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Season Preview: Another star departs; can Leicester cope?

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Leicester City at a glance

Premier League titles: 1 (2016)

FA Cups: 0 (best finish: runners-up – 1949, 1961, 1963, 1969)

League Cups: 3 (1964, 1997, 2000)

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It’s been two years since Leicester City won the Premier League after starting the season as 5,000-1 long shots, and the Foxes only managed to narrowly eclipse their 2015-16 season points total (81) in the last two seasons gone by, combined (91). Leicester were headed for a serious relegation battle when Claudio Ranieri was dismissed nine months after lifting the PL trophy, but managed to finish 12th (44 points) on the back of a seven wins in their final 13 games. Last season followed quite the opposite path, as Craig Shakespeare was fired in October and Claude Puel arrived with a massive boost still quite early in the season. They finished ninth, but still won just 47 points in the process.

N'Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy were pretty unquestionably — and probably in that order — the three most important players during the title-winning season. Kante left for Chelsea mere weeks after celebrating at the King Power Stadium, while Mahrez finally got his long-sought-after move to — and corresponding payday from — a European giant, Manchester City. Even while missing a handful of league games due to transfer-related issues last season, Mahrez still bagged a dozen goals to come second, behind Vardy (20), for his now-former club.

The top-end talent is nowhere near the level it has been in the recent past, but there’s a solid case to be made that the middle of the squad is massively improved and that that could result in a steadier ride in 2018-19, with higher lows and lower highs.


Leicester will further solidify a top-half place because… manager Claude Puel builds and drills extremely competent and organized — but limited, albeit — teams. They’ll have one of the most robust, hardest-working midfield units in the entire league. They will be no fun to play against, and they’ll be even more difficult to score again. They have a great chance to finish with the best defensive record of clubs outside the top-six.

Leicester will end up in the relegation scrap because… scoring goals will be a challenge, unless Kelechi Iheanacho has a breakout season. While contributions will come from more places this season, there isn’t really any way to replace a player of Mahrez’s caliber if you’re a club of Leicester’s stature. Mid-table PL sides don’t sell a player for $80 million, then turn around and replace him with a $50- or 60-million player, the way an Arsenal or Chelsea can do. Also, Vardy is will turn 32 years old in January, and at some point he’s no longer going to be lightning quick, at which point he becomes far less effective — and feared.

Best possible XI:

Schmeichel

Pereira — Maguire — Evans — Chilwell

Ghezzal — Iborra — Ndidi — Gray

Maddison

Vardy

Transfers In: James Maddison ($32 million, Norwich City), Ricardo Pereira ($29 million, Porto), Danny Ward ($16 million, Liverpool), Jonny Evans ($5 million, West Brom), Rachid Ghezzal (undisclosed, Monaco)

Transfers Out: Riyad Mahrez ($80 million, Man City), Robert Huth (free), Ahmed Musa (undisclosed, Al-Nassr)

Ranking their offseason: B-

As discussed already, it’s impossible to replace Mahrez directly or with one player, so it was wise to not even try. Maddison has quickly progressed through the Football League and is full of potential, but he’s 21 years old and has played zero PL minutes in his career. Pereira, 24, is good enough to lock down the right back spot for nearly a decade, if he’s not poached by a bigger club in two years’ time; Evans arrives with the perfect blend of experience and a cheap price tag to replace Huth. Ghezzal is the wild card of the bunch.

Star player: In a perfect world, Iheanacho will have asserted himself as the Foxes’ undisputed star by the time May — November, preferably — rolls around. He’ll have to overcome a lot to do so, though, as Puel used him sparingly last season and pretty clearly doesn’t see him as a fit alongside Vardy, meaning he’ll likely have to unseat the man 10 years his senior in order to deliver on the potential he showed during brief flashes during his time at Man City.

Coach’s Corner: Again, Leicester won’t play the most beautiful, free-flowing soccer you’ve ever seen — far from it, actually — and it’ll be downright frustrating at times, and it’ll be by Puel’s design.

PST Predicts: Alongside Everton, Leicester should occupy no man’s land dead center between the top-six and the other dozen teams in the PL, all of whom are similarly competent and ambitious, but lacking the kind of depth possessed by the Toffees and Foxes. Leicester appear set to be a PL club for quite a long time into the future.

Belarusian Premier League roundup: BATE Borisov pick up win, end early-season drought

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The Belarusian Premier League – the only active European top-flight league – continued on Saturday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

FC Rukh 0-1 BATE Borisov

With an early goal from midfielder Stanislav Dragun, BATE Borisov, Belarus’ most successful team (15 league titles) and a regular face in European competition, earned their first win of the season. Kirill Alshevsky, who took over at the helm prior to the season, had started his spell on a two-game losing streak.

BATE, despite not winning the possession battle decisively, generated twice as many shots on target as the visitors, registering a total of 11 shots throughout 90 minutes at Borisov Arena.

A winner of 13 straight Belarusian Premier League titles – spanning from 2006 to 2018 – pressure began looming over BATE after starting the 2020 campaign with back-to-back lackluster results. BATE, who lost to Arsenal in Europa League’s Round of 32 in April 2019, were outscored 5-2 in the first, two games of the league.

Dinamo Minsk, the second most successful Belarusian side, also picked up their first three points on Friday, following a slower-than-usual start to the season. Meanwhile, defending champion Dinamo Brest fell 2-1 to Slavia-Mozyr, dropping to eighth on the table.

Elsewhere in Belarusian Premier League 

Shakhtyor 0-0 Nerman

Dinamo Brest 1-2 Slavia-Mozyr

NWSL extends league-wide training moratorium through May

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The NWSL is extending its league-wide training moratorium another month amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league announced on Saturday.

All NWSL teams will be unable to partake in team trainings until at least May 5, extending its previous training moratorium that was set to expire on Sunday, April 5. The 2020 season – which was set to start on April 18 – is expected to start by the end of June, according to NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird.

“We’ve been just communicating with our players and we’re targeting for the end of June for our season to start,” Baird told The Equalizer. “I say that with conviction and hope, but … we’re gonna adhere to the public health guidelines that are in place at the time and I don’t think that we can predict what they are. But our strategy is in place.”

Earlier this week, Major League Soccer and United Soccer League extended their training moratorium through April 24 and April 19, respectively.

Report: England manager Gareth Southgate agrees to 30 percent pay cut

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England manager Gareth Southgate has agreed to a 30 percent pay cut amid the coronavirus pandemic, our partners at Sky Sports reported on Saturday.

[ MORE: What PL clubs are doing to help during coronavirus ] 

Southgate’s move, which is reportedly expected to be confirmed by the Football Association (FA) next week, comes hours after the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) released a statement on behalf of the Premier League players responding to proposed pay cuts.

A FA spokesperson told Sky Sports the following: “The financial implications of the coronavirus are not yet known however, as a not-for-profit organization, we want to ensure that we take the appropriate course of action to support the wider organization and our employees.

“We will make a further announcement on our next steps in due course.”

On Friday, Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe – and a handful of technical staff personnel – became the first Premier League manager to take a voluntary pay cut. Howe’s “significant, voluntary” pay cuts were done in light of the club furloughing non-playing employees throughout the organization, joining Tottenham, Norwich, Newcastle and Liverpool.

Spanish league and players still far apart on salary cuts

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish league and players are still far apart on the size of the salary cuts they need to take to help reduce the financial impact caused by the coronavirus outbreak, with the footballers saying the organization wants them to carry nearly half the total losses.

The league and the players’ association have been in talks to try to find ways to mitigate losses that could reach nearly 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) if the season cannot be restarted because of the pandemic.

The players have said they are willing to reduce their salaries, but not as much as the league or the clubs want.

“After analyzing the current circumstances of the sector and given the distance in conversations with the players’ association, it is necessary to adopt measures in view of the serious economic crisis that COVID-19 is causing in the Spanish soccer industry,” the league said in a statement.

It also added that government furloughs are “an exceptional mechanism to avoid and mitigate the negative impact that COVID-19 is having on the sector, and thus guarantee its subsequent recovery.”

According to media reports, the league expects losses of 957 million euros ($1.03 billion) if the season is canceled, with 303 million euros ($327 million) lost if it resumes with games in empty stadiums and 156 million euros ($168 million) of deficits if it continues with fans.

The players said the total cuts in salaries requested by the league would account for 451 million euros ($487 million) if the top flight cannot restart.

The reduction in salaries being discussed reportedly varies depending on the clubs, and also on whether they are playing in the Champions League or the Europa League.

Team captains met with the players’ association late Friday to discuss their options after the league earlier in the day called for all clubs to put the footballers on government furloughs to reduce labor costs while the stoppage of play continued. The furloughs help the clubs and guarantee players their jobs once the crisis is over.

The league said it is responsible for preserving an industry that represents 1.37 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and employs about 185,000 people.

Atlético Madrid and Barcelona were among the clubs to resort to the furloughs in recent days. Both reached an agreement with players to reduce their salaries by 70 percent, and guaranteed the wages of other employees were unaffected.

There are nearly 125,000 cases of the new coronavirus in Spain, which on Saturday surpassed Italy as the country with the second-most infections behind the United States. The death toll in the nation stands at 11,744.

The government is expected to extend lockdown measures until April 26, likely keeping the Spanish league suspended until then.

The league has said the season won’t resume until authorities deem it safe for everyone’s health. It said it will recommend a “minimum of 15 days” of practice before the games can restart, though it suggested recently the training period may begin with restrictions before the lockdown is removed.

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