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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.”

Robertson signs new long-term Liverpool contract

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Andrew Robertson will remain a hero at Anfield for a very long time.

The Scottish left back, 24, committed his future to Liverpool Thursday, as he signed a new long-term deal which will reportedly run until 2024.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Robertson arrived from Hull City in the summer of 2017 and was expected to be the back-up left back behind Alberto Moreno. Instead he has become one of the top left backs in Europe, with his marauding runs down the flank a focal point of Jurgen Klopp‘s side.

Speaking about his new contract, the captain of the Scottish national team revealed how easy a decision it was to make.

“As soon as the club came to me, it was a no-brainer for me – I want to stay here, so as soon as they put an offer on the table it was signed as quickly as that,” Robertson said. “It was a pretty easy contract for me and I’m sure for the club as well. We both agreed very quickly, that’s why it’s been done so quickly. Getting to know the lads and working with all the staff at Melwood has been a pleasure. The best thing about work is when you love coming in every day – and that’s what I do here. I am glad I have extended my stay and hopefully we have a lot of good days ahead.”

Robertson’s rise to the top of the game has been quite sensational.

He started off in the lower leagues of Scottish soccer before landing at Hull and then having a decent season in the Premier League in 2016-17, although the Tigers were relegated.

Liverpool snapped him up for $10 million and he has gone from strength to strength with his incredible energy down the left making him a firm fans favorite. Off the pitch he does a lot in the community and he just seems like one of the good guys.

Klopp added that “he might be from Glasgow originally, but everything about him screams Liverpool” and hailed Robertson’s quality on the pitch as well as off it.

“Everyone knows about his personality, on and off the pitch, but maybe we are guilty at times of overlooking his quality,” Klopp said. “Ask those who play against him – be it matchday or training – and they speak about his technical and tactical qualities, just as much as his character and heart. Our supporters have fallen in love with him, he has fallen in love with them – and both he and his amazing young family are very much at home in Liverpool.

Robertson’s rise deserved to be rewarded as he was a regular at Liverpool for most of last season and his performances in Europe helped the Reds reach the UEFA Champions League final.

His target is clear: to win trophies at Liverpool.

“I hope to achieve success as a team over the course of this new deal,” Robertson added. “This club demands trophies and too long has probably passed without trophies. So I hope to help bring another couple of trophies to this club and help push in that direction because the fans demand it and the club demands it, so that’s what we aim to give. We came close, of course we have with the Champions League and things like that, but it’s about taking that next step and hopefully getting a winner’s medal around your neck, whatever competition it is. That is the main aim for us.”

Premier League TV, streaming schedule

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Week 23 of the Premier League season is almost here as a big London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea takes center stage.

MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

The full TV schedule for the games this weekend are below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com,the NBC Sports App and by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold.

Gold also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: Premier League live here ] 

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” for all the goals as they go in around the grounds. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App.

[ MORE: Premier League “Goal Rush” ] 

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here for the games streamed on NBCSports.com and here for the games on NBC Sports Gold.

Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Wolves v. Leicester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Liverpool v. Crystal Palace – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Man United v. Brighton – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth v. West Ham – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Newcastle United v. Cardiff City – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Southampton v. Everton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Watford v. Burnley – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
12:30 p.m. ET: Arsenal v. Chelsea – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
9:15 a.m. ET: Huddersfield v. Man City – NBCSN [STREAM]
11 a.m. ET: Fulham v. Tottenham – NBCSN [STREAM]

Madrid enduring its worst struggles in decades

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MADRID (AP) The first season without Cristiano Ronaldo is proving to be a difficult one for Real Madrid.

The Spanish powerhouse hasn’t been this bad in more than two decades.

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Not since 1996 had Madrid lost 10 matches at this point of the season. That team, led by Raul Gonzalez, lost 12 times by the end of January. Madrid’s team coached by Guus Hiddink three years later also struggled, losing 10 of its first 32 matches in all competitions, exactly like this season.

But all had gone mostly well for Madrid since then, especially after Ronaldo arrived in 2009 and led the club to a trove of trophies.

“The last few years have been some of the best in the history of Real Madrid,” defender Nacho Fernandez says. “It’s going to be difficult to match or surpass that.”

Madrid’s latest loss was at Leganes in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. It still advanced to the quarterfinals after having won the first leg 3-0, but the defeat again exposed some of the team’s problems since Ronaldo departed to join Juventus:

COACHING WOES

Zinedine Zidane left just before Ronaldo and his absence has been felt just as badly.

Madrid replaced the France great with Julen Lopetegui, but the former Spain coach lasted only about three months before he was sacked.

Former player Santiago Solari arrived as an interim coach and was given the full-time job after a good start, but confidence in him has quickly eroded as the team continues to be inconsistent.

He has struggled to manage some of his players, including Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, who could be on his way out because of his lack of playing minutes. He was substituted in the second half against Leganes on Wednesday.

Calls for another coaching change have been getting louder, adding to the team’s instability on the field.

BETTING ON YOUTH

Madrid did not make any blockbuster signing to try to replace Ronaldo, betting instead on youngsters such as Vinicius Junior, who is only 18.

The Brazilian has shown signs he could be a star, but still lacks the experience to lead the squad.

Mariano Diaz was given the No. 7 jersey when Ronaldo left, but his season has been marred by injuries and he hasn’t been able to contribute much so far.

SLUGGISH VETERANS

Madrid hoped veterans Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema could take over the leadership role that Ronaldo used to carry, but that never happened even though their numbers improved significantly after the Portuguese star left.

They each have scored more goals, but haven’t been consistent enough to also notch victories.

DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES

The club has conceded more than 30 goals and has one of the worst defenses among the teams in the top half of the Spanish league standings.

It lost 3-0 to Sevilla, Eibar, and CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, and was demoralized by Barcelona 5-1 in the league at Camp Nou Stadium.

“We know that we have to get better,” midfielder Casemiro says.

INJURIES

It hasn’t helped coach Solari that he lost Bale, Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Diaz to lengthy injuries. Benzema is the latest concern for Solari because of a broken hand.

“It’s been an atypical season with all the injuries,” Fernandez says. “We haven’t been playing our best soccer, but there is a lot of season left.”

Madrid’s next match is on Saturday at home against Sevilla in the Spanish league. Madrid is fourth in the standings, 10 points behind leader Barcelona after 19 matches.

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

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Humble Jose Mourinho: “I belong to top level”

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Jose Mourinho is back in the public eye a month after being fired as Manchester United’s manager.

Did he every really leave?

Mourinho is working as a pundit for beIN Sports in the Middle East and will give analysis of the huge Arsenal v. Chelsea clash on Saturday.

Speaking with huge passion to the outlet about a multitude of topics, Mourinho revealed he isn’t considering retirement and has his eyes on a top job.

“I want to coach. I am too young. I am in football for a long, long time but I will be 56 in a couple of weeks. I am too young. Where I am going to stay is where I belong. I belong top level football and that is where I am going to be,” Mourinho said.

We see that Mourinho’s famed confidence hasn’t taken a battering from losing his job at United…

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On a serious note, he did have some interesting things to say about his two-and-half seasons in charge of the Red Devils.

Mourinho said that the second-place finish he achieved at United in 2017-18 was one of his greatest achievements as a manager, and added that “some people don’t know what is going on behind-the-scenes” at the club.

And he added that the structure of the club has to be set up in a way for the manager to not focus on everything the modern day player is involved with, while several times he pointed to the fact that players now have a huge amount of power.

“A club must be very well organised, where the manager is only the manager and not the man that is trying to keep the discipline or educate the players,” Mourinho said.

Hmmm. I wonder who he could have on his mind there…

The former Chelsea, United, Real Madrid and Inter Milan coach also tried to put plenty of wrongs right (his words) about him, as he talked about the results versus style of play debate — he is obviously a fan of the former — and stated that he didn’t sell Mohamed Salah while he was in charge of Chelsea.

“People try to identify me as the coach who sold Salah. I am the coach that bought Salah,” Mourinho said. “It is completely the wrong idea. I played against Basel in the Champions League. Salah was a kid in Basel. When I play against a team I analyze the team and the players for quite a long time and I fell in love with that kid. I bought the kid. I pushed the club to buy him. At that time we already had fantastic attacking players… He was a lost kid in London. He was a lost kid in a new world. When the club decided to sell him, it was not me.”

It safe to say that Mourinho will be absorbing to watch as an analyst, and he plans to do that for a little while as he added that he wants to learn more about what goes on behind the camera in order to learn more about the modern game.

All of this talk taught us one thing: Mourinho really is struggling with how the game has changed and he needs to adapt to the modern game if he’s going to continue to be successful and last longer than a few years at one club.