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Inside story from Madrid for the Champions League final

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MADRID – One of the great occasions in the sporting calendar saw Tottenham and Liverpool collide for the biggest prize in European soccer as Madrid was at the center of the sporting world over the past few days.

The UEFA Champions League final is the biggest club game on the planet. Quite simply, Madrid was the perfect place to host this event.

[ MORE: All of the UCL final news ]

By land, sea and air, the English invaded Spain’s capital city and surrounding areas for one last battle in what was a season to remember for the Premier League.

The PL has delivered not only one of the most exhilarating title races in history, but its strength in Europe is clear with Chelsea beating Arsenal in the Europa League final on Wednesday and Liverpool beating Spurs to secure a sixth European Cup.

This is the story of what it was like to be in Madrid for 72 hours before, during and after the epic clash between Liverpool and Tottenham.


THE BUILD UP

Each club was given around 16,000 tickets to sell to their fans who were lucky enough to meet the criteria. Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium holds close to 70,000 and there were well over 70,000 Englishman in Madrid, according to estimations. The Department for Transportation in the UK stated that the Friday before the final was set to be its “busiest-ever day in airspace history” with more than 800 extra flights put on for travel to and from Spain.

In Madrid, the scene along the Gran Via and in the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol was a sight to behold.

Red shirts. White flags. The names of Kane and Salah adorned the back of shirts as far as the eye could see.

This was a celebration of all things great about the Premier League, as two sleeping giants of England had been awoken by two relentless, yet wonderfully lovable, managers.

Before the game both Klopp and Pochettino had tried to talk down the significance of winning the Champions League. You could see right through them. This was their career-defining moment.

Klopp could finally end his trophy drought at Liverpool and get his hands on the biggest trophy of them all to join Paisley, Fagan and Benitez in delivering a European title. Pochettino had yet to win a trophy in his managerial career and he was already a winner as Spurs had never been to the Champions League final before.

The pressure was on Liverpool. Fans in Madrid on both sides of the fence could sense it leading up to kick off.

At the stadium on the Friday before the game, Pochettino, Klopp and their players were relaxed with jokes galore and Spurs’ players relaxed with their families in the warm evening sunshine after their training session.

Respect was in the air between the managers as both praised the job the other has done, while Klopp was asked about his losing record in finals (he had lost six-straight major finals).

“If I would be the reason for losing six finals in a row then everyone needs to worry. … There can be moments that are unlucky and lucky, but I cannot change that. I understand luck as if you work for it then you get it from time to time,” Klopp added.

Pochettino agreed that fate will play its part and shared his respect for Klopp and Liverpool.

“Sometimes the universe is with you, sometimes it’s against you. But to arrive in a third champions league final? I admire him a lot. Of course we are in football because we want to win but I think the journey to the final of the Champions League is the most important and the most difficult thing.”

The journey both sets of fans have been on just to get to Madrid was pretty epic, and difficult, too.


THE FANS

Sure, the majority of the fans came from England. But wandering around Madrid I spoke to people from Australia, the Far East, South America and the United States of America. This was a truly international occasion, one which showcased the power of the Premier League to the world in one of Europe’s largest and most famous cities.

Tales of fans driving to Spain from England through France, others getting boats to the Iberian peninsula, and flying into cities all over Spain and France then catching trains to converge in Madrid were rife among the groups of fans as they sipped on beer in the many winding streets.

An American couple from Colorado, Max Nolan and Jayne Thompson, are huge Liverpool fans and found themselves in Madrid in the lead up to the final at a wedding they had booked to go to months in advance. When Liverpool reached the final they tried to change their flights for extra time in Spain and get tickets for the game, but it just wasn’t possible as they flew back to the USA on the day of the final.

But that didn’t stop them taking in the sights as Max wore his retro Liverpool jersey with pride as he stood off a side street near Calle de Leon.

“For me it has been overwhelmingly Liverpool fans who have sung louder and prouder,” Nolan laughed. “We were just walking down the street and a group of guys started singing ‘Allez, Allez, Allez!’ and another guy was like, ‘oh, just shut up’ and he was a Spurs fan. The vibe is very cool. It makes me really, really wish I was staying here for the game. The city is going to be electric.”

Oh, it was.

In the 90 degree heat and the hustle and bustle of Spain’s capital city, there was no sign of any skirmishes between Liverpool and Spurs fans. In keeping with the overall mood of the final, both teams respected one another and the odds they had overcome to reach the pinnacle of the European game.

That tone was set by Klopp and Pochettino and with both clubs littered with England internationals and having epic battles over the past few years, respect has been earned as both coaches have built their projects from scratch at pretty much the same time. Of course, Klopp has had more money to spend, but Spurs’ new stadium means they will be pushing all the way in the years to come.

But all of that went out the window for one more intense battle to cap a truly remarkable season for English and European soccer.

Tottenham’s fans, for the most part, were just delighted to be in this situation.

Londoner Pete Crockford stood in the middle of Puerta del Sol as Spurs and Liverpool fans swirled around him singing, dancing and drinking in the sun.

“It is unbelievable. I have to pinch myself, I just can’t believe I’m here,” Crockford said. “The atmosphere is absolutely fantastic. Walking around a foreign capital city, seeing members of my family everywhere and bumping into Spurs fans, it is just unreal. The fact there are two English clubs here, this says a lot about the strength of the Premier League. There has been a little bit of tension with the Liverpool fans, but mostly just friendly banter.”

A group of Liverpool fans wearing shirts commemorating their incredible comeback Champions League win in Istanbul in 2005 stood nearby and they had flown in from Melbourne, Australia for the game. Yep, all the way from Oz.

Stuart and Kal just had to be in Madrid to see their beloved Liverpool do their business, they hoped, once again.

“We’ve got good vibes, that is why we came here!” laughed Kal.

“On paper, we are the better team,” Stuart added. “We’ve got more experience and we are confident.”

“This atmosphere is awesome, having everything central here in Madrid is pretty cool. The chanting, two English clubs going at each other. It is quite jovial. Spurs and Liverpool don’t have a hateful relationship, everyone is enjoying themselves, bit of banter and beer, it’s all good! The fact there is going to be over 150,000 English supporters over here, it says it all,” Kal added.

Estimations rose throughout the 24 hours leading up to the game, with fans pilling into the main fan zones and metro stations nearby being shut down due to the huge volume of supporters present.

Squares were taken over by either Liverpool or Spurs supporters, but there wasn’t a hint of trouble. Pochettino and Klopp’s names were sung long into the night in Madrid before the game, as plenty of sore heads were present on the morning of the game.

One Liverpool fan sat on a bench, leaning to one side with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Would he make it to watch the game in the stadium or on TV somewhere? Hmmm…


GAMEDAY

On the day of the game, things were ramped up several notches. Even more fans arrived on flights, with many saying they tried to buy tickets from others on the plane and there was a mad scramble to try and get inside the stadium.

Two huge fan zone areas were created, one for each team, as supporters watched footage of their teams run to the final on big screens, danced to music and sung their hearts out.

At Tottenham’s fan zone at the Plaza de Colon, I met Dave from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who had flown over for the game, keeping his pact with his daughter, Sam, who flew in from Argentina.

While in the Plaza Felipe II, Liverpool’s fans took over the entire area as flares were in the air, music was blasting out and there were bright red shirts as far as you could see.

Cries of “loco, loco” from taxi drivers and locals summed it up.

Liverpool’s huge fanbase around the globe was wonderfully apparent as they seemed to heavily outnumber Spurs supporters in the Spanish capital.

And the party atmosphere flowed through the fans in the street and at the stadium.

Arriving at the Metropolitano, about eight miles outside the city center, people wearing jerseys of all kinds were there. It was like going to an NFL game at Wembley, where shirts of so many teams from some many countries were worn proudly.

One quick scan revealed Honduras, Paraguay, Atletico Madrid, Argentina, Colombia, Juventus, Ajax and Mexico jerseys, while Brazil, Real Madrid and Deportivo Cali were all represented.

Wherever you looked you saw another intriguing jersey, another set of fans who weren’t necessarily Spurs or Liverpool supporters but where there to soak up one of the great sporting occasions on the planet.

The same camaraderie between Spurs and Liverpool that was present throughout the days leading up to the final was also present outside the stadium. Two Spurs fans were walking along with a group of Liverpool fans reminiscing about the amazing comebacks of both clubs at the semifinal stage.

“Yeah, I turned on your second half, and just couldn’t believe it. Fair play.”

Fans respected one another and were united in one cause: getting into the stadium.

Hours before kick off fans were still circling outside the ground on the hunt for tickets, but many of their quests would be unsuccessful with prices of over $10,000 being mentioned for what had now become a golden ticket scenario.

The teams getting to the stadium was broadcast live on television, as helicopters hovered over Madrid and showed their team bus as they snaked through the sprawling suburbs in the searing heat.

Thanks to the help of the Imagine Dragons on the pitch before the game, the noise inside the stadium got louder and louder before kick off as fans streamed in and arrived early.

A stirring rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” then made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Then it began. And it started with a bang…


THE GAME

There was almost disbelief that a moment like this could occur with 23 seconds on the clock. It set the tone for the entire game.

Sadio Mane‘s clipped ball inside the penalty box hit Moussa Sissoko‘s arm after clipping his chest, as a harsh, but correct penalty kick was given.

Mohamed Salah smashed home the spot kick to make it 1-0 and the red half of the stadium erupted as Liverpool’s fans were in dreamland.

The rest of the first half saw Spurs have plenty of the ball as Liverpool waited to pick them off on the break, but there were so many individual mistakes as a combination of a three-week break before the final, plus the intense heat and Madrid and maybe, just maybe, the pressure had got to the players after all.

In the second half Spurs improved but Alisson made several fine stops and substitute Divock Origi then drilled home a low shot to seal the win.

Klopp had his first trophy at Liverpool and could finally shed his loser tag.

Liverpool’s players and fans didn’t care that they hadn’t played well and celebrated long into the night in Madrid, chanting down alleyways and in pubs as many didn’t go to sleep as they soaked up a sixth European title.

“Sometimes we carry the burden of history,” Klopp said afterwards as he was asked if Liverpool can reach the final in Istanbul next season. But now this Liverpool side are thriving amid a golden generation of players who believe they deserve to dominate Europe for years to come. 

For now, add Madrid to the list of places which will always endear itself to the Liverpool faithful.

And in keeping with the overall mood around the game, fans of both teams mingled after the game. In one bar a Liverpool fan walked up to a group of Spurs supporters and offered his condolences. “That was us last season, you’ll bounce back, don’t be too upset.”

The fans of Liverpool and Tottenham were a credit to their clubs.

Another famous night, and days, played out.

The final itself was far from memorable, on the pitch, but the days in Madrid around it truly delivered a sparkling showcase of the beautiful game.

It was a fitting place to hold one of the great occasions and the Champions League final should return there very soon.

DC United acquires Julian Gressel from Atlanta

Atlanta United trades for Julian Gressel
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How much is Major League Soccer’s best assist man worth?

About $750,000.

DC United paid Atlanta United that fee in allocation money for the rights to Julian Gressel, who had been at a contract impasse with the club who drafted him in 2017.

That fee could hit $1.1 million in incentives, and even so could be a bargain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Gressel was due to make around $133,000 this season and wanted an improved deal from Atlanta given his massive production since becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

That salary is less than hundreds of players, most of them nowhere near Gressel’s impact. Nineteen Atlanta United players made more than him last season, so it’s understandable that the 26-year-old wanted to get paid.

We don’t know what he was asking, or why Atlanta wouldn’t get there. From MLSSoccer.com:

“If we really wanted to, we could have had him play on $130,000 this season, extend him a bona fide offer at the end of the season and (we’d still own his MLS rights),” said Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra. “We’re also trying to do the right thing for a guy who has given so much to the club and is really just a good kid all around.”

It’s a weird one, given what the club’s been paying others.

Gressel arrived at Providence College from Eintracht Bamberg and immediately started delivering for the Big East side. He finished his four years with 30 goals and 26 assists and All-American status.

There was some adapting to MLS, but he’s gotten better with every season. He scored 10 goals with 13 assists in all competitions last season.

Spurs chairman reportedly met with Real Madrid about Gareth Bale

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As a neutral, the idea of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham Hotspur would be a delight to our Premier League matchday viewing.

Obviously this applies to Spurs fans to the nth degree, especially after a dull 0-0 with Watford at the weekend.

In the short-term, Bale would be a terrific stopgap as Spurs struggle to find themselves without Harry Kane in both the PL and Champions League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

In the long-term, Bale and Heung-Min Son on the wings of Harry Kane would be enough to make any PL power trio blush (unless Liverpool really does add Timo Werner).

A report out of Spain says Real Madrid president Florentino Perez met with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy about several things including the availability of Bale.

The Welsh star has been long admired by Jose Mourinho, and of course knows Spurs well having become a superstar after arriving from Southampton.

Bale is 30 and his wages would easily top Spurs’ pay list. His 21 goals and nine assists in the 2012/13 Premier League season join his 19 and 11 in 2015 La Liga as his top league seasons.

Spurs host Norwich City on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Guardiola praises Laporte, “the best left central defender in the world”

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Chelsea admit they miss USMNT’s Pulisic

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LONDON — Since USMNT star Christian Pulisic was injured in training in the first week of January, Chelsea have lost against Newcastle, drawn with Arsenal and blown away Burnley.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

In the two games where they’ve dropped points they’ve missed Pulisic’s genius in the final third with both Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi easily shackled by Arsenal in their London derby. Chelsea admitted as much when speaking after the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, an Arsenal side who played with 10 men for over 60 minutes of the game.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about Pulisic’s adductor injury and if they missed him during the draw against Arsenal, downbeat Chelsea boss Frank Lampard noted that Pulisic, 21, was “playing really well” before his injury.

“Yeah, a game like today could have been a good where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

When will Pulisic be back?

Lampard confirmed he is making good progress but will not be fit until after the mid-season player break in February, which means he will miss their FA Cup trip to Hull City this Saturday and their clash at Leicester City on Feb. 1. He may not be back until Feb. 17 when they host Manchester United in the Premier League, which means in total he will have been out for a period of six weeks.

“In terms of when he’s back, it is not going to be a week, it is probably be the other end of the early February break but he is getting better and he isn’t far away,” Lampard said.

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who scored their late second goal which looked like being the winner, lavished praise on Pulisic when asked about his absence over the last week.

“Christian is a magnificent player. Since he joined us in the summer he has shown us his potential and we know that he can make the difference at any time. Whenever a player is injured it is not good for a team because we lose potential and I hope to have him back soon,” Azpilicueta said.

Chelsea’s skipper is expecting big things from Pulisic when he does return to fitness, as the fourth-place Blues now have just a six-point cushion to those outside of the top four and have played a game more.

It seems like everyone at Chelsea hopes the USMNT star can rejuvenate their attack in the final months of the season.

“After coming to Europe as a young boy to Germany, he came to Chelsea and it is one step forward, playing for Chelsea every game, fighting to win and fighting for trophies,” Azpilicueta said. “In my role I’ve tried to help in settle into the city and the club. He has a brilliant attitude. Always trying to improve. I am sure he will become bigger and bigger.”