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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.”

Cruzeiro relegated from Brazilian top flight for first time

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Brazilian side Cruzeiro was relegated from the top flight for the first time in the club’s 98-year history following a 2-0 defeat to Palmeiras on the final day of the season.

Cruzeiro required victory and a loss by Ceara at Botafogo to stay safely in the Brazilian Serie A, but neither came to pass.

Palmeiras midfielder Ze Rafael scored in the 58th minute to send the visitors on their way, with fellow midfielder Dudu finished things off in the 84th minute. Referees ushered the players off the field immediately after the conclusion of the match as Cruzeiro fans rioted in the Mineirao stadium, ripping out seats, setting off smoke bombs, and clashing with police.

Cruzeiro finished 17th in the 20-team table, three points back of Ceara in 16th. In the Brazilian top flight, the bottom four teams are relegated. CSA, Chapecoense, and Avai were also relegated. Cruzeiro had won the Brazilian Serie A as recently as 2013 and 2014, winning four titles in its history. They also have six Copa do Brasil titles, most recently winning the league cup in 2017 and 2018.

Flamengo ran away with the championship, finishing on 90 points, 16 points clear of second-placed Santos and third-placed Palmeiras who both finished level on 74 points. Palmeiras had challenged for the title, but fell off at the end of the season with a five-match winless run through November.

Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Two struggling London sides meet Monday when West Ham United hosts Arsenal (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The sides might’ve expected they’d be within close proximity at this point on the fixture list, but two wildly disappointing seasons means the three points between the Gunners and Irons comes with the former in 11th and the latter 16th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s been nine matches since Arsenal beat someone, 11 since it happened in the Premier League. West Ham hasn’t been much better, winning once in its last 10.

Freddie Ljungberg has yet to win as Arsenal interim boss, while West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini could see his current stint in London end without more results like the Nov. 30 win at Chelsea.

Monday versus Arsenal would qualify.


Injuries/suspensions

West Ham United: OUT —  Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid. QUESTIONABLE — Michail Antonio.

Arsenal: OUT — Dani Ceballos. QUESTIONABLE — Rob Holding.


Probable lineups

West Ham United: Martin; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Fredericks; Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Snodgrass, Haller.

Arsenal: Leno; Kolasinac, Sokratis, Luiz, Bellerin, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s Antonio sees an opportunity: “The only three teams that are really performing are Liverpool, Leicester and Man City. Everyone else is getting beaten, and it means we’ve had a missed opportunity so far this season. We started the season off brightly, the best start we’ve had for four years, but then we’ve had a slump. Everyone’s having a slump and this is our slump. Now it’s time for us to start turning up. We’ve been in this situation before and we know how to dig in and pull ourselves up again.”

Arsenal’s Ljungberg on setting targets: “I don’t think we should stop talking about the top four, but for us it’s about concentrating on what we’re doing here now and not look up, down, sideways. We just need to work on our own game and our own confidence.”


Prediction

Really, you wouldn’t want to predict anything from these sides right now besides goals. We’ll give an edge in desperation to the hosts and a 2-2 draw.

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.