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UEFA president postpones talks over revamped Champions League

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UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin announced he is postponing talks over restructuring the Champions League, calling discussions about reworking the qualification process “premature” after heavy opposition from national leagues.

Ceferin was set to meet with European Club Association chairman – and Juventus chairman – Andrea Agnelli and European Leagues president Lars-Christer Olsson on September 11, but that has been put off indefinitely until the two sides are “ready for meaningful discussion.”

The 51-year-old Slovenian has been pushing for a Champions League that largely secures qualification to the group stage from performance in the previous year’s competition rather than via placement in the national league tables, proposing instead a promotion and relegation model that would see 24 of 32 group stage teams locked in place no matter their domestic results, with the bottom eight teams “relegated” from the Champions League each season to the Europa League.

Critics of the new system – of which there are many – have complained that it would close off the competition from a significant amount of teams that would otherwise qualify via national league finishing positions. For example, under the proposed model, semifinalists Ajax would not have qualified for last year’s competition based on its Eredivisie title, instead forced to progress through the Europa League far enough to earn promotion. National leagues also argue that the new model would degrade the drama down the stretch of the season, with very little to play for after a champion is crowned and relegation positions are decided.

“We are currently in the process of gathering feedback from our national associations,” Ceferin wrote in a letter to Agnelli and Olsson obtained by the Associated Press, “and I feel — more generally — that a new discussion now would be premature as we are analyzing feedback and proposals coming from different parties.”

Ceferin said the reason for the postponement was an expanded timeframe and did not refer to criticism or backlash. “As you know very well, UEFA deliberately kicked off the review process for the 2024/27 competition cycle much ahead of our regular schedule and we are therefore in no hurry,” Ceferin told Agnelli and Olsson. “We do not, in any case, expect to make a decision this year.”

Agnelli’s ECA has been the largest supporter of the new model, wishing to push the group stage from four-team groups to eight-team groups as to profit off a larger, more expansive group stage with 14 group stage matches per team instead of six.

According to the AP report by Rob Harris, the Premier League is staunchly opposed to the new model, and while the league claims to have the support of all member clubs, Manchester United chairman Ed Woodward is an ECA board member. Atletico Madrid went on the offensive from Spain, claiming the new model is “the biggest threat in the history of European football in recent years.”

”We firmly believe that European competitions should be a reward for excellence,” a joint coalition of Spanish clubs, including Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Malaga, Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Valencia and Villarreal wrote back in early June, ”in which the best teams participate in a competition open to all, based on the principles of sporting merit, solidarity among clubs, fair distribution, etc.”

Hegerberg hat-trick leads Lyon to women’s Champions League title

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Lyon won its fourth straight women’s Champions League title behind a hat-trick from defending Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg as they topped Barcelona 4-1 in Budapest.

The game got out of hand early, as Lyon bagged all four of its scores in the opening half-hour, cruising from that point on. German international Dzsenifer Marozsan opened the scoring just five minutes in, and Hegerberg took over from there, striking twice in the opening 20 minutes before a 30th minute goal sealed the deal.

Marozsan’s goal was an emotional one, a crowd favorite being from the city originally. The opener was assisted on a cross from Shanice van de Sanden, who picked up the first two assists in a brilliant supporting role from the start.

The matchup was billed as a face-off between Hegerberg and Barcelona forward Lieke Martens – winner of the 2017 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award before the Ballon d’Or was introduced – but it was no contest as Martens missed a 68th minute effort, forced to wait until the 89th minute to provide her contribution, an assist on the consolation goal by Asisat Oshoala. England striker Toni Duggan also featured in the match for Barcelona, but she missed a chance in the opening minutes for Barcelona before Lyon took control, and Duggan was withdrawn with 20 minutes to go.

Barcelona’s project is still a model for others around Europe, having only introduced its women’s side in 2015 and building a solid base, but the gulf in talent was exposed in Budapest Saturday in their first European final. Lyon, meanwhile, hasn’t lost a competitive match in nearly a year, falling to Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in last year’s Coupe de France Feminine final.

Remembering bold Ajax run that never strayed from its philosophy

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Sometimes the football gods show us something special, something that gives us hope even in the face of unimaginable agony. Not necessarily the hope we wanted, but the hope we needed. Hope for the future that somehow touches us even though we are not directly connected.

As we watched a bold young Ajax side make a stunning run through the Champions League, there was a swagger about them that allowed neutral fans to connect with a hidden passion. This team would win, they would do it their way, and they would do it against the best in the world. Every fan likes to watch the giants fall, if done with confidence and gall and poise.

A squad that features a 19-year-old captain, a 23-year-old goalkeeper, a 22-year-old attacking wizard, and a 21-year-old midfield anchor was lighting up the best teams in the world on the biggest stage at the most famous grounds on the planet, and through it all they would not be moved from their creed.

Ultimately, it cost them everything as Spurs galavanted to one of the most stunning comebacks Europe has ever seen in its most prestigious club competition. As Jose Mourinho – who himself completed the feat with Porto in 2004 and again with Inter in 2010 – said after the match, “Sometimes you even need to go against your philosophy to win a football match…but they stuck with their philosophy, they played the game in the second half like they were playing Vitesse in the Dutch league. They played like it was a group phase game, or one more game in their own league.”

(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

What Mourinho doesn’t realize is, that was exactly what made Ajax so special. Their best was better than anyone else’s best this year, with maybe only Liverpool coming close. They beat Real Madrid on the road, Juventus on the road, and Tottenham on the road by sticking with their philosophy, and it added to their mystique. These were kids who wouldn’t be bullied by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Robert Lewandowski, or any of the other stars they matched up against. They would win their own swashbuckling way, or they’d die trying. They stared giants in the face, and slayed one after another, until like Boromir they took one too many arrows to the chest. But they would not be moved.

As the second half of Wednesday’s match continued and the visitors at Johan Cruyff Arena grew in confidence, Ajax could have bunkered in and looked to defend knowing one more Spurs goal would do them in. Instead, they played as they have all season, attacking at every opportunity. Despite Spurs pouring forward in relentless and desperate fashion, the hosts had five shots in the final 20 minutes – including three in the final 10 minutes – while defending the lead. Hakim Ziyech missed a 62nd minute effort that came agonizingly close to killing off the game – a goal which would have changed the narrative completely – and also had a 78th minute chance go just wide.

This is who they are, and manager Erik ten Hag would not stray from that mentality, even as Spurs scored one, then two, then three to complete the comeback. He had captured lightning in a bottle with some of the best young talent in Europe all together on the field, and so far no one had been able to out-football them. As Ziyech, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, and Matthijs de Ligt carved up some of the best players in the world with a stunning attacking flow, it was clear that they were tactically superior to their opponents, who were seemingly blindsided that their talent could be matched in such a way.

What this young team gave fans around the world is hope – hope that they too could be a part of something special someday, that lightning in a bottle is not just for Leicester City and its miracle run from seemingly nowhere. No, this type of hope is different than that. A true investment in young talent pays off every so often, and if the stars align just right, anyone can produce what Ajax has gifted the world. This was a calculated process, a system that created a beautiful product that wasn’t just a season of overachievement based on hard work and good management, but instead a base of truly world-class talent at a young age. A process that not only brought Ajax seconds from the Champions League final, but one that will pay off this summer in what surely will culminate in a massive financial windfall for the club.

That is what makes this end to the run so heartbreaking – the Ajax squad will surely be picked apart this summer, and while Edwin van der Sar will do his best to take a balanced approach to the coming transfer window, it will be difficult for the Dutch side to fend off the European vultures. But that is part of the team’s identity – as they progressed through bigger and bigger challenges, and each player’s transfer value grew, they knew the end was near. This was their one and only shot together. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain each time they stepped foot on the pitch, and it showed.

Ajax gave fans around the world hope that with the right mentality, with the right process, a club can stick to its guns and not only recall memories of its great history, but create new moments in time, ones that will shock the world. They may have fallen just short of true glory, but this run should be remembered because it was a story of success through process, one that proves anyone belongs in this great tournament if they earn it.

Champions League Preview: Liverpool v. Barcelona

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In honor of Star Wars day from a couple of days ago, the famous character Yoda’s most well-known phrase came to mind when thinking about Liverpool heading into its second leg with Barcelona.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

Should the Reds advance to a second-consecutive UEFA Champions League final, they’ll have to do the improbable, score four goals and beat Barcelona on Tuesday night in Liverpool.  Barcelona’s 3-0 win last week, concluded with a majestic, out-of-this-world free kick from Lionel Messi, was only the start of the bad run for Liverpool.

[MORE: Man City one win away from PL title]

Since then, the team has long stars Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino to injury, and the team’s defense looked shaky despite a 3-2 win at Newcastle.

There’s not much Jurgen Klopp could have done to help Liverpool avoid Messi’s magic, but he’s doing his best to remove any last vestiges of pressure ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal match.

The situation with the 3-0 is obviously not the situation we want to have before the second leg,” Klopp told reporters on Monday at a press conference. “Two of the world’s best strikers are not available for tomorrow and we have to score four goals to go through. It doesn’t make life easier, but as long as we have 11 players on the pitch we will try. You have to be perfect to beat them. It’s possible that this will be the last Champions League game of the campaign, so let’s celebrate it.”

If Liverpool want to be successful, it’s going to need players like Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk and Fabinho to step up even more than they have so far this season, with players such as Andy Robertson, Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum all having the games of their lives just to get back to 3-3. As Liverpool showed in Istanbul, overcoming a 3-0 deficit isn’t impossible. But they’ll have to do it.

Regardless of Tuesday’s result, it’s been an outstanding season for Liverpool. They’ve made up more than 20 points in the Premier League and made the Champions League semifinals yet again. However, it appears they’ve met a juggernaut that not even Ajax or Tottenham may be able to defeat in the Champions League final.

For Barcelona, while Ernesto Valverde’s team will know its in control of the tie, the club also knows that its heading into one of Europe’s most difficult environments. In addition, last year, many of this Barcelona squad collapsed at Roma, missing out on another deep Champions League run.

The Blaugrana will be hoping to avoid that fate this time around. One goal should be enough to see them through.

:”If we think about last week’s result it would be an error,” Valverde said. “We have to play it as if it was a final. It’s going to be difficult because we know their fans will get behind them. They have fast players. Sometimes you are put in situations that are uncomfortable. We want to have the feeling that we’re in control. They’re going to attack us, there’s no doubt about that. But we have to focus on ourselves.”

Champions League Tuesday Preview: Tottenham v. Ajax

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Tottenham fans couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was a favorite to advance to the UEFA Champions League final in the minutes after their away goals rule win in a 4-4 aggregate draw with Manchester City.

Two weeks later, it’s a different story.

Fatigue and injuries have left Tottenham with a shell of a team, with just one win, scraping past Brighton and Hove Albion, and little momentum heading into a monumental matchup with an Ajax team high on confidence. Tottenham have no Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Harry Winks or Erik Lamela, and even Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Sissoko are injury doubts.

[READ: Man United announces Bailly out for season]

But that doesn’t take into account what Tottenham do have. By not making any signings, this is as tight-knit a group as the Premier League has seen in many, many years. Plus, in manager Mauricio Pochettino, there’s a unique tactician who combines great x’s and o’s with excellent man management, always getting the best out of his players in the key moments of the match.

Even without some stars and coming off a rough 1-0 loss to West Ham at home, Tottenham’s players will be confident facing Ajax, only because they are always a confident bunch. It will be a reminder of where he came from for Davinson Sanchez, who spent one successful season at Ajax, helping them to the Europa League final before heading to England, and Christian Eriksen, another Ajax alum (along with Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen) will have a big task ahead of him with Frenkie de Jong running the show for Ajax.

Tottenham’s mission is simple, but it’s one that flummoxed Real Madrid and Juventus so far: How to neutralize Dusan Tadic up the middle and then negate de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. Whoever of Fernando Llorente or Dele Alli will have to not only occupy de Ligt, but also pull him out of position, opening spaces for Tottenham’s wing backs to exploit on late runs.

Meanwhile, Eriksen or Alli are going to have a busy day keeping tabs on de John, trying to limit his touches, while Alderweireld and Sanchez will have to be quick to pick up Tadic when he drops into space.

Tottenham will have to do all of this on shorter rest, with a shorter bench and less recent confidence than Ajax. But maybe that’s exactly where Pochettino wants his opponents.

“It’s going to be a magical night because to play the semifinals in our new stadium is something that no one could believe or think a few months ago,” Pochettino said in his pre-match press conference Monday. “It’s a game that is impossible to be tired for, not to be excited to play. It’s all mental.

“The energy is going to be there. It’s two legs – tomorrow we are going to play the first half of the game and the second is going to be at Ajax. It’s so important how we approach the game and how we handle the game during 90 minutes.”