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Arsenal has doubts over Mkhitaryan’s availability for Europa League final

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Arsenal attacker Henrikh Mkhitaryan could miss the Europa League final over concerns for his safety at the event’s location in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, according to the club.

Arsenal confirmed to the English media via a spokesperson that the club is not satisfied with the assurances they have received from UEFA regarding Mkhitaryan’s safety on the trip. “We are seeking guarantees from UEFA that it will be safe for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to travel to Baku for the Europa League final, which both Arsenal and Micki require for him to be included within our squad,” the statement said. “Acceptable guarantees have not been received yet, and we hope that UEFA will be able to supply these promptly. We are of course hugely concerned that the location of the final could lead to Micki not being able to play in a European final.”

According to a report by the BBC, UEFA has said the situation is still “a work in progress.”

However, despite Arsenal’s publicized concerns, the Associated Press reports that Azerbaijan has indicated that there will be no problems for Mkhitaryan entering the country. “Many major sports events have been hosted in Azerbaijan, and Armenian athletes have taken part in them. Sports and politics are separate,” said ministry spokeswoman Leyla Abdullayeva as quoted by the AP.

In addition, the AP received a statement from UEFA that seemed to indicate they had received assurances of Mkhitaryan’s safety, but did not mention a relationship with the Azerbaijani government. “Assurances were sought on this matter by UEFA and Arsenal FC, with the Azerbaijan Football Association confirming that there would be no problem for the player in question to enter and stay in Azerbaijan and that all necessary security measures would be in place,” UEFA told the Associated Press via email.

The Armenian international missed Borussia Dortmund’s Europa League trip to Azerbaijani club Gabala in 2015, and he missed Arsenal’s trip to Azerbaijani club Qarabag in Europa League group stage play back in October, with tensions between the two countries high. However, Qarabag head coach Gurban Gurbanov said back in October before the match that there should be no problems with Mkhitaryan’s travel to and from the country, and that Arsenal may have simply left him off the roster to avoid the problem altogether.

“If Henrikh Mkhitaryan would come to Azerbaijan it is not the first time,” Gurbanov said. “A lot of Armenian sportsmen came to Azerbaijan but it is the choice of Arsenal that they didn’t send him. Arsenal may be afraid that in front of 60,000 Azerbaijani fans, Mkhitaryan has some pressure and that is why they didn’t send Mkhitaryan.”

Relations between the two countries have been excessively strained since the late 80’s and early 90’s when Armenian-backed forces took control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan. The conflict was somewhat resolved in 1994 with a cease-fire but it has escalated in the past few years, including a brief clash in 2016 and subsequent reverberations.

Arsenal is set to play fellow Premier League side Chelsea in the Europa League final on May 29.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland

Report: Alexis Sanchez out until 2020 with ankle injury

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Alexis Sanchez has targeted a return to form at Inter, but that may be shelved for some time as an ankle injury picked up on international duty could keep him out of action for months.

The Chilean federation confirmed that Sanchez suffered a “dislocation of the ligaments” in his left ankle in the 0-0 friendly draw with Argentina over the weekend, but did not specify a timeframe for his recovery. However, Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri tweeted that Sanchez will not return until the calendar flips to 2020.

The injury is poorly timed for Sanchez who just broke into the Inter squad after being loaned from Manchester United. He scored his first goal in a 3-1 win over Sampdoria in late September before being sent off and suspended a match. The 30-year-old was also quality in the Champions League defeat to Barcelona, assisting Inter’s only goal.

At worst, a three-month injury layoff would see Sanchez return in mid-January, meaning he would miss the rest of the Champions League group stage as well as a host of Serie A matches. A Milan derby in early February would likely be a significant possibility for a late return.