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De Boer makes a most satisfying comeback with ATLUTD

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) Frank De Boer never seems to get flustered. The stoic Dutchman can switch from one language to another with ease. He speaks bluntly and rarely betrays any sense of doubt in his coaching abilities.

Yet, this has been a year when he’s had to show some flexibility.

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Maybe he didn’t have all the answers. Perhaps he needed to listen to his players a bit more.

“As a coach, you want to put your stamp a little bit on the team,” de Boer said after a training session at Atlanta United’s glitzy suburban complex. “But in the beginning, maybe we did it too much. We put too much stamp on it.”

De Boer chuckles.

He is clearly enjoying this most rewarding of comebacks.

After failing so miserably in Serie A and the Premier League, then enduring a sluggish start and some missteps away from the field in Atlanta, de Boer has guided United to the cusp of its second straight championship in Major League Soccer. His club will host Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday night before another raucous crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the winner advancing to face either Los Angeles FC or the Seattle Sounders for the MLS Cup title.

“I knew it’s always difficult coming to a new culture. They have to know you. I have to know the players. So it always takes time,” de Boer said. “You think, `OK, everything is going to be very easy, you’re going to win your games easily.’ No, it’s not like that. That why I chose Atlanta United. I wanted to feel that they would give me time.”

Arriving in Atlanta not long after United had given this title-starved city its first major championship since baseball’s Braves in 1995, de Boer faced immediate skepticism. He replaced the immensely popular Tata Martino, who needed only two years to transform an expansion team into a champion before leaving to become coach of the Mexican national team.

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De Boer had lasted mere months at both Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, his two previous coaching stops.

When United went out in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League and managed just one win in its first six MLS matches, it looked like de Boer might be headed for another short coaching stint in Atlanta.

“Of course, from the beginning, we wanted a good result,” de Boer said. “But still, we knew if it’s not going well, the confidence is there. We can build something here. I’m very pleased with that.”

A proponent of the “Total Football” philosophy that is ingrained in the Dutch game, with its value on possession and the flexibility to float from one position to another while maintaining the lineup’s organizational structure, de Boer seemed to be imposing a style that just didn’t mesh with a club built on the counter-attacking, seemingly chaotic system Martino preferred.

The squad had just one season before suddenly looking all out of sync, struggling to create scoring chances.

In retrospect, de Boer was probably too heavy-handed in dealing with his new team

He needed to win them over first.

“We obviously came off a very successful year playing a certain way. We were like, `Why would we change it just because a new coach is coming in?'” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “It was maybe two extremes going at each other.”

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De Boer didn’t exactly endear himself to Atlanta’s fans, who have shattered virtually every attendance record in MLS, by calling them “spoiled” – a remark he quickly apologized for while explaining that it carried a different connotation in his native language. He would stir of more controversy by saying the demand for equal pay in women’s international soccer was “ridiculous,” leading to another hasty apology.

But the criticism faded as Atlanta finally began to resemble a defending champion.

In addition to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference (the same spot they finished a year ago under Martino, though with 11 fewer points), United added a pair of trophies to its collection by winning the U.S. Open Cup – and a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League – as well as the Campeones Cup with a thrilling victory over Mexican powerhouse America.

“We’ve talked a lot and found a way to be successful,” Gressel said. “Frank obviously has adjusted. He’s talked a lot with a lot of guys. Communication has been, obviously, the key factor during that tough stretch at the beginning of the year. We’ve come out on the better end of it.”

United won its first two playoff games with shutout victories over New England and Philadelphia despite the absence of star defender Miles Robinson, who is out with a hamstring injury. Atlanta gained another home game in the conference final when top-seeded New York City FC was upset by Toronto.

Each victory takes de Boer a little farther from his embarrassing stint at Inter Milan, where he was sacked after less than three months. And that dismally short tenure at Crystal Palace, where he lasted just four Premier League games before getting a pink slip.

“After six months, you can normally see a little bit the hand of the manager, what he wants,” de Boer said. “I think if you’ve won two titles and are still involved for the most precious of titles, you can be satisfied.”

But, he quickly added, “I want to win everything.”

VIDEO: Messi scores first half hat trick for Barcelona

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Lionel Messi scored a first half hat trick for Barcelona against Eibar on Saturday.

Messi, 33, is warming up quite well for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg as he tore Eibar’s defense to shreds to put them 3-0 up at the break.

In a week where Messi and Barcelona have been in the news amid an emergency signing of Martin Braithwaite, a social media spying scandal and plenty of criticism of sporting director Eric Abidal, the Argentine ace got back to doing what he does best.

Barcelona sat in second place in the La Liga table heading into this weekend, one point behind Real Madrid.

Giroud vows “start of a good run” for Chelsea ahead of UCL

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OIivier Giroud knows he’s given Frank Lampard food for thought as Chelsea improved its top four stock with a 2-1 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Giroud scored the first goal in making just his third Premier League start and eighth league appearance under Lampard, and now has two goals in 375 minutes this season. The other came against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The Frenchman now has 79 Premier League goals, and the ex-Arsenal man will be doubly thrilled to that four of them have now come against Spurs.

“I was lucky the ball came back after hitting the post and I tried to finish,” Giroud said, via the BBC. “It was a good feeling for me, a good moment and I’m so happy for the team to win today. It’s been three months I didn’t start, it’s been a special day for me and all of us.”

[ MORE: Mourinho reacts ]

Giroud said that this was bigger for Chelsea than it was for him, though.

“It was a very important game for us today. I want to talk about the team spirit. We’ve shown great character today. We knew it was maybe a kind of turning point. We lost a bit of confidence. It was nice to bounce back and get this win, a hard win against a rival, so I feel relieved today.

“Tottenham is obviously a rival for the Champions League race, so we are pleased to put them four points behind us. This is the start of a good run, I hope, now we need to focus on the Champions League. This game would be nice for the confidence and for the changing room.”

Chelsea meets Bayern Munich on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge before a trip to Bournemouth on Feb. 29. The breathing room on fifth place is welcome.

Jose Mourinho defends players “trying to do miracles,” explains Dele move

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Tottenham Hotspur boss Jose Mourinho says he can have no complaints with his shorthanded men following a 2-1 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho pointed to the absence of strikers Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane as well as a Champions League match in midweek.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“Look at Chelsea they played a World Cup-winning striker up front, England’s second striker on the bench, and Belgium’s second striker in the stands,” he said, via Football.London. “We had no strikers on the pitch, no strikers on the bench and two in the hospital.”

Chelsea were the much better side on the day, with Olivier Giroud making a statement to Frank Lampard about his ability as a center forward.

And Mourinho felt sufficiently shorthanded on the day, especially given the exhausting 1-0 loss to RB Leipzig at midweek.

“Lucas, Lo Celso, Bergwijn,” he said. “These boys that are playing every minute and trying to do miracles in positions that are not their positions. I cannot complain.”

Mourinho also defended keeping Dele Alli on the bench for the first time in his tenure as Spurs boss.

“We had strange game plans but we needed to have them. Like Lamela who played well, people think I’m stupid that I don’t play him, but he’s constantly communicating with me in the warm-up, can I play or not. He was telling me his feelings.”

Spurs will finish the weekend four points back of the top four and as many as two back of fifth. They have eight days until another big match, March 1 versus Wolves.

Watch Live: Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday

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If you want to follow the scores from every single league across the UK, Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday has you covered from 10 a.m. ET and you can watch it live via NBC Sports Gold.

WATCH SOCCER SATURDAY LIVE 

Jeff Stelling and his panel of esteemed former professional players host the show from Sky’s studios in London and Sky have reporters based at grounds across the UK from the Premier League to League Two and all across Scotland’s four divisions and the Welsh Premier League.

With the National League (fifth tier) also reported on, they literally have every single league covered. There is an intriguing Matchweek 27 coming up in the Premier League in particular.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can also access additional Premier League games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

WATCH EVERY PREMIER LEAGUE GAME

Click on the link above to watch the Soccer Saturday lads in action as a wonderful accompaniment to all of the live Premier League games you can watch across NBC Sports’ platforms.