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UEFA president: We will explore UCL revamp despite criticism

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UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin countered “negative energy” from critics of any Champions League overhaul that could lock in places by defending the need to be “constantly thinking about improving” European competitions.

Leagues across the continent – particularly Spain’s La Liga – fear their competitions would be damaged if UEFA pursued a concept to create a largely closed-off Champions League where 24 out of 32 teams are guaranteed automatic qualification the following season regardless of where they finish in their domestic leagues.

“We have the best competition in the world by far, for now we don’t know when or if any changes to our competition will be made,” Ceferin told The Associated Press. “So the ones who criticize every day should start taking care of football in their own countries. I am not sure if there’s nothing to criticize.

“We just agreed to continue one more cycle (of European competitions) 2021-24 without changing anything. UEFA is a very dynamic organization and always has to explore if and how our competitions can get better. We are constantly thinking about improving. The reason that you’re the best doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get better.”

As part of a broad consultation process, Ceferin is willing to study any concept from the European Leagues organization for UEFA’s three competitions, including the Europa League 2 which begins in 2021.

But the concept that is embraced by the elite clubs was presented to the leagues, including La Liga President Javier Tebas, in a private meeting on Wednesday at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

“We were attacked even before the first meeting and we thought for a while that any consultation process is not appreciated by some of the stakeholders,” Ceferin said. “It’s perfectly clear to me that we are not just a stakeholder, we are the governing body of European football and we have to safeguard all European football. But I don’t like secret meetings. I don’t like to hide things from the stakeholders. That’s why we started the discussion so early.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do it after we see all the negative energy, hostility, false solidarity coming out.”

Ceferin and the European Club Association were irked by Tebas hosting a meeting on Tuesday in Madrid of clubs and leagues to amass opposition to any significant changes to the format of European competitions. The AP reported Friday from a recording of Wednesday’s meeting with leagues that Ceferin hit out at suggestions he was “killing football” by looking at ideas that include enlarging a new third competition to 64 teams.

A Champions League concept, which has been seen by the AP, would introduce promotion and relegation to the Champions League that would help to lock in guaranteed slots for elite clubs.

Four Champions League teams would be relegated each season into the next season’s second-tier Europa League. They would be replaced by the Europa League semifinalists, who would be promoted.

From the 2024-25 group stage, 24 of the 32 teams could retain their places the following season regardless of their domestic league finish.

Countries could be limited to five representatives, retaining the current limit that allows the top four in England, Germany, Spain and Italy to qualify alongside a Champions League winner from those countries which didn’t make the domestic top four.

National champions would only get four qualifying places to compete in preliminary rounds.

The changes would reduce the possibility of this season’s Champions League finalists repeating the feat under any revamp unless they were already in the competition.

Liverpool last won the English league in 1990 and Tottenham triumphed in 1961 – long before UEFA expanded Champions League entry beyond domestic champions in 1997.

While Liverpool is a five-time European champion, Tottenham has now made its first final in its fourth-ever season in the Champions League since 2010, having only previously played in the European Cup in the 1961-62 campaign.

Both teams relied on dramatic second-leg comebacks to reach the June 1 final in Madrid, while English rivals Arsenal and Chelsea made the Europa League final on May 29.

“This season’s Champions League and Europa League semifinals shows that those are by far the best club competitions in the world,” Ceferin said. “Exciting matches, fantastic football and thrilling ends. At the same time there’s a lot of hostility in the media from some stakeholders about an idea for changing the competition.”

Ceferin was still president of the Slovenian federation when the last significant changes were made to the Champions League, just before his Sept. 2016 elevation to the UEFA leadership. At the time, Ceferin denounced a secret deal that saw Spain, Germany, England and Italy exert influence over UEFA to gain 16 of the 32 Champions League group-stage places.

“In 2016, there was no consultation process and changes were made without consulting the stakeholders,” Ceferin said. “Now we even don’t propose any changes yet but we have already started to consult and share the ideas.”

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

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MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.