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Ex-Mexico coach denies involvement in match-fixing in Spain

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MADRID (AP) — Former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre has denied taking money that was allegedly used to fix the result of a Spanish league game eight years ago.

Aguirre testified Thursday in the match-fixing trial involving a game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Aguirre, Zaragoza’s coach at the time, is one of more than 40 people who could face two years in prison and a six-year ban from soccer if found guilty.

Prosecutors said there is evidence that 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.

Aguirre and some of the players who have testified denied Zaragoza’s version that the money was paid as an incentive.

Aguirre said he received a deposit without his consent and returned the money to the club because it was not part of his contract.

Some of the players said they were asked as a favor to the club to withdraw the money deposited into their accounts and return it in cash, which they said they did. A few players said they kept the deposits because they believed the money was owed to them.

Among the 36 players accused are 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.

Herrera, Ponzio and Fernandez were among the players who testified on Thursday.

Former Levante player Xavi Torres was asked why he went more than two months without making any cash withdrawals following the match against Zaragoza. The midfielder said he didn’t need to make any withdrawals because he was on vacation, travelling to different countries and at his parents’ home.

Torres, who played the whole match against Zaragoza, denied the result was fixed.

“You can see during the match that we created several scoring opportunities and tried to win,” he said.

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

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.

Even if found guilty, it’s unlikely that those being accused would face actual prison time because sentences of two years or less for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

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

At the half: West Ham lead struggling Arsenal

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They say in derbies that form goes out the window, but it didn’t seem that apparent for Arsenal on Monday evening.

West Ham United is 45 minutes away from a second major win in three Premier League games as the Hammers hold a 1-0 halftime lead over Arsenal. Angelo Ogbonna’s headed goal off a Pablo Fornals cross is the difference so far.

After two straight poor performances for Arsenal, manager Freddy Ljunberg must have hoped for a better reaction in a London derby. Instead, Arsenal has been slow in passing, slow to second balls and not as determined as West Ham to win. Every possession gained is giving West Ham confidence, which led to the goal. The goal came after a couple of pinball rebounds following a corner kick, but the Hammers’ determination to score helped them go in front.

To make matters worse for Arsenal, Kieran Tierney suffered another injury, forcing him off the field in the first half and compelling Ljunberg to bring on Sead Kolasinac, despite him being short on fitness too.

Arsenal has a massive 45 minutes ahead. Should West Ham win, it would go level with Arsenal. If the Gunners lose, it’s their 10th straight match in all competitions without a win and it drops them into the bottom half of the league table.

Watch Live: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Arsenal will be searching for their first win since firing Unai Emery as manager when they visit West Ham United, who could use a win in the worst possibly way themselves, at the London Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gunners have drawn one — coming back from a goal down, twice, against Norwich City — and lost at home to Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday. It’s hardly been an ideal start to life under interim boss Freddie Ljungberg. As a result, they enter Monday’s game sitting 11th in the Premier League table.

As for the Hammers, Manuel Pellegrini is beginning to feel the pressure after winning just one of his side’s last nine games (1W-2D-6L). Following that exceedingly poor run of results, West Ham sit 16th in the PL table, just one point clear of the relegation zone.

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Messi’s hometown offers emotional trip to his childhood

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ROSARIO, Argentina — Soccer wasn’t always Lionel Messi’s favorite activity.

When he was a child in the modest neighborhood of La Bajada in his Argentine hometown of Rosario, he spent his time bicycling with friends, building forts out of branches and stones, playing hide and seek – and occasionally stealing lemons from a neighbor to make juice.

Those stories and others are the focus of a new tour being offered by Rosario to celebrate their 32-year-old hometown hero, an international sports superstar who just won an unprecedented sixth Golden Ball as world soccer’s player of the year.

The tour put together by Rosario’s city hall is free of charge and available in an app translated into several languages, guiding fans through 10 stops.

Few houses are higher than two stories in La Bajada, a middle-class neighborhood in the city that is 186 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires.

Halfway down Israel street stands a gray house, closed off by shut curtains and protected by railings. There is no sign outside indicating it was Messi’s home, and no one lives there now, though it still belongs to his family.

The neighbors aren’t so shy about the Messi connection, however. Colorful paintings dedicated to the soccer star stand in front of houses and there are sidewalks colored in the blue and white of Argentina’s national team with Messi’s jersey number, 10, painted in black.

Messi’s neighbors and friends are often willing to share stories with visitors.

“Leo was normal and ordinary like other people here,” Diego Vallejos, one of Messi’s childhood friends, told The Associated Press on a sandy soccer field of the El Campito club as three youngsters played soccer.

“We fell, we scratched ourselves riding bikes. We went to the street with water bombs and threw them at buses,” said Vallejos, who is one year older than Messi.

Also are on the tour are the school Messi attended and the Abanderado Grandoli club, where he learned his first soccer moves.

The city long had a somewhat distant relationship with Messi, and officials say the tour seeks to change that. Rosario’s city hall said Messi’s family did not take part in the creation of the tour.

“What we want to emphasize is that Leo is a product of his city, and that there is a life and many stories behind the superstar,” said Santiago Valenti with Rosario’s tourism agency.

Messi was born June 24, 1987, in the Hospital Italiano Garibaldi in Rosario. He lived in the city until 2000, when he moved to Barcelona.

A recently opened sports museum, a few blocks from Messi’s old house, offers an interactive tour of the lives of local stars in racing, boxing, basketball and soccer.

Messi’s section of the museum is introduced by a painting that mixes monuments from Rosario and Barcelona, and the sentence: “All that I did, I did for soccer.” Two giant screens display goals and testimonials from his teammates.

“The idea is not to pay a tribute to his sporting success,” said museum coordinator Juan Echeverría. “It is to value the path he walked, everything that an athlete has to go through to get to the tip of the iceberg that we see when he is on the podium.”

The museum has contacted Messi’s family and the player’s father said he would donate more memorabilia.

One of items on display is a small red coat with a white collar. Below it is Messi’s official register as a Newell’s Old Boys academy player and a picture of him smiling.

Downtown is the Malvinas compound where Newell’s has its soccer academy. It was there the young Messi was filmed out-dribbling much bigger opponents.

“This is where it all started,” said Lisandro Conte, an employee at the academy.

Messi did not play for Newell’s. “At that time there were players who looked more promising, and the bet was placed on them,” Conte said.

Still, Messi has said he wants to finish his career at Newell’s, playing for his hometown club in his own country after a professional career in Barcelona’s storied Spanish league team.

Fans visiting Rosario might even be able to catch a match between teams like the recent clash between Newell’s and arch-rival Rosario Central. Among the 14 youngsters chasing the ball might be Rosario’s next star.

Solskjaer: Man Utd must keep big-game mentality v. lesser teams

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Things are going quite well for Manchester United right now, but manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists they still could — and should — be better.

[ MORE: Man arrested in connection to racist abuse at the Manchester derby ]

Following back-to-back wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in the span of four days last week, Man United now sit fifth in the Premier League table and trail Chelsea by just five points in the race for top-four.

The win over Man City could very well go down as the result of the season, having thoroughly outplayed their rivals, on their own field, for 45 minutes before holding on for all three points. Solskjaer was proud of his player’s mentality on Saturday, but it left him wondering what could be if they managed to maintain that level of focus and performance against the so-called “lesser” teams as well — quotes from the Guardian:

“That’s up to me, to make sure that for every single game they know they have to earn the right to win a game of football. You’ve got to earn the right to win. Sometimes you’ve got to earn it by passing quicker, winning the ball back — there are different ways of winning games of football.

“We’ll work with the mentality of the boys. It’s been very much about margins in those games [we lost]. But if you look behind the results I’m not as negative as you are. I’m not so worried, so concerned. If the boys are then telling me they can’t get up for these games, then we’ve got a problem. Then I’ve really got to work with them because when I played that’s how we won the league. We never gave points away against the lesser teams, the not-so-good teams. The Premier League is difficult. If you don’t have that mentality, you won’t get results. I’ll work on the mentality.”

Up next for United is a visit from a potentially tricky opponent, Everton (Watch live, Sunday, 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), who last week fired manager Marco Silva and beat Chelsea 3-1 less than 48 days later.