Pochettino urges struggling Chelsea players to ‘believe’

Chelsea’s Axel Disai scores a disallowed goal during the English Premier League match against Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge stadium in London on Sept. 24, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 26 September 2023

Pochettino urges struggling Chelsea players to ‘believe’

  • The Blues, European champions just two years ago, are a lowly 14th in the Premier League table
  • But new manager Pochettino, speaking on the eve of their League Cup third-round match against Brighton, struck a positive note, saying his team were still a work in progress

LONDON: Mauricio Pochettino has urged his struggling Chelsea team to keep believing in themselves but admitted they had to “fix” their crippling goalscoring problem.
The Blues, European champions just two years ago, are a lowly 14th in the Premier League table, just four points above the relegation zone, after one win in their first six matches.
Big-spending Chelsea have mustered just five goals in the league — and three of those came in the 3-0 win against newly-promoted Luton.
But new manager Pochettino, speaking on the eve of their League Cup third-round match against Brighton, struck a positive note, saying his team were still a work in progress.
“(It is) a very short time that we are together,” said the Argentine. “Realistically, we only started after the transfer window closed. Before, it was a little bit of an unstable situation.”
He said injury-hit Chelsea were full of ideas and dominating games but struggling to find the net — Raheem Sterling is the top-scorer with just two goals.
“Every single football person in this country sees Chelsea deserve more but we have missed (scoring) goals, the most important thing in football — we cannot forget that,” said the former Tottenham boss.
“We need to get criticized, of course, because we are not winning games but we need to keep being strong in the belief.
“The team is very well-organized, the effort is massive. You can see against Aston Villa (a match Chelsea lost 1-0) how the players fight with 10 men.”
He added: “We are playing well, it’s only we are not clinical in front of the goal. That is what we need to fix and try to give more confidence to our offensive players.”

Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta

Updated 35 sec ago

Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta

  • On Saturday, Leverkusen will be heavily favored to win the German cup final against a Kaiserslautern
  • The biggest remaining challenge for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game No. 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that are finishing the season strong.

DUBLIN: Bayer Leverkusen are two games from European soccer immortality.
The new champion of Germany have two cup finals in four days — starting Wednesday in the Europa League against Atalanta — to complete a previously unthinkable unbeaten season in domestic and continental competition.
On Saturday, Leverkusen will be heavily favored to win the German cup final against a Kaiserslautern team that finished 13th in the second division, not so far from falling into relegation playoffs.
And so, the biggest remaining challenge for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game No. 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that are finishing the season strong.
It feels fitting because the Europa League has been a regular drama for Leverkusen.
Three times in six games in the knockout rounds the team were 2-0 down deep into the second half and still behind entering stoppage time: In both round of 16 games against Qarabag and in the semifinals return leg against Roma.
In another streak-saving Europa game, at West Ham in the quarterfinals, Leverkusen were set to advance on aggregate score yet needed an 89th-minute goal by wing-back Jeremie Frimpong to draw 1-1 and stay unbeaten.
“We don’t want to wait until the last seconds of the game,” said Patrick Schick, whose three stoppage-time goals against Qarabag in March were key to advancing 5-4 on aggregate. “We would like to make it clear, really, earlier.”
Atalanta defender Berat Djimsiti acknowledged Tuesday it was “certainly added motivation” trying to be the team to beat Leverkusen. “They have achieved some extraordinary things this season.”
There have been other stellar teams in European soccer who added the elite Champions League to their domestic league title, unlike Leverkusen playing in the second-tier Europa League.
Still, Manchester United in 1999, Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona in 2011 and Manchester City last year also lost some games and were wealthy clubs whose success could have been expected. Each started their season with established, star-packed teams led by coaches — Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola — who’d already won multiple domestic and European trophies.
This is Alonso’s first full season coaching at the top level. His team were in relegation trouble last season. There was no superstar transfer signing in the offseason.
“For me it’s very special,” the 42-year-old Alonso said last week. “My first title as a coach was the Bundesliga. It was super, it was very special. But a title in Europe would be wonderful and hopefully we will be able to say that.”
Alonso twice won the Champions League as an elegant midfielder, with Liverpool and then Real Madrid, who will play Borussia Dortmund for this season’s Champions League title. That June 1 final at Wembley Stadium is between two teams involved in the failed Super League breakaway in 2021 — Madrid driving it forward, Dortmund declining their invitation.
Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta were nowhere close to being invited to the breakaway three years ago and today represent soccer projects that won respect from neutral fans across Europe.
Both are based in provincial cities, each with more than 100 years of history, reaching surprise peaks. Before this season, they had only ever won three trophies: Atalanta’s Italian cup in 1963 and Leverkusen’s 1988 UEFA Cup — the forerunner of the Europa League — and Germany cup in 1993.
While Leverkusen once lost a Champions League final, to Madrid in 2002, and Atalanta were minutes away from a semifinals place in 2020, neither have felt entitled to European success.
Their modest stadiums in Leverkusen and Bergamo add up to a combined capacity of about 51,000 that could fit into the Dublin venue, formerly Lansdowne Road, that will host them Wednesday. For a showpiece European final, the official limit is 48,000.
Leverkusen and Atalanta do not figure in UEFA research of the top-50 earnings list of European clubs for total matchday income from ticket and hospitality sales.
Two well-run clubs, relying on smart transfer dealings — albeit underwritten, respectively, by pharmaceutical giant Bayer and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca — had combined total revenues last year that added up to about the same $500 million as Manchester City’s player wage bill alone.
Yet both Leverkusen and Atalanta, under coach Gian Piero Gasperini since 2016, play easy-on-the-eye soccer in attack and team-first defense.
“They play one against one on the whole pitch,” Schick said of Atalanta. “Wherever you move, you have one defender behind you so they don’t leave you the space to breathe.”
Atalanta have been a refreshing force under Gasperini and already have a place in the Champions League next season. In any normal year they would be popular first-time European title winners.
What Leverkusen have done is not normal, though, and a legend could be just days from being created.

Salah hints at Liverpool stay, targets trophies next season

Updated 21 May 2024

Salah hints at Liverpool stay, targets trophies next season

  • “We know that trophies are what count and we will do everything possible to make that happen next season,” Salah posted on social media
  • “Our fans deserve it and we will fight like hell“

LONDON: Mohamed Salah said Liverpool “will fight like hell” to win trophies next season as the Egyptian hinted he will at least see out the final year of his contract at Anfield.
Salah has just 12 months remaining on his deal and has been linked with a move to the Saudi Pro League.
The Reds reportedly rejected a £150m offer from Al-Ittihad for the 31-year-old last September.
“We know that trophies are what count and we will do everything possible to make that happen next season,” Salah posted on social media.
“Our fans deserve it and we will fight like hell.”

Liverpool won the League Cup in Jurgen Klopp’s final season in charge but missed out on the Premier League, FA Cup and Europa League.
Klopp’s departure after over eight years in charge of Liverpool has raised doubts over the futures of a number of star players, who rose to prominence under the German’s reign.
Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold are also entering the final year of their contracts.
Former Feyenoord boss Arne Slot was confirmed as Klopp’s successor by Liverpool on Monday.

Germany’s Kroos to retire from football after Euro 2024

Updated 21 May 2024

Germany’s Kroos to retire from football after Euro 2024

  • “My career as an active footballer will end this summer after the Euro championship,” Kroos said on Instagram
  • Real said Kroos “will go down in Real Madrid history as one of our club and international football’s greatest legends”

MADRID: Real Madrid’s German international midfielder Toni Kroos announced on Tuesday he will retire from all football after Euro 2024.
“My career as an active footballer will end this summer after the Euro championship,” 34-year-old Kroos, who won the 2014 World Cup with Germany, said on Instagram.
Before the European Championship, Kroos has a chance to win the Champions League with Real for a fifth time when they face Borussia Dortmund at Wembley on June 1.
He also won the Champions League with Bayern Munich before joining the Spanish giants.
Kroos joined Real in 2014 and quickly formed a formidable midfield partnership with Luka Modric.
In a statement on their website, Real said Kroos “will go down in Real Madrid history as one of our club and international football’s greatest legends.”
Kroos has also won the Liga title four times and won the Bundesliga three times with Bayern.
He announced he was quitting international football in July 2021 but reversed his decision in February after talks with Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann, who persuaded him to play on till the Euro 2024 on home soil.
Kroos, who has racked up 108 caps and 17 goals for Germany, was one of the key players when they won the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and scored twice when they inflicted a 7-1 defeat on the host nation in the semifinals.
But four years later he was unable to prevent Germany from crashing out in the group stage in Russia.
He did not play in Germany’s second World Cup group-stage exit in a row at Qatar 2022 but, after making his international return at Nagelsmann’s request, will lead a new-look Germany side at Euro 2024.
“My ambition was always to finish my career at the peak of my performance level,” Kroos said on Instagram.
“I am happy and proud that in my mind I found the right timing for my decision and that I could choose it on my own.”

Why Salah was Klopp’s greatest general on the field

Updated 21 May 2024

Why Salah was Klopp’s greatest general on the field

  • No player contributed to the legendary German coach’s success at Liverpool more than the talismanic Egyptian

LIVERPOOL: When Napoleon Bonaparte was briefed on the virtues of a new general, he would apparently retort with “but is he lucky?”

Expertise was one thing, but the French emperor also understood the importance of happenstance.

In his nine years at Liverpool, which came to an emotional end on Sunday at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp has been blessed with many lucky generals.

The German’s reign is bookmarked, time and again, by getting the right man at the right time, and all played their part in a historic era for the club.

In the summer of 2016, Klopp’s debut at Anfield, Sadio Mane became the first of his new generals. Not far behind was Gini Wijnaldum and Andrew Robertson. All would go on to become pillars of his great Liverpool team.

Virgil van Dijk, in the winter of 2018, transformed Liverpool’s previously porous defense into one of the best in Europe, and even the world.

The Brazilian duo of Alisson Becker and Fabinho, in the summer of 2018, became the final pieces of the jigsaw. Klopp’s iconic team was complete.

But the greatest general of them all had arrived a year earlier. It is often forgotten now, considering what has transpired since, that when Mohamed Salah joined Liverpool from Roma in the summer of 2017, he was not considered by many pundits to be a “world class” player, whatever that means.

But from the moment he walked into Anfield, his fortunes and Klopp’s would become inextricably entwined.

At full time on Sunday following Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Wolves, as Klopp gave Salah one of his trademark hugs, both must have realized how lucky they were to have found each other seven years earlier.

Salah, it is no exaggeration to say, was more instrumental in bringing success to Liverpool than any other player during Klopp’s time at Anfield.

And those who know best, knew that too.

Three players have been accorded the honorary title of “King” by the Kop: Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish and the boy from Nagrig.

Thousands of words have been written in recent weeks about Klopp’s reign, and since it would take a book to cover the records that Salah breaks, seemingly on a weekly basis, there is little point in reproducing the facts and figures of their time together.

Viscerally, it was all about the moments, many that flirted with footballing utopia, and a few that touched the depths of despair.

Salah scored on his debut in a 3-3 Premier League draw at Watford in the summer of 2017, and has not stopped since.

The “Egyptian King” quickly established a stunning forward partnership with Mane and Roberto Firmino — the “front three,” as they would become known.

There was the breathtaking “Road Runner” goal against Arsenal on Salah’s second Anfield start; the FIFA Puskas Award-winning curler against Everton in a December snowstorm; and an even better version of it against Tottenham in February.

In particular, Salah would develop a taste for torturing the preeminent team of the age, Pep Guardiola’s magnificent Manchester City.

In his first season alone, there was a memorable chipped goal in an era-launching 4-3 Premier League win at Anfield, and a tie-settling second at the Etihad as Liverpool beat City 2-1 (5-1 on aggregate) in the Champions League quarterfinals. He had scored in the first leg too.

One performance, however, continues to stand above all others.

On April 24, 2018, Salah delivered arguably his finest match for Liverpool in a 5-2 win against Roma at Anfield in the Champions League semifinal first leg.

Against future colleague Alisson in the opposition goal, Salah scored twice, assisted twice, and for 90 minutes tore the Italian team to shreds. He was simply unplayable. It was a display that Lionel Messi would have struggled to better.

The Champions League final a few weeks later would bring the lowest of Salah’s time at Liverpool as a shoulder injury saw him leave the pitch in tears after only 31 minutes. Without their talisman, Liverpool lost 3-1.

At the time, Klopp was turning a player that had a remarkable availability record — lucky one could say — and work ethic into one of the world’s best players, technically and tactically. Salah’s pressing of the opposition and positional sense when out of possession perfectly suited Klopp’s demands and complemented the forward’s unquenchable thirst for goals.

Salah’s second season saw player and team hit new highs as they accumulated a mind-boggling 97 points in the Premier League and, incredibly, still fell one short of Manchester City.

Salah still scored one of the great Anfield goals against Chelsea in a 2-0 win as they chased down the relentless leaders.

Even on the very rare occasion he missed a match, the world watched his every move. As Liverpool, almost incredulously, overturned a three-goal deficit against Barcelona to reach the 2019 Champions League final, the injured Salah sat on the bench in a T-shirt that said: “Never Give Up.” Sales skyrocketed.

A Champions League triumph in Madrid would prove more than a consolation for the Reds, Salah scoring the opener in a 2-0 win over Tottenham to give Liverpool their sixth title, a record for an English team, naturally.

Klopp had broken his duck at Liverpool and finally become a European champion after near misses with Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool in the previous six years.

Salah, meanwhile, was rewriting the record books with his goals, and the 2019/2020 season finally brought the Premier League that Liverpool fans craved.

A traumatized fan base had previously refused to sing about the elusive league title until one January evening at Anfield when Salah scored a goosebump-inducing stoppage time goal to seal a 2-0 over Manchester United at Anfield.

“We’re gonna win the league,” Anfield bellowed in celebration. After 30 years of disappointments and false dawns, they finally believed, and the Premier League would be secured in record time, though three matches after resumption of play following the COVID-19 lockdown.

The four years since have not brought a league or Champions League title, but other trophies (two League Cups and an FA Cup) followed, seemingly always at the expense of Chelsea.

On the pitch, as Klopp’s great team splintered, no one maintained their level of consistency and brilliance quite like Salah.

Goals of all types continued to flow including one solo effort, against Manchester City at Anfield, prompting many to call Salah the best player in the world during the 2021/2022 season.

While others suffered long-term injuries, lost form or left the club (especially Mane and Firmino), Salah remained as reliable as ever — always available, always scoring, always creating.

That he is a Liverpool all-time great is no longer up for debate.

This is why, when he had an uncharacteristic and public argument with Klopp on the touchline at West Ham recently, few fans took sides. The coach may be untouchable, but Salah had earned the right to be right up there with him. And that is the greatest compliment of all, for both men.

Ultimately, it all ended in hugs, smiles and a few tears on Sunday.

Klopp and Salah were lucky to have each other. And we were lucky to have them.

New Liverpool boss Slot admits he could not resist lure of club

Updated 21 May 2024

New Liverpool boss Slot admits he could not resist lure of club

LONDON: Arne Slot said the chance to work at one of the world’s biggest clubs was “difficult to ignore” after Liverpool confirmed on Monday that the Feyenoord coach would be their new manager.

Just 24 hours after Jurgen Klopp’s emotional farewell at Anfield, the Premier League club said in a statement that the Dutchman would take up the position of head coach on June 1, subject to a work permit.

The club did not specify the length of Slot’s contract but it was widely reported in the British press that he had signed a three-year deal.

The new manager’s arrival was an open secret, with Liverpool reportedly agreeing a compensation deal worth up to £9.4 million ($12 million) with Feyenoord.

Slot, 45, confirmed Anfield was his next destination at his final pre-match press conference at the Eredivisie club on Friday.

“It is certainly not an easy decision to close the door behind you at a club where you have experienced so many wonderful moments and worked successfully with so many wonderful people,” he told Feyenoord’s website on Monday.

“But as a sportsman, an opportunity to become a head coach in the Premier League, at one of the biggest clubs in the world, is difficult to ignore.”

Klopp, 56, announced in January that the 2023/24 season would be his last at Anfield, and took charge of his final game on Sunday, a 2-0 win against Wolves.

In his farewell speech to the crowd, the German urged fans to throw their full support behind his successor, leading them in a chant of “Arne Slot, na na na na na.”

“You welcome the new manager like you welcomed me,” he said. “You go all-in from the first day. And you keep believing and you push the team.”

Slot, linked with a move to Tottenham last year, became Feyenoord boss in 2021 after impressing in his first managerial role at AZ Alkmaar.

He led the Dutch giants to the inaugural Europa Conference League final at the end of his first season, which they lost 1-0 to Jose Mourinho’s Roma.

Slot then delivered just a second league title in 24 years to De Kuip last season before penning a new three-year deal.

Feyenoord have enjoyed a strong season, winning the Dutch Cup and coming second to an all-conquering PSV Eindhoven side in the league.

Under Slot, Feyenoord have delighted the fans at De Kuip with an attacking brand of football and Slot has won praise from Klopp himself.

“I like the way his team plays football. If he is the one, I like that he wants it,” Klopp said last month.

“It’s the best job in the world, best club in the world. Great job, great team, fantastic people. A really interesting job.”

Liverpool captain and fellow Dutchman Virgil van Dijk has hailed Slot’s attacking mindset, saying it would suit the philosophy at Anfield.

Speaking about the future under the new boss, Van Dijk said: “It is all about sticking together and giving him the chance of showing what he is capable of with the other guys who will come in.

“He probably knows already but everyone knows our expectations are always huge and it is about managing that in the right way and getting the maximum out of all of our players.”

Slot has huge shoes to fill at Anfield after Klopp restored Liverpool to the elite of English and European football during his nine-year reign.

Under his leadership Liverpool won a sixth Champions League crown and a 19th league title, as well as a clutch of other trophies.

Initially, Bayer Leverkusen boss and former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso was the favorite to succeed Klopp at Anfield.

However, Alonso committed to staying at Leverkusen as he led them to a first-ever Bundesliga title.

Liverpool finished third in the Premier League, qualifying for next season’s Champions League, and won the League Cup in Klopp’s final season.