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UEFA Nations League “even more successful than we thought”

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For Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA Nations League was an overwhelming thumbs up.

Across the continent, skepticism seems to have been replaced by positivity as European soccer’s latest innovation replaced many unpopular friendly games in a busy calendar.

“The Nations League is even more successful than we thought,” Ceferin, the president of UEFA, said after group play ended Tuesday.

Most Nations League games were taken seriously and some, like the Netherlands’ dramatic comeback draw against Germany on Monday, provided real drama. What initially appeared to be a complex format started to make sense.

The competition involves all 55 European national teams, playing in small groups and separated into four tiers using promotion and relegation. A champion will emerge from a Final Four after a mini-tournament in June.

The Nations League will also award at least one place at the 2020 European Championship to one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent.

A look at the Nations League’s impact:

With World Cup finalists France and Croatia failing to win their groups – while Spain, Germany and Belgium also missed out – the Final Four in June will take place without several top teams. Instead, the surprise lineup of finalists includes Portugal, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Can Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo win another trophy? That’s if he plays, of course. The Juventus forward, who will be 34 in February, has been absent from international duty since the World Cup and faces a rape allegation in the United States.

Kathryn Mayorga filed a civil lawsuit in September in Nevada claiming Ronaldo raped her in his Las Vegas hotel room in 2009. Police reopened an investigation into the allegation at her request. Ronaldo has denied any wrongdoing.

Will Harry Kane-led England capture its first international title since the World Cup in 1966? The debate over whether winning the Nations League would genuinely end the title drought will ramp up in the coming months but coach Gareth Southgate will view it as another important step for a young team which also reached the World Cup semifinals.

Is this the start of a new, exciting era for the Dutch after the dark days when they failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup? Highly rated youngsters Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt are key members of the team and Memphis Depay is seemingly fulfilling his potential.

Can Switzerland, which hasn’t reached the quarterfinals of a major tournament since 1954, continue to upset the odds after ousting Belgium in group play? The Swiss will be the outsiders.

The Final Four, as well promotion and relegation in the four leagues, are easy enough to understand. However, the Nations League is also a backdoor into the 2020 European Championship.

That’s where things can get confusing.

There will still be a typical European Championship qualifying campaign, but 16 teams get a second chance through playoffs.

In spring 2020, the 2018 Nations League results will be dusted off as the qualifying criteria for the playoffs, handing places to the four best-placed teams from each Nations League tier who missed out in qualifying.

Currently, that means Kosovo is guaranteed a playoff spot but World Cup champion France isn’t – although the French are almost certain to qualify for 2020 the usual way.

Europe’s smallest teams finally have something to play for.

The likes of Georgia, Macedonia and Kosovo usually spend their time scrambling to organize barely watched friendlies. The Nations League gives them meaningful games and, since all three won their League D groups, a shot at qualifying for a European Championship – something that’s normally all but impossible.

Gone are the days when several of the tiniest nations waited years to earn a single point. The Nations League division system means UEFA’s smallest member, Gibraltar, was playing comparable opponents and earned two rare wins, while Luxembourg came within four points of winning its group.

No change for perennial struggler San Marino, though. It still lost all six of its games without scoring a goal.

The games may be exciting, but they’re rarely sold out.

There were more than 20,000 empty seats in Gelsenkirchen for Germany’s dramatic 2-2 draw with the Netherlands, while Tuesday’s game between World Cup quarterfinalists Sweden and Russia was roundly criticized for its flat atmosphere even though promotion was at stake.

For Scotland’s 3-2 home win over Israel – a promotion decider billed as the host nation’s biggest game in a decade – Hampden Park was less than half full.

That shows that some European soccer fans have been slow to fall in love with the new Nations League format, though the old friendlies weren’t always crowd pleasers.

FIFA is sure to be watching, since president Gianni Infantino – formerly of UEFA – is looking to build a worldwide Nations League clone.

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

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MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.