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Top five storylines for Champions League final

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One all-Premier League European final down, one to go. The Champions League final pits Liverpool against Tottenham on Saturday, and there is plenty to lap up across the 90 minutes or more.

1. Liverpool looks for redemption

Liverpool has fallen just short of reaching a few monstrous pinnacles, and supporters have had to endure brutal second-place finishes over the past 12 months.

First, they lost last year’s Champions League final to Real Madrid 3-1 on a Gareth Bale brace to break the deadlock. Many Reds fans feel they were slighted after Sergio Ramos tackled Mohamed Salah and forced him off injured just 31 minutes in with the game still scoreless.

Second, the Reds put up a vicious fight in this year’s Premier League, giving defending champions Manchester City a battle to the wire, but came up just short despite a record points haul for a Premier League second-place finisher. It was a season that would have won the title in almost every other English top-flight season, but with Manchester City up to the task, Liverpool has been forced to accept the consolation prize.

“I took a lot of experience from it; hopefully I can use that,” Virgil van Dijk said to BBC Sport in reference to last year’s loss to Madrid. “Losing a final is painful.”

Which brings us to our next storyline…

1a. Jurgen Klopp hoping to break his finals streak

Dating back to his days with Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has lost six straight Cup finals. The Reds are hoping that Klopp’s brutal record in silverware games does not become intertwined into a larger club narrative of second-place finishes.

Finishing as runners-up can be sustainable for only so long, and the Reds will not want to waste this window of opportunity completely. Despite the fabulous season bringing Man City to the final week and reaching the Champions League final, finishing the year with nothing to show for the fight would be painful for players and supporters alike. It has undoubtedly been a fabulous campaign, but no trophy haul would severely dampen the luster on the season and bring Jurgen Klopp’s ability to lead Liverpool to the pinnacle of their ascent into question.

2. Mauricio Pochettino searches for accelerant to his Spurs project

The Argentine took over Spurs in 2014 hoping to mold the London club into a perennial Premier League challenger. While they have yet to become a consistent title contender in the Premier League, a Champions League crown would no doubt boost those plans and give Pochettino a tangible sign that his project is speeding along.

It’s clear that turning even a consistent European participant into a Premier League giant takes years of planning and sustainable squad growth, but success in a top-level tournament setting would boost the club’s pedigree significantly and turn it into an even more attractive destination for incoming players who wish to prevail in Europe’s top competition.

Amid reports that Pochettino could leave to take a bigger-name job like Manchester United and Juventus, Pochettino could cement his status as the usher of the club’s next chapter with Champions League glory, and in doing so, giving him the unique opportunity to stay in North London long-term as a Wenger-esque club legend in a league familiar with managerial turnover.

3. Club talismans Eriksen, Salah battle for tangible justification

Christian Eriksen and Mohamed Salah share a lot in common. They both serve as the face of the club’s attacking threat, and they both have nothing to show for their time at the club aside from fan admiration. That will change as one of them will win a Champions League winners medal, solidifying themselves as more than just a bunch of goals and fan favorite status.

For Eriksen, it could mean even more as the Dane is rumored to be leaving the club this summer. With Tottenham reportedly chasing Giovani Lo Celso, it could signal that Eriksen is off to the greener pastures (literally $$$) of Real Madrid, ending a sparkling six-year run in West London. What a way to go out on top and leave your legacy at a club.

4. Harry Kane‘s return

Imagine suffering an injury and thinking your season was over, only to come back for the biggest game in club history.

It has been seven weeks since Harry Kane hobbled down the tunnel in London, out with ligament damage to his troublesome ankle. His ability to impact the game is a complete unknown, and it’s not even a guarantee he will make the starting lineup. Still, should Spurs need a goal either early or late, what a story it would be for Kane to come back and provide a landmark goal in the club’s history.

Kane defiantly declared himself fit, having returned to training and saying, “at the moment I feel good, I feel strong.” A rest may have done Kane well, as he struggled early this past campaign after a long previous season and busy World Cup summer, but has been successful in the past after coming back from injury layoffs. This season, Kane scored in three of his first four games back from his January ankle problems, and two seasons ago the story was the same. In November 2016 he scored five goals in four Premier League games back after missing a month, and later that year he missed three matches in early April before coming back to finish the season with 10 goals in the final eight matches. With just 90 minutes to make his mark, can Kane provide the same goalscoring threat he has so many times before for Tottenham?

5. First time finalists

Tottenham has reached the finals of the Champions League for the first time in club history, and that doesn’t bode well for Spurs. Each of the previous five first-time finalists have tasted defeat, with Borussia Dortmund the last club to reach the pinnacle on its first try back in 1997. Will Liverpool’s experience from last season be the key to victory for the Reds, or can Spurs develop a game plan to take down Klopp’s juggernaut and prevail in the club’s first go?

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

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.

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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.