Ronaldo says Brazilian football premature in restarting

MADRID (Reuters) – The return of Brazilian football after a three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic is happening too soon, former World Cup winner Ronaldo said on Thursday. The local league in Rio de Janeiro state, known as the Carioca championship, becomes the first state league in Brazil to restart on Thursday when reigning champions Flamengo take on Bangu at the Maracana stadium. Top clubs Fluminense and Botafogo have attacked the decision to return as premature and Ronaldo, who is from Rio, agreed. “I am against the return of Carioca football and Brazilian football given the situation the country is in right now,” he said at a corporate event in Madrid. “Brazil is following the examples of other countries in Europe but it isn’t taking the pandemic into consideration.” Brazil has seen more deaths from COVID-19 than any other nation except the United States and reported 1,269 dead on Wednesday, taking the overall death toll to 46,510. Spain, where Ronaldo owns Real Valladolid, restarted the national championship last week, but the former Barcelona and Real Madrid striker pointed out it did so only after flattening the curve. “The championship only restarted here when we had total security in cities and communities when the number of those having the virus had come right down,” he said. “So I think Brazil is still at a peak and thinking about having football back is an error.”

Pearson has galvanised Watford, says Leicester boss Rodgers

(Reuters) – Watford manager Nigel Pearson has galvanised the club since he took charge in December and has transformed the Premier League side into an efficient counter-attacking team, Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers said on Thursday. Watford, who host Rodgers’s Leicester side on Saturday, had only one win and were at the bottom of the standings when Pearson was appointed. They then embarked on a six-match unbeaten run to climb out of the relegation zone. The club currently sit 17th in the standings. Pearson managed Leicester in two different stints during his career and Rodgers said people at the club had “nothing but respect” for their former manager. “He’s held in high regard here and the players who worked with him for long periods have respect for the work he’s done,” Rodgers said as his side prepare for their first game of the restarted season. “He’s galvanised Watford… He’s got them organised and playing to their maximum with excellent results. We go there knowing it’s going to be a tough game but we’ll impose our way. “They play well on the counter-attack, they’ve got a lot of experience in the squad… The 2-0 win at the King Power Stadium earlier this season was a tough game.” Leicester striker Jamie Vardy, who is one goal shy of 100 Premier League goals, will be making his 300th appearance for the club on Saturday. Vardy, 33, leads the golden boot race with 19 league goals and Rodgers said his was a “phenomenal” story considering he was a late bloomer in the game. “His first goal in the competitive game at the top level was only a few years ago,” Rodgers said. “It shows the talent and spirit and drive he has. “No doubt he’ll get to that (100-goal) mark and he’ll go on. He’s in great shape – he’s super fit, super fast and he’s enjoying every minute. He’ll get back to the level he was at eventually.” Rodgers also said he would “100%” support any player who refused to play due to the fear of contracting the novel coronavirus. All league matches are being played behind closed doors to reduce any risk. “The players have felt the confidence here from the work the club has done to provide a safe environment,” he said. “But if they had any doubts… It’s not even a debate, they wouldn’t have to play.”

Kane to start for Tottenham against Man Utd

LONDON (Reuters) – Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane will start in Friday’s Premier League clash at home to Manchester United after a six-month absence, according to manager Jose Mourinho. Son Heung-min and Moussa Sissoko, who like Kane were ruled out by serious injuries when the Premier League was suspended three months ago, are also set to face United. The news is a big boost to Tottenham as they try to revive their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, having slipped to eighth in the standings, four points behind fifth-placed United and seven points behind fourth-placed Chelsea. Kane ruptured a tendon in his hamstring on Jan. 1 while Son broke his arm against Aston Villa in February. Midfielder Sissoko had right knee surgery in January. “The ones that had surgeries, Kane, Son and Sissoko have all recovered and are ready to play,” Mourinho, who will be going up against the club that sacked him last season, told a news conference held via Zoom on Thursday. “Kane is working extremely well, I can tell you no problem he is going to start the game. Does he have 90 minutes, 80, 70, 60? I don’t know. Only the game will tell us that. “Is he in his top of his form? We don’t know. He’s had six months without a match but he’s an amazing professional.” Mourinho said that while the return of Kane and Son, who have scored 20 league goals between them this season, is timely, the battle to finish in the Champions League places is an uphill challenge for Spurs. “It would be amazing if we all started with the same number of points, but that’s not the case,” Mourinho said. “We start minus seven or eight from Chelsea, and minus 13 from Leicester, we start minus too many teams. “It’s a great challenge and motivation. At the end of the nine matches we will see what we did and what the others did.” Mourinho said that Friday’s home fixture, that will be played in an empty stadium, feels similar to the first game of the season, albeit under very different circumstances. “Only when we are on the pitch in these new circumstances will the players be able to feel and us to analyse it, so let’s wait for tomorrow,” the Portuguese said. “After more than two decades in football it’s hard for me to say something is new, but this is a new.”

Pressure mounts on Sarri before Serie A even restarts

MILAN (Reuters) – Serie A has not even restarted following the coronavirus stoppage, yet pressure is already mounting on Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri following his side’s failure to win the Coppa Italia. Italy’s knockout competition was used as a prelude to the resumption of Serie A and Juve’s two matches — the semi-final second leg against AC Milan and Wednesday’s final against Napoli — both produced 0-0 draws. Napoli then won 4-2 on penalties, quickly ending the Turin side’s hopes of a treble and putting Sarri, in his first season at the club, under more pressure than ever to extend their run of eight successive Serie A titles. Speculation had already begun on Thursday that if the chain-smoking 61-year-old cannot do that, or win the Champions League, then he will be shown the door at the end of the season. The title race resumes on Saturday with Torino hosting Parma before Verona entertain Cagliari — where coach Walter Zenga finally gets to make his debut after a four-month wait, having been appointed days before Serie A was suspended. It promises to be a hectic period with 12 rounds of matches crammed into six weeks and games almost every day. The Italian FA is hoping some fans will be allowed into stadiums from July. Juve, who resume on Monday with a tricky trip to Bologna, lead the table with 63 points but are only one point ahead of Lazio, who are on a 21-match unbeaten run in the league and will hope to resume where they left off. Sarri suggested after Wednesday’s match that his side were rusty after their long break, which saw three members of the squad infected with COVID-19. “We’re a team used to solving situations with individual moves, but at the moment it’s difficult because we lack (individual) brilliance,” he said. “Where it really went wrong was the penalties.” “I think this situation is temporary. You can’t think the team has the same pace as three months ago. I saw a low-tempo game from both teams.” Lazio, meanwhile, resume with a daunting trip to fourth-placed Atalanta (48 points) on Wednesday to face a side who won six and drew one of their last seven matches in all competitions before the break, scoring 28 goals in the process. Before that, Atalanta host Sassuolo on Sunday. Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, who are third with 54 points, will be hoping to make up the ground they lost when they were beaten by both Juventus and Lazio before the stoppage. Fallen giants AC Milan, meanwhile, remain mired in uncertainty. Stuck in seventh place, they are overdependent on 38-year-old striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is recovering from a calf injury, and with the club reportedly in talks with German coach Ralf Rangnick to take over from Stefano Pioli for next season.

Setien urges UEFA to let Barca face Napoli at Camp Nou

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona coach Quique Setien says UEFA should allow his side to play the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Napoli at the Camp Nou rather than on neutral ground in Lisbon in the interest of fairness. Barca drew 1-1 at Napoli at a full and rocking San Paolo stadium but the second leg was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the match is one of four ties that still need to be settled before the quarter-finals can begin. UEFA announced on Wednesday that it will hold a ‘final eight’ tournament in Lisbon in August in order to complete its flagship competition but has yet to decide where the remaining last-16 matches will take place. Manchester City still need to host Real Madrid while Bayern Munich’s match with Chelsea and Olympique Lyonnais’ game with Juventus also need to be played, and UEFA says the venues will be finalised before the quarter-final draw on July 10. “I want to play the game in our stadium because if we don’t we give an advantage to our opponents who played the first leg in their stadium and with loads of supporters roaring them on,” Setien said ahead of Barca’s La Liga visit to Sevilla on Friday. The coach also said he was against the idea of playing the ties from the last-eight onwards over one game. “I think it’s worse and not just for Barca but for everyone. With two matches you can resolve an accident, now everything will be at stake,” he added. “I’d prefer two legs but this is what UEFA has decided to do and we have to adapt.” Barca have won their first two matches since La Liga returned from its three-month hiatus due to the pandemic but Setien conceded the match at Sevilla will be their sternest test yet. “We’re playing the team that is third in the league, at their stadium and they are going to make life very difficult for us,” added the coach, who also confirmed Sergi Roberto and Frenkie de Jong will miss the match due to injuries. “We’ll have to put in an excellent performance to win and if we do so it will be a huge boost for our confidence.” The Catalans lead Real Madrid by five points although Real have a game in hand against Valencia on Thursday.

Sky enjoy ratings boost with Premier League return

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Manchester City’s 3-0 win over Arsenal as the Premier League returned to action on Wednesday attracted a peak of 3.4 million viewers, a 94 percent increase on the season’s average audience, according to broadcasters Sky Sports. The audience for the game, which averaged 3.1 million viewers, was close to the season’s most-watched match on Sky Sports, October’s clash between Manchester United and Liverpool. That reached a peak of 3.6 million and was the highest ratings for a game on Sky Sports in seven years. Sky said the earlier match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United drew a peak audience of 2.7 million (2.4 million average), which was a 43 percent increase on the season average, despite being played at a much earlier time than most midweek broadcasts. The broadcasters said their online platform skysports.com also received impressive numbers with 4.9m unique users on the site and 12 million views of Premier League videos in less than 24 hours. Broadcasts of league matches across Europe have also seen significant ratings rises.

Solskjaer praises Rashford for school dinners campaign

(Reuters) – Marcus Rashford’s campaign to prompt a government u-turn on free school meal vouchers for needy children in the UK is more important than anything he has done on the pitch, according to his Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Manchester-born Rashford, 22, has received widespread praise after writing an open letter to the government asking it to reconsider its decision to not issue vouchers outside term time. “As his manager it’s been fantastic to follow Marcus during the lockdown period,” Solskjaer said in a virtual news conference on Thursday. “It’s not just that he got the prime minister to change his mind but also what he’s done over the last few months. “He’s changed the lives of so many kids this summer, which is more important than any game of football he’ll probably have ever played, so hopefully he can keep both sides going as well as he’s doing now.” Rashford’s campaign to help children over what will be an extraordinarily long summer holiday caused because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, triggered the government on Tuesday to announce a COVID-19 summer food fund costing around 120 million pounds ($150 million). The England forward has even been tipped to win the BBC’s coveted Sport’s Personality of the Year award but Solskjaer said Rashford was not seeking praise. “I don’t think Marcus is thinking about this politically,” he said. “And using his position as a role model, a Man United player, a top player, he can effect people in a good way, it’s not about him or anything bigger than that. “He’s always been a good lad and the change he’s made for kids has been unbelievable.” Solskjaer confirmed that Rashford and Paul Pogba will both be available for Friday’s Premier League trip to Tottenham Hotspur, having recovered from injuries during the lockdown. He expressed a note of caution though. “They’re available so how long they’re going to play for, let’s see,” Solskjaer said. “The Premier League is intense physically and they are going straight into another season after. It’s a good option to protect the players and not pick up any unnecessary injuries.” United were in impressive form before the Premier League shut down three months ago and are in fifth place, three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea.

Former Barca assistant Unzue diagnosed with neurological disorder

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Former Barcelona assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzue has announced he has the rare neurological disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS. Speaking at a news conference at Barca’s Camp Nou stadium on Thursday, Unzue, 53, revealed he had been diagnosed with the ultra-rare neurodegenerative disorder, which causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles, in February. There is currently no cure for ALS and Unzue said he wished to raise more awareness of the disease. “I insist I am coping well, I feel privileged to be able to have lived the life I have and now I feel privileged about what I will be able to do about ALS, which is a disease that anyone can get,” he said. The conference was presented by Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu and attended by Spain coach Luis Enrique, Unzue’s boss for three years at Barca and with whom he won nine trophies between 2014 and 2017, including the 2015 Champions League. A former goalkeeper for Barca and Sevilla and the brother of Movistar cycling team owner Eusebio, Unzue was head coach for Celta for one season and spent three months in charge of second-division Girona before being sacked last October.

One more positive in latest Premier League COVID-19 tests

(Reuters) – The Premier League said on Thursday that there was one positive result from the latest round of COVID-19 tests of players and staff conducted earlier this week. The league did not reveal the club or the name of the individual who tested positive. “The Premier League can today confirm that on Monday 15 June and Tuesday 16 June, 1,541 players and club staff were tested for COVID-19. Of these, one person has tested positive,” the league said in a statement here Since players returned to contact training last month, tests have been carried out twice a week and the league has seen a total of 17 positives in nine rounds of testing so far. The Premier League returned to action on Wednesday with two matches after a 100-day hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aston Villa and Sheffield United played out a controversial goalless draw where United were denied a legitimate goal while Manchester City beat Arsenal 3-0.

Clubs given temporary respite from UEFA’s breakeven rule

BERN (Reuters) – European football clubs have been given a temporary respite from UEFA’s breakeven rule, known as financial fair play, to help them recover from the three-month stoppage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. UEFA’s executive committee decided on Thursday that its assessment of clubs’ accounts for the 2020 financial year would be postponed for one year when they would be assessed together with the accounts for 2021. However, clubs would still have to ensure that they did not owe money for transfers, players’ wages or social security and tax bills. UEFA said the move was aimed at “giving clubs more time to quantify and account for unanticipated loss of revenues.” It also hoped to “provide flexibility while ensuring that clubs continue to fulfil their transfer and salary obligations on time.” The rules bar clubs from spending more than the revenue they generate themselves. Clubs face fines, squad reductions and possible expulsion from European competition if they break the rules, which were designed to stop rich club owners from buying success. UEFA called on its member associations to harmonise the end of their summer transfer windows, with Oct. 5 as the deadline date. It said the deadline for registering players for next season’s Champions League and Europa League, which have been delayed as a knock-on effect of this season’s interruption, would be Oct. 6.