هات بت : Xabi Alonso focused despite Liverpool, Bayern Munich links

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Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso would not be drawn on reports linking him with a potential move to the Premier League or Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munich, saying on Thursday he had nothing new to add.

The Spanish coach has a contract with Leverkusen until 2026, and his team are top of the Bundesliga, eight points clear of champions Bayern, who on Wednesday said they would part ways with coach Thomas Tuchel at the end of the season.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Leverkusen are unbeaten across all competitions this season as they eye their first ever Bundesliga title that would end 11 years of uninterrupted Bayern dominance in the league.

Tuchel’s end-of-the-season departure from Bayern has fanned speculation regarding Alonso possibly succeeding him, with the Leverkusen boss having played for the Bavarian giants from 2014-17.

“Maybe you have questions about my future but I have nothing new to say about that. I wanted to say that in advance,” Alonso told a press conference.

The 42-year-old has also been linked with a possible move to Liverpool with coach Jurgen Klopp stepping down at the end of the season. Alonso also had a successful spell at Liverpool from 2004-2009, and Klopp described him as the “standout” manager of his generation last week.

“For me this [speculation] is not a problem,” he said. “I know that my goal is to be successful with my team. That is my job. We are currently in a good position and we want to keep at it.

“It is normal to have questions but it is not an issue for me.”

Asked whether he would be coach of Leverkusen next season as well, Alonso said: “That is what I assume.”

Leverkusen host Mainz on Friday.

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هات بت : Man United launch new Stone Roses-inspired jersey, collection

Man United launch new Stone Roses-inspired jersey, collection


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Manchester United have released a special collection of apparel inspired by one of the city’s most famous and revered musical heroes, the Stone Roses.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)

With designs inspired by the paint-splattered artwork that adorned the legendary Mancunian band’s eponymous debut album, the retro-infused collection includes various items of pre-match and warm-up kit, T-shirts, tracksuits, and of course, the obligatory bucket hat.

The artwork was originally created by Stone Roses guitarist John Squire, who formed the band along with frontman and vocalist Ian Brown in the early 1980s.

They later became a staple of the “Madchester” scene following the release of their first album in 1989 and have had a major influence on countless bands and artists ever since.

United have also marked the release of its Roses Are Red collection with a short film that features a small cast of fans and Reds past and present including Alejandro Garnacho, Marcus Rashford, and Gary Neville.


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هات بت : After overpowering South Korea, Jordan could just pull off the biggest Asian Cup fairy tale

After overpowering South Korea, Jordan could just pull off the biggest Asian Cup fairy tale


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It was not just about Jordan beating South Korea to reach a maiden AFC Asian Cup final.

It was the fact they completely outplayed their more-illustrious opponents who just happen to be two-time champions, traditional powerhouses of the continent, and ranked 23rd in the world.

While many would have been expecting a smash-and-grab job to be Jordan’s best chance of beating South Korea on Tuesday, this was anything but.

The hunger and endeavour were never going to be in doubt. That comes with the territory of being the underdogs.

But Jordan were far more fluid, composed, incisive and decisive, as they claimed a 2-0 win for the ages — courtesy of second-half goals by Yazan Al-Naimat and Musa Al-Taamari — to keep their fairy tale alive.

Perhaps, in the knowledge that South Korea have made a habit of starting matches tepidly at this tournament, the game plan for Jordan was to bring the heat early on — and it worked a treat as they gained the ascendancy from the opening whistle.

Still, as much as the South Koreans have tended to allow their opponents to fire away first in recent outings, they had not shot themselves in the foot like they did on Tuesday.

Having already been wasteful in possession on numerous occasions in the first half, Park Yong-Woo produced another sloppy piece of play eight minutes after the restart – attempting a medium-range ground pass that just did not have enough pace.

It forced Kim Young-Gwon into having to wait for the ball to arrive.

In a blink of an eye, the ball was long gone as Al-Taamari nipped in to win possession before sliding through an incisive pass for Al-Naimat to run onto and finish over the onrushing Jo Hyeon-woo.

13 minutes later, Al-Taamari would cause damage once again — this time without the need for any assistance, as he embarked on a jinking run from the left to the edge of the box before expertly dispatching a shot past Jo’s despairing dive.

From that point on, Jordan never looked like relinquishing their place in Saturday’s final even in spite of South Korea’s newfound reputation of comeback kings.

In fact, it was a sign of how desperate things were getting for the Taegeuk Warriors when Cho Gue-Sung broke into the opposition area late on but — after having an avenue to goal blocked by some resolute last-ditch defending — attempted to win a penalty with one of the most ridiculous dives ever.

South Korea knew. They were up against — and about to be eliminated — by an opposition that was simply superior.

And, for the most part of their campaign, Jordan have indeed been the superior team in every game.

Yet, their reputation means it is unlikely they will be the favourites come the final regardless of whether it is three-time winners Iran or hosts and defending champions Qatar who they are up against.

Still, either of those two teams only have to look at Tuesday’s display to know that the Jordanians should not be taken lightly.

Having never made it past the quarterfinals previously, this tournament has already served up a dream run for Jordan.

If they play like they did against the South Koreans, there is no reason why there cannot still be one final chapter to be written — to complete the biggest fairy tale in Asian Cup history.

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هات بت : PSG sign Brazilian teen Moscardo from Corinthians in €20m deal

PSG sign Brazilian teen Moscardo from Corinthians in €20m deal


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Paris Saint-Germain have signed Brazilian 18-year-old midfielder Gabriel Moscardo from Corinthians, the Ligue 1 club announced on Thursday.

He has signed a contract with PSG until 2028 and is immediately being loaned back to Corinthians until the end of the season. ESPN reported in December that the two sides had agreed a deal worth €20 million ($21.6m) deal for the midfielder

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Moscardo, who joined Corinthians last season, has played 18 games in Brazil’s top flight Serie A.

“I’m looking forward to joining up with the squad and to meeting the team and the coaching staff, and I hope to win many trophies with Les Rouge et Bleu and to make the fans happy,” Moscardo said in a statement

PSG are top of Ligue 1, eight points ahead of second-place Nice.

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هات بت : Washington Spirit hire Barcelona women’s Giraldez as coach

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The Washington Spirit have hired Jonatan Giraldez Costas as the NWSL club’s new head coach on Tuesday.

Giraldez, 32, has been the head coach at FC Barcelona Femeni since 2021.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

He replaces Mark Parsons, who was fired in October after missing the playoffs for a second straight season.

“We conducted an extensive global, data-driven search and found that Jona is the best choice to lead our players,” Spirit owner Michele Kang said in a news release. “His commitment to excellence and high-performance is second to none and the results speak for themselves, including consecutive La Liga and Supercopa titles and multiple top coach honors.

“We are grateful for his decision to join us. He will help take the Spirit to the next leveI for both players and fans.”

Giraldez’s achievements at Barcelona include one Queen’s Cup, two Supercopas, two Primera Division titles, the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League title and a 50-game winning streak in Spanish league play.

He was named IFFHS Women’s World’s Best Club Coach in 2023 and is currently one of three nominees for the best FIFA women’s coach of 2023.

“I am very excited about the opportunity to lead the team and become part of the Washington Spirit family,” said Giraldez. “It’s a great honor and a greater responsibility to help bring the club to the next level, so I will dedicate my heart and soul to make everyone around the team proud and part of something great.”

Giraldez will join the Spirit at the conclusion of Barcelona’s season. The team said an interim head coach will be named shortly.

The NWSL season begins on March 15 with the Challenge Cup between 2023 champions NJ/NY Gotham FC and 2023 Shield winners San Diego Wave FC. The league’s expanded regular season begins the next day with two new expansion sides — Bay FC and Utah Royals FC — beginning play in a 26-match schedule.

Information from Field Level Media was used in this report.

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هات بت : When does the January transfer window open and close?

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The 2024 January transfer window promises to be a busy period as clubs look to strengthen in the search for silverware.

Clubs in all leagues will still be able to sign players as free agents after the deadline, and as long as they are not officially attached to any club on Friday, Feb. 2.

Deals can be agreed between leagues with different transfer windows. They will be officially completed if or when the signing club’s window is open.

– Check out all the latest major moves

All dates are correct as listed by FIFA’s Transfer Window Calendar.

Premier League transfer window

The Premier League transfer market will reopen on Monday, Jan. 1 and run to Thursday, Feb.1 at 11 p.m. GMT / 6 p.m. ET.

Check out all the latest Premier League transfers

LaLiga transfer window

The LaLiga window will officially open on Tuesday, Jan. 2 and will close at 11 p.m. GMT / 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, Feb.1.

Serie A transfer window

The Serie A market opens on Tuesday, Jan. 2 and will close on Thursday, Feb.1, at 7 p.m. GMT / 2 p.m. ET.

Bundesliga transfer window

The Bundesliga window opens as of Monday, Jan. 1 and will close at 5 p.m. GMT / midday ET on Thursday, Feb.1.

Ligue 1 transfer window

Ligue 1 opens its transfer window on Monday, Jan. 1 and will close it on Thursday, Feb.1 at 10 p.m. GMT / 5 p.m. ET.

Women’s Super League transfer window

The WSL summer window opens on Monday, Jan 1 and runs through to Wednesday, Jan. 31.

MLS transfer window

The MLS transfer window remains open until April with the 2024 season starting on Feb. 22.

OTHER TRANSFER DEADLINES
Australia:
Feb. 6
Mexico: Feb. 1
Portugal: Feb. 2
Saudi Arabia: Jan. 30
Turkey: Fe. 9

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هات بت : Transfer Talk: Real Madrid eye signing Man United’s Varane

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The winter transfer window hasn’t re-opened in Europe yet, but there are moves in the works and plenty of gossip swirling around. Transfer Talk brings you all the latest buzz on rumours, comings, goings and, of course, done deals!

TOP STORY: Real Madrid prioritise Varane amid injury crisis

Real Madrid are exploring the market for a potential signing at centre-back, reports Fabrizio Romano.

Los Blancos want to reinforce manager Carlo Ancelotti’s side after David Alaba sustained an ACL injury in the recent 4-1 league victory over Villarreal, and the latest indicates that they are now set to put together their shortlist before making a final decision.

The club went top of the LaLiga table on Thursday night after Lucas Vázquez’s late goal in the 92nd minute sealed victory over Alaves — but they lost another centre-back for their next game when Nacho was sent off in the second half.

Manchester United defender Raphaël Varane has been one of the names recently linked with a return to Spain’s capital as well as Girona’s on-loan Manchester City defender Yan Couto, but with the Santiago Bernabeu hierarchy prioritising a cover option in the heart of the defence, it is Varane that could currently be higher up on his former club’s shortlist.

Brazil international Éder Militão also remains sidelined after sustaining an ACL injury back in August.

PAPER GOSSIP

– Tottenham Hotspur remain interested in Chelsea midfielder Conor Gallagher, reports Sky Sports. Spurs are said to have already made progress on a potential deal for the 23-year-old, and it is reported that the Blues’ stance in the summer to keep him at Stamford Bridge has now changed. Gallagher has featured in 16 Premier League games this season, and he was a standout performer in the 2-0 win over Sheffield United on Saturday.

– Juventus are preparing to move ahead of Internazionale in the race for Lille centre-back Tiago Djaló, reports Gazzetta dello Sport. The Bianconeri are reported to have made an offer to sign the 23-year-old next month during a meeting with his representatives, with hopes of securing a move before he becomes a free agent next summer. It is believed that a deal worth €3 million plus bonuses could be enough for the Ligue 1 side to agree to part ways with him.

– A race between Napoli and Juventus could occur for Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, reports Calciomercato. The Scudetto winners are the latest side to be linked with the 28-year-old Denmark international, as they continue to look for potential replacements for Eljif Elmas, who has been linked with a move away from the club. Hojbjerg has featured more of late amid several injuries in the Spurs squad, but interest in his signature will resurface in January.

– An offer worth in the region of €8m is being prepared by Internazionale amid hopes of landing Club Brugge wingback Tajon Buchanan, reports Gianluca Di Marzio. The 24-year-old Canada international is reported to have been identified as an ideal replacement for Juan Cuadrado, and the Nerazzurri are awaiting final approval from their hierarchy before making an official approach to sign him.

– Villarreal are considering a potential reunion with Besiktas centre-back Eric Bailly, according to Cadena Ser. The Yellow Submarine are believed to be on the lookout for defensive reinforcements in January, and it is reported that they have already enquired with the 29-year-old’s representatives. Bailly has made just six league appearances in Turkey’s Super Lig this season.

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هات بت : Transfer Talk: Man Utd plan shock move for City’s Phillips

Transfer Talk: Man Utd plan shock move for City's Phillips


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The winter transfer window hasn’t re-opened in Europe yet, but there are moves in the works and plenty of gossip swirling around. Transfer Talk brings you all the latest buzz on rumours, comings, goings and, of course, done deals!

TOP STORY: Phillips to switch sides of Manchester?

Manchester United have made Manchester City midfielder Kalvin Phillips their top priority for the summer transfer window, according to The Sun.

Amid speculation over the 28-year-old’s future, City boss Pep Guardiola said on Friday that he was “so sorry” the lack of game time the England international has received since his £42 million move from Leeds United in 2022. Phillips has seen just 216 minutes of action across all competitions so far this term.

While Guardiola can’t see a place for the midfielder in his team, under pressure United manager Erik ten Hag is believed to be a big fan of Phillips and feels that he would be a perfect fit for the direction the Dutchman wants the Red Devils to go in. United’s new investors are also said to be keen to bring in a core of English players and Phillips is still being picked consistently for Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions.

Man United are currently watching the situation very carefully, with it being felt that Phillips will go out on loan in January until the end of the season, after which he will then look for a permanent departure from the Etihad.

The cross-town move would likely be controversial, but it is claimed that Guardiola wouldn’t stand in Phillips’ way as he wants the situation resolved as quickly as possible. There would be even greater controversy if Phillips ended up at Old Trafford given the rivalry that exists between Man Utd and Leeds.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

PAPER GOSSIP

– Manchester City want to sign Club Brugge winger Tajon Buchanan during the January transfer window, reports The Daily Star, which adds that a move would require around £50m. The 24-year-old’s contract runs until the summer of 2025 and he is unlikely to sign a new deal, which could play into Club Brugge letting the Canada international depart, although there will be competition from Internazionale.

– Manchester United have made RB Leipzig striker Loïs Openda their top priority for the January transfer window, says The Mirror, which adds that Tottenham Hotspur have also been watching the 23-year-old. Openda joined Die Roten Bullen from Lens for £35m during the summer, but it would now reportedly take £75m to sign him.

– Juventus are interested in signing Lazio winger Felipe Anderson if the 30-year-old is available as a free agent in the summer, reports Calciomercato. The Brazilian’s contract is set to expire at the end of the season and Lazio president Claudio Lotito has paused negotiations as he wants to see an upturn in the winger’s form before offering him a four-year deal worth €3.5m per season.

– Real Madrid have opened talks with Reading about a move for 18-year-old forward Caylan Vickers, according to The Sun, which adds that the Royals want £1m and a percentage of the funds earned from any future move. Arsenal have been tracking the teenager while Leicester City, Norwich City and Celtic have also sent scouts to watch him.

– Lyon see the midfield as a key area to strengthen to aid their hopes of staying in Ligue 1 and are hoping to bring in AC Milan’s Rade Krunic, according to Le10Sport, although they will face competition from Fenerbahce for the 30-year-old. Lyon are also looking at Real Betis’ Guido Rodríguez and Stade Rennais’ Baptiste Santamaria as alternative options for that position.

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هات بت : Arsenal 4-3 Luton Town (5 Dec, 2023) Game Analysis

Manchester City 1-2 Atletico Madrid (30 Jul, 2023) Game Analysis


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Declan Rice’s header deep in stoppage time sealed an enthralling 4-3 victory for Arsenal over Luton Town to send them five points clear at the top of the Premier League on Tuesday.

Six minutes of stoppage time were almost up when Rice found space to glance a header into the net, sparking joy for the visitors and heartache for an intrepid Luton side.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

“Luton are a top side and they can’t be overlooked in this league for the quality they have,” Rice told Amazon Prime. “To score in the last minute and keep the momentum building, it’s massive for us. Those are the moments you look back on. What a game. To score the winner is an honour.”

There was little to hint at the thriller ahead in a low-key opening 20 minutes on a raw night at Kenilworth Road, but the game exploded into life when Gabriel Martinelli’s scuffed shot from Bukayo Saka’s pass put Arsenal ahead.

Luton responded five minutes later with Gabriel Osho powering a header past David Raya from Alfie Doughty’s corner.

Saka and Martinelli were both denied by saves from Thomas Kaminski, but Arsenal went ahead again just before the break with Gabriel Jesus heading in Ben White’s dinked cross.

Arsenal's Declan Rice celebrates after scoring a goal against Luton Town in the Premier League.
Arsenal’s Declan Rice celebrates after scoring a goal against Luton Town in the Premier League.

Arsenal had not won at Luton since 1986 and they were rocked on their heels as first Elijah Adebayo headed in another corner in the 49th minute before Andros Townsend played in fellow former England international Ross Barkley eight minutes later to drill a low shot underneath Raya, who endured a difficult night.

Raya should have done better for Luton’s second and third goals, but his blushes were spared by his teammates.

The old stadium was rocking to its foundations, but Luton’s joy was cut short as Kai Havertz squared it up on the hour from a Jesus pass. Rice then left the hosts in despair as Arsenal again showed their penchant for late goals.

They have now taken nine points this season courtesy of goals in the last five minutes of games.

“Incredible evening. First of all, congratulations to Luton, their players, staff, the atmosphere they created made it a special night to play football and they made it very hard for us,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said.

“They are so good at set pieces and they made us really fight for the game and at the end it was a beautiful win.”

Luton remain fourth from bottom with nine points and while the defeat stung, manager Rob Edwards was rightly proud of his players, who gave Arsenal a real scare.

“Arsenal wanted a game of order and we made it chaotic at times,” Edwards said. “I don’t think that has ever happened to me, conceding that late to lose a game so I’m flat right now.”

Arsenal have 36 points from 15 games played with Liverpool on 31 and champions Manchester City on 30, with the latter two teams in action on Wednesday.

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

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?


ONSIDE

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.


OFFSIDE

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.

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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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