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Champions League Final to return to Istanbul

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Here’s a bit of news which will put smiles on Liverpool supporters’ faces ahead of the weekend’s big UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid.

The UEFA Champions League Final is headed back to Istanbul, the city known for boasting perhaps the most celebrated moment in Liverpool history.

[ MORE: Next USMNT-Mexico date set ]

Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium will host the 2020 UCL Final, 15 years after the Reds rallied from a 3-0 halftime deficit to defeat AC Milan in penalty kicks.

The 2019 final will be held in Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, home of Atletico Madrid.

One job’s enough: Fatih Terim one upset away from putting Turkey in UEFA’s playoffs

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Fatih Terim’s become Turkish legend, which made his Sept. 24 dismissal so curious. Coming off back-to-back Super Lïg titles, the six-time league champion and winner of the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup was fired five matches into the new season. Though Gala had suffered an embarrassing 6-0 home loss to Real Madrid in Champions League, they were still undefeated (if only 2-0-3) in league. Something beyond the field must have forced him out.

In the days that followed, the story came out. The club acknowledged Terim hadn’t signed an offered contract extension. There were also reports he neglected to return communication from the club president, both of which fueled concern Terim was no longer focused on Galatasaray. The icon had, after all, agreed to take over the Turkish national team in August.

Though his dual role lasted just over a month, Terim’s unlikely to be dwelling on Galatasaray right now. That’s because, after Friday’s 2-0 win over Estonia, Turkey’s on the verge of an unlikely place in UEFA’s World Cup Qualifying playoffs. Taking their third win in as many games, Turkey’s vaulted into second in Group D, ahead of Romania on goal difference.

It’s a position that was unthinkable two months ago, with Terim’s appointment thought by many to be a mere attempt to salvage pride from this qualifying cycle. The team was 2-3-1 through sixth rounds and sat fourth in a group despite expectations they’d take the playoff spot. Instead both Romania and Hungary sat between the Turks and a playoff spot, leading to the dismissal of Abdullah Avcı. Terim was convinced to return for a third stint with the national team.

The appointment paid immediate dividends. Turkey routed Andorra at home (5-0) before pulling off a 2-0 upset of Romania in Bucharest on Sept. 10. Now Friday’s win, combined with Hungary’s 8-1 loss in Amsterdam, put Turkey (perhaps remarkably) back where they should have been all along: Second place. Win their final qualifier on Tuesday, and Turkey’s into the UEFA playoffs.

There is one small problem in Terim’s fairy tale. Those same Dutch that won by seven goals on Friday? They’ll be in Istanbul on Tuesday. If Terim can’t find a what to hand the Oranje their first loss of World Cup Qualifying, the Turks could be passed by Romania (hosting Estonia) or Hungary (hosting Andorra).

From a distance, those seems like long odds, but Turkey’s a better bet than the teams’ reputations would suggest. Under Avcı last September in Amsterdam, a Robin van Persie goal was all that separated the sides for 92 minutes. Luciano Narsingh’s late insurance spoiled Turkey’s chance to take an unlikely point, giving the Dutch a 2-0 win.

Though it was one of the Netherlands’ least-convincing performances of qualifying, it still showed the gap between the teams is smaller than most would think. Swap Amsterdam for Istanbul and Avcı for Terim, and is there a formula for Turkish success?

If so, Terim would move a step closer to another remarkable accomplishment – one more feat on an already loaded résumé. Nobody thought the Turks good enough to take full points from their last four qualifiers, yet here we are – Turkey on the verge of keeping their World Cup hopes alive into November.

Unfortunately, if the Dutch go get a result in Istanbul, the story becomes that of an icon who lost his club job but failed to make the World Cup.

Rib injury forces Iker Casillas off early in Champions League tie

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It’s heartbreak for Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas as he is forced to take an early shower just as he got his chance to prove himself to Carlo Ancelotti.

In just the opening minutes of their first Champions League group stage match, Casillas went up for a save and took an elbow to the ribs from his own teammate, Sergio Ramos. The two both went up for the ball and although Casillas collected, Ramos wasn’t able to get out of the way.

It was an awkward moment on the pitch, as Casillas at first appeared sure to come off and Diego Lopez suited up instantly. However, Casillas received on-field treatment and continued on. Unfortunately, as soon as he took his first goal kick, it became obvious there was too much pain for him to continue, and in the best interest of the team and his health he came off, replaced by Lopez.

Rib injuries can be extremely painful, especially if the muscles and soft tissue between rib bones are involved.  It’s something that would absolutely hinder a goalkeeper in stretching out and making tough saves, let alone getting all his power behind kicks.

With the Madrid manager declaring Casillas his Champions League keeper and Diego Lopez the man for La Liga, it was the first serious first-team opportunity for Iker to again prove himself since he lost his place under Jose Mourinho.

UEFA Champions League roundup: Arsenal eases worries; Schalke drawn at home

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Fenerbahçe certainly didn’t live up to expectations today in Istanbul, the cauldron that is the Şükrü Saracoğlu going untended as Arsenal walked through the first leg of their UEFA Champions League playoff. After going into half time drawn 0-0, the Gunners got second half goals from Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey, and Olivier Giroud en route to a huge, 3-0 lead over Turkey’s runners-up.

The second leg of the teams’ playoff takes place next Tuesday at The Emirates, with the winner qualifying for Champions League’s group stage.

Arsenal dictated play throughout in the first half, particularly over the match’s first 20 minutes, yet they had nothing to show for it at halftime. In the second period, Theo Walcott took advantage of his mismatch with Fenerbahçe left back Michal Kaldec, with Ramsey’s stellar night in midfield helping the Gunners translate control into production.

The first instance came in the 51st minute as a Ramsey ball threaded through the Fener defense allowed Walcott to pick out Gibbs for an easy opener. In the 64th minute, Ramsey doubled Arsenal’s lead with a shot from outside the box. Giroud completed the scoring in the 77th  after a call against Kadlec gave the Arsenal striker a chance from the spot.

Up three goals halfway through their playoff, Arsenal helped assuage doubts festering from Saturday’s upset loss to Aston Villa. An early injury to Laurent Koscielny, kicked in the face by Pierre Webo, was the only negative Arsenal will take out of Istanbul, with Arsène Wenger telling Sky Sports after the match that his central defender was taking to a local hospital for further evaluation.

Fenerbahçe, on the other hand, will need one of (if not the) most famous wins in club history to avoid relegation to Europa League.

Elsewhere in Champions League

Schalke (Germany) 1, PAOK (Greece) 1 – A disappointing start to the 2013-14 season continued for Schalke despite going up early through Jefferson Farfan. In the second half, however, Miroslav Stoch gave PAOK a valuable road goal, assuring a clean sheet next week in Thessaloniki will put them into the next round.

Steaua Bucharest (Romania) 1, Legia Warsaw (Poland) 1 – Federico Piovaccari opened the scoring after 33 minutes, lifting his shot over Legia keeper Dusan Kuciak to give the hosts a halftime lead. Eight minutes into the second half, a defensive breakdown left 22-year-old Jakub Kosecki open on the other end of a Miroslav Radovic cross, allowing Legia to get out of Romania with a road goal.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) 0, Austria Wien 2 – Dinamo had more of the ball and the advantage in total shots but find themselves on the wrong end of a crushing result. Conceding twice within a seven-minute span in the second half (to Marin Leovac, Marko Stankovic), Dinamo allowed the Austrian champions to leave Zagreb with a commanding lead.

Ludogorets (Bulgaria) 2, Basel (Switzerland) 4 – Underdogs going into the tie, the Bulgarians had a 2-1 lead after 50 minutes, Ivan Stoyanov putting Ludogorets ahead after the teams traded first half goals. But tallies Mohamed Salah, Giovanni Sio, and Fabian Schär give the Swiss champions a decisive lead and a likely return to Champions League’s group stage.

Stoke City plans a summer visit with Houston Dynamo

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The Houston Dynamo are making a habit of this, cleverly linking a player transfer to a home match.

They did it with Bolton after that English club became the new home for Stuart Holden, who made his pro bones in South Texas. In fact, when the clubs met in 2011, that was the first European opposition Houston had ever faced in an official friendly.

Now the Dynamo has done the same with Stoke City, home to yet another prominent ex-Dynamo man. Geoff Cameron (pictured) is a regular along the back line for manager Tony Pulis’ and his Potters. (His Potters, by the way, appear to be out of relegation danger.)

Stoke will face Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium on July 24, the club announced today. Not be all high and mighty about it, but … we totally called that one.

The match is part of the Dynamo Charities Cup series; past opposition has included Spain’s Valencia, El Salvador’s Club Deportivo Aguila and Mexico’s CF Monterrey (in addition to Bolton, of course.)

We’ve already seen quite a few of these international summer friendlies lined up; look for even more to be announced in May, with most being set for the last 10 days in July and the first few days of August.