هات بت : Newcastle, Arsenal set for big clash; who will win MLS MVP?

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Welcome to Onside/Offside! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed, what to keep an eye on in the coming days and of course, certain things that probably deserved extra love and criticism.

This week, we have lots of previews! From the Premier League, where Mikel Arteta’s undefeated Arsenal visit Eddie Howe’s high-scoring Newcastle United to MLS and a tasty Copa Libertadores final. Plus, what does Saudi Arabia’s sole bid for the 2034 World Cup mean for the future of the sport?


Newcastle vs. Arsenal: The unbeaten against the goal scorers

This matchup is set to be entertaining: two teams with a clear identity under young, ambitious managers eyeing legitimate objectives while possessing tremendous, eye-catching talent.

Let’s begin with Newcastle United, who alongside Aston Villa, are the current highest scorers in the Premier League. When they’re on, they’re a complete team in the sense that they work as a unit, no matter the XI. They showed it midweek against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup when manager Howe started out with a rotated squad and no discernible striker aside from Joelinton, who now plays as a box-to-box midfielder. The outcome? 7,000 from the Toon Army witnessed a 3-0 destruction.

Newcastle’s biggest strength is that it’s all about the collective. At their best, they are fluid and aggressive, and thanks to the likes of Anthony Gordon, Miguel Almirón and Callum Wilson, there is a single-minded, no-nonsense approach to entering the final third.

But as we shift to the other corner, Arsenal — who like Tottenham are still undefeated in the league — will prove to be a difficult test. They are coming from a 3-1 loss against West Ham in the Carabao Cup, but something tells me that this is a relief for manager Arteta as the Premier League and the Champions League are of greater importance. There’s also recent history to take into consideration when talking about Arsenal vs. Newcastle. From the past 22 meetings in all competitions, Arsenal have won 19 of them, which clearly says that they have Newcastle’s number. They are the Magpies’ bogey side.

But this match is difficult to predict because of both sides’ strengths but most notably, their vulnerabilities. I haven’t even mentioned the injuries and absences (Sandro Tonali being the most prominent for Newcastle.) With Gabriel Jesus injured and Kai Havertz proving largely ineffective, Eddie Nketiah is entering the most important chapter in his career with Arsenal. He has to be the guy right now.

Wilson, meanwhile, who has scored seven goals this season and is netting a goal every 60 minutes for Newcastle, also has to carry a larger responsibility because of Alexander Isak’s temporary absence. Will Arsenal remain undefeated? Can Newcastle take full advantage of St. James’s Park’s support and produce a victory? All I know is that I am excited to watch this one.

Argentina and Brazil’s contrasting styles on show in Copa Libertadores final

There are many angles and talking points you can take from Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final, which will be played at Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. First, this is the first final between Argentina and Brazil since 2019, as the last three editions have been dominated by Brazilian teams. Second, Fluminense, managed by Fernando Diniz (also interim manager of the Brazil national team), are looking to win this trophy for the first time. Third, this is a chance for Boca Juniors to earn some redemption after losing in the violence-ridden 2018 edition against River Plate, which was eventually played in Madrid.

Boca are the second-most successful club in this competition behind Independiente, but have not won it since 2007. Fourth, aside from the obvious distaste toward one another because of nationality and cultural differences, Fluminense and Boca Juniors are also different in style.

Boca manager Jorge Almirón (a former defensive midfielder) has had to rely on resiliency and defensive prowess to get here (they have conceded only five goals). They have also made it through to the final thanks to penalty shootouts in every round. But goals have been a problem. Even with the arrival of Edinson Cavani in July, they have only scored 12 times in the entire tournament.

In the other corner, Fluminense have also scored 12 goals — in the knockout stages alone. In total, Diniz’s side have netted 22 goals in the competition and partly thanks to their Argentinian striker German Cano, they are lethal as much as they are attractive to watch. Diniz wants to bring back the “Joga Bonito” aspect to the Brazilian game as his Fluminense side usually play attractive, quick and short-possession based football, something he hasn’t mustered with the national team just yet.

Watch out for André, too, their 22-year-old defensive midfielder who was reportedly approached by Liverpool in the summer, but Fluminense held on to him for this very reason, to make it in the final. I expect this to be his last season with Fluminense. On Boca’s side, 19-year-old Valentin Barco is also reportedly attracting a lot of attention and this could also be his final campaign in Argentina as Premier League and Bundesliga sides have been keeping tabs on him.

But it’s not just about youth! How about Marcos Rojo or Sergio Romero, Man United fans? The former will miss the game due to being sent off in the semifinals against Palmeiras, but the goalkeeper will be key on Saturday. And then there’s Marcelo for Fluminense. The former Real Madrid star returned to his first club earlier this year and will look to add a Libertadores medal to his five from the Champions League.

No Messi? No problem. The three MVP candidates in MLS

The MLS playoffs are in full effect and this weekend features the second matches from the best-of-three series in Round 1. Just because Inter Miami and Lionel Messi are not involved doesn’t mean there isn’t great action to watch. MLS continues to grow (they recently recorded a highest-ever total attendance of 10.9 million for the season) and provide great moments of entertainment, with or without the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner.

So let’s talk about the three MVP candidates. First off, Denis Bouanga, the Golden Boot winner from LAFC, is in ridiculous form. The Gabonese striker scored 20 league goals and created three assists in the regular season and helped his club take the lead in the first round with a 1-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps. He arrived from Ligue 1’s Saint-Étienne for $5 million in 2022 and at 28 years old, it was definitely a bargain for the club from Los Angeles.

Then there’s Luciano Acosta, who started his career with Boca Juniors and went back and forth between MLS and Liga MX before finding his home with FC Cincinnati. Lucho is the ultimate No. 10 for Cincy, creating 29 league goal contributions this season (16 goals, 13 assists) and in the first playoff match against the New York Red Bulls, he was everywhere, scoring one and assisting another. He’s probably winning the MVP award.

Finally, Thiago Almada, a man I have wanted for Aston Villa for a while (sorry, Atlanta United fans) — 11 goals and 16 assists (the most in the league) in the regular season are only part of the story. He is a dynamite, much in the mold of Paulo Dybala but with a better eye for long-range finishes and set pieces. He didn’t play in Atlanta’s loss against Columbus Crew on Wednesday due to suspension, but will return for the second match next week.

If you’re asking me who’s winning the MLS Cup this season? I think all roads lead to Lucho Acosta and Cincy, who would lift their first title since joining the league from USL in 2019.

A special mention to Cucho Hernández, who scored a brace in Crew’s 2-0 win against Atlanta on Wednesday night. He scored 16 goals and recorded 11 assists in the regular season and will be a force in the postseason.


Fans clash ahead of Copa Lib final

I wish I could have left the Copa Libertadores final as an “onside” but sadly I have to also include this. On Thursday night at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Fluminense fans clashed with Boca Juniors supporters. By the time police responded, things had continued into the early hours.

CONMEBOL came out with a half-efforted statement asking for things to calm down (that will do the trick) which prompted the Argentinian ambassador in Brazil to ask for more. “I saw the statement and the truth is that it demands greater firmness and rigor,” said Daniel Scioli. “I am worried because tomorrow a very tough group of fans will arrive.”

In 2018, the Copa Libertadores final had to be suspended and moved to Madrid. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that this time around. One day, CONMEBOL will get it together and realize that these finals require a tremendous amount of infrastructure and protection for fans and their families who just want to enjoy their team in a final.

What do Saudi Arabia want?

Saudi Arabia’s sole bid for the 2034 World Cup was always going to be on the cards, for several reasons. For one, from a calendar perspective, the plans were carefully assembled by FIFA last month when it announced the rotation policy for hosts and — wouldn’t you know it — the 2034 edition was guaranteed for a nation from Asia or Oceania. Enter Saudi Arabia, uncontested after Australia pulled out hours before the deadline because it knew the obvious truth: money talks.

Second, there is the indication of Saudi’s continuous influence on global sports. From PIF’s control of Newcastle United — and consequently the top four clubs in the Saudi Pro League — to Formula 1, boxing, golf and December’s Club World Cup — Saudi Arabia has carefully created a path of sporting impact on the world stage. So, now that we know that this was going to happen (and Qatar setting a new precedent of saying “sorry, not sorry” to Europe with a winter World Cup), the question is: why does Saudi Arabia want this so much and what do they want out of it?

The first part of the question has been answered as there is a clear intention of the Saudi kingdom’s need to attract tourism and create a new identity for the Middle East. How about accusations of sportswashing, where sport is being used to cover and detract from the bigger issues at hand (human rights violations, criminalization of homosexuality, women’s rights abuses, free speech restrictions, the war in Yemen and the 2018 death of Jamal Khashoggi).

Well, it’s not really a concern, as clearly stated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: “If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we’ll continue doing sportswashing. … I have 1% growth in GDP from sport and I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want — we are going to get that 1.5%,” he said to Fox Sports in September.

In the end, a lot of question marks remain about the 2034 World Cup bid and how far Saudi Arabia will go to attain what it wants in the sporting market in order to clean its global reputation. But this is not just about Saudi Arabia’s intentions, as we continue to learn that FIFA’s gluttony has no limits.

Novak Djokovic and Ballon d’Or’s clueless decision

On Monday, Aitana Bonmatí received her first ever Ballon d’Or Féminin after an incredible season of success with Barcelona and the Spanish national team. There was a video right after the announcement describing her journey, which started with CD Ribes and CF Cubelles. Her speech was passionate and inspiring, encouraging other teammates to keep fighting (specifically talking about everything the Spanish women’s team has had to do for equal pay, against sexual harassment and of course, the Luis Rubiales incident) and living by example.



Bonmati ‘proud’ to win Ballon d’Or Feminin after difficult year for Spain

Spain midfielder Aitana Bonmati says she is speechless after winning the Ballon d’Or Feminin and now wants to focus on football after the World Cup controversy.

So why, may I ask, would the Ballon d’Or organizers arrange for Djokovic to present Bonmatí with the award? This is Djokovic, one of the greatest men’s tennis players in the history of the sport but who also once argued against equal pay and said male tennis players should be paid more than women. After winning the Indian Wells Masters in 2016, Djokovic was asked about his views on equal pay and said men “should fight for more” and “be awarded more” because they proved to attract larger attendances at tennis matches.

I mean, this is hardly a champion for women’s sports. If you have to have a tennis player present this award (which still baffles me), why not a woman? I’m sure Serena Williams, Coco Gauff or even Bonmatí’s compatriot Sara Sorribes Tormo, the current, highest-ranked Spanish player in the world would have been more than happy to attend.

In addition, the event was held during an international window in women’s football so most nominees couldn’t attend. France Football also don’t offer awards for the women’s best young player, goalkeeper or striker, which were all featured for the men. It may have been a great night for Messi and the men’s game, but once again, much more could have been done for the women.

Final word

What happens when Goliath meets David? Bayern Munich found out on Wednesday in the German cup, courtesy of third division side Saarbrucken who are 15th in the table but it didn’t bother them one bit as Marcel Gaus scored in the 96th minute to secure a historic victory against the Bundesliga champions.

I love this game of ours.

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