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Russian hopes, fears tied up in Putin’s showcase World Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin claims soccer and politics have nothing to do with each other, yet the World Cup he kicked off Thursday is about much more than sports.

It’s about proving to the world that Russia is a global power broker and not an outcast, that it’s an open, confident and generous nation – and not an isolated, repressive place hobbled by sanctions.

And the beleaguered Russian team’s stunning 5-0 victory in the tournament opener Thursday against Saudi Arabia was just what Putin needed to make the point that Russia is ascendant again. He promptly called the much-criticized coach personally to congratulate him on the unexpected win.

Sidestepping deep divisions between his strongman worldview and that of many Western countries, Putin welcomed fans to his “hospitable” nation by inviting them to “make new friends with people who share the same values.”

But critics fear the World Cup will legitimize Putin’s autocratic policies at home and Russia’s actions abroad, from alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election to annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and a suspected nerve agent attack in Britain. Moscow vehemently denies any interference in the American vote or involvement in the attack against a former Russian spy in Salisbury.

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Racism, homophobia, conflicts over Syria and Ukraine – “all these rebukes have no relation to the World Cup,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. “Today the soccer dimension is the most important one.”

The monthlong World Cup is also about Putin proving to his compatriots that he’s both their best global envoy and a man of the people, who brought the world’s most-watched sporting event to ordinary soccer fans in 11 cities across Russia’s expanse.

That’s especially important for a country that prides itself on athletic prowess but whose last massive sporting event – the 2014 Sochi Olympics – was indelibly stained by revelations of doping so widespread that Russia was banned from this year’s Winter Games.

“It’s important for Russia to have this (tournament), we can show that we are a global football power,” said Moscow fan Dmitry Finapetov, his face streaked with white-blue-red paint, as he nearly spilled his beer in excitement at his team’s strong showing at Luzhniki Stadium.

“When I used to travel abroad I would think, `why can’t it be like this at home?”‘ he said. “But now I travel and I think things are better at home. … Now foreigners can see that too.”

Geopolitics were front and center for Thursday’s opener, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Putin’s star guest. The two leaders have forged an alliance that has pushed up the global oil price and reshaped the balance of power in the Middle East.

Putin welcomed a “friendly global family” of soccer fans to celebrate the World Cup, but the Kremlin’s guest list showed where Russia’s allegiances lie: the head of the North Korean upper house of parliament, Lebanon’s prime minister and the presidents of Rwanda, Paraguay, Bolivia, Panama and leaders of eight friendly former Soviet republics. Britain’s royal family and top politicians are among those who pointedly stayed away.

Electrical engineer Sergei Tabachnikov, who came to Moscow all the way from the Pacific island of Sakhalin for the opening match, welcomed the international scrutiny that comes with hosting an event of this scale and hoped Russia learns something from it.

“Criticism is necessary. It helps us improve,” he said.

Russian authorities walked a careful line Thursday between hard-line security measures and a veneer of tolerance.

A British gay rights activist was arrested for a protest action near Red Square, but quickly released. Later a Russian fan displayed a rainbow flag during Putin’s speech, despite a broadly enforced law that bans “propaganda” of homosexuality to children. Security forces shrugged it off.

Minutes before the opening match, riot police hauled an unauthorized flag vendor into a police van just outside Luzhniki Stadium as he shouted “Help me! Help me!” and fans filmed on their phones. An officer then turned to the crowd, speaking in English and saying in a calming voice, “Nothing to worry about, go enjoy the game.”

British pop singer Robbie Williams also played it safe in the opening concert. He revved up the crowd but diplomatically avoided singing his hit song “Party Like A Russian” – which is rife with stereotypes about Russian extravagance and includes a dig at an unnamed Russian leader who “alleviates” the population of its wealth.

“Football and love” was the theme of Thursday’s opening show, as a debate raged among Russian lawmakers about whether Russian women should hook up with visiting fans.

Mostly the mood was exuberant, with Saudi fans taking selfies with Russians in the stadium’s corridors despite their rivalry.

Alexander Klimov, who came from the southern Russian city of Stavropol, summed it up by blowing kisses and saying, “Thank you everybody for coming in our country. Welcome to Russia, we love you guys!”

Associated Press writer James Ellingworth contributed to this report.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

UCL, LIVE: Man City, Man United aim to win groups

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Both Manchester clubs are already safely through to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, but Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho want more.

Of course they do.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Manchester City host Hoffenheim knowing a win will secure top spot in Group F, while Man United head to Valencia knowing they must win and hope that Juventus fail to beat Young Boys in order to win Group H.

Stranger things have happened, but it appears Pep’s City are nailed on to win Group F and United will finish second behind Juve and be at risk of facing a much tougher team in the last 16.

Elsewhere, the only thing to sort out is in Group F as Shakhtar and Lyon go head-to-head for the final spot available in the last 16 of the competition. While Ajax and Bayern do battle for top spot in Group E.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

Click on the link above to follow the action live. While below is the look at the full schedule for Tuesday, with all games kicking off at 3 p.m. ET.


Tuesday, UCL group stage schedule

Group E
Ajax v. Bayern Munich
Benfica v. AEK Athens

Group F
Manchester City v. Hoffenheim
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Lyon

Group H
Valencia v. Manchester United
Young Boys v. Juventus

Tottenham release update on new stadium

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Tottenham Hotspur have issued an update on when their new White Hart Lane stadium will be ready.

Spurs fans, you’ll have to wait a few more months.

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On the back of their superb draw at Barcelona on Tuesday which secured an improbable spot in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, Mauricio Pochettino had been speaking about the excitement of playing the home leg of their UCL knockout round game at their new home.

Tottenham’s $1 billion new stadium on the site for their former White Hart Lane home was supposed to be ready for the start of the 2018-19 season, and its opening was then delayed until September, and then pushed back a few months and, well, here we are.

This update states that the stadium will not be ready until at least the last week of January.

In a statement released on Wednesday, chairman Daniel Levy didn’t want to confirm exactly when they would be playing in their new home, but he did confirm the game against Manchester United on Jan. 13 would be played at Wembley.

The club said that they will receive a “status report from our contractors in the week commencing 7 January 2019 and will update you thereafter” and went into a few more specifics.

“The past few months have been spent rectifying issues with the critical safety systems. We are pleased to report that progress has been steady and we are now into the integrated testing and commissioning phases that take place ahead of the application for a stadium safety certificate. Testing is being conducted both during the day and night and our contractors will continue to work during the Christmas period. Barring no further significant issues we should then be in a position to schedule Test Events.”

Levy continued that Tottenham are “acutely conscious that we are asking fans to go to Wembley for far longer than any of us wanted to” as attendances at their temporary home have dropped drastically in recent months.

“What I don’t want to do is set any firm dates until we have finally achieved a safety certificate. So many people tell me to look at other major schemes that run late and, whilst I know it happens often, we are still hugely frustrated. Once again I want to apologise to fans and to thank you for your ongoing support. We have a busy time ahead both on and off the pitch, particularly after last night’s amazing qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League.”

When do Spurs need their new stadium to be ready by for the Champions League?

The last 16 first leg games will take place on February 12-20, while the second legs will take place on March 5-13, so Spurs will be hoping they are drawn away from home in the UCL last 16 first leg so their new stadium would be ready for a massive European knockout game.

Report: Marcelo Bielsa lined up by Atlanta United

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Now this is something that would not only break the hearts of Leeds United fans but it would surely delight supporters of reigning MLS champs Atlanta United.

A report from Paul Newberry of the Associated Press claims that Atlanta United want one of Marcelo Bielsa or Guillermo Barros Schelotto to take over from outgoing head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.

The Argentine coach took charge of ATL’s first two years as an MLS franchise but Martino announced he is leaving this month, and he is expected to be named the new head coach of the Mexican national team.

Bielsa is known to be a close friend of Martino, but does this link make sense?

Right now the eccentric Argentina coach has a sleeping giant, Leeds, in second place in England’s second tier and many believe the Elland Road club are the favorites for promotion to the Premier League this season.

However, a report from the Daily Telegraph states that Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani could be having money issues as his sports streaming company, Eleven Sports, is on the brink of shutting down.

“Radrizzani’s sports streaming service is at risk of shutting down after only four months amid growing doubts over the financial viability of the company. It is understood that the 44-year-old Italian businessman has been unsuccessfully attempting to renegotiate deals with established pay-TV operators but Eleven Sports is now considering pulling the plug on its UK company. Telegraph Sport understands there could now be added pressure on Leeds to achieve promotion this season due to fears over cash-flow issues.”

Would this situation force Bielsa to leave Leeds before the end of the season? Probably not. It seems likely that the pressure will be cranked up on him to achieve promotion though as Radrizzani, Leeds’ majority owner since May, will need to deliver the huge riches promotion to the Premier League brings to continue to bankroll the club.

Bielsa does have a reputation for jumping ship pretty quickly when he does decide he’s had enough at a particular club or if things that were promised to him do not come to fruition. That said, this would still be a huge shock.

Then again, Atlanta shocked many with hiring Martino in the first place and since then the signings of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Barco and now Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinz.

Huddersfield’s Mooy, Liverpool’s Matip out injured

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A huge blow has arrived for Huddersfield Town, as Aaron Mooy has been ruled out until February with a serious knee injury.

The Terriers have announced that Mooy “suffered a tear to the Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) in his right knee” in the 1-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday.

Mooy, 28, will miss the 2019 Asian Cup for Australia and Huddersfield’s top goalscorer this season will miss at least their next eight Premier League games. That run includes massive clashes with fellow PL strugglers Newcastle, Southampton, Fulham, Burnley and Cardiff, as Mooy would have lively been the difference for Huddersfield in those game.s

“I’m gutted to be missing an important time for club and country,” Mooy said. “We’ve got a lot of fixtures over the Christmas period at Huddersfield Town, but I back the team to continue our good performances and get the results that we’re targeting. I’m also sad that this injury will rule me out of the Asian Cup. I’d like to wish the Socceroos all the best as they head to the UAE; I’ll be supporting them from afar. The hard work on my recovery has already started and I’m looking forward to being back out on the pitch.”

What does this mean for Huddersfield?

With a pivotal run of games coming up for David Wagner‘s side, Mooy’s absence at the heart of their midfield will be felt. Danny Williams has just returned to full fitness so he should play alongside Jonathan Hogg (struggling with a knock) and Phillip Billing in Mooy’s absence. Wagner also has issues with Terrence Kongolo and right back Tommy Smith, as the latter will be out until January with a hamstring strain.

At this time of the season injuries are starting to mount up for every single Premier League, and Liverpool know all about that.

Jurgen Klopp‘s men will now be without center back Joel Matip until the end of January as he fractured his collarbone in the crucial win against Napoli at Anfield as Liverpool secured their spot in the UEFA Champions League last 16 on Tuesday.

The towering defender, 27, played throughout the game but landed awkwardly when winning a header late on. He went to hospital after the game and it quickly became clear that the issue was a lot more serious then previously thought. Matip will now undergo surgery to repair the damage.

Matip joins Joe Gomez on the sidelines, as the latter fractured a bone in his left leg last week and will be out until February.

With Trent Alexander-Arnold also going off injured during the victory against Napoli, plus Dejan Lovren struggling with injuries all season, the only fully-fit center back Klopp currently has is Virgil Van Dijk. Fabinho could play there at a push, but Klopp is now relying on Lovren to regain his fitness quickly to step in with both Matip and Gomez out.