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Across the continent, skepticism seems to have been replaced by positivity as European soccer’s latest innovation replaced many unpopular friendly games in a busy calendar.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

Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager

Pirlo named Juventus manager
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Andrea Pirlo has been named Juventus manager.

[ MORE: MLS restart to include games played in home stadiums, with fans ]

The legendary Italian midfielder has been named Maurizio Sarri’s replacement after the he was fired in the wake of the club’s shocking exit from the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

Pirlo was named manager of Juventus’ U-23 side less than two weeks ago, but the expectation is that he will now be promoted to first-team manager. Given the unexpected nature of Sarri’s departure, and in the timeframe in which it occurred, it would appear the Juve board was either fully prepared to install Pirlo in short order, or hadn’t even considered the possibility they might have to fire Sarri.

[ MORE: Chelsea reveal Christian Pulisic injury update ]

The 41-year-old has no prior experience in management. He retired his playing career in 2017 after three seasons with MLS side New York City FC.

Pirlo takes over an aging squad which, while it has won nine straight Serie A titles, is in desperate need of a rebuild.

MLS restart to include games played in home stadiums, with fans

MLS return
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UPDATE: MLS commissioner Don Garber has since clarified that none of the league’s teams have been granted final permission from the league to host fans inside their stadiums, contrary to what press releases from three teams stated.

MLS restart: MLS announced on Saturday its intention and preliminary schedule for resuming the 2020 regular in its teams’ home markets — with fans in attendance in  stadiums where permitted — beginning with an Aug. 12 bout between FC Dallas and Nashville SC, a matchup of two teams forced to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament due to a significant number of positive cases of COVID-19.

[ MORE: Chelsea reveal Christian Pulisic injury update ]

Each team is expected to play 18 additional games, taking the total number of regular-season games played by each team to 23 in 2020. The regular season will wrap up on Nov. 8, assuming no further stoppages. 18 clubs will then qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs, leading up to MLS Cup on Dec. 12.

Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake have announced that they will welcome fans into their respective stadiums upon the restart of the season. Sporting KC will allow 14 percent (roughly 2,500) of the total capacity of Children’s Mercy Park, while Dallas announced that 5,110 (roughly 25 percent) will be allowed into Toyota Stadium and 5,000 (roughly 25 percent) at Rio Tinto Stadium.

From the league’s press release:

At this time, the majority of the matches in local markets will be played without fans in attendance. MLS and club leadership are working with local health authorities and government officials on a plan for limited capacity at certain games where allowed.

At this time, the league’s three Canadian teams — Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — do not have any games scheduled.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, MLS announced the initial phase of the league’s revised schedule with each U.S. club playing six matches against other U.S. teams by Sept. 14.
Major League Soccer continues to work with the league’s three Canadian clubs regarding plans to continue the regular season. More details on schedules for the Canadian teams will be announced in the near future.

MLS revealed that regular testing of players and staff for COVID-19 will continue during the resumed portion of the regular season, a protocol which proved effective with 24 of the 26 teams inside the bubble in Orlando, Fla.

As with the MLS is Back tournament, COVID-19 testing protocols will again play an important role in MLS’ competition framework. MLS continues to work closely with the league’s infectious disease advisors as well as advisors for the MLSPA on the plan for testing. All clubs are forming testing partnerships with a local certified lab, and all players, technical staff, and essential club staff will be tested every other day, including the day before each match day. Also, guidelines will be provided to players, coaches and essential staff to avoid the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 during their time away from club facilities.

Travel protocols will also be different for the remainder of 2020, with teams exclusively traveling via chartered flights, or buses. In most instances, teams will arrive the day of a game and return to their home market that night, aiming to limit time spent out of market.

3 things learned: Man City v. Real Madrid

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Manchester City – Real Madrid was a fairly straightforward win for the hosts, as they reached the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals by beating the 13-time European champions 2-1 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

Raheem Sterling opened the scoring for Man City after a bad mistake from Raphael Varane was ruthlessly punished. Real’s Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema combined well at times and although Ederson denied them early on, Benzema pulled one back in the first half as Rodrygo’s cross was nodded home by the French striker.

Benzema and Jesus both went close for either team in the second half and the latter made the most of another big mistake from Varane to make it 2-1 and seal Man City’s spot in the quarterfinals for the third-straight season with relative ease.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Etihad, as Manchester City – Real Madrid was an open affair but the hosts always looked in control.


CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DREAM ALIVE FOR MAN CITY

Pep Guardiola is like Indiana Jones entering the desert on his way to reaching the holy grail. Lisbon is now his ‘Canyon of the Crescent Moon’ as Man City have a quarterfinal, semifinal and final between them and footballing immortality. Man City have longed for Champions League glory and given their successful appeal against their two-season UEFA ban, they will now stride into Lisbon, Portugal as the favorites to be crowned champions of Europe. They strolled past Real Madrid and even without the injured Sergio Aguero, you’d fancy them to sweep all before them to reach the promised land. Man City have always found a way to mess things up in the Champions League but this season feels different. They gave up their Premier League trophy easily to Liverpool but it seemed like the Champions League was always the main focus this season. They now face Lyon in the quarterfinals and then their toughest test, likely either Barcelona or Napoli in the semifinals. Guardiola knows the holy grail is within reach as he is closer than ever to finally delivering the trophy Man City’s Abu Dhabi owners have built this whole project to win.


SLOPPY REAL MADRID EXIT WITH A WHIMPER

Missing captain and legendary Sergio Ramos through suspension from the first leg, Real Madrid needed young defender Edgar Militao to step up in is place. They did not need silky smooth defender Raphael Varane to give the ball away early on to give up a cheap and avoidable goal. Although Real recovered from that early error, they failed to get Luka Modric on the ball as much as they wanted to and Eden Hazard and Benzema only showed flashes of promise. Just when it seemed like Real would push hard for a second goal which would have taken the game to extra time, Varane made another big mistake. And that was that. After impressing in La Liga since the restart and winning the Spanish title, Real Madrid looked remarkably subdued as perhaps a few weeks off before this game impacted them. The Kings of Europe will have to wait another year to add another crown to their collection. Manchester City – Real Madrid was historic, as it marked the first time Zinedine Zidane has ever lost a Champions League game in the knockout rounds. The way his team limped out of Europe was surprising and disappointing for Real Madrid.


PEP BEATS ZIZOU, BUT FALSE NINE FAILS

It was a surprise to see Phil Foden start ahead of David Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva in a game of this magnitude but there’s always a method to Pep’s madness. And it isn’t madness, is it? It’s genius. Just like he did in the first leg at Real Madrid, Pep raised eyebrows as he started a central midfielder (Foden this time, Kevin de Bruyne in the first leg) as a false nine. Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling were rampant from each flank early on, putting defenders under pressure in their own box, and that was how they opened the scoring. But Man City then failed to build on that lead and let Real back into the game. Pep changed things around at half time and Jesus looked more comfortable centrally and so too did Foden. It was a small tweak but it got Man City back on track and Guardiola’s tactical nous made the difference, even though Man City were handed the win on a platter thanks to Real Madrid’s shaky defensive display.

Chelsea reveal Pulisic injury update

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The latest Christian Pulisic injury news has arrived and it is not as bad as it could have been, but not great either.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

In the FA Cup final last Saturday, Pulisic, 21, scored a superb opener at Wembley as he dazzled for Chelsea early on but right at the start of the second half he raced clear of the Arsenal defense, again, but injured his right hamstring and was in agony before he took a shot.

Speaking ahead of Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg game at Bayern Munich on Saturday (they trail 3-0 from the first leg), Lampard confirmed that the latest Pulisic news is that he’s expected to be out for six weeks with his hamstring injury.

“We will get him fit and ready, if he misses the first one or two games, then we can wait for a firing Christian like he was from restart,” Lampard told reporters.

The latest Pulisic injury news means he will likely miss the whole of preseason and the opening few weeks of the 2020-21 Premier League season, as the new season kicks off on Sept. 12 due to the quick turnaround and the delays following the coronavirus pandemic.

When Pulisic came off injured against Arsenal, Chelsea missed him badly as they ended up losing the FA Cup final and the USMNT star being injured was a big reason for that defeat.

Right now Christian Pulisic is the first name on the team sheet for Chelsea and he was named as one of the nominees for the Premier League young player of the season during his debut campaign in England, plus he was one of the best players in the league since the restart.

It is good to hear Lampard said he will not rush Pulisic back, as it was clear for all to see how much more impactful and dynamic he was after having a few months rest. Before joining Chelsea he had played for many years straight as he played for the USMNT during the summers and with Borussia Dortmund.

Chelsea need Pulisic to be fit and firing if they’re going to improve on their fourth-place Premier League finish this season.