchoring the back line, and he partners with experienced 29-year-old James Chester who has played under Bruce before at Hull. Terry himself has won five separate trophies at Wembley Stadium, experience he will surely share with the squad.

Villa’s most dangerous player this season has been Albert Adomah whose blistering pace down the right has been something for opponents to deal with. However, he’s hit a cold streak, without a goal since scoring in a 4-1 win over champions Wolves back on March 10th.

Villa is looking to go back to the Premier League after relegation two years ago, while Fulham has spent four years in the second tier after being sent down back in 2014.

Premier League games in March to be rearranged

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The FA Cup results over the week mean that six Premier League games will be moved from Matchweek 31.

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With Brighton, Manchester City, Crystal Palace, Watford and Wolves all confirmed quarterfinalists in the FA Cup and one of Chelsea or Man United also going through, there are plenty of games which cannot be played on the weekend of March 16.

The Manchester derby between Man City and Man United is the most notable game that will have to be switched, while Spurs’ home game against Crystal Palace (which could have been their first game at the new White Hart Lane) now has to be rearranged.

New dates will have to be arranged and that isn’t easy at this time of the season as UEFA regulations state that Premier League games cannot be played on the same night as Champions League or Europa League matches.

Below is a list of the PL games impacted, and their date is TBA.

Expect a few of these games to take place in midweek in late April or May and they could be pivotal in the relegation, top four and title battles.


Premier League fixtures to be rearranged
Brighton v. Cardiff
Brighton v. Chelsea
Man United v. Man City
Tottenham Hotspur v. Crystal Palace
Watford v. Southampton
Wolves v. Arsenal

Nani arrives in MLS, signs for Orlando City

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Nani has arrived in Major League Soccer.

Orlando City SC announced the Portugal national team star has arrived from Sporting Lisbon on a free transfer and has signed a three-year deal as a Designated Player.

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Nani, 32, will be a huge draw for Orlando as they look to get things back on track after a rough few years in MLS.

Speaking about Nani’s move to MLS with Orlando, EVP of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi was delighted to welcome the experienced attacker.

“This is an exciting day for our organization,” said O. “Nani brings tremendous experience to our roster. He’s a dynamic winger with quality abilities to move and cross the ball, impact games and lead the offensive play.”

The former Manchester United, Fenerbache, Valencia and Lazio winger won the 2016 European Championships with Portugal and appeared at the 2014 World Cup for his national team. USMNT fans will remember his goal against the U.S. in Manaus…

Nani has scored 24 goals in 112 games for Portugal and although his arrival isn’t as big as Kaka leading Orlando in their first three seasons as a franchise, he is a huge get for a team which hasn’t made the playoffs in their four MLS campaigns and finished way off the pace in each of the last two years in the Eastern Conference.

Manager James O’Connor has a mix of youth and experience in this Orlando squad but he must make a fast start in 2019 after winning just two of his 17 games after arriving midway through the 2018 campaign.

Orlando need a total rebuild and Nani’s arrival should shake things up a little, even if a veteran winger may only solve a few of their problems for a few seasons.

New development in David de Gea contract situation

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It seemed like David De Gea‘s future at Manchester United was up in the air, with the Spanish goalkeeper having just over a year left on his current deal and some reports suggesting an impasse had been reached.

But it appears that United are willing to pull out all of the stops to keep DDG around.

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De Gea, 28, has been named United’s Player of the Season in four of the last five campaigns and since Sir Alex Ferguson retired he has bailed United out of sticky situations time and time again.

It has been reported that De Gea would be handed a new five-year deal which would see him pick up the largest basic salary of any current player in the Premier League, and therefore any PL player in history.

Our colleagues from Sky Sports News in the UK have more on the situation regarding De Gea:

United have been surprised at reports they rejected wage demands of £350,000-per-week, as Sky Sports News understands they would be prepared to pay that amount, but agent demands may be driving the price higher still.

In the past few months Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay have all signed new contracts with the Red Devils and Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward told investors in a call last week that he wants to “finish off the final few as rapidly as we possibly can.”

It is expected De Gea’s deal is at the top of that list, with Ander Herrera and Juan Mata (both out of contract this summer) the other top priorities to tie down to new deals.

De Gea’s importance to United is clear and just as star strikers and attacking players are rewarded handsomely, the value of having a star goalkeeper should not be understated. Even if, historically, they haven’t earned quite as much as outfield players.

The Spaniard has played 347 times for United in all competitions since arriving from Atletico Madrid in 2011, winning the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League.

After almost leaving in the summer of 2015 (United’s staff must do a daily salute to Real Madrid’s dodgy fax machine which scuppered the deal at  the eleventh hour) it is clear he is their most important player. Wonderful displays recently against Tottenham Hotspur and at Arsenal have proven De Gea’s worth, if anyone ever doubted it.

Lovren, Firmino huge doubts for Liverpool v. Bayern Munich

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Liverpool could be seriously shorthanded for their massive UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg against Bayern Munich at Anfield on Tuesday.

[ MORE: PL or UCL priority for LFC? ]

Dejan Lovren and Roberto Firmino did not take part in Liverpool’s final training session before their game against Bayern to give Jurgen Klopp more selection worries.

It has been reported that Firmino has a virus, while Lovren has been struggling with a hamstring problem and was always going to be a last-minute decision for the clash against the German giants.

Fabinho now looks certain to start alongside Joel Matip in central defense for Liverpool on Tuesday, as Virgil Van Dijk is suspended and Joe Gomez is injured.

As for up top, the likes of Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge could be placed in Firmino’s spot but it is likely Xherdan Shaqiri (if he is fully fit) will come into the team and Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane will switch to a central position in the front three.

Either way, not ideal for Liverpool as they have a huge week with this game against Bayern followed by a massive Premier League game at bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday.

In terms of Bayern’s injury news, Kingsley Coman has recovered from a knock in Friday’s win at Augsburg but Jerome Boateng is out through illness. Arjen Robben is recovering from injury and did not travel with the squad, while Franck Ribery will arrive in Liverpool separate from the team after becoming a father late on Sunday.