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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.

USMNT looks toward Olympic qualifying

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NEW YORK (AP) USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter will be looking toward Olympic soccer qualifying when the senior national team plays Costa Rica on Saturday in an exhibition at Carson, California.

Thirteen of the 22 players on the American roster are eligible for Olympic qualifying, which is limited to players under 23. The U.S. men failed to reach the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and they are in a difficult qualifying group that includes Mexico and Costa Rica.

“It’ll be nice to give them an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd in a real international game,” Berhalter said during a telephone conference call on Monday.

Twelve players have no previous international experience. The U.S. has used 74 players in 30 matches since the 2017 loss at Trinidad and Tobago that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances, and 36 players have made debuts: 24 under interim coach Dave Sarachan and 12 under Berhalter, who was hired in December 2018.

“We think this age group is talented for the Olympic age group and we’re excited to see how they navigate through the qualification process and then eventually build the group for the Olympics” Berhalter said.

Olympic qualifying runs from March 20-30 and the U.S. will be coached by Jason Kreis. Since clubs are not required to release players to under-23 teams, top Americans Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest are not likely to be available. Major League Soccer starts Feb. 29, and its coaches may be reluctant to provide players.

“We’re going to need a lot of cooperation from Major League Soccer, and I know that’s difficult given the early stage of their season,” Berhalter said.

If the U.S. does qualify for the Olympics, it would be able to add three players over the age limit. But clubs could decline to release players.

“It would be nice to field our strongest team in the Olympics. We’re just not sure that’s going to happen,” Berhalter said.

Veterans on the roster this weekend include forwards Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola, defender Aaron Long and midfielder Sebastian Lletget. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid could make his first appearance since a June 2018 exhibition at Ireland.

On other topics:

-Berhalter did not sound overly concerned about Pulisic’s adductor injury. The Chelsea midfielder has not played since Jan. 1 and is not likely to return until Feb. 17 at the earliest. “He played a lot of games in a short period of time over Christmas,” Berhalter said. “He’s a young player playing at an extremely competitive level and it takes a physical toll on your body. And him coming to terms with that is something that’s normal for the process of adapting.”

-On the best position for Adams, who has appeared at right back and right wing for RB Leipzig: “We see him primarily as a central midfielder. We always have seen him as a central midfielder. But we know that when we when we need to be flexible, he can play that position, as well. We think right now the right back position is filled with depth, and he’ll be most suited in our system in central midfield.”

-On the possibility of Long transferring from the New York Red Bulls to West Ham: “It obviously could be a potential big change in where he’s competing and what level he’s playing at. … That would be a step up for him.”

-Jesus Ferreira, a Colombian-born forward who received U.S. citizenship last month, may not be eligible to play this weekend pending the completion of paperwork.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tottenham sign Lo Celso, close in on Bergwijn

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Tottenham Hotspur have signed Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betis, triggering a clause which turns his loan into a permanent transfer.

Lo Celso, 23, arrived on loan this summer and after injuries disrupted his first few months in England he has settled in very nicely in recent weeks.

The Argentine playmaker has signed a contact through 2025 and is the direct replacement for Christian Eriksen who is Inter Milan bound.

Spurs are also closing in on a deal for Steven Bergwijn as PSV Eindhoven left the winger out of training and he has flown to London for a medical.

Bergwijn, 22, is a rising star in the Dutch Eredivisie and according to our partners at Sky Sports he will join Tottenham for $32.5 million, rising to $35 million with add-ons.

With Christian Eriksen’s move to Inter Milan set to be completed on Tuesday, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has brought in a younger, promising attacking player to help freshen up the attack alongside Lo Celso.

Tottenham have got their dominoes in order and now they are ready to fall.

Bergwijn is highly-rated and scored 16 goals in a struggling PSV side last season and has six goals to his name in 29 appearances in all competitions so far in 2019-20. He has recently broken into the Dutch national team and is regarded as one of the top young wing talents in Europe.

This is exactly the kind of transfer Spurs need to be making. Mourinho loves to have tricky and direct wingers in his teams to feed off a central striker and Bergwijn is on the up and is hungry to prove himself in England. It makes total sense with Eriksen on his way out for about $22 million, so it could be yet another shrewd bit of business from Levy and Co.

Aside from Bergwijn there is a push for a striker to arrive on a short-term deal with Harry Kane out injured until April, but given the form of Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura and Dele Alli in attack, perhaps Mourinho and Levy will resist the urge to bring in a short-term solution up top.

Krzysztof Piatek, Willian Jose, Edinson Cavani and many others have been mentioned as potential stop gaps for Kane but the fluid movement of Son, Moura and Alli could be the way to go in attack. With Bergwijn added to the mix alongside the January loan addition of midfielder Gedson Fernandes, Spurs are getting younger and things have been freshened up quite nicely by Mourinho.

All things considered, not a bad window for Spurs, as they sit six points off the top four with 14 games to go and are still in the FA Cup and now have a plan without Kane for the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds and the final months of the season.

Solskjaer coy on Man United transfers; Alexis to return

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was coy when asked about possible transfer for Manchester United in the final days of the January window and revealed that Alexis Sanchez will return this summer.

Speaking ahead of their League Cup semifinal second leg against rivals Man City on Wednesday (City lead 3-1 from the first leg), Solskjaer was asked about a possible deal for Bruno Fernandes and if United will do any other business before the window shuts on Friday.

“I haven’t got any updates for you on transfers, I think it was a wasted question,” Solskjaer told a reporter. “I haven’t got anything to say now.”

Pushed further about what type of players United could sign, Solskjaer was asked if the club are now ‘thinking outside of the box’ amid reports they could sign strikers Odion Ighalo and Islam Slimani.

Solskjaer bemoaned the January window and how difficult it is to do business and shocked everyone as he revealed that Sanchez will be welcomed back with open arms in the summer when his loan with Inter Milan ends.

“Well, we’ve got players here we are working hard to get back and if there is something out there then the club are pursuing that and looking at it. Of course, it is the difficult window, it has always been,” Solskjaer said. “I can’t remember how many good ‘uns or deals we’ve brought in January. Henrik [Larsson] was good, Nemanja [Vidic] and Patrice [Evra] were two good ones. Henrik as a loan. Alexis… It is hard because some of the clubs don’t want to lose their players. Alexis will come back in the summer and prove you all wrong.”

“At the moment it doesn’t look like it, no,” Solskjaer added when asked about outgoings, while he added that Nemanja Matic may not be fit for the League Cup semifinal at Man City and Marcos Rojo is very unlikely to be sold.

It seems likely that United will not do any business in the final days of the window as Solskjaer looked frustrated but put on a brave face.

United are said to be $26 million short of matching Sporting Lisbon’s valuation of Fernandes and even though the Portuguese playmaker would make a big difference for them in the final months of the Premier League season, it seems unlikely the player they’ve chased since last summer will arrive at Old Trafford.

This news will no doubt be frustrating for United but given Mason Greenwood‘s recent displays, perhaps Solskjaer will place extra faith in the 18-year-old to fill the void left by Marcus Rashford over the next six weeks or so. It is either that or bring in a more experienced striker on loan for the rest of the season and that doesn’t seem to slot in with United’s new philosophy of developing young British talent.

Chelsea issue positive Pulisic injury update

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Chelsea have issued a positive injury update on Christian Pulisic as the USMNT star could be back quicker than expected from an adductor injury.

Blues boss Frank Lampard told Pro Soccer Talk last week that Pulisic would likely be back in mid-February during the latter part of the winter break.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

However, via the club website Lampard has now suggested that Pulisic could have an outside chance of playing some part in their huge top four battle against Leicester City this Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

“Aiding that push in the not-too-distant future will be Christian Pulisic, who Lampard thinks will be back in training in the middle of the week although the Leicester City game on Saturday might come too soon,” Chelsea revealed.

This is really good news for Pulisic and Chelsea as the west London club have missed his creativity in the final third in recent games against Newcastle United (a defeat) and Arsenal (a home draw when playing against 10 men for over an hour).

Chelsea admitted they’ve missed Pulisic as the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Willian were shut down rather easily out wide in their disappointing recent results.

“Yeah, a game like today (against Arsenal) could have been a good one 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.

Pulisic has been out since Jan. 3 with what Lampard described as a “nasty” injury to his adductor in training and that injury blow came after Pulisic had a slight hamstring issue over the festive period.

In his first season in the Premier League Pulisic has scored five goals and added two assists, with the Pennsylvanian native taking time to settle but he’s now become an integral part of the Chelsea squad.

He has something different compared to Lampard’s other attackers and his time out injured has actually reinforced just how important he is to this Chelsea team.