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“The Game of the Century”: Boca vs. River, Copa Lib final

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) They’re calling it “The Game of the Century” and “The Final of all Soccer Finals.” They’re not wrong.

Think Celtics vs. Lakers, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, and England vs. Scotland all rolled into one and you still might not be doing it justice.

The rivalry between Buenos Aires soccer teams Boca Juniors and River Plate ranks up there with the fiercest, most intense on the planet, and their regular “Superclasico” matchups create heated atmospheres that aren’t for the faint of heart.

The next two games, however, will be even more magnified than usual because the clubs will be facing each other in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League.

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” said Gonzalo Rodriguez Peralta, a 45-year-old River fan who was given club membership by his late father when he was born. “There’s no explanation … you only understand it when you’re there.”

It’s the first time that Argentina’s two biggest teams will meet in the Copa Libertadores final. Boca has won the title six times since the tournament began in 1960, one behind Argentine club Independiente’s South American record of seven titles. River has won it three times.

“Boca and River have raised Argentine soccer where it has never been before,” Boca Juniors coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “Regardless of the outcome in these finals, we’ve put Argentine soccer at the highest level. Today, the whole world is talking about this final.”

The first leg will be played Saturday at Boca Juniors’ home stadium, an intimidating ground known as “La Bombonera” or “The Chocolate Box” for its tightly enclosed shape that looks like boxes stacked on top of each other. The second leg will be on Nov. 24 at River’s Monumental de Nunez Stadium, where Argentina won its first World Cup in 1978.

As is usual in recent years, visiting fans will not be allowed at either match because of the fear of violence. It’s been that way since 2013 and not even a plea from Argentine President Mauricio Macri, a former Boca president, could change that.

Argentina’s most successful teams originated in the docks of the southern working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca and their rivalry dates back to the early 20th century.

Boca was founded by a group of Italian immigrants who chose the blue and yellow club colors after the flag of a Swedish ship that arrived in port. River, with its white shirt and diagonal red stripe, moved to a northern affluent neighborhood during the league’s beginnings. The derby’s gritty play, passionate fans and colorful celebrations was once ranked by British newspaper The Observer in its top spot of the 50 sporting things you must do before you die.

Some of history’s best players have come from Boca and River. Diego Maradona, who captained Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, spent two stints at Boca and has his VIP seat reserved at the stadium. Playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and prolific goal scorer Martin Palermo were part of a golden era when the club even beat all-mighty Real Madrid for the Intercontinental Cup in 2000.

River Plate takes pride in having produced world-class players like Alfredo Di Stefano, who began his career at the club and went on to win five European Cup titles with Real Madrid. Or Enzo Francescoli, an inspiration for France great Zinedine Zidane, who named one of his children after the Uruguayan forward.

Although it’s the first time Boca and River will play each other for the Copa Libertadores title, the teams have met in the South American competition three times previously. Boca won in the 2000 quarterfinals 4-2 on aggregate and in the 2004 semifinals on a penalty shootout. River won the 2015 round-of-16 match in 1-0 after tournament organizers eliminated Boca because of pepper spray spread by its fans in the second leg.

“No one can erase what has been done,” River coach Marcelo Gallardo said recently. “But now, it’s a whole new story, one more page in this book. It will be up to us to continue being part of this history.”

River is looking for its second Copa Liberatdores title in the last three years, a huge achievement considering the team was relegated to the second division in 2011 – a painful blow that triggered riots between police and fans.

Gallardo, a former River player, has restored River’s pride since taking over in 2014, winning several championships and last year’s Argentine Super Cup against Boca.

Of course, none of that matters to Boca Juniors.

“This is not one more game in the league. This is a final,” Barros Schelotto said. “The only thing in my mind is to try to win these two games.”

Both coaches have plenty to play for. Besides gaining iconic status among the legions of fans for each team, the winning coach also would improve his prospects of taking over Argentina’s national team.

Gallardo will be at a bit of a disadvantage, though. He will miss the first match after being sanctioned by South American soccer’s governing body for failing to follow a previous suspension that banned him from contacting his players during the semifinals.

On the field, Boca’s best-known player is forward Carlos Tevez, who appeared in two World Cups for Argentina and previously played for clubs including Juventus, Manchester United and Manchester City. But these days, the team depends on striker Dario Benedetto, whose goals helped the club reach the final.

River striker Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez could be the one to watch on the other side. He scored in the last two matches against Boca and is expected to return after recovering from the flu. Other key players include midfielder Juan Quintero and Franco Armani, who is considered one of the best goalkeepers in Latin America.

“The pressure is very high because the public is following closely and the result will matter to them. It will be remembered for many years because it is a unique final,” said Oscar Mangione, a sports psychologist who has worked with Boca but is a devoted River fan. “It now depends on the players, on the coaches and how they deal with that pressure.”

The pressure, the history, the animosity: No one in Argentina seems to be talking about anything else.

“We’re living a unique moment,” Boca captain Pablo Perez said, “first because it’s a final, and second because it’s against River.”

De Ligt not fazed by price tag after move to Juventus

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If you can’t beat them, buy them. That appears to be Juventus’ philosophy as it continues its quest for the Champions League title.

[ MORE: Pochettino might have left if Spurs won Champions League ]

In 2018, Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Real Madrid against Juventus to eliminate the Serie A champion from Europe’s premier club competition. A few months later Juventus signed him.

This year Matthijs de Ligt scored the goal that eliminated Juventus from the Champions League in April as he captained Ajax to the semifinals. On Thursday, Juventus signed the Netherlands defender.

Juventus is an overwhelming favorite to win a record-extending ninth straight Serie A title but it is desperate to end its long wait for European success.

Since Juventus’ last title in 1996, it has finished runner-up five times in the Champions League.

[ MORE: Conte calls Lukaku an “important” part of his plans at Inter ]

“We want to win them all: this is the mentality of Juventus,” said De Ligt at his first news conference as a Juventus player on Friday. “I’m 19, I can still improve and I want to do that. It’s important to work hard every day and to learn, and I hope to become a better player.”

De Ligt became the most expensive defender in Serie A history when he completed an $85-million transfer from Ajax.

But the teen is not fazed at the price tag.

“Of course, when a club buys you for a big amount of money, there’s a lot of pressure, but pressure is normal in football,” De Ligt said. “I think pressure is the most important thing and if you want to be a good player, you have to deal with it.

“It’s not a big deal for me. I’ll just play my game, work hard and show it on the pitch. In the end, everyone will see how I deal with it, but it’s not going to be a problem.”

[ MORE: Report: Barcelona logs bid for Neymar ]

A photo emerged during the week of De Ligt wearing a Juventus shirt as a child and he admitted he grew up idolizing Juventus defender Fabio Cannavaro, who captained Italy to World Cup success in 2006.

“The photo of me in a Juventus shirt was taken when I was about six or seven, at that time Fabio Cannavaro was a defender that I admired,” he said. “I always had a good feeling about Juventus and I’ve always been a fan.”

Another reason De Ligt chose Juventus was because of new coach Maurizio Sarri, who replaced Massimiliano Allegri at the end of the season.

“I spoke to Sarri on the phone before coming, just to get to know each other,” De Ligt said. “He was one of the reasons that I wanted to join here, I’ve heard a lot of good things about him and I like his footballing philosophy and how he prepares his defense.”

Pulisic makes Chelsea debut, but Blues lose in Japan

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While much of the country was still asleep, well before 8 a.m. on the east coast of America, Christian Pulisic made his Chelsea debut in the Blues’ preseason friendly against Japanese champions Kawasaki Frontale in Yokohama, Japan.

[ MORE: Pochettino might have left if Spurs won Champions League ]

Pulisic came on as a 65th-minute sub and didn’t have a huge impact on the game. Chelsea lost the game 1-0 on an 88th-minute header from former wonderkid Leandro Damiao. The Blues have won just one of their three preseason fixtures thus far.

Chelsea weren’t without chances in the game, though, but various combinations of Pulisic, Michy Batshuayi, Pedro and Olivier Giroud proved to lack the finishing touch required on a number of occasions. Despite the result and his side’s poor finishing, manager Frank Lampard insisted he was happy with the overall performance.

David Luiz was named Man of the Match and handed a very peculiar award from shirt sponsor and tire company Yokohama.

Conte calls Lukaku an “important” part of his plans at Inter

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So much for diplomacy. Antonio Conte is downright recruiting Romelu Lukaku to join him at Inter Milan, and he’s doing it through the press for all to hear.

[ MORE: Pochettino might have left if Spurs won Champions League ]

The rumors linking Lukaku with a move away from Manchester United have been swirling all summer, but as of yet the two clubs haven’t been past the “bid(s) made and rejected” portion of proceedings. As such, Conte is prepared to go a step further in courting the 26-year-old Belgian, stating his longstanding admiration and calling him “an important players for us” — quotes from the BBC:

“You know I like this player. In the past, when I was Chelsea’s coach, I tried to bring him to Chelsea.

“As I said before, I like this player and consider him an important player for us to have a good improvement but at the same there is a transfer market.

“We know very well which is our situation at the moment and we will see what happens but for now Lukaku is a United player.”

Man United paid $96 million for Lukaku just two years ago, so it would be unwise to expect them to let him leave for anything short of $80 million, if Inter are lucky.

Pochettino: I might have left if Spurs won Champions League

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Mauricio Pochettino admits that might have left Tottenham Hotspur had the north London club found a way to beat Liverpool in last month’s UEFA Champions League final.

[ MORE: Harry Winks says trophies for Spurs are “round the corner” ]

In Pochettino’s mind, reaching the pinnacle would have caused everyone at the club — from the players, to the rest of the coaching staff, and even himself — to “behave differently.” If/when Pochettino wins his first major trophy as a manager, he won’t be one to rest on his laurels for more than a day or two — quotes from the BBC:

“When you touch the glory, you behave differently, the players behave differently, the challenge becomes different.

“If the result had been different, maybe you can think it is a moment to step out of the club and give it a possibility for a real new chapter with a new coaching staff.

“But, to finish like this? I am not a person who won’t face problems or avoids difficult situations.”

Fortunately for the long-term viability of the club, Pochettino is set to begin his fifth season as Tottenham manager. Still, though, Spurs’ best shot at a trophy remains in the cup competitions, with Manchester City and Liverpool seemingly set to lead the Premier League for the foreseeable future.

One player who might not be around long enough to enjoy any of Spurs’ future successes is Danny Rose. While the entire first team is in Singapore for preseason, Rose is back in London after being granted time “to explore prospective opportunities with other clubs.”

Pochettino says Rose has 10 days to sort out a transfer for himself — with PSG and Schalke both reportedly interested abroad — otherwise “he will be normal with the team” once they return to north London.