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Jan Bednarek: the latest gem unearthed by Southampton?

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SOUTHAMPTON — The fans at Southampton call him the Polish Maldini. That tells you everything you need to know about how highly regarded Jan Bednarek is at Saints.

At 22 years of age, Bednarek is one of the first names on Southampton’s teamsheet and he’s enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past 12 months. He has now kicked his game on to new levels under new Saints manager Ralph Hasenhuttl.

He throws his head in where it hurts, pulls off stunning last-ditch blocks and tackles, and his no-nonsense defending has seen him become a growing cult figure at Southampton. It has all happened rather quickly, too.

Last April he made his first start in the Premier League after arriving from Lech Poznan the previous summer for $7 million. He scored on his PL debut, a 3-2 defeat to Chelsea, and since then he’s played a pivotal role in Saints’ dramatic survival from relegation last season, scored a winning goal for Poland at the 2018 World Cup and is now one of the top emerging defenders in the Premier League.

Not too shabby. But sat in his training kit as the sun beats down on Southampton’s Staplewood training base, Bednarek is focused on one thing: beating Premier League title chasers Liverpool on Friday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at St Mary’s.

“The thing is, we need three points,” Bednarek says, matter of factly. “Of course, they fight for the title but the main thing is winning three points. We are going to fight for that. The main thing is to be brave. To do our best and we will find out after the game what we will happen… What I learned in England is that there are no easy games. We know their threat and all the great players they have, live Virgil Van Dijk who was here, and many others. Every single game is difficult. You have to do your best and focus on what you have been doing your whole life.”

One of the first things Hasenhuttl did when he took charge of Saints back in December was to bring in Bednarek from the cold. He had been bizarrely frozen out by Mark Hughes at the start of this season, but since Hasenhuttl arrived and Bednarek returned to the team, Saints have beaten Tottenham and Arsenal at home among seven wins which has seen them pull away from the relegation zone.

With Hasenhuttl’s side winning 24 points from his first 16 games in charge, Saints are on a huge upward curve.

Their high-pressing style is similar to that of Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool (Klopp and Hasenhuttl did their coaching badges together in Germany) and they have regained their identity as the PL’s plucky upstarts. The atmosphere is now a positive one at St Mary’s, a place where they hadn’t won until early December this season.

“We are playing better as a team, and it is obvious that if we are playing better the atmosphere is going to be better,” Bednarek said. “The fans can see that we are getting better and better. They can see that if they push us forward we are going to do better. It is good. We need to keep going as a team and it will be even better.”

Bednarek also lifted the lid on what it is like behind-the-scenes at Saints’ training ground with Hasenhuttl implementing plenty of discipline and promoting young players from their famed academy to mix things up.

The Austrian coach has talked about how he keeps an eye on the amount of time players spend playing video games, while he also hands out a different sort of fine. It doesn’t come down to finances, but asking players to instead work in the club shop or put on training sessions for youth teams if they are late, don’t leave their locker tidy or anything of that nature.

“At the moment everyone is aware of it and everyone is afraid of the fines,” Bednarek laughed. “There hasn’t been a situation where someone has to spin the wheel. I think that is good that everyone is disciplined and everyone have the respect and needs respect the rules at the training ground.”

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Bednarek’s focus has been key to his rise at Saints, with the defender hiring a mental coach from the Poland national team to help him with the mental side of being an athlete. During his long spell on the sidelines at the start of this season, he admitted it was tough but the mental coaching helped him stay fit and focused for when his opportunity arrived.

At a club famed for bringing through young talent, Bednarek said getting the chance to play as a youngster was his main motivation to join the South Coast club. Saints currently have one of the youngest teams in the PL, and Bednarek believes they can field a team entirely under the age of 23 in the future, if the right situation arises.

The towering Polish defender also revealed he likes to get away from it all by going on walks with his dog, Candy, and his girlfriend Julia in the Hampshire countryside. But most of the time he likes to relax on days off from the gruelling training sessions put on by Hasenhuttl and his staff.

Growing up in Poland, Bednarek played in goal and as a striker with his older brother Filip, who plays as a goalkeeper in Holland, but said there wasn’t a defender he liked and wanted to imitate.

However, he admitted he now looks at Liverpool’s star center back Virgil van Dijk — the Reds bought VVD for a world-record fee for a defender from Southampton last January for $100 million — as the best player in his position in the world and someone he wants to emulate. Bednarek played with VVD for six months last season, and he has clearly left an impression on him.

“There were many players I liked, like Zidane, Ronaldo, but there was not a center back that I followed,” Bednarek said. “At the moment, when I started to play in this position I watched [Giorgio] Chiellini, I watched [Sergio] Ramos, now it is [Virgil] van Dijk. When you watch them you can improve. There are so many great players you can watch and keep improving.”

Many great players have learned and improved at Southampton in the past, and Bednarek is in line to be the next gem they’ve polished to perfection.

Reports: Antonio Conte will be next Inter manager

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According to a number of reports across Europe, including The Guardian and The Mirror, Antonio Conte has agreed to terms to become the next manager at Inter Milan and will take over this summer, with Luciano Spalletti departing.

Conte has signed a four-year deal at Inter that will earn him around $11 million per season, with the Italian excited to return home and face the challenge of finishing the task at Inter. The Italian giants have slumped in recent years, but this year showed promise that the project may finally be coming to an end. Spalletti appears to have turned the team into a Champions League contender again, but there are reports that he is struggling to maintain the support of the locker room and the front office.

Inter’s qualification to next year’s Champions League is no guarantee either, with the club sitting just a point ahead of rivals AC Milan for the final Serie A spot heading into the final week of the season. They have just three wins in their final nine matches, leaving them vulnerable.

Conte most recently managed Chelsea for two seasons, winning both the Premier League and the FA Cup in his first season but missing out on Champions League qualification last campaign before departing. He recently won a lawsuit against Chelsea that will see the Blues pay him an additional $11 million as part of his severance package. Other than his Premier League stint at Stamford Bridge, Conte has spent his entire career in Italy, managing Juventus, Atalanta, and the Italian national team among others. He has eight Serie A titles to his name between playing and managing.

Rumors say that Conte is zeroing Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku as his first transfer target of the summer.

Red Bulls slump to disappointing draw with Vancouver

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The New York Red Bulls coughed up a second-half lead in a disappointing 2-2 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday, pegged back by Freddy Montero’s equalizing penalty in the 61st minute that came just six minutes after the hosts had taken the lead.

New York dominated possession at home, holding just under 70% of the ball, but they struggled mightily in goal. New York had 18 shots to Vancouver’s 13, but could manage just three on target, whereas the visitors put seven on frame. Vancouver jumped in front right on the half-hour mark as Sean Nealis got burned down the left by Joaquin Ardaiz, and while his cross was deflected by Connor Lade, it fell to Scott Sutter at a tight angle for a roofed finish.

The hosts would level things up before halftime, as a looped cross by Kaku found the head of Amro Tarek who powered it on frame, but before it could reach the net it was slightly redirected by Brian White’s head and found the back of the net. In the celebration, a smiling White could be seen sheepishly apologizing to Tarek for stealing what may already have been a goal, but New York wasn’t complaining.

After the break, the Red Bulls went in front on an own goal as White’s effort was redirected into the back of the net by Andy Rose. That should have been the goal to see New York ease past the ninth-place Whitecaps and send New York to a strong fourth-place spot in the Eastern Conference table, but the visitors continued to attack and would eventually find a way through.

First, Luis Robles was required to turn a 8Felipe Martins header off the post and out, before eight minutes later when Montero would be the man to bring Vancouver back level after coming on at halftime. VAR determined correctly that Nealis whiffed on a header attempt and instead got his arm to the ball, giving Martins the opportunity from the spot, which he deposited cooly, sending Robles the wrong way.

That would leave the teams level, with New York desperately looking for more than a point to savor, but they were unable to do so. The draw leaves the Red Bulls in fifth, level on points with cross-town rivals NYCFC and two behind Atlanta United. They remain unbeaten in three, but the opportunity for three straight victories was there. Vancouver, meanwhile, sits in ninth in the West, drawing level on points with San Jose thanks to the road draw.

Ghana striker Gyan changes mind 2 days after retiring

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — Two days after announcing his international retirement, Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan has changed his mind and been included in a provisional squad for the African Cup of Nations starting next month.

Gyan says his change of heart came after speaking with Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo.

The 33-year-old Gyan said Monday he was retiring because he was replaced as Ghana captain by Andre Ayew.

Gyan says he had a phone conversation with Akufo-Addo, who asked him to reconsider, and “a presidential request is one that cannot be disregarded.”

Gyan was named in a preliminary 29-man squad on Wednesday. He made his international debut at 17 and is Ghana’s record goalscorer with 51 goals in 106 games although he hasn’t played for his country since late 2017.

U-20 World Cup preview: Ramos to make history

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The United States U-20 side is set to begin its 2019 World Cup campaign on Friday when it begins Group D play in Poland.

Tab Ramos will make history in the process, equalling the FIFA record of most championship tournaments participated as a player or coach. The 52-year-old will officially take part in his 11th FIFA championship event, matching the record held by Germany’s U-20 women head coach Maren Meinert.

United States

The United States side is one of the best ever on paper, with a mix of emerging domestic talent alongside youngsters from the best clubs in Europe. They will take on Ukraine, Nigeria, and Qatar in high-leverage group stage play. Riding on the result of group play is a place in the knockout phase, with a massive gulf in difference between finishing first and second in the group. The first-place finisher in Group D draws the strongest third-place side from Groups B, E, and F – possibilities include the likes of Mali, South Korea, Panama, or Italy. Meanwhile, the second-place finisher from Group D takes on the winner of Group E, which will almost definitely come in the form of championship hopeful France.

An exciting group of young American players with more well-known names including Timothy Weah and Paxton Pomykal mixes with supreme talents like Barcelona youth product Konrad de la Fuente in attack and Bayern Munich teen Chris Richards who will look to anchor the defense. While the U.S. isn’t exactly a favorite to win the tournament, they are a strong contender looking to reach at least the quarterfinals if not further.

US U-20 squad

GK: CJ Dos Santos (Benfica), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake), Brady Scott (Koln).
DEF: Sergino Dest (Ajax), Chris Gloster (Hannover 96), Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew/Richmond Kickers), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), Matthew Real (Philadelphia Union), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich).
MID: Edwin Cerrillo (FC Dallas), Chris Durkin (D.C. United), Richard Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven), Alex Mendez (Freiburg), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Brandon Servania (FC Dallas).
FWD: Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), Konrad De La Fuente (Barcelona), Ulysses Llanez (Wolfsburg), Justin Rennicks (New England Revolution), Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain/Celtic FC)

Potential breakout players

Aside from the United States squad, there is a host of young talent at the tournament in Poland. These are the players you should keep a close eye on.

Diego Lainez (winger, Mexico) – Mexico’s 18-year-old winger has been a fixture for the national team at every youth level, playing every minute for the U-17 side in the 2017 World Cup. He has since earned a quartet of senior side call-ups and looked electric in his time on the field.

Radoslaw Majecki (goalkeeper, Poland) – At just 19 years old, Majecki has been the starting goalkeeper for Champions League regulars Legia Warsaw since he won the job in November. While he has yet to make his CL debut (having earned the starting job after Legia Warsaw was eliminated from the competition in the qualifying stages), he is as experienced as they come for players in this competition and a huge asset for his country.

Jackson Porozo (defender, Ecuador) – The 18-year-old was an absolute monster in the South American U-20 championships back in late January and early February, helping Ecuador keep five clean sheets and finish the competition on a stunning 298-minute streak without conceding a single goal as they shocked the continent by winning the tournament. Porozo, who joined the Santos youth setup last summer, was a man among boys in the South American championships, and long with his goalkeeper Moises Ramirez – who also has high expectations for a solid future – this Ecuador side has a shot at making it out of an absolutely loaded Group B.

Interesting storylines

Group B – The most loaded group in the tournament sees Mexico, Italy, Ecuador, and Japan all come together for a brutal battle. While the top two teams are guaranteed to advance, it could also be a factor for one of the coveted third-place spots, of particular interest to the United States, who would take on a Group B third-place qualifier should they win Group D. Mexico won the CONCACAF U-20 championships, Ecuador stunningly reigned supreme in CONMEBOL over traditional superpowers Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, while both Italy and Japan performed quite well in their own tournaments, each reaching the semifinals. This is easily the most fun early storyline.

France as favorites – Portugal, Poland, Nigeria, and Argentina are all firmly in the mix, but France is considered the favorite according to most oddsmakers. Bernard Diomede will have a challenge as Lyon’s young star Amine Gouiri will be missing as he takes part in the U-21 UEFA championships this summer, but he does have Borussia Dortmund youngster Dan Axel-Zagadou leading the back line. While the French senior side is on top of the world, the youth team has plenty of talent coming down the pipeline.

Can Argentina bounce back? – The six-time champions slipped a bit at the CONMEBOL championships earlier this year, falling to both Ecuador and Brazil in the final stage while beating Uruguay and Colombia by just a goal. The traditionally dominant South American powerhouse has proven fallable over the last year or so, and while they most certainly have a squad capable of placing in this tournament, they will need more consistency. The squad sports Atlanta United winger Ezequiel Barco, who has four goals in eight MLS appearances this season and is in good form. Other big names include Atletico Madrid defender and youth team captain Nehuen Perez, Boca Juniors goalkeeper Manuel Roffo – who trained with the senior team earlier this year – and midfielder Santiago Sosa who has dabbled in the River Plate senior squad at just 19.