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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.

FIFA inviting some non-champions to enlarged Club World Cup

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Based on qualification procedures seen by The Associated Press, teams can qualify for FIFA’s expanded Club World Cup without having to win a regional competition – even at the expense of some champions.

The FIFA Council on Thursday is set to approve China as host of the inaugural edition of the 24-team club competition in 2021 and review the qualification procedures, people with knowledge of the decision making told AP.

They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss FIFA’s plans ahead of the meeting in Shanghai.

[ MORE: Genk 1-4 Liverpool | Ajax 0-1 Chelsea ]

A document sent to council members seen by the AP shows the outcome of the initial talks between the FIFA administration and the six regional confederations to determine the criteria for securing one of the slots.

The revamped Club World Cup is due to be staged every four years, replacing the current annual format that features the six champions of continental competitions and the host nation’s domestic title winner.

But caps on the number of representatives from a single country in the new format raises the prospect of even winners of continental competitions missing out.

EUROPE

With eight slots, Europe will be the best represented continent at the Club World Cup even after rejecting four additional places, helping FIFA drive ticket sales and broadcast revenue.

All the Champions League and Europa League winners from 2018 to 2021 are set to qualify – although that could be dependent on UEFA determining the maximum number of slots per country. Clubs from England and Spain have dominated those competitions in recent years.

Should a team enjoy multiple wins across the competitions, the free slot is due to go to the most recent Champions League runner-up.

Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2018 when Atletico Madrid triumphed in the Europa League. English clubs swept last season’s trophies, with Liverpool victorious in the Champions League and Chelsea in the second-tier competition.

SOUTH AMERICA

While South America will get six slots, only the process for distributing four of them has been settled. They will go to the 2019 and 2020 winners of CONEMBOL’s two competitions: The Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana.

The document shows no plan for determining the route to securing the remaining two berths or the limits on national representation.

ASIA

The three Asian places will to go the winners of the 2019 and 2020 Asian Champions League and the runners-up will have a playoff for the third entry into the Club World Cup group stage.

Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal will play Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan in this season’s final next month.

If the title is defended in 2020, the runners-up from both years will complete Asia’s FIFA lineup.

But Asia only wants a maximum of two teams from one country. So, if the winners and runners-up in 2019 and 2020 are all from the same country, the two losing Asian Champions League semifinalists in 2020 would contest a playoff for a route into the global tournament.

NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA

The 2021 CONCACAF Champions League finalists will qualify but a process for deciding the third slot was left hanging in the FIFA Council document.

Mexican teams have won all 11 titles since the regional competition was rebooted as the Champions League. Only three of the finals have not been an all-Mexican lineup.

But a cap of two teams per country from this region will exist at the Club World Cup.

[ MORE: Talking CBA, MLS with Chris Wondolowski ]

AFRICA

The simplest qualification will be from Africa, with the places going to the 2021 Champions League finalists and the winner of a playoff between the two semifinalists.

The plan is complicated by a cap on two teams per country.

OCEANIA

Oceania is the only one of FIFA’s six confederations not guaranteed a place at the Club World Cup. To make one of the eight groups of three, the Oceania Champions League winner will face a playoff against the Chinese champions.

TOURNAMENTS DATES

A previous FIFA plan seen by the AP in March proposed the Club World Cup running from June 17 through July 4 in 2021, taking the slot originally set aside for the Confederations Cup competition that is no longer due to be contested.

For some players from Africa and the CONCACAF region it could be a busy summer, with their regional national competitions proposed to start on July 9.

The final two editions of the seven-team annual Club World Cup are being staged in Qatar this December and in December 2020.

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

Europa League preview: Man Utd, Wolves travel to stadium burdened by racial abuse

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Manchester United hopes to build off Monday momentum when it visits Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League, though the hosts have some off-field aims following a pair of closed-door matches due to racist behavior.

Partizan boss Savo Milosevic, a former Aston Villa striker, has vowed that the match will be void of racism and a “celebration of football.”

United players Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford were part of an ugly atmosphere in Bulgaria while on England duty — something Maguire called “sickening” — but believe things will be better in Belgrade.

[ MORE: Genk 1-4 Liverpool | Ajax 0-1 Chelsea ]

Maguire is set for a new experience in the tie should he start, sort of. Maguire played a UEL qualifying round match with Hull City in 2014, but this is his first start in a European tournament proper. From ManUtd.com:

“Playing in Europe is another challenge,” he said. “It’s something I’m looking forward to, something I’m relishing. I want to play in the biggest games with the biggest pressure and that’s why I signed for a club like Man United, one of the biggest in the world. I’m looking forward to challenging myself under the lights in European football.”

United kicks off at 12:55 p.m. ET as one of two early starts for Premier League teams.

Wolves begin back-to-back matches against Slovan Bratislava in Slovakia, another situation where the hosts are dealing with recent racial problems.

Thursday’s match was supposed to be behind closed doors, but UEFA have allowed ticket giveaways to youth players and school kids. Wolves aren’t exactly impressed at the lessened punishment.

Here’s Matt Doherty, who says his Wolves will gladly leave the pitch if there’s a problem of any kind. From The Birmingham Mail:

“If it comes to it when players feel uncomfortable then I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” Doherty adds. “I would hate to be in a position where you have to choose. I would hate that, so hopefully it doesn’t happen. I would be more in the mind of trying to beat them on the pitch.”

Wolves have a win and a loss, leaving them a point behind their Thursday opponents and Braga.

The lone PL club kicking off at 3 p.m. is Arsenal, the Gunners having played very well in the Europa League but fairly substandard in the league.

Arsenal is one of five 2-0 teams in the UEL, and can essentially cement their place in the next round by dealing with Vitoria at the Emirates Stadium.

Europa League full slate

12:55 pm. ET
Besiktas v. Braga
Roma v. Borussia Monchengladbach
CSKA Moscow v. Ferencvaros
Partizan Belgrade v. Manchester United
Qarabag v. APOEL Nicosia
Ludogorets Razgrad v. Espanyol
Slovan Bratislava v. Wolves
Porto v. Rangers
Saint-Etienne v. Oleksandriya
Gent v. Wolfsburg
Istanbul Basaksehir v. Wolfsberg
Young Boys v. Feyenoord
AZ Alkmaar v. Astana

3 p.m. ET
Celtic v. Lazio
Sevilla v. Dudelange
Arsenal v. Vitoria
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Standard Liege
Rennes v. CFR Cluj
Sporting Lisbon v. Rosenborg
Getafe v. Basel
Dynamo Kyiv v. Copenhagen
Malmo v. Lugano
PSV Eindhoven v. LASK
Trabzonspor v. Krasnodar

LIVE MLS Cup Playoffs — NYCFC hosts Toronto, Seattle-RSL

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Citi Field is the scene for New York City FC’s debut as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Dome Torrent’s men have experienced opposition in Greg Vanney’s Toronto FC, who’ve been to two finals in three years but will have to advance another round without Jozy Altidore.

[ MORE: Live scores, box scores, stats ]

USMNT prospect Keaton Parks returns from injury for City and will partner with captain Alexander Ring beneath a dangerous quartet of attack-minded players.

Toronto hasn’t lost since Aug. 3 (5W-6D) and is well-equipped to deal NYCFC’s possession system on a postage stamp pitch.

The night-cap sees a 10 p.m. ET kickoff between Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake, the visitors bringing a stingy record; RSL has allowed the second fewest goals in the Eastern Conference.

The Sounders only lost two home matches this season, and have not lost a home playoff match under Brian Schmetzer.

Champions League wrap: Barcelona, Napoli hold group leads

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Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan got a necessary win, while several other notable teams had a lot of work on their hands on the way to three points in the UEFA Champions League.

Lionel Messi set another record, Jesse Marsch’s Red Bull Salzburg put another scare into a big name, and both Lille and RB Leipzig puts difference-making wonder strikes on the board.


[ MORE: Genk 1-4 Liverpool | Ajax 0-1 Chelsea ]


Slavia Prague 1-2 Barcelona

Lionel Messi’s third minute goal didn’t send the Czech hosts running for cover, and Slavia Prague got a leveling goal through Jan Boril. It was deserved, too, with the hosts taking double the shots as their visitors when they made it 1-1. An own goal finished off the scoring in Prague.

Messi’s goal made him the first player to score in 15 Champions League tournaments. He’s good.

Red Bull Salzburg 2-3 Napoli

Jesse Marsch’s men know a bit about comebacks after last month’s memorable match in Liverpool, and Erling Braut Haland scored to make it 1-1 after Dries Mertens gave the favored visitors a lead. Haland answered another Mertens goal but the magic ran out for the hosts after Lorenzo Insigne provided the winner.

Lille 1-1 Valencia

Russian winger Denis Cheryshev looked like he’d see his goal stand up as a winner despite a late Valencia red card, but my goodness this equalizer from Jonathan Ikone:

Inter Milan 2-0 Borussia Dortmund

Make it six goals for Lautaro Martinez in 11 appearances for Inter Milan, who looked well-drilled at home under Antonio Conte. Roman Burki was sensational to keep the score 1-0, saving a penalty amongst several other timely interventions, but BVB couldn’t muster a goal. Antonio Candreva added the consolation marker.

Benfica 2-1 Lyon

Rafa Silva was in the right place to deposit a fourth minute goal, and Benfica rode the lead until Memphis Depay leveled in the 70th minute. Enter Pizzi, who scored with five minutes left to give Benfica a needed win. Last place Benfica is three points back of leaders RB Leipzig.

RB Leipzig 2-1 Zenit Saint-Petersburg

Yaroslav Rakitskiy gave the visitors a halftime lead against the run of play but Konrad Laimer leveled the score line and then — clear the deck — Marcel Sabitzer did this: