Key battles in World Cup semifinals

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With the 2018 World Cup semifinals taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday, the focus is switching to where each of the games will be won and lost.

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Below we focus on France vs. Belgium and Croatia vs. England, as some pivotal battles will take place across the pitch to decide who makes the final on Sunday in Moscow.

Take a look below as we break down the big battles to watch. My goodness, this will be epic.

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France vs. Belgium (Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET in Saint Petersburg)

N'Golo Kante vs. Kevin De Bruyne
With KDB deployed further forward against Brazil for Belgium, the battle between the Man City playmaker and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante will be intriguing in front of France’s back four. De Bruyne may play a little deeper against France but that still lines up a collision course with the most destructive holding midfielder on the planet in Kante. His main job will be to stop Belgium from launching their blistering counters and keeping De Bruyne locked down is key to halting those attacks. What a battle this will be.

Raphael Varane vs. Romelu Lukaku
The power of Lukaku against the finesse of Varane. Lukaku has scored four times for Belgium at this World Cup but you can argue that his hold-up play and the timing of his runs has been even more impressive. Varane scored in France’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay and the Real Madrid center back has looked as calm and composed as always at the heart of the Les Bleus defense. Lukaku will try and bully Varane who loves to step high and intercept balls into a targetman.

Kylian Mbappe vs. Vincent Kompany
In all honesty we could have picked any one of Belgium’s back three with Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld expected to start alongside Kompany, but there’s no doubting that Mbappe will try to target Belgium’s veteran leader in Kompany. Mbappe, just 19 years old, has searing pace and with Belgium eager to attack he may get plenty of chances to rip their defense open on the break, just like he did against Argentina. Kompany has proven his fitness but the Man City skipper has shown a few shaky moments so far. His nous and supreme reading of the game is undoubted and he will need all of it to shut down Mbappe.


Croatia vs. England (Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET in Moscow (Luzhniki)

Luka Modric vs. Jordan Henderson
This may be the biggest challenge of Henderson’s career. The Liverpool skipper has been a rock in front of England’s fluid three-man defense but he will have the unenviable task of stopping Modric from dictating the tempo of the game. Real Madrid’s magician has won the Man of the Match award in three of his five games at the World Cup and is a serious contender for the Golden Ball as the best player at the 2018 tournament. If Henderson can’t stop Modric linking up with his central midfield partner Ivan Rakitic then England is in big trouble. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard won’t offer Henderson much defensive help in midfield, so maybe Eric Dier will come in to help shore things up. Modric is the man of the moment.

Dejan Lovren vs. Harry Kane
This particular battle hasn’t gone well for Lovren in recent times with Kane bullying him at Wembley Stadium last season en-route to a 4-1 win for Tottenham against Liverpool. Kane leads the World Cup with six goals but what has been more impressive is the way he has lad the line, held up the ball and taken a battering for his team. Lovren played superbly for Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final and has played well for Croatia in this tournament, despite the occasional slip-up. Lovren will have to play a near perfect game to stop Kane given his current form. This battle will perhaps be the key to determining who reaches the final.

Ivan Perisic vs. Kieran Trippier
An intriguing battle this will be down England’s right flank. Trippier has been a revelation at right-wing back but Perisic will be a huge test for the Tottenham full back. The Inter Milan star not only has the ability to score and create goals at key moments but his work rate sees him buzz down the left channel tirelessly and Trippier will not be able to switch off for a minute. That channel between Trippier and Kyle Walker has been a slight problem for England at times as Walker pushes forward from center back and Croatia may look to thread balls to Perisic as soon as they can when launching counter attacks.

Why Aston Villa deserve Premier League promotion

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With the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium on May 27, the richest game in soccer will see one of Aston Villa or Derby County promoted to the Premier League.

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Which club deserves a spot in the English top-flight more? You can use metrics such as fanbase, stadiums, players, historical success and quality of coaches to try and sort this out, but the fact of the matter is, the playoffs are always a complete, and utterly brilliant, lottery.

The path Villa and Derby took to get to the final this season proves that.

Here’s a look at why Villa deserve to return to the PL after a three-year absence, while tomorrow we will focus on Derby…


Everything about Villa is a Premier League club.

Their incredible home at Villa Park is among the most historic and boisterous in England when it gets going and the Holte End is the jewel in its crown.

European champions in 1982, Villa are the biggest club from England’s second-city, Birmingham, and their fanbase is loyal, if not overly pessimistic as most Brummies are. The fact that there are no PL teams from Birmingham is astonishing. It is like having no top level sports teams in LA.

For three years they’ve now fought to get back into the top-flight after several seasons of struggle as former American owner Randy Lerner cut costs wherever he could. Under manager Dean Smith, a lifelong Villa fan, they now play wonderfully attractive soccer and have youngsters like Jack Grealish, Andre Green and Tammy Abraham leading the way.

Villa would be fun to watch if they were promoted to the Premier League. That much is sure. They’ll concede a lot of goals, but they would score a ton too.

There is also the potential for Villa to emulate Wolverhampton Wanderers. Seriously.

Their ownership group has strengthened in recent months with Chinese businessman Tony Xi selling 55 percent of his stake in the club to Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American billionaire Wes Edens.

If Villa come up the financial fair play shackles which restricted them in the Championship in recent years will come off. The potential for them to spend big is there, but they have a team full of players on loan from PL clubs who have formed a bond and could likely be kept together and bought permanently this summer.

Quite simply, Villa are a top 10 team in the Premier League. They have suffered due to Lerner’s decision to pull out his investment but they have now rebuilt themselves with a strong core of young talent and have a manager in place who is progressive and ambitious both with his style of play and where Villa can get to in the PL.

Under Steve Bruce, Villa lost to Fulham in the playoff final last season at Wembley. But with local lad Grealish leading their charge there is a sense that failure last year was a blessing in disguise. This Villa side are young and hungry and they are exciting to watch.

That is why Villa deserve to be promoted to the Premier League for the 2019-20 season.

Sevilla: Caparros won’t stay as coach for next season

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MADRID (AP) Sevilla says Joaquin Caparros will not be the team’s coach next season.

The Spanish club says Caparros will stay linked to the team but in a different position that will be announced in the future.

The former sports director has coached Sevilla since replacing the fired Pablo Machin in March, leading the club to a sixth-place finish in the Spanish league and a spot in the Europa League.

Caparros was also in charge of Sevilla for the final stretch of last season after Italian coach Vincenzo Montella was fired.

The 63-year-old Caparros last month announced he was fighting chronic leukemia but could keep working normally at the club.

He coached Sevilla in 241 matches in total, more than any other coach.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Transfer rumor roundup: Mata to Newcastle; Wilson to Saints

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The Premier League transfer window is officially open again and that means one thing: transfer reports are going to start kicking up a few notches.

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Here’s a look at some of the latest gossip from around the PL…


Juan Mata is out of contract at Manchester United this summer, and it appears he could be staying in the Premier League.

The Spanish attacking midfielder has spent the last nine season in the Premier League at Chelsea and Man United, scoring 78 goals in 353 appearances in all competitions.

Mata, 31, has been linked with a free transfer for Newcastle United with the Sun saying that Rafael Benitez is keen to bring in the Spanish midfielder. He will have to use his powers of persuasion with owner Mike Ashley to try and get in the players they need this summer.

Benitez is still not assured of being at St James’ Park himself next season, as talks with Ashley over a new contract are ongoing, but it is clear that the Spanish coach needs to be backed in the transfer market if the Magpies are going to improve on their 13th and 10th place finishes in the last two seasons.

Mata played for Benitez at Chelsea and it is believed he has offers to return to La Liga.

With Matt Ritchie, Miguel Almiron and Ayoze Perez in attack, Newcastle could probably strengthen in other areas of their squad first. However, with Salomon Rondon only on loan from West Brom last season and no deal to sign him permanently currently in place, Benitez will know he needs extra attacking options and must do it on the cheap to appease Ashley.

Given that fact, Mata is a quality player who would demand high wages but no transfer fee is a clincher.


Harry Wilson is a man in demand after his superb loan spell at Derby County this season.

Wilson, 22, is wanted by Newcastle, Southampton and Brighton according to Sky Sports, while the likes of Wolves, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, as well as several Bundesliga clubs, have all been previously interesting in the Liverpool youngster. Jurgen Klopp has loaned Wilson out to Crewe, Hull and now Derby, and it is unlikely he will break through at Liverpool soon considering the attacking talent they possess.

A fee of $32 million has been suggested for Wilson, as the Welsh international has excelled under Frank Lampard at Derby and has been key in their run to the Championship playoff final against Aston Villa next Monday. His set piece delivery is sensational and Wilson has scored 18 goals and added four assists in all competitions for the Rams this season.

If Derby are promoted, maybe Wilson will remain at Pride Park, but the likes of Southampton, Wolves and Newcastle would seem like a very good spot for him to kick on and prove himself in the Premier League. Saints and Newcastle would offer him guaranteed playing time almost immediately and that has been key in his development this season at Derby.

Ralph Hasenhuttl has been keen to stress Saints will only sign young players or those who are hungry and searching for a first big contract of their career, and Wilson would slot into their attack nicely alongside Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse in support of Danny Ings.

Sarri to discuss Chelsea future

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Maurizio Sarri isn’t sure if he will be in charge at Chelsea next season.

The Italian coach has confirmed that he will sit down and meet with Chelsea’s hierarchy after the UEFA Europa League final with Arsenal next Wednesday.

Speaking ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, Sarri was asked about news reports linking him with a return to Italy to manager Juventus.

“It is very exciting to be here, but now it is time to think of the final,” Sarri said. “I have two years of my contract here. I have no contract with other clubs. I have to speak with my club after the final. I want to know if they are happy with me.”

Sarri added that he will discuss the situation in detail, but is extremely happy to remain at Stamford Bridge.

“I’m very happy to stay in the Premier League, with Chelsea, one of the most important clubs in the Premier League. I’m very, very happy but we have to discuss the situation. It’s normal. You have to discuss things with the club. It’s like this,” Sarri said.

Chelsea have hardly set the world alight this season, but finished third in the Premier League as they limped over the line at the end of the season. A top four finish was key for Sarri in his first season, so he achieved that, but the style of play was lambasted by many fans and neutrals, as the predictable, slow build-up play turned out to be easy to defend against. The reports around his future state that Chelsea are quite happy to let him leave this summer if another club wants to pay his $7 million release clause.

Sarri has reached the League Cup final and Europa League final in his debut season in England too, but his downbeat demeanor in press conferences has translated to a negative vibe with supporters.

Many want Frank Lampard — who has excelled in his first season as a manager at second-tier Derby — to replace Sarri this summer and given the impending transfer ban for Chelsea and Eden Hazard leaving, will he be able to improve the squad of players he currently has?

A big few weeks coming up for Sarri and Chelsea and their immediate futures.