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Thailand frees refugee Hakeem al-Araibi

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Hakeem Al-Araibi has been freed by Thailand, as Bahrain dropped its extradition request for the refugee soccer player.

Al-Araibi, 25, is a refugee in Australia after fleeing his homeland of Bahrain in 2014.

He was held in Bangkok in November after traveling to Thailand on his honeymoon, as Bahrain had sent out an Interpol notice to detain Al-Araibi.

The former player for the Bahrain national team was granted political asylum in Australia and if he was extradited to Bahrain many feared he would be subjected to torture due to his criticism of the government.

Bahrain want him to serve a 10-year prison sentence for his alleged involvement in vandalism of a police station.

Al-Araibi denies the charge and says that he was previously blindfolded and beaten when held in Bahrain and believes he has been targeted due to his Shiite faith and because his brother is involved in politics in the Middle East country.

Craig Foster, a former Australian national team player and current broadcaster, has led the protests for Al-Araibi to be freed as the likes of Didier Drogba and Jamie Vardy have also supported the cause.

Hazard glows after brace in Chelsea win

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Eden Hazard is buzzing after breaking the 100-goal barrier for Chelsea, and supporters of the Blues are going to love his comments following a 2-1 win at Watford on Boxing Day.

[ RECAP: Watford 1-2 Chelsea ]

Hazard, 27, ends the day with 11 goals and nine assists this season for Chelsea and another two goals in the League Cup.

While he’s flirted with Real Madrid and the transfer market for some time, he’s feeling Chelsea this festive season. Here’s his response to breaking the century mark, via the BBC:

“It means a lot, especially because we won today. 101 goals with this amazing club is something i will never forget but now the fans, staff and players want more. I want to score more for this club and then try to be a legend like Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry.”

He even had jokes!

After playing another match as a center forward, Hazard claimed his versatility is beyond our expectations.

“I can even play at centre back,” he said. “My target is to score goals and to try and win the game, as a winger or a striker. I missed a couple of chances today, especially in the first half, but I scored two so its important to keep focus.”

Has Didier Drogba played his final game as a professional?

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LOUISVILLE, KY — Didier Drogba‘s dazzling, star-studded career may have come to an end Thursday night under the bright lights of Lynn Stadium, in front of a packed house of 7,025 fans for the USL Cup final.

With eight league or cup titles and dozens of individual awards, the Chelsea legend was unable to add one final trophy to his mantlepiece, as Louisville City scored on a goal-mouth scramble off a corner kick and held on to win its second-straight USL Cup title. Drogba finished the game with six shots, but just one on target, a 40-yard free kick from the center of the field that Louisville City goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh parried away.

[READ: How will the teams line up for the Manchester derby?]

It’s a setting he likely never expected he’d finish his career in, even when he signed with Phoenix Rising in 2017 and became part of the team’s ownership group. Phoenix looked mired for a poor finish before Rick Schantz took over as coach in June, leading the team into the playoffs and on a magic run to the final, which included three goals from Drogba in the playoffs.

It looked as though the USL script writers were bringing the drama to a crescendo, with Drogba adding a USL Cup to go with his four Premier League titles, four FA Cups and UEFA Champions League trophy, among others.

Unfortunately for Phoenix Rising, and perhaps more fortunately for Louisville City, Drogba’s touch was off on Thursday evening. Four of his free kicks went flying over the crossbar and he failed to fully connect on a late-game, audacious bicycle kick attempt. Drogba also earned a frustration yellow card for a tackle from behind.

“Look, you can see as the game goes on, we were down 1-0, his desire to get the ball, his desire to be involved (is there),” Schantz said. “He’s 40-years old playing against 20-somethings in a league that’s up and coming. It’s not easy. The opportunity I got to coach him this year blows me away that I was able to share the field with one of the best players in the sport.”

Even in defeat, Drogba remained humble and gracious, staying on the field to watch the trophy ceremony with his team, congratulating the squad and coach for making it to the final and telling them to keep their heads up.

“It’s been incredible,” Phoenix Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski said following the match. “His talent on the field speaks for itself but the biggest thing I take, the level he’s been at and everything he’s won, he’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet. He’s invited us to his house for team barbecues, opened his doors, cooked for us for hours, treated everyone as an equal, with respect.

“That says a lot considering the guys he’s played with. Coming to USL and treating us like that, teaching us everything he’s learned, that’s one of the most valuable things I’ll take, No matter what level you get to, you can still be humble and treat everyone with respect.”

While Drogba took much of the spotlight ahead of the game, it was a trio of unsung players who shut him down all evening; Midfielder and Louisville City captain Paolo DelPiccolo and centerbacks Paco Craig and Alexis Souahy. For all the experience LouCity returned with DelPiccolo, Craig and others, Souahy is just a 23-year-old rookie playing in his first cup final. And yet, the young defender from France who was released from Le Havre’s youth academy four years ago played as well and resolutely as he had all season. Craig, a West Ham academy alum and USL First-Team XI honoree, was strong as always against the Ivorian, and DelPiccolo and Drogba each had their share of battles in midfield.

“(They were) so good, so good,” Hackworth said about his defenders performance on Drogba. “Especially, Paco, he’s first team and everyone knows how good he is, but Alexis is a star on the rise and we might be hearing his name for a long time to come at a high level.”

Not to be lost in the talk about Drogba is the incredible achievement for Louisville City to win a second consecutive title. Louisville City lost its coach, James O’Connor, to Orlando City at the end of June, and the team ended up going with a triumvirate of player coaches for the next 6 weeks of action: DelPiccolo, George Davis and the USL Cup MVP Luke Spencer.

John Hackworth took over in mid-August and after making some little adjustments – tightening the defensive line and introducing more high pressing to force turnovers – LouCity found its rhythm. Even with five coaches this season, the team was steady all year long until down the stretch, when LouCity put on the after burners. The club finished the year winning its last ten games, including the final four in the playoffs to take the USL crown.

“The way they competed in training, and then went back in the locker room, I thought I was going to have to settle some fights,” said Hackworth, noting he knew this team could make a run for the title within the first couple days of practice. “But they’re a brotherhood. They have this high standard, they want to be pushed, they want to be coached. I thought, ‘if we can get this right…if we can clean up some things, it’s going to happen.'”

Drogba didn’t speak to the media following the match, but at the pre-match press conference, he revealed that after Phoenix Rising’s 2-1 win over Orange County for the Western Conference title, he received a few phone calls about continuing playing. He then hinted that perhaps the USL Cup final wouldn’t be the finale to his career.

When asked if Drogba revealed anything to him following the match, Schantz deadpanned and said, “That will be a separate press conference.”

Louisville City wins second-straight USL Cup

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Luke Spencer’s second half goal off a scramble in the box sent Louisville City past Didier Drogba‘s Phoenix Rising to win the USL Cup title with a 1-0 win at Lynn Stadium on Thursday.

Lou City become the first USL team to win back-to-back USL Cups, having knocked off Swope Park Rangers last season.

The match is set to stand as the final one of Drogba’s celebrated playing career.

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings ]

The Seattle Sounders and Rochester Rhinos both won league titles when it was called the A-League.

Xavier product Spencer, 27, played 67 minutes in the 2017 final but was the unquestioned star on Thursday.

Chelsea players love that Morata is back in form

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After a full summer taking serious heat, Alvaro Morata has finally begun the process of coming good on his move to Chelsea.

The Spaniard has four goals in his last four games, including a pair last time out in a 3-1 win over Crystal Palace. With Chelsea fans still missing the production of Diego Costa and Didier Drogba, Morata has faced brutal comparisons through the first year-plus of his tenure at Stamford Bridge, but Cesar Azpilicueta believes those are ridiculous.

“I don’t like comparisons,” Azpilicueta told the Evening Standard. “Everyone has to work his own path. [Drogba and Costa] had different qualities and personalities. It’s unfair to talk about those two big players and Álvaro. Álvaro walks his own path. He came to a new country and I’m sure, with the way that he is working, he will get the reward.”

“The goals help a lot because we know strikers — they live for goals,” Azpilicueta said. “We know that gives him more confidence, he has been playing well, finding opportunities. Sometimes the ball does not go in, but I’m happy with his work, his progress. We know that last season was a tough one for him, but he is a very important player for us.”

Meanwhile, Morata’s attacking partner Pedro echoed Azpilicueta’s sentiment that ultimately strikers like Morata will be judged by the goals they score, and therefore Morata’s double is big for his future.

“He’s in good condition and he had a very good performance,” Pedro told the official Chelsea website. “He has the mentality to score goals and help the team, that’s the best way for him. We are happy because he’s a very good striker. He runs a lot and scores goals, now he’s in a very good moment so this is the way for him. Scoring goals is very important for him and the team.”

Finally, the striker himself wants a no-nonsense approach to the rest of the season. “In football, physical condition is very important, but the head is the most important thing,” Morata said after the Crystal Palace match Sunday. “If you don’t have the head, if the mentality is not good, then you are in trouble. I had a period where everything – if it is raining, I’m angry because it’s raining. If I miss, it’s because the pitch is too wet. It was only excuses. It is not good. Everyone can have a bad period in their life, but we are famous, we have a lot of things. Sometimes people think we are not human, with no feelings, with no problems.”

The Spaniard knows he needs to continue to improve his mentality, as manager Maurizio Sarri honestly said Morata is “is a little bit fragile from the mental point of view.”