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It’s about to get Real for Chelsea and USMNT star Christian Pulisic in Champions League semifinals

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It's about to get Real for Chelsea and USMNT star Christian Pulisic in Champions League semifinals

For American fans of soccer, a game matching Chelsea FC and Real Madrid C.F. in the Champions League semifinals is going to be a huge deal regardless of which players take the field wearing blue uniforms and which are adorned in Real’s classic all-white attire. For fans of American soccer, though, it matters very much whether one of the 11 names included in the Blues’ lineup wears jersey No. 10.

It is not a given that Christian Pulisic will open for Chelsea in Tuesday’s 3 p.m. game in Spain, although he would loom as an egregious omission after he was the player chosen to represent the club in Monday’s pre-match news conference.

“I think the key is going to be having a really good start to the match and showing our energy right from the start and showing that we’re ready for this competition,” Pulisic told reporters. “They’re obviously going to be calm and experienced, but we have to be in that same way.”

MORE: Pulisic working hard to end Chelsea injury run

Pulisic, 22, could be in Chelsea’s lineup against Real — as he was for the clinching game against Porto in the quarterfinal round, going 90 minutes in a 2-0 victory, and for Saturday’s London derby victory against West Ham as the Blues endeavor to qualify for the 2021-22 version of Champions League.

He could begin the game on the bench and enter as a substitute, as he did in the first leg of the Porto series, or in both legs of the round of 16 matchup with Atletico Madrid.

It safely can be assumed that more people will watch the Chelsea-Real game than ever have seen Pulisic play soccer. Remember, as if you could forget, he did not get the opportunity to compete at the 2018 World Cup because of its failure in qualification. He started in the 2020 FA Cup final, an enormous game in England and elsewhere but not on the level of Champions League.

“I think it’s key to try to enjoy the moment. You know, Champions League semifinals don’t come around every day,” Pulisic said. “It’s an amazing time for us. I mean, personally, I’ve been looking forward to this game for weeks.

“Obviously, it’s a big moment. There are nerves. There’s a lot of preparation involved.”

Should Pulisic start, he would become the first American since DaMarcus Beasley in 2005 to open a Champions League semifinal. This seems less monumental than it might have before Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig, in 2020, became the first U.S. player in 15 years to even appear in the semis.

It would be plenty consequential, though, because Pulisic could carry the confidence gained through such an assignment into a busy, substantial summer for the U.S. men’s national team. In a sense, it’s an opportunity to return a favor.

Pulisic’s past nine months have included more significant injuries than goals. He missed two games with a calf strain, seven with a hamstring issue, one game in quarantine and another four when his hamstring problem recurred. When he was pulled from a Premier League game earlier this month, there was every reason to believe that his body had betrayed him again.

It was a false alarm, of sorts.

“I feel very confident in my body and my fitness level at the moment,” Pulisic said. “I’ve played a string of games. I’ve never thought of myself as a player who was injury-prone or anything. Obviously, I’ve had a tough time in the last year. It’s just about taking care of my body and putting myself in the best position to be available for every single game. And I feel good about that right now.”

Chelsea’s season, Pulisic’s season, has been complicated by the addition of attacking players Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, brought in from Germany’s Bundesliga after last season. There was not the typical amount of time to adjust to those personnel moves because of the pandemic-shortened preseason.

And there also was the matter of a coaching change. Chelsea hired former Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel in late January to replace Frank Lampard, under whom Pulisic has played so well last season.

It was widely assumed that this change would work out fine for Pulisic, given that the two had been together at the start of the player’s pro career in Germany. Instead, whether it was lingering injury issues or just Tuchel wishing to see something more or different from Pulisic, he struggled to get playing time.

Then Pulisic left in late March for two friendlies with the USMNT, a couple of victories in which he performed exceedingly well and scored his 15th international goal. Upon his return, starts and playing time became more routine.

“I think there were massive benefits,” Chris Wittyngham of the “Chelsea Mike’d Up” podcast told Sporting News. “It’s kind of interesting, because generally, the international break is seen as: Oh, well, we just hope he goes over and doesn’t get hurt. But I think thing you can underestimate how important to Christian Pulisic — he’s alone in London. I don’t think he’s had the chance, since he joined, to experience the city, to really get acclimatized, have friends, establish a life. I imagine during the times of lockdown, it can be kind of dreary, almost.

“Getting the chance to play with the U.S., go and play for a team where, unquestionably, he is the focal point of the attack — he is the creative player, has a free reign at times to express himself as Christian Pulisic. And I do think when watching Chelsea when Christian Pulisic is expressing himself and when he is playing as one of 11. And it’s the former in which he’s playing at his best. Getting a couple of reps of that with the U.S., he was able to translate that a bit better to Chelsea.”

When the Premier League completed its 2019-20 season with “Project Restart,” a run of about nine games per team from mid-June to late July, Pulisic performed spectacularly as Chelsea accumulated 18 points and assured the necessary finish to qualify for this year’s Champions League.

“In the restart, he was arguably the best player in the Premier League,” Grant Wahl, the most widely followed American soccer journalist, told Sporting News. “He was not just creating chances, he was also finishing them in a way that we hadn’t seen before. He was doing it against teams like Liverpool and causing Jurgen Klopp to basically shrug his shoulders and kind of tip his hat after one of the goals.

“You felt like Pulisic was really taking things to the next level.”

MORE: Chelsea expresses “deep regret” for joining Super League

Wahl is currently hosting a soccer podcast called “Futbol with Grant Wahl.” Three years ago, he authored a book on the sport called “Masters of Modern Soccer,” in which Pulisic was one of the featured subjects while still a teenager.

“He has this ability, when he’s playing that way — and he and I talked about this in the book chapter — when Pulisic gets the ball, he’s very clear that he wants to advance it to create some sort of danger with it,” Wahl said. “It’s not enough for him to just pass it sideways or backward. He also has the ability to, with his first touch, to create a better situation for himself and more dangerous one. We’ve seen that a couple of times recently on goals he’s scored. His first touch is just so good.”

It was apparent in the victory over West Ham, when he accepted a drop-off from teammate Timo Werner and, after a single touch forward, found left back Ben Chilwell breaking into a dangerous position to the left of the box. Chilwell played the ball back through the line between the West Ham defense and Werner and Pulisic as they continued their runs. The pass found Werner and became the game’s only goal.

“He never gets too animated on the pitch. He kind of leaves that up to other guys,” Kevin Egan, who will cover the game for CNN International, told Sporting News. “But technically, and with his pace, and his soccer IQ is incredible — if he can get back to his best, there won’t even be a question if he starts. He’d be the first name on the team sheet. There’s a reason Chelsea gave him the No. 10.”

The No. 10 jersey is revered in soccer, worn by such players as Pele, Maradona, Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane, who will manage Real Madrid in Tuesday’s game. Although often associated with the attacking midfielder position — which many modern formations no longer feature or emphasize — at Chelsea the 10 jersey has been worn by such players as Joe Cole, Willian and Eden Hazard, all of whom typically played wing positions.

Hazard is the player to whom Pulisic often is compared, albeit with the perpetual disclaimer that he has yet to reach that level consistently. It’s possible that they both could be on the field in this game, with Hazard having departed for Real Madrid in 2019 and created a vacancy that Pulisic has attempted to fill.

“There’s still so many defensive doubts about Real Madrid,” Egan said. “They have to try and win the game. They have to take the game to Chelsea. And there’s always openings.

“Any game that I’ve seen from Real Madrid this season when they play at home, if you’ve got any pace up front, it can cause them a lot of problems because they do push their fullbacks forward. I just see this as a massive chance for him to surprise a lot of people.”

The game will not be played at Real’s famed Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Real is using the time without fans to complete a renovation project and staging its home games at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano, part of the club’s training complex. Technically, it doesn’t matter that di Stefano only holds 6,000, but it does remove some of the grandeur.

The game itself can compensate, and that will be particularly true here if Pulisic is a factor.

“Every match, I feel that we’re able to play at a very high level,” Tuchel said. “If it’s not possible to play our nicest match, we are able to not let the opponents play their best match, which is also the definition of performance.

“We have a strong bond within the squad … ready to work together, to suffer together and, when it’s needed, to respond to the questions: If it’s necessary to fight, to fight, if it’s necessary to run, to run. If it’s the moment to show your skills and escape pressure with passing or be dominant, we have moments in every match where we can do this. The level is so high if you arrive in semifinal in Champion League.”

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Broncos schedule 2021: Dates & times for all 17 games, strength of schedule, final record prediction

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Broncos schedule 2021: Dates & times for all 17 games, strength of schedule, final record prediction

The Broncos, despite finishing 5-11 and falling into last place in the AFC West last season, are giving coach Vic Fangio a chance to redeem himself in 2021. Denver hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015 — the season which ended with the team winning Super Bowl 50.

John Elway hired a GM, George Paton. But the Broncos, much to everyone’s surprise, didn’t go all in trying to replace third-year second-rounder Drew Lock at quarterback, settling to bring Teddy Bridgewater in the mix (for now). While the offense is hoping to perform better with the many talented pieces it already has around the QB, the defense continues its rebuild for Fangio.

Here is a complete breakdown of the Broncos’ 2021 schedule, including dates, start times and analysis.

NFL OFFSEASON 2021:
Team-by-team draft grades | Latest power rankings

Denver Broncos schedule 2021

Week Date Opponent Kickoff time  TV
1 Sept. 12 at Giants 4:25 p.m. ET Fox
2 Sept. 19 at Jaguars 1 p.m. ET CBS
3 Sept. 26 vs. Jets 4:05 p.m. ET CBS
4 Oct. 3 vs. Ravens 4:25 p.m. ET CBS
5 Oct. 10 at Steelers 1 p.m. ET Fox
6 Oct. 17 vs. Raiders 4:25 p.m. ET CBS
7 Oct. 21 at Browns 8:20 p.m. ET Fox/NFLN/Amazon
8 Oct. 31 vs. Washington 4:25 p.m. ET Fox
9 Nov. 7 at Cowboys 1 p.m. ET Fox
10 Nov. 14 vs. Eagles 4:25 p.m. ET CBS
11 BYE
12 Nov. 28 vs. Chargers 4:05 p.m. ET CBS
13 Dec. 5 at Chiefs 1 p.m. ET CBS
14 Dec. 12 vs. Lions 4:05 p.m. ET Fox
15 Dec. 19 vs. Bengals 4:05 p.m. ET CBS
16 Dec. 26 at Raiders 4:25 p.m. ET CBS
17 Jan. 2 at Chargers 4:05 p.m. ET CBS
18 Jan. 9 vs. Chiefs 4:25 p.m. ET CBS

The Broncos looked up to everyone in the division last season. The Chiefs are still daunting and the Chargers have some worthy buzz. Las Vegas provides the slight opening for Denver to get out of the cellar.

Outside of the AFC West six games, the Broncos join those rivals in also playing all of the AFC North and NFC East. The Jaguars and Jets are the extra last-place games in the AFC. The depleted Lions are a helpful simliar reprieve as the 17th opponent, from the NFC North.

MORE: Strength of schedule for all 32 teams in 2021

Broncos strength of schedule

The Broncos, on paper, have the sixth easiest schedule in the NFL, tied with the Dolphins. Denver’s opponents combined to go 127-143-2 last season, or a .471 winning percentage. A lot of that comes from Jacksonville, the two New York teams and Detroit.

Despite that, the Broncos still face returning playoff teams in six of their 17 games.

Toughest tests: The Broncos’ road schedule is brutal with trips to Cleveland and Pittsburgh offsetting a date in Jacksonville. They also have to play in Dallas and go to the Giants.

It’s a little different at home, where the Chiefs, Ravens and Washington represent the Broncos’ three toughest games out of nine total.

Biggest breaks: The Broncos get the “earned” breaks of the Jaguars, Jets and Lions, three teams in simliar situations. There also are the Bengals, Eagles and Raiders coming to Denver.

Bottom line: The Broncos are a mixed bag with offensive limitations and defensive overhauling. Fangio needs to win now after being saved despite his team’s dismal performance in 2020. 

If the QB situation changes dramatically, then it would be OK to consider the Broncos doing a complete 180 into contention. But in the current state, there’s little from Lock’s or Bridgewater’s recent play that inspires.

Record prediction: 6-11

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Giants schedule 2021: Dates & times for all 17 games, strength of schedule, final record prediction

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Giants schedule 2021: Dates & times for all 17 games, strength of schedule, final record prediction

The Giants are hoping for a breakout third season with quarterback Daniel Jones in 2021. New York finished second in the NFC East at 6-10 under new coach Joe Judge last season, an improvement from 4-12 the previous season.

With better health, led by running back Saquon Barkley, and upgrades in personnel all around, the Giants are more confident that they can jump into first place in Year 2 with Judge. Here is a complete breakdown of the Giants’ 2021 schedule, including dates, start times and analysis for all 17 games.

NFL OFFSEASON 2021:
Team-by-team draft grades | Latest power rankings

New York Giants schedule 2021

Here is the New York Giants’ complete schedule for 2021.

 

Week Date Opponent Kickoff time TV
1 Sept. 12 vs. Broncos 4:25 p.m. ET Fox
2 Sept. 16 at Washington (Thursday) 8:20 p.m. ET NFLN
3 Sept. 26 vs. Falcons 1 p.m. ET Fox
4 Oct. 3 at Saints 1 p.m. ET Fox
5 Oct. 10 at Cowboys 4:25 p.m. ET Fox
6 Oct. 17 vs. Rams 1 p.m. ET Fox
7 Oct. 24 vs. Panthers 1 p.m. ET Fox
8 Nov. 1 at Chiefs (Monday) 8:15 p.m. ET ESPN
9 Nov. 7 vs. Raiders 1 p.m. ET CBS
10 Nov. 14 Bye
11 Nov. 22 at Buccaneers (Monday) 8:15 p.m. ET ESPN
12 Nov. 28 vs. Eagles 1 p.m. ET Fox
13 Dec. 5 at Dolphins 1 p.m. ET Fox
14 Dec. 12 at Chargers 4:05 p.m. ET Fox
15 Dec. 19 vs. Cowboys 1 p.m. ET Fox
16 Dec. 26 at Eagles 1 p.m. ET Fox
17 Jan. 2 at Bears 1 p.m. ET CBS
18 Jan. 9 vs. Washington 1 p.m. ET Fox

The Giants have an interesting slate beyond their six division games against the Cowboys, Eagles and Washington. The other complete NFC division is the South, while the interconference rotation brings up the AFC West.

As a second-place team, the Giants also get the NFC wild-card Rams and Bears on top of the Super Bowl 55 champion Buccaneers. From the AFC, the Dolphins are the 17th opponent.

MORE: Strength of schedule for all 32 teams in 2021

Giants strength of schedule

The Giants, thanks to their weak division, are tied for the eighth-easiest schedule in the NFL with the Bills and Colts. New York’s 2021 opponents had a combined 2020 record of 128-142-2, a winning percentage of .474.

The two games against Washington lead the contests against returning playoff teams. The Rams, Bears, Chiefs, Saints and Buccaneers make it seven out of 17 games.

Toughest tests: The Giants get the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Saints on the road. The Bears, Chargers and Dolphins round out the nasty non-division away slate. Of the home games, the Rams are easily the toughest foe.

Biggest breaks: The NFC East should be better, but the division still provides their most favorable games. The Falcons, Panthers, Raiders and Broncos are a welcome quartet of contests to soften the blows at home.

Bottom line: Jones has everything around him to be more successful winning games. The Giants’ defense is in the next stage of its rebuild. Should Jones raise his passing and running, New York will have a real chance at an NFC playoff berth, either as East champs or fringe wild card.

Record prediction: 8-9

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Lakers injury updates: Are LeBron James, Anthony Davis playing vs. Rockets?

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Lakers injury updates: Are LeBron James, Anthony Davis playing vs. Rockets?

The Lakers will be short-handed for their Wednesday night game against the Rockets.

Los Angeles confirmed that both LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (groin) will be unavailable on the second night of a back-to-back following the Lakers’ dramatic overtime win over the Knicks, 

This will mark James’ sixth straight absence due to injury and his 22nd missed game in the team’s last 24 games.

MORE: Where the Lakers stand in the West’s playoff race

That said, James announced via his Twitter account that he is “getting close” to returning to action. James also said that he would attend Wednesday’s game to see the Lakers raise their 2020 NBA championship banner at Staples Center.

As for Davis, the Lakers said that the big man won’t be in action against the Rockets due to left adductor tightness. Davis toughed out the groin injury against the Knicks on Tuesday and then acknowledged after the contest he was “hurting.”

“I’m hurting,” Davis said, per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “Not more so my body, just my groin got tight. . . . I’m not sure about [Wednesday]. I mean, I’m going to get treatment and see how I feel. I want to say I’m going to play, but it was really bothering me [Tuesday]. We’ll see how I feel [Wednesday] and then later on in the day.”

Evidently, Davis didn’t feel well enough to go, and it makes sense that he and the Lakers would play it safe. He spoke about not wanting his injury to linger and make him miss “a couple games.” It appears the Lakers decided to give him an extra day to recover from his latest malady.

Even without James and Davis, the Lakers will still have a chance to beat the Rockets. Houston is an NBA-worst 16-53 on the season and has posted a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. But it has already locked up the top spot in the 2021 NBA Draft lottery, so perhaps it will relish a chance to play spoiler and damage the Lakers’ chances of avoiding the NBA’s play-in tournament.

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