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ATLUTD aim to capture Shield without two key players

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Second-year Atlanta United is closing in on its first trophy but will likely continue the chase for the Supporters’ Shield without two key players when they host the Chicago Fire on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Midfielder Miguel Almiron sustained a hamstring injury in the first half against New England on Oct. 6 and midfielder/forward Hector Villalba suffered an unknown injury with the Paraguayan national team last week. Neither trained with the team Thursday.

Atlanta (20-6-6, 66 points) leads its Eastern Division rival, the New York Red Bulls, by a point for the Supporters’ Shield, emblematic of the best team in Major League Soccer, with two matches left for both.

Chicago (8-17-7, 31 points) has been a disappointment but is 2-2-2 in the past six matches after an eight-game losing streak.

“The last four games we committed to a plan of giving the best possible image for the club and ourselves so we can finish strong with performances that we would like to start the next season with,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said.

Any combination of six points won by United or lost by the Red Bulls will clinch the best record for Atlanta as well as home field throughout the postseason. Atlanta has set the season attendance mark with an average of 51,826 fans per game so far, bettering its mark of 48,000 in the inaugural season of 2017.

Villalba has seven goals and nine assists, but the engine in the attack is Almiron.

He is tied for 11th in MLS with 12 goals and his 14 assists are tied for fourth. Many of his setups have been to Josef Martinez, who has 30 goals to set the league season record. Almiron’s replacement could be 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco.

“You can’t just replace Miguel with one guy — it’s too big of shoes to fill,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “The important thing is that (Barco) doesn’t have that pressure that he has to do what Miguel does.”

Atlanta coach Tata Martinez said his team learned how to play without Almiron last season when he was injured.

“We know that if Miguel is out, the guys around him are going to have to step up,” Martinez said. “Maybe they aren’t as talented as he is, but they will have to do it with a lot of hard work and sacrifice.”

Oxlade-Chamberlain back in Liverpool training

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Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back in Liverpool training, nine months after a horrible injury cost him the chance to appear in the UEFA Champions League Final.

Initially ruled out for the duration of the 2018-19 season following an ACL year, “The Ox” is giving the Reds a boost in Dubai.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

The 25-year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain posted five goals and seven assists in his first season at Liverpool.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has 32 England caps and 283 senior appearances between Southampton, Arsenal, and Liverpool. He left the Gunners in part because of a desire to play a more central role in the midfield.

Oxlade-Chamberlain detailed his recovery late last year. There’s yet to be discussion of when he might be fit to return to match play, but Liverpool will be careful with its industrious playmaker.

Montreal owner Saputo hands presidency duties to Gilmore

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Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo is giving the reigns of his club to a new president.

Saputo announced Tuesday that he’s handing over presidency duties to Kevin Gilmore, the former chief operating officer of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

The Saputo family founded the Impact in 1992, and Joey Saputo shepherded the club into Major League Soccer.

The Impact is coached by Remi Garde, the former Aston Villa boss, and has Designated Players in Ignacio Piatti and Saphir Taidir. The Bleu-blanc-noir just started training camp.

Cardiff “very distressed,” “praying for positive news” regarding Sala

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Cardiff City executive director Ken Choo has released a statement on the missing flight from France to Wales which carried new signing Emiliano Sala.

Crews in Wales continue to search for the plane, which disappeared from radar late Monday night.

UPDATE: The Guernsey Police say the search and rescue operations have ceased for the night, with “the current plan to resume at sunrise” on Wednesday.

Fans have flocked to Cardiff City Stadium and Nantes town square to lay flowers in hopes of a miraculous recovery for Sala and his pilot.

From Cardiff City’s official site:

“We were very shocked upon hearing the news that the plane had gone missing. We expected Emiliano to arrive last night into Cardiff and today was due to be his first day with the team.

“Our owner, Tan Sri Vincent Tan, and chairman, Mehmet Dalman, are all very distressed about the situation.

“We made the decision first thing this morning to call off training with the thoughts of the squad, management staff and the entire Club with Emiliano and the pilot.

“All of us at Cardiff City FC would like to thank our fans, and the entire footballing family for their support at this difficult time.

“We continue to pray for positive news.”

Ronaldo pleads guilty to tax fraud at Madrid court

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MADRID (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo has pleaded guilty to tax fraud and received a two-year suspended sentence.

The Juventus forward, who was facing charges stemming from his days at Real Madrid, was in court for about 45 minutes and signed an agreement which will cost him nearly 19 million euros ($21.6 million) in fines.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

Ronaldo arrived at court in a black van and was wearing a black sports coat and black pants. He walked up some stairs leading to the court house and even stopped to sign an autograph.

Ronaldo made the deal to plead guilty with Spain’s state prosecutor and tax authorities last year.

In Spain, a judge can suspend sentences for two years or less for first-time offenders.

In 2017, a state prosecutor accused Ronaldo of four counts of tax fraud from 2011-14 worth 14.7 million euros ($16.7 million). Ronaldo was accused of having used shell companies outside Spain to hide income made from image rights.

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