Wild celebrations captured by Zack Steffen


After winning the first leg on foreign soil last week, Manchester City created history last night by galloping into the Champions League final after seeing off Paris Saint-Germain in a lively semifinal second leg.

Despite the unseasonal snow and hail that swept over the Etihad, two goals from Riyad Mahrez saw City claim a 2-0 victory on the night, thus sending them through 4-1 on aggregate.

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The win was City’s seventh in a row in this season’s competition, setting a new record for an English club.

City will now face either Real Madrid or Premier League rivals Chelsea in Istanbul on May 29, 12 years after losing out on the chance to play at the Ataturk Stadium in the 2008-09 UEFA Cup final.

City have come a long way since then, muscling their way into the elite of the game both at home and abroad, and they have now reached the Champions League final at the 10th attempt.

City winning only their second-ever Champions League semifinal represented a watershed moment and, as you might imagine, the ensuing celebrations got wild. City’s players invoked the spirit of Mufasa & Hypeman by singing “It’s Friday then it’s Saturday, Sunday (What!)” like their lives depended on it, before Benjamin Mendy took things up a notch by bringing a chair on to the impromptu dance floor.

Thankfully, United States goalkeeper Zack Steffen was on hand to capture the party atmosphere inside the locker room for posterity.

Mahrez is arguably enjoying his best spell since signing for City but, despite scoring three of City’s four goals in the semifinal, the Algeria international was not getting carried away.

Kevin De Bruyne celebrated with a simple message after seeing City get knocked out of the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage for the previous three seasons.

Kyle Walker took the opportunity to wish teammate Fernandinho a very happy 36th birthday, and the veteran midfielder responded by thanking everybody for the birthday wishes.

Ruben Dias put in another monumental shift at the heart of City’s defence, earning the Man of the Match award after a performance in which he made three blocks, three clearances and won 100% of his tackles.

Phil Foden also continued on his ascent, impressing with yet another assured and pivotal performance. The 20-year-old was still in his last year at junior school the last time Pep Guardiola reached a Champions League final (with Barcelona in 2011), but now he is drawing praise from his fellow England international, Declan Rice.

Former City players Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta took to social media to congratulate the class of 2021 on reaching the final.

Sergio Aguero, who will leave City at the end of the season, only made it onto the pitch for the final few minutes of the second leg. However, an quote from City’s all-time top goal scorer from 2014 suddenly became very prescient in the aftermath of the match, especially as the striker’s glorious 10-year stint at the club draws to a close.

PSG earned a fair amount of scorn for their performance, with fans not taking kindly to Mauricio Pochettino’s side’s attempt to spoil the game once they realised they were sunk.

Tempers boiled over in the second half as Angel Di Maria was sent off for a petulant stamp on Fernandinho — the second PSG player to see red over the course of the tie, following Idrissa Gueye‘s similarly needless dismissal at the Parc des Princes. Marco Verratti, Presnel Kimpembe and Danilo Pereira all picked up bookings in the final stages of the tie as PSG’s players took their frustration out on their opponents.

Mauro Icardi bore the brunt of the criticism he struggled to make any discernible impact. The Argentine forward had just 13 touches of the ball in the first half, fewer than any other player including the two goalkeepers.

Indeed, French outlet L’Equipe gave Icardi a miserable rating of just 2/10 for his largely absent performance at the Etihad.

Oh well, there’s always next year.





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Social media reacts to Jose’s Serie A return


They say that life comes at you pretty fast, and that has rarely felt truer than when it was announced on Tuesday that Jose Mourinho will be the new coach of Serie A side AS Roma from next season.

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The announcement of Mourinho’s appointment only came about three hours after Roma had made it known that Paulo Fonseca would be leaving the dugout at the end of the 2020-21 campaign.

To complete the head-spinning effect of the revolving door at the Stadio Olimpico, Mourinho himself was fired by Tottenham Hotspur little over a fortnight ago, on April 19 (an announcement which was buried by the unfolding saga around the breakaway European Super League).

Hearing of Mourinho’s return to Italy, the last place where he felt truly widespread popularity, felt at once both baffling and strangely inevitable.

The Portuguese coach is returning to the country where he won the Treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League with Inter Milan in 2010. His arrival back in Italy will set off the *narrative klaxon* ahead of next season.

Ah yes, Antonio Conte. The coach who has just led Inter to their first league title in 11 years had plenty of run-ins with his former Premier League rival when he was in charge of Chelsea and Mourinho was at Manchester United.

Their two-year tussle in England featured various face-offs on the touchline and barbs traded via news conferences and postmatch interviews. Conte aimed digs at his rival for his lack of a professional playing career and called him a “fake,” while Mourinho made fun of his counterpart’s hair and said he acted like “a clown” on the sidelines.

Conte is not the only ghost from Mourinho’s past with whom he will soon be reacquainted. Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were both under his charge at Old Trafford. No doubt they will be delighted to see their old boss — Mkhitaryan in particular. The midfielder took more than a month to make his first start for Mourinho’s United following his much-vaunted summer signing from Borussia Dortmund in 2016, and the moved to Arsenal on a free transfer 18 months later as Alexis Sanchez made the opposite journey.

And let’s not forget the simmering resentment he is sure to be met with by fans of Juventus. After his Manchester United side secured a 2-1 win in Turin in a Champions League group match in 2018, Mourinho cupped his ear to the crowd and was met with an angry reaction by Juve’s [players.

Mourinho said afterward:

“I was insulted for 90 minutes. I probably shouldn’t have done it, and with a cool head I wouldn’t have done it, but with my family insulted, including my Inter family, I reacted like this.”

One of the surprising things about Mourinho’s appointment at Roma was that he had already got a new job, as last week it was announced that he would be taking up a role as an analyst for talkSport.

Some joked that Mourinho’s move to Italy may have been a cynical move to pad out his CV with one last “easy” trophy having failed to deliver any at Spurs.

Announcing the appointment, club president Dan Friedkin and vice president Ryan Friedkin said in a joint statement: “A great champion who has won trophies at every level, Jose will provide tremendous leadership and experience to our ambitious project. The appointment of Jose is a huge step in building a long-term and consistent winning culture throughout the club.”

In unrelated news, Roma’s stock price jumped immediately after Mourinho’s appointment was made official.

So, the big question is: will Mourinho remain a relic, or will he be restored to former glory in the Eternal City?

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a wild ride.





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Fans take over shopping mall to protest rule letting just 8 spectators into matches


Fans of Swedish club AIK took over a shopping mall on Sunday to protest against government restrictions that only allow eight spectators inside football grounds for matches.

The nation’s government has not given football an exemption to the rule limiting outside gatherings to eight people, thereby fixing the single-figure limit on the number of supporters allowed into stadiums. It recently announced that up to 500 fans could be allowed to attend major sporting events as of May 17, but only once the infection rate is deemed low enough.

As such, only a handful of fans made it through the turnstiles at the 54,000-capactiy Friends Arena, in the Solna area of Stockholm, to watch AIK’s game against IF Elfsborg in the top-flight Allsvenskan.

Meanwhile, there are no restrictions on the number of people able to be in the public areas of shopping malls in Sweden. Taking advantage of that loophole, a much larger group of AIK supporters were able to gather inside a nearby shopping mall to protest against what they claim is an “absurd” situation.

Before the game on Sunday, the AIK fans took over a central atrium at the Mall of Scandinavia, located directly opposite the stadium. They were decked in club colours, beating drums, chanting and waving flags to draw attention to the large banners bearing the message: “The national sport deserves more than eight people. Abolish all absurd restrictions.”

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Across the road, the eight permitted AIK fans filed into the arena two by two and took up their places on the sparsely populated terraces, leading to some very peculiar scenes.

The “crowd” was treated to a narrow home victory, with AIK winning 1-0 thanks to a penalty from veteran midfielder Sebastian Larsson, formerly of Arsenal, Birmingham City and Sunderland.

After the game, Larsson led his teammates in saluting the lucky fans who were allowed in to cheer them to victory.

AIK defender Alexander Milosevic spoke of his support for the fans protesting in the mall, while also expressing frustration at the restrictions.

“I understand the supporters. They want to come back. For many supporters, this is all in life,” the Sweden international told Swedish TV show “Fotbollskanalen.” “We have restaurants where 100 people can enter in a small area and we can have as many people as possible inside the Mall of Scandinavia, but in a football arena that takes in 50,000 spectators, eight people enter. I have very great respect for the pandemic but I think this situation is a disaster.”

This wasn’t the first time AIK have been forced to play in front of a drastically reduced audience, with last month’s game against Degerfors bringing about similarly odd scenes. Despite the stadium being close to empty, Degerfors forward Victor Edvardsen — who used to play for AIK’s bitter rivals IFK Gothenburg — revealed he could hear every word being chanted at him.

“I could hear the fans singing ‘everyone in Gothenburg smells like fish,'” he told Fotbollskanalen. “It was a shame it was only eight, it would have been much better if it had been 50,000 people shouting it. But I did hear that they were shouting it. It was pretty funny actually.”





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Get to the chopper! Inside Dutch club’s helicopter parade to celebrate promotion with entire town


SC Cambuur-Leeuwarden’s manager Henk de Jong ate well on Saturday morning, as preparation for what was to come. After their 1-1 draw against De Graafschap the previous evening, the team and backroom staff had a “little pint,” as he puts it, to further celebrate their achievement of winning the Dutch Keuken Kampioen Divisie, and with it promotion to the top-flight Eredivisie.

“I am not afraid of needing to throw up,” De Jong told ESPN. “It isn’t as big a hangover like last week [after they secured promotion], it is a small one.”

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With COVID-19 restrictions preventing Cambuur from celebrating in the usual fashion — a massive party at the Oldehoofsterkerkhof in the centre of the town — they were offered an unorthodox way of marking the occasion by the municipality and the mayor: a helicopter parade.

Just before midday on May 1, Cambuur’s squad, some wearing sunglasses on an overcast day, arrived at Leeuwarden Air Base. They saw three helicopters waiting on the tarmac: two for the squad, one for the media following the parade.

Each helicopter had capacity for five people, who would be treated to a 20-minute flight over Leeuwarden — a city in the north of the Netherlands, with a population of 122,000 — at an altitude of about 300 metres (almost 1,000 feet).

The people of the city had been asked to decorate their gardens and homes in Cambuur’s yellow-and-blue colours in preparation for the fly-past. And as the helicopters flew over the field of LKC Sonnenborgh (the local Frisian handball club), they saw flags laid out on the grass reading: “SCC JUSTICE.”

This party has been a long time coming. When the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world last year, the Dutch FA (KNVB) held a meeting with the clubs to decide how to finish the 2019-20 season. Cambuur, at this stage, were at the top of the Dutch second division, 11 points clear of the playoff positions. Options such as the points-per-game model were mentioned, and the clubs took a vote. The 34 clubs in the first and second tier of Dutch football had registered their thoughts — 16 clubs voted for promotion and relegation, nine voted against and nine clubs abstained or did not vote. As there was no majority, the decision lay with the KNVB. It allocated European places in the Eredivisie but opted against crowning champions or implementing promotion and relegation.

Cambuur were heartbroken. They already had one foot in the Eredivisie. De Jong said at the time it was “the greatest disgrace in Dutch sport, ever,” while their managing director Ard de Graaf told ESPN “there is a great sense of injustice” at the club. With the club already planning for the top flight, including the development of a new โ‚ฌ72 million stadium ($86.5m) on the outskirts of the city, the promotion party was put on hold.

The wounds from last year took time to heal. De Jong stands by his statement, but he had to get his squad to focus on this season rather than reliving the pain of the previous April. After a sticky spell in September, they went on to dominate the Dutch second tier, winning 27 of their 36 league games to date. When midfielder Issa Kallon secured promotion on April 17 by scoring the winner against Helmond Sport, he raised his shirt to reveal the word “Justice” written on another underneath.

When the final whistle blew on that 4-1 victory, it prompted celebrations outside of their ground, Cambuur Stadion. It was that outpouring of joy which prompted the municipality and mayor to think up a different way of marking the team’s success. Usually it would involve some beer-fuelled celebration in a sea of yellow-and-blue flares but, recognising the need to avoid large public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, they dreamt up the airborne alternative.

From 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. local time, the helicopters circled Leeuwarden. The players saw yellow-and-blue flares lit up on the ground below. They saw the fire brigade forming a semi-circle of fire engines in tribute to the team; as they looked down on Maximilla Straat, they saw the club’s emblem drawn in chalk on the road. More support came in via the hashtag #TerugWaarWeHoren (“Back Where We Belong”) on Twitter.

“You’re so high up in the air,” midfielder Nick Doodeman told ESPN after he landed. “Before take-off I stood in front of the helicopter and saw the other [one] take off and thought ‘now I need to go as well.’ The pilot was very calm so that gave us confidence as well. The highlight? I think I saw my parents and my girlfriend waving from the ground! They were doing some jobs around the house and I believe I saw them waving in the back yard. But I don’t think they could see me.”

De Jong added: “It was amazing to see everything on the ground. People are so excited, I sat in the first flight and there were yellow-and-blue fireworks. I saw kids on the ground, people waving from their gardens.”

Some of the players weren’t convinced by the stunt. “A few players are missing today,” De Jong said before taking off. “They don’t want to go up in the air and would rather keep two feet on the ground. I am not the guy that says ‘you need to go,’ live and let live, right? I am really going up. If you get this opportunity, you need to take it.”

Central defender Calvin Mac-Intosch was one who decided against the helicopter flight. He told ESPN: “Why not? I’m not afraid of flying or anything, but sitting in a helicopter is not really necessary for me. I think [it is] too much. But I saw some videos of the guys and they seemed to enjoy it, so I enjoy as well then. To be honest, I thought it would be military helicopter, but it [looks] somewhat old-fashioned. You know; I am fine in an airplane but a helicopter… hmm, not for me.” The team’s top scorer, Robert Muhren — who arrived at the airfield said he was feeling ill, wearing sunglasses and sipping water – also didn’t fly, nor did Alex Bangaru, Robin Maulun or Kallon.

Midfielder Michael Breij originally turned down the invitation, but his mother and girlfriend changed his mind. “I am quaking in my boots, to be honest,” he said before take-off. “But I am going to go up, I stand firm. I am very curious, but I’ll take a sick bag with me.”

Cambuur’s nickname is the “Slapende Reus” (“Sleeping Giant”), but they are stirring from their slumber. Having been relegated back in 2016, they have ended their five-year absence from the Eredivisie. Cambuur still have two matches to go this season and the celebrations will continue, but you sense De Jong might try to pace himself, while having a new-found appreciation for terra firma.

“During take-off that thing shakes of course, but then you go fast all of the sudden, just over the ground and then you go up in the air,” he said. “I was a little bit [nauseous] to be honest. We went circling above Goutum [a small village near Leeuwarden] where [former player and assistant manager] Martijn Barto stood but I said ‘please go straight ahead again because I am getting nauseous’ … but that also has to do with yesterday.”





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Messi’s Barcelona scoring record boots sell for $175,000 at auction to benefit local children’s hospital


The boots Lionel Messi wore when he broke the one-club goalscoring record have brought in ยฃ125,000 ($175,000) at auction, with all the proceeds going to Barcelona‘s Vall d’Hebrรณn Hospital where it will be used to “help children with cancer or other serious illnesses, as well as their families.”

Messi, 33, scored his 644th goal for Barcelona in last December’s 3-0 win over Real Valladolid. The strike carried him past Brazil legend Pele, who netted 643 times for Santos, as the player to have scored the most goals for a single club.

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The boots, donated by Adidas and Messi, were exhibited in Cataluรฑa’s Museum of Art (MNAC) in Barcelona earlier this year. The auction, which began on April 19 with a starting price of ยฃ40,000, concluded on Friday with a late flurry of bids that tripled the price in the final hour. Auction house Christie’s estimated the boots would sell for ยฃ50,000-ยฃ70,000.

“Reaching the historic milestone of 644 goals with the same club gives me a lot of joy, but what’s really more important is being able to give something back to the kids struggling with their health,” Messi said ahead of the auction. “We hope this will raise a lot of awareness for this great cause.”

Messi’s boot fetched more than double for charity than the captain’s armband that Cristiano Ronaldo angrily threw to the ground during Portugal‘s World Cup qualifier against Serbia earlier this year.

Ronaldo’s armband was sold to an unidentified bidder for $75,000 (ยฃ53,000) at a charity auction, Serbian state TV reported in April. However, Mario Gotze‘s 2014 World Cup-winning boot, with which he scored the winning goal vs. Argentina, fetched much more, selling for โ‚ฌ2m ($2.45 million) during a televised charity auction.



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Leicester’s Premier League title heroes five years on: Where are they now?


Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of the day Leicester City stunned the football world by winning the Premier League title.

Lest we forget, they were unfancied 5,000-1 rank outsiders at the start of the campaign, thought more likely to be relegated, but by the end of the 2015-16 campaign were lifting the trophy above their heads.

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That brilliant Foxes team will live forever in the history books but, as inspirational manager Claudio Ranieri found out to his cost, football soon moves on.

In testament to their achievements here’s a round-up of that legendary team. The 11 players who played the most minutes for Leicester in their greatest-ever season, and where they are now.

Claudio Ranieri

Ranieri was rather unceremoniously sacked by Leicester just nine months after he delivered the club their most illustrious honour.

The Foxes struggled to replicate their success in 2016-17 and were just one point above the relegation zone when their title-winning coach was fired in February, with 13 games of the season remaining and the club in the knockout rounds of the Champions League.

Ranieri’s next job came in France with Nantes, before he returned to the Premier League to manage Fulham. However, his tenure in West London lasted just 17 matches as the Cottagers sank towards immediate relegation back to the Championship.

He then returned to former club Roma for 12 games to see them through to the end of the 2018-19 season, before agreeing to take over as head coach at Sampdoria in October 2019. He just managed to keep them up, but Samp have built on that and are in the top half in the 2020-21 season.

One of only two players to be on the pitch for every single minute of Leicester’s miraculous march to the title, Schmeichel conceded fewer goals (36) than games played and kept 15 clean sheets.

Now aged 34, the Denmark international remains No. 1 choice goalkeeper to this very day.

Morgan was the second player to spend all 3,420 minutes on the pitch as the defender captained the Foxes to glory, even pitching in with a couple of goals.

The 37-year-old is still club captain at Leicester though the veteran centre-back has made just three cameo appearances this season.

Robert Huth – 35 apps, 3 goals

Huth proved himself to be a rock at the heart of Leicester’s defence in 2015-16, having spent the previous season on loan from Stoke City.

The Germany international spent another two years with the Foxes but after missing the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign through injury, the 34-year-old announced his retirement from football in January 2019.

A vital member of the Foxes’ title-winning defence, the Austrian left-back is still at Leicester and has made nine appearances in the Premier League this season.

The 35-year-old’s contract is due to expire this summer which means we might finally see Fuchs fulfill his long-held dream of making the leap into a second sporting career as an NFL place kicker.

Danny Simpson – 30 apps

Simpson was released by Leicester at the end of the 2018-19 season and promptly joined Championship side Huddersfield, with whom he spent the 2019-20 campaign.

He turned down a new contract at Huddersfield, which may have backfired as he was without a club until March 2021, when he signed a short-term deal with Bristol City — a move that reunited him with former Leicester manager Nigel Pearson.

Drinkwater was an integral presence in Leicester’s title-winning midfield but requested to leave the club soon after amid reported interest from Chelsea.

The Foxes rejected several bids for Drinkwater before finally caving and accepting an offer of ยฃ35 million, with the deal going through in September 2017.

However, things soon turned sour as Drinkwater has gone on to make just five league starts for the Blues in four years with loans to Burnley, Aston Villa and, for the second half of the 2020-21 season, Turkish side Kasimpasa.

Drinkwater still has another year to run on his Chelsea deal but there’s little chance of him playing for the club again.

N’Golo Kante – 37 apps, 1 goal, 4 assists

The undisputed breakout star of Leicester’s golden season, Kante has gone on to become one of the most coveted all-action midfielders in modern football.

After just one hugely successful year at the King Power, the diminutive French star sealed a big move to Chelsea in the summer of 2016.

Kante won the league again in 2016-17, thus becoming only the first player to win back to back Premier League titles with different clubs (Mark Schwarzer didn’t play in either title-winning seasons for Chelsea (2014-15) or Leicester (2015-16)).

He has since won two FA Cups and the Europa League with Chelsea — oh, and a World Cup too with France in 2018.

Okazaki left the Foxes for Spain in 2019, first signing with Malaga on a one-year deal. However, his contract had to be cancelled after just 34 days as the club were unable to register him due to financial constraints.

The Japanese forward subsequently joined second division Huesca, where he can still be found to this day (1 goal in 21 apps so far this season).

The flying Foxes winger was a staple member of Ranieri’s hallowed team and continues to be an important player.

Now aged 31, Albrighton may have slipped down the pecking order by a rung or two but that hasn’t prevented him from making 26 appearances in the Premier League in 2020-21, laying on four assists in the process.

Jamie Vardy – 36 apps, 24 goals, 6 assists

The beating heart of Ranieri’s rebels, Vardy attained club legend status with his one-man battering ram performances in the Foxes’ title triumph.

Vardy’s incredible output saw him crowned Premier League Player of the Season in 2015-16 but the fearsome form didn’t stop there.

He went on to be Golden Boot winner in 2018-19 after another similarly prolific campaign in which he scored 23 league goals and thus, at the age of 33, became the oldest player to claim the award.

Vardy also became the 29th player to score 100 Premier League goals when he passed the milestone in June 2020, and then sealed membership to an even more exclusive club in March of 2021 when he registered 100 or more goal involvements in the top flight beyond his 30th birthday.

Like a fine wine.

Riyad Mahrez – 37 apps, 17 goals, 11 assists

A relative unknown when he arrived at Leicester from French side Le Havre in 2014, Mahrez wasted little time proving what he was capable of.

The Algerian playmaker formed a devastating partnership with Jamie Vardy, with the pair’s goals helping to fuel the Foxes’ title charge.

A hefty transfer to Man City followed with the ยฃ60m price tag making Mahrez the most expensive African player of all time, as well as being the largest transfer fee Leicester had ever received.

While not quite a first-choice at City, the 30-year-old has proved to be a game-changing option for Pep Guardiola and has since added another Premier League title (2018-19) to his collection.





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Benzema’s Real Madrid Champions League goals record demands your respect


While he doesn’t attract as much attention as some of his contemporaries, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema continued to write his name into the Champions League history books against Chelsea.

After Madrid fell behind early on when Christian Pulisic created his own piece of history by scoring the opening goal, Benzema scored to salvage a 1-1 draw for the home side in the first leg of their semifinal on Tuesday.

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The French striker volleyed home from close range in the 29th minute to level the score at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, further etching his name into the annals of greatness for his club and European football.

With that goal, Benzema became only the fifth player to register 20 goals or more in the knockout phase of the competition, joining Cristiano Ronaldo (67 goals), Lionel Messi (49), Robert Lewandowski (26) and Thomas Muller (24).

It also took Benzema’s overall Champions League tally to 71 goals, level with Real legend Raul in the all-time standings — only Ronaldo (134), Messi (120) and Lewandowski (73) have scored more in the competition. Unlike any of those players above him, however, all of Benzema’s goals have come from open play.

He has also managed to score more Champions League goals (15) than former strike partner Ronaldo (14) since the latter left Real to join Juventus in the summer of 2018 after the pair had won their fourth Champions League together.

Even by his standards, Benzema has hit a rich run of form in recent weeks having had a direct hand in 15 goals during his last 14 appearances for Real across all competitions (13 goals and two assists). As if to highlight his efficiency in front of goal, Benzema scored with Madrid’s only shot on target all night against Chelsea. This purple patch has not gone unnoticed by his manager, with coach Zinedine Zidane praising his compatriot after the Chelsea match by saying:

“Karim is amazing and I am happy for him, but I am not surprised for what he is doing every game.”

Madrid-based newspaper AS were also full of praise of the forward’s influence heading into the second leg, declaring “Benzema is the hope!” on their front cover. They went one step further on Instagram, posting a mocked-up image of him holding what looks like the Ballon d’Or and posing the question: “Has the year of Karim arrived?”

It would appear that the faith is not misplaced, with Benzema having proven himself incredibly effective when it comes to the business end of major European knockout tournaments. Once again, only Ronaldo (13 goals), Lewandowski (7) and Messi (6) have scored more times in Champions League semifinal games than the former Lyon forward (5).

Aged 33 and 129 days, Benzema is now also the oldest Real Madrid player to have ever netted at this stage of the competition, proving that the advancing years are not hampering his abilities quite yet.

Chelsea are also the 33rd different team that Benzema has scored against across his 16 seasons playing in the Champions League — another position he shares with Raul. The duo sit joint-third in the overall running. No prizes for guessing which two players occupy the first and second rungs: Messi has scored against 36 teams, Ronaldo 35.

Benzema’s record stands at six goals in nine Champions League appearances so far this season, with 28 goals in all competitions, while his grand total since signing for Real Madrid in 2009 stands at 277 goals and 142 assists in 553 games.

In any other era he’d be regarded as a titan and yet still somehow arguably he remains underrated by the majority. Those who know, know.





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Painter’s tributes to Argentina legend draw worldwide attention


The death of football icon Diego Maradona late last year was a landmark moment for the whole of Argentina, and the entire soccer world mourned the loss of the former Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli forward. Maximiliano Bagnasco’s experiences since that day show how much Maradona still means to his home nation, more than three decades after he led them to glory at the 1986 World Cup.

Maradona, who had been battling health issues, died on Nov. 25 of a heart attack aged 60 at his home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. News of his death devastated Bagnasco, a 39-year-old artist from the Argentine capital. As he reflected on what it all meant, Bagnasco began doing something he had done countless times: paint Maradona’s likeness.

“I recorded the whole process, and when I finished, I wrote on there, ‘Ciao, Diego. I also drew you on the day you left,'” Bagnasco told ESPN via phone.

The portrait, done in one sitting while Bagnasco’s grief was still fresh, quickly went viral and catapulted his career into the spotlight.

Within hours of him posting the video on Instagram, an Argentine TV show featured Bagnasco’s work during an homage to Maradona. Soon afterward, viewers of the show from across Argentina, including soccer clubs, began reaching out to request his paintings.

“I’ve done paintings of Maradona all of my life,” he said. “When I was a teenager I even did a drawing of him with his daughters and I approached his house, on the corner of Segurola and Habana, to present it to him as a gift.”

Bagnasco never did learn what the Maradona family did with that picture, but there was much more where that came from. He won his first art contest as a nine-year-old, painting reproductions of works by Vincent van Gogh. By the time he decided to make art his profession at 17, he had produced more than a hundred works with Maradona as his muse — despite not considering himself a fan of football.

“Diego looms largest in my country,” Bagnasco said. “He is what represents us most, and he was an inspiration to me.”

Bagnasco said his Instagram following has almost doubled since posting the portrait, with his reach passing from regional recognition to worldwide popularity.

Buenos Aires club Argentina Juniors, where Maradona came up through the youth ranks to make his professional debut, requested Bagnasco’s services for a portrait of their great prodigy within a shrine dedicated to the late superstar. Soon after, Bagnasco fielded calls from media outlets in Venezuela, Italy and China. The artist admits that the experience left him in a state of disbelief.

“I was seeing my name in Portuguese, in Italian,” Bagnasco said. “I never would have imagined that I would be asked to take part in a project in Qatar, or that I would be taking calls from Germany or China.”

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Following his work on Argentinos Juniors’ shrine, Bagnasco and his crew painted two more murals and even the floor of a swimming pool at a private residence – all while being bombarded with requests from all over the world.

“All of a sudden everybody wanted a Maradona mural in their house,” he said. “We talked others into having it done.”

Patio de los Lecheros, a popular Buenos Aires street food market, also commissioned Bagnasco for work honouring Maradona that also served charitable causes. The idea was to do 19 paintings and auction them off, Bagnasco said. “We did 18 at the studio and the last one there on site. I’ve had the press at my studio every day since I posted the first two.”

For the mural at the food market, Bagnasco said he wanted to capture Maradona in different phases of his life: “I wanted to pick images that aren’t common in murals. I’ve painted Diego about 30 times since he left, but I don’t get bored because each one has a different look.” Viewers can see Maradona’s journey from a young and dashing No. 10 at the 1979 Youth World Championship to, years later, the global star with dyed-blond hair clearly enjoying retirement in Cuba.

Demand for Bagnasco’s work has seen them shoot up in value. Naturally, he’s looking to strike while the iron is hot to help him secure his future, a rare opportunity for most working artists. Paintings start at 70,000 Argentine pesos (about $750) but the price depends on the details, the client’s requests and time devoted to the work.

“The prices in Argentina for paintings that take us a day-and-a-half are a bargain if you look at it from another country,” Bagnasco said. “I’m trying to find a middle ground. Before Diego, I charged and worked differently. I’ve been looking for a way to increase my output, for techniques to work faster, to meet the demand.

“Other murals had gone viral because maybe they didn’t resemble Diego and people made fun of them. But the quality of our work took people by surprise, because of how real they look. I always shoot for the same quality with all of my work.”

While Bagnasco’s short-term future involves fulfilling demand for his work from around the world, he keeps an eye on the ultimate goal for an artist who also happens to be a maradonista: painting him for posterity in Naples, the site of his greatest European club glories and where he now has a stadium renamed in his honour.

“A lot of Napoli fans wrote me,” Bagnasco said. “For me, one of the best things that can happen is to paint Maradona in Naples. It would be a dream for an Argentine to paint him over there.”





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Neymar joins Fortnite! First look at PSG and Brazil star’s character for Chapter 2 Season 6


Neymar has finally leapt out of the Battle Bus and dived into Fortnite, as the Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil forward becomes the first playable athlete in the global smash hit video game for Chapter 2 Season 6.

The 29-year-old has officially entered the winner-takes-all Battle Royale, with gamers able to play the latest edition of the Epic Games title while wearing a digital costume (known as a “skin”) specially designed for the former Barcelona superstar.

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Neymar’s introduction, first announced last month as part of the game’s Season 6 launch “Primal,” will mark the first time in the game’s history when an athlete has been fully drawn digitally.

Fortnite has previously released uniforms from clubs worldwide in a separate activation, including European giants Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester City and many other clubs worldwide.

“This is the type of partnership we’ve been working on for a while,” Nate Nanzer, Epic’s head of global partnerships, told ESPN in a Zoom call last month. “It’s been [a] super collaborative effort with Neymar and his team.

“If you know Neymar at all, you know he’s a huge gamer. Gaming is a big part of his life when he’s not on the football pitch. This is a really authentic way to bring him into the game. We wanted to make sure we create something Neymar feels great about and that we also think will be really appealing for our players.

“It’s been spending a lot of time with Neymar and his team collaborating on the marketing plan and how we want to bring this to life.”

Neymar joins the likes of Deadpool, Iron Man, The Mandalorian, Batman, Marshmello, Ninja, John Wick and many other crossovers from popular musicians, leagues and brands that have become playable in Fortnite. Nanzer said that there will be more to come on this front. Popular emotes, such as the iconic Pele goal celebration, have also been incorporated into the game and this will certainly continue, with more announcements coming soon.

Sports in general — and soccer in particular — is an area that Fortnite has targeted for growth this year, as its global appeal matches the worldwide user base of the game. As of May 2020, Fortnite had amassed 350 million players around the world. Nanzer said that not only will players be a focus, but also major soccer events in the years to come.

He said: “If you look at the future, you know the global football calendar is pretty juicy for the next few years, right? We have the European Championship this summer. You have the FIFA World Cup in 2022. You have the Women’s World Cup in ’23, the Paris Olympics in ’24, all culminating in ’26 with the World Cup in North America. [It is] going to be hugely exciting to have the World Cup back on our home soil here. So I think you know.

“[We will] definitely look to have future activations around football around many of these tentpole events that we’ll have in the coming years.”

Nanzer said that the soccer collaborations in Fortnite, thus far, such as the jersey options for users, have been “really successful” and he also pointed to events such as FaZe Clan and Manchester City putting on tournaments around the activation as success stories that fans can expect to see more of in the future.

So how does Fortnite choose which athletes, soccer or otherwise, to collaborate with? Nanzer says the key is authenticity.

“They’re not the kind of partnerships that result from, you know, cold email solicitation,” he said. “We build a relationship over time. We have a sense of who you know the athletes that are in our universe, that are fans of the game or players of the game, and you know, sort of cultivate those relationships over time.

“I think for us, it’s really important that activations we do in the game are authentic both to our game but also to our partners’ brands and it comes across in a way where you know like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course Travis Scott’s in Fortnite,’ like he was playing Fortnite on Twitch with Ninja and Drake back in the day. It’s natural. It doesn’t feel forced or inauthentic that that.”

Fortnite seasons typically last for around three months. Season 2 Chapter 6 launched on March 16, meaning it can be expected to last until mid-June.



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Would a European Super League really be that super? The stats suggest otherwise


The proposed European Super League may have flamed out within 48 hours of it being announced this week, but for a brief time we were being promised a new league chock full of footballing superpowers: AC Milan, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Internazionale, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur.

Had the whole thing not dissolved quicker than you could say “this idea is a spit in the face of all football lovers,” the competition would have pitted a stellar selection of the continent’s most venerated and decorated clubs (and Spurs) against each other.

The Super League’s organisers were banking on the sheer historical stature of the 12 would-be “founder” clubs from England, Spain and Italy delivering on a regular basis the kind of enthralling heavyweight slugfests usually reserved for the latter stages of the Champions League.

Sounds great, right? Well, as is so often the way, the reality of the situation probably doesn’t match up to the big sell.

A look at this season’s results between the breakaway clubs from the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A when they play each other at domestic league level shows that, when the big teams clash, the action isn’t quite as pulsating as you’d imagine.

The high calibre of names involved would definitely be worthy of the “Super” moniker, but alas the underlying stats don’t quite follow through on that promise.

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Premier League

Meetings between Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are usually built up as epic, gladiatorial clashes but the truth of the matter is they can often be tense, cautious affairs which struggle to deliver much in the way of thrills.

For example, there have been 27 league meetings between two “Big Six” sides so far during the 2020-21 season, which combined have mustered a relatively meagre total of 59 goals:

Man United 0-0 Man City
Man City 0-2 Man United
Man United 1-6 Tottenham
Tottenham 1-3 Man United
Man United 0-1 Arsenal
Arsenal 0-0 Man United
Man United 0-0 Chelsea
Chelsea 0-0 Man United
Liverpool 0-0 Man United
Man City 1-1 Liverpool
Liverpool 1-4 Man City
Chelsea 1-3 Man City
Man City 1-0 Arsenal
Arsenal 0-1 Man City
Man City 3-0 Tottenham
Tottenham 2-0 Man City
Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal
Arsenal 0-3 Liverpool
Liverpool 0-1 Chelsea
Chelsea 0-2 Liverpool
Liverpool 2-1 Tottenham
Tottenham 1-3 Liverpool
Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea
Chelsea 0-0 Tottenham
Tottenham 0-1 Chelsea
Arsenal 2-1 Tottenham
Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal

That’s an average goals-per-game ratio of 2.18, which is considerably lower than the overall 2020-21 Premier League average which stands at 2.67 (854 goals in 320 games as of the end of matchweek 32).

Of those 27 “Big Six” matches, a total of 6 have finished in goalless draws, which amounts to 22.22% of those matches. This is far higher than the overall league proportion for 0-0 results this campaign, which stands at just 8.75% (28 goalless draws from a total of 320 matches) ahead of this weekend’s games.

A further 5 of the 27 all-“Big Six” encounters have produced a single goal, while well over half (16) of those games have been limited to just two goals.

There are still three all-“Big Six” league fixtures to come before the end of the season: Man United vs Liverpool (May 2), Man City vs Chelsea (May 8), and Chelsea vs Arsenal (May 12).

La Liga

Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid were the three Spanish clubs who initially signed up to the Super League concept, which was spearheaded by Real president Florentino Perez. The numbers from domestic league clashes involving any two of those sides are slightly more favourable once compared with their counterparts in England, though they still fail to provide a compelling case for dismantling the current system.

Barcelona 1-3 Real Madrid
Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
Real Madrid 2-0 Atletico
Atletico 1-1 Real Madrid
Atletico 1-0 Barcelona

Spain’s three biggest clubs have scored 12 goals in 5 meetings this season, an average goals-per-game ratio of 2.4. By way of contrast, the 318 games to take place in La Liga so far this campaign have yielded a total of 794 goals, meaning the league as a whole has produced slightly more bang for the buck with an average rate of 2.49 goals per game.

Only one of the 5 matches between Barca, Real, and Atletico has ended in a draw (last month’s Madrid derby ended 1-1), meaning none have finished goalless.

Overall, there have been 26 goalless draws in La Liga so far during the course of the current campaign, which equates to 8.18% of the total number of games.

There is still one fixture left between two of the top trio, with Barca scheduled to face Atletico at the Camp Nou on May 8 in a clash that could yet decide the title.

Serie A

Andrea Agnelli was the other chief architect of the failed Super League coup. His club, Juventus, were one of the three Italian sides to sign up, along with AC Milan and Inter.

Those three have only been involved in four meetings between each other in Serie A so far this season, Those four encounters, which include two Milan derbies, have produced 12 goals at a comparatively high average ratio of 3 goals per game.

Inter 1-2 Milan
Milan 0-3 Inter
Milan 1-3 Juve
Inter 2-0 Juve

However, the overall goals-per-game ratio for Serie A this season is still narrowly higher, with 319 games producing 969 goals — an average of 3.04 goals per game at the end of matchweek 32.

Juventus still have to play both Inter and Milan next month, meaning the numbers are bound to change.

In general terms, despite its somewhat outdated reputation for cagey football, the Italian top flight has produced considerably fewer goalless draws than the both Premier League and La Liga this season. In fact, only 15 of the 319 games have finished 0-0, 4.7% of Serie A results this season.


So there you have it — this season has seen the combined domestic league meetings between Super League “founders” return fewer goals than all their respective league averages.

And just to make matters more damning, the Premier League “Big Six” — who were originally meant to constitute half of the teams in the European Super League — have resulted in goalless draws at a rate almost three times higher rest of the division.

So for all of the claims of fans wanting to see more matches between the biggest teams, this season’s results would suggest that a Super League churning out more of them might not actually be especially “Super” after all.



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