Newcastle circling £70m-rated Fiorentina star Dusan Vlahovic

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The summer transfer window was unlike any other; see all the major deals and check out how we graded the biggest signings. And just because the window is shut until January, that doesn't mean the rumours won't keep coming. Here's the latest gossip and speculation.

TOP STORY:

Newcastle United are on high alert as they look to sign Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic in January, according to the Sun.

Many of Europe's biggest clubs have been linked with the Serbia international, including the likes of Juventus and Manchester City.

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However, with their new owners, the Magpies are hoping to bring in the striker, who helped his country overcome Portugal to reach the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Newcastle sent scouts to watch that match and Fiorentina could be open to moving on their star man if a fee can be agreed -- largely due to his current contract expiring in the summer of 2022.

It will take a big outlay to sign the 21-year-old, but it is suggested that reports stating £70 million will be required are over the top.

While Eddie Howe has been hopeful of bringing in players with Premier League experience, the feeling is that it could be difficult to deal with clubs within the league, leaving them on high alert when it comes to players plying their trade overseas.

They are hoping to bring in two full-backs, a centre-back, a midfielder and a striker, but are aware they will likely be charged a premium by whoever they deal with.

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Dusan Vlahovic has been identified as one of Newcastle United's new marquee signings. Massimo Paolone/LaPresse via AP

PAPER GOSSIP

- Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is set to work on a contract extension for Andreas Christensen to ensure the Denmark international doesn't join Barcelona, as has been reported by El Nacional. The centre-back's current deal culminates in the summer of 2022, and Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez is said to be interested in bringing him to the Camp Nou. Joan Laporta is also keen to complete a deal due to his contract coming to an end.

- While no formal offers have yet been made, Wolfsburg have fallen behind an unnamed top six Premier League side in the race for FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi, as has been reported by Tom Bogert. The expectation remains that a deal will not be completed unless a club comes in with a bid of at least US$15m for the USMNT international.

- Lazio goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha wants to complete a move to Newcastle United, as has been reported by Ekrem Konur. The Albania international is one of the players who have been heavily linked with the Magpies since their recent takeover, and it seems the interest is mutual.

- Harry Winks is a key target for Newcastle United during the January transfer window, reports the Daily Mail, who add that Howe is desperate for added creativity in midfielder while bringing in Premier League experience. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is looking for more game time than he has been receiving in North London. Juventus' Weston McKennie is seen as an alternative.

- Southampton are showing interest in signing 17-year-old Ajax goalkeeper Charlie Setford, as reported by TEAMtalk. The England youth international is the topic of interest from other Premier League clubs, having made the Ajax first-team bench, but it is the Saints who are currently the front-runners.

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Influences, what to expect tactically, his biggest challenges at the club

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Amid a difficult season, Barcelona have returned to their roots. When Ronald Koeman was sacked in October, it was no surprise the club immediately turned to former player Xavi Hernandez. Sporting director Mateu Alemany and vice president Rafa Yuste were sent to Qatar, and three days later, after agreeing to a schedule for paying off the €5 million release clause in Xavi's contract with Al Sadd, they returned to Barcelona with a new manager.

On Saturday (stream live, 2:50 p.m. ET on ESPN+) he will take charge of his first match against Espanyol at Camp Nou and despite the chaos and poor results that led to his arrival, rarely has a managerial appointment felt more preordained.

Xavi, 41, has long been touted as a future Barca coach. It has always been his goal to return, too, since he left his boyhood club in 2015 after 767 first-team appearances -- setting a club record since surpassed by Lionel Messi -- and 25 trophies. Few players have such a special connection to the club, and you could argue none have been more synonymous with the team's style than Xavi. "Take the ball, pass the ball" is a characterisation of his ideal, and few excelled with such simplicity as he did.

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It's since become clear that Xavi departed at the top. In 2015, Barca had just won a fifth Champions League, a fourth with him in the team, and a second treble. Ever since, the clock has been ticking towards his inevitable return with every painful defeat and every managerial departure.

We know what defined Xavi as a player; what will he bring to Barcelona as their coach? ESPN talked to those who played under him in Qatar as well as others around the club to get a sense of how his Barca side might shape up.

Jump to: Influences | Coaching style/philosophy | Biggest challenges

Xavi faces a tall task at Barcelona, but his status as a club legend means he'll have the time to work through the myriad issues he'll face. Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Influenced by Guardiola, Rijkaard and handball; he'll watch any game on TV

Xavi has known Barca president Joan Laporta, who was previously Barca's president between 2003 and 2008, since his days as a player. He lists two coaches appointed by Laporta among his biggest influences: Frank Rijkaard and, more obviously, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola. He also cites Louis van Gaal (who handed him his Barca debut), Johan Cruyff (widely considered as the guardian of Barca's philosophy) and Luis Enrique as managers who have shaped his ideas. More left-field influences include Joan Vila, Barcelona's director of methodology for many years, and, more curiously, the former Spain handball coach Valero Rivera, who is now in charge of the Qatar national handball team.

Sources explain that Rivera, a legend in Spain and a former Barca handball player, and Xavi have grown close in Doha during recent years. Where Guardiola has sought external input from ex-water polo player Manuel Estiarte, Xavi has looked to Rivera. Over many dinners, the two have discussed the similarities and differences between football and handball, with Xavi looking to take things Rivera does and apply them to football.

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Rivera also works as an advisor for Barca, primarily for the handball team, but at a dinner a few months ago, sources explain he also spoke effusively to Laporta about the job Xavi had done at Al Sadd. It was one of the references the Barca president gave a lot of weight to when he decided to appoint Xavi.

It's hard to know how he finds the time, but aside from his day job, having a young family and tactical chats with handball coaches, people close to Xavi detail just how much football he follows, too. From the Bundesliga to Spain's semi-professional leagues through to the English second division or the Copa Libertadores, if there's football on, Xavi will find a way to watch it. However, while he soaks in as many different styles and levels as possible, his coaching style is unmistakably in line with that implemented from La Masia to the first team at Barcelona. In that sense, Guardiola and Cruyff have made the biggest mark on what Xavi will demand from his teams.

'He keeps things simple'

"I think he follows the same philosophy as Guardiola," Al Sadd's Guilherme Torres told ESPN. "Having possession and enjoying the game, but not just having possession. Sometimes you see teams with 80% possession, but only one shot on goal.

"[Xavi] likes to be aggressive, fight for the ball, play in the opponent's half and play with intelligence. He likes it when players are happy on the pitch -- I think the same way he was [as a player]. He likes to put a lot of pressure on opponents in their half. That's how he understands football."

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Xavi returns to the Camp Nou to sign his contract as Barcelona manager in front of almost 10,000 fans.

The opinion among the Barcelona hierarchy is that the team has lost its style in recent seasons. However, Xavi's first task will not be to immediately restore the philosophy for which the club is known. First, he will work on setting high standards, bringing back better habits and generating a good team spirit. Only then, and with time on the training pitch, will he be able to properly focus on what he wants from the players.

To that end, the midfield will obviously be key and Barca have a talented crop of players in that regard, from captain Sergio Busquets through to Frenkie de Jong and youngsters Pedri, Gavi and Nico Gonzalez. But sources say Xavi's first aim is to open the pitch with the addition of potent wingers. He wants players in the squad who can hog the touchline and beat their opponent one-on-one. He says he wants his teams to create chance after chance. Who doesn't?

"What makes Xavi brilliant is that he's able to express what he thought about football when he played and he knows how to pass that on to his players," said Torres. "Of course, he doesn't demand we do what he did because his quality was very high, but he knows the potential his players have. He knows how to use his players.

"He keeps it simple; he doesn't try to make too many things up or demand more than a player can deliver. He asks for the basics. That's why he was a successful player -- he's been successful as a coach up until now, and I hope he does as well at Barca as he did here at Al Sadd."

Xavi was successful in Qatar with Al Sadd. Some of his former players tell ESPN that Xavi's commitment to the basics and defending with the ball will be translatable back to Barcelona. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

Xavi himself also says the emphasis will be on the style, not the formation. He even used his presentation to float the idea of playing in a 3-5-2 setup -- a system Koeman was derided for using -- but 4-3-3, 3-4-3 and other variations will be more likely once he has players back from injury.

"He wants his team to have the ball and training is based on rondos, possession and positional play -- it's pure 'Barca school,'" Santi Cazorla, who played under Xavi at Al Sadd, said. "He wants to defend with the ball. That's how we play each game and it is non-negotiable.

"That's the way in which he understands football and the way he practices it. He is not the only one, but perhaps when it comes to having the ball, he is unique."

Xavi's methods have had an impact at Al Sadd. Historically they are Qatar's most successful club, but the improvement with him as coach compared to his time as a player there is reflected in the team's success. He won four trophies as a player in four years, but had won seven by the time he left after just two years in charge, leaving Al Sadd top of the table and unbeaten in 36 league games spanning two seasons. The one question mark has been the team's shortcomings in the Asian Champions League -- they failed to make the knockout rounds this year -- but the players, the majority of whom will appear in Qatar's World Cup squad next winter, have all shown clear progression under him.

Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).

"I think it's the way I behave on the pitch," midfielder Guilherme said when asked how Xavi has shaped him. "He always asked me to look at the game very carefully so that I could pass the ball quicker. I used to do that, but not with such speed, and I've learned a lot from him.

"He wants the players in my position to pass the ball as fast as possible so that moves can happen more quickly. I've learned to be more aware and to know what's happening on the pitch, even without the ball. That's had the biggest impact on me."

Biggest challenges: youth development, revive failed big signings

Barcelona represent a different challenge to Al Sadd, and Xavi returns with the club in a much different state to how he left them. Over the past two seasons, they've won just one trophy, the Copa del Rey. There have been heavy defeats to Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and there have been painful departures. Messi is no longer at the club after joining Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer in the summer, a consequence of the club's financial problems.

The issues run deeper than just the coach, which explains why Barca have their fourth manager in 22 months. They're ninth in LaLiga after 12 games heading into Saturday's Catalan derby against Espanyol, with a must-win Champions League game following three days later against Benfica. If they beat the Portuguese side next week, Barca will be in the last 16 of Europe's premier competition once again despite losing their first two group games.

Winning those two games is Xavi's immediate concern, but over the long-term, he has much more to tackle. He will be responsible for developing a generation of youngsters whom people at the club feel is among the best they've ever had. Ansu Fati (19 years old), Pedri (18), Gavi (17), Nico (19), Eric Garcia (22), Sergino Dest (21), Ronald Araujo (22) and Oscar Mingueza (22) could form the spine of the side for the next decade.

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Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop analyze Barcelona's decision to make Xavi their new coach.

Xavi will also be tasked with overseeing the final years of the careers of former teammates who are also friends. At some point, he may have to have uncomfortable conversations with Gerard Pique (34), Sergio Busquets (33), Jordi Alba (32) and Sergi Roberto (29), with the latter out of contract next summer, though replacing them will not be easy.

In short, Barca have no money. Sources have told ESPN they may have around €10 million to spend in January and their wage has been reduced, but gross debt still stands at over €1 billion. It will take time for the club to get back into a position where they can compete for the best players in the game.

That said, they've not always spent their money wisely. Xavi will be the latest coach to try to revive club-record signing Philippe Coutinho's career; he's already said publicly that winger Ousmane Dembele can be one of the best in the world if he can avoid further injuries and be coached properly.

So far, that's where the big changes have already been seen under Xavi. He has overhauled the backroom staff at the club, bringing in his own fitness gurus as well as his preferred strength and conditioning coaches. Sources say there will also be an increased focus on injury prevention and, in time, a new medical department will be installed as the former midfielder looks to put an end to a batch of muscle injuries that have hampered Barca's performances for too long.

One of the key things for Xavi will be reintegrating big-name players who have failed to live up to expectations, namely record signing Philippe Coutinho. DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Xavi's first week has also seen the reintroduction of player fines -- mainly related to punctuality before meetings or training -- having promised to "impose rules and bring order" back to the club. Beyond laying down the law, though, Xavi's biggest challenge may be stepping out of Guardiola's shadow.

The comparisons are obvious, the local lad taking over the first team despite relatively limited experience as a manager. However, Guardiola is an anomaly. While his success sparked a trend for clubs to turn to former greats when appointing a new manager, it doesn't always work out.

"I hope I end up in the group with Pep and [ex-Real Madrid boss Zinedine] Zidane," Xavi smiled last week when reminded that things had not gone so well for Andrea Pirlo at Juventus or Frank Lampard at Chelsea.

He's also known for his abilities to bridge gaps or resolve issues within his teams. Former Spain boss Vicente del Bosque said Xavi was "more important" than him, because together, they helped La Roja win the World Cup in 2010 and the European Championships in 2012. Perhaps he was right, too. Without the intermediary skills of Xavi and Iker Casillas, which earned them both the Prince of Asturias Award for Sports, maybe Spain would never have recovered from the Real Madrid-Barca rift that had plagued the national team's dressing room.

Xavi also showed similar qualities in his final season at Barca, helping heal a January bust-up between coach Luis Enrique and Lionel Messi to set Barca on track for the treble. His coaching badges followed and in 2019, he obtained his UEFA Pro license (along with Victor Valdes, Raul Gonzalez and Xabi Alonso) before transitioning from player to manager at Al Sadd.

Xavi's appointment has already lifted the mood around the club for now, with just under 10,000 fans attending his presentation. There will be a honeymoon period, and Xavi will get longer than any of his predecessors in that sense, but the demands remain the same. Xavi needs to breathe life back into a flagging team and give supporters a reason to return to Camp Nou. The 100,000-seat stadium was less than half full for their last home game, a drab 1-1 draw against Alaves.

"You can't lose or draw games at Barcelona," Xavi said. "You have to win them all. This is the most difficult club in the world [to be at] because you don't just have to win, you also have to play well."

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Tottenham boss Antonio Conte is so strict he's still nagging retired ex-Chelsea captain John Terry about his diet

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Despite being retired for over three years, ex-Chelsea captain John Terry still has his former coach Antonio Conte (now in charge at Tottenham Hotspur) on his case for indulging in too many sweet treats.

After going out for a run on Sunday morning, Terry posted a photo on Instagram of the book he intended to enjoy that afternoon along with a cup of a tea and a couple of hard-earned biscuits. Lo and behold, his ex-Blues boss popped up in the comments to chastise the 40-year-old for his sugar intake.

"5k Run. Some reading time and a couple of biscuits," Terry wrote in his post. "Taking the dogs for a walk. Sunday lunch with the family down the pub. Have a great Sunday."

It was at this point Conte entered the comments and barked: "John, only 1 biscuit!"

Still getting told off by the Boss 🤣🤣🤣 🍪
I was the fittest and in the best shape of my career during Antonios time at @ChelseaFC 💙 🏃🏻‍♂️ pic.twitter.com/7Pva8TZ6MD

— John Terry (@JohnTerry26) November 18, 2021

Terry hasn't played under the Italian since May 2017, and hung up his boots a year later, but that didn't save him from a scathing critique after lining up a chocolate digestive AND a biscoff to dunk in his Sunday afternoon cuppa.

Of course, Conte's comment was tongue-in-cheek -- at least we assume it was -- but the new Spurs boss has a fearsome reputation for being a real disciplinarian, especially when it comes to the fitness of his players.

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No ketchup

An old-school drill sergeant at heart, Conte also likes to ensure that his players are operating at maximum physical condition with his zero-tolerance approach to fitness and stamina. In keeping with this hardcore ethos, the Italian coach is infamous for banning players from indulging in even the most banal luxuries when it comes to their diet. Indeed, one of his first orders of business at Spurs was to make sure fatty sauces like ketchup and mayonnaise, heavier bready foods such as pizza and sandwiches, and even sugary fruit juices were all struck from the canteen menu.

'Like going to school'

Conte likes his team to function as a single entity, all following his game plan to the letter with little room for virtuoso improvisation. Cesc Fabregas was one such creative player who had to learn to adjust to life under the Italian during his stint at Chelsea.

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"I think with Antonio, it was the first time that I've seen someone know exactly [what they want]," Fabregas explained during an interview with CBS Sports this week. "It was like going to school. I promise you, he will tell you, from the goalkeeper until you have scored a goal, what you have to do, exactly everything."

The former Blues star also admitted that he found it particularly difficult having to operate within such strict parameters, adding: "Maybe it's in a different way to how I saw football. At the beginning it was difficult for me, don't get me wrong. A lot of running, a lot of intensity. Big sessions, double sessions, gym sessions.

"I had coaches like Pep [Guardiola] who had a lot of positioning game but we had freedom inside of this. With Conte, the freedom was non-existent, he was telling me where I have to pass the ball."

'I'm 29 years old in that moment, I've already played for 13 years, I played in every final, I won a lot of things and this guy is telling me where I need to pass the ball.'"

Still, as Fabregas was keen to point out, he flourished under Conte and won the second of his two Premier League titles as a Chelsea while the Italian was in charge at Stamford Bridge.

All-weather training

🚧 | LAVORI IN CORSO

⛈💪⚽ pic.twitter.com/E7dgPzniYk

— Inter 🏆🇮🇹 (@Inter) October 15, 2019

Conte has also shown that he is steadfastly unwilling to let a little inclement drizzle interfere with his regime.

Boxing matches

🥊 | INCONTRO

Nel frattempo, ad Appiano... 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/OHORbnPY8q

— Inter 🏆🇮🇹 (@Inter) May 13, 2021

During his time at Inter Milan, Conte decided to settle a grievance between himself and striker Lautaro Martinez by literally duking it out at training. After Martinez reacted poorly to being substituted during a game, Conte addressed the situation by organising a boxing match between the pair (with Romelu Lukaku on ring announcing duty). Let that be a stark warning to any Spurs player who is thinking of stepping out of line under Conte's command.

He joins in

⚫️🔵 Antonio Conte in training 😀@Inter_en | #UELfinal https://t.co/dByMiuNfMC pic.twitter.com/7clu34i3RV

— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) August 20, 2020

To be fair to him, Conte has demonstrated that, even in his 40s and 50s, he's still more than willing to get stuck in during his intensive training drills. A combative central midfielder in his time, he still offers glimpses of the pugnacious spirit that saw him win five Serie A titles and a Champions League during his Juventus days.



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NWSL's Angel City FC kit shows off celebrity investors, clean look ahead of 2022 inaugural season

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Angel City FC founder/investor Natalie Portman is one of several high-profile backers in the new NWSL team. Angel City FC

Los Angeles' newest club, Angel City FC, hasn't even started playing yet, but it's already setting a new bar for the National Women's Soccer League with a star-studded launch for its inaugural slick black-and-patterned kit. Hollywood superstars and team investors Natalie Portman, Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria lead the roster of big names showing off the debut look for Angel City, which will begin play next season.

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The jersey is primarily black with vertical rows of geometric fan-shaped patterns that are an homage to the zig-zags found on the official flag of the City of Los Angeles, while also aptly symbolising "the first light on a dark horizon and the start of a new day."

✨ HERE IT IS ✨

The first look at our inaugural jersey! Check it out from every angle. We can't wait to see YOU wearing it in 2022!

Find out more → https://t.co/Ic88za9bBn pic.twitter.com/2bm8i9HuTf

— Angel City FC (@weareangelcity) November 17, 2021

It wouldn't be a proper kit launch without the inclusion of some made-up colors either, so Angel City has revealed its two subtle-but-unique custom shades, "Sol Rosa" and "Armor."

Jennifer Garner helped launch Angel City FC's first-ever jersey, to be worn during the club's inaugural season in the NWSL. Angel City FC

The first professional women's soccer team to be based in L.A. for over a decade, Angel City were founded in 2020 and boast a majority female ownership group, with Portman, Garner and Longoria joined by other celebrity backers including actor Jessica Chastain, tennis superstars Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, and several former USWNT players such as Julie Foudy, Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm.

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While the Angel City owners' box is rather full, the team's on-field roster is still taking shape. USWNT striker Christen Press became the first player, announced in August, to join the expansion team for its debut season.

In addition to the custom colorway, as a further touch the club's motto in both Spanish and English -- "Volemos," and "Let's Fly" -- is embossed across the back of the collar, as a club press release puts it, "as a reminder to always keep flying to greater heights."

That may sound like a lofty aspiration for an expansion team -- such teams usually stumble out the gate -- but Angel City is already establishing itself as a leader in the NWSL off the field. Last month, the club announced a revenue-sharing agreement to bolster the relatively low salaries in the NWSL: 1% of net ticket revenue from all regular-season home games will be divided equally among Angel City players at the end of the 2022. (This season, the minimum NWSL player salary is just $21,000. The maximum salary is $52,500 for players not earning so-called allocation money, a special payment mechanism that only some players are eligible for.)

And as part of their kit sponsorship model, Angel City has vowed to donate almost $2 million with their jersey partners to local community programs and charities over the next few years. Not bad for a club that has yet to play a single game.

The corresponding first ever 2022 Angel City FC away kit is set to be released in the none-too-distant future. Stay tuned for details.



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Argentina looking confident, cohesive with World Cup spot secured

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Lionel Messi has once again led Argentina to a place at the FIFA World Cup finals. Daniel Jayo/Getty Images

Argentina have qualified for the World Cup and extended their unbeaten run to 27 games,but Brazil will probably come away the happier side after Tuesday night's 0-0 draw in San Juan.

Argentina were at full strength, on paper at least. Lionel Messi may not have been close to full fitness -- he had only played the last 15 minutes against Uruguay on Friday and looked short of his usual sharpness. And over the course of the game they lost Cristian Romero, their best centre-back, and midfield anchorman Leandro Parades to injuries. Lautaro Martinez also left the game at the interval. He may have been feeling a knock, but his replacement was also an admission by coach Lionel Scaloni that the game was not going as he had planned. An out-and-out centre-forward, Martinez was not able to get into the game because Brazil blocked Argentina in midfield so effectively.

Brazil were without both Neymar and Casemiro -- the players referred to by coach Tite respectively as the technical leader and the competitive leader. The attack was extraordinarily youthful; centre-forward Matheus Cunha was making his first start for the national team, Vinicius Junior his second and Raphinha his third. The other member of the attacking quartet, Lucas Paqueta, looks like a grizzled veteran in comparison, but he has only consolidated his place in the side over the last few months.

- Europe: How every country qualified for the World Cup
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But with the wingers helping back, and full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro playing conservative roles, Argentina were denied the space to establish their customary passing rhythm in midfield. In comparison with the final of the Copa America in July, it was clear that the extra speed of Eder Militao at centre-back allowed Brazil to stay compact higher up the field so they could press more effectively. And if the defensive line was breached, the immaculate Marquinhos was there to cover. Alisson in goal was hardly troubled. He had to dive left to push away a shot from Rodrigo De Paul, and, in the 89th minute, Messi finally broke away but struck straight at the keeper.

CONMEBOL table

GPPTSGD1 - Brazil (Q)1335+232 - Argentina (Q)1329+143 - Ecuador1423+104 - Colombia1417-15 - Peru1417-56 - Chile1416-17 - Uruguay1416-78 - Bolivia1415-89 - Paraguay1413-910 - Venezuela147-161-4: Qualifies; 5: Playoff

The clearer chances, however, came at the other end. Vinicius fluffed an audacious chip after a clever pass from Paqueta. Matheus Cunha was still more audacious, and shot narrowly over from inside his own half with Emiliano Martinez stranded. A Fred volley clipped the bar after a free kick had been half cleared, and a rare Danilo burst set up Vinicius for a shot that Martinez got down smartly to save.

There was, perhaps, little on show that will linger in the mind of the neutral. Maybe the venue did not help. The game was taken to the small northern town of San Juan, with the crowd close and creating a frenetic atmosphere. Argentina's usual home, River Plate's stadium in Buenos Aires, might have provided the stage for a more cerebral affair, with more light than heat. Bit ever here, there was something to be learned. Brazil have had cause for concern at a lack of emotional control -- they clearly did not do themselves justice when chasing the game in the final of the Copa America. Here they were tested, especially when Nicolas Otamendi got away with smashing a forearm into the face of Raphinha. But they were able to keep their cool -- just. And with plenty of attacking flair combined with a record of just four goals conceded in 13 qualifiers, they can build for the World Cup in confidence.

As can Argentina who, if not at their best on this occasion, have put together their most solid, coherent and frequently attractive side for the last few years. Their new total of 29 points guarantees their World Cup place because so many of the teams behind them dropped points -- including Chile, who went down 2-0 at home to Ecuador.

Neither team could break the deadlock as Argentina and Brazil battled to a 0-0 draw on Tuesday. Getty Images

Everything went wrong for Chile in the first half. They went behind early to a well struck shot from rampaging left-back Pervis Estupinan. Soon afterwards they had Arturo Vidal sent off. And Alexis Sanchez limped off. They made a bold effort to haul themselves back into the game, but the points were sealed in stoppage time when midfielder Moises Caicedo advanced to score a cracker from the edge of the box.

Ecuador were the big winners of this round. They went into the action safely in third place, with a four point cushion, which has now been increased to six. Effectively this means that they are guaranteed to go into the final two rounds still in third place. A slot in Qatar is now theirs to lose.

Chile's defeat means that they fall from fourth to sixth, outside the qualification places. They are overtaken by Colombia, despite a deeply disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Paraguay. For both sides it was their fifth consecutive game without a goal. But Colombia have been defending so well that they have only lost one in their last 10, and are crawling to the World Cup one point at a time.

Into fifth, the playoff spot, climb Peru, who have made a remarkable rally since the Copa America in the middle of the year. Their 2-1 win away to Venezuela was open and dramatic, with the two sides trading punches. At 1-1 the game was decided by two set pieces. Peru won a free kick on the edge of the area, and Cristian Cueva's shot flicked off the defensive wall and beat the keeper. Straight away, Venezuela were awarded a penalty. Darwin Machis had already scored a fine goal, but his kick was at a comfortable height for Pedro Gallese to save. Gallese had more problems in stoppage time when a Machis shot took a deflection, requiring a fine reflex save. Such moments turned one point for Peru into three -- and the difference could well be vital when the competition comes to an end.

Peru are a point ahead of Chile, and of Uruguay, who found new ways to self destruct in their latest defeat, 3-0 away to Bolivia.

The extreme altitude of La Paz is an extremely tough challenge for visitors, and for almost half an hour Uruguay appeared to be taking the sting out of the game. But there are risks in defending deep, especially for the goalkeeper. At altitude, the ball flies through the rarefied air more quickly than usual, making it hard for the keeper to judge its trajectory.

Bolivia's veteran Juan Carlos Arce sent in a cross from deep on the left, looking for centre-forward Marcelo Martins Moreno. He stretched but was unable to make contact. Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera had to prepare to cover his shot, and when the ball went straight on it came at him quicker than he expected, slipped through his hands and tricked in off the far post.

Then, just before half-time, Uruguay needlessly gave away a corner. Their marking was slack, and Martins Moreno rose to give Bolivia a two goal lead and put Uruguay in the dreaded position of having to chase the game while gasping for oxygen. They lost 3-0, a result that keeps Bolivia's hopes alive, but which may well bring an end to the remarkable near-16 year reign of Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez.

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Who's in? Who's out? European World Cup qualification enters the final stretch

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With one round remaining in European World Cup qualifying, the race is hotting up for a place at Qatar 2022.

QUALIFIED: Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Croatia, Spain, Serbia

PLAYOFFS: Scotland, Wales, Czech Republic, Austria, Russia, North Macedonia, Sweden, Portugal

That leaves three automatic qualification spots still up for grabs for group winners, along with four playoff places for the group runners-up.

- UEFA World Cup playoff system explained
- World Cup 2022 qualifying: How it works around the world

Here's the state of play across all 10 groups.

GROUP A

Group A

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Serbia8620+9202 - Portugal8511+11171st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

A stunning turnaround in Lisbon as Portugal threw away an early lead and a direct place at the World Cup finals.

Renato Sanches netted on two minutes, only for Dusan Tadic to equalise just after the half hour. And the real drama came in the 90th minute, as Aleksandar Mitrovic scored the goal to win the group.

Portugal are guaranteed to be seeded in the playoff draw.

GROUP B

Group B

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Spain8511+10192 - Sweden8503+6151st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

Spain had a nervy time against Sweden, needing a point to advance to the finals, before Alvaro Morata calmed the nerves with what proved to be an 86th-minute winner.

Spain go direct the the World Cup finals, while Sweden enter the playoffs.

Sweden should have enough points to be seeded in the playoff draw, but they must wait for confirmation.

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GROUP C
Nov. 15: Northern Ireland vs. Italy, Switzerland vs. Bulgaria

Group C

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Italy7430+11152 - Switzerland7430+9151st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

Jorginho's late penalty miss in Italy's 1-1 home draw with Switzerland means this group is absolutely on a knife-edge, with the two teams on 15 points. Italy hold the ace card, as their goal difference is +11 to Switzerland's +9. However, Italy have to go to Northern Ireland in their final match, while the Swiss host Bulgaria which is, on paper at least, an easier tie.

The Swiss will need to either better Italy's result on the final day, or win by at least two goals more if both teams get victories and the group would then first be decided on goal difference.

If Italy and Switzerland finish level on points and goal difference (and goals scored), it goes down to head to head, and Switzerland would then qualify on head-to-head away goals. So, for example, if Italy win 2-0 and Switzerland win 4-0, the two teams will have identical records but Switzerland win the group on H2H.

If Italy and Switzerland both draw, Italy win the group.

If Italy and Switzerland both lose, the Swiss would have to lose by at least two fewer goals than Italy.

Italy won Euro 2020 but could still face the World Cup playoffs. EPA/ETTORE FERRARI

GROUP D

Nov. 16: Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Ukraine, Finland vs. France

Group D

GPWDLGDPTS1 - France7430+13152 - Finland7322+2113 - Ukraine7160+191st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

France (12 points) sealed their place at the World Cup with am 8-0 win over Kazakhstan on Saturday.

Finland (11 points) moved into second with victory over Bosnia, who are now eliminated, and must win at home to France on Nov. 16 to definitely secure the playoff place. They will be second regardless if Ukraine do not win in Bosnia.

Ukraine (9 points) now know they must win in Bosnia to make the playoffs, with Finland losing or drawing against France. If Finland lose, Ukraine go to the playoffs with any win.

If Finland draw and Ukraine win, it comes down to goal difference. If Ukraine win by one goal, goal difference would be level and it would come down to goals scored (as it stands, Finland have 10 goals and Ukraine 9). If goals scored also finishes level, Ukraine are second on head to head record.

GROUP E
Nov. 16: Czech Republic vs. Estonia, Wales vs. Belgium

Group E

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Belgium7610+19192 - Wales7421+5143 - Czech Rep7322+3111st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

Belgium (19 points) qualified for the World Cup with their 3-1 win at home to Estonia.

Wales (14 points) are second ahead of Czech Republic (11 points), and both are assured of a playoff place via the UEFA Nations League if they finish third. However, Wales need at least a point at home to Belgium guarantee finishing second and have a chance of being seeded in the playoff draw. They will also finish second with a defeat if Czech Republic fail to beat Estonia.

For Czech Republic to finish second, they have to win at home to Estonia, and need Wales to lose, meaning the two teams will finish level on points. The Czechs (+3) must then finish with better goal difference than Wales (+5). If goal difference finishes level, second place would be decided on group goals scored.

If records finish identical, Wales win the head to head. This can only happen if Wales lose and Czech Republic win by the same one-goal scoreline.

- UEFA World Cup playoff system explained

GROUP F
Nov. 15: Austria vs. Moldova, Israel vs. Faroe Islands, Scotland vs. Denmark

Group F

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Denmark9900+29272 - Scotland9621+8201st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

Denmark have qualified and still have a 100% record, while Scotland will be in the playoffs.

However, Scotland may need at least a point at home to Denmark to be seeded in the playoff draw.

Austria won't finish inside the top two, but are guaranteed of being unseeded in the playoffs as a UEFA Nations League group winner.

GROUP G
Nov. 16: Gibraltar vs. Latvia, Montenegro vs. Turkey, Netherlands vs. Norway

Group G

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Netherlands9621+23202 - Turkey9531+10183 - Norway9531+9181st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

Vastly superior goal difference effectively means Netherlands (20 points) will only need a point at home to Norway to qualify for the World Cup. They could only miss out with a draw if Turkey (18 points) win in Montenegro by at least 13 goals.

However, Netherlands would miss out on the playoffs and finish third in the group if they lose to Norway (18 points) and Turkey win.

Turkey are level with Norway, but hold second on goal difference (by one goal) following their 6-0 win over Gibraltar. Turkey know that a win away to Montenegro guarantees at least a playoff place.

If Turkey (GD +10) and Norway (GD +9) both win, Netherlands are out and first and second will be decided goal difference. Turkey can only top the group if both they and Norway win. Turkey, who have scored 10 more goals than Norway, would need to win by the same score margin, or one goal fewer, to finish top on goal difference or goals scored.

A draw is definitely enough for Turkey for the playoffs if Norway lose.

If Norway win in the Netherlands, they get at least a playoff, and win the group if Turkey fail to win. If Turkey win, Norway must win by two goals more than Turkey to overtake them on goal difference. A draw is enough for the playoffs if Turkey lose.

If Turkey and Norway draw, Turkey are second on goal difference.

If Turkey and Norway both lose, it will again come down to goal difference, so Norway would need Turkey to lose by a two-goal greater margin.

Turkey and Norway won't finish with identical records as Norway would need to win 12-10, even if Turkey only won 1-0.

GROUP H

Group H

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Croatia10621+16232 - Russia10612+13221st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

Croatia got the win they needed against Russia in split to climb above their visitors and top the group.

Fedor Kudryashov scored an own goal in the 81st minute to give Croatia and 1-0 win.

Russia will have to go through the playoffs, where they will be seeded.

GROUP I
Nov. 15: Albania vs. Andorra, Poland vs. Hungary, San Marino vs. England

Group I

GPWDLGDPTS1 - England9720+26232 - Poland9621+20201st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

England (23 points) have qualified in all but name, needing a point away to San Marino to be mathematically sure of going direct to the World Cup.

Even if England were to suffer a shock defeat, Poland (20 points) would need a goal-difference swing of six goals from a victory against Hungary to top the group.

But there is still something for Poland to play for, as they may require a positive result against Hungary to have a chance of being seeded in the playoffs.

England are almost through after thrashing Albania. AP Photo/Ian Walton

GROUP J

Group J

GPWDLGDPTS1 - Germany10901+32272 - N Macedonia10532+12181st qualifies, 2nd into playoffs

Germany had already secured their place in October, leaving the playoff place up for grabs this month.

North Macedonia were in danger of throwing it away, drawing 1-1 at home to Iceland, before two goals from Eljif Elmas gave them victory and a place in the playoffs.

However, North Macedonia will be unseeded in the playoff draw so face an away semifinal.

HOW THE PLAYOFFS WORK

The 10 runners-up from the groups are joined by the best two UEFA Nations League group winners not to have finished in the top two of their qualifying group.

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We now know that Austria and whoever misses out on the top two from Group E between Czech Republic and Wales will qualify via the Nations League.

The playoffs, to be played in March 2022, will be seeded by qualifying points, with the two UEFA Nations League teams unseeded. The draw takes place on Friday, Nov. 26.

Seeded teams will be drawn at home against unseeded teams, to play one-legged semifinals.

SEEDED: Portugal, Russia
UNSEEDED: Austria, North Macedonia
POT TBC: Czech Republic, Scotland, Sweden, Wales

The finals will see the winners of SF1 play SF2, SF3 vs. SF4 and SF5 vs. SF6. There will be a draw to determine the home team in each final path.

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Arsenal's Cedric ready to fight for his place at the club he always wanted to join

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Cedric Soares only joined Arsenal in January last year, but he first started trying to make them successful about 20 years ago.

"I used to play Football Manager a lot with Arsenal," he says. "I knew all the players at the time, when they were champions with [Robert] Pires, [Thierry] Henry and this fantastic team. So, there was always this feeling for Arsenal."

That feeling was still strong within him in 2015, when choosing to end a 17-year association with Sporting Lisbon by joining Southampton. "Once I came to England, I had a chat with my agent [Kia Joorabchian]," Cedric continued. "I remember I said to him in the first season at Southampton, 'You know where I want to finish? I want to go there [to Arsenal].'"

"He always tells me: 'This is what you want. You are here now. Enjoy.' And it's true. I was able to achieve this, the team I wanted to play for."

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It is this depth of emotion for the Gunners that explains his approach to the present battle of regaining a first-team place at Emirates Stadium, a continuation of the stop-start feel to his time in north London.

Cedric became one of the early recruits of the Mikel Arteta era, arriving initially on loan at the beginning of 2020, only to have to wait 152 days for his debut as a result of a knee injury and the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, before kicking a ball for the club, he signed a four-year contract. From the outside, it seemed a leap of faith from Arsenal, but in an exclusive interview with ESPN, Cedric revealed it was the product of a preexisting arrangement.

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"I wasn't moving just for the sake of moving," explained the right-back. "So when I moved [in January], I had a few offers and I was basically coming for free.

"I had four months left on my contract. I knew I had an injury in that week before I moved to Arsenal and that was frustrating because I wanted to come and help, but they also knew I had a few offers for the summer. They just signed me immediately in January and I had a little bit of a gentlemen's agreement that I would be signing [in] the summer because I was coming [as a free agent]. There was nothing written or anything but in the end in football, it's also important for you to give your word."

After scoring four minutes into his debut against Norwich on July 1, 2020, Cedric played four more times during "Project Restart" before going on to make 24 appearances last season, including a spell at left-back deputising for Kieran Tierney. Just five outings have followed so far this term: three in the Premier League and two in the EFL Cup. After losing their opening three league matches, the Gunners have recovered to win eight of their subsequent 10 games, though the absence of European competition for the first time in 25 years limits the opportunities for Arteta to rotate a winning team.

Cedric's time at Arsenal has been stop-start, but the Portugal defender is working hard every day to contribute to what the Gunners are doing. Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

The 30-year-old is speaking to ESPN via Zoom after a day's training in bracing late-autumnal weather at the club's London Colney base during the final international break of 2021. With many of the squad away, sessions include smaller-sided games, often supplemented by a few promising academy youngsters thrown in to test their mettle. It could also be an opportunity for a player in Cedric's position to have a quiet word with manager Arteta, perhaps to ask why he hasn't been given the chance to play in the Premier League since Sept. 11. But it's not a conversation he feels compelled to initiate right now.

"We haven't had this chat yet this season," he said. "But there are some things you don't need to talk about. With age, you learn how to understand things.

"Last year, I fought a lot to come in the team. Not just one training, two training sessions. No, I was every week -- and you can ask the manager as well -- very consistent. He knows, and that's why I ended up winning a space in the team. This season we haven't qualified for European football, which is frustrating because we have a big squad, everyone wants to play and this affects me as well.

Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).

"I'm there fighting. Every week, every day, I will be there knocking [on the door], making him a problem -- in a good way -- that he needs to think who to put on the pitch. Of course, it is his decision. I respect that and he knows that. But I will not make it easier. Never. This is how I grow up in my career: fight and win. And also [the Portugal] national team, it wasn't straightforward to play but I ended up winning my space. It is like this.

"Some players just have it a little bit easier. With me, I know I always had to fight a little bit extra to get it and in the end I was there."

Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal's backroom staff have been impressed with his willingness to work, and Cedric's perseverance has served him well. He has been capped 34 times by Portugal during a prolonged international career, the apotheosis of which came in winning Euro 2016. He started every knockout match, and the winner's medal sits in a frame alongside his shirt from the final on a wall in his house.

"This is something I think stays with you forever," he said. "It's a very short period of time, but you live it in a different way, you live it with a lot of emotion. It is your country, you are aware of everything because it is your country. Even if you don't watch TV, your family texts you, your friend texts you. After the games, I used to have, I don't know, 500, 600 text messages. Crazy.

"Even Cristiano [Ronaldo] used to say, 'Winning something for your country is something different: You feel it in a different way.' No matter what they say, what they do, these players, they were fantastic. It's something stays forever. They cannot delete the names out of there."

Cedric went on to represent his country at the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup, while becoming a popular figure of an overachieving Southampton side during 138 appearances on the south coast.

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THURSDAY, NOV. 11
• Ethiopia vs. Ghana (8 a.m. ET)
• South Africa vs. Zimbabwe (2 p.m. ET)
• Togo vs. Senegal (2 p.m. ET)
• Ireland vs. Portugal (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Greece vs. Spain (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Germany vs. Liechtenstein (2:45 p.m. ET)

FRIDAY, NOV. 12
• Djibouti vs. Algeria (8 a.m. ET)
• Sudan vs. Morocco (2 p.m. ET)
• Angola vs. Egypt (2 p.m. ET)
• England vs. Albania (2:45 p.m. ET)
• USMNT vs. Mexico (9 p.m. ET)

SATURDAY, NOV. 13
• Malawi vs. Cameroon (8 a.m. ET)
• Liberia vs. Nigeria (11 a.m. ET)
• Ivory Coast vs. Mozambique (2 p.m. ET)
• France vs. Kazakhstan (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Montenegro vs. Netherlands (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Belgium vs. Estonia (2:45 p.m. ET)

It is this wealth of experience and winning mentality that Arteta has sought to inject to a notoriously fragile squad, a central tenet of the cultural change the Spaniard has regularly talked about implementing since taking charge in December 2019.

"I know what he means because our team is very young," said Cedric. "And sometimes, especially in the bad moments, older players become a little bit more important. Not just on the pitch, but overall because in difficult moments, when things don't go how we want and the crowd will change a little bit and the criticism will start to appear, it is normal in football that some players start to hide. It didn't really happen to our team because even in the difficult moments, everyone wanted the ball and everyone wanted to play.

"We try to encourage everyone, especially the younger players, to go out and play with personality. Even if you make a mistake, you need to be willing to take the risk again. He once told me this as well. I just love this because I think it's the right mentality. We have a saying in Portugal that 'you only miss when you are there.' It means that for you to be making mistakes, you need to be there and to take the risk."

Arteta has publicly praised Cedric's professionalism in waiting for, and seizing, his opportunities. "The best thing with Cedric is the way he takes his profession, the way he trains, the way he prepares himself," said Arteta earlier this year. A run of eight starts in 10 Premier League games earlier in the year earned him a recall to the Portugal squad for the first time in three years, playing the entirety of a 2-2 draw against Serbia in March.

The defender retains ambitions to continue playing for Portugal -- "I cannot say it's not a goal, it's always a goal to be there" -- but to do that, he must play regularly for Arsenal.

Cedric, right, was integral in Portugal's run to the Euro 2016 title, playing every game of the knockout stages. That defiant victory, and that team's commitment, is reflected in Cedric's approach at Arsenal. MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Some players in this situation would think about a move, especially with January approaching and a World Cup just over a year away. "I'm completely focused on Arsenal," he said. "In football you cannot guarantee anything because you don't know: Tomorrow everything can change. But right now, I'm here, I'm fighting for my position. It is the club I want to be in and I want to win my space and I will keep doing my thing.

"When I had the opportunity, I think it's very clear: If you analyse my games since the start of my first game in Arsenal until now, I grabbed every opportunity with both hands. There is not much to say about it, and I'm proud about this. Also last year I played out of position. I'm not here trying to be fake humble. I know when I play well. I know when I play bad. I know when I used my opportunity."

The arrival of Japan international Takehiro Tomiyasu from Bologna to replace Hector Bellerin, who was loaned to Real Betis, presents a fresh challenge in the battle for first-team minutes. "First of all, in every club you need to have two or three guys fighting for a position," said Cedric. "This is completely normal. If you're afraid of this competition, then it's better you don't play football."

"So I'm completely OK with this. Hector, Tomiyasu -- I respect them all, I like them all. I'm very good with all of them. Of course, I'm sometimes disappointed that I don't play [as much as] I want, this is normal. If a player is not disappointed when he doesn't play, I will not lie to you, then he doesn't love what he does.

"But this doesn't need to transform you into a bad attitude in training because some players would maybe react in a different way. That would be, 'I don't want it anymore, that's it.' No, I never had this attitude and I don't think I'll have it. Because it's not in me, it's not in the way I grew up."

That upbringing was the genesis of his journey trying to win everything at Arsenal. Did he manage it on Football Manager?

"I don't remember, but you always find a way or you start over again!"

Cedric will keep trying to find a way.

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Are record-setting Revs' Gil, Arena the league's best? Can any youngsters rival Pepi?

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The 2021 Major League Soccer season began 209 days ago, and so much has changed since.

The New England Revolution lifted their first MLS silverware with a record-setting points haul to secure the Supporters' Shield. The Columbus Crew, last year's MLS Cup champions, soldiered through a title hangover for much of the campaign before being eliminated from postseason contention on Decision Day. Both Los Angeles clubs finished the year below the playoff line. Even FC Cincinnati rewrote the record books, becoming the first team in league history to finish dead last in three straight seasons.

Individually, this season was full of remarkable performers. From the dugout to the front line to between the posts, there were several players deserving of individual recognition, leading to considerable competition for each of this year's MLS awards.

So, before the league begins handing out its individual prizes, ESPN asked Jeff Carlisle, Alejandro Moreno, Kyle Bonagura, Dan Hajducky, Austin Lindberg and Danny Guerra to make their selections for those most deserving in every major category.

Jump to: MVP | Young Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Newcomer of the Year | Defender of the Year | Goalkeeper of the Year

MVP

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC: At one point this season, New England's Carles Gil looked set to lap the field, and he did manage to finish with four goals and a league-best 18 assists. But an injury dampened his numbers, and while he still ended up involved in a little over a third of the Revs' goals, Mukhtar's contribution for Nashville was critical given the team's defend-first nature. His 16 goals and 12 assists meant he contributed to just over half of NSC's 55 goals, giving him the nod. -- Carlisle

Has Carles Gil's incredible 2021 season earned him MLS' MVP award? Many of our voters think so. Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: This is a simple equation. Best player on the best team, plus a league-best 18 assists, equals the Most Valuable Player. Every meaningful New England attack seems to start with Gil's vision and creativity. -- Moreno

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: The most influential player on a Revolution team that set the MLS single-season points record, Gil led the league with 18 assists and 117 key passes. Those numbers were boosted from Gil having Adam Buksa (16 goals), Gustavo Bou (15 goals) and Tajon Buchanan (eight goals) as teammates, but Gil was the most consistent performer in the league all season. -- Bonagura

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: Gil was injured for the entirety of August and still finished 2021 with a league-leading 18 assists (tied for 10th in league history). He created 38 more chances than any other player while leading the league in percentage of duels won (64%, min. 2,000 touches). In 2019, Gil, the Newcomer of the Year, might have been MVP too, but Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both notched 30-plus goals. Since then, no one has created more chances or tallied more key passes; if he's on the field, there's been arguably no one more effective since he came stateside. This is Gil's coronation. -- Hajducky

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC: Mukhtar's direct involvement in 28 goals is more than anyone else in MLS. He outperformed his expected goals and assists, suggesting that these figures may not be repeatable, but considering the relative disparity in supporting cast between Nashville and New England, such a performance is worthy of Landon Donovan's namesake trophy. -- Lindberg

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: Gil looks to be a sure bet. As the creative anchor of the league's best team, the New England Revolution aren't breaking records without him. The Spaniard is an elite passer and had eight assists on game-winning goals. The Revs were unbeaten (10-0-3) when he notched an assist. -- Guerra

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Young Player of the Year

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: It's crazy to think Pepi wasn't even a consistent starter until mid-June, at which point he became the focal point of FCD's attack, delivering 13 goals and three assists. He's made a massive contribution for the U.S. men's national team as well, scoring three times in his first four appearances. The expectation is that Pepi will move to Europe this winter, so he may have played his last MLS game already at the age of 18. -- Carlisle

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: I was torn. I really, really like Tajon Buchanan, but I am all in with the Pepi Mania and all aboard the Pepi Train! This game is about goals, and Pepi has proven to be consistently dangerous. Enjoy him while you can in MLS. -- Moreno

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: This was without question the easiest award to hand out. The 18-year-old United States international scored 13 goals on a bad Dallas team, turning himself into one of the league's hottest young prospects in the process. -- Bonagura

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: This might warrant rebranding as the "Shattered Mirror Award" because it's been a rough harbinger of late. Corey Baird (2018), Andre Shinyashiki (2019) and Diego Rossi (2020) all saw a massive drop in production after claiming this prize, but if anyone can break that curse, it's a certain dual-national from El Paso, Texas. Pepi turned in a 13-goal campaign, saved Gregg Berhalter's job and -- for the time being -- assuaged any panic over the USMNT's World Cup qualification effort. -- Hajducky

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: Pepi finished 12th in the Golden Boot race, which is impressive enough in its own right. But then consider that no one ahead of him on that list is within five years of the 18-year-old, and his 2,097 minutes are in the bottom third of that group. -- Lindberg

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Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: Despite several stellar seasons by MLS youngsters, it's hard to duplicate the splash Pepi made. The 18-year-old finished with the highest goals (13) among any player under age 22, and may be the future at the much-maligned striker position for the USMNT. All the best to him when he makes the expected move to Europe. -- Guerra

Coach of the Year

Robin Fraser, Colorado Rapids: There was no shortage of candidates. Bruce Arena set a points record with New England. Brian Schmetzer overcame any number of obstacles to lead Seattle to second place in the West. But Fraser gets the award here for leading unfancied Colorado to the top spot in the Western Conference, with one of the smallest player spends in the league. -- Carlisle

Bruce Arena, New England Revolution: Honorable mention shout-out to my former Chivas USA coach, Fraser, and the outstanding job he's done with the Colorado Rapids. However, when your team wins the Supporters' Shield while breaking the total points record, then there is no doubt that you should be the Coach of the Year. Breaking news: Arena knows how to win in MLS! -- Moreno

Robin Fraser, Colorado Rapids: There are two good options in Arena and Fraser, but Fraser gets the nod after leading the Rapids to the top seed in the West despite getting a total of 532 minutes from their lone Designated Player, Younes Namli. That's an impressive feat in MLS and a significant contrast to the Revolution, which got best-XI production from their three DPs. -- Bonagura

Bruce Arena, New England Revolution: When you set a record for most points in a season, the trophies have long been engraved. Arena also tied award-namesake Sigi Schmid for most regular season wins in league history (240) in late October. Since stepping down from the USMNT following the catastrophe that shall remain nameless, Arena has won 65% of regular season games at the helm of New England. This one should be his, which will pull him level with Bob Bradley for most in MLS history. -- Hajducky

Robin Fraser led the Colorado Rapids to the top of the Western Conference. Is that enough to win Coach of the Year? Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Robin Fraser, Colorado Rapids: No team in MLS has a lower guaranteed salary than the Rapids, and yet here they are on top of the Western Conference. Colorado won five of its final seven matches after Fraser was appointed manager in 2019, having missed the playoffs in the previous two seasons, before finishing fifth in the conference in 2020 and on top this term. It's hard to argue anyone in MLS has done more with less in the past two years. -- Lindberg

Wilfried Nancy, CF Montreal: Nancy makes a case for this award despite no postseason play, having found himself unexpectedly thrust into the role when Thierry Henry departed before season's start. Montreal played half the campaign based in Florida because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, and were viewed to be among the worst in the East. But Nancy maximized Djordje Mihailovic's playmaking ability and had the team on the cusp on the postseason. Montreal can still book a CONCACAF Champions League spot if they beat Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship final this month. -- Guerra

Newcomer of the Year

Cristian Arango, LAFC: LAFC's failure to reach the postseason will overshadow any positives in 2021, but it wasn't the fault of Arango, who delivered a staggering 14 goals and two assists after arriving in midsummer from Colombian side Millonarios. If Vela decides to leave LAFC when his contract expires this offseason, the presence of Arango will at least leave the team's attack in good hands. -- Carlisle

Cristian Arango, LAFC: Arango got off the airplane scoring goals for LAFC. He joined the team literally midway through the season and scored 14 goals in 17 matches. His immediate and consistent impact kept LAFC in the playoff race and while they ultimately came up short, I have no doubt the outcome would have been different with Arango on the field the whole season. -- Moreno

Cristian Arango, LAFC: It was a disappointing season for LAFC, but Arango scored 14 goals in 17 appearances after arriving in August, ranking 11th in the league. Not bad for someone who wasn't even in the MLS for roughly the first four months of the season. -- Bonagura

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Cristian Arango, LAFC: It could really be San Jose's Javier Lopez, FC Cincinnati's Brenner or LAFC's Arango. The much-maligned Lopez, ousted from Liga MX's Chivas roughly a year ago, has been a sensation in his first year with the Earthquakes to the tune of 12 goals and 4 assists. Cincinnati only scored 37 goals all season and Brenner created 10. But it has to be Arango, who joined LAFC in early August. Arango blasted home eight goals in his final six games (of which LAFC lost only one) and only D.C. United's Ola Kamara (95.7), runner-up for the 2021 Golden Boot, averaged fewer minutes per goal than Arango's 100 (min. 30 shots on target). LAFC massively underwhelmed in 2021, but with Arango's emergence, they won't be down for long. -- Hajducky

Cristian Arango, LAFC: It's pretty hard to argue with 14 goals in 17 matches. Missing the playoffs for the first time in the club's history will sting, but staring down an offseason that could yield significant change, LAFC can feel confident in its future with Arango leading the line. -- Lindberg

Cristian Arango, LAFC: There was lots of hype for some preseason imports, but Arango gets the nod over Vancouver Whitecaps playmaker (and fellow midcampaign arrival) Ryan Gauld. While Gauld helped Vancouver reach the playoffs (amid a coaching change in August) and LAFC will be watching from home, it's hard to argue that the Black and Gold would have even been in the hunt without Arango's 14 goals in 17 appearances. -- Guerra

Defender of the Year

Yeimar Gomez, Seattle Sounders FC: Seattle's loss of form toward the end of the campaign shouldn't diminish the season-long play of Yeimar, who helped lead the Sounders backline to the joint-best defensive record in the league with 33 goals conceded. Yeimar was dominant in nearly every defensive statistic, including winning 72.5% of his aerial duels. -- Carlisle

Miles Robinson, Atlanta United FC: Let's go ahead and admit up front that Robinson's performances for the United States influenced this decision -- and maybe that's unfair. But while developing into a locked-in starter for the USMNT, Robinson's form in MLS was just as good. No one in the league (minimum 80 duels) had a better duel percentage than Robinson (66.8%) while playing a major role for one of the better defensive teams in the league. -- Bonagura

Miles Robinson's play in 2021 saw him shoot up the USMNT depth chart, and earn him consideration for Defender of the Year honors. Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Nealis, New York Red Bulls: Nashville's Walker Zimmerman missed time, but he won in 2020 while playing fewer minutes and anchored a side tied for the fewest goals allowed in 2021. It could easily be Atlanta's Robinson, too. In September, I waxed poetic about the Red Bulls' Kyle Duncan, who finished 2021 leading MLS defenders in ball recoveries and duels won and finished tied for second and sixth across the league in tackles and interceptions, respectively ... but Duncan wasn't named a finalist. The Red Bulls snuck into the MLS Cup by a single point, largely due to conceding a league-low 33 goals -- which seemed impossible when mainstay Aaron Long ruptured his Achilles in May. Sean Nealis, who relieved Long, led MLS defenders in aerials won, finished seventh in clearances and third in duel percentage (59.7%, min. 250). Harrison, N.J., deserves some love. -- Hajducky

Miles Robinson, Atlanta United FC: Only two playoff-bound teams in the Eastern Conference conceded more goals than Atlanta's 37, but after the appointment of Gonzalo Pineda, the Five Stripes allowed just 0.75 goals per game and neither of Robinson's center back partners, Anton Walkes and Alan Franco, can boast the tackling and aerial ability of the United States international. The 24-year-old's performances in 2021 have vaulted him up the depth chart for Berhalter's USMNT. -- Lindberg

Auston Trusty, Colorado Rapids: Trusty and the Rapids defense (second-fewest goals allowed in the West) were another reason they emerged at the top of the conference. Sporting Kansas City's Andreu Fontas is another top choice and was a more accurate passer than Trusty, but the Colorado centre-back had a better aerials-won percentage and provided three assists to boot. -- Guerra

Goalkeeper of the Year

Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union: This was a difficult choice, given the impressive form of New England's Matt Turner over the course of the season. But Blake was just a smidgen better with his 8.34 goals prevented -- which takes into account expected goals from shots on target -- the best in the league. -- Carlisle

Carlos Coronel, New York Red Bulls: I'm guessing most will go with a combo package of Blake and Turner. I am taking Coronel. There is something to be said about consistency and availability. Coronel played every minute of every match this season and led the league with 13 shutouts (along with Joe Willis and William Yarbrough) while allowing less than a goal per game. -- Moreno

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Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union: With a tip of the cap to both Turner and William Yarbrough, Blake had the best overall season, according to advanced goalkeeping statistics from TruMedia. With goals conceded, clean sheets and save percentages largely dependent on factors out of the goalkeeper's control, TruMedia provides a stat, goals prevented, that attempts to isolate what can be controlled. "Goals prevented" is measured by subtracting goals conceded from expected goals on target conceded and through that lens, Blake was the best in the league (8.34). -- Bonagura

Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union: It has been a battle between Turner and Blake all season. Blake won for a second time in 2020 and would become the only goalkeeper in league history with three titles should he be crowned again. Statistically though, there's less of an argument. Blake prevented a league-high 8.34 goals in 26 games while saving 75.5% of shots on target. In 34 games, 24-year-old FC Salzburg loanee Coronel prevented 8.15, good for second. Turner, as outstanding as his 2021 has been domestically and internationally, finished fifth in the same category (7.08 goals prevented) and 13 goalkeepers kept more clean sheets than his five. That said, the Revs' record season could (and probably should) tip the scales in voting. -- Hajducky

Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union: While there's lots of love for Coronel and Turner (and rightfully so), Maxime Crepeau and J.T. Marcinkowski deserve some serious honorable mention kudos. But in the end, Blake's advanced stats are as good as or better than anyone in the league. On top of his league-leading 8.34 goals prevented, his 24 goals conceded against an expected goals against of 30.43 is second best in MLS. -- Lindberg

William Yarbrough, Colorado Rapids: Yarbrough takes this over some other fine candidates. The Colorado Rapids man is tied for most clean sheets this season (13) with Nashville's Joe Willis and the Red Bulls' Coronel. But with Colorado scoring the lowest number of goals among the West's top four teams (51), you can argue Yarbrough was the most essential for ensuring Colorado getting the top seed. -- Guerra

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Iago Aspas' heroics vs. Barcelona thrill Celta, but why was it not enough for Spain call-up?

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The strange story of Iago Aspas grows curiouser and curiouser. By the end of Saturday afternoon he'd contributed to Barcelona's downfall -- again -- scoring twice as Celta Vigo came back from three goals down to draw 3-3 in the 96th minute.

By the end of Sunday night, with Spain unable to call up vital strikers like Gerard Moreno, Ferran Torres, Mikel Oyarzabal or Yeremi Pino for their all-or-nothing matches in UEFA World Cup qualifying against Greece and Sweden, Aspas' mobile phone hadn't rung. No call-up for the Galician genius. Again.

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Okay, this hasn't felt like quite such a magical season for the "Wizard of the Balaidos," Celta Vigo's talisman and, at this stage, perhaps the most talented and thrilling player in their history. In fact his goals and assists (at this stage last season 7/4 compared to 5/1 this season) are there or thereabouts.

Aspas has endured a testing season, having been forced into a public apoolgy for, as he described, the "ugly detail" of poking his finger into Mario Hermoso's eye as the Atletico Madrid player was getting red-carded in Vigo. Add in several uncharacteristic bad misses in front of goal, plus Celta's deeply irregular form. So his charismatic, attack-minded coach, Eduardo Coudet, appealed to loyal Celta fans to rock the Balaidos stadium on the 10-minute mark (his shirt number) against Barcelona because: "This would be a great moment to award him a huge ovation -- I know it'll help him perform."

Coudet, still finding his feet in European coaching since arriving last year from Argentine football, where the cult of the idiosyncratic superhero player who loves his club more than life itself isn't an alien concept, had done his homework. He knew that Aspas breathes fire, when he feels belittled. Aspas loves to be told: "You should have been an all-time-great at Real Madrid or Barca, but they've scorned you!" His ego loves to be told: "They think you're nothing more than a big fish in a small pond -- it's insulting." That fires him up, big time. The stats told Coudet a story.

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Aspas has a total of 59 goals against Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis. When Spain's traditional big clubs try to hunt Celta down this local boy with global talent reacts. But against Barca it's as if there's a personal grudge. In his last 12 league matches against the Catalans, Aspas has nine goals and three assists. Only one active LaLiga player has more goals against the Blaugrana: the mighty Karim Benzema (10).

So, naturally, the Balaidos fans reacted -- on the 10th minute a chorus of adoration swept around the Vigo stadium. Unfortunately, Barca were already 1-0 up by then and, driven to their best football of the last two or three years by teenagers like Ansu Fati (19), Nico Gonzalez (19) and Gavi (17), spent those first 45 minutes making the 33-year-old Aspas look irrelevant as they cruised to a three-goal lead which didn't flatter them and could have been more inside 34 minutes.

Iago Aspas' heroics vs. Barcelona continued in last week's thrilling match. EPA/Lavandeira jr

However, every Superman story requires a cliff-hanger moment somewhere on the desperate-to-impossible range. In the second half, Celta's attitude was a thousand times better and more aggressive. Barcelona's injuries totted up, the crowd bayed for Blaugrana humiliation and Aspas simply took the match by the scruff of its neck.

The stat that Barca hadn't thrown away a 3-0 lead for nearly a quarter of a century looked wobbly within seven minutes of the re-start when Aspas scored. It looked worse when Nolito made it 3-2 on 74 minutes. But long before Aspas produced the 96th-minute left-footed diagonal volley which beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen across the face of his goal and nestled just inside the post for 3-3, anyone who was watching -- and every Barcelona player -- knew it was not whether Aspas would produce a genius moment, but a matter of when.

Barnstorming, inspirational, sensational. However, if Luis Enrique -- former Barcelona coach, former Celta Vigo coach, now Spain coach -- was watching, the events clearly didn't inspire him.

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THURSDAY, NOV. 11
• Ethiopia vs. Ghana (8 a.m. ET)
• South Africa vs. Zimbabwe (2 p.m. ET)
• Togo vs. Senegal (2 p.m. ET)
• Ireland vs. Portugal (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Greece vs. Spain (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Germany vs. Liechtenstein (2:45 p.m. ET)

FRIDAY, NOV. 12
• Djibouti vs. Algeria (8 a.m. ET)
• Sudan vs. Morocco (2 p.m. ET)
• Angola vs. Egypt (2 p.m. ET)
• England vs. Albania (2:45 p.m. ET)
• USMNT vs. Mexico (9 p.m. ET)

SATURDAY, NOV. 13
• Malawi vs. Cameroon (8 a.m. ET)
• Liberia vs. Nigeria (11 a.m. ET)
• Ivory Coast vs. Mozambique (2 p.m. ET)
• France vs. Kazakhstan (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Montenegro vs. Netherlands (2:45 p.m. ET)
• Belgium vs. Estonia (2:45 p.m. ET)

Aspas' record for Spain is remarkable. At least in terms of it being impossible to understand. He has a mere 18 caps when a 33-year-old of his talent should have at least upwards of 80. No coach of La Roja has permitted him more than 68 minutes in any Spain game. And his total of 684 minutes across those 18 caps is miserly.

Yet, this being Aspas, his goals-per-minute ratio is exceptional. He has hit the net for Spain every 114 minutes -- including big wins over quality opponents like Argentina, England, France, Italy and Croatia. If you include his assists, Aspas is responsible for Spain putting the ball in the net every 57 minutes when he's involved. He's special. But not sufficiently so for Luis Enrique.

Spain's task over the next few days is to beat Greece in Athens (something they couldn't manage in Granada last March) so that they haven't already missed out on the single automatic World Cup qualifying spot by the time they host Sweden in Seville on Sunday.

The loss of Ferran, Oyarzabal, Yeremi and Moreno means a dearth of 27 goals scored for La Roja -- never mind assists. Perhaps Aspas, who's not played since winning in the Faroe Islands in June 2019, could have been the hero in waiting? He's going to finish his career, undeservedly, without a senior trophy or medal to his name. But these few days, as well as continually keeping Celta in the top division, could have been the piece de resistance of his latter career.

Iago Aspas has not donned the Spain kit in more than two years. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Taking the call, accepting Luis Enrique's apologies (for the second time), leading the line or coming off the bench and ensuring that Spain don't miss out on World Cup qualification for the first time since 1974 would have been right out of the Aspas storybook.

Spain's brilliant, but usually unforgiving, coach really did apologise to Aspas once before. It was the beginning of his reign, in 2018 at the start of the UEFA Nations League. Aspas didn't make the squad, until Diego Costa dropped out. Not only was the Galician called up as a replacement, he started at Wembley and Spain won.

Afterwards Luis Enrique admitted: "Before you work with someone you form an idea of them. Then you work in training, you see your mistake and you try to solve things. I'm always open to players surprising me because the benefit of the team must always be more important than a coach's personal opinion." Words which can be interpreted in a couple of ways, but at any rate, Aspas was dropped for the next match.

Luis Enrique and Jordi Alba ended up very far from chums in the last months when the former was coaching Barcelona. And, initially, Alba wasn't picked for Spain when the manager took over. But as soon as form dictated it was impossible not to recall the left-back the two shook hands and united forces.

So, is Spain's door permanently closed for Aspas? It's not to his benefit when Luis Enrique's former assistant and temporary stand-in Robert Moreno -- who was removed for "disloyalty" -- criticised his ex-boss for not choosing Aspas for Euro 2020. That did the Celta record-scorer zero favours. I'd guess that Aspas is on the naughty list for one of two reasons: either he disobeyed tactical instruction or he was caught dissing his national team coach in word or deed. That's a cold place to be with Luis Enrique.

So, in Spain terms he's right up against it. Just like he usually is for Celta. But perhaps don't rule out the idea that, somehow, he defies probability and turns things back round his way. Right now it's Luis Enrique's immoveable object against Aspas irresistible force and, frankly, you'd back the immoveable object. But Barca will tell you -- never write the striker off.

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Sky and Kick It Out partner with University of Liverpool to launch scholarship programme aimed at improving football industry diversity | Football News

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Sky and Kick It Out have partnered with the University of Liverpool Management School to launch the Kick It Out Scholarship Programme.

The scholarships will be targeted at Black and other under-represented ethnic minorities in the UK applying for the 2022 Football Industries MBA qualification, which is a one-year course starting in September next year.

As well as providing complete funding for four student places on the course, Sky will pair the scholars with prominent mentors in the football industry and Sky's Diversity Advisory Council.

Sky Sports and Kick It Out will also use their extensive networks in the football industries to help accelerate the most talented individuals into jobs at senior leadership level and help to improve diverse representation at senior level.

Tony Burnett, Kick It Out CEO, said: "Football needs institutional change if it is to become a sport and an industry that is truly equal and inclusive.

"Representation at the senior level is an essential part of this change, as it creates an environment where ideas are varied, perspectives are diverse, and everyone feels valued.

"Alongside Sky, we are excited to launch this scholarship and develop a new generation of leaders who can drive progressive change in football."

Denise Peart, Chief Talent, and Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Sky said: "I am delighted that our partnership with Kick it Out continues to go from strength to strength as we build the talent pipeline for the future of football.

"Sky has made a commitment to be a force for positive change and the Kick It Out Scholarship - the first of its kind - is yet another indication that our commitment to diversity and inclusion goes beyond the pitch into the footballing business."

Professor Stephen A. Woods, Associate Dean MBA Programmes at University of Liverpool Management School, said: "We are thrilled to be working together with Sky and Kick It Out to introduce this scholarship programme, which has great potential to make a positive difference to the future business of football.

"We are especially looking forward to working with the students when they join our Football Industries MBA programme, to help make their learning experience transformative."

In December 2020 Sky committed Kick It Out £3m over three years, in a mix of cash and value in kind support, with Sky Sports pledging to use its powerful voice, extensive reach, and established channels to support the organisation that has been at the forefront of the fight against discrimination and the drive for inclusion in football.

In addition to using its editorial reach, voice, and platforms to campaign for change, Sky works on a series of initiatives with Kick It Out, focusing on transparency reporting in football, education in schools including The Edit which aims to improve media and digital literacy among more than 30,000 school children, and supporting talent into the industry.

As part of Sky's investment in supporting talent Kick It Out highlighted the need to gain more off-field representation and a particular need in the most senior positions in the football business. This MBA scholarship is one strategy Sky is supporting Kick It Out with in addressing this challenge.

Sky's partnership with Kick It Out is part of a wider commitment made by Sky. In June 2020 Sky made a series of commitments to help tackle racial injustice. With a £10m investment each year for three years, Sky also pledged to:

Improve Black and minority ethnic representation at all levelsMake a difference in communities impacted by racismUse the power of Sky's voice and platform to highlight racial injustice

For more information on the Kick It Out Scholarship please visit the University of Liverpool website here.

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