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Champions League semifinal predictions: Will the PL sides make it through?

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The Champions League semifinals are nearly here and the road to Madrid is nearly complete. Two Premier League teams are left standing, and while both are challenged by formidable opponents, the two teams are facing extremely different tasks.

Liverpool and Tottenham have reached this stage by knocking out giants of the game, preparing them for the biggest stage. Spurs took down Man City in the quarterfinals in thrilling fashion, a massive victory over one of the best Premier League sides in the history of the English top flight. Liverpool, meanwhile, knocked out Bayern Munich in the Round of 16, holding the German giants who have registered 80 goals in 31 Bundesliga matches to just one score over the two legs.

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With a pair of absolutely delicious semifinal matchups to savor, each with varying degrees of intricacies, let’s break down each meeting.

Tottenham vs. Ajax

A heavy burden will be placed on the shoulders of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images).

“We have a spirit in the team that we can achieve anything and all is possible. That is our strength.” -Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino

Spurs host Dutch side Ajax at the new stadium before heading out to the Netherlands for the second leg. In a vacuum, Tottenham fans would be just happy to reach the Champions League semifinals, having reached this stage for the first time since the 60’s. Spurs would become the first team to reach the Champions League final for the first time since Chelsea did in 2008. Yet matching up with Ajax changes that slightly, and as quality as the young Dutch squad has looked this season, the sting of disappointment would be heavy should Spurs be eliminated by a club of Ajax’s stature having just eliminated such a powerhouse the previous round.

The matchup is rife with adversity for Spurs, the most banged up team remaining in the competition. Already without talismanic striker Harry Kane for maybe the remainder of the season with ankle trouble, in-form replacement Heung-Min Son is suspended for the first leg due to yellow card accumulation. That leaves Spurs extremely thin up front, with Fernando Llorente the likely candidate to start the opener. That puts enormous pressure on the creative forces like Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli, a reality which Spurs must face head-on. Moussa Sissoko and Jan Vertonghen are both question marks for the match, with the potential presence of both providing some sense of stability. As StatsBomb points out, the core squad of Alli, Eriksen, Vertonghen, Sissoko, Son, Kane, Hugo Lloris, and Toby Alderweireld have all found been on the pitch together just four times all year.

Nobody has been more battle tested in this tournament, however, than Ajax. They’ve already taken down last year’s champion Real Madrid and eight-time Serie A champs Juventus and will be fearless heading into the electric London atmosphere. Frenkie de Jong is a superstar in the making at just 21 years old, heading to Barcelona next year and looking for a dream finals meeting with his future club. In front of him is 22-year-old Donny van de Beek who has been the face of this beautifully flowing attack that takes no prisoners, and in back of him is 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt who is battle tested at an incredibly young age.

The Dutch club also comes in with extensive rest, with the Eredivisie moving fixtures around the give them more breathing room. Compared to the walking wounded Spurs, this is an enormous advantage for the visitors who will come to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium smelling blood, poised to walk away with a significant advantage in the matchup if they impose their will and pass Spurs to death in their own home.

Predictions: 

Kyle Bonn: Spurs could find themselves overwhelmed in the first leg if they can’t find the back of the net. However, the Tottenham midfield remains intact, with Sissoko potentially returning. A lot of this match hinges on Spurs being able to break up the silky smooth Ajax buildup, a trademark of this young team that’s played together at various youth levels. The first leg is critical to keep things close before Son comes back. I like the fairy tale to continue for Ajax, and Spurs forced to swallow a heavy dose of mixed feelings as the Dutch youngsters reach the final on a 2-1 aggregate score.

Joseph Prince-Wright: Tottenham takes down Ajax 3-2 on aggregate to continue Mauricio Pochettino’s dream campaign.

Barcelona vs. Liverpool

Liverpool’s attack has found another gear in recent weeks as they fight on multiple fronts, led by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images).

“It’s about doing it all together, it’s never one versus one, it’s never just me against a particular striker. It’s always us against everyone and I think that’s the only way we can defend well.” -Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk

The heavyweight matchup of the semifinals features last year’s runner up against this year’s La Liga champion. Barcelona has yet to lose in Champions League play, and hasn’t tasted defeat at all this season since a Copa del Rey defeat to Sevilla back in January, one they avenged 6-1 just seven days later. At 31 years old Lionel Messi looks to be in some of the best form of his spectacular career, with a massive 46-goal haul so far this season in 45 matches.

If anyone can lock down the Barcelona superstar its Liverpool, sporting newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk alongside either Joel Matip or Joe Gomez. While the narrative a few months ago would have been the back line at the other end of the field, Barcelona has shored up its defense in remarkable fashion, conceding just 14 goals over the club’s 23-game league unbeaten streak (just 10 goals in 22 games if you take out the wild 4-4 thriller against Villareal). They held Manchester United scoreless over both quarterfinal legs and have conceded just a single goal over the four Champions League knockout round matches thus far.

Still, among the likes of PSV Eindhoven, Lyon, Tottenham, and Inter, Barcelona has yet to face an attacking onslaught in Champions League play like the one Liverpool possesses. Over their current ten-game winning streak across all competitions, they have scored 29 goals, trouncing the last three Premier League opponents Chelsea, Cardiff City, and Huddersfield Town by a combined 9-0.

Jurgen Klopp‘s men are in stunning form, with all three main attackers providing meaningful contributions. Sadio Mane has 14 goals since the calendar turned to 2019, Roberto Firmino is the perfect foil every manager wishes his striker could be off the ball, and Mohamed Salah has shaken off mid-season doubters with five goals and four assists in his last seven outings. While many have criticized the Egyptian for failing to post the raw numbers he put up last season, his goals have given Liverpool life when they need it the most – his Premier League goals have accounted directly for 24 points this season, double any other player in the league.

Both teams will know what’s at stake, and while the other matchup could see both sides looking to secure an advantage going into the second leg, this game could be cagey with neither side wanting to risk handing the opponents a moment of opportunity. Still, Liverpool will be hungry to take down Barcelona’s imposing home Champions League record, having avoided defeat in 25 Camp Nou matches since falling 3-0 to Bayern Munich in 2013. That, and the prospect of revenge for last year’s finals disappointment will no doubt be on their minds, unable to truly avenge that painful defeat should they get past Barcelona and again have a chance to lift the trophy.

Predictions: 

Kyle Bonn: Often in Champions League play, a team is defined not by its strengths but by its weaknesses. Barcelona’s squad has more weaknesses than Liverpool’s. I like Jurgen Klopp to draw up an exciting 2-2 away goals victory, with Salah providing the key away goal to ensure the Reds move on to the final and have a chance to right last season’s close encounter.

Joseph Prince-Wright: Liverpool beats Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate to set up an all-Premier League final in Madrid.

Infantino says closing stadiums only a short-term coronavirus solution

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino has stated that he does not support playing closed-door games as a long-term solution to avoiding the threat of coronavirus.

Serie A will play games behind closed doors for the second straight weekend thanks to the rapid spread of the disease that has infected over 800 people in Italy. Most notably, the game between title contenders Inter and Juventus will be played in front of an empty Allianz Stadium in Turin.

“I don’t think it is sustainable in the long term to play behind closed doors,” Infantino said before a meeting in Northern Ireland. “Every competition organizer ultimately has to decide what is best for him. Obviously, on the short term it can be a solution [to play without fans] in order to move on. But you cannot imagine a few months of a competition being played, several matches being played, behind closed doors.”

Infantino went on to say he “wouldn’t exclude anything” when asked about possible solutions for international fixtures coming up in March, but admitted “I hope we will never have to get into this direction. We cannot underestimate and say it’s nothing but we don’t have to overreact and panic.”

Meanwhile, English tabloids reported Friday that the Premier League could close up shop early, costing Liverpool its league title should it take place before Liverpool is mathematically crowned champions. However, the Liverpool Echo reported that the Premier League is still considering all possibilities as solutions for coronavirus prevention and that scenarios like that are at this point considered “still at a hypothetical stage.”

Some Premier League clubs confirmed they are banning handshakes around the training ground, while others have told players to tone down fan interaction for the time being. Other leagues around Europe have taken more drastic measures, such as the Swiss league which has completely shut down until at least mid-March on instruction from the government.

French goalkeeper throws ball into own net

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There’s own-goals, and then there’s own-goals. French goalkeeper Brice Maubleu scored an own-goal.

The Grenoble goalkeeper, taking on fellow Ligue 2 side Caen on Friday, threw the ball into his own net in the 18th minute to give the hosts a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish.

It appeared that Maubleu was attempting to distribute the ball to one of his defenders only to pull back at the last minute, and upon his attempt to halt the throw, he instead tossed it back towards his own net. The 30-year-old captain attempted to scramble back and stop the ball, and he very well may have, but the referee gave the goal and replays were inconclusive.

You can watch video of the brutal own-goal here.

Maubleu confirmed that was his intention after the fact. “There are dark evenings and this is one of them,” the Grenoble captain said after the match. “On the goal, I wanted to quickly set Jerome (Mombris) away, but I saw that he was not looking at me so I revised my decision and then the ball left my hands”

Maubleu recalled when French goalkeeper Steve Mandanda did something similar while playing for Marseille in 2012, throwing the ball right to an opposition attacker who easily buried the ball into the empty net. “This happens sometimes and people think that it can’t possibly happen to others. In the end, I play the ball thinking that all was still ok but apparently the ball had already gone in,” Maubleu said.

“I am disappointed because it gave our opponent a two-goal lead. I will have to quickly get back working and move on, because it will likely do the rounds on social media. The goalkeeper position is exposed and there are risks. After that, I was back in my match and made saves even though those won’t be remembered.”

The 30-year-old Maubleu has played for just Tours FC and Grenoble in his career, making two Ligue 1 appearances in 2009 before spending the rest of his time in Ligue 2.

Arsenal posts loss as Champions League absence felt

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Arsenal announced Friday a loss of £27.1 million ($34.6 million) for the most recent fiscal year, citing the combination of high player wages and a lengthy absence from the UEFA Champions League competition as the main contributing factor for the poor financial performance.

The loss is the club’s first since 2002, according to Chairman Sir Chips Keswick.

Arsenal Holdings plc released the after tax total for the fiscal year ending May 31 2019, down from a $72.1 million profit the previous year. Commercial revenues were up significantly, increasing profits from $495.6 million to $504 million. Still, operating profits rocketed to $295.8 million thanks to what the club called “continued investments in player wages.”

“Our player trading profit for this financial year was limited and this combined with a second consecutive season of Europa League football has meant the club recorded its first overall loss since 2002,” Keswick said in a club statement. “For 2019-20 we will see increased commercial revenues from Adidas and our renewed deal with Emirates, but another season outside the Champions League will continue to apply pressure to our financial results.”

The Gunners were shockingly eliminated from the Europa League on Thursday at the hands of Olympiakos in extra-time, meaning the only way they end the Champions League drought will be to charge into the Premier League top four. Currently Arsenal sits ninth in the table, six points off fourth-placed Chelsea.

Back in July, Arsenal director Josh Kroenke – son of owner Stan Kroenke – warned that the club “had a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget.”

3 things to know about Inter Miami and Nashville S.C.

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The Major League Soccer gets under way this weekend, and for those fans who would like to get a better feel for the league as a whole, a good place to start is the two new clubs.

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Inter Miami and Nashville S.C. will both get a difficult welcome to the U.S. top flight this weekend, with Nashville hosting Atlanta United on Saturday while Miami travels to LAFC on Sunday. Neither clubs are expected to be immediate playoff contenders, but as both their debut opponents will tell them, there doesn’t always have to be a learning curve for new introductions.

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So, with that in mind, let’s learn more about the two expansion clubs that take the MLS total to 26.

INTER MIAMI

Seven years after David Beckham retired from Major League Soccer franchise and began pursuit of club ownership, his team finally takes the field. It has been a brutally long journey for the South Florida side, but the beginning is finally here. The roster looks solid and the coaching staff is well built, so don’t be surprised if they put up a fight in the playoff race.

1. The team is stocked with MLS veterans

Inter Miami had a clear strategy while building its initial squad – hoard experience. The team acquired USMNT midfielders Lee Nguyen and Wil Trapp, former champions AJ DeLaGarza and Alvas Powell, longtime NYRB goalkeeper Luis Robles, journeyman Juan Agudelo, and former NYCFC defender Ben Sweat. The players may or may not click together, but if one thing is for certain with Inter Miami, the club doesn’t feel as brand new when looking at the roster.

2. Matias Pellegrini will lead the way

While the squad is loaded with domestic experience, the club looked abroad for its first two Designated Players. 26-year-old Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro joined from Monterrey for a hefty fee, and he will be critically important moving forward in midfield. Young striker Julian Carranza is injured for the first month but will be a major factor up front as well. However, 19-year-old Matias Pellegrini will likely be the club’s most important player. The Argentine is an electric player, and how he integrates with a squad full of veterans will make Inter Miami an intriguing watch early in the campaign; if he doesn’t hit the ground running, the Inter Miami attack will sputter.

3. Depth is a strength

This team may need time to gel, but it is a well-constructed roster that is built to weather a storm. The only position that looks thin is center-back where Powell and Nicolas Figal are backed up by just inexperienced Grant Lillard, 19-year-old Christian Makoun, and 20-year-old Andres Reyes. Everywhere else is covered by experience. DeLaGarza provides excellent cover for Sweat and recent college graduate Dylan Nealis. Nguyen may not be an everyday starter any more but he is as good as bench options come. Robbie Robinson will likely begin the season up front but eventually take a back seat to Carranza and be a solid option off the bench, while Jerome Kiesewetter brings European experience as well.

NASHVILLE S.C.

Making less of a splash than Inter Miami is new Western Conference members Nashville S.C. Unlike Inter Miami, Nashville isn’t starting completely from scratch, having two years in USL under their belt. Still, there are plenty of questions to be asked about how Nashville can compete on a consistent basis this season.

1. This team is strong defensively, and not so much up front

This squad is clearly built for one thing – defensive strength. Nashville brought in USMNT veteran Walker Zimmerman from LAFC who will be partnered with 26-year-old former LA Galaxy defender Dave Romney. Dax McCarty provides good cover in midfield, and while Daniel Lovitz can get forward, the full-back group doesn’t exactly scream “attack attack attack.”

On that sense, going forward may be an issue. Nashville scored nine goals in preseason, but playing against other sides’ backups for much of the time it’s hard not to take that with a grain of salt. Dominique Badji’s MLS numbers with Colorado and FC Dallas are mediocre at best and Hany Mukhtar’s production abroad doesn’t jump off the page either. David Accam can create for himself but only has 17 assists in 124 career MLS appearances, so while goalscoring can be there, the creativity is lacking greatly. Abu Danladi hasn’t quite lived up to his expectations thus far and will be hoping a change of scenery can unlock a new level, but it’s hard to see the season-long consistency there.

2. The roster is full of scrappy players

A number of guys on the fringe of the Nashville S.C. roster may actually end up contributing more than expected. Randall Leal is an exciting player who could find himself a fan favorite with his swashbuckling style of play. With the expected inconsistency up front, Daniel Rios could get a look if he can translate his USL goalscoring numbers (40 goals in 62 games) to the MLS level – obviously a major question, but also one deserving the time of day. McCarty is a well-liked player who puts in a shift in midfield, and his partner Anibal Godoy plays the crunching style expected of a Central American defensive midfielder. This team will be a grind to break down.

3. Nashville probably needs to look for a few more pieces

With only Mukhtar signed on as a Designated Player, Nashville is probably a few more key contributors away from a playoff spot. Should they hold down a respectable start to the campaign, a summer signing could push this team into contention, but as it stands the cohesion brought on by two years in USL likely won’t be enough to see them keep pace with the stronger teams in the West. With an opening trio of games against Atlanta United, Portland, and Toronto FC, it will be difficult for the new boys to hit the ground running this season, and at times it could feel like a slog.